Our experience of driving in Europe isn’t necessarily the norm – I’ve never rented a car in Europe but now that we live here, we have had to get used to a lot of craziness as to native Angelenos we were not expecting! Growing up driving in LA, you get used to people talking about crazy drivers and traffic and freeways and speeding and terrible parking, but this is nothing like what we have experienced here.
First off, living here and driving means we are required to get a German drivers license as well as an International drivers license for crossing borders which involved taking a driver’s class and testing to make sure you understand German driving laws. Overall, this isn’t too bad since most of the laws are fairly common sense as long as you understand European street signs.
The biggest part of driving in Europe is the policy of Confidence which basically means if you are driving, the police and other drivers will assume and behave like you know what you are doing and if something occurs because you are too timid or don’t know what you are doing, it is your fault.
This can be very, very stressful. I remember sitting in the back of the car in Prague where we crossed a five-point intersection that had so much cross traffic and an array of lights and signs but no lines indicating which direction each lane was supposed to go. The street included trolly tracks and a very uneven surface. We honestly had no idea how we managed it not once but twice because this bit of craziness was very busy. Plus, after a certain time, many street lights are turned off and you have to simply know the rules in order to get through a city. Again: Confidence.
Most Americans have assumptions about driving in Europe because of the autobahn and can’t wait to get on the road to really hit the gas. There are two points to this: First, if you drive recklessly, you are violating the policy I talked about before and that will nail you; second, unlike in the States, when there are speed limits posted, they are actual speed limits. In the states, you can be ticketed for speeding but especially in places like LA going 80 on the freeway is generally considered the speed of traffic and you don’t have to worry about it.
In Europe that is simply not the case: the speed limit is an actual limit even when it is not specifically posted (such as entering and exiting towns). You are expected to know what you are doing and follow those rules. You can also be cited for violations picked up by speed cameras which go up and down constantly. Living here, we are notified when large speed traps go up all over town – they are legally required to – but if you are visiting, you won’t know until the ticket gets to your house. Well, if you aren’t pulled over for it immediately, in which case you may have to pay a fine on the spot and while being very, very polite.
Let me make something clear: Europeans drive insanely and they do not always obey rules, especially speed limits. They will ride your bumper if you obey the rules, but stay calm and keep going. You really don’t want to deal with fines and figuring out how international marks might affect your ability to drive and the status of your license at home.
Also, the alcohol limit is much lower than in the US so if you have had any alcohol, have another person drive. In that vein, if you are pulled over and given a citation, do not go home and drink! After a citation, the police can follow up and breathalyze you then; if you score, the law’s assumption is that you were driving under the influence. Yep.
Now that the Legal part is over, parking in Europe is crazy…. mostly because many times it involves having your car up on the sidewalk.
European streets are tiny and oftentimes even without cars parked Ryan and I constantly second guess whether we are driving down a one-way street in the wrong direction – and then they add cars parked on the sidewalk!
If you are uncomfortable parking like this, there are always parking lots or actual spots along the street but cash is a must and it can get fairly expensive. Even hotels that say they have parking when you book sometimes email you about the fee that parking with them actually is – yes, this has actually happened to us!
That isn’t to say that there aren’t cheap ways to park and explore places when traveling – they just tend to look a little bit sketchier. Also, as a rule, never keep anything (valuable or not) in your car visible when you are out exploring. The rule is if you have left something out, you have unduly made your car a target so any damage or problems that can occur are partially your fault and responsibility.
If you are driving in going across borders there are also a few things to know:
When you cross borders, even open borders, there are sometimes signs that indicate differences in road rules. Take a picture of these! Generally, the rules are pretty similar, but little things like the unposted speed limits can vary as much as 10 kilometers an hour. Having a picture of these rules can be a very handy guide to take with you.
More importantly, are Driver Vignettes. These are tolls and placards that you buy crossing borders which allow you to drive for a designated time in that country without registering the vehicle there. The prices vary from place to place and depend on the length of time from a few days to a year, allowing you to drive in or through the country. And yes, on a road trip, every country you pass through required one. So, driving from Germany to Slovenia required that we buy two vignettes; one for Slovenia and on for Austria even though we never stopped in the latter.
Finally, while vignettes have been described to me as a kind of toll, this isn’t like buying a toll pass in many places in the states. Just because you have bought and displayed proper vignettes does not mean you have paid any and all tolls you come across in another country. In Slovenia, the vignette was about 15 euro for about a week of driving, but there are also multiple tunnel tolls between the border and the capital city and you need money (between 7 to 12 Euro) for each.
So when you plan to drive, I have some advice: have cash on hand (it is just simpler and quicker and sometimes the only option) and budget as much as you can ahead of time. There are a lot of rules to driving in Europe posted and unposted so be careful, be safe, and consider public transportation when you can!
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