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Tips For Road Trips in Europe

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Chances are you have taken your turn at the wheel of a road trip. Just like any long drive in the U.S. or elsewhere, road trips in Europe require planning and patience. North American tourists may be surprised by some of the differences between road-tripping at home versus overseas. Here are some tips for road trips in Europe that I learned (many the hard way!) during my family’s recent 16+ hour round-trip drive from the Netherlands to Switzerland.

Tips for Road Trips in Europe

Paris…so close, yet so far away!

Make sure your map works

If your rental car doesn’t come with a GPS mapping device, don’t assume your smart phone map app will do just fine. My phone never once worked even while in roaming mode, so when we finally found our way to France, we had to make a detour to find an electronics store. We also had to scrap our plans to visit Luxembourg Castle because so much of our time was eaten up by getting lost. Of course, you could always go old school and purchase a paper map instead, if you can remember how to read one of those things!

Prepare for variances in weather

Whether traveling during summer or winter, temperatures and weather conditions can vary greatly when driving between different European countries and climate zones. We didn’t have chains for our tires but thankfully our friends in Switzerland did or we never would have gotten out of the Swiss Alps. In fact, I later learned that in some countries you are required by law to have snow chains in your car at all times during the winter. You’ll want to be sure to pack an ice scraper if traveling somewhere snowy, too.

Tips for Road Trips in Europe - snowy car

Make sure you have an ice scraper (or a shove, in this case) packed in your car during winter travels

Get local currency

We learned that you can NOT count on every business taking your Visa or MasterCard in non-Euro countries, where credit cards must have a ‘pin’ or ‘chip’. And only residents can obtain this type of credit card by attaching the card attached to their bank accounts. Fortunately if you stick to countries that accept Euros as currency, you’re credit cards should work without a hitch but be sure to check it out before you hit the road. My family had a difficult time getting gas in Switzerland because the gas stations we visited didn’t accept our credit cards and we didn’t have enough Swiss francs on hand. Additionally, without some local currency in your wallet, using parking meters and tipping hotel staff will become difficult.

Skip fast food

Fast food isn’t as prevalent in Europe as it is in the U.S. You may see an occasional McDonald’s along the highway, but fast food joints aren’t at every pitstop. Rather than planning to stop for a quick bite along the highway, I recommend packing your own water and snacks. We didn’t have time to venture into a village to stop into a café, particularly with three young children in tow. If you’re in a time crunch, a road trip picnic in the car might work best.

Don’t expect everyone to speak English

If you are venturing beyond big cities, you might find English speakers difficult to come by. Residents of small villages and towns are less likely to understand English. Be sure to know a few key phrases in the local language, such as “please,” “thank you,” and the all important, “Where are the toilets?”. When seeking complicated driving directions, if you are like my family, you might get overwhelmed by a torrent of undecipherable instructions in a foreign language.

Beware of traffic cameras

My husband and I noticed an absence of police officers patrolling the highways, particularly in Switzerland. Beware, however, of traffic cameras that are recording your every violation, even if you are driving just four miles per hour over the speed limit.

Tips for Road Trips in Europe - make sure your map works!

Your GPS device may help you identify zones with cameras—yet another good reason to have one for the trip

Stay safe

The last thing you want is an accident as a souvenir of your European travels. If you’re going to rent a car, think about getting rental car insurance to make sure you are covered if you do get into a fender bender or car accident of any sort.

Remember, the left lane is most definitely NOT for cruising. Drivers should pass on the left and then quickly return to the right lane. Although this is supposed to be the case in the states as well, in my experience this rule is much more strictly followed in Europe.

Europe has pretty tight laws regarding cell phone usage in cars. In many countries, mobile phones are banned completely while driving. If you do have a signal, don’t risk it. A camera can catch you just as easily as the infrequent cop. Besides, talking on the phone while driving is dangerous and whatever the topic of conversation, it can wait until you are able to safely pull over somewhere to chat.

Tips for Road Trips in Europe - make time to stop for castles!

What I am sure is a beautiful castle in France, but because we ran out of time, this is as close as we could get!

Give yourself extra time

As with any road trip, try to cushion your timeframe. You’re going to want to stop to see castles, shop in small villages, and pose for photos during your journey. Give yourself a couple of hours padding to reach your destination. Due to lost pacifiers, potty breaks and searching for roadside food, our trip home took 9.5 hours versus the 6 we had expected. If we had planned a little bit better, maybe we could have actually stopped at the sites rather than snapping photos as we zoomed past!

