Last December a group of my friends and my partner went on a European driving tour and I've finally gotten around to writing about it . When we went we found very little information on the perils of European driving and though people had obviously done it before we couldn't find many blog posts with tips and tricks. I had a blast and would recommend it to anyone but these are the things you should consider.
- We drove brand new Renault's around. I had a 2009 Megane Berlin Hatchback and Peter drove a Laguna Coupe. Both were excellent cars (okay the Coupe looked a little better than the Hatchback I have to admit). The best thing was that they were brand new (mine had just over 200km on it) and fully insured (I left mine with a scratch on the side and the engine sounding a little bit...broken). For more info: http://www.renaultusa.com/ You cannot underestimate how easy it is to drive brand new cars. No having to worry about breakdowns, bad tires, weird noises coming from the engine etc.
- You need a GPS. I'm serious, I have no idea how tourists got around Europe without a GPS in the past. I used MobileNavigator from Navigon (http://www.navigon.com/site/us/en/mobile_navigator/iphone). We nicknamed her Nelly. I'll post a review of the GPS in another post. Not all GPS's are the same. Some are better than others. I can say that the Nokia version is shit (sorry Peter). It never worked in the mornings or on a Sunday (just like Peter I suppose) and didn't display the speed.
- You need a GPS with the speed zones. I don't know about the rest of the world, but in Australia the current speed for the road is shown constantly. I just drove from to Canberra to Sydney and the highway speed (110 km/hour) is shown every few kilometres (particularly after an entrance ramp). Don't expect this in Europe. Generally you will get a sign on the entrance to the country that will explain the speed limits (50 for towns, 70 for highways, 100 for motor ways) but good luck remembering that. Worse, it's hard to tell what is a major road and what is a minor road. A GPS with speed signs is invaluable. It will tell you exactly what the speed limit is and save you from getting a ticket. And don't expect to just follow the locals, they're crazy!
- I'll say it again, the locals are crazy! They drive fast, aggressive and take significant risks on the road. For instance, we were driving on a Bosnian road and it was snowing. It was a 90kmh road and I was doing about 70 (as were most people) and then this one car came up behind, overtook me and about 4 other cars. At that moment a truck came barrelling down the other side of the road. The car just made it into the correct side of the road before getting hit. He only got in because every one was madly breaking to let him. You want more proof? A car in front of me in Hungary was overtaking a truck and then all of a sudden the truck started to merge over and almost hit the car. Crazy! Don't follow the locals when they overtake and don't follow the locals when the road condition is poor.
- The style of driving in Europe is a lot different to Australia, especially Canberra. In Canberra people are bad indicators, take forever off the lights and cannot merge properly. The Europeans are lot better at driving and are very courteous. Generally you just need to indicate and people will let you in. The converse applies so be prepared to let people in as soon as they indicate. Our cars had red licence plates (French tourist plates). They are a god-send. People will recognise them and give you a wide berth. I could always tell Peter's car in traffic as it generally had a wide gap between other cars.
- In winter road conditions can get very snowy and icy, however you will very rarely need snow chains and I suggest they are not worth the cost. I used my chains twice, once in the streets of Sarejevo cause we parked on a steep slope and then it snowed and another time up a mountain when we tried to go skiing. And we were caught in Europe's worst winter in ages! They are also a pain to put on if you are unfamiliar with them. I suggest making sure you park on a flat surface over night and then just driving carefully otherwise. The locals will continue to careen around corners regardless of the weather but if you just do a consistent speed they will work out how to get around you.
- If you go in a group of cars (we had 2) then plan where you will meet up at each town. If you haven't booked accommodation then I suggest you agree on a cross-street intersection to meet at. Do not rely on the GPS to get you to centre of the town (e.g.: if you plug in Budapest and don't choose a street the GPS will just take you to street that it thinks is the centre). Different GPS's have different centres so you will not end up at the same point. Don't say let's just meet at the tourist place as there are many of them. A pre-determined street is the best way!
- Don't attempt to convoy behind each other as you will invariably get separated by traffic. And each driver will want to go at their own speed and stop at different points along the way. We learnt this the hard way, but by the end of the trip we had it down pact and the trip was a lot less stressful.
- We did far too many countries in the timeframe we had (13 or so countries in 5 weeks). We did the right thing and looked at Google Maps to determine the distances between towns and had worked out a reasonable timetable (side note: Bing is actually your friend as it has most of Europe, Google has no maps for Romania or below). What we didn't consider is that a 300km drive will take far longer than 3 hours. That works by Australian standards, but European roads (outside of Germany) are generally single lane and you will usually be stuck behind a truck with little hope of overtaking (the locals will try though). So that 300km drive will take more like 4-5 hours. This blew out our entire estimates and meant we were driving far longer than we expected.
I'll post the second part of this post next week. Stay tuned.