Driving Abroad While on Vacation: Europe

Summer's around the corner and so is that big vacation of yours—do you know what to bring in order to drive overseas?

colorful villas

Whether you’re traveling the coastal loop of Ireland or tooling around in southern France, if you plan to drive on your European vacation, you’ll need to plan ahead. Quoted has tips and tricks so you can be sure you’re legal to drive, you’ll be covered in the event of an accident or theft, and you understand the particular, oh-so-sophisticated nuances of the driving rules of where you’re headed.

Driver’s License:

Your valid US license will likely be all you need both at the car rental counter and if you have any issues while on your trip. However, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is an official translation of your license into ten languages, and at $15 plus two passport sized pictures, we think it’s some good extra insurance (ahem, particularly if you aren’t comfortable speaking the language of the country where you’ll be driving. You can acquire an IDP from AAA or the National Auto Club, and if you need to present your license for any reason, you can rest assured the official will understand your credentials and your hassel will be minimized.

If you have teens itching to take a post-driving selfie behind the (parked) wheel while abroad, be sure to check the legal driving age in all countries you plan to visit and remember that you’ll need to abide by your host country’s rules. In all Western European countries, 16-year-olds aren’t permitted to drive unsupervised, and in several countries, teens under 18 cannot get behind the wheel at all.

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If you’ll be renting a car, remember to plan ahead regarding your insurance coverage. Check out Quoted’s rental car insurance tips for detailed info. Esurance reports that the US State Department recommends drivers traveling abroad get insurance coverage similar to what they have in the states. Be aware that some countries (e.g. Italy) will require extras (e.g. theft coverage) and unless you acquire international insurance before you go you’ll have to buy these additions at the rental counter.

Rules of the road:

One of the classic stereotypes Europeans have of Americans is that when we travel, we assume we can do as we would in our country (or worse, that we can do as we please). Quoted knows you aren’t quite so careless, but there are many details of traveling abroad that might not even occur to us. In particular: different driving laws. We all know we must drive on the left in the UK, but did you know the UK is also the only region in Western Europe with the same blood-alcohol limit as the US (.08%)? In most of mainland Western Europe, the legal limit is .05%. And if your travels take you to Sweden or Norway, the legal limit is .02% — that’s 75 percent lower than the legal limit in the US. Another way to think about it: if a person can drink one alcoholic beverage an hour in Minneapolis and still be legal to drive, that same person can only legally drink one third of that same beverage in Barcelona, and a mere quarter of it in Stockholm.

Drinking laws are much more strict in Europe—in some cases the legal limit is 75% lower than the U.S.

Seatbelts: wear them. While driving abroad, you should know most countries require seatbelt use, and Esurance reports that some countries, like Italy and France, may ask drivers to pay fines for non-use on the spot. Definitely not a good way to impress your romantic traveling companion or look cool in front of your kids.

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If, on the other hand, your European adventure doesn’t take you to the UK (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), or Ireland, you’ll still drive on the right side of the road. If you are traveling to these island countries, you may be curious as to why they’re driving on the opposite side. About 35 countries join the UK and Ireland as lefties, most of which are former British colonies. The practice dates back to feudal times: riding on the left was best for right-handed sword-carrying travelers: on the left, they could unsheathe their sword and battle, if it came up. Other regions (like the US) got used to traveling on the right side of the road in the times of horse-drawn carriages (think right-handed horse drivers whipping with their right hand, holding the reins with their left, and wanting to avoid unintentionally snagging passing carriages). It can be difficult to acclimate to driving on the left, so give yourself ample time to practice. Perhaps take a few loops in the rental car lot, and plan to drive down some side streets before entering high-traffic areas, if possible.

Driving on the left started so right-handed sword-carrying travelers could joust.

A few other customs and laws that could put a damper on your getaway: avoid honking your horn unless it’s a case of real danger (otherwise you could be fined). Instead, flash your lights if you need to get another driver’s attention (this means no laying on the horn if the car in front of you hasn’t noticed the light changed. When in Rome, try not to be so obnoxious). Fodor’s Travel recommends choosing a car that’ll blend in with local drivers: a compact car, with a manual transmission. Many streets and parking places are designed to fit much smaller cars than we may be used to in the US, and a manual will give you more control on what can be very tight turns and steep hills. Fodor’s notes this may mean fewer pieces of luggage for that smaller boot. And finally, you won’t make it very far if you can’t understand the road signs. Auto Europe has an online guide we find quite useful. Remember, all distances and speed limits will be metric (kilometers), and all gas stations will sell by the liter, not the gallon.

Bon voyage! And stay tuned for future installments, for wherever your wanderlust may lead.