Resources for European Car Travel

Moto Europa Chapters

IdeaMerge stems from the Moto Europa guidebook to European motor travel, which our owner / managing director Eric Bredesen penned in the basement of his loving parents' home way back in the mid 1990's. So, we start off this Resources page with some of the more poignant and timeless chapters (though somewhat updated) from that classic, pre-WWW work of self-published travel guide literature. ;-)

 

Note: With his finite wisdom and resources, Eric abstained from suggesting particular itineraries. We likewise abstain. There are just so many possible noteworthy routes; and we don't want to risk spoiling any of them. Please leave room for the road itself to speak to you, to guide you. Radically conserve the liberty that is the chief bequest of car, RV and motorcycle travel. Plan but don't overplan. Follow your path. Free your travel.

Online Route Planners

Apps

Points of Interest (POI's)

Points of Interest or POI's are locations that are part of, or can be added to, GPS devices. A POI could be a gas station, a hotel, a restaurant, a shopping mall, a historical location, and so forth. The data for the POI databases is collected from a variety of sources. In some cases mapping companies compile it. Sometimes the data is provided directly by retail companies. Often times the information is gathered by companies that specialize in creating business directories. Sometimes a POI is compiled by individuals with a special interest, like RVers who create POI's of their favorite RV parks.

The data typically includes the physical address, name of the location, category of the POI, a phone number, and the geographic coordinates.

Printed Maps

Suitable maps are not provided with your vehicle. We recommend that you invest in a top quality map or maps or a very good atlas — even if you will be using a GPS navigation device. Nothing beats a paper map for general travel planning purposes. Hunkering over such map with, say, a cup of coffee is one of the great pleasures in life. For those reasons, buy your maps before you leave. Once abroad, however, you can buy them in airports, bookstores or auto service stations.

Everyone wants a free map, but in addition to death and taxes at least one further fact will always be true: free maps are not good maps.

And no matter what map you get, remember the words of Thomas Ottavi: "There are lies, damned lies, and then there are maps."

Toll Roads

France, Italy, Portugal and Spain have extensive toll road systems on their expressways whereas Belgium, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands do not.

For details on all the various road toll systems and instances in Europe, please see AA: European Tolls.

Vignettes

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 a vignette 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. 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.

Austrian GO-Box

If your vehicle's total permissible weight (i.e. basically its unladen weight) is over 3.5 tons (i.e. 3500 kg, which corresponds to a pretty large European motorhome), you must buy a "GO-Box" rather than a simple vignette to travel the tollways of Austria. A white box about the size of your palm, the GO-box should be affixed to the inside of the windscreen. The device logs the tollway distance traveled by the vehicle. (Electrical control points are located along the tollway and are queried by overhead DSRC microwave radio transceivers at different locations. Overhead 3-D infrared laser scanners detect and photograph vehicles travelling without the GO-Box.) A GO-Box initially costs EUR55.

These devices are sold at most fuel stations on major roads approaching Austria. (In Germany, look for signs reading "GO Vertrieb.") The initial EUR55 is reduced each time the vehicle passes a tollway control point. As the credit gets low, the GO-box emits certain warning signals. You can recharge the GO-Box in EUR50 increments only. The fine for traveling said expressways without a charged Go-Box is EUR220. For more information, visit www.go-maut.at.

Miscellaneous Relevant Links

Using Mobile Phones Abroad

Many cell phones (i.e. mobile phones, handies) now work overseas. Check with your service provider (i.e. your carrier, the phone service company) in this regard; it might be a good occasion for you to upgrade to a phone (and plan) that works well overseas. If indeed you want to be able to use your phone on another continent, you'll need to call your service provider customer support to get international roaming turned on.

But beware: such roaming in and of itself is very expensive. Every missed or rejected call will use a minute of roaming charges; every notification of a voicemail that's been left will cost a minute too. More charges will come if you use data, even unknowingly — and the new smart phones are constantly using data that you're unaware of. Data roaming costs about US$15/MB, which means a dollar fifty or so for every single web page that you view. If someone sends you a nice 2 megapixel photo from home, that'll be US$30! If you want to avoid data roaming charges completely, you should disable data roaming and data synchronization before you go abroad.

