Hitting the holiday highway
Driving in Europe can be a wonderfully liberating experience – sit in the back of a coach and you’re just a passenger, but get behind the wheel of a car and you can transform a humdrum holiday into a roaring adventure.
Another way to become master of your own destiny is to take two wheels. Today’s mile-munching motorbikes are more comfortable, reliable and well equipped than ever and are easily up to the task of a pan-European jaunt, whether carrying one person or two.
But driving abroad requires careful planning, which is why Confused.com has produced this guide to explain what you need to do before taking your car or motorbike abroad – and what you can expect to find when you hit the open road.
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Kit out your ride
Book your vehicle in for a service. At the very least, check the water and oil levels and the tread on the tyres, including any spares.
Unless your car has new-style Euro plates, you must display a GB sticker. If in a non-EU country, you must display a GB sticker regardless of any Euro plates. You can buy GB stickers at ferry ports.
UK car lights are set up for left-hand drive and can dazzle oncoming traffic when driving on the right. It’s therefore vital to stick adhesive anti-dazzle deflectors to your car if it has conventional lights. If you have modern high-intensity discharge or xenon lamps, you’ll need to flick a switch or turn a screw. If in any doubt, ask your dealer.
Drivers in mainland Europe should carry a red warning triangle, a first aid kit, a reflective vest for each passenger and a full set of spare bulbs (and tools to fit them). European laws vary – in some countries some or all of these are mandatory – so the most sensible course is to carry them all.
When driving in Europe, you must carry your full driving licence, vehicle registration and insurance documents. If you’re taking a company car you’ll need a letter authorising you to drive it. In some countries police can impound your vehicle if you don’t have the correct documents. Never leave paperwork in the car where it might be stolen.
Make sure your breakdown policy covers you abroad. The best policies cover the cost of getting your car home – and other expenses you might incur such as hotel accommodation. Check that your travel insurance is up to date.
If you’re travelling in the EU or Switzerland each passenger should carry a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which covers some medical costs and has replaced the old E111 forms. The cards are free: apply at a Post Office, at www.ehic.org.uk or by calling 0845 606 2030.
It’s vital to check that your car insurance will cover you against accidental damage, fire and theft. Some policies allow you to drive abroad but only give the legal minimum RTA (Road Traffic Accident) insurance. This provides third-party cover but no protection if your car is stolen or you become embroiled in a legal dispute after an accident. If in doubt, upgrade to comprehensive cover while abroad.
You should also check with your insurer whether you need a Green Card – evidence that the car has at least some level of insurance to be driven within the EU. Green Cards are being phased out across most of the EU but are mandatory in countries such as Poland, Andorra and Romania.
To find out more about car insurance, go to Confused.com - the UK's leading car insurance comparison website. Confused.com provides free, up-to-the-minute accurate quotes from a wide selection of UK car insurance providers.
The law and you
Most European countries have stricter drink-drive laws than the UK and in some it’s possible to stray over the limit after only a single beer or glass of wine. The best course is avoid alcohol altogether if driving afterwards.
Most police forces in Europe now issue on-the-spot fines for motoring offences, so carry enough local currency to cover this eventuality, better yet – don’t speed!
Speed limits are often enforced rigorously and, unlike in Britain where cameras are made clearly visible in order to deter offenders, radar traps abroad are often concealed.
If you’re flashed by a speed camera you may be able to leave the country without paying but the fine will catch up with you. A Europe-wide agreement now allows police forces to chase offenders in their own countries. So if you’re caught speeding in a EU country you could be ordered by a British court to pay the fine.
On the road
Driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in a right-hand drive car isn’t easy. Overtaking is a challenge and it’s a good idea to use the eyes of your front-seat passenger to warn of potential dangers.
Tiredness is a major cause of accidents. Take regular breaks - and be careful when rejoining the road not to stray back onto the left-hand lane. One way to avoid doing this is always to park on the right side of the road. Take extra care leaving petrol stations or when crossing lanes of traffic.
Watch your fuel gauge. In remote areas you can drive for hours without seeing a filling station. Increasing numbers of filling stations are now fully automated, but some don’t always recognise UK-registered credit cards. Fuel is often considerably cheaper than in the UK, so it can pay to fill up before you return to Britain.
Many European cities have high levels of car crime, with foreign cars viewed as easy targets. Be particularly careful when parking at night and never leave any valuables in the vehicle.
Know your left from right
Don’t forget that unless you’re driving in the UK, Ireland, Cyprus or Malta, the rule of the road in Europe is to drive on the right.
Next: Guide to driving in France