"O highway I travel, do you say to me Do not leave me?
Do you say Venture not — if you leave me you are lost?
Do you say I am already prepared, I am well-beaten and undenied, adhere to me?
O public road, I say back I am not afraid to leave you, yet I love you
You express me better than I can express myself."
— Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road
Many countries require of you, the foreign driver, no license apart from your domestic driver's license. However, certain countries require of certain non-resident driver's an international driver's license (IDL), otherwise known as an international driving permit (IDP), in addition. You should contact the relevant tourist office, consulate or embassy to determine whether a country requires you to carry an IDL while driving. A good secondary indicator in this respect is the IDL webpage posted by the UK's Automobile Association. Basically an IDL is a means by which police in a foreign country can know — in terms of translations in nearly a dozen different languages — that your domestic driver's license is indeed recognized as being valid by the proper authorities in your country. (See the excellent article at Drivers.com.)
The local office of your auto club (AAA, CAA, etc.) sells IDLs for about US$20. If you need an IDL, take your license, two passport-sized photos and the requisite cash to the club office. (Though for about US$6 the club may snap Polaroid photos for you.) Ten minutes later you'll be able to legally drive on any European road — assuming you're at least 18 years of age. If you plan to operate a motorcycle in Europe, be sure to have the auto club certify your qualification to do so. The USA's AAA now has a Webpage whereby drivers licensed in the USA can obtain an IDL: AAA's application for IDL. Web searches will bring up a host of websites selling documents that conform to the model delineated in annex 10 of the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic (1949); but according to Article 24 of that convention, a truly valid IDL is one which is "issued .. by the competent authority of another Contracting State or subdivision thereof, or by an association duly empowered by such authority ...." The US State Department says it has empowered only the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) to issue IDLs. (The AATA offers IDLs through the National Automobile Club.)
The right to drive in European Union (EU) countries is based largely on the possession of a driver's license issued to a person living permanently in a country that has ratified the Geneva or Vienna convention agreements on road traffic. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, and many other countries — including Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan (Republic of China, ROC), Singapore and South Korea — have ratified one or both of the aforementioned traffic agreements.
Most European countries — notable exceptions being Austria, Italy and Spain — do not also require an international driver's license (IDL, IDP) of persons who hold a driver's license from such ratifying countries. However, if there is no English in such license, a notarized translation or else an IDL is typically required.
Vehicle rental companies, in relation to the motoring insurance they offer, may and often do impose driver's license requirements that are different than those imposed by the relevant government. For instance, such company might not require an IDL in a country that does require an IDL; or they might require an IDL in a country that does not require an IDL.
China (People's Republic of China, PRC) has ratified neither of the aforementioned convention agreements on road traffic. Therefore a proper IDL cannot be obtained in relation to a China (PRC) driver's license. Morever, in Finland and Sweden a China (PRC) driver's license cannot be used as a basis for driving legally. In Norway and most if not all of the rest of Europe, on the other hand, a China (PRC) driver's license is sufficient if the license includes English translation or is accompanied by a notarized translation of the license into English. A holder of a China (PRC) license should contact the relevant consulates to determine whether the nation in which s/he plans to drive accepts their license as a legal basis for driving.
The following countries in Europe require that vehicles using certain of the nation's roads bear a special one-off road tax sticker or vignette: Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland. Switzerland requires such vignette on its expressways. You can buy the Swiss vignette for 40 SwF at Swiss National Tourist offices, Swiss Customs posts (the border), Swiss post offices, or Swiss garages. (However, check whether your rental vehicle already has a valid vignette on it from a previous renter, in which case you don't need another vignette.) At the border you can pay in SwF, EUR £'s and USD. You can also pay inside the Customs office onsite by credit card. The vignette is valid until the end of the January of the year after you buy it, is non transferable, and should be thoroughly affixed to the windshield. If you buy it from the person stationed for this purpose outside the office (who accepts only cash), they will insist on affixing the sticker. If you buy inside the office you can affix the sticker yourself. You must obtain a separate vignette for a trailer or caravan. If your vehicle doesn't bear a properly affixed vignette and the Swiss police catch you driving on an expressway, you'll be subject to a 100 SwF fine — on top of the vignette's cost. Expressways offer the only hope for speedy and level motor travel through mountainous Switzerland. Still, it's not absolutely necessary to use the expressways there; I abstained on one trip. You have to ask yourself this: Why do I want to travel quickly and horizontally through Switzerland? Carefully study your map to determine if you want a vignette. See Wikipedia's Vignette page for more about such vignettes and road taxes.
Never leave the ownership papers (called a "Grey Card") or the insurance papers alone in the vehicle. In fact, you should make photocopies of these papers and of your domestic driver's license and IDP and then stash them in the same safe place (a neck pouch or money belt, for example) you keep the copies of your passport and birth certificate. If you're missing one of these documents when police pull you over, you'll be fined on the spot.
If you'll be driving someone else's vehicle, you should get written permission from the owner. In Portugal, however, you must obtain an Autorizacao certificate also; to get one, contact your local motoring club or a Portuguese tourist office or embassy, or stop in a European vehicle-registration office. Again, make and stash photocopies of these documents.
Buying travel insurance is the closest thing to buying a guarantee for a hassle-free trip. Such coverage can include personal liability, personal accident, hospital benefit, medical expenses, evacuation, money loss, baggage loss or damage, travel delay or interruption, cancellation, legal expenses, and loss of passport expenses. A friend of mine took ill on her trip and spent ten days in a British hospital; besides the fact that her regular health insurance covered the bills, she got about US$150 a day from her travel insurance. Of course you must determine for yourself if the risks justify the costs.
Beware of package travel insurance plans that span health, baggage, autos and the like: they usually duplicate insurance that you already have and contain too many exclusions. Check if your current health care covers you abroad, and bring along any medical insurance claim forms you may need. Also check how your credit cards may cover you. Baggage insurance benefits for lost or stolen articles tend to be lousy — covering up to, say, US$1000 only and excluding items like cameras, jewelry and currency. Airlines may automatically cover each passenger's luggage to a similar degree. Motor vehicle rental and leasing companies also offer baggage insurance. As such, develop a list of the areas in which you are now not adequately covered. Next, call the travel insurance companies I list below. Determine if these companies can offer a piecemeal, customized package. I recommend that you consider purchasing the insurance from a company that's underwritten by an insurance company in your home country: this will ease the settling of any claims when you return home and, sorry to add, will cover the costs of transporting your body home if you meet your end abroad. Regardless, determine (1) if you're covered for personal effects left unattended in a locked motor vehicle (specify if you'll be traveling in a camper van), (2) the maximum coverage of any single article, and (3) if sports activities such as skiing or hang-gliding are covered.
The International Travelers Hotline of the United States Centers for Disease Control will tell you what inoculations you may need for a particular destination. Consider bringing a record of all your inoculations in case you decide to continue on to less developed areas of the world.
Bring your eyeglasses prescription; it's possible you'll lose your glasses.
To stay in hostels that are affiliated with the Hostelling International (HI) organization, you should have an HI membership card.
The International Student Identification Card (ISIC) entitles students under 26 years of age to big discounts on everything from museum entry to ferry passage; it may also provide limited travel insurance. Be sure to get this card if you qualify.