International roaming is not a good value unless you have tri-band GSM phone. Such phones can be "SIM subsidy unlocked" via your service provider to accept a foreign SIM card. Calls received through such card will be charged to you as if you are using a local phone. To initiate such unlocking of your tri-band GSM phone, call your service provider at least a week or two before you go abroad. Your service provider will then request an unlock code from the phone manufacturer, but the service provider will not officially guarantee the manufacturer's response time (it's usually 24–48 hours) nor even that a unlock code will be provided.

Moreover, you'll need to obtain a prepaid SIM card or cards for the country or countries you plan to travel to. Those cards cost roughly 30 euros and can be bought in mobile phone shops in Europe (the primary companies in France, for instance, are Orange, Bouygues Telecom and SFR). Alternatively you can buy or rent them before you go abroad, from various internet-based companies. You would replace your current SIM card with the European one. (Typically they go under the battery.) Do save your current SIM card, however; you'll need it when you return home.

For SIM card or special phone rental or purchase online, see the following:

Portable GPS Navigation Solutions

Portable GPS navigation technology has undergone some real changes lately. Windshield-mountable units have proliferated and dropped hugely in price. Meanwhile mobile (i.e. cellular) phone based GPS navigation has arrived full force.

Be wary of "free" portable GPS rentals. You tend to get what you pay for. And upon finally receiving such rental unit a day or so before you depart, there's precious little time for you to get comfortable with the device — much less to program it with destination addresses and such. Furthermore, "free" usually translates into shipping and handling charges in both directions, to and from you. In the face of these negatives, you should strongly consider buying your own portable GPS navigation device instead.

Analysis Criteria

  • Map software: While many GPS units offer optional map software of Europe and/or other countries, a cheaper and easier way to get such software is to buy a model that standardly has it already loaded.
  • Operability abroad: Does the unit function as well abroad as it does domestically?
  • Ease of operation: Is the user interface heuristic enough to be easily operable by a driver in a foreign land?
  • Functionality: Does the unit have audible directions, a programmable points-of-interest database, a traffic-conditions receiver (FM), Bluetooth technology, a travel guide, etc.
  • Value: Is the unit a good value both now and for the next few years?

Windshield-Mountable GPS Units

Make sure the unit you buy comes equipped with pre-installed, high-resolution map software of both North America and Europe. There are some potential drawbacks to purchasing these types of portable GPS units. Some users have remarked that these types of GPS units "lose their way" from time to time in smaller European towns, and in some cases the units have difficulties obtaining satellite reception while in Europe. Other users have noticed that these types of GPS units occasionally have difficulty with place names in the voice command mode if not set to the language of the local area.

It is important to note that while these units are loaded with European maps, and they offer additional features such as downloadable city maps for even more usability in small local areas, they are primarily marketed towards a North American user/consumer, and as such they may not be as functional on the ground in Europe as, say, a built-in GPS like as those that are delivered in some of the French short-term tax-free lease vehicle models.

There are literally dozens of windshield-mountable GPS models. Between adjacent, sequentially ordered models from a given manufacturer there are only incremental differences. Comparing the top to the very bottom of a manufacturer's range, however, there are big differences.

Smartphones

The latest in the evolution of GPS technology is the mobile phone or "Smartphone" integrated unit. Most if not all "smartphones" on the market feature GPS signal transmission and reception that can be integrated with a dedicated GPS navigation device discussed above, enhancing the dedicated device's ability to transmit and receive such signal, and which also feature full GPS navigation functionality in connection with Google Maps and other apps.

Dedicated GPS devices still provide larger screens, better maps, and an overall higher level of functionality than these cutting edge integrated phones; but mobile phone navigation will of course continue to improve, and it already meets the needs of many users.

