Besides taking public transport such as trains as our form of transportation when travelling in Europe, we also researched on doing a self-drive tour by car renting. This would give us more freedom and comfort (no need to be carrying luggage or rushing for trains).
However, there were two factors which came into our considerations: (1) It’s not cheap to rent an automatic transmission car, and (2) The risks involved as a foreign driver.
(1) It’s not cheap to rent an automatic transmission car in Europe
Since I’ve not driven any manual car after I received my license about ten years ago, I wasn’t confident of driving one in Europe, especially when they practise Left-Hand Driving (LHD), unlike in Singapore. Furthermore, driving a manual car there would mean I could ended up getting distracted while driving in an unfamiliar environment. That could be dangerous.
Due to the high prices of petrol in Europe, manual transmission cars are much more common and it would be difficult to get an automatic rental car there. Furthermore, automatic cars are usually those in the higher-tier categories like Ford, Mercedes, Audi. So a premium is expected to rent these cars.
(2) The risks involved as a foreign driver
Although Singapore car licenses are acceptable in most parts of Europe, we were still concerns with the risks involved, such as in cases when we end up in an accident or something. This could be aggravated by the fact that as Asians, we stand out from the rest and since we don’t speak their language (e.g. German), miscommunication is paramount. There’s also the risks involved with driving in an unfamiliar environment.
Taking these factors into consideration, we thus gave up plans of renting a car initially and planned our itinerary based on the usage of public transport only. That changed, however, when we were planning for our third weekend in Germany. In our earlier weekend trips, we experienced scares with train transfers that almost left us stranded (happened after we left Hallstatt) and encounters with unreliable train timings and delays (such as when we were returning to Burghausen from our Neuschwanstein Castle trip). We also realised that we were able to get better rates for rental cars through my company, since they have existing contractual relationships with some car rental companies.
In addition, one of my colleagues from Singapore was keen to join us for our road trip that weekend (to Venice and Verona) so he and I would be able to take turns driving and keep a lookout for one another during the journey. That would give us a safer head-start for our début drive in Europe. In the end, just within that weekend alone, we had managed to safely drive through Germany, Austria and Italy and covering a distance of 1174 km.
After the colleague left for home (my stay in Germany was longer), I was more confident from the weekend drive and decided to continue renting the car for another two weekends, covering more places and countries, namely Germany, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Czech Republic, covering 1266 km and 1527 km over these two weekends respectively.
With these rather respectable records of mine (and zero accident), I guess I would thus be quite qualified to share some of my experiences as a foreigner driver on the European roads:
1. GPS (Global Positioning System)
GPS is a must when driving in Europe, as even local drivers rely on them heavily. Many cars do have built-in GPS but make sure it has been set to English. If possible, do a few trial runs after getting the car to get familiarised with the GPS before going for the longer road trip.
Also, enter your destinations and store them as Favourites prior to your trip to save time. Review the suggested route(s) and make sure it suits your driving preferences (e.g. longer distance but mostly on Autobahns, or shorter distance but with more narrow roads through small towns). You may wish to check them against the recommended route(s) using Google Maps too.
Take note if your GPS gives alerts when you are exceeding the speed limit on the designated roads. If not, be sure to check the speed limits using the road signs during driving and know that speed limits may change due to road conditions (e.g. weather, road works). GPS should also give you updates on changing road conditions like traffic jams so diversions might be planned ahead (though travelling on the jammed Autobahns might still be the safest and quickest route anyway).
Although the GPS is generally trustworthy, do further research by printing out maps and photos of your destinations (you can make screenshots on your smartphone too to save the environment) if anything goes wrong. We had an incident in Prague, Czech Republic when we had arrived at the designated location by the GPS but ended up having trouble finding our accommodation because we had not known how it looked like.
2. Getting Used to the Car
If you are already used to Right-Hand Driving (RHD) (i.e. placement of driver seat is on the right side of the vehicle) such as when driving in Asia, it may take a while to get used to Left-Hand Driving (LHD) in Europe. I had, well, the advantage of not driving often in Singapore, making it easier for me to get used to LHD in no time. ^^|
Also, always remember to keep to the slowest lane on the right (unless overtaking), especially when many roads only have a maximum of two lanes and a road hog is not something the other drivers (and traffic police) would like to see.
Before driving off after getting your rental car, make sure to get familiar with the vehicle’s common controls (when in doubt, check with the rental company on the spot). Controls such as turning signals are now on the left of the steering wheel and wiper controls on the right, so it does need a little getting used to. Also figure out the controls for headlights and air-conditioning. Due to Europe’s climate, heaters and seat warmers functions are usually present too.
