Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Travel Tuesday - Driving in Europe

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'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). 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.


Ed Abbey said...

After having driven in Europe, I find it maddening to drive here in the U.S. Too many people get in that left lane and think that they own it. I have always said that if I had missiles mounted to the roof of my car, I would have been locked in a tiny cell and the key thrown away long ago. In Europe, drivers staying in the fast lane only rarely happened which made for a very pleasant driving experience.

Rik said...

Ed: Believe me, it has chencged for the worse. People cruise in the right lane at, say, 110k. Then, when they pass someone in the left lane, they do so at about 115k, so it takes them FOREVER. Meanwhile, here comes Rik booking at 190k and he has to slam on his brakes every ten seconds for these knuckleheads. And the worst part is, it doesn't matter how fast the guy in the left lne is coming on, they'll jump right into the left lane and cut you off. That's why I like Italy - most of the autostradas have 3 lanes, so the idiots are confined mostly to the 2 right lanes while the speed racers like me can jet down the left lane.


Ed Abbey said...

I haven't been to that part of Europe but if I do I will certainly make sure the rental has a good engine..... and insurance.

echa said...

what I think about autobahn in Indonesia is that I have to pay every time I see the border, from Jakarta to Bogor I have to pay for more than once , I think about 3 or 4 times :-S Luckily here in Europe, especially in the country I'm currently living is not like that.The average German doesnt drive too fast, really? Imho, they drive faster than Dutch. you also speak German?

Rik said...

Echa: The reason I say the average German doesn't drive fast is because everytime I drive in Germany on the autobahn, I'm constantly getting stuck behind people going 110-120k. There are more of them than the guy screaming in his porsche at 200k.
Anyway, I'm going to be driving on the autobahn again soon, as I just found out that I have to go to Frankfurt for work either next week or the week after and I'll be driving up.
I picked up some German while I was living there, but I've forgotten most of it. But I'll always remember: "Scheisse!"


Simon&Glenda said...


Spanish road taxsystem is confusing as it changes policy from one autonomy to another. The A7 down the mediterranean coast is very Expensive and its around 30 euro from Barcelona to Valencia. Valencia to Madrid is free (except entering Madrid where they recently introduced road taxes also), and up to Coruna theres no no taxes. I drove that way this summer as well, and we only paid little tax around Bayona in Galicia where we had our Euro2004 base. Southern Spain is almost free of taxes, but only for a question of time I guess. Did you know that this year germany introduced taxes for 115 euro from entrance around Kehl to the Danish border.

Ever been driving in the UK or Ireland ? Very difficult !. I have done a dozen of times including a minor accident in Dublin where I looked left instead of right, and of course being used to using the gear stick in the continent, first couple of times you do it the UK you will find yourself rolling down the right window.

BTW great blog, I will come back as I love travelling as well. I have done 180+ days a year in 3 years from 2000 to 2003, in North Ameria, Europe and Russia, but new job did I am now stationary in Valencia.


Rik said...

Simon - Great to hear from you and welcome to the blog. Hope to hear from you often, as you always have good info to add...