Of special concern when choosing to use a smartphone in Europe is the type of service plan or contract that one might have with their particular service provider. In some cases, a smartphone's GPS feature may utilize a "data" connection which is just a way of the GPS attaining its functionality by way of the mobile phone network. Using such a phone in Europe may compile some significant, if not astronomical fees from the service provider. It is critical to thoroughly understand your particular mobile phone plan before attempting to rely on your smartphone in a foreign country. We strongly recommend that you contact your cell phone service provider for full details about the ramifications of using a smartphone GPS in Europe before you leave for your trip. You'll be glad you did!

Where To Buy

Great deals on the GPS units that we have recommended (as well as those we have not) are available through a wide variety of vendors on the internet. We recommend using a reputable seller such as Amazon.com for your online purchase.

Bricks-and-mortar companies like the USA's BestBuy offer a wide selection of GPS models both in-store and on their websites. Not all of the items shown on their websites are available in all their stores, but it may nevertheless be wise go into the store and speak with the GPS expert there (if there is one).

Diesel Engines

Diesel fuel in Europe costs about 20% less than gasoline. Plus a diesel engine runs about 30% more efficiently than its gasoline-powered counterpart. Hence you save close to 40% fuel-wise by going with a diesel. We guarantee you a diesel vehicle if you select one for your lease.

Please visit Ireland's Automobile Association (AA) website for a current listing of fuel prices.

In a diesel engine, the fuel, which has more free energy than does gasoline, is pressurized in a pipe leading to all cylinders. Injectors put a precise amount of vaporized fuel into the cylinders. Consequently diesel engines offer great work capacity — especially good for mountain driving — and consume less fuel while producing less exhaust.

Diesel exhaust long ago gained a reputation for being sooty and smelly. (As if gasoline doesn't smell too!) Yet certain other pollutants — especially sulfates — have always been less present in diesel exhaust than in gasoline exhaust. Improvements in diesel-engine efficiency and in the filtering of diesel exhaust have rendered the diesel engines more eco-friendly than gasoline engines. Gone is the remarkable sootiness. Gone, too, is the darned glow plug; now you can start a diesel as quickly as a gasoline engine. Moreover, almost all diesels are now turbo charged such that their acceleration approximates that of gasoline-powered vehicles.

A turbo charger is a pump that compresses the incoming air that the engine needs for combustion. Thus a larger quantity of fuel can be put into the engine and more power generated. An optimal mixture of fuel and air is required for a car engine to run correctly: approximately 15% fuel to air. The more air that can be put into the system the more fuel that can be added in the correct ratio. A turbo thus creates about 30–40% more power.

Another benefit of the turbo is the artificial pressure environment it creates inside the engine, making the engine far less sensitive to the outside air pressure (e.g. the lower air pressure in the mountains).

Diesel engines tend to be labeled with various three letter conventions (e.g. dCi, hDi, tDi). These labels aren't meaningful enough to comment on here.

Winter Tires

While the majority of European countries do not have particularly stringent regulations for driving in winter, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden have very specific nationwide guidelines or regulations pertaining to the type of tires that must be used in wintry conditions or seasons. It is your responsibility to research and understand such constraints in relation to your itinerary. Details are provided by the Ireland Automobile Association.

The German law states that all vehicles that travel in Germany during "wintry conditions" must be equipped with winter tires installed. This includes vehicles registered in a foreign country, even rental and lease vehicles. The tires must have the distinctive "M+S" and/or a mountain & snowflake pictogram embossed upon their sidewall. The German rule of thumb is that winter tires should be installed "von O bis O", meaning October 1st through Easter ("Ostern"). In Austria and Switzerland, winter tires are required whenever driving in snow, slush or ice and are mandatory November 1 through April 15.

