Tuesday, July 1, 2014

European Independent Travels - Some Driving Tips and Legal Requirements

In Europe, vehicles are driven on the right side of the road. It may take some time for a left-side-of-the-road drivers (like us) to adapt. But the first few days can be quite an adjustment.

If you are driving a European registered car which the driver sits on the left side (rented or otherwise) you do need some adjustment as the changing gears is done with the opposite hand. For some driving tips to adjust yourself with the car go learn something here.

Getting in lane at the checkpoint in IJmuiden Port
The car we drove in our Independent Travels in Europe happens to be a UK registered right-hand-steering drive, which we are very familiar with. So, there's no adjustment or familiarization to be made as far as the car is concerned. But, we have to be extra careful especially when there’s a need to change lanes or overtake. This is when the service of the co-driver cum navigator is highly needed to check on incoming cars from the left lane. 

The moment when I drove the car out (of the cruise) in IJmuiden Port there wasn’t any problem as all cars were given directions to queue in lanes before the immigration check-point. But after the check-point there were no cars in front of us and I kept driving on the left side until I saw a car coming in the same direction ahead of us giving a high-beam warning. 

Always be alert and remind yourself to stay on the right-side of the road
 Turning on the left or right at junctions can also be confusing as you need time to think which lane should you enter. And this is when you’ll panicked if the driver behind you gets impatient and blast a double big-horn for being slow to move.

The round-about turn is also quite tricky for first-timers as you need to enter from the right-side of the circle and do an anti-clockwise turn. The first time I came across a roundabout, everyone in the car laughed as I made a double roundie just to get acclimatise. For more tips on how to drive in roundabouts in Europe go here.

In most countries in Europe the roundabout sign is well placed some meters before drivers can see the roundabout in front of them. But be careful, in Belgium there are almost no signs to alert drivers of a roundabout in front. If there is any, it'll be very small, very near to the roundabout or hidden from other signboards or trees.

Anyway, drive carefully and defensively, observe all the road signs and InsyaAllah after a few hours of driving you’ll be able to fit in. Nonetheless, the next day when you start driving again you’ll definitely get confuse as again you’ll start driving on the left....haha!

Tarmacs on Swiss roads are smooth and well paved
The tarmacs on European roads are in general smooth and new, especially in the Netherlands, where their motorways/highways are the best we have driven so far. So are the tarmacs in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg which I would say wide and smoothly paved. 

Exceptions however are given to Belgium and the highways on the countryside of France where we begin to see potholes here and there. But on overall it is at par with the Malaysian highways except of course you have to pay to drive on Malaysian highways...haha!

Relying on GPS or Satellite navigation systems is a must if you are not into reading maps (or crystal balls) and are not familiar with the directions (of course you’re not). We did rely on one albeit an outdated one as we did not see the need to buy a new one since we thought this will be our first and last time driving in Europe.

But if you can afford, please get anew one to avoid any hassle or difficulty, especially when making a wrong turn. A stupid wrong turn may affect 3 things: 1. Waste of time, 2. Waste of gas and 3. Unnecessary stress and quarrel with your co-driver...huhu!

Anyway, if you’ve decided to get a new GPS make sure it can also be used in your own country when you’re finally back home. Nonetheless, it will also take some time for you to be getting use or be in control of the keys and functions on the gadget...which was one of the reasons I hate buying a new one.

Getting stuck in Zurich when entering the city centre
Avoid big-city driving whenever you can. You get stuck into one, you are in big trouble. We did got stuck in Luxembourg when we tried entering the city center to find a tourist spot recommended by someone we met at a restaurant earlier. After getting horn-blasted by some angry Samaritans when entering a no-entry lane and a few mistakes here and there it was smooth sailing again.

The legal requirements for driving a car in Europe differ from one country to another. A valid driving license from your own country is however needed as proof of a basic driving requirement. In some countries in the EU apart from your driving license, you might also need an International Driving Permit (IDP). You can check with a motoring organisation like the AA or the RAC for rules in other European countries.