Campers should consider getting a Camping Card Internationale (CCI)sponsored by the FIA, the AIT and the International Federation of Camping and Caravaning (FICC) and commonly called a "Camping Carnet". Some campgrounds require that one CCI per campsite be deposited with the office. Some demand either a CCI or a passport. (Though you should carry your passport with you at all times.) For campground managers, the CCI amounts to a guarantee of payment: if you damage anything and/or leave without paying, the campground will turn in your card and eventually receive compensation. For you, the Carnet provides several million SwF worth of insurance against any damages you might accidentally cause to the campground; and in some cases it entitles you to discounts.
If you'll be hostelling, camping, or staying with families or friends, consider bringing some of your favorite recipes, or researching recipes that are representative of the areas you'll be traveling to.
If bicycling, write down the make, model, and serial number of the bicycle.
Until recently vehicles attempting to drive across a European national border were required to bear near the rear license plate a regulation nationality sticker designating the country in which the vehicle was registered. This is no longer a requirement.
As I described in the Why Drive? chapter, in most cases border-crossing is a quick and hassle-free process. Although potentially you're subject to passport checks and searches of your person and vehicle upon crossing a border, often you can zip across the borders of Northern European countries without even slowing down. Most countries in western Europe have signed the so called Schengen treaty, leading to open borders. Crossing a border from one Schengen country to another Schengen country is usually like crossing from one U.S. state to another. For instance, when driving from Germany to the Netherlands the border is signified only with a blue square sign bearing the European Union circle of yellow stars around "Nederland" in white characters. No border check point. Even Switzerland, which is not a member of the European Union has signed the Schengen treaty and has open borders. In other cases where border check points are still in place, you'll likely be required to slow down and stop before the guards simply wave you through. A circular sign reading "Douane Zoll" is a signal that you must stop. If you do encounter a border check point, most likely you'll just queue-up in your vehicle, wait a minute or two, hand each passenger's passport to the guard when you reach the station, flash a smile, wait a moment until the guard returns the passports, and proceed forward a couple hundred meters to the border check point of the next country (where you'll repeat the process). Sometimes the guards will want to see your vehicle's registration and proof of insurance. Sometimes, even, your vehicle will be searched. If you're chosen for a search, follow the Customs officers' directions and chalk it all up to experience; it's not too time consuming or nerve-wracking — unless, of course, you've got illegal substances or items with you. It goes without saying that you should never bring illicit drugs or weapons across borders. If you're transporting hitchhikers or others who haven't had the opportunity to gain your trust, politely and up front make it known to them that they must get out at the border and lug their things across on foot. If your vehicle has significant cosmetic damage to it, point it out to the Customs officials and have them note it on your passport; otherwise upon exiting the country you might be suspected of having been in an accident in that country and fleeing your associated responsibilities. If a country requires you to declare your vehicle with Customs, you'll probably be obliged to pay customs duty and tax if you leave the country without the vehicle.
Here's a trick to be aware of. If several fuel stations are clustered on your side of a border, fuel is probably more expensive in the next country; fill up before crossing.
The auto clubs of many countries maintain offices at the borders. These offices may sell everything from auto insurance to maps to guidebooks.
Finally, note that many border crossings close overnight, from, say, 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. to 7:00 or 8:00 a.m.; but most stay open until 10:00, 11:00, or 12:00 p.m. in the summer.
In many countries the price of diesel is about 20 percent less than that of gasoline. However in some countries this difference is much smaller, and in a few countries — namely Latvia, Slovakia, Switzerland and the UK — diesel tends to be slightly more expensive than gasoline.... Nevertheless, diesel engines are about 25 percent more efficient than gasoline engines. Therefore in most countries you end up saving some 3040 percent on your fuel costs if you drive a diesel rather than a gasoline-powered vehicle. Diesels run smoother once they are up to speed, and they perform better in the mountains. Though not naturally as powerful (i.e. capable of accelerating) as gasoline engines, many diesels are boosted by turbo chargers to make up much of this difference. Environmentally, diesel engines are superior in some important respects, inferior in others. All told, diesel engines are now just slightly less harmful to the environment than are gasoline-powered engines. Sure diesel smells; but gasoline smells, too! Over half the new cars sold in Europe are now diesel; and high-quality diesel fuel is of course available wherever gasoline is sold, the pumps being on the same service islands as the gasoline pumps. Some stations even provide disposable gloves which customers may don to pump fuel. Make sure you do not mistakenly pull up to a truck diesel pump. The size of the nozzles for the truck pumps versus the car pumps is different. A truck fuel nozzle is too big to fit into a car's diesel fuel pipe, and the flow rate is much greater. LPG (i.e. propane) pumps always occupy their own island.
A diesel nozzle is considerably wider than either a leaded gasoline nozzle or the even smaller unleaded gasoline nozzle and indeed will not fit into either such tank. Consequently a gasoline nozzle will fit into a diesel tank. Therefore, be careful not to put gasoline into a diesel tank. Even a liter of gasoline added to the tank of a modern diesel car can cause irreversible damage to the injection pump and other components due to its relatively low lubricity. In some cases, the diesel car so abused has to be scrapped because the cost of repairs exceeds its value. (Diesel in a gasoline engine — while creating large amounts of smoke — does not normally cause permanent damage if it is drained once the mistake is realized. Similarly, older diesels using completely mechanical injection can tolerate some gasoline, which has historically been used to "thin" diesel fuel in winter.) A green pump holds unleaded gasoline or else diesel, a blue leaded gasoline. Diesel pumps are sometimes colored black, sometimes green. Diesel pumps are chiefly signified linguistically, either with the very word diesel or with one of the equivalents: gas-oil, gaz-oil, gasolio, gasóleo, dieselolie, mazot, motorina, or nafta.
Visit the Ireland's Automobile Association (AA) website for an up-to-date listing of fuel prices. (Remember, 1 US Gallon = 3.79 Liters.)
Note how cheap fuel typically is in Andorra and Luxembourg relative to surrounding countries; how it's much cheaper in Spain than in France; how it's more expensive in Switzerland; how it's much cheaper in Ireland than in the UK; and how it gets progressively more expensive from Germany to Denmark to Sweden to Norway. Fuel in Andorra is typically much cheaper than fuel in either Spain or France.
Fuel is much more expensive at stations along the expressways. Supermarkets along main roads at the edges of towns sell the cheapest fuel in France, Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. In France the main supermarket chains are Mammoth and Intermarche; in Germany the main chain is Spar; in the Netherlands it's Mamoet. The governments of Italy and Spain and Eastern Europe regulate fuel prices; all stations have the same price, so don't waste your time shopping for fuel in these countries.
Pump your own fuel or habitually check that the attendant doesn't cheat you. (Make sure he zeroes the pump before he pumps your fuel.) If you pay with a credit card, make sure the receipt is accurate. Some stations require that you pay not inside at a counter but outside at a booth upon driving out of the station area. (Although increasingly you can pay by inserting a credit card in a machine near the pumps.) If this is the case and a line of vehicles forms at the pay booth, you may have to wait to pump your fuel until the person who preceded you at the pump pays for theirs. Especially when dealing with such setups, note the total fuel charge on the pump so the attendant at the booth can't overcharge you; sometimes the attendants depend on your honesty and let you quote the total to them at the booth. In hot weather, fill up early in the morning or late in the evening when the air is cooler: the fuel will be more dense then, and thus you'll get more fuel for your Euro (or whatever).
