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Driving In Europe: 10 Things Tourists Do Wrong

Driving in Europe can either be a nightmare or a dream drive. And as with any adventure, if you do a bit of research ahead of time, the nightmare option seems a bit less likely. However, we’ve all done things wrong, especially when driving in other countries as a tourist. We have spent plenty of time driving in Europe and want to share some things that will make your trip much better.

Keep reading to avoid the 10 things tourists do wrong when driving in Europe.

European Travel Skills: Driving in Europe - Rick Steves' Europe Travel Guide

Can Tourists Drive in Europe? 

Yes! Vacationing in Europe often means attempting to figure out the public transportation system. And while this system is often pretty seamless with its many options of buses, subways, and trains, it can be complicated to maneuver your way through it all. 

So why not consider renting a car instead? This way, you can stay in control. You won’t have to worry about getting to the station on time or wonder if you missed your stop. 

And yes, tourists can rent a car and drive in Europe. You’ll just have to understand the different rules, roads, and cars.

Is Driving in Europe Difficult? 

Yes and no. We found differences in roads, signage, and laws can make driving in Europe somewhat difficult. But it doesn’t have to be as hard as you might think. Simply take your time and have some patience. 

Driving in Europe, just like driving in unknown cities, can be a fun experience if you change your attitude. Putting a positive spin on the things that typically cause you agitation and frustration can make a difficult drive quite pleasant. 

Unless you are in the UK all traffic drives on the right, just like in the US, so that is all the same. The major difference you will find is in the signage. If you don’t read the language, some signs will confuse you, but don’t worry, most have pictures to go along with the words, and you can usually figure it out.

Also keep in mind the many roads in Europe are generally much smaller than in the US. This means that you might need to get much closer to other cars and objects than you may be used to. This can add stress but is completely normal in Europe.

Anything new adds difficulty to a task, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or stop you from doing it. And the same goes for driving in Europe. With proper research, planning, and a good attitude, you can conquer the challenge and have a great adventure.

Pro Tip: If you’re going to rent an RV in Europe, keep in mind they are built a bit different. Check out these 9 Major Differences Between European RVs and North American RVs.

man hanging out of vehicle in iceland
Driving outside of your home country can be intimidating. Planning ahead of time for what to expect is crucial for your success.

10 Things Tourists Do Wrong When Driving in Europe

However, no matter how much planning you do, you’ll likely make some mistakes as a tourist in an unfamiliar place. 

We have 10 things that tourists do wrong when driving in Europe. These include not completing the proper paperwork, trusting technology too much, not following rules specific to each country, and more.

1. Not Getting an International Driver’s Permit

The International Driver’s Permit translates your license into several languages to decrease the language barrier. You can get an IDP at most AAA offices, which remains valid for one year. Don’t worry, there is no test, it’s just a formality.

You can also look into the International Driving Permits offered by International Drivers Association in over 150+ countries.

While most U.S. citizens will not need an IDP when driving in Europe, some countries do require it. Those countries in Europe and across the globe include Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Japan, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, and Thailand. 

Furthermore, Hungary requires a translation for a driver’s license, and the IDP works for it, but it does not have to be an IDP.

2. Foregoing Insurance

Whether renting an RV or a car or borrowing a vehicle from a friend, get insurance before heading out. While we all know you plan on driving safely, accidents do happen, and they happen most often in unfamiliar locations and situations.

 Driving in Europe for the first time is most definitely an unfamiliar situation. So, the next time you find yourself at a rental car counter, don’t be a naive tourist and decline the insurance.

3. Driving Without Safety Gear 

Driving in Europe is different from the United States, especially regarding safety gear. Many European countries require you to have a few items on board whenever you’re in the car. Those items include reflective jackets for every passenger, a warning triangle, and headlamp beam deflectors. 

In addition to those, you may also need a United Kingdom or International Driver car sticker when driving in Cyprus, Malta, or Spain. And when traveling in Germany, France, or Austria, you’ll also need a first aid kit.

 And, of course, if driving a moped or motorcycle, riders and passengers must wear a helmet.

Now that you know you need all the above equipment don’t head to the store just yet. Most rental RV and rental car companies should provide the required items for you.

And as any good driver should know, you should bring other items, such as an extra blanket, flashlight, fire extinguisher, oil and water for the vehicle, snacks and water for the passengers, and a paper map. 

4 wheel motorcycle
Regardless of if you’re driving in a car or on a motorcycle, you will need to have the appropriate documents and gear on hand.

4. Going Over the Speed Limit

Being from another country is not an excuse when it comes to speeding. And just because you don’t get a ticket right away if speed doesn’t mean you didn’t get caught. Many European countries have cameras that track license plates, and some locations have a zero-tolerance policy.

If you speed up and get a ticket from one of the cameras, your rental car agency will send you the ticket. Regardless of how long it takes them to send it, you still have the responsibility to pay for it. 

