Driving the backroads (as here, in Dartmoor, England) yields surprises by the mile. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Driving the backroads (as here, in Dartmoor, England) yields surprises by the mile. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

How to make the most of your European road trip

Cars aren’t necessary in Europe, but they are handy if you wish to explore small towns.

It’s easy to travel through Europe without a car, but there are times when I enjoy the freedom of having my own wheels. I don’t drive in big cities, but having a car can be the best — and, sometimes, only — way to get off the beaten path. When exploring small towns or the countryside, I connect the dots with a rental car.

Last spring, for example, a great little car helped me get around the whitewashed hill towns of southern Spain and the beach towns of Portugal’s Algarve region. I rode cheap public transportation out to Sevilla’s airport, picked up my car and got on my way.

There’s nothing exotic about driving in Europe. Sure, southern Europeans seem to make up their own rules of the road, and you’ll need to adjust to some unfamiliar signage, but it’s all part of the experience. Here are some tips for making the most of the open road.

The basics. While the British and Irish drive on the left, everyone on the Continent drives on the same side that we do in the USA. Filling the tank is just like back home, except it’s euros and liters rather than dollars and gallons. Don’t overreact to Europe’s high cost of fuel. Over there, cars get great mileage and distances are short.

Signs. All of Europe uses the same simple set of road symbols, which you can easily find online or through your rental agency. Any sign that’s red usually means “don’t” — such as don’t enter or don’t pass. A blue sign typically is telling you “do” — such as “go right” or “exit here.” Make educated guesses if you don’t know for sure (a red sign with an exclamation mark is telling you “be ready for anything”).

Passing. After a few minutes on Germany’s autobahn or France’s autoroute, you’ll quickly learn that the fast lane is used only for passing — cruise in the left lane and you’ll soon have a Mercedes up your tailpipe.

When you do pass other drivers, be bold but careful. On winding roads, the slower car ahead of you may use turn-signal sign language to indicate when it’s OK to pass. 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.

Speeding. In many countries, car speed is monitored by automatic cameras that click photos and send speeders very expensive tickets by mail (they’ll find you through your rental agency). It’s smart to know — and follow — the area speed limit.

Drinking and driving. The legal blood-alcohol limit is lower in Europe than in the U.S., and punishment ranges from steep fines to imprisonment. In France, all cars must have a Breathalyzer on board (supplied if your rental starts in France). Europe takes its DUI laws seriously, and so should you.

Expressways and tolls. Most of Europe is laced with freeways. In Germany and throughout most of northern Europe, these expressways are toll-free. In France and countries to the south, these superhighways usually come with tolls. I always feel that toll freeways are a good value in terms of time saved, mileage improved and relative safety enjoyed.

Maps and GPS. A good map is a must-have on any European road trip. Don’t rely blindly on your phone’s mapping app or a GPS device for directions; always have at least a vague sense of your route. Keep a paper map handy, and pay attention to road signs so you can consider alternatives, if you feel the GPS route is Getting Pretty Screwy. I navigate by town names because road numbers on maps often don’t match the signs.

No-go areas. Cities across Europe (London, Stockholm, Oslo) discourage urban driving by charging congestion tolls, and some places (Rome, Naples, Florence, Pisa) ban car traffic altogether. In general, old town centers can be difficult to drive in, with one-way streets and narrow roadways. Many cities provide efficient park-and-ride lots at the end stops of trams and subways, just outside the old center and often near the freeway exit. Park, take public transit into town and save yourself time and money.

Venturing onto the open road in Europe gives you the freedom to make discoveries as you go, following an intriguing road sign or poking up an inviting lane. Wherever you drive, relax and enjoy the ride.

Talk to us

More in Life

Local artist Gabrielle Abbott with her mural "Grateful Steward" at South Lynnwood Park on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Lynnwood, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Lynnwood mural celebrates the Earth and those who care for it

Artist Gabriella Abbott will discuss “Grateful Steward,” her mural at South Lynnwood Park, in a virtual event April 22.

Peter Rivera and his band will perform April 24 at the Historic Everett Theatre. Rivera was the lead singer for 1970s hitmakers Rare Earth. (www.peterrivera.com)
With Everett gig, Peter Rivera celebrates another day of living

The Rare Earth lead singer and drummer headlines a show Saturday at the Historic Everett Theatre.

Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record
Ron Rois, left, and his partner, Stefen Bosworth, are transplants from the Chicago area with roots in the Pacific Northwest. They are the owners of Langley's newest restaurant, Savory.
New Whidbey Island restaurant serves ‘eclectic comfort food’

Owners Stefen Bosworth and Ron Rois offer cozy dining overlooking Saratoga Passage.

The beer is flowing again at Snohomish County breweries as COVID-19 restrictions ease. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)
Drink This: Raise a pint to breweries that survived COVID-19

The Herald’s beer aficionado enjoyed a beer crawl from Everett’s At Large Brewing to 5 Rights in Marysville.

Shrimp scampi -- paired with an islandtini -- is a best seller at The Kitchen at the new Quil Ceda Creek Casino. (Quil Ceda Creek Casino)
Taste of Tulalip: Pair shrimp scampi with an islandtini

The Italian-American seafood dish is a best seller at The Kitchen at the new Quil Ceda Creek Casino.

Fattoush is a chopped Levantine salad made with stale pita. This includes shredded chicken tossed in a citrusy tahini-sumac dressing. (Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS)
Eat This: Fattoush with chicken and tahini-sumac dressing

The Mediterranean salad is made with chopped lettuce, cucumbers, radishes and fried or baked pita bread.

When Transient Global Amnesia strikes, the past three months become hard to remember. (Jennifer Bardsley)
The Friday I forgot is one to remember

A sudden — thankfully, temporary — episode of memory loss gave me an opportunity to reflect.

John D. Osterman at 98 years old. (Jeanne-Marie Osterman)
An Everett native pays a poetic tribute to her father

“Shellback” is a collection of narrative poems honoring John D. Osterman, a lifelong Everett resident and WWII veteran.

Horizontal double headlights and an enormous grille are key players in the 2021 Genesis G80 redesign. (Manufacturer photo)
Genesis gains ground with 2021 makeover of G80 luxury sedan

It offers two new engines, top-notch design, zesty performance, blue-ribbon build quality and value.

Most Read