Finding Your Way on European Roads

By Rick Steves

After more than 30 years of driving in Europe — pre- and post-GPS — I've collected a carload of knowledge and tricks for navigating the roads.

Paper Maps

Drivers need detail, especially when focusing on a specific region. The free maps you get from your car-rental company usually don't cut it. Better maps and atlases are sold at European gas stations, bookshops, newsstands, and tourist shops.

I like Michelin maps, but the cost for individual maps can add up. Consider the popular and relatively inexpensive Michelin road atlases for each country (with good city maps and detailed indexes). Though they can be heavy, atlases are compact, a good value, and easier for drivers to use than big foldout maps.

Sometimes the best regional maps are available locally. For example, if you're exploring your roots in the Norwegian fjord country, Cappelens 1:200,000 maps are detailed enough to help you find Grandpa Ole's farm. Other quality European brands include Hallwag, Freytag Berndt, Marco Polo, Berndtson & Berndtson, AA (The Automobile Association, Britain's AAA-type auto club), Road Editions (for Greece), and Kod & Kam (for Croatia and Slovenia).

Each map has a legend that indicates navigational as well as sightseeing information, such as types of roads, scenic routes and towns, ruined castles, hostels, mountain huts, viewpoints, and so on. Good maps even include such specific details as tolls and opening schedules of remote mountain roads.

21st-Century Maps

If you can get online before your road trip, it's a good idea to look up your route. Mapping websites suggest the fastest way between Point A and Point B, and offer fairly accurate estimates of how long the drive will take, barring traffic delays. Check ViaMichelin, Google Maps, AA, or Mappy.

Some drivers like to have a GPS unit for navigating unfamiliar European roads. A GPS helps determine the best route for your journey using preloaded maps. Then, using satellite technology to track your precise location, it leads you turn-by-turn to your destination with a small LCD map and voice instructions.

You have three options for using GPS in Europe: You can sometimes get a GPS unit with your rented or leased vehicle for an additional fee (around $15/day; be sure it's set to English and has all the maps you need before you drive off). If you have a portable GPS device at home, you can take it to Europe. Or you can rent a GPS unit in the US to bring with you.

Many American GPS devices come loaded with US maps only. If you want to bring your unit along, buy and upload European maps before your trip. (Check with your device's manufacturer to find maps compatible with your unit and for details on how to load them.) Note that some GPS mapping packages are designed for regional driving and might not have detailed street-by-street maps for a specific city; before you buy, be sure the maps will fit your travel needs.

Once on the road, stay on your toes, and remember that your GPS is fallible. Check the settings to see whether it's defaulting to the "most direct" or the "most scenic" route — a distinction that can translate to hours of extra driving. Some GPS units receive wireless traffic reports, then modify your route to help you avoid upcoming traffic jams; however, these automated detours onto back roads can wind up costing you even more time.

That's why, even if I'm using a GPS, I make it a point to also have a road map handy and at least a vague sense of my route. One time, driving from St. Moritz to Lugano via Italy's Lake Como, I realized my GPS had just directed me right past the Lugano turnoff. Hitting the brakes and checking my map, I figured out it was aiming to send me on the freeway, then on a ferry across the lake. I stuck with the "slower" roads on the correct side of the lake — and got in an hour earlier. The lesson: GPS is most useful in conjunction with a good map and some common sense.

Navigation Tips for Drivers

Navigate intelligently. Study the roads and major interchanges you'll be using before you set out. If you're headed for a small or midsize town, know which big city is nearby (and most likely to be signposted) to keep you headed in the right direction. In some countries, road numbers can help you find your way: For example, take road A-1 to London, then B-23 to Bristol, then C-456 to Bath. In other countries, locals (and local signs) ignore the road numbers, so you'll navigate by town name. Signs are often color-coded: yellow for most roads, green or blue for expressways, and brown for sightseeing attractions. When leaving a city, look for "all directions" signs (toutes directions, Alle Richtungen, etc.) pointing you out of town.

Know the local road-naming conventions. Normally, the more digits the road number has, the smaller it is. In Britain, M-1 is a freeway, A-34 is a major road, and B-4081 is a secondary road. Roads are labeled on many maps with both national and European designations — for example, the same expressway from Madrid to Sevilla may be labeled A-4, E-5, or both. Since road numbers can change, you should also navigate by town names.

Get directions. When you call ahead to confirm your room, ask your hotelier for detailed directions on how to reach the place. Many hotels give precise driving directions and/or GPS coordinates on their websites. If possible, figure out your arrival route on a map before you enter the city limits. While some cities helpfully post signs directing you to individual hotels, in many cases you're on your own.

Find the center. You can drive in and out of strange towns fairly smoothly by following a few basic signs. Most European towns have signs directing you to the "old town" or the center (such as centrum, centro, centar, centre-ville, Zentrum, Stadtmitte). The tourist office, normally right downtown, will usually be clearly signposted (i, turismo, VVV, or various abbreviations that you'll learn in each country). The tallest spire often marks the center of the old town. Park in its shadow and look for the tourist information office.

Consider hiring cabbies. Even if you have a rental car, cabbies can be handy when you're driving lost in a big city. Many times I've hired a cab, showed him an elusive address, and followed him in my car to my hotel.

Think metric. Outside of the UK, you'll be dealing with kilometers. To convert kilometers to miles, cut the kilometers in half and add 10 percent of the original number (90 km/hour = 45 + 9 miles = 54 miles — not very fast in Europe). Do the math yourself: 140 km/hour = 84 mph. Or 360 km = 216 miles. Some people prefer to drop the last digit and multiply by 6 (if 80 km, multiply 8 × 6 = 48 miles), though this can be challenging with large numbers (340 km × 6 = ?). Choose whichever formula works for you.

Figure out the length of your trip. When estimating how long a drive will take, figure you'll average 100 kilometers per hour on expressways (about the same as going 60 mph back home). Determining how much ground you can cover off the freeway is a crapshoot. I use a trick an Irish bus driver taught me: Figure a minute for every kilometer (covering 90 km will take you about an hour and a half). Double that for slow, curvy roads, such as in Italy's Dolomites or Amalfi Coast.