European Driving Guide

Preparing Your Car For European Driving

Before you venture across the Channel, you need to make sure that your car is legal for use abroad and is in good order. Here is a checklist of essentials to get you started:

  1. Does your car have a modern EU-style registration plate with GB on a blue panel? If not, you will need a GB sticker. If you are driving outside the EU (e.g. Norway or Switzerland) you will need a GB sticker anyway (click here for more details)
    Driving in Europe
  2. You will need to fit headlight converters (beam benders) to redirect your dipped headlight beam, unless you have a car that has an adjustment switch for continental use. If you are not sure, check your car’s manual or contact your local main dealer and ask.
  3. Is your car due for a service soon? If so get it serviced before you go away and avoid any problems while abroad.
  4. Make sure your road tax and MOT will not run out while you are away – you will be breaking the law in any European country if this happens and may find that your insurance becomes invalid.
  5. Check that your car’s oil, water, lights, tyres and windscreen wipers are in good condition before you go. Ensure tyres are correctly inflated, replace any blown bulbs and replace worn windscreen wiper blades.
  6. Finally, remove any ‘stuff’ from your car that you won’t need while you are abroad – work-related items, for example. This will save weight, space and even fuel.

Insurance & Breakdown Cover

Most UK comprehensive car insurance policies claim to include cover for driving in Europe. However, what is not always obvious is that this is usually only third-party cover.

This is the minimum required by law throughout the EU and means that should you be at fault in an accident, your insurance will only cover the other driver, not you. Your car may be left at the side of the road unless you pay for it to be recovered and repaired.

Before travelling abroad, ring your insurance company and ask what level of cover is provided in Europe and how many days you are allowed to be away continuously. You should be able to upgrade your policy to provide comprehensive cover in Europe for an additional payment.

While you are speaking your insurance company, ask them for international telephone numbers you can use to ring them from outside the UK. UK-style 0845/0870/0800 numbers often do not work from abroad, especially not from mobiles.

Put these numbers into your mobile phone and write them down on a piece of paper with your insurance documents. Do the same for your breakdown cover company.

Note: To dial a UK number from abroad (even on a UK mobile), add 0044 at the beginning and remove the first 0 from the location code. Here’s an example:

Normal UK number: 01234 567890
Number in international format: 0044 1234 567890

European Breakdown Cover

European Breakdown CoverMost UK breakdown cover does not include European cover – this has to be purchased separately. The cost of recovering your vehicle from Europe to the UK is very high (£1,000+), so European breakdown cover is a good choice for most people.

European breakdown cover may also provide cover for the recovery of your vehicle and your onward transport in the event of an accident – check policy details before buying.

The AA and the RAC both offer comprehensive, English speaking, 24hr European breakdown services, as do Green Flag and several other companies.

The only one I have used myself is The AA’s European Breakdown service, which is excellent (click here for a quote).

What Equipment Do You Need To Keep In Your Car?

Most European countries have specific rules about things you must carry in your car at all times. Typical examples are:

  • One or two reflective warning triangles for use after an accident or breakdown
  • One or more reflective yellow (high visibility) vests – keep these in the car and put them on before getting out of the car in the event of an accident or breakdown
  • Spare bulbs for exterior lights
  • First aid kits
  • If you use glasses for driving, keep a spare pair in the car

On top of this, I would strongly suggest that you always have a fully-charged mobile phone to hand – don’t wait for your phone’s battery to run out, top it up regularly so that it won’t go flat if you need to use it in an emergency.

The best place to find out about equipment requirements on a country-specific basis is The AA’s website – click here for The AA’s guide to compulsory equipment for driving on the continent.

Driving Laws & Customs In Europe

Every single European country has a slightly different set of driving rules and laws. The good news is that they are all pretty similar – but there are slight differences. Here are a few examples:

  • France – Radar detectors (speed camera detectors) are illegal, even if they are not in use. A fine can be imposed just for carrying them.
  • Germany– Sat nav POIs for fixed speed cameras must be disabled or the device must not be used.
  • Spain – no children under the age of 12 must travel in the front seat.
  • Italy – dipped headlights should be used at all times on motorways and major roads.

I would recommend checking the driving guidelines for each country you plan to drive in.

Make a note of the speed limits and other restrictions that might apply to you. Remember that all speed limits are in kilometres per hour – your car’s speedometer should show km/h as well as mph.

The best place by far to find all of this information is The AA’s guide to Driving Requirements by Country (click here).

Driving On The Wrong Side Of The Road

One of the most common concerns amongst British drivers heading across the Channel for the first time is how well they will cope with driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

It is a problem that has caused some accidents over the years – as well as many more lucky escapes.

Ask anyone who has done some miles on both sides of the Channel, and they will probably admit that at some point they have momentarily driven on the wrong side of the road or at least come close to doing so.

The good news is that it isn’t as hard as you think to reverse your driving habits – but you must concentrate and do it deliberately. You can’t drive on autopilot and rely on your instinctive behaviour.

Take particular care when pulling out of car parks and when driving on very quiet roads – it is times like these you are most likely to be caught out, as there may not be any signs or traffic to remind you which side you should be on.

Navigating around European countries is not generally much different to driving around the UK. Most signs are similar, although there are a few differences between countries and some countries do have slightly better signage than others, in my experience.

All the same, most signs should familiar to you – but do remember that all distances are in kilometres, not miles! To help you convert between the two, remember that 10km is equal to 6.25 miles.

Satellite navigation works well in Western Europe and most of Eastern Europe, although you will need to have the correct maps installed on your sat nav – if you have UK maps only, you should be able to purchase a set of maps for Western Europe before you go.

Alternatively, you may prefer to use a road atlas for navigation. These can often be helpful for trip planning, too, allowing you to see the geography and road layout of larger areas than is possible with a sat nav.

I own quite a few road maps of European countries and have always found that Michelin and AA road atlases are generally the best. If you want to explore very minor roads in rural areas, you may also want to buy a local, more detailed map for the area, although most roads are covered by any country-level road atlas.

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