You might make it a practice to fill up when the fuel level dips to a quarter of a tank, but fuel stations are so plentiful that the chances of unexpectedly finding yourself low on fuel and far from a station are very low. If, however, you're careless enough to come close to running out of fuel, try the following technique: accelerate very slowly to 33 kph; turn off the ignition and move the gear to neutral; let the vehicle slow to 8 kph; start the engine; and repeat. This trick can double or even triple fuel efficiency; but it's a trick that won't work if your steering wheel locks when the ignition is off, and it can be dangerous and illegal.
The STOP sign ever so familiar to North Americans is used throughout continental Europe and the world — and it even reads "STOP" in English. (In the UK, however, the ubiquitous roundabout obviates the need for widespread use of the STOP sign.) The world also uses the same Yield sign as North America. The Red light = stop, green light = go convention is used everywhere as well. A solid or flashing amber light precedes the red light and green light in most areas. This light signals that a red or green light is imminent. If you have the option to eventually turn right (or left in Britain or Ireland) at a stop, a green arrow that points right may light simultaneously with the main red light that's stopping traffic from moving straight ahead. This green arrow means you can make a yielding right turn. Turning right when both these lights show red is against the law. In other words, no right turn on red. A protected left turn is indicated only when on the left side of the intersection a green signal arrow points left; a green arrow pointing left on the right side of the intersection signals a yielding left turn is permitted. In many areas traffic signals are turned off or flash yellow at night. Usually in such cases signs are in place next to the signals and these then control the situation. While fully operating, however, traffic signals override signs.
The same set of standardized road signs are used all over Europe. These signs are essentially graphic rather than linguistic in nature. As such, their meaning tends to be easy to understand. Of course the meaning of some signs is less obvious than the meaning of others. On the International Roadsigns subpage I've placed images of the more important and confusing signs. (I do this separately so you don't have to sit through their download every time you access this chapter.) Diamond signs indicate priority. Red triangles are warnings. Red circles are restrictions. Blue circles are requirements. Squares and rectangles give guidance. Note the signs which show two arrows pointing in opposite directions. If one of these arrows is red, it means the traffic traveling in that direction must yield to traffic traveling in the other direction. The color red on a European road sign signals negative information such as a warning or prohibition. For another instance check out the sign that means No bicycles. You may encounter a similar circular sign showing a bicycle on a blue background. This sign designates a bicycle path. As used on the road signs the color blue is positive in that it signals an obligatory action or some feature — such as a bicycle lane, a rest stop or a parking garage — that you can take advantage of; simply put it says do rather than don't.
A level train crossing without barriers is indicated by the three subseqeunt triangle signs atop a diagonally hashed post. The first sign in the sequence bears three red diagonal hashes representing the three multiples of 80 meters (240 meters) remaining until the crossing. The other two are set at 80 meter intervals approaching the crossing and as such bear two hashes and one hash, respectively. A flashing red beacon and/or continuous bell warns of an approaching train. When the way is clear, the beacon changes to white or amber, and/or the bell ceases. You must turn off your vehicle's headlights when waiting at a crossing.
As in North America, dashed center lines mark passing zones while solid center lines denote no-passing zones. But while in North America yellow markings separate opposing traffic flows and white lines separate traffic moving in the same direction, in Europe white lines are used in both cases. Sometimes painted in regular succession amidst the dashed lines are fat arrows which curve slightly and point toward one lane while otherwise pointing almost straight ahead in the direction of that same lane. These arrows tell vehicles traveling in that lane that their passing zone will soon come to an end. A thick white orthogonal line at an intersection indicates where you must stop when you are in fact required to stop; a thinner dashed version indicates where you must yield when in fact you must yield. Diagonal white lines filling a space outlined in white indicate a portion of the street where vehicles are prohibited.
In road construction areas on most highways and superhighways the left lane is usually limited to a vehicle width of 2 meters or less (indicated by signs). If a driver (of a motorhome, say) ignores that limitation and uses said lane, he/she may be liable for any consequent damages. Usually such damages to the vehicle itself would not be covered by the collision damage insurance attaching to the vehicle whereas the damages to third-party property (at least outside the vehicle) would be covered by the third party liability insurance attaching to the vehicle. Similarly, some road toll plazas (in Italy and France especially) have certain lanes for passenger cars only; there are signs indicating the maximum width; if a driver ignore those signs, the driver is liable for consequent damages.
Cities usually post street signs not on poles at the corners but on placards attached one story up on buildings. Note that street names in some areas are apt to change frequently along an otherwise continuous avenue of concrete, and main routes may go unsigned while the intersecting and relatively minor cross streets are fastidiously labeled.
|Expressway||End of expressway||Expressway|
|End of expressway||European road 4||Priority road|
|End of priority road||Priority road||Priority on right|
|Priority over opposing traffic||Priority road bends right||Yield|
|Yield to oncoming traffic||Traffic signals ahead||Entering a two-way street|
|Open road: National speed limit applies||Speed limit||End of speed limit|
|Minimum speed||End of minimum speed||No passing|
|No passing by goods vehicles||End of no passing||Roundabout|
|Road narrows||Crossroads||Uneven road|
|Customs: Stop||Superhighway exit||Camping|
|Train crossing without barrier||Train crossing with barrier||Parking with disc|
|Parking area/Rest stop||End of parking disc restriction||Parking with meters|
|No parking side 1 on odd days;
no parking side 2 on even days
|No vehicles||No motor vehicles|
|No bicycles||No entry||Countdown posts:
Each slash = 100 meters
|Bicycle lane/path||Footpath||Go to the right|
|No entry for vehicles weighing
over 2.4 tons per axle
|No entry for vehicles over
3.5 meters high
|No entry for vehicles over 2 meters wide|
|Dead end||Beware of pedestrians||Crosswind|
|Pedestrians have priority on this crossing||No stopping||No parking|
|Distance and direction of car park||HI hostel||Hospital|
You should familiarize yourself with and try to adhere to the rules of the road of each country, but don't sacrifice the proper state of mind in the process. Ironically, I think the best way to nurture the right attitude is to tone down your dependence on memory, to let the environmental stimuli flow into you unimpeded by too many worries, to react naturally and to trust your reactions, to make mistakes and to not dwell on them, to throw off the great weight of fastidiousness, to exercise the old adage: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, go with the flow; be cool; blend in with traffic; and revel in the fact that you're truly participating in a different culture, that you've effectively become, for a short time at least, a citizen of Europe. When in Paris do as the Parisians and park on the sidewalk. When in Scandinavia, if you notice everybody else driving with their lights on — even in bright sun — you'd better too. It's easy.
