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Things to remember when driving in Europe

Posted by Gav Grayston.
First Published Dec 2012; updated Apr 2023.

Here's a guide to driving in Europe: what you need to get, what you need to take, speed limits, and finding fuel.

Driving outside the UK can be daunting (anyone been through Paris or Rome in the rush hour?), and a car full of kids saying 'are we there yet' just adds to the stress levels.

For any long journey, the key is to break it up: plenty of stops, try and visit some attractions on route, and if you are travelling far, seriously consider some overnight stops.

Driving in Europe can be tiring due to the additional concentration required on unfamiliar roads, so include plenty of breaks and time to rest.

Documents to Take

  • Passports.  Remember that some countries will require at least six months on the passport.
  • Driving license of course.
  • Car insurance documents. You can get a 'Green Card' from your insurance company that can be used to confirm your insurance status at a glance. You will still need to take your full insurance documentation.
  • European break down cover.
  • Personal insurance for all the travellers.
  • V5 document for your vehicle to prove ownership. You may be required to produce this and could be fined for not having it. If you are hiring a vehicle to take abroad you should be given a Vehicle on Hire certificate (VE103b) if not the V5. Essentially you must prove that you own or have permission to drive the vehicle.
  • MOT certificate.
  • (Optional) International Driving Permit (IDP) - see below.
  • (Optional) Camping Card International (CCI) - see below.
  • European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC).  You can apply for a card here.
  • A map.  Don't rely solely on a GPS.
  • A printed copy of your route.
  • A copy of important contact numbers (such as insurance help line, lost credit card help line, etc.)
  • Photocopies of all of the above!

What about an International Driving Permit?

For countries that are in the European Union, your UK Driving License and Passport should be sufficient.  If you are driving outside of the EU then an International Driving Permit may be required (e.g. for the USA it is not a legal requirement, but still recommended).

You need to order an IDP at least 3 months in advance of travel.

You can order an IDP here.

Are you camping - Consider a Camping Card International

Depending on where you are travelling this document may or may not be required, though it is a handy document to have:

  • It comes with €1.8million third-party insurance for any damage at campsites.
  • Covers up to 11 people.
  • Provides discounts at some attractions and campsites.
  • You may be able to leave the CCI as ID for security at campsites instead of your passport.
Order an RAC Camping Card International Order a CCI through the Camping and Caravan Club

What you should have in your car for driving in Europe

  • If you don't have a European license plate (i.e. one with GB on a blue background surrounded by stars), you must have a GB sticker.  If you are driving outside of the EU, display a sticker regardless of what is printed on your license plate.
  • As you will be driving on the right hand side, you'll need a head light conversion kit so that your lights don't dazzle drivers (remember to remove when returning to the UK though). These simply stick onto your car headlights.
  • A fluorescent vest and warning triangle
  • 2 x single use breathalyser kits (required by law in France). Note that there is an expiry date on disposable breathalysers. Most only last 12 to 18 months.

And here's a list of advisable items:

  • Sat Nav with up to date European maps.  BUT NOTE: You must not have the location of any speed cameras on your Sat Nav in France. This could land you with a 1500 Euro fine! (thanks to @sonjafusher)
  • Hand sanitizer and loo roll - not all toilet stops will have these.
  • First aid kit.
  • In-car phone charger.
  • Spare bulbs.
  • A fuel container (specific for petrol or diesel).  In remote regions finding a petrol station that's open when you need it to be may be an issue.
  • Fire extinguisher.
  • A bottle of water, can of oil, and windscreen wash
  • Torch.

...and of course: Keeping the kids entertained

...but dealing with Car Sickness

Car sickness is caused by the brain sensing the movement of the car, but the movement it is seeing with its eyes may not match the motion it is feeling.  In this situation the brain is pretty dumb, and thinks that this difference in motion may be due to poisoning, and so instructs the stomach to throw up.

To reduce the effect of car sickness it is best to look out of the window, ideally the one at the front, and look at more distant objects. (This is why drivers are less likely to get car sick).

Unfortunately, all the books, gadgets, and gizmos above that keep the kids entertained, can cause car sickness if used too long as they fix the position of the eyes (such as when watching a DVD), which is different to the movement of the car.

Lots of breaks and stops can help, but if your kids are prone to sickness, then travel sickness medication may be the only option you have.

Travel sickness is real, but as every parent knows, if you can keep your child from thinking about it then you can avoid a lot of problems. (i.e. don't give them a sick back to hold).   We find that the old favourites like I-Spy or the Traffic Light Game (from the Car Games book) helps (it also gets them looking out the front window, and so reduces the motion conflict in the brain).

Tips for Drivers

There are a few things different to driving in the UK that you need to be aware of.

