Driving in Europe can be scary — a video game for keeps, and you only get one quarter.
European drivers can be aggressive. They drive fast and tailgate as if it were required. They pass where North Americans are taught not to — on blind corners and just before tunnels.
For North Americans stressed out about driving in Europe, expressways and toll roads are the answer. They’re safer, cheaper — saving time and gas even if there is a toll — and less nerve-wracking than smaller roads. Sure, you’ll need to take backroads to find some Back Door destinations, but usually superhighways are the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Here are some tips on what to expect:
The toll-free autobahns are famous for having no speed limit, but some sections do have a maximum speed, particularly in urban areas and complicated interchanges. In areas without an “official” speed limit, you will commonly see a recommended speed posted. While no one gets a ticket for ignoring this recommendation, exceeding this speed means your car insurance no longer covers you in the event of an accident.
Obstructing traffic on the autobahn is against the law — so running out of gas is not only dangerous, it can earn you a big ticket. In fast-driving Germany, the backed-up line caused by an insensitive slow driver is called an Autoschlange, or “car snake.” What’s the difference between a car snake and a real snake? According to locals, “On a real snake, the ass is in the back.”
Most of of this country’s autoroutes have tolls (the exception is in Brittany). While the tolls are pricey, the alternative to these super “feeways” usually means being marooned in countryside traffic — especially near the Riviera.
But paying the tolls can be tricky. At many tollbooths, North American credit cards are not accepted unless they have a smart chip. Better to use cash, and have smaller bills handy, since the automated machines won’t take 50-euro bills and often there aren’t any cashiers. Avoid booths showing only “Telepeage” or a credit-card icon. Look instead for green arrows above the tollbooth or icons showing bills, which indicate they accept cash.
Road speeds are monitored regularly with speed cameras (a mere 2 km over the limit gets a pricey ticket). The good news is that drivers are usually warned first. Look for a sign with a radar graphic that says “Pour votre securite, controles automatiques.” Anyone caught driving over the limit will be fined a minimum of about $180.
The expressway system, the autostrada, is excellent, but you pay about a dollar for every 10 minutes of use. (I paid $25 for the four-hour drive from Bolzano to Pisa.) As in France, your credit cards may not work at toll booths, so avoid the “Telepass” and “Carte” lanes and use cash.
The speed limit on autostradas is 130 kph but sometimes lower, so watch signs carefully. There are hidden speed cameras, and if you’re caught speeding, the car-rental agency must give the police your contact information. If you get caught, Italian bureaucrats have up to a year to mail you the ticket — no kidding.
And in Italy, there are unexpected distractions. If you’re on a truckers’ route, stifle your Good Samaritan impulse when you see provocatively dressed women standing by RVs at the side of the road; they’re not having car trouble.
Britain’s “motorways” are free. All signage is in English, but driving is on the left. Unless you’re passing, stay in the “slow” lane on motorways (the lane farthest to the left). The British are very disciplined about this; ignoring this rule could get you a ticket (or into a road-rage incident). Remember to pass on the right, not the left. Know the cities you’ll be lacing together, since road numbers can be inconsistent.
ROAD TRIP TIPS
— Wherever you go, relax and enjoy the ride.
— When you take a break at the rest areas in France and Italy, you’ll be surprised at the quality of the food.
— If you miss your exit, go with the flow. That next town down the road may be a charming, undiscovered gem left out of all the guidebooks.
— Europe’s superhighways can be part of a super vacation. Think positively, travel smartly, adapt well and connect with the culture — you’ll have a truly rich road trip.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public TV and public radio. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow his blog on Facebook.