A Guide to Road-Tripping in Europe

A road trip can be a beautiful and exciting way to see the countryside and visit several different places all at once. But they can also be tedious, difficult to plan, and full of potholes, literally and figuratively.

I have covered a lot of ground stuck in cars this year. There have been more than a few adventures, good and bad. Whether it’s driving through hills topped with medieval ruins or stuck behind a herd of sheep on a dirt back-road, the list is endless. Through all of my adventures, I have found one of the biggest factors in a fun, successful road trip versus a monotonous, tiresome car journey is the route you take. It seems obvious, but some countries are surprisingly dull to drive through and the most enjoyable route is quite often not the most direct. The most beautiful drives of my year have been through France, up the Dalmatian coast, over the Swiss and Italian Alps, and rather surprisingly, through Bosnia. Each had its own unique beauties. France was dotted with castles, old churches and forts while Bosnia’s natural beauty won me over with its rolling hills and lush greenery. Nor will I ever forget the magnificent views over the Mediterranean driving up the Dalmatian Coast from Dubrovnik to Split. But first place must go to the winter drive I took over the snow-capped Alpine peaks from Switzerland to Italy through villages which looked like they had been dusted with powdered sugar.

Wherever you choose to embark on your road trip, I suggest you plan all of the details in advance. As a child, I have fond memories of driving with my parents across the US. Our end destinations were typically booked, but along the way we tended to stop off in motels and small hotels along the road when my dad finally got tired of driving. I would not recommend doing the same in Europe. Pick your stops carefully and book your accommodation ahead of time. If you don’t, you will waste a lot of time and energy looking for a place to stay, especially if it is in summer, and ultimately you will most likely end up having to choose between cheap, bottom of the barrel hostels and four and five star overpriced suites. If you are renting a car, book it as far in advance as possible. If you have a lot of luggage, bear in mind most cars in Europe are smaller than in the US. Every single time I have rented a car, the car the rental company has provided ends up being smaller than the one ordered. What follows is stressful. My sister has more than once ended up driving for hours with her legs crossed on the seat because every crevice of the car has been packed to breaking point with luggage.

Next, know all of the rules of the road and know your route inside out before setting off. Luckily, the UK, Ireland, Cyprus and Malta are the only countries in Europe that insist on driving on the left hand side of the road. Considering all were at one point under the British Empire, this is no surprise. As a British national who has spent her entire adult life living in the UK, I think I have the right to say that on some points, the British are notoriously stubborn in the face of change. Regardless of this one major difference, each country in Europe also has its owns rules of the road. In some countries like Austria, you are expected to follow them to the letter. Others, like Italy and Croatia, seem to view their rules more like guidelines. Driving through Milan at night was certainly a unique experience. It seems the Italians deemed almost anywhere large enough to be a parking space, including some of the driving lanes themselves. There are also tolls and some countries like Slovenia, Austria and Hungary require vignettes. The fine if you do not have one can be pretty hefty if caught. I discovered this after unknowingly driving through no less than three tolls stations in Slovenia confused as to why there were no booths or barriers to stop the cars from racing through.

Perhaps most important, is to know where and when to buy road snacks. I am an absolute hoarder when it comes to preparing for road trips. My staples are paprika Pringles, a large bag of peanut M&Ms and Coca Cola Zero. Generally I can find some form of combination of these or similar anywhere. But I also need real food. Otherwise, I become famously irritable. I don’t necessarily need a full three course hot meal (though that would be wonderful) but pastries and coffee when it is early in the morning, and a sandwich or tasty Big Mac at some point during the day is a necessity. Austria, Hungary and Italy all have fantastic rest stops. Walking into a Marché rest stop is like a little slice of heaven on a long road trip. They offer a range of gourmet options as well as the staple snacks. I cannot say the same for rest stops in Serbia or Bosnia. I was also surprisingly disappointed by the low quality food in rest stops in France. The French who pride themselves on their cuisine clearly don’t waste any of it on roadside stops. I strongly suggest visiting the local patisserie or boulangerie before setting off.

Last but not least, know your route and leave plenty of time to get to your next stop. I cannot emphasise this enough. Google Maps lies. What it says is a three-hour journey, is often a four hour one. And do not always rely on the Sat Nav. Have a backup. The Sat Nav I had driving through Bosnia, Serbia, Austria and Hungary more often than not got the address wrong and spontaneously decided to take me on ‘scenic’ tours down back alleys and dirt roads, hence the herd of sheep incident. Inevitably, your road trip will not go to plan, but that is part of the fun of it, so just enjoy it!

Top: Swiss Alps

Middle: 1. Roman Aqueduct outside of Nîmes, France; 2. Swiss Alps

Bottom: Dalmatian Coast

Photography by Savannah Hayes

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