First of all, yes I know it's Wednesday. Yesterday was just too busy, so I'm writing the travel entry this morning before it gets too hectic. With that said, let's get started...
When people in the US think of driving in Europe, they usually think about one thing - the Autobahn. And when they think about the Autobahn, they think about going very very fast. I'm here to tell you that it's not all it's cracked up to be. First of all, you can indeed go a hell of alot faster on the autobahn than you can on any highway in the US. There are speed limit signs posted, but it's actually what they call a "recommended speed". Which means whether or not you choose to follow it is really up to you. My first experience on the autobahn was in a military HUMVEE which was pretty intimidating. For the most part, the average German doesn't drive too fast on the autobahn, which can sometimes be frustrating for those of us who want to drive like a bat outta hell. The rule in Germany (as in all of Western Europe) is that you're supposed to drive in the right lane and use the left lane for passing only. You're not supposed to cruise in the left lane, but so many people in the right lane hover around 100 - 120 kph (60-70 mph) that the people who want to drive alot faster end up just staying in the left lane. I myself am a stranger to the right lane. As far as road etiquette, there are a few unwritten rules that you're expected to follow. For one thing, you are NEVER supposed to pass anyone in the right lane. I see people do it occasionally, but it's frowned upon considerably. I've had to do it too as sometimes you get some idiot who's inexplicably hanging out in the left lane going slow and refuses to move over so you can pass. So you zip around him on the right - and you always get the dirtiest looks from people. A rule I wish more people on the autobahn would follow is when you see someone rapidly approaching you in your rearview mirror, move over quickly. Many drivers will flash their headlights at you to let you know that they're coming up quickly and you'd better move over ASAP, even though it's considered rude. Overall, the Germans are very safe drivers.
In Italy, we have the autobahn, but it's called the "autostrada". I prefer driving on the autostrada to the autobahn any day of the week. Italian drivers have a reputation as extremely crazy and I can tell you first hand that it's no exaggeration. And it gets worse the further south you go. Naples is the absolute worst and scariest place I've ever driven. There are no discernible lanes. It's basically every man for himself. Although it's against the law, a popular pastime in Italy is to talk on your cell phone while driving at an accelerated rate. If I had to compare the Germans to the Italians, I would put it like this - In Germany, they drive fast. In Italy, they drive fast and crazy. The worst thing about driving on the autostrada is the tolls (it is Italy after all). You grab a ticket when you get on and when you get off, you give it to the toll cashier and pay whatever the fare is. To give you an example, Venice is only about 30K (20miles) on the autostrada and the toll is 3 euros (about 4 bucks). That's alot of Euro for such a short distance. By contrast, driving on the autobahn in Germany is FREE (isn't that the best word in the English language?!). There have been - and continue to be - attempts to institute some kind of toll system there, but the Germans have killed it each time so far. Knowing Germany, I'm sure it'll pass eventually.
So what does it cost to drive in Europe? Well, here are some examples; note that the only apply to highway driving...
In Austria, you have to buy a verkhauf, which is a toll sticker you have to display in your windshield. It costs about 7 euros for a 10 day ticket. You can buy them for longer, but I have no idea how much the price increases.
In Switzerland, you must also buy a toll sticker for your windshield. As I recall, you don't have an option for length of time, you have to buy one that's good for a year. I think it costs the equivalent of about 30 bucks or so.
France is the absolute worst. They also have a toll system, but it's not like Italy where you get a ticket when you get on and pay when you get off. No, France could not do something so simple. Instead, they have several toll booths, sometimes as little as 1 or 2 kilometers apart! If you've ever driven through New Jersey, you'll understand. I hate driving through France for this reason. You pay a toll of maybe 1 euro, drive a few kilometers, stop and pay another 1 euro, then drive 50 kilometers, stop and pay 10 euros, then drive another kilometer, stop and pay 80 cents...it's maddening. And believe me, it adds up. The French think they're fooling you by making you pay a little at a time, but I'm wise to their tricks...
Portugal's system is similar to Italy (ticket).
Spain...you know, I drove all the way through Spain last summer and I can't seem to remember how their system worked. I do remember it being cheaper than France though. If anyone from Spain reads this, please post a comment and remind me.
Personally, driving around Europe is one of my favorite things. I've made the drive to Germany many many times - you drive right through the Alps and it's indescribable. The European road trip is a thing of beauty.
One last story I will share as a warning. Germany is technically the only country where you can legally drive as fast as you want. A few years ago, I was returning from a trip to Germany. I was approaching Innsbruck doing about 149kph in a 100kph zone and sure enough, I get stopped. I had neglected to buy a verkhauf sticker and had forgotten my Italian drivers license at home (I was in a rental). Here's how the fine broke down:
$100 for speeding.
$200 for not having a verkhauf.
$200 for not having my license.
That's right, FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS total. The policeman looked at my military ID and said (in a Schwarzenegger accent), "Yesterday vas your birs-day?" I replied that yes, yesterday was indeed my birthday and he thinks for a second and says "Vell...I vill not charge you for not having your license. Zis is a - how you say - birs-day present from me to you". Best present I ever got! But I still had to pay 3 hundred bucks. I told him I only had 10 deutschmarks on me and he asked if I had a credit card. I said yes and he whips out the credit card machine from his van and swipes my card right there on the side of the highway.
The lesson learned is to always buy a toll sticker. And in Europe, if you do get pulled over, it's a common thing in many countries to pay it right on the spot. I certainly learned my lesson.