The most frequently asked question we get from Americans about our experience motor homing in Europe is how difficult is it to drive? Our quick answer is it’s easy, tens of thousands of Europeans do it every year. Our experience is that driving in Europe is different then in the US, but not so different that you should not visit Europe by RV.
Statistically fatal accident rates in Western Europe are less than half the rate of the US. The worst country in Europe is Bosnia with an automobile fatality rate of 15.7 per 100,000 people compared to 12.4 in the US, the next worst country in Europe is Albania at 13.6. Both of these countries require special insurance to drive in for Europeans. Italy which has a reputation for aggressive driving has a fatality rate of 5.2 per 100,000 which is less than half of the US.
The rest of this post gives our impressions of driving in Europe based on our limited experience.
The roads in Europe are generally very good. There is as you would expect some differences in quality from country to country. German roads were exceptionally good, better than the US. The worst roads were in Italy, especially Sicily, but they were not so bad that they required a high level of awareness. Our impression is that the standard lane width in France is narrower than in other countries in Europe and certainly the US, which is my only complaint about French roads. Driving between cities is generally very easy and no more stressful than in the US. In fact in Spain and France traffic is often much lighter than in the US on equivalent roads.
The biggest difference in European roads is in cities. Because of the age of the cities, many urban roads were laid out hundreds of years ago and therefore are narrower than modern roads. In cities parking is much tighter than in the US and sometimes spills into the traffic lanes. We find urban driving is more stressful than at home because everything is just a little bit tighter, and sometimes quite a bit tighter.
Types of Roads
Generally speaking in the countries we have traveled there are three categories of roads. The nomenclature is not standardized so for my ease I am going to use the French designations. You will quickly learn the local term for each type of road.
Autoroutes in France are designated with an A and number (sometimes E if it is considered a trans-Europe route). These are the equivalent of our Interstate highways, though in many countries (except Germany and Belgium) they are tolled. The quality of these roads is extremely good. There are frequent service areas that do not require you to leave the highway to use them. While the service areas are convenient the cost of fuel is quite high, and we have never fueled there for this reason. They often will have a restaurant and of course restrooms that are usually free to use.
The level of traffic is often less than we are used to in the US, particularly on Sunday when commercial traffic is restricted. If you are planning a long jump in Europe Sunday is a particularly good day to do it, as most stores and sights are on restricted hours so there is not much to see, and truck traffic on the A roads is very light making travel easy.
One difference is that many of the A roads are monitored by surveillance cameras, so help is automatically dispatched if an accident or breakdown occurs. Also, speed is monitored by camera systems in most countries. It is rare to see a police vehicle writing a ticket on the shoulder as we are used to. Instead a fine shows up in the mail a week or two later when you trigger a camera, and the police concentrate on other things.
The speed limit on A roads in rural areas is usually 130 kilometers per hour (80 mph) for light vehicles, generally defined as under 3.5 tons. For heavier vehicles the speed limit is 90 kph (55mph). In urban areas the speed limit usually drops to 110kph (68mph) for light vehicles and stays at 90 kph for heavy vehicles. Many RV’s (including François) qualify as light vehicles and can use the higher speed limits. We do not recommend you drive a RV at 130kph. We normally drive between 95 and 100 kph which on Sunday makes us one of the slowest vehicles on the road. Another thing to note is that the speed limit automatically drops to 110kph in rain and fog.
While passing on the right on interstates is technically illegal in the US, it is rarely enforced. If you read Europeans writing about driving in the US they are shocked that we do this. Passing on the right is enforced in Europe and never done. Because of this lane discipline is good. Slower traffic stays to the right, and only uses the outer lanes long enough to pass and then move immediately to the right again. This is actually quite refreshing and makes travel easier.
The A routes in Germany and Belgium are free. Also, a significant portion of the Spanish A routes are free, but not all, and some of the sections we traveled in Italy were free, particularly in the south. When tolls are in place they are quite expensive, particularly in France.
When we first began traveling in Europe we tried to avoid the A routes completely. Our first two trips were limited to France and we wanted to avoid the cost of the A routes. Also, the A routes like the interstates in the US really isolate you from the countryside and we miss the little things you see when you travel on regular roads. As we spent more time there we began to use the A routes more often, particularly when we were making longer drives to change regions. Now we evaluate the convenience of the A routes vs the cost. Also, in Italy we defaulted to A routes as the secondary roads were less well maintained and stressful on me and François.
Many countries in Europe use a system called Vignettes instead of toll booths on the A routes. These are passes that you purchase in advance and display in your vehicle. For residents and frequent visitors an annual vignette is offered. Many countries offer transit vignettes for shorter periods of times either weekly or monthly. So far in our travels we have not entered a country that requires a Vignette on purpose. (We did have an accidental incursion into Austria driving between two German cities.)
