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).