The Ford Focus that we rented had a 2.3-Litre engine and being the most powerful vehicle I had driven so far, I needed some time before getting used to its power. Feeling very smooth and stable in the car even at very high speeds, I had to constantly check the speedometer on the autobahn to make sure I had not already exceeded the speed limit. I also had to learn to check the blind spots of this large vehicle and gauge the allowable distance on the right side of the vehicle so I won’t end up hitting the kerb or other vehicles.
Other optional functions such as Bluetooth connectivity to your devices could be explored too for your comfort. For us, we only discovered this functionality on our third rental (and during a traffic jam when I had nothing much to do), which allowed me to play music from my iPhone directly. Before that, we could only listen to talk shows in German or unfamiliar music via the local radio stations. You can imagine how bored we were during the long drives.
3. Booster/Child Safety Seat
If your passenger(s) consist of child(ren) under the height of 1.35cm, please ensure that the suitable child safety seat(s) is/are present in the rental car, by informing the rental company of your needs in advance. It’s against the EU (European Union) law not to do so (link).
For Dar who was nearly 5 years old and around 1.1 metres tall when we rented the car, we started off with a booster seat but later switched to a child safety seat so that he would be more secured and comfortable. Driving at an average speed of above 100km/h on the autobahn, safety measures like these are essential.
In general, pumping petrol in petrol stations on the autobahn is more expensive than off the autobahn, like in towns. Also, petrol is generally more expensive in Europe (than say, Asia) so if possible, request for a vehicle running on diesel to save on some Euros.
Depending on your own preference and location (tip: some places are not that safe so parking your vehicle by the road side may be risky), you may choose to park by the road side at designated parking slots, or in garages. The latter is usually more expensive but payment is easy (get a ticket when entering, pay at a pay machine before leaving and use the ticket to leave the garage) and is safer in general.
When parking by the road side, remember to make payments at the nearest parking machine for the expected period that you will be parking there. Then place the parking tickets in your car at the windscreen before leaving your vehicle.
In some designated locations, there are blue zones which allow for free parking for some time (e.g. 2 hours). Your rental car should come with a blue disc/card that allows you to display the time when you first parked the car. Display it after setting to the correct time and make sure to pick up your car before the allowable period is reached.
6. Emergency Numbers and Contract Details
You should be provided with an information booklet from the rental company when you picked up your vehicle (if not, do ask for it), together with the contract between you and the hirer. The booklet contains valuable information such as the emergency numbers to call during accidents or emergencies in various countries (the general advice is to call the police during accidents), your liability (in case of damages made to the car) and the list of countries your vehicle is allowed to travel to (some vehicles, especially the luxury models, may be barred from entering countries like Czech Republic due to its high car theft rate).
What’s important is also the damage check-list of your vehicle, where existing scratches/dents etc on the vehicle are marked. Be sure to at least do one round of inspection to check that all existing damages are already recorded on this list. If not, do not accept the car and make sure any discrepancies are settled before driving off. Rental companies in Europe can be very particular (and punishing!) when you return the vehicle with undocumented damages.
Also, be sure to buy travel insurances prior to your trip which covers accidental damage for rental cars for maximum coverage.
7. Basic Traffic Laws and Common Practices
Besides child safety traffic laws, it’s also important to learn the basic traffic laws and known how to read the road signs, though the important ones are generally self-explanatory and universal (e.g. Roadworks Ahead, Speed Limits etc).
More care has to be taken while navigating on the roads in towns and cities, especially near the junctions. Check the arrows on the lanes early to know which lanes your vehicle should be on, so that you would not be forced to make an illegal turn at the junction. Greater care should also be taken when making left turns, since the lane(s) that your vehicle could turn into might not be as obvious (count yourself lucky if there is at least one vehicle in front of yours so you could just follow behind).
Unlike countries like Singapore, most of the traffic junctions do not have overhead traffic lights, so we will have to rely only on the traffic lights by the side of the road. These may not be conveniently visible from the driver’s view, especially when you are the first vehicle stopping at the traffic junction.
As for the common practices, do note that drivers on the European Autobahns are generally patient and courteous, and would signal before switching lanes (though sometimes their signals only came when they started switching). Most drivers would also keep to the right lane (i.e. the slowest lane) unless they were overtaking. Therefore, we should also be mindful to keep to the right lane as much as possible unless you are driving very fast and/or overtaking other cars. Also remember to signal early when switching lanes.