A DVLA V5 Registration
Do however check the requirements or compulsory papers needed to bring your UK registered cars into Europe, such as the V5 registration. Bring the original copy and make sure the owner of the car is together traveling or driving the car. Also check if your insurance policy covers your driving travels in Europe. Most comprehensive insurance has it stated that you are covered to drive in many countries in Europe.

In some European countries like France and Italy you have to pay for using their highways or toll roads, but this can be avoided if you choose not to enter the toll roads as there are many options. For most of our travels we avoid using the toll roads in France as it is quite expensive. The country roads are not that bad except that it takes longer to reach your destination.

The Swiss vignette on our car windscreen is still valid
But do take note in Switzerland most of its roads are tolled roads and the tax is in the form of toll tickets or officially called vignettes that you have to pay before entering its borders. The current cost of a vignette sticker is 33Euro and it can be used for a whole year. Check the Vignette Switzerland webpage here.

The AA and the RAC also have certain advice on driving in specific countries, including information on compulsory equipment. Please do check their website, and try to comply although some of it I think is not really necessary, such as having a breathalyser in the car in France and extra bulb for the headlamp as we try as possible to avoid driving at night.

Enforcement however is not strict, as from my (and others) experience, enforcement agencies in the EU do not stop cars just to simply check, unless of course if you are found to have violated traffic rules (like speeding) or involved in accidents. So, be alert all the time and obey the rules and regulations.

Lots of parking space in front of our hotel room in Strasbourg, France
Parking the car in most cities we’ve come across is quite tricky as at most of the place where there’s parking available on the road side, the paying machine does not have instructions in English. What we did was after parking the car, go to the pay machine and ask passersby to help while someone waits in the car. 

Well, not everyone in Belgium and France speak English but eventually you’ll find one who does.

Parking fee is not that expensive, I think its one Euro for an hour (in some smaller cities its 50cents/hr). The good thing is that in the evening (around 5-6pm) or after office hours onwards till the next morning at 9.00am no fee is needed. Even if you have slotted a Euro coin inside the machine after that time, the ticket will print a statement that you are allowed to park until 10am the next day (starts at 9.00am).

Monday, June 30, 2014

The intro to our European Independent Travels

The planning must be done meticulously base on your budget
This posting is about our independent travels around Europe during last Easter holidays (April 5 – 14 2014). The write-up is only a basic guide, written and expressed through my personal experience when we (my family and I) were traveling in our car (driving) to 6 different European countries recently.

Before completing the journey, my references were basically collected from recent experience traveling by air and cruise to European cities like Paris, Amsterdam and Istanbul in Turkey. Other main references included the internet and word-of-mouth from other friends who have been through the same experience previously. It may not be a comprehensive guide, but would suffice if you are a novice traveler.

Included are some important guides for Muslim travelers in finding halal food or suitable hotel locations where you can get access to halal stores, restaurants and eateries or hotels with cooking facilities (or at least ones that offer boiling water facilities, i.e. kettles, coffee/tea/self service).
It's not difficult to find halal food if you know how

By saying independent travels it means you get to plan and set where you wanna go or which country you’d like to visit and the best thing about it is that it can be adjusted within your budget constraint. In a way independent travels help you save cost as much as possible as you are not paying for any tour guide or agency. But if you are really not familiar with the countries in Europe, this independent guide will also try to help you figure out where to go in Europe (which may or may not be the best place of your choice), how to get there  including tips to find the safest and cheapest way to get around.

So, basically this guide is about planning, coordinating and time managing your travels and journeys. By planning and time managing your travels it also means planning it well and early so that you can save time on all your journeys and start to enjoy sightseeing the places you plan to visit and so that you get great bargains with cheap but good hotel rates.

