A guide to driving, and surviving, in Europe
For Americans stressed out about driving in Europe, expressways and toll roads are the answers. I favor them because they're safer, cheaper (saving time and gas even if there is a toll), and less nerve-wracking than smaller roads.
Sure, you'll need to take back roads to find some destinations, but usually superhighways are the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Here are some tips on what to expect.
Germany: The toll-free autobahns in Germany are famous for having no speed limit, but some sections actually do have a maximum speed, particularly in urban areas and complicated interchanges.
In areas without an "official" speed limit, you will commonly see a recommended speed posted. While no one gets a ticket for ignoring this recommendation, exceeding this speed means your car insurance no longer covers you in the event of an accident.
France: Most of the autoroutes in France have tolls (the exception is in Brittany). While the tolls are pricey, the alternative to these super "feeways" usually means being marooned in countryside traffic -- especially near the Riviera.
Use cash at tollbooths. It's best to have smaller bills, since the automated machines won't take 50-euro bills and often there aren't any cashiers.
At pay points, avoid booths showing only "Telepeage" or a credit-card icon. Look instead for green arrows above the tollbooth or icons showing bills, which indicate they accept cash.
Road speeds are monitored regularly with speed cameras (a mere 2 kilometers over the limit gets a pricey ticket). The good news is that drivers are usually warned first.
Italy: Italy's expressway system, the autostrada, is as good as our interstate system, but you'll pay about a dollar for every 10 minutes of use. (I paid about $25 for the four-hour drive from Bolzano to Pisa.)
As in France, U.S. credit cards may not work at toll booths -- avoid the "Telepass" and "Carte" lanes and use cash.
The speed limit on autostradas is about 80 miles per hour but sometimes it can be lower, so watch the signs carefully. There are hidden speed cameras, and if you're caught speeding, the car-rental agency must give the police your contact information.
If you get caught, Italian bureaucrats have up to a year to mail you the ticket -- no kidding.
Great Britain: In Britain, the freeways are called motorways -- and they really are free. Everything is in English, but you have to remember that you're driving on the left. Unless you're passing, stay in the "slow" lane on motorways (the lane farthest to the left).
The British are very disciplined about this; ignoring this rule could get you a ticket (or into a road-rage incident). Remember to pass on the right, not the left. Know the cities you'll be lacing together, since road numbers can be inconsistent.
Wherever you go, relax and enjoy the ride.
If you miss your exit, go with the flow. That next town down the road may be a charming, undiscovered gem left out of all the guidebooks.
© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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