It’s also a common practice (some countries make it mandatory) to switch on your vehicle’s headlights even in broad daylight, so make sure to switch it on at all times (you won’t be paying for the battery for the rental car anyway); just remember to switch it off before leaving your parked car for the night to avoid ending up with a flat battery on the following day.
Note that most (or all?) Autobahns and roads do not have any street lamps, so driving on the road at night would be quite a challenge. You will only be relying on the vehicles’ headlights (yours and other vehicles on the road) and the road reflectors by the roads. On the ‘bright’ side, there are usually lesser vehicles at night (perhaps it’s too risky to drive at night so many drivers avoid that).
8. What to Bring Along
These were some of the essential stuff that we brought along for our road trips:
– Bottled drinking water: Even after we were told that boiled tap water could be consumed, we preferred to buy the bottled drinking water from the supermarket and bring several bottles of them along every time.
– Neck pillows: Very useful to ensure our necks are rested and comfortable, especially when our times on the road were usually long.
– Sweets and Snacks: Important when we were feeling hungry in the car or just wanted something to keep our mouths occupied. Essential to keep the driver (me!) awake too.
– Motion sickness medication: Especially when any of the passengers is prone to motion sickness. Note that some medication has to be taken before the person starts experiencing motion sickness.
– Printed/Screenshot maps of destination and surroundings: Maps are still important as GPS can only do that much some times…
9. Knowing Important Facts about the Country
Before you embark on your journey, be sure to do basic research on every country you will be driving into (also don’t forget those countries that you will be driving through in between). Although traffic laws are generally similar among the European countries, details like highway tolls and currencies are essential and failure to take note of them may result in fines and inconveniences.
Here are some important information for the countries we had driven in:
Driving in Austria proved to be the most satisfying experience, with its nice scenery along our journey where mountains, alps, villages and towns are aplenty. Out of the countries we travelled, Austria had the most tunnels so it was another memorable experience to remember.
Like most European countries, speed limits on the Austrian Autobahn (aka highways) are usually between 120 and 130 km/h. However, traffic enforcement is known to be stricter in Austria than in other European countries so do watch out for the traffic police and speed cams. Also note the lower speed limits on smaller roads and when driving through towns (this applies to all countries too). I received a speed ticket costing 30 EUR one month later and I believed it was during our driving in Austria, as I remembered seeing a camera flash while on the autobahn at night. So remember to stay within the limits!
Autobahns in Austria also tend to have more rest stations that other countries, so it’s convenient to find a place to rest when the driver’s concentration is dropping or when we just need a toilet break. We especially liked the rest station located at Tauernalm, where we could oversee the Austrian Alps. Dar loved the place too as he enjoyed the playground located just outside the Landzeit Restaurant.
Prior to getting on the Austrian Autobahn however, the toll ticket/vignette is a must so we made sure we got one from petrol stations in Austria (or border towns in other countries) before getting on the autobahn. We had a scare of not being able to find an opened petrol station quite early in the morning so if possible, get the ticket earlier (you can request the cashier to punch it for use at a later date).
If caught without a vignette, one will have to pay a hefty fine, especially when Austria is known to have strict enforcement of its traffic laws. It only costs 8.30€ for a 10-day pass (this is the shortest duration available) so there’s no point trying to save a few dollars on this. If you are lucky, you may even still find a valid toll ticket pasted on the windscreen of your rental car left by the previous hirer!
By the way, petrol is generally cheaper in Austria than in Germany, so we made sure to top up our tank before returning to Germany.
The Austrian towns we’ve driven around in (i.e. not just passing by) were Innsbruck and Salzburg, and the experience there was okay. There wasn’t too much traffic and driving around was smooth. We had to find an underground garage to park though since road-side parking was full.
No toll ticket is needed when driving on the Italian Autobahn, as tolls were collected by toll stations (paid either through staff at the stations or through machines). You collect a ticket at the start of the autobahn, and use that ticket just before you leave the autobahn to calculate the tolls (similar to Malaysia). Other than that, driving on the Italian Autobahn was not unlike the other Autobahns.
Driving in the towns could prove to be tricky though, with drivers being more impatient in comparison. I remembered being honked at just because I was a little slow when turning in towards a petrol station. :(
Pumping petrol in an Italian town for the first time (Mestre, near Venice) proved to be a tedious task for foreigners — It was around 9 – 10 am on a Sunday morning and the first few stations we came across were not manned and only payments using the respective petrol cards were accepted. It took us four attempts before we finally found one which accepted cash (in Euro) through a machine.