Determining if a country requires a vignette can be done with a simple Google search, as well as the types and cost. If you opt for a larger RV (above 3.5 tons) some countries require an electronic device that monitors actual miles driven and charges based on that. For smaller RV’s the fee is flat and you purchase a sticker and display it in the windshield of the RV. It is important to display the vignette as some countries have a video monitoring system to insure compliance. Most countries make it very easy to acquire the vignette and frequently they can be purchased at gas stations. Some countries allow you to purchase the vignette on line in advance.
In many countries the vignettes only apply to the A roads, so if you stay off of A roads you do not need to purchase one. I am not sure how practical that is as we have no experience yet.
N roads are referred to as National Roads in France. The designation N is the French designation and the letter does vary from country to country but all of the countries we traveled in had these type of roads. They are the old main highways prior to the A Roads and are analogous to US Highways. They are designed to handle semi-truck traffic so are generally wider and have shoulders. Occasionally they will have two travel lanes in the same direction, and less frequently they will be limited access. They are always free of charge, and in countries that charge to use A roads a reasonable free option has to be provided by law, and these are frequently the N roads. The N roads are more likely to by-pass towns and villages than D roads. The speed limit varies more on these roads than others, but is usually 90 kph in non-urban areas. These roads are frequently very good alternatives to A routes allowing you to see more of the countryside while making pretty good time.
Local Roads/D Roads
D roads are the most common road. They are the equivalent of our state and county roads and you will spend most of your time on them as all of the good sites are located on them.
D roads are by far the most variable in quality. The pavement is usually good, the only poor quality pavement we found was in Italy and Spain, the real variation in quality is in width. They range from very occasional limited access roads, to one lane roads with pull outs.
These are the roads that connect small towns and villages to larger towns. They also are the roads that cut thru towns and villages so you will find yourself navigating these small towns. Most of the time it is no problem except for slowing down for the lower speed limits. Occasionally you will run into a tight squeeze.
The default speed limit on these roads is 90 kph (recently changed to 80 in France). The thing is that it is 90 whether the road is a good two lane road with shoulders, or one lane with pullouts. Your average speed if you follow these roads for a long period of time will be well below 90. We plan on an average of 60 kph on these roads.
We do our best to avoid the very narrow roads, but of course we do not know the area we are driving in, so are not sure if the tiny road our GPS is guiding us down has a better alternative route that is slightly longer but faster. We tend to follow the GPS directions less regularly in Europe than in the US. If the road Greta our Garmin tells us to turn down seems very narrow we will continue along the larger road we are on and see what happens when she reprograms herself. So far our instincts to avoid narrow roads has worked pretty well.
However, sometimes you will find yourself on the one or one and a half lane roads. We just look as far ahead as conditions allow, and when we see on coming traffic we look for a wide spot to pull into. Most of these roads have small pull outs strategically placed to allow for this. There is a great deal of farm machinery using these roads and they are quite wide. The farmers are very good about moving over as much as possible to allow you to squeeze by.
Our last advice is when you do get into a tight spot do not panic and take your time working out the best solution. Our experience is that almost everyone is very patient while you and the other vehicle pull in mirrors, do some hand signaling and get it sorted out. Everyone takes the slowdown in stride as it comes with the territory.
By far the biggest difference between Europe and the US is in built up areas. Villages, towns and cities have road infrastructure that pre-dates automobiles. In the US while cities may have more going on around you, the traffic lanes remain at the standard width we find on our highways. In Europe by necessity this may not be the case, so you have all of the distractions that come with urban situations, (pedestrians, cars popping out of parking etc), you are often doing it on a less than standard width lane.
The distance between buildings and the road can be much tighter than we are used to. This can come into play particularly when you have to make a turn with a building right to the edge of the road. This tends to happen most often in small villages. It is difficult to see if there is something on the road you are turning onto and there is no buffer so you may need to swing a little wider into the on coming lane to miss the building. There often are mirrors in place on these turns to allow you to see if there is traffic coming. If you are turning from one of these roads to the main road it may be blind for you and you have to creep a little to see if there is traffic coming. My best advice is take it slow in these cases.
Often for large and mid-sized towns there will be by-passes for commercial vehicles. Your GPS may be sending you thru the town, use the by-pass as it will ultimately be faster and less stressful.
The speed limits are 50 kph as soon as you pass the city/town limit sign, and it is often enforced with a speed camera. While people may cheat on speed limits a little outside of towns, we have seen very few people cheating on the speed limits in town. As you approach the very center of the city the speed limit often goes down to 30kph.
Traffic circles are much more common in Europe than the US. The French in particular have a fetish like attachment to them, and are actively building them all over the place. As we became more used to them we began to appreciate them, particularly in the countryside. In low traffic areas they are a much more efficient way to handle cross traffic. On a N or good D road in France you will encounter circles very frequently, it is rare to go more than 5 or 6 kilometers between circles on a well traveled road.
In cities they can be a little more stressful as the traffic volume is higher and the traffic may be entering the circle in multiple lanes and the circle itself has multiple lanes. Our method to handle busy circles is to enter the circle in the right lane and stay there until we get to our exit, and exit into the right lane. This allows people to do whatever they have to do while we move along.
