I Love Road Trips, but Europe? Yikes.
There’s something about driving in a foreign country that appeals to me. It’s intriguing to set off in a destination where I don’t understand the road signs and don’t speak the language. While I’ll admit it can sometimes be a bit stressful, the feeling of accomplishment when I eventually find my way is exhilarating—especially when I’m going solo.
To date, I’ve driven in Canada (that’s an easy one!), Germany, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Switzerland and Ireland. Well, briefly in Ireland before the sheep took over the road. I’ve even driven on the Serengeti Plains in Tanzania during the Great Migration. Note: No wildebeests were harmed in the making of this story.
While tackling these foreign trails (including Germany’s Autobahn) I’ve made several mistakes along the way. And, I’ve been lost more than once. But somehow I’ve managed to endure and make it back home in one piece. Well, my brain might be a little frazzled, but I’m generally intact. Here are some tips to help you tackle foreign country driving like a pro.
Consider all the options for your rental car
Sometimes a bargain is not a bargain, and this is especially true when you’re renting a car in Europe. Many cars have manual transmissions and you will need to pay a little extra for an automatic transmission. If you know how to drive a manual transmission, then go for it. But if you’re a little rusty, driving into unfamiliar cities is not the place to brush up on those skills.
I agreed to a manual transmission in Amsterdam despite not having shifted a gear in over 15 years. As I glided down the highway, I mentally patted myself on the back at how smoothly I was shifting the gears. That all changed when I got lost in Brussels and had to maneuver a roundabout in heavy traffic with no clue which direction I was heading. Amid all of my screaming at the GPS, I completely forgot I was driving a manual transmission, failed to push in the clutch and stalled the car in the roundabout. To say I was the most unpopular driver in Brussels that day is a gross understatement.
Also keep in mind that an offer for a free upgrade to an SUV may not be in your best interest. Gasoline is pretty expensive in Europe and an SUV that gets less than stellar gas mileage might end up costing you a big chunk of your vacation fund. And, then there’s that moment when you realize the price per gallon listed is actually the price per liter – big difference.
Rental Insurance: Should you or shouldn’t you?
When I rent in the US, I rarely purchase insurance because I’m covered by my auto policy and my credit card. But things are often different outside the US. Contact your insurance and credit card company to confirm coverage in the specific country where you plan to drive. Also, if you choose not to take the rental company’s insurance plan, be aware that a significant hold may be placed on your credit card as a deposit. I recently rented from Enterprise in Amsterdam and had I not taken the insurance offered, an additional $1,000 would have been held as a deposit.
Get to know your GPS before you leave the rental office
Before I pulled away from the rental office in Amsterdam, I asked the gentleman on duty if the GPS was programmed to speak English. He assured me it was and I went on my merry way. What I should have done was have him show me how to set the GPS because it was nothing like the one in our car at home.
Although I could see directions on the screen, there was no volume and I had no idea where the settings to increase the volume were located. And although the traffic warnings were audible, they were given in Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch so you can imagine how useful that was.
Taking a few extra minutes to get acquainted with the vehicle’s system will prevent you from driving around Brussels swearing at your GPS accusing it of being possessed by the devil. As a backup, it is always a good idea to pull up directions on your phone or print them out beforehand because some GPS systems are misleading. According to the one in the car I rented, Waterloo is located in someone’s living room.
Don’t wait to get to the rental car office to learn about local toll roads
Recently while picking up a rental car at Geneva Airport in the French Sector, I inquired about the toll roads. What I learned was somewhat distressing. Switzerland has several restricted highways that require the purchase of a sticker for each day at around 40 Euros a day. Since I was only driving 30 miles south to Annecy, France and back, I didn’t want to pay an extra 80 Euros. The solution? Take alternative streets. The problem? The only recalculating the GPS would do directed me back to the highway I was trying to avoid. If I had known about the toll ahead of time, I could have researched the directions and handled the drive without incident.
I thought I was in the clear once I found the highway in France. I was wrong. It wasn’t long before I came upon a toll plaza that required me to take a ticket. No problem. But as I rolled away with my ticket at the ready, I realized I had no euros in my wallet. Zero. I started to perspire at the prospect of spending a night or two in an imagined French traffic prison. Fortunately, the toll plaza at my exit had the option to pay by credit card. If I had researched all of this before the trip, I could have avoided the extra perspiration.
Know the rules of the road before you go
You may have been driving for decades, but trust me when I say you will have absolutely no idea what many of the road signs mean once you leave the US. Europe (Germany in particular) is a fan of signs without words—just lines and circles that require a masters in geometry to decipher. Speed limits aren’t always posted either and it’s up to you to know how fast you can go.
Driving into Heidelberg on a road trip with my colleague and friend, Vanessa, we found one of those geometry laden signs and had just seconds to decide which lane we could enter before being crushed by oncoming traffic. It’s enough to make a girl pee her pants…or worse.
You can avoid some of this heart racing drama by doing a search on the Internet before you go for basic traffic rules and signs in your destination. You might not have all the answers, but you will certainly be better prepared than we were and you won’t need to pack Depends.
And in Germany, everyone has to ausfahrt. Even you.
Since we’re on the subject of peeing your pants, here’s another tip: Carry a few euros along when you’re road-tripping because the restrooms require a small payment. On the flip-side, they are all very clean. And what would bathroom humor be without a mention of the exit signs throughout Germany which read “Ausfahrt” because in Germany, to drive is to fahrt and to exit by vehicle is to ausfahrt. Just roll with it.
Have you ever road tripped through Europe? What tips can you add to our list?