The DIY approach to travel has long been our favorite, and that makes driving ourselves one of the best ways to do it. You go exactly where you want to go, exactly when. No waiting in train stations or in lines at the airport. No tour directors telling you what to see when, or arriving in a restaurant with a herd of anglophones. And for the most part, particularly if you are traveling with a buddy, it is cheaper. But there are some things that are good to know before you begin. This will help your experience to be far less stressful!
Before you go–some rules to know
- You do not need an international driver’s license if you are over 25–however the border guard between Croatia and Slovenia was very displeased with Ray because he did not have one–so if you are crossing borders, it may be a good idea.
- You can use a cell phone if it’s hands free
- You must turn your lights on when driving on limited access highways
Yes, you can just show up and rent a car, but having a reservation makes it easier. In the US we have had the experience of car rental agencies charging more at airports, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Europe. What can occur, however, are hefty drop off fees. We wanted to rent a car in Croatia and drop it off in Italy. That would have cost us an extra 800 euros!! No way! So either plan a circular trip, or rent two different cars for two different countries. Checking ahead helps. And I would suggest that you not be lured by a company like Orbitz or Expedia telling you to include car rental with your flight. You have far less control if your travel plans change.
Learn to drive a stick shift and pay attention to what kind of fuel your car uses!
Most European cars are standard. If you can’t use a stick shift, either learn, or be prepared to pay more. A lot more! At busy times rental agencies also run out of them. And then you’re stuck.
Another tip, many European cars use diesel fuel. Usually, this is indicated on the gas cap, but the rental agency should make it clear to you. Just try to remember this can be an issue! Once we had a diesel rental car and the prior drivers had put unleaded fuel into it. The car seized up on the highway and we had to be rescued.
If you buy fuel on or near the highway, the service attendants will be accustomed to clueless foreigners and make it clear what to do. Your credit card should work just fine (hopefully it has a chip, but even if not, you should be ok on the autostrada). However, try really hard not to need gas in the middle of nowhere. There may be a 24 hour gas station. It will not have attendants. It will not take cash. It will not take any credit card you could own, unless you have a European one. You need BOTH a chip and a pin. Ray just loves to run the tank down to empty, and once we had a near disaster in a remote village in France. I managed to convince a bewildered farmer to let us use his card in return for cash, but I speak French. My twelve words of Italian (most having to do with food or drink) are certainly not up to the task, and unless yours are, I would suggest you avoid this practice.
The autostrada – a few tips on etiquette and speed
The speed limit is 130 kmh (about 80 mph)–except for when it’s not! Pay attention to signs and be aware that speed is often tracked by radar. Now 80 mph seems pretty darn fast for most Americans, but there are Europeans who will feel compelled to pass you. Let them! Do not linger in the left lane. It is for passing only. Seriously! Unless you want some Beamer to jettison you over the Alps, stay on the right.
There are tolls on the autostrada. Fairly expensive ones. Sometimes you get a ticket when you get on the highway, sometimes it’s a pay-as-you-go situation. And there is something called a Telepass (like EZPass) and you probably don’t have one, so you have to avoid those lanes. The sign is yellow and blue, the white one is for you. It will require cash and sometimes quite a bit, so make sure you are packing euros. Yes, theoretically you can use a credit card. This may or may not work. It pretty much always worked in France. Once on this trip it did, and once it did not. The result of the latter experience was an impatient Italian screaming at us through a machine. Not fun! Ah, Italia!
After some more research, I have discovered that there is a German company called Tollticket that can send you a transponder Italy and it does not charge ridiculous fees like a rental company will do. If you are doing a lot of driving you can also by a Viacard for either 25 or 50 euro denominations at any rest area, or special one from Tolltickets that withdraws money from your account. This at least allows you to go through the credit card lane.
Using your GPS
Well, if you have an unlimited international data plan, do whatever you want. We bought a whole bunch of texts for the inevitable moments when Ray gets lost, but a minimal (120 MB) data plan. This can work (I went over by 15 MB) but you have to be vigilant. This means planning your route on your preferred map app while you are on wifi. My daughter is a big fan of google maps and thought Apple maps could not do this, but actually both will work, and Siri does as good a job of guiding you as what’s-her-name. The trick is in the planning. Once you have downloaded the map, you can proceed without charge, (turn off your cellular data!!) but if you wish to deviate, Google, which allows you to download an area rather than a route, might be preferable.
Driving in cities
We, and by that I mean Ray, have been driving in Europe since we were 22. I navigate. Some things to know. There are roundabouts (aka rotaries for residents of Massachusetts). Try not to be annoyed. They are your friends. They cause traffic to progress more rationally than it might otherwise. They cause fewer noxious gases caused by idling to be emitted. They give you time to recalculate (go around again). They mean you don’t wait needlessly at a red light when no other traffic is in sight. This is the rule: whoever is on the roundabout has the right of way. Period. Those approaching must yield.
Many traffic signs are similar to those we have at home, but some very important ones are different. Here are the ones to pay close attention to:
Many European cities have closed their historic centers to automobiles altogether (see white circle with red trim sign above). Streets are filled with pedestrians, cafes, shops and bicycles. But where do they put the cars? First of all, on the edges. Approaching a city you will see electronic signs telling you how many spaces are left in which lots. Of course, that means you need to know where the lots are. Get out that map! Then the lots. They will be indicated universally by a white letter P in a blue square. Usually they are underground (very, very little surface parking, which in my opinion, is an urban blight in this country). But their steep descents are daunting, so summons your courage! Once you get the hang of it, you will be fine!
There is also street parking in some places. Follow the blue squares or circles with the white P. Spaces are painted with white, blue or yellow lines. White lines mean it is free parking. We scored one of these once, but they are rare! Yellow means you cannot park there. Blue means there is payment involved. Usually there is a meter on the sidewalk some place. You pay for the amount of time you want and put the little ticket on your dashboard like at home. But once, when we entered the only paid surface parking we encountered, we went through a gate that was apparently taking a picture of our license plate. We left the car, then when we returned we entered the numbers from our license plate (not the letters) and the machine told us how much we owed. It took a lot of patience on the part of some poor Italian parking attendant to explain that to us, but here it is for you in English!
We have been driving in Europe for 44 years, and are ready to do it for a few more. Don’t be afraid! It can be so much fun! And please, don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss this further.