And some countries, such as Switzerland, have extremely steep fines. There’s no reason to be in a hurry. Slow down and enjoy the views. We may have learned this the hard way.

5. Forgetting to Turn on the Headlights 

When driving in Europe, you’ll notice many cars have their headlights on, even during the day. Many European countries require you to have your headlights on at all times. 

Daytime running lights are a newer feature that is becoming more common in cars. These lights help to improve visibility and make it easier for other drivers to see you. 

While not required in all European countries, it is a law in some. Either way, it is a good safety measure to take if you plan on driving in Europe.

6. Driving in Low Emissions Zones or Restricted Areas

It’s important to remain aware of the various low-emission zones and restricted areas when driving anywhere in Europe. You’ll typically see these restrictions implemented in major cities to reduce traffic and pollution. 

Depending on the city, you may need to have a special permit or a certain type of license plate to drive in these areas. 

For example, in Athens, Greece, only certain numbered license plates are allowed in the city center on certain days. This helps alleviate the number of cars, environmental harm, parking issues, etc. It forces people to take public transportation. Failure to comply can result in a hefty fine. So before you hit the road, check with your rental company about the requirements for driving in low-emission zones and other restricted areas.

Luckily we found that using navigation like google maps will usually warn you of these areas. However, we also found these systems sometimes told us we couldn’t drive where we were fine.

Filling fuel in europe
Diesel is the most common fuel in Europe so don’t put the wrong one in your tank!

7. Determining Who Has the Right of Way

Figuring out who has the right of way while driving can be tricky, especially in a new country with different rules. In general, drivers on the main road have the right of way. 

However, in narrow road situations, a sign usually indicates which direction has the right of way. This is important to know because, no matter if you’ve rented an RV or a small compact car, you must know who goes first in any situation. 

Driving is a privilege, not a right, so knowing who has the right of way is crucial to being a responsible driver.

8. Using Roundabouts

These circular intersections are quite common in many countries and can be a bit confusing for visitors from the United States. 

Roundabouts typically improve traffic flow and reduce congestion, and they can make an efficient way to get around. But they can be tricky to navigate if you’re not used to driving in them. 

Here’s a quick guide to using a roundabout.

As you approach the traffic circle, look for signs that indicate which lane you should be in. When you reach the yield line, slow down and yield to traffic already in the roundabout. 

Once you have an opening, enter the roundabout and stay in your lane. Drive around the circle until you reach your exit. Then signal and exit the roundabout.

With a little practice, driving in a roundabout can be easy. So next time you drive in Europe, don’t feel intimidated by these common intersections.

Pro Tip: New to roundabout driving? We took a closer look at Is Driving An RV Through a Roundabout Dangerous?

Most roundabouts are not this big, but if you encounter one, take it slow, watch your surroundings and just stay in the circle if you get tight on your exit until you can easily make it out.

9. Estimating Driving Time From Distance

Driving in Europe can be a challenge. Roads are often narrower and windier than in the United States, and they often go through small towns. As a result, it can take about twice as long to get where you want to go than your original estimate. 

This can lead to stress and mistakes. When driving in a new place, allow extra time so you don’t feel rushed or stressed. This will help ensure you arrive at your destination relaxed and on time.

10. Trusting Google Maps

Google Maps is a lifesaver. It’s how we get around in the United States, but driving in Europe can be very different. You’ll have narrower and windier roads. And if you have an RV, double-check your route to ensure your vehicle can handle the road. 

One thing we really noticed with navigation is that if frequently did not get the road numbers or names correct. When it tells you to turn on a street name, it may be wrong, so pay close attention to the distance to a turn and try to figure it out.

Google Maps will work in most situations, but it’s always best to be safe than sorry. So before you hit the road in Europe, take a minute to plan your route and make sure your vehicle can handle the trip. And remember that paper map. It might just be the saving grace you need.

Pro Tip: Want to do an epic Icelandic road trip? Find out Can You Rent a Camper in Iceland?

Is Driving in Europe Worth It?

If you want to have a truly unforgettable dream-driving experience in Europe, avoid being the tourist that checks off everything on the list above. Instead, try to be the driver nobody notices while on the road. 

And if you happen to get lost, you may find yourself on the side of a winding mountain road or in the heart of a charming small town that time has forgotten. We’d say that driving in Europe is well worth any planning necessary.

Is a road trip around Europe in your near future? Tell us where you want to go first in the comments!

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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Harve C.

Sunday 11th of December 2022

I own an RV in France and store it just south of Paris. I have quite a bit of experience driving in France and other countries throughout Europe. For the most part, your article is accurate and in some cases requires further information. But the item you mention regarding how to drive in roundabouts is flat-out wrong. I will address this first.

Roundabouts: If you follow what is listed in this article, you will at the least create fist waving and potentially cause an accident.

1. Roundabouts have signs on the approach that show its layout. Know where you will exit BEFORE you enter. Few roundabouts actually have lane demarcation, so the general rule is line up to the right if you're leaving at the first exit. Line up in the center of the approach if you're exiting at 2,3, or further. Remember that vehicles in the roundabout have the right of way.

