Traveling Europe by rail is great, but private auto travel gives you unparalleled access to the land and to the people. Moreover it's now easier, more economical and more popular than ever to meander across Europe by auto. Generally only one partner is required to render an auto tour of Europe less expensive—all transportation costs considered—than a tour facilitated by rail passes. And nowhere is driving more fun. Yet several misleading myths about European motoring persist and keep untold numbers of travelers from enjoying this great value. Let’s explode these unfortunate myths.
Myth #1: Europeans
drive on the left side of the road.
True only in the UK, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta.
Myth #2: It's
difficult to get the proper documents.
Provided you're at least 18 years of age, your domestic driving license is usually all you need. Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia and Spain do require non-Europeans to carry also an International Driving Permit (IDP). The AAA sells IDPs for about $21. Many auto-rental companies require customers to be over 23 or 25 years of age, but tax-free short-term auto leases (ranging from 17 days to 1 year) are available to persons as young as 18.
Myth #3: Fuel costs in
Europe make driving there three to four times more expensive than driving in
The price of gasoline in Europe is generally three to four times higher than in North America. But the gasoline-powered vehicles of Europe are more fuel-efficient than those of North America. What’s more, diesel vehicles are widespread. Diesels run about 20 percent more efficiently than gasoline-powered vehicles; and in continental Europe, diesel fuel is about 30 percent cheaper than gasoline.
Myth #4: Parking in
Europe is a nightmare.
Free parking spots abound on the streets, at train stations, at tourist sites, at provincial hotels and motels, and, yes, at hostels. This abundance prevails especially off the beaten path, precisely where a motor vehicle can take you. Expect to pay only about $30 per month for parking.
Myth #5: Europeans are
The European driving style is faster and more chaotic than the North American style, but Europeans generally are better drivers than are North Americans. The average kilometer of European roadway bears 60 percent more vehicles than its counterpart in the United States; but compared to the US count of 1.1 deaths and 95.7 injuries per 100 million vehicle kilometers, the UK counts only 0.9 and 74 respectively, Sweden 1.1 and 30.8, Norway 1.2 and 42.2, the Netherlands 1.3 and 48, Switzerland 1.3 and 56.3, Denmark 1.7 and 30, Ireland 1.7 and 38, France 1.8 and 39.1, Germany 2.0 and 90.* Indeed, European drivers customarily demonstrate remarkable patience and goodwill: honking is kept to a minimum; slow drivers pull over onto the shoulder or otherwise signal to let faster drivers pass; the faster drivers wave or beep in appreciation.
Myth #6: European
roads are prohibitively vestigial and confusing.
Wrong again. A comprehensive network of new expressways (autoroutes, Autobahnen, etc.) crisscrosses the entirety of Western Europe. In Austria, France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland you must pay tolls on most of these sleek roads; but in the rest of Europe they are free of charge. Avoiding expressways, though, is advised and easy. Parallel to the expressways run the highways that once served as the main highways. Typically these secondary highways afford much more interesting scenery and experiences than do the expressways and are in excellent condition. Regardless, navigation is a breeze. European traffic-control and road-signage measures are either remarkably similar to those employed in North America or else sufficiently heuristic as to be easily followed by foreigners. Moreover, coming into a town, everything tends to fall into place if you follow the ubiquitous signs to the town center or train station. The parking lot at the train station will be at your disposal—often free of charge. Even the infamous roundabouts that increase in frequency with your proximity to a city or town—especially in the UK and France—make navigation easy, as they provide for any number of revolutions while you figure out which turn to make.
Myth #7: Crossing
borders is a long and hair-raising process.
Border crossing is usually free of hassle; often you need not even stop.
Driving is a lonely process.
For starters, driving will amount to a great subject for conversation and it’ll grace you with a certain mystique in the eyes of the fellow travelers you’ll meet. Surely some of these travelers will ask to travel with you. Regardless, persons traveling accompanied will rediscover the special intimacy that develops during a road trip.
* 1995 "Statistics of Road-Traffic Accidents in Europe and North America," United Nations Publication 0497-9575; and the International Road Federation's 1991–1994 "World Road Statistics."