  • Drive on the right - hopefully you already had noted that one 😉 At every junction I'd say to myself 'think right'. If you are hiring a left hand drive car then adapting to driving on the right is not that difficult (in fact, I found it easy pick up driving on the right hand side and had more problems when returning to the left hand side in the UK!?!)  However, when you are driving your own vehicle habits will be harder to change, especially if the kids are distracting you. Some people put things in their car to remind them to stay on the right, such some ribbon tied around the steering wheel (in a safe position of course).
  • Give way to vehicles emerging from side roads on the right hand side (i.e. your side of the road) in towns and built up areas, unless that side road has a yellow give way sign, and so the other driver must give way to you.
  • Be aware of local driving rules. For example, in the Channel Islands, although very much like the UK in terms of roads (e.g. driving on the left), drivers take it in turns to give way at junctions.
  • In the UK, if someone flashes their headlights, it (unofficially) means that someone is letting you know they are giving way to you.  However, in Europe this can mean something very different - if you flash your lights you are asking them to give way.

Speed Limits

Also remember that speed limit road signs will be in kph and not mph.  General rules for speed limits in built up areas or motorways also differs slightly, with slightly faster speeds on European motorways unless you are towing a caravan or trailer, which could find you travelling slower in some countries.

Despite the European Union, speed limits aren't universal across the continent, so if you are planning on crossing any borders, be mindful of the different limits in each country.

CountryBuilt-up AreasOpen RoadMotorways
Not TowingTowingNot TowingTowing
UK30 mph 48 kph60 or 70mph 96 or 112kph50 or 60 mph 80 or 96 kph70 mph 112 kph60mph 96kph
Netherlands50 kph90 or 100kph80 or 90kph120 kph90 kph
Spain50 kph90 or 100kph70 or 80kph120 kph80 kph
Portugal50 kph90 or 100kph70 or 80kph120 kph100 kph
France, Italy50 kph90 or 110kph70 kph***130 kph80 kph***
Belgium50 kph90 or 120kph90 kph120 kph120 kph
Austria50 kph100 kph80 kph130 kph100 kph
Germany50 kph100 kph80 kph130 kph*80 kph
In Germany 130kph is only an advisory maximum motorway speed.  Some cars will be travelling considerably faster.In Germany you can tow at 100kph if your car and caravan or trailer pass the German TUV test.  This will take around 2 hours and cost around €70.* In France, if your trailer or caravan is under 3.5t, then normal speed limits apply.  Reduced towing speed limits only apply to caravans or trailers over 3.5t.*

In many countries, speed limits may be reduced in adverse weather conditions.

Speed Limit Stickers

No law requires trailers or caravans to display speed limit stickers. However, if you are limited to a certain speed, displaying stickers will inform drivers behind that your speed is limited and that you will not speed up however close they tailgate!

Carrying Bicycles

Most of us with kids will want to take bikes. However, there are some rules you need to be aware of.

Any Channel crossing service may have height restrictions if bikes are placed on the roof (or at the very least, you could pay a premium).  The height your vehicle plus bikes must be below 4m.

As within the UK, most countries allow bikes to be carried on the backs of vehicles as long as lights and registration plate are not covered.

There are some exceptions.  In Portugal, bikes cannot be carried at the back of a car, but are permissible on the rear of a Caravan or Motor Home, so long as they don't extend the vehicle length by 45 cm.

Any bike rack that fits on the tow bar must ensure that the total weight of the tow bar is not exceeded with bikes plus trailer or caravan.

In Italy and Spain, you must display a 50cm x 50cm overhanging load reflective panel with red and white diagonal stripes.

Finding Fuel

Just as in the UK, fuel at motorway services will be expensive.  Over a long trip investing in a GPS with up-to-date European maps will pay for itself as you can use the device to find the nearest supermarket petrol station.

Unlike the UK, most supermarkets will be closed on Sundays.  However (and fortunately, if you don't speak the lingo), many supermarkets will accept credit cards at the pump, so swipe and fill.

If you are planning on travelling in remote areas, then it is recommended that you take some extra fuel with you.

Diesel will be known as 'Diesel' in most countries, though it may also be labelled as Gazole in France.

Petrol will be unleaded.  Look out for these phrases:

  • France: Sans Blomb
  • Germany: Bleifreies Benzin
  • Netherlands: Loodvrije Benzine
  • Italy: Benzina Senza Piombo
  • Spain: Gasolina Sin Plomo
  • Portugal: Combustivel Sem Chumbo

Here is a list of useful resources for driving in Europe.

The AA - Country specific Road Laws - Visit web site with information The AA - Low Emission Zones - Visit web site with information The AA - Compulsory Equipment List - Visit web site with information The Caravan and Motorhome Club - Legal Requirements - Visit web site with information The RAC - Travel Abroad Checklist - Visit web site with information