Europeans use their turn signals to indicate if they are staying in the circle, (left turn signal), or taking the next exit from the circle (right turn signal). Signaling is very important in the busy circles as it lets people know you are continuing around if they are exiting the circle or trying to enter the circle. This is probably the best safety tip I have for handling circles. In the busy circles people will cut in front of you to exit, just expect it and accept it.
One trick I learned from a British couple was that circles are a good way to lose the tail of cars you will accumulate being one of the slower vehicles on the road. When you enter the circle, by pass your exit the first time and go all the way around the circle. It is a courteous way to allow the cars behind you to get in front of you without having to pass you on the narrow roads, and delays you only a few seconds.
Traffic lights in Europe are quite different than the US. They are much more austere. They are usually placed on the corner of the intersection they control, and there is only the one light. The large light that you key on as you approach the intersection is angled down the road it controls, but if you are one of the first cars at the intersection you will not be able to see that light. A smaller version of the light is located about half way down the pole and is angled so the first couple of cars can see it. It is important that you not overshoot that small light as you will have no way of knowing when the light changes until someone blows their horn at you.
In the countries with Toll roads they all have done a very good job of providing enough booths so that traffic is very rarely delayed. So as you approach the booths you go from 2 or 3 lanes of traffic to 10 or 12 lanes of traffic with all of the slaloming associated with people trying to get to the correct lane and shortest line. We find it is not too bad, we identify the correct lane for us, and head in there watching for people angling across our path.
On entering the tollway you will be directed into a booth that dispenses a ticket recording where you entered.
The trick is identifying the correct lane. All European countries have an electronic system available that seems to be universally called Telepass, but each country administers it separately. Telepass owners pass thru the booths without stopping and the toll is added to their accounts. You have to avoid these booths as the fine is quite substantial if you inadvertently pass thru one of them.
We pay our tolls with credit cards and the lanes that accept credit cards are marked with a sign that looks like the back of a credit card so they are easy to identify. There are usually one or two booths that take cash if you do not want to pay with a credit card. We have heard stories of toll booths refusing to accept non-European credit cards. In our two years of driving we have not run into that problem.
The payment system is pretty straight forward. Insert the ticket you received on entering the tollway. Insert your credit card, and if you want a receipt push the button for the receipt. The gate should then go up and you are on your way with a recorded Arrivederci in Italy, and silence in France and Spain.
The pay stations usually are set at two heights, one for cars, and the other for commercial trucks. The one inconvenience is that François our RV is right in between the heights and I usually have to put him in neutral and remove my seat belt prior to engaging with the station. It can be a little bit of a scramble to get the belt back on once the gate goes up.
Limited Traffic Zones
Many cities in Europe have limited traffic zones. They are usually in large urban areas. Each country administers them differently where they exist. The guide books usually have information about what cities have them and what they are. This has not impacted us very much because in large cities we prefer to stay on the edge of the city and use public transit, so we are usually outside the Zones.
The one exception to being able to avoid Limited Traffic Zones for us was Italy. Fairly small towns had them. We ran into one in the town of Tropea which threw us for a loop until we figured out it was not in effect at that moment. The key thing is not to blunder into one as the fines are substantial if you are caught. When one is imminent there is usually enough warning to turn short of the Zone and regroup. Campgrounds and Aires will not be located inside these for obvious reasons.
Most RV’s in Europe are equipped with manual transmissions, and while newer RV’s are touting automatic transmissions the market is still overwhelmingly manual. Finding a used RV with an automatic transmission is going to be difficult.
Since manual transmissions make up less than 3% of car sales in the US most of us are either rusty or unfamiliar with sticks. I found that I adapt pretty quickly to shifting when I am there, the years of shifting gears from my youth come back to me. I will confess to finding no joy in shifting gears and miss Scouts automatic transmission. If I was buying new I would definitely spend the extra cost to buy an automatic.
The signs are different than the ones we tend to use. There is overlap such as stop signs, but most are different. Having said that they are normally pretty intuitive. Because of the many different languages in Europe they use symbols only, and very rarely use words. The signs are standardized across Europe.
All guide books have a list of road signs in the back if you come across one you cannot figure out. There are some fairly obscure signs that may require Google to sort out, but they are generally not too important, but informational.
The only time we have gotten into trouble with signs is when they contained local language. In France we would often see speed limit signs with the word Arret under it. I took this to mean ahead, like the signs we have in the US warning you of a lower speed limit ahead. After about 3 weeks I googled the word, and it really means now, the opposite of what I thought. Our experience are signs are not a big issue, and you will adapt your eye to pick up the critical ones.
Our best advice before you leave is (re)learn to use a manual transmission, and spend a few minutes looking at the traffic signs on line so you can get a feel for what you are getting into. The first day I would keep the trip drive short so you can get a feel for the roads and the RV. If you are in France you will almost certainly have your first experience with a circle/round about, just remember to use your signals as we are not used to that as Americans. And finally enjoy, it is part of the fun.