Summer holiday guide for driving in Europe

If you’re planning to drive abroad during your holidays you’re not alone – each year millions of British holidaymakers choose to drive their own car or rent a vehicle on the continent.

European roads are the safest in the world but for those of us who have to cope with changing the side of the road which we drive on, as well as understanding unfamiliar signs and languages, it can be a worry.

Common fears for UK motorists driving abroad include:

  • Driving on the opposite side of the road
  • Understanding different traffic signs
  • Different rules of the road
  • Getting lost
  • Language barriers
  • Getting involved in an accident
  • Breaking down

Here are some tips to make sure you are well prepared for driving in Europe so that you can stay safe and on the right side of the law.

Don’t rely solely on a sat nav

It might be tempting to throw away printed maps in this age of satellite navigation but this might not be wise. By planning your routes in advance using a good map as reference you will have a better understanding of the area and you can fall back on your map should the sat nav let you down.

It is also helpful to familiarise yourself with the sort of road signs and road layouts which you are likely to encounter when travelling abroad. Again, having this knowledge could prove invaluable when you have to make quick and informed decisions on the road.

Research your destination countries

When you travel to a different country, you are subject to that country's laws. Even if you unknowingly break those laws, you may be held responsible and pay the penalties.

A good starting point is to read the country-specific travel advice on the Foreign & Commonwealth  Office website.

As a general rule you should take important paperwork such as your driving licence and car registration documents, as well as details of your insurance, breakdown policy and telephone numbers for local emergency services, breakdown services and the local British Consulate

Purchasing a European travel kit from a reputable source such as the AA or RAC will ensure you carry items which are compulsory in many countries such as a warning triangle, headlamp beam convertors, spare bulbs and breathalysers.

Insurance and breakdown cover

You should check that your insurance policy covers you while driving in another country and that the level of insurance is adequate.

It is also important to check your breakdown cover – don’t assume your car has the same level of breakdown cover abroad as it does at home. Review your policy to make sure you can call upon roadside assistance, as well as recovery and repatriation in the event of a break down or crash.

And keep a copy of handy telephone numbers for your insurer and breakdown cover policy provider.

Toll roads

You should aim to keep plenty of loose change in the local currency to hand as toll roads are a common feature of many European countries. Tolls can add up, particularly when using motorways on long journeys, so it is worthwhile researching locations and charges before you go.

There are several types of toll roads in Europe – traditional road tolls paid at a booth; a vignette allowing cars to use some or all of the road network; and electronic tags that pay tolls automatically when passing through a barrier or control point.

In the event of an emergency

Accidents are rare but they can happen – if you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a road  accident while travelling abroad, contact your insurer immediately and call the police – you should also ask for a copy of the police report.

Where relevant, make sure that you take the other driver’s details when exchanging insurance information, as well as any names and contact details of witnesses.

Get photographs of the accident scene and any damage to your vehicle - including pictures of the number plates of the other vehicles involved and their positions.

Unusual driving laws across Europe

  • In Austria, police officers can use their own judgement to assess if someone is speeding in zones of 30kmh or less
  • In Cyprus, drivers must keep their hands on the wheel at all times
  • In Denmark, drivers must check for sleeping children under their car before setting off
  • In Finland, cab drivers must have a licence to play recorded music while carrying passengers. It is also illegal if you fail to report an accident involving a large animal
  • In France, motorists must keep a breathalyser in their car and must not have speed camera notification enabled on a sat nav
  • In Germany it is illegal to stop on the autobahn even if you run out of petrol
  • In Italy, driving in certain historic zones without a permit is illegal
  • In Spain it’s illegal to drive in flip-flops, high heels, backless or open toe shoes. Drivers who need glasses must keep a spare pair in the vehicle at all times
  • In Sweden, headlights must be switched on 24 hours a day
  • In the UK it is illegal to splash a pedestrian by driving through a puddle