2. If you're leaving the roundabout at the first exit, stay to the outside and USE YOUR RIGHT TURN SIGNAL. This lets other vehicles waiting to enter the roundabout know your intentions. ONLY USE THE OUTSIDE FOR LEAVING AT THE FIRST EXIT. At some "high volume" roundabouts, you may encounter an "express" lane to the outside. Take this if you intend to leave at the first exit and you'll avoid the roundabout altogether.

3. If your leaving the roundabout at any other exit, MOVE TO THE INSIDE and use your LEFT TURN SIGNAL and leave it on while in the roundabout. This lets other vehicles waiting to enter know your intentions. As you approach your exit, flip your turn signal to indicate a RIGHT TURN. This lets other drivers in the roundabout know you intend to leave. Other vehicles that maybe on your right WILL YIELD to you to let you exit. This is why all European vehicles have turn signal indicators mounted on the side of their mirrors or fenders.

4. If you are uncertain of where you should exit, just go around the roundabout again until you figure out where you need to go. We call that "window shopping". If you're in an RV and you have a line of cars accumulated behind you, go a full circle around and then exit, it's the courteous thing to do. Never stop in a roundabout to figure out where you should exit.

International Driver's License. AAA offices typically sell these. This license basically translates the requirements of a typical US state driver's license. The most important aspect of these International Driver's License is it states you can drive a vehicle up to 7.5 kg or approximately 15,000 pounds. For RV's in most European countries, the 7.5 kg weight (including people and everything onboard) is the threshold for many things. Weights in excess of that can restrict you to access to various cities, roads and lower speed limits. If you're in a rental RV, be certain you do not exceed the 7.5 kg weight. If the police suspect you're overweight, they can pull you over and use portable scales to weigh you on the spot. Overweight fines are very high.

Rights of Way. France has one very strange driving regulation (to Americans) that is called priorité à droite (priority to the right). You will encounter these signs on smaller rural roads and in some villages. This means that even if you're on a larger road, you must yield to any vehicle entering from the right. You do not have the right of way. These intersections are always signed so know what they mean. If you have hit that vehicle entering from the right, you will be at fault.

LEZ's (low emission zones). More European cities have designated LEZ's and it is a mind field of regulations. I know. I was fined 150 euros for unauthorized entry into an LEZ in Antwerp. If you're renting a car, ask if the number plate is properly registered for entry wherever you're traveling. LEZ's are frequently monitored with cameras that photo your number plate. Some countries like France and Germany have vignettes that are displayed on the windshield. The rental cars in these countries should have them. If you're renting a car in one country and traveling elsewhere, you will want to know in advance what LEZ restrictions you'll encounter.

GPS. Google maps are fine if you're in a rental car. However, if you're in a rental RV, you need a GPS that permits you to enter the height, weight, length and width of your vehicle. My experience is that HEIGHT is THE most important. Know your rental vehicle's height clearance. Height restrictions are clearly signed well in advance typically.

Speeding. Don't do it. There are speed cameras everywhere. France warns drivers with signs where they are located, so getting a ticket for speeding is fairly inexcusable. Drivers adhere to the rules of the road more so than drivers in the US. The fines are much higher. Your rental car company will find you and paying these fines are a real pain once you return home from the US.

Insurance. Your rental vehicle should have appropriate insurance papers in the glove compartment. With that should be an insurance accident report form. If you're in an accident, you will need to fill out all of this information on that form. This will include information from the other party (if another vehicle is involved). Check to be certain these forms are there before you leave the lot. Proof of insurance can be very important if you intend to cross borders. As long as you remain in the EU (including Switzerland, which is not in the EU), most rental car companies are OK with this.

Take a dash cam along. As a foreigner you will certainly be considered at fault if you're in an accident. Having a dash cam recording that can prove you're not a fault can be invaluable.

Cities. Very simple - avoid them. If you're in an RV forget about it. Streets are too narrow, too congested and parking is non-existent. It's easier to park outside of the city center and take public transport into the city.

France's Autoroutes. Most travelers will find themselves on France's toll road system at some point. Toll plazas have several lanes on the approach. Know what one to get into BEFORE you enter. Unless your vehicle has a registered transponder, avoid these lanes. If you intend to pay with cash or credit card, use those lanes. The first time have cash as a back-up in case your credit doesn't work in their system. Not all US credit cards work.

Hope this helps.

Mortons on the Move

Saturday 17th of December 2022

Thank you for sharing these great tips!

Not So Free

Friday 18th of November 2022

Turn signals. I have read they are sticklers for using them.

John S.

Friday 18th of November 2022

"And some countries, such as Switzerland, have extremely steep fines. There’s no reason to be in a hurry. Slow down and enjoy the views. We may have learned this the hard way."

May have? This sounds like a good story to tell around the campfire sipping sundowners.