Why oh why would anyone choose to drive long distances to destinations in Europe?
“Are we there yet?” “I need the toilet” “Can we stop for food?”
“[insert frustrating statement here]”
Sharing a car with your family for a long distance, driving through the night, dealing with foreign signs and road laws can be a challenge. But for many families, mine included, travelling by car allows you to afford and accomplish far more than you would have been able to do otherwise. So I guess its about positives and negatives. For us – the positives have always outweighed the negatives and until they don’t we will continue to have European driving tours as the main stay of our holidays.
Here are some pointers, not a comprehensive list. Don’t let it put you off, just let it help prepare you for a great trip away.
I’ve learned that much of this is about your attitude toward the task.
Its not that different. Driving in Europe is like driving in the UK – traffic, motorway services, tunnels, bridges, tolls, polite drivers, impolite drivers. Don’t think that its something massively different. Its not.
Peace of Mind. Invest in a good Sat-Nav. And a back up if you want. I bought a good, but not top of the line Sat Nav back in 2013. It has lifetime map updates and has never failed us – through 13 countries so far. I also bought a sat nav for my smart phone, that I could download and use off line. And of course, if you can use your phones data plan abroad, you’ve always got Google Maps. If you want to go that one step further you can use the street view on Google Maps to actually see the front door of your accommodation now. For a couple of places we have travelled to, I printed a couple of pictures off. Places that we would arrive to in remote areas at night.
Patience. On a 4,500 mile round trip, driving a few miles an hour slower, or taking one or two extra toilet stops is not going to make a dent in the amount of hours that you are going to be driving. But it will be a lot more relaxing if you try and take it all in your stride. Better said than done, yes. But whats the rush. View the travel as part of the adventure.
Papers and Policies –
Research all of this before you book your holiday, but have a clear view of what you want to do before you ring them up.
Car Insurance. Of course you will need insurance. Your current insurer might allow you to travel to EU countries anyway. You might be able to buy an add on pack for the time that you are away. If you have a people carrier and are travelling with others, you might be able to add on an additional driver. Ring them and ask them. You wont know until you know.
Break down cover. Like insurance, this really is a must. Again, if you already have cover a phone call might get you sorted for other parts of Europe. If you have a mobility car, check their website for the latest. We have found that a quick call to them has sorted out all of the above in just a few minutes. Click here for motability details.
Documents. Make a little folder and take with you printed copies of Insurance, Break down cover and all required emergency numbers. Its also good to take the paper part of your driving license if you have it. Depending on whether you own or lease the car, you might need a VE103 form that shows you are allowed to drive the car, if you don’t own it.
Medical Insurance. The world is your oyster here depending on your needs and budget. Don’t forget to declare any additional needs if you are travelling with a disabled person. In the past we have bought policies for just the one holiday, annual coverage and used a monthly reward scheme from our Bank. Again, print off the key information and keep it in your folder.
Blue Badge details. This website provides great information on using a Blue Badge abroad. You can even print off in the language of each country, a little paragraph that explains all the relevant information to any passing traffic warden. Just display this along side your blue badge. Keep them in your folder.
European Driving Pack. In most countries on the continent there are specific requirements about what you need to take such as spare bulbs for your headlights, things you need to have in the car like florescent jackets and recommended items like snow chains. You can search for this on Google, buy ready made packs off Amazon etc. The first time we travelled, I bought a large driving atlas. The A3 one. Inside on the pages that you never look at, it listed every country in Europe and the key information you needed to know. It was excellent. I made of list of everything that I needed. The ready made packs had most if not all of it. The bare essentials are – headlight reflectors, fire extinguisher, spare bulbs, jackets, triangle, breathalysers. It sounds a lot, but all fits into a small bag. 99% of it is reusable for other trips, only the headlight reflectors really need replacing.