Do you have any European road trip tips to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

A Note from Travel Mamas: This blog post was made possible by Questor Insurance Services ltd. Thank you for helping Travel Mamas to remain a free resource to our readers.

All photos by Farrah Ritter.

About Farrah Ritter, The Nomadic Travel Mama

Farrah Ritter is an adventure-seeking mama to a twin boys and their older brother. Her family of five moved to the Netherlands in 2012. Originally from Michigan, she and her husband relocated to the South in 2006 and jumped over the pond with their boys in tow. She blogs at An Instagram and Twitter junkie (@Momofthreeunder), Farrah loves to see perspectives of others and experience the beauty of old towns and historic places.

  1. I like that the GPS was at least trying to help you out by notifying you of the cameras. We have a lot of them in DC and some in MD now too. It’s not that I am a speed demon but there are those time your foot presses a little harder on the gas than you realize. It’s nice to have that little reminder that you are being watched!

  2. Excellent tips! I wish that I had a European road trip coming up so that I could put them into practice!

  3. Good point about always having some local currency on hand – very important.

    I am surprised about the troubles you had with credit cards (where credit cards are accepted). We lived in Switzerland and had no issues using our VISA (however our VISA is chipped). But yes, most credit cards accepted need a chip/pin as this has been widely deployed throughout Europe and Canada for years (surprisingly the US had lagged in this area). This is particularly important when buying metro/train tickets at kiosks!

  4. Kristen we did not have those in SC- if you’re well versed in them then you might do well here 🙂 We are waiting for the ticket(s) that are sure to be coming in the mail any day now.

    Lisa, it amazes me how little I know and researched before we came here and went on our trip! I have so much to learn 🙂

  5. BabyBumpBeyond Heather says

    Great tips! I’ve made my fair share of US road trips and would not have thought it would be so different elsewhere.

  6. This article is fantastic. I have traveled in several countries in Europe and I can understand the frustration with their money and charge cards. I grew up in Minnesota and learned to really dislike driving in the snow and ice. Then to add the terrain of the Alps makes me shudder. Congratulations, and thanks for all the advice, especially the worthwhile GPS.

  7. Great tips! Nothing worse than being caught without cash in a cash-only foreign spot. Been there, for sure.

  8. Farrah Ritter, The Nomadic Travel Mama says

    CK- yep- we had no idea about the chip until we got here and then started traveling. I have to say they take their financial security very seriously here! I am curious as to the number of bank fraud cases here vs. in the states.

    Thanks Heather! And me too- I have been road tripping since I was 18- and never would have thought that little details like money and food (!) would have escaped me. Not to mention when you have kids you HAVE to have your act together.

    Thank you Ellen- and brrrr! I still can’t believe we went there without not only chains but a real snow scraper too! What on earth???

    Thanks Katie! I think that the US is becoming so plastic/debit card friendly that having cash on hand is a thing of the past… not here though- which is interesting.

  9. Natasya Lumington says

    Never thought that it’d be easy to discover Europe by ridding a car! I personally prefer by train or plane but after reading ur article it gave me such a spirit. Thank you!

    • Farrah Ritter, The Nomadic Travel Mama says

      Actually, it wasn’t bad at all. So far we’ve also been really lucky easily finding parking next to city centers. Funny- we just had an AWFUL time in Antwerp on Christmas Eve and the train. One of my twins got very very ill and I think I am still dealing with that!

  10. Double check to see if your car is diesel or gasoline before you fill up – we learned the hard way in the middle of Slovenia! Also if you drive from the UK over to France there is something special you have to do with your headlights.

  11. Thanks for feed back for currently and GPS. Did you need a car seats and booster seats for the children? I have four children whom are all under eight.. How did you travel from US to Europe. Did you take all the car seat and booster?

    • Farrah Ritter, The Nomadic Travel Mama says

      My boys were 2, 2 & 3 when we moved over. I have 2 Britax Frontiers and a Sunshine Kids Radian that were brand new that we brought over. We flew with them in their airplane seats, and have had them ever since. My oldest is probably ready for a booster- so we will trade in the Radian and get him a booster to save room in the middle seat. The hardest part was finding a car to fit us!

      • Thanks ! My little one are 1, 5, 6, 7… I will probably needs booster seats for all and one car seats. Did you guys need to get euro driver license? I guess it will be hard to find a car or fit all of us ~ lol you are brave to travel with all three and thought of traveling with all four is kind of stressful.. But think it will be fun. Thank you for your info!!!

        • Yes, we did- it’s a lengthy process but we had a 6 month window before we had to have them. We, ahem, might have waited a little longer than that 🙂 It will be fun- enjoy!

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