Like Austria, toll tickets are required to travel on the Autobahn. If you are going into Slovenia from Austria, you should be able to buy it from the petrol stations along the Austrian Autobahn when you are nearing Slovenia (for our case, after we passed Villach). The cheapest option would be 15.00€ for a 7-day vignette.
At the petrol station in Slovenia which we had patronised, a lady approached us and offered to clean our windscreen. This seemed to be a free service offered by the petrol station and as a sign of appreciation, drivers would usually give them a tip (50 cents or more).
When we were at Croatia on the last day of June 2013 (one day before it joined the EU), the currency used there was Kuna. In order to get hold of the currency, we stopped at the first petrol station we came across after entering Croatia and withdrew the required amount of cash from the ATM (be sure to activate your ATM cards for overseas withdrawal prior to your trip).
Like in Italy, tolls are made via the toll stations and charges are dependent on your entry and exit locations on the autobahn.
Croatia was the only country in Europe which we had encountered an ambushed traffic police car, which was parked behind some vegetation along a popular road near Plitvice Lakes National Park. Fortunately, vehicles from the opposite side started flashing their headlights to warn us so we made sure our vehicle was within speed limits.
Driving in Czech Republic’s Autobahn was a breeze, as traffic volume was low in our case (was on a Saturday). Roads were pretty straight and well maintained so everything went smoothly.
You do need a toll ticket/vignette (at 310 Koruna or Kč for 10 days) and we got ours at the first petrol station we came across in the country. There was also money exchange services provided (Czech Republic uses Koruna as currency) but note that the rates were poorer than within Prague itself.
Unlike Austria and Slovenia, Czech Republic’s vignette require the driver to write the vehicle license plate number on both parts of the tickets (yes, it comes in two parts). One of it has to be pasted on the right side (we usually paste it on the left for other toll tickets) and the other kept safely in the vehicle. Traffic police will inspect both parts of the ticket during inspection.
Driving In Prague was a little tricky and in our case, we encountered problems when locating our accommodation. We had a hard time finding our destination despite already passing it twice and we even doubted our GPS’s accuracy. Fortunately, we finally managed to find the place after returning to the same location.
Along the way, we also met another couple whom had lost their way too, so it seemed Prague is an easy place to get lost. Therefore, be sure to do sufficient research about your destinations (print maps, photos of the place etc) before driving there.
Prague has a reputation of frequent car thefts too so as far as possible, find accommodation with private car parks or look for secured garages.
Last but not least — Germany!
Germany’s Autobahn is famous for one main reason — many parts of it have no speed limit! That said, it doesn’t mean that there is no speed limit on all of the German Autobahn, as speed limits are still imposed on steep downhill or curvy roads, road works and roads near the entry/exit points. So be sure to watch for the road signs closely in the midst of speeding on the Autobahn.
As with other Autobahns, always keep to the rightmost lane when not overtaking, especially when there are only two lanes available. There are many vehicles travelling at high speeds on the left lane (I noticed Porsche and Audi cars especially) so unless you are one of them, stay off that lane except when overtaking (I had to overtake vehicles often as there were many slower-moving trucks on the right lane).
Road works are frequent on the German Autobahn (second on our list would be Austria) so the estimated arrival time at your destination provided by the GPS would usually be delayed. Two lanes are usually still present at road works areas, but the left lane would be narrower than usual so avoid that unless you are confident of overtaking other vehicles in a narrower lane.
As long as you follow the general guidelines and advices above, nothing should go wrong during your Europe road trip. Along our trips, we saw several accidents on the autobahn (mainly on the German’s and Austria’s Autobahns) so risks are still present. The risks as a foreign driver are even higher so vigilance is even more crucial to ensure you and your passengers arrive at the destinations safely in one piece.
With that, driving in Europe is definitely an unforgettable experience for me, with the beautiful sights along the way. It is also definitely an experience a driver would not get while driving in say, Singapore, where traffic volume is often high and speed is usually low.
I would never forget the feeling of driving at nearly 200 km/h on the German autobahn (when I determined that the situation is safe to travel at that speed of course), passing through the Austrian tunnels one after another (Dar would always be excited about them during his awake times), driving on the narrow, curving roads in the Austrian country side and admiring the towns and farms, and cautiously driving in the rainy and dark nights with no street lamps to rely on.
So, do consider driving as an option when travelling in Europe and it may just be one of your unforgettable experiences for life!
For Tips on Train Travel In Europe, Read This : Train Travel Experiences in Europe
Summary Europe Experience: Summing-Up 7 weeks in Europe