In Car Treats. Sweets, drinks and nibbles. Need I say more! Its also worth buying a usb power charger for your phones etc. A spare power lead for your Sat Nav. We bought a little bag that hung off the back of the drivers chair. Its like a small cooler back with sections to keep bits in. Also, take a carrier bag for rubbish. Its incredible how quickly the car can resemble the mess in my daughters bedroom.
Costs, Vignettes and Tolls –
Pricing up the journey. I use Google Maps and viamichelin to plan the trip. Google Maps gives you times and distance. Viamichelin gives you estimated fuel and toll costs. No matter what they say, it will always take a little longer and cost a little more. Also, you will be driving about during the day, not just going from point to point.
Tolls. Some countries like Italy and France require toll payments at stations along the motorways. Its all quite simple, drive up to the booth, take a ticket. Drive for however many miles to the next booth, put your ticket in and use your card or cash to pay. These all range in price. A friend of mine used the French website to pay for a disc that he displayed in his windscreen. It registers when he approached the barriers and just took the cash out of his account automatically. This can be particularly useful when you are travelling alone or your passenger is asleep – as the booths are on the the other side of your car. We have never used this though, just the old fashioned approach!
Vignettes. Switzerland, Czech Republic and some other countries require vignettes. These are in place of toll booths and are a one off sticker that you buy at or near border crossings and put in your window. Again, they range in price and duration. There are instructions on the back of them as to what you have to do, sometimes you need to write your Reg number on etc.
Crossing the Channel –
Ferry versus Train. This is personal choice. Price does fluctuate between them, although we have always found the ferry to be cheaper. The train is quicker. We have never used the train, but have friends who use nothing but. For us, getting out of the car, wandering about the ferry for a couple of hours, having some food, getting duty free is all part of the trip. It feels like another experience and the views can be very beautiful. We have never had a bad crossing (from Dover to Calais / Dunkirk). We had a terrible crossing from Newcastle to Amsterdam – that’s an overnight ferry and covered in a different blog.
Trip Planning –
How to choose? Surely, you must have some places you want to visit? Venice, the Dolomites, Prague, Grindelwald? I use this website to calculate how far I can get within a certain number of hours from one place. For example, you are in Paris – where can you get to in 5 hours driving? This tool maps that out for you, its a bit fiddly to use, but very helpful. If you are struggling for ideas why not Google “top 10 European……cities, beaches, attractions” and so on.
By yourself or with others? We have travelled long distances as a couple, with the kids, with the kids and 2 others in the same car (we have a people carrier) and in convoy. All experiences are different. If you are nervous about the adventure and can get more people in your car, or convoy, go for it. There are strength in numbers and a problem shared is a problem halved. Also, its really exciting. And you have someone who you can talk about it all with [bore to death] when you get back.
Travelling at night? On all of our trips we have done some travelling at night. Its been a necessity on occasion to get to where we wanted by a certain time, its quieter and sometimes we’ve just chosen to do it. Do not fool yourself though – you will be tired and other car headlights do cause glare. Make sure you stop regularly and or share the driving. Don’t be a hero.
Being organised. I love planning. Its all part of the holiday for me. I’ve mentioned a folder a few times. I have one sheet of paper printed out for every day of the trip. It shows where we are, if we are travelling somewhere, how long it will take etc. It lists out places of interest and any other bits I’ve found out when doing research. I use it as a bit of a diary during the trip. I just like having a folder with everything in. It makes me feel organised and actually stops me thinking about stuff – you don’t need to remember it all, just remember the folder.
Is it all worth it?
That all seems like a lot. It is if you have never done it before. But you could get it all under you belt in a couple of evenings. And once you’ve got all the bits together in your trusty folder, you can put it to one side and just get it out again on your next trip. You might even get the bug and do it regularly. As I mentioned above, it has allowed us to do more for less than we could have otherwise accomplished. But more than that, its another experience under your belt, a sense of achievement and if you like it, a door you can open to many many more opportunities in the future.