Clearly a person who will more or less be passing through one of these countries during said timeframes is faced with a sort of dilemma if their vehicle does not have winter tires installed. It is soley the driver's choice and responsibility to comply or not to comply with the winter tire regulations. Germany's winter tire law permits police to stop drivers suspected of noncompliance. If the driver is out of compliance, s/he will be fined EUR40 (i.e. 40 euros) and will have a point applied on their license (even if it is a non-German license). If an accident or other traffic offense is involved, all the fines double.

By the way, be sure to have anti-freeze washer fluid in your windscreen wiper system and to clear any accumulated snow or ice from atop your vehicle and from all windows before you start each trip. If you don't do so, you could be fined.

How To Comply

The simple answer is to book a vehicle that features M+S tires. If a particular vehicle listing does not specifically mention M+S tires, the vehicle will only have standard "multi-season" tires installed; such tires do not qualify as winter tires. Rental and lease vehicles equipped with M+S tires are in relatively short supply and are available on a first come first served basis. Book early!

Alternately you may arrange to have M+S tires installed on the vehicle at your own expense while it is in your possession. However, neither we nor our vendor can assist in making those arrangements. What's more, you must return your rental or lease vehicle with the originally installed tires; failure to do so will result in a costly bill for the recovery and reinstallation of the original tires.

New tires can be purchased at any automobile dealership or any tire store. A dealership is going to be comparatively expensive. Local tire shops provide better pricing and quicker service. Some travelers that these stores will often change the tires for free if you purchase the winter tires there. Generally speaking a basic M+S rated tire will itself cost upwards of EUR60. New tires can also be purchased online. A reputable online source in Germany is Reifendirekt. They can ship the tires directly to a local installer. To view their website in English simply copy the website URL into a Google Translate window and press "Enter".

Tire chains or traction socks are readily available at discount stores (even some grocery stores), gas stations and auto parts stores throughout Europe. Tire chains or socks are required to be carried in certain locales during winter weather, as noted by local signage. Use of these items does not exempt the driver from complying with laws requiring the use of winter tires. Chains should not be used in marginal conditions, because in such conditions they slow the vehicle too much and do damage to the roadway. When you use chains, it is vital that you check them frequently to maintain their tension and that you do not drive faster than about 35 miles per hour (60 km/h).

Buying The Lease Car Outright

If you like, you can purchase your car at the end of your lease. Contact Paris at the relevant phone number listed in the traveling instructions booklet (provided in the vehicle's glovebox) at least 8 days prior to the termination of your lease. The manufacturer will arrange for 2 weeks worth of temporary registration and insurance (appending to the end of your lease duration) while further assisting you in regard to financing.

The car will be a European-spec model, so you should not plan to export it to, say, North America without having to contract and pay for major structural and emissions modifications to the vehicle, to be performed upon importation and by one or more of the few shops that your government has specifically licensed to do such work. However, the vehicle value of your lease — i.e. not including the insurance portion (which is actually a large portion of the lease cost) and of course not including any pick-up and/or drop-off charges that might apply — will be subtracted from the sticker price of the particular car you get (more precisely, the portion of that price not including the French value-added tax, VAT), and that remaining amount would be the amount you would owe (plus VAT on only that reduced amount and plus registration and nominal administration fees).

The standard, EUR sticker price (including VAT) for a particular version of a particular model can be gleaned from www.citroen.fr. If you do buy the vehicle outright, you will indeed have to pay relative to the sticker price of the exact vehicle you receive. That vehicle may happen to come with certain bells and whistles which are not guaranteed features of the model in terms of the short-term leasing contract. Of course extras of this sort add no cost to the lease, but if you choose to purchase the vehicle outright you will be charged for them.

When you figure that (a) the insurance for the duration of such lease is included in the lease cost (a good value in Europe, where the cost of insurance is typically twice what it is in, say, the USA), and (b) said vehicle value of the lease would be subtracted from the pre-tax price of the car, and (c) the lease duration would effectively be a nice long test drive, and (d) you can return the lease early if you like, perhaps eventually receiving a refund for unused days, then this option might become attractive if you plan to keep a vehicle in Europe.