Europe Travel Tips Travel with kids

Europe Trip by Car: 10 Things You Need to Know

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Planning a Europe trip by car with your family? Here are some tips to keep in mind!

4 of my kids sleeping in the back of the van

Driving through your Europe trip is easy peasy. We drove through the following countries:

Portugal

Andorra

Spain

Gibraltar

Morocco

France

Italy

Bosnia

Serbia

Croatia

Luxembourg

Belgium

Germany

Switzerland

Things to Know

1. You’ll be driving on the right side of the road.  Unlike where we are now, in New Zealand, you’ll always be on the right side of the road for the countries above and, I believe, all of continental Europe.  I will attest to the difficulty of driving on the left for those of us who grew up training on the right.  It is no small feat!  However, it’s not something to worry about in the countries above.

Europe trip- the black van we used to drive throughout the continent

2. Road signs are fairly logical.   That being said, it’s always a good idea to look up basic road signs before entering a country.  When we rented an RV in New Zealand, they made us watch a video about road signs, which was really helpful!  However, we were not as prepared in our European road-tripping and it was all OK.  It helps that newer cars are quite smart and often display the speed limit near your speedometer.  I know at one point driving in Germany we hit an autobahn as the speed limit sign disappeared and would re-appear as we neared a freeway exit.  Plus, some people were going really fast!  

Europe trip- a picture of the highway

3. Speeding.  For the most part, you will probably feel so new to a place you won’t speed.  We tend to be more cautious when looking for directions or driving on a new road.  Chris and I are both have lead feet when driving a lot, so take comfort in us.  As far as I know, we didn’t get any speeding tickets in Europe (we haven’t been as lucky in New Zealand!).  Keep in mind, however, that most speed traps are electronic now and you’ll simply get a bill in the mail from your rental car company.  My mother got one in Italy and it took several months, so we may find a surprise in our domestic mail soon.

Europe trip- picture of a beautiful empty street at night

4. Gas and Rest Stops.  Thankfully, these are plentiful in all of Europe.  We never went for more than an hour or two without a rest stop and petrol station.  They are much nicer than US gas stations and usually include a full restaurant.  You’ll certainly find better food than you might expect.  Maracons and croissants in France can be found at all petrol stations on major freeways.  Once you get off the main freeways, you may need to wait a bit longer, but we never stressed about finding a station.  However, figuring out how to pay for gas can be another issue!

my oldest daughter took a selfie in the car

5. Credit Cards.  Credit cards in Europe can be tricky.  Not as bad as Asia, certainly.  Many places in Asia won’t even entertain a credit card.  On our Europe trip, we were able to use our credit cards most of the time.  For some reason, getting gas seems to be an exception.  Probably having to do with the slim profit margins, many petrol stations will not accept your credit card.  Most don’t even have the option at the pump (head on in and prepay!) or will only accept local cards at the pump.  In France, we had the worst time in this regard.  One time, there was a machine that you’d have to prepay with a local debit card or enter cash (trying to anticipate your amount needed), then take the ticket to the pump.  Most stations close in France after dark and you are simply out of luck without a local bank card.  We spent a few weeks in a remote village in the Alsace region and had a few frustrating experiences.

Europe trip- a downtown intersection

6. 24-Hour Doesn’t Exist.  On that note, all stations that we saw close at some point in the night.  In Italy, it seemed to be about midnight.  In France, near dark.  The only station I saw that I thought might be 24-hours was on the border of Switzerland and France at Basel.  The no 24-hour rule also applies to restaurants and fast food.  (I did find one 24-hour McDonalds, again in Switzerland, but only one!)

For much of Europe outside of big cities, dark means closing.  Being night owls, this was a constant rub for us.  No groceries, no pharmacies, no food and no gas.  Even within big cities, you’d be surprised at how few things stay open late.  The work/life balance in Europe is much healthier, frankly, than the US and people want to go home to be with their families.  It can be a bit frustrating as a tourist, but with a little planning ahead, you can come to appreciate the healthier perspective for the staff.

my husband and 2 of my sons sitting in the car

7. Toll Roads.  This is one thing you must know and can add some difficulty to your trip.  Toll roads are plentiful on big freeways in Europe.  They are more common near cities, but major freeways have lots of tolls.  It is not going to be enough to have your leftover coins either!  Tolls add up to serious money.  I would estimate in our six months driving in Europe we paid between $500- $1000 in tolls.  Some accept credit cards but many are cash only.  I always was relieved when it accepted credit cards because it is rare.  You’ll need to look for the lane with a symbol of bills and/or coins.  This lane may still accept credit cards, but it differs from the electronic pass locals have.  One of our rental cars included the pass, but our long-term leases did not.  It’s much nicer when you can use this and just drive through the fast lane, so opt for this if offered by your rental car company.

Europe trip- Driving through the countries

8. Road Courtesy.  I don’t remember ever seeing road rage on our Europe trip.  Occasionally you might get flashers at you if you forget to turn off your brights or get passed, but driving overall is much more chill.  You are expected to have road courtesy and stay in the right lanes unless you are passing.  This was always observed.

 *Note on parking garages: 

  1. Pay attention to the closing time.  I was actually stranded in Switzerland overnight because my parking garage closed and Had absolutely no way to get to my car.
  2. Take your ticket with you. Almost always, you need to pay for your parking before entering your car again. There will be pay machines (most take your CC) and they will give you a few more minutes to exit. If you drive up to pay at the exit, you’ll face an embarrassing situation (one we are sadly familiar with).

10. Remember the Train.  Perhaps an odd tip for the blog post about driving, but when taking all these things into consideration, be sure to check if you can train instead.  Not only is it a lot less stressful, but trains in Europe are a fun adventure.  I have a post about trains in Italy (this was the only country we have a lot of experience in), but I’m sure many of these things apply to the EU in general.  Trains are common, well-staffed (when they aren’t on riot.  Paris, I’m looking at you) and affordable.  Plus, you never had to worry about parking!

Europe trip- my daughters and I outside the train in our matching dresses

Questions or comments? Please leave them below! Enjoy your Europe trip!!

XOXO,

Leslie

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