Driving in Europe

Slovenia freeway
European superhighways, like this one in Slovenia, can take the stress out of driving in a foreign country. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)
Italian toll booths
You'll encounter tollbooths on major expressways in Mediterranean countries, such as on Italy's autostradas. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)
By Rick Steves

Horror stories about European traffic abound. They're fun to tell, but driving is really only a problem for those who make it one. The most dangerous creature on the road is the panicked foreign visitor. Drive defensively, observe, fit in, avoid big-city driving when you can, and wear your seat belt.

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.

Driving Tips and Road Rules

Drive European. After a few minutes on the autobahn, you'll learn that you don't cruise in the passing lane. Cruise in the right-hand lane on the Continent and the left-hand lane in Britain and Ireland. For an A-to-Z index of European-country driving tips, check out the British Automobile Association's website.

Drive defensively. Be warned that some Europeans, particularly Italians, 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. Many European countries require you to have your headlights on anytime the car is running, even in broad daylight. Nearly all countries forbid talking on a cell phone without a hands-free headset. In Europe, it's illegal to turn right on a red light, unless there is a sign or signal specifically authorizing it (most common in Germany).

Most countries require safety seats for children under age three, but a few — including Ireland and Germany — require booster seats for kids under age 12 or under 4'11" (or under 4'5" in Sweden). 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.

Other laws are more obscure: Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Norway, and Portugal require each driver to carry a reflective safety vest or kit with a reflecting triangle (typically supplied by the rental company). In many German 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 (specify your country of choice, then click "Traffic Safety and Road Conditions").

Learn the signs. All of Europe uses the same simple set of road symbols. Just take 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.

Avoid heavy traffic times. Big cities are great fun and nearly traffic-free for Sunday drives. Mediterranean resort areas are extremely congested on summer weekends.

To save time, use the expressway. The shortest distance between any two European points is on the Autobahn/strada/route/cesta. Most international European expressways are designated with an "E" (similar to the "I" designation on American freeways), but they can also be named using national letters (for example, the main route between Paris and Lyon is known as both A-6 and E-15). 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 most Mediterranean countries you'll encounter tollbooths on major expressways (charges are based on the distance you drive; figure about $4–9 per hour). Some countries' highways have no toll booths, and instead require drivers to buy a sticker ("vignette") for their window.

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.

Know which city centers to avoid. Europe's inner cities are generally the safest part of town — but they can be prohibitively expensive for drivers. To drive 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 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 $150 ticket will be waiting for you at home. It can be an unpleasant ending to your trip. If your hotel is within a restricted area, ask your hotelier to register your car or direct you to legal parking.

Don't be timid about passing. Passing other drivers is essential — 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. 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.

Explore the 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.

In a big city, park carefully. Don't use a car for city sightseeing. Park it and use public transportation or taxis. City parking is a pain. Find a spot as close to the center as possible, grab it, and keep it. For overnight stops, it's crucial to choose a safe, well-traveled, and well-lit spot. A tourist's car parked overnight in a bad urban neighborhood will almost certainly be vandalized. In cities with the worst traffic (Rome, Paris, Milan), look for huge government-sponsored (cheap) park-and-rides on the outskirts, where a bus or subway will zip you easily into the center. It's often worth paying to park in a garage ($25–40 a day). Ask your hotelier for advice.