By planning early, it must also be real early - as far as a year ahead so that by 6 months into your real journey you are ready to decide which country, which city and which part of the country or city you want to go visit or stay. After which you can already shorlisted the hotels you want to stay at and start to make online bookings.

The hotel bookings made, printed and compiled
So, within the three months before the journey starts you must have finished making all the necessary hotel bookings and are completely ready to anticipate or prepare other things that you might have missed out like bringing extra amenities that can help ease your travels such as other European currencies, travels adapters, electric blankets if you are traveling in the cold seasons/up north or even electric kettles and small rice cookers.

Remember, not every European countries accept the Euro. The Euro € is the official currency of the euro zone, which consists of only 18 of the 28 member states of the European Union (EU). But if you plan to go to Switzerland, many parts of the Swiss only accept Swiss Franc (CHF) and some parts of Turkey only deals with Turkish Lira (TRY).

Nevertheless, the use of debit or credit cards affiliated to internationally recognized and established names like Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America and such are well accepted. But be prepare to pay the extra charges.

And the most important thing about planning, coordinating and time managing is that it can help you avoid making mistakes that can result in unnecessary stress and significant additional expenses if anything goes wrong.
Bring along your electric kettle and small rice cookers. They can help keep your food budget low
      Planning – You have to have a storyboard or itinerary of your travels. Plan well where you wanna go, what to do there, where to stay and to make sure the place/s you are staying are near to amenities, convenience stores and places to eat, especially if you have constraints on food choices such as consuming only halal food or a vegetarian. Bringing along canned food, noodles, rice and cooking utensils like kettle and small rice cookers can help keep your food budget low especially if you are traveling in a family or a large group. But be sure the place you are staying has cooking facilities. 

     Coordinating – by coordination it means having another person(s) to travel with and share ideas and responsibilities on the planning of the journey. You as the main planner should get him/her to help in to synchronize ideas and integrate responsibilities of activity. For example if you are driving on your travels, you need a navigator or map reader and that he/she will be the added pair of eyes for details such as speed limit warnings, finding gas stations, toilets locations or places you have missed on your earlier planning. In this case the coordinator/navigator should also make him/herself available as a second driver in case the main driver falls sick, tired or sleepy.
Stopping for breakfast at rest areas along a highway in Luxembourg

      Time management – this is very important as you have to plan how many hours of the day you would be driving to reach your destination, and anticipate the time needed for stops and rest or visit the places on your itinerary. Since you already made hotel bookings at the places of your visit, you must reach there on a timely manner so that you can have some rest or you would likely miss your next itinerary. For example, if you start to drive at 9.00am in the morning to reach a city in your itinerary, you need to only drive for 5 hours the most excluding breaks (ETA 2.30 pm), and then rest 1-2 hrs so that by 3.00 or 4.00pm you can start to explore the city or complete the itinerary/tour of the day. If you lag, you’d probably reach there by nightfall and there’s not much to see unless you are really there for the nightlife.

The DFDS seacruise from Newcastle to Amsterdam is a 16hr journey
In this Europe tour, we traveled by sea (cruise) and land (driving) from Newcastle-upon Tyne, England to 6 (six) EU countries starting with the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany and ending in Switzerland and back to England through Calais, France. The whole traveling time took us 10 days and in each city we stopped, we only stayed for one night. This is really a budget trip as there were 6 of us traveling together and at some of the cities we stayed we have to book for 2 rooms and share 3 people in one room. But for the most of our stays there were not much problem because we were in a way prepared for the worse.

The sea cruise is smooth sailing all the way to Amsterdam
Apart from the sea cruise where we slept overnight (16 hrs) to reach IJmuiden, Amsterdam, the cities that we stayed for a night each were Antwerp in Belgium, Lille in France, outskirts of Luxembourg City, Daschen and Interlaken in Switzerland, Strasbourg and Arras in France and finally reaching London on the 9th day where we stayed for another night before reaching home in Newcastle on the 10th day.

More details of the journey in my next posting, InsyaAllah.