OK, but now you're on the road in, say, France, and you think you may be on the wrong road. You're getting nervous because you want to stay off the toll roads. Blue signs marked with the letter "A" indicate Autoroute péage (toll) roads; while green signs with the letter "N" indicate non-toll Route National highways. No problem: just follow the signs in green, the signs that indicate the non-toll highways. At times, you'll note, the signals seem ambiguous because one sign bears both blue and green sections listing A and N roads respectively. "How can I be on both an A and an N road at the same time?" you'll ask yourself. Such signage means only that you're on your way to both types of road, that the road you're on is not a toll road; eventually you'll have the option to enter either the toll road or a non-toll road. Sometimes after following a green-only or a blue/green sign, a blue-only sign will appear unaccompanied by possible turnoffs. Don't worry: eventually another green sign will direct you to a non-toll road before you have to pay. This all sounds simple, and it is. Just keep following the last sign you saw. Keep following the last sign you saw. Keep following the last sign you saw . . . Sorry, but I feel the redundancy is justified. It's easy to get flustered and worry that you missed an important turn. But the keen state of mind that you'll be in, coupled with the excellent nature of the roads and signage, will render quite small the chances of actually missing such a turnoff. Be astute, but trust yourself and the road design and signage. In a word, relax; usually it all comes together in the end. The wisdom of this simple approach has been apparent to me time after time throughout my travels. I've slowly learned not to get flustered when there isn't a meaningful sign placed every one kilometer. This is more than a prudent approach to driving; it's an attitude, an attitude that will greatly increase the pleasure you draw from your trip. You are, after all, on the road; you should be singing songs and talking like Kerouac.
And, as I first described in the Why Drive? chapter, history has assured that navigating to the cities and towns and sights is much more of a song than you might expect. First, most of the European languages you'll encounter are cognate with English; so it tends to be quite easy to read signs which give directions. What's more, each city and town grew from an old town center. In this center, of course, lie most of a town's attractive sites and accommodations. Everything falls into place if you follow the ubiquitous signs to the town center or simply head toward the tallest church spire. Most of the signs denoting town centers bear variations of the word center, such as "Centro," "Centrum," "Centre Ville," "Centro Città," or "Zentrum"; in many parts of Germany the word is "Stadtmitte." Furthermore, on the way to the center of town you'll see tourist information boards or signs indicating the direction to the tourist office. Most such signs read "i" for information; in France, however, they read "Office du Tourisme" or "Syndicat d'Initiative"; in the Netherlands they read "VVV"; sometimes they bear a lone "?."
Another way to get your bearings when entering a town is to follow the signs that point to the train station. Both the signs and the stations they point to are ubiquitous in Europe. Look for signs reading "Gare," "Estacion," or some variation of the word station. Many guidebooks use the train station as the origin for their directions to sights and accommodations. Furthermore, the famous and (here we go again) ubiquitous Hostelling International sign (see it above) tends to be nearby, pointing the way to the nearest hostel. In most cases hostel proprietors have placed these signs in a series and with a frequency designed to lead all but the most clueless along the best route to the hostel door. Often, a tourist office operates out of the local train station. At the very least you'll find city maps dispensed inside or a single city map displayed on a large public board just outside. Perhaps what's more important, many of your fellow travelers at the station will be more than happy to give you the scoop on the best places to stay, the best sights, and the best places to hang out. Moreover, the parking lot will be at your disposal — often free of charge: you can just leave your vehicle in the lot and continue on foot or by metro, bus, or taxi. Since governments tend to build train stations near places of interest and since business people who cater to travelers tend to locate their establishments around either train stations or places of interest, you probably won't feel compelled to stray too far from the station.
To leave a city either follow the signs that indicate the road or the city you want to travel on or to or follow the signs that bear words meaning "all directions" or "other directions". You'll note when checking the expressways on your map that they often have two different numbers designating them. One is the national designation and the other — with the "E" prefix — is the Europe-wide designation, which simply provides for continuous numbering between countries.
European police don't seem to enforce speed limits with the same gusto as do North American police. The fast lane is usually just that — fast. The countries hungriest for speed are Germany and Great Britain, where fast-lane speeds of 120 mph (200 km/h) and 85 mph (142 km/h), respectively, are common. As I'm sure you've heard, no speed limit exists on many sections of the famous German Autobahnen. In contrast to Germany and Britain, traffic in Norway seems to crawl along. Generally, traffic flows about 10 mph (17 km/h) faster than traffic in North America. The roads are good enough to handle the high speeds, but if you don't fancy yourself a Euro Speed Racer or if your vehicle simply can't keep up, you won't be alone: plenty of Europeans drive 55 mph in the slow lanes or amicably signal or pull onto the shoulder so speedier drivers can pass. Many countries define speed limits in terms of "built-up" areas. A built-up area is indicated by a sign, placed along the road at the community boundary, that bears the name of the community. The end of a built-up area is indicated by a black slash across a twin of this sign. If when outside a built-up area the police nail you for speeding, they won't pull you over immediately; instead, they'll radio one of their colleagues who'll pull you over at a convenient spot down the road.
You need to familiarize yourself with the ways drivers may signal to you. If someone driving in the opposite direction blinks their vehicle's headlights, it means that police are lying in wait ahead. On the open roads someone who wants to pass may come up behind you with their vehicle's left blinker (right blinker where driving driving is on the left) and/or headlights flashing (if on the continent); if you're on a single-lane highway, signal with your vehicle's right directional (left directional where driving is on the left) when you think it's safe for them to pass. European truckers use the same blinker signal to let you know it's safe to pass them. If the truck driver sees danger ahead he'll engage his truck's left blinker (right blinker where driving is on the left). Two quick beeps on the horn means "Thank you." Although I cannot recommend you interpret such signals as I describe above, you may soon come to trust them. In any case, if you act on these signals and my description of them, you do so at your own risk. Indeed, in Germany the flashing of headlights to indicate a desire or determination to pass is forbidden and may even lead to prosecution. Similarly in the British Isles it a good idea to flash your headlights to indicate you want to pass, as this is likely to offend the driver ahead of you; better just express a sense of urgency by using your indicator and hovering significantly near behind the vehicle and somewhat toward the center of the road — but without tailgaiting. Throughout Europe you're expected to sound your horn before taking a blind curve on a narrow rural or mountain road. Otherwise, use the horn as a last resort. Motorcyclists often signal their Hello's to other bikers and Thank you's to other motorists (earned for instance by a car that moves over to give more room for the cycle to pass) by slowly pressing out their right leg.
You'll encounter tunnels in mountainous areas. Be sure to turn on your vehicle's headlights before entering a tunnel; police tend to lie in wait on the other end, nailing driver's who haven't lit up. Norway's tunnels are so long they're unnerving; you'll feel like Starbuck being shot out of the Battlestar Galactica, and you'll think to yourself, "Gee, even Superman woulda had a hard time digging these tunnels."
By the way, driving with headlights on decreases by 30 percent your chances of being in a collision with another vehicle — that's why it's required at all times in Scandinavia. And police are bound to go easier on drivers thoughtful enough to light up.
Tolls are typically charged for using the larger tunnels in Europe. Moreover, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have extensive toll road systems on their expressways; Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, on the other hand, do not. For details on all the various road toll systems and instances in Europe, please see www.theaa.com/allaboutcars/overseas/european_tolls_select.jsp.
To use toll roads, you must, upon entering the system, pay at a booth or else get a ticket by pushing a red button on a driver's-side ticketing machine. Sometimes the ticketing machine controls a barrier; other times there's no barrier. If you go through an unbarred control point without getting a ticket, you'll be charged the maximum toll at the next exit. So they can further prosecute violators, many toll stations use automatic cameras to photograph any vehicle that passes through a pay booth without paying.
