Behind the European Wheel: Driving Tips and Road Rules

Slovenia freeway
European superhighways, like this one in Slovenia, can take the stress out of driving in a foreign country.
Italian toll booths
You'll encounter tollbooths on major expressways in Mediterranean countries, such as on Italy's autostradas.
All of Europe uses the same simple set of road symbols.
By Rick Steves

Driving in Europe isn’t all that different from driving at home, but the first day or two can be an adjustment. Drive defensively, observe, fit in, avoid big-city driving when you can, and wear your seat belt.

Below are my top tips for driving safely, and enjoyably, on European roads. (For an A-to-Z index of European-country driving tips, see the British Automobile Association’s website.)

Pass as the Europeans do. When you pass other drivers, be bold but careful. On winding, narrow roads, the slower car ahead of you may use turn-signal sign language to indicate when it’s OK to pass. This is used inconsistently — and don’t rely on it blindly. Be sure you understand the lane markings — in France a single, solid, white line in the middle of the road means no passing in either direction; in Germany it’s a double white line.

After a few minutes on the autobahn, you’ll learn that you don’t linger in the passing lane. For passing, use the left-hand lane on the Continent and the right-hand lane in Britain and Ireland. In some countries (such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands), it’s illegal to use the slower lane for passing.

Learn to love roundabouts. In roundabouts, traffic continually flows in a circle around a center island. While you’ll see them sporadically throughout continental Europe (where vehicles move counterclockwise), roundabouts are everywhere in the British Isles (where traffic flows clockwise). These work wonderfully if you follow the golden rule: Traffic in roundabouts always has the right-of-way, while entering vehicles yield. For many, roundabouts are high-pressure circles that require a snap decision about something you don’t completely understand: your exit. To replace the stress with giggles, make it standard operating procedure to take a 360-degree case-out-your-options exploratory circuit. Discuss the exits with your navigator, go around again if necessary, and then confidently wing off to the exit of your choice. (Don’t worry. No other cars will know you’ve been in there enough times to get dizzy.) When approaching an especially complex roundabout, you’ll first pass a diagram showing the layout and the various exits. And in many cases, the pavement is painted with the name of the particular road or town to which the lane leads.

Drive defensively. Be warned that some Europeans, particularly Italians and Greeks, make up their own rules of the road. In Rome, red lights are considered discretionary. On one trip, my cabbie went through three red lights. White-knuckled, I asked, “Scusi, do you see red lights?” He said, “When I come to light, I look. If no cars come, red light stupido, I go through. If policeman sees no cars — no problema. He agree — red light stupido.”

Know the laws:

  • Lights: Many European countries require you to have your headlights on anytime the car is running, even in broad daylight.
  • Phones: Nearly all countries forbid talking on a cell phone without a hands-free headset.
  • No right on red: It’s also illegal to turn right on a red light, unless a sign or signal specifically authorizes it (most common in Germany).
  • Kids: Most countries require safety seats for children under age three, but a few — including Ireland and Germany — require booster seats for older kids. In nearly all countries, children under 12 aren’t allowed to ride in the front seat without a booster seat; a few ban kids from the front seat no matter what, and some have these front-seat rules for teens up to age 18.
  • Safety kit: Many countries require each car to carry a reflective safety vest or kit with a reflecting triangle (typically supplied by the rental company).
  • Breathalyzers: In France, all cars need to have an unused Breathalyzer on board (supplied if your rental starts in France, but ask about this if you’re picking up the car elsewhere).
  • Low-emissions zones: In many cities, cars must meet a certain emission standard in order to enter.

Your car-rental company should be aware of these rules — just ask. Or you can research them on the US State Department’s travel website (search for your country in the “Learn about your destination” box, then click “Travel and Transportation”).

Don’t drink and drive. The legal blood-alcohol limit is lower across the Continent and in Ireland than in the US, and punishment ranges from steep fines to imprisonment. Europe takes its DUI laws seriously, and so should you.

Learn the signs. All of Europe uses the same simple set of road symbols; it takes just a few minutes to learn them. Many major rest stops have free local driving almanacs (or cheap maps) that explain such signs, roadside facilities, and exits.

Steer clear of big-city centers. Don’t use a car for city sightseeing. Park your car and use public transportation or taxis.

Cities across Europe have taken measures to discourage urban driving. For example, to drive anywhere in downtown London or Stockholm, you’ll pay a “congestion charge.” You’ll pay a toll to drive into Oslo and Bergen — but because of their automated systems, you may not know it until you get a bill two months later.

Car traffic is banned altogether in many Italian city centers, including Rome, Naples, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena, San Gimignano, Orvieto, and Verona. Don’t drive or park anywhere you see signs reading Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL, often shown above a red circle). If you do, even briefly by accident, your license plate will be photographed, usually without your knowledge, and a hefty ticket — or tickets, if you did it multiple times — will be waiting for you at home. If your hotel is within a restricted area, ask your hotelier to register your car or direct you to legal parking.

Avoid heavy traffic times. Europeans have the same rush hours we do, especially in the north. Mediterranean resort areas are extremely congested on summer weekends.

To save time, use expressways. The shortest distance between any two European points is the Autobahn/strada/route/cesta. Some prefer the more scenic national highway systems (route nationale in France). These small roads can be a breeze, or they can be dreadfully jammed up.

In many countries, expect to pay to use expressways (via tolls or vignetttes). It’s free to drive on expressways in some countries, such as nearly all highways in Great Britain and Germany’s famous autobahn. But on major expressways in much of Mediterranean Europe — including Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Croatia — you’ll periodically encounter toll booths; fees are based on the distance you drive (about 12 cents/mile, or roughly $7 per hour). Other countries don’t use toll booths, but instead require drivers to buy a permit sticker (called a “vignette”) to display in their windshields. You’ll pay about $45 for the highway permit decal for Switzerland (good for a year). Other countries requiring highway vignettes have short-term permits (7–10 days) for $10–20 (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia), as well as monthly and annual permits. You can usually buy the toll sticker at border crossings, gas stations, and post offices (check to see if your rental car already has one that hasn’t yet expired). If you don’t have one, you’ll soon meet your first local...in uniform. Fines for not displaying the correct sticker start at around $150.

Although tolls can add up (for example, it’s about $90 to get from Paris to the French Riviera, and about $55 from Rome to Naples), the fuel and time saved on European expressways justifies the expense. Note that in any country, if you’re skipping the expressways and sticking to secondary roads, you don’t need to buy a toll sticker or otherwise pay for road use.

Assume that Big Brother is watching. In many countries, traffic is monitored by automatic cameras that check car speed, click photos, and send speeders tickets by mail. It’s smart to know — and follow — the area speed limit. 

Once you’re behind the wheel, you may curse the traffic jams, narrow roads, and macho habits, but driving in Europe carbonates your experience. Driving at home is mundane; driving in Europe is memorable.