If you have an adventurous spirit and want flexibility, driving through Europe may be the
best choice for you. Contrary to some stereotypes, Europe is very driver
friendly, even for visitors. Driving through Europe gives the traveler the
advantage of reaching those back door towns, villages, and other points of
interest off the beaten path. Of course, time is on your side when you drive
through Europe. There are no tight schedules to keep, no trains to catch, no taxis
to hail. Everything is up close and personal, including intimate interaction
with the locals.
At first driving through Europe can be a daunting task. Instead of being overwhelmed by the size of Europe, scale down your travel and driving, especially if you are a first time visitor. The countries of
Germany, France, and Italy are great countries to visit initially, since
they are border nations, and they each have a tremendous high-speed road
system as well as excellent roadways and freeways. In order to get to your
destination quickly, the high-speed road systems are your ticket to an
Each country has given a name to
their respective interstate highway system. Germany was the first country
to develop an interstate system, and it is affectionately called the
Autobahn. For all practical purposes, all of the interstate systems can be
called an autobahn, yet other countries have named their system accordingly.
The roadway system in France is known as the Autoroute. The system in Italy is
known as the Autostrada.
For driving or road enthusiasts, the Autobahn is an attraction
itself. No matter what stories you may have heard regarding the Autobahn, don’t
be timid. Driving is a pleasure as the roads are in excellent condition, and
the drivers are well trained and cooperative, just as long as you follow the
rules. Despite the general high speeds, the accident and death rate on the
Autobahn is relatively low. Autobahn crashes account for only 10% of national
traffic fatalities and, in fact, the fatality rate is lower on the Autobahn than
on US Interstates.
The Autobahn has an extensive system of service areas
generally spaced between 30 and 50 miles apart. At minimum, these feature a gas
station, snack bar, convenience store, telephones, and restrooms. Many also
feature cafeterias or full-service restaurants, bakeries, hotels, showers,
playgrounds, conference rooms, and ATMs. There are over 700 service areas in
operation in Germany alone. All service areas are open 24 hours a day.
Like the Autobahn, the Autoroute also has extensive network service centers where
gasoline, restaurants, restrooms, ATMs, and telephones are located.
For just about all travel on the Autoroute, a toll must be paid. Tolls are
either a flat rate paid upon entrance to the Autoroute or based on distance driven.
When paying based on distance, take a ticket at the station entered on the
Autoroute. When exiting, give the ticket to the attendant at the exit
station, and your toll will be determined. You can pay either with cash or
credit card. Don’t lose your ticket, as you will pay the maximum toll.
The Autostrada system is a private company and like the Autoroute, a toll must be paid. After passing through the entry station, there will be signs directing you to the possible destinations for the Autostrada. Always
know which larger city you are heading towards and know the city names in Italian (e.g. Roma or Firenze).
The many service areas along the Autostrada
often contain the popular Autogrill chain restaurant and motel. They have restrooms, coffee,
newspapers, great maps, and sometimes a sit-down restaurant. They cook
fresh food where you can go to the self-service restaurant line and get
pasta, grilled meats, salads, desserts, etc. Autogrill signs for the restrooms
are usually located downstairs, where there may be an attendant with a table
and an obvious basket for tips outside the restrooms.
Universal European Driving Rules
the Autobahn is excellent. All direction signs on the Autobahn, as well as those
giving directions to the Autobahn, are white on blue. Signage before interchanges
is standard both in form and placement. Overhead signs are being used with increasing frequency. Note that the route number shields are typically located at the
bottom of the signs rather than at the top like in the US. Drivers should also
be aware that unlike the US, directions on the Autobahn as well as other roads
are not given using the cardinal directions (North, South, East and West), but
rather by destination cities. Know what the major cities are along your route
before you start out.
Parking is relatively easy, convenient, and universal throughout Europe. The more tourist-oriented towns and cities have large, pay parking lots just outside the historic centers.
Street parking is organized and designated with signs and by the color of the
lines for the parking spots. The color of the lines on the parking space
indicates the type of parking; white is for free parking, blue is for paid
If the parking sign indicates that the parking is time-limited, you
need to use a parking disc to indicate the time you parked. When you rent a
car, a parking disc may already be provided. It not, check with your car rental
company. In Italy a parking disc can be purchased at a tobacco store or gas station.
Set the parking disc to indicate the time parked and place inside the windshield
visible for the parking police.
More comprehensive rules of driving in Europe should be understood prior to your departure. If you have a sense of adventure and have an explorer’s heart, driving through Europe can be a
rewarding experience. You can unlock the many overlooked treasures that Europe has to offer.
Your itinerary becomes more flexible and enjoyable. Armed with good travel information and
excellent maps, you can experience the enjoyment in knowing that Europe by auto can truly
be kilometers of fun.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our Europe Insiders page.