If you travel through mountain tunnels or over passes which charge a toll, note that many offer discounted return fares for travelers who'll return within a certain period, usually 72 hours.
Where two roads of equal priority intersect, you must give way to traffic coming from your right. In France this rule once applied to all roads, thus supplanting any notion of a priority road; fortunately this is no longer the case. These days long stretches of European roadway are clearly marked as priority roads, and/or the approaches to and intersections with priority roads are clearly marked with warning signs and with Yield and STOP signs or signals. Since they don't really intersect with other roads, all expressways (variously called autoroutes, autobahns, motorways, etc.) have priority. In towns a priority road often branches and makes complicated turns. In such cases a sign often identifies the priority road with a fat line opposed to thin lines which indicate lesser roads. Only on occasion will two roads of equal (unmarked) priority intersect and oblige you to exercise your knowledge of what in France is called "priorité à droite" or "priority on the right". Sometimes this runs rather counter to intuition. Take the case of an uncontrolled "T" intersection of two equal roads. You might think traffic on the through street of the "T" would have priority. But, no, traffic on the right must be yielded to. (Left-turning vehicles, however, should always yield in this situation.)
"Hey, look kids. There's Big Ben, and there's Parliament," exclaims driver Chevy Chase — starring as Clark Griswald, the well-meaning but bumbling patriarch of the pathetic Griswald clan — in a scene from the 1985 movie European Vacation. The scene unfolds early one day in the family's rented car as Clark attempts to navigate a London roundabout. "Kids. Big Ben, Parliament, (again)," he repeats the second time around. "Kids." "We know," they retort in unison. ". . . Big Ben, Parliament." Dusk finds the Griswald's little car circling on the same roundabout, all passengers but Clark fast asleep. "It's amazing," Clark says to himself in hysterical disbelief. "I cannot get left."
Roundabouts: those circular intersections where stop signs are nonexistent, and everyone's at everyone else's mercy, and you have to join the flow if you want to go — and you could, in theory, go around forever. The word roundabout is actually of American origin. American Logan Pearsall Smith, one of the members in the 1920s of the BBC Advisory Committee on Spoken English originated it. Before he suggested the change, traffic circles in Britain were called gyratory circuses. (Smith also wanted to call traffic lights stop-and-goes.) To many of us North Americans, though, roundabouts epitomize European motoring. The popular American imagination elevates few elements of civil engineering to the level of enigma, but it has done so with roundabouts. In fact many non Europeans assume that if roundabouts are such a puzzle, so must be the rest of European motoring. You know by now that this assumption is unsound. But what is the deal with roundabouts anyway? Although in most cases you don't need to stop when entering a roundabout, you must yield to traffic that's already on it. A sign bearing a circle of three counterclockwise arrows indicates such a roundabout. Though increasingly rare, some roundabouts aren't graced by such a sign and thus make it incumbent for you to exercise the aforementioned priorité à droite rule; in other words, traffic on these roundabouts must yield to traffic entering. Regardless of signage, it should be immediately obvious if the traffic on or entering the roundabout is or is not waiting for you to enter. Once on the circle, you can go around indefinitely until you figure out which exit you want to take. You'll get the impression that you're skating around that old roller rink you used to go to as a kid. Indeed, you'll become a bit giddy. You'll quickly come to like these little rinks: they allow you to make unhurried decisions as your vehicle is moving, and they reduce the number of stops you must make. If two lanes enter a roundabout, you should stay in the inside lane, engaging your vehicle's inside blinker until you identify the exit you wish to take and until you pass the exit immediately before that one. Once you reach this point you should engage your vehicle's outside blinker, move into the outside lane, and exit the roundabout. England and France employ the most roundabouts.
Most countries empower their police to collect fines on the spot from violators. If the police require that you pay them, make sure you get a receipt; and if possible, make sure the nature of the offense and the amount of the fine as described on the receipt match the actual offense and the amount you paid. Police in France, Germany and Italy use roadblocks to conduct random checks of vehicles and drivers. Blood alcohol limits in Europe are given in milligrams (mg), so that's how I list them for each country. Note that a blood alcohol limit of, say, 80 mg is equal to a limit of 0.08 percent or 0.8 grams per liter. Radar-triggered cameras are increasingly used to enforce speed limits by photographing the license plate of an offending vehicle. The ticket is posted within a few days to the name and address on the registration. If it's a rental or tourist-lease, the company will get the ticket and charge you. If it's a foreign-registered vehicle, well, just wait and see. The photo used to accompany, but in several cases love affairs were thus exposed; so now you'll have to visit the police station to garner the evidence. Whereas the key first threshold for police officers who might write a ticket on the spot is reported to be a speed 10 percent over the limit, it's said that along highways the cameras are only triggered by vehicles going more than 20 km/h over. Furthermore, it's rumored only half the photos are unambiguous enough to result in a ticket. If you trigger one of these cameras you'll probably see the flash. Signs usually warn drivers if such an apparatus is permanently mounted along or above the road. But often they're mounted in unmarked police cars parked on the roadside or median, and in such case of course no signs attend.
The main trouble that most North Americans face when driving in the British Isles is that they must drive on the left side of the road. Not only is the traffic flip-flopped, but the steering wheel is on the other side of the vehicle — and the gear shift is at your left hand instead of your right. (Although the shifting pattern is the same; and the accelerator is still at the right foot, with the brake pedal off to its left.) It's virtually impossible for a North American to practice driving this way before arriving in a country where left-side driving is the norm; the best we North Americans can do is use mental imagery to shed the right-side-of-the-road mindset. Yet the adaptability of the human brain is remarkable. In a matter of days a North American or continental European driving in the British Isles (or, for that matter, a Brit or Aussie or Kiwi driving on the continent) can supplant the mindset he or she assumed over a whole lifetime. It reminds me of an experiment in which scientists asked a man to wear a contraption that inverted his vision. He agreed. At first, the upside down world confused the man so that he stumbled around and could hardly feed himself. Within a week, however, he was functioning normally. When the scientists finally took the contraption off the man's head, the rightsideup world seemed upside down to him. Again he stumbled around and could hardly feed himself. This went on for years — no, just kidding; in a couple of days the man readjusted to the conventional world. If the human mind can adapt so quickly to the inversion of the whole world, surely you'll adapt to sitting on the right side of a vehicle, shifting with your left hand, and driving on the left side of the road.
Not only will you quickly adapt, but the benefits of driving will counteract the anxiety you'll experience in the transition period. In the meantime, the right attitude can minimize both this anxiety and the real danger that fuels it. Be cool. Take your time. Most Brits and Irish, experienced in motoring on the continent, empathize with and are thus tolerant of disoriented foreign drivers. When someone does honk at you, open your smile like a jackknife and wave at the irritated bloke like a bloody fool. Who cares? Remember, all will be OK as long as you don't hit anything. Soon you'll be zipping around like Jackie Stewart. The whole experience will make for good stories when you get home, and the you'll feel a genuine and justified pride in your accomplishment.
I must reiterate that it is legal to drive left-hand-drive vehicles (steering wheel on the left, gear shift on your right) in the British Isles and right-hand-drive vehicles on the continent, but it makes it virtually impossible to safely pass other vehicles unless you have an astute and trusted navigator in the passenger seat or unless the driver's seat is high enough to let you see over the majority of vehicles. The headlight beams should be adjusted before you make the switch. Naturally you can buy a headlight conversion kit in Europe. The kits contain specially shaped adhesive black plastic which sticks to the glass and alters the direction of the beam.
As I enthusiastically related in the Why Drive? chapter, you should be able to find free-of-charge parking all over Europe. Some neighborhoods, however, reserve free parking — or all parking — for residents. In such areas the residents' vehicles bear an official sticker. Check the other vehicles around yours to see if they all bear the same sort of sticker in the same place on one of the windows. No parking zones along streets (for instance, near bus stops) are often indicated by a zig-zag white line painted on the street.
Parking meters and "pay-and-display" schemes are common. A pay-and-display scheme requires you to pay at a central machine (some machines ask you to punch in your vehicle's license plate number too), press a button (usually the green one, the others are for local residents whose vehicle's bear special permits), receive a ticket that lists a time-of-day limit commensurate with the amount you paid, and display the ticket in readily visible spot on the dashboard (on the side closest to the curb if on the street). Most of these machines account for periods of the day when parking is free, so you can pay at night for the first hour or two after 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. the next day. In event of a defective machine you should use the parking disc I desribe next. You may then park for the maximum duration normally permitted at that location.
A pay-and-display machine in Germany. Literal translation: "Parkticketmachine: Here parkticket take."
A parking disc placed on a dashboard.
Many cities in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland enforce Blue Zones or short-term parking areas which limit parking to an indicated duration, usually two hours. The marking of these zones varies from country to country. Before parking in a Blue Zone you must obtain special tickets or a disc from a tourist office, police station, or tobacconist. Sometimes you must buy the tickets or disc, but usually they're given free of charge. In fact most rental companies include a disc or "blue card" in their vehicles. When using a ticket, you write on it the date and time of your arrival (Europeans write the day number before the month number and use the military convention for noting times) and then display it on the side of your vehicle's dashboard closest to the curb. Discs, on the other hand, either bear a clock face and a set of unmechanized clock hands which you can set to show the time of your arrival (Figure Driving.2 above) or they actually function mechanically as clocks (see www.dotoni.ch). You may round-up to the next half-hour. If, for example, you arrive at 9:40, you can indicate 10:00. In lieu of these items a simple note left on your dashboard may suffice. It's worth noting that during my first extended motor tour of Europe I was unaware of such zones; I never bought tickets or obtained a disc, and I never suffered a penalty — and I parked in many cities and towns which supposedly enforce Blue Zones. Maybe I was lucky. If you're unsure about whether you should obtain a ticket or disc, check the dashboards of the other vehicles in the area to determine if other drivers feel it's necessary.
If you do get a parking ticket and you do feel compelled to pay it, most countries offer a rather ingenious way to do so. Take the ticket to a tobacconist, purchase a tax stamp (called a "timbre fiscal" in France) in the proper amount, affix the larger of the tax stamp's two sections to the ticket, and, using a regular stamp, mail the tax-stamped ticket to the address indicated on the ticket. Note that wheel clamps are coming into wider use.
Most parking garages and lots employ one rather clever pay-for-parking scheme. Upon entering, you receive a time-stamped ticket. Just before you leave, you take the ticket to a central processing machine and place it in a slot. The machine then prompts you to insert the appropriate amount of cash. (Many of these machines accept coins only; so it's a good idea to check this upon leaving your vehicle behind.) Insert the cash and the machine returns any change along with the ticket, which now bears the time and a certification of payment. Finally, you must present the ticket to the attendant or insert it in a machine to leave.
For the safety of their female customers, it's quite common in Europe for parking garages to reserve the most well lit and frequented area of the garage for women who are not accompanied by a male. This area usually corresponds to the first level of the garage. Look for signs reading, for example, "Nur Frau" (German for "Only Woman").
As I mentioned in the Why Drive? chapter, Barcelona harbors amazing car parks. When you drive in, an attendant directs you to continue into a chamber. Once you properly align the vehicle in the chamber, you exit both the vehicle and the chamber. Finally, the attendant closes the chamber, and the vehicle is hydraulically moved to some secret, subterranean vault. Be sure to remove your luggage when you remove yourself from the chamber: I once didn't and had to recall my car, drive it out, and pay before being able to re-park it.
Most theft in Europe is of the petty variety, rarely involving assault: the thief does not want a confrontation. Thus, by using your head you can prevent almost every potential crime.
For example, don't let people listen in or somehow note your phone card or credit card number. Watch your credit card after giving it to a clerk: you don't want the clerk to make extra imprints. Review all charge slips before you sign them. And be careful with your charge card receipts: they have the card number on them too. In fact, you should destroy old carbons, billing statements, and other records that bear your account number.
Don't flaunt your money or act too much like a tourist. You know how foreigners stand out as targets for crime. Don't compromise your trip, but don't unnecessarily make yourself a bigger target. Be discreet when doing your thing in banks, at ATM machines, or at exchange booths. Take note of the people around you. Try to blend in and look confident. If you have a shoulder bag, wear the strap across the shoulder opposite the side on which the bag hangs. Be careful in crowded places such as those around street performers and on metros and buses: pickpockets love crowds — especially crowds ripe with tourists. Beware at beaches. If two people approach you, one speaking to you and the other hovering around, go on red alert: the speaker may be trying to distract you while the other person nabs an item. And never fall asleep with a valuable next to you. Move in groups when it's convenient. In no way is the danger great enough that you should modify your itinerary; just be smart, that's all.
The further south you go the more you need to be aware of your possessions and personal space. Beware of young vagrant children and their adult cohorts who hover around and pickpocket travelers. Such thieves may walk into you with an open newspaper or large flat box held extended from their waste, wave a newspaper in your face, or throw a baby doll into your arms to distract you while their accomplices rifle through your pockets. Other thieves may approach you with flowers or some other triviality to sell; simply brush them off — and don't feel bad about it. I've even heard of tourists being glopped with mustard then "assisted" by ostensibly helpful bystanders who in fact did the glopping and who point to the sky and claim the stuff is bird doo while they wipe it off and swipe what they can. No matter, if you're aware of their presence and have taken simple security precautions, thieves will leave you alone.
Thefts from vehicles occur with alarming frequency in Spain and Southern Italy. Regardless of where you are, leave nothing of value in the vehicle. Leave the glove compartment open and emptied. If a rear seat pulls down to offer access to the trunk, pull it down — and leave the trunk empty. If you must leave something of value in the trunk, however, lock that seat so it can't be pulled down. If possible, lock the trunk from the driver's side lock so it can't be popped open without the key. If your vehicle has a hatchback, remove the shield that conceals the empty trunk. Consider leaving the front passenger door open to allow thieves easy access: otherwise, they'll break a lock or window. Essentially, make the scene look as if some other thief has been there already. If you drive into the larger cities, consider parking in front of embassies and banks where security may be better, or in an area where traffic police are working. Throughout Europe, parking ramps offer safer haven than the streets; but they may not be worth the cost.
The rate of theft of vehicles themselves is high in the city of Prague and in Poland. Consider parking in small towns outlying the larger cities. You can take the extremely cheap trains into the metro area. Thieves concentrate where the tourists are, and the tourists usually aren't in the small towns. Turning your wheels all the way to the curb may also help.
Some thieves are more aggressive than those I've mentioned so far. Keep your vehicle's doors locked when driving, and keep the vehicle in gear at a stop. If someone points to your tires as if indicating that the tires are flat, don't get out to look. If someone bumps you — especially if they bump you repeatedly — think twice before unlocking the doors and getting out of the vehicle. Rather, turn on your vehicle's hazard lights to signal that you're not fleeing, and drive slowly to a well-populated and well-lit place. Beware if you pick up a rental car at Madrid's airport. The rental companies there park their vehicles in unprotected and unsupervised areas. As a result, thieves have learned to puncture the tires, wait outside, follow exiting vehicles, and rob them when the unsuspecting driver pulls over with a flat. Always be wary of an offer of roadside help extended by anyone other than a uniformed police officer or civil guard. If a person stops to help, ask them to call the police. Conversely, don't you stop to help a stranded motorist: in the more marginal parts of Europe, roadside brigands are known to feign car trouble then steal your vehicle and/or rob you when you stop to help.
Lock away your baggage overnight, and lock the door to your room as well. When staying in a hostel, take a hint from nature and sleep with your valuables between your legs. Out of sight is out of mind; don't unnecessarily tempt thieves. Passports are a valuable commodity on the black market — keep yours secure. If you travel in a couchette on an overnight train, tie the door shut: thieves payoff conductors, put sleeping gas into compartments, and proceed to pilfer the unconscious occupants' possessions; if you're not careful, you'll wake up minus one suitcase or backpack but plus one big head ache. Italian trains have become infamous for such robberies. If something of yours does get stolen from your person, vehicle, or room and if you have some form of insurance to cover the theft of the item, make sure you get a police report at the next convenient opportunity, if you know what I mean.
And don't give up items for lost if they are stolen. Often thieves are only after cash and will dump wallets and other articles. Many are nice enough to throw the wallet — including credit cards — in a mailbox. The post will check your identification and deliver the wallet and contents either directly to your embassy or to the police who will forward it to your embassy. And police stations in Europe are often rife with stolen articles waiting to be claimed. If you've written your address on your articles, they may conveniently show up at your embassy like your wallet.
In hot weather check the radiator's water level frequently. If the water level is low but not below the bottom of the header tank, you can immediately add water. If, however, the water is below this level, you should allow the engine to cool before adding water: otherwise you may damage the cylinder block. If the radiator is overheating, let it cool before very carefully and slowly opening the radiator cap. If you aren't careful, a rush of steam from the radiator may severely burn you. High engine temperatures resulting from some combination of a high ambient temperature, an ineffective cooling system, and extreme strain on the engine from, say, a steep ascent, can vaporize fuel in the lines, the pump, or the carburetor, causing the engine to stop. If such a stall occurs, let the engine cool off before trying to restart it.
If you've rented or leased a vehicle, your contract should entitle you to some form of roadside service. Regardless, chances are that the local motoring club will come to your aid. As I detailed in the Documents chapter, most of the European clubs belong to one of the two international touring organizations, either the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) or the Alliance Internationale de Tourisme (AIT) and thus are obligated to reciprocate their benefits to members of likewise-affiliated clubs. If you don't belong to an affiliated club, you can buy temporary membership in any number of European clubs. Even if you aren't reciprocally or directly a member of these clubs, they'll still come to your aid — for a charge. In the country-by-country descriptions, I include the address and phone number of all automobile clubs, and I note if they're affiliated with the FIA and/or AIT.
If you're battery is dead and it's in a manual transmission vehicle, you can get the vehicle started again by "popping the clutch." To do this, push in the clutch and hold it, put vehicle in second gear, have the vehicle pushed up to a speed that matches the speed associated with the second gear, then let the clutch out and turn the key. The energy of the turning axle is translated into the engine where the alternator transforms it into enough electric power to start the vehicle.
Get a receipt for any service you must pay for: your automobile club, rental or leasing company, or dealer may reimburse you if you do. Always secure a cost estimate before submitting your vehicle for maintenance.
In many areas, emergency phones are in place along major roads. Laws, unless I note otherwise in a country's description, require you to call police to the scene of any accident that involves you and that results in damage to a vehicle or person. However, sometimes — especially in the South — the parties involved can settle such damages on the spot. Such settlements are facilitated by the European Accident Statement. This form — found in the glove compartment or in the pocket on the driver's side door of most rental vehicles — provides a standard format on which to draw a diagram of the accident, note the information about the vehicles and drivers involved, and note other important facts about the accident. All drivers involved sign the form and receive a carbon copy; they then send a copy of their copy to their rental or leasing or insurance company. Of course you should carefully consider your insurance coverage before settling accidents without involving the police. Note that you should never sign a statement that you can't read; insist on a translation.
It's not unusual for European ferries to sport plush seats, televisions, cinemas, pools, saunas, nice restaurants, bars, live entertainment, casinos, children's playrooms, duty-free shops, and exchange bureaus. The food served aboard ferries is expensive, however; consider bringing your own sandwiches and drinks. Also expensive is the merchandise in the duty-free shops — except for the tobacco and alcohol, that is. In good weather you can stroll or sunbathe on the decks, throw bread to the playful gulls, and snap dramatic photos.
Cabins come in economy, standard, and luxury classes of varying capacity: single-berth, double-berth, triple-berth, and quad-berth. You can pay for a single berth in a multiple-berth room, but the ferry company retains the right to assign roommates. For some people the comfortable chairs or pullman's coaches may suffice as makeshift beds on overnight routes. Some budget travelers who embark on their first overnight sailing of the Mediterranean opt to sleep on the ferry's deck to save some cash. Bad idea. Summer nights on the open Mediterranean are surprisingly — and painfully — cold.
Many sources preach that you should book your ferry passage in advance if you plan to transport a vehicle across a principal ferry route during the high season. This is true, but the proper definition of "advance" may surprise you. Remember the fecundity of the unexpected that a motor vehicle allows to blossom? Most bookings entail high cancellation penalties, so booking ferry passage too far in advance stunts this important factor. Wait until you arrive overseas and settle into your trip before you make any "advance" booking for ferry passage — if you book at all. Besides, passage booked through domestic brokers is more expensive than passage booked directly with a ferry company. Many offer a simplified price structure, constant throughout the year, for tickets purchased outside Europe. Even during high season you may be able to pull up at the port unannounced, stop into the office, and succeed in securing a spot on the next ferry. However, don't expect this method to work as well as, say, flying standby: the high cancellation fees associated with ferry bookings oblige people to fulfill their reservations. But the ferries always have enough room for foot passengers; I recommend that foot passengers do not make a booking.
In at least two cases, however, you should definetly book ahead. First, if vehicle-passenger fares are cheaper than foot-passenger fares, you need to book ahead and declare then the passengers who'll be making the crossing with you. If you don't do this, the ferry company will require your passengers to pay foot-passenger fares — which are more expensive. This policy discourages drivers from offering passage to hitchhikers or other foot passengers in exchange for cash. Second, if you plan to secure a cabin on an overnight ferry, definitely reserve the cabin and your passage in advance. When reserving space for your vehicle, you must describe the type of vehicle, its license number, its length, and its height — including any roof luggage or equipment.
Fares or "tariffs" charged by a particular ferry company for a particular sailing might depend on the time of day, the day of the week, the time of the year, the age and organizational affiliation of the passenger, and the size and type of vehicle being transported.
Overnight sailings long enough to allow for a good night's sleep tend to be more expensive than long daytime sailings; whereas short daytime sailings tend to be more expensive than short nighttime sailings. Holiday and weekend (usually defined as Friday afternoon to Sunday) sailings tend to be more expensive than normal weekday sailings. And peak summer sailings are, of course, more expensive than shoulder and low season sailings (except for those sailings around, say, Christmas).
Fares also depend on whether a passenger is in a vehicle or on foot, and on whether he's a child, youth, student, senior citizen, handicapped person, HI member, holder of a rail pass, auto club member, soldier, or diplomat.
Finally, the fares for vehicle transport depend on the size (length, height, width) and/or type of vehicle or combination of vehicles.
Most ferry companies calculate return (two-way) fares using the single fares applicable at the time of the passenger's departure instead of those applicable at the time of their return, simply doubling these fares or taking roughly 10 to 20 percent off the sum. Some companies, however, compute return fares as the average of the outward and inward single fares or offer them at single — or even lower — rates providing you return on a specific scheduled but unpopular sailing or on the same day.
Several groups of ferry companies have joined up to offer "Landbridge" tickets that cover passage from, say, Ireland to Britain to France to Ireland; or from, say, Britain to the Netherlands and from Denmark to Sweden, both legs being return. It's usually cheaper to buy such a ticket than to buy separate tickets to achieve the same end.
After widdling down the selection of ferry services, contact the remaining few. Begin each inquiry by explaining to the ferry representative your planned date or dates of ferry travel. Ask about the sailing schedule for that day or days. Ask if the different departures during the day charge different fares. Ferries tend to service relatively short routes many times a day. On the other hand, ferries may service relatively long routes only once or twice a week. The frequency of ferry service also varies with the season: more ferries ply the waters in summer than in winter, and some may halt service altogether in the off season. If you definitely need a two-way ticket, be sure to ask for return fares. If not, ask how the company calculates return fares. If you're arranging passage for a large group, ask about special group rates. Describe the height and length of your vehicle and, if it's a large van or minibus, the number of seats it has. Ask if any special offers applying to your type of vehicle will be in effect around your planned dates of travel. If you're under 26 years of age, ask if the company offers youth discounts. If you'll be traveling with children, note the age range for which children's fares are valid. If you're a student, determine if the company offers student fares; if they do, ask what documents (ISIC, for example) they require as evidence of your student status. If you consider yourself a senior citizen, determine if the company offers reduced fares for seniors and if the company considers you a senior. (You may need to be a member of a certain senior citizen organization.) Handicapped persons, ask if you're entitled to a discount. Hostellers, ask if discounts apply to card-carrying HI members. Railpass holders, ask if you qualify for a discount or free passage. Members of auto clubs, determine if reductions apply to you and your family. Soldiers and diplomats, ask if reductions apply to you and your family. In all cases, ask if the discounts apply to both persons and vehicles. Reductions are not cumulative, so opt for the one that gives you the greatest discount. Be sure to determine what cancellation charges apply. If pertinent, ask whether the company allows stop-overs. If stop-overs are possible, note how far in advance you must declare your intention to stop-over and what embarkation/disembarkation fees apply. Finally, ask how early you must report for check-in; plan to arrive at the port at least one hour before a scheduled departure. Signs depicting car-bearing boats radiate for miles around a ferry port, so it's easy to find the dock. And note that it's usually illegal to carry containers of spare fuel on ferries. Quite a few ferries do, however, allow you to carry tanks of propane.
The Romans mused over the idea. Napoleon in 1802 approved a Channel Tunnel project designed for stagecoaches and to be ventilated by chimneys rising above the water's surface. The British made an abortive stab at it in 1880. Ground wasn't seriously broken again in this respect until 1987. Some US$15 billion and seven years later, the finished product of over 15,000 workers ran 50 kilometers (31 miles) from Cheriton (near Folkestone), England, to Coquelles (near Calais), France, 37 of those kilometers through chalk marl, the roof just 25–45 meters below the seabed. The "Chunnel" is the second longest rail tunnel in the world, the longest being the tunnel under Japan's Strait of Tsugaru.
Not just one tunnel, the Chunnel consists of two large parallel train tunnels serviceable through a third parallel tunnel between them. That's right, train tunnels: you can't drive your vehicle straight through. Instead, after paying at a toll booth and passing through frontier controls, you'll be directed to drive onto a long train — "Le Shuttle" — along with other cars, as well as buses and trucks. There are four shuttles, one departing every fifteen minutes during peak times, every hour during the night; each can carry up to 180 cars and is confined to the Chunnel and its approaches. Thus the Channel Tunnel allows up to 720 vehicles per hour to come off England's M22 motorway, drive onto a shuttle, ride piggyback under the ocean, roll off the train, and roll onto France's A16 or A26 autoroute, or vice versa. Of course connections to lesser roads are accessible as well. Unless passengers want to stretch or use the toilets, there's no reason for them to get out of their vehicles: the chambers are brightly lit, sound-proofed and air-conditioned but extremely spartan, and while enroute Customs officials walk from vehicle to vehicle, checking passports. Motorcyclists, however, travel in a special compartment, separated from their cycles. The whole process, including the embarking and disembarking, takes an average of only one hour — compared to three if you employ a conventional ferry to achieve the same end.
Fares are charged per vehicle, no matter the number of passengers, with four sets according to the time of year. Advance booking by phone or internet for a specific scheduled service is by far the best and cheapest way to obtain passage. You can turn up and pay at the time of travel, but that will be expensive and you may not find space on the next shuttle at busy times. If you have a reservation, you can turn up two hours before departure (or two hours late!) and you will usually be given a choice of the next departure or to wait for your booked one. Hence there's little need to worry about getting to the terminal at exactly the right time.
For people without a vehicle to transport, 394-meter-long "Eurostar" trains run through the Chunnel at 300 km/h (186 mph) non stop between London and Calais, Lille, Paris and Brussels. The London-to-Paris trip, for instance, takes just three hours instead of the grueling six associated with ferry passage, and the standard class approximating a typical airliner's business class, complete with reading lamps and footrests. There are nearly 30 trains in each direction each day. Tickets can be bought in advance or on the day of travel.
It's said that travel through the Chunnel — protected by anti-terrorist security measures similar to those at international airports — is at least 20 times safer than conventional rail travel, which in turn is much safer than ferry or car travel.
If you're curious about the construction of the Chunnel, you should check out the Eurotunnel Exhibition Center at Cheriton, near Folkestone. Besides a large operating model of the link, there's an observation tower giving a bird's-eye view of the Folkestone terminal. A simulator makes it possible to "drive" a tunnel construction train. You can view an audio-visual show. And you can inspect a full-size mock-up of a shuttle.