Planning A Road Trip In Europe

Planning a Road Trip in Europe

A road trip around Europe can be a fantastic experience. It’s an opportunity for adventure, and to see cities and towns you might otherwise never think of visiting.

However, a road trip needs careful planning, especially if you’re going to be travelling for a longer period of time than a traditional one or two week holiday. This guide will cover the basics of planning a trip in Europe, from choosing a suitable vehicle to understanding the rules of the road on the continent.


Choosing the right vehicle 

Choosing the right vehicle for your road trip in Europe is obviously an important factor. You won’t get far without a reliable car, so the vehicle you use needs to be in good condition, roadworthy, and equipped for the journey. 

The vehicle you need really depends on the trip you’re planning, and where you’ll be driving. 

If you’re planning to visit a few cities located reasonably close to one another, a small, economical car is suitable. But if you’re driving from one end of a European country to another, or even across several countries, you’ll want something larger and more comfortable.

When it comes to the car you’ll be driving, you’ve really got three options:

Car key

Hiring a car

At the starting point of your journey, you can hire a car from most cities and airports through companies like Hertz, Avis and Europcar. If you wait until you arrive at your first destination before hiring a car, you might be limited on choice and availability. You may prefer to hire the vehicle before you travel, and have it reserved ready for collection when you arrive.

The advantage of hiring a car is that you should, in theory, benefit from the use of a vehicle that has been regularly maintained and serviced, is reasonably new and in great condition. You will also avoid putting extra mileage and wear and tear on your own vehicle.

If you do hire a car, there are factors you need to consider. The following tips are useful when hiring a car abroad:

Check the condition of the vehicle thoroughly, particularly the tyres, headlights and windscreen wipers. If you’re not happy with the condition, request another car.

If you need to, take photos of any scratches or dents in the vehicle. You should make the car hire company aware of any damage, even minor, before you drive the vehicle away. This helps to prevent extra charges when you return the vehicle at the end of the hire period as you’ll be able to prove you weren’t responsible for the damage.

Read the car hire contract thoroughly to check for any terms and conditions you may not have expected

Ask about any extra charges you may incur - such as mileage limits, returning the car later than agreed (even if this is just an hour) or fuel costs. Some hire car companies will expect you to return the car with a full tank of fuel, and charge you if not.

You might consider something called excess protection insurance. Excess Protection Insurance allows you to claim back the excess on one insurance claim, so if you have an accident - even if you’re at fault - you could get a refund on the excess amount stated on your policy. 

It can be cheaper and useful to have this in place with a third party before you hire a rental car, rather than taking up the rental company on their own excess protection insurance. 

Excess protection insurance usually also applies if a vehicle is stolen, or sustains malicious damage. If the total excess on your car insurance policy - your compulsory and voluntary excess added together - comes to £400, for example, wouldn’t it be great to be able to claim this back?

Car dashboard

Using your existing car

If you own a car, you might prefer to use this on your European road trip. The advantage of this is that you know the vehicle, you’re used to driving it and you’re comfortable behind the wheel. You know exactly how the lights operate, how to work the fuel cap, and what to expect in terms of economy and costs.

On the downside, if the road trip is a lengthy one you can expect to increase the mileage on your vehicle significantly. And, just like at home, there is the risk of sustaining damage to your car. You will also need to make sure your car insurance covers you for driving in Europe, or updated to allow you to do so.

If you do drive your own car, it needs to be equipped properly for European travel. We’ll look at what you need to pack and travel with later in this guide.

Buying a secondhand car especially for the trip

A third option is to buy a secondhand car especially for the purpose of driving during the trip. There is obviously a cost here, to buy the vehicle in the first place, but if you’re travelling for several months it might be worth it. 

If you already have a car, you can keep it safe and secure at home while you pootle around Europe; if you haven’t, you’ll need to buy a vehicle anyway. Spending £1,000 to £1,500 on a secondhand car you’ll have access to for six months will work out cheaper than hiring a rental car for the same period of time.

Just make sure you choose the car carefully. Ideally, you’ll want a reliable runner with a recently passed MOT - with no advisories - tyres in decent condition, and a good fuel economy. If it’s comfortable and has plenty of space that’s a bonus too; you’ll probably spend a fair amount of time in the car, after all. Don’t be too concerned with the look of the car - it’s there to do a job. Be prepared to say goodbye to the car at the end of its journey, so don’t get too attached to it.

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Preparing your car for a European road trip

Before you start driving in Europe, it’s important that not only are you prepared, but that your car is too.

Check your vehicle over before you embark on your trip. There are several maintenance checks you can do yourself, such as checking the oil and coolant levels of the car and testing the tread depth on your tyres. If there are any existing issues with the car, take it to a qualified mechanic to get these resolved - you don’t want to break down thousands of miles away from home because of a minor problem that could have been fixed at your local garage.

Make sure the car’s MOT is valid throughout the course of your road trip. For extra peace of mind, you could book the car in for a service before you travel. There’s more useful information in our Driving in Europe - before you go article.

Your vehicle should also carry items that are essential when travelling on long journeys. 

A spare wheel, jump leads, screenwash and oil are obvious things to include but be aware that certain European countries stipulate vehicles HAVE to include items that aren’t compulsory in the UK. For further driving advice for every country in Europe, consult this guide - simply select a country from the dropdown menu.

Car mechanic
Getting European Breakdown Cover

You may already have breakdown cover in place but if you’re driving in Europe you’ll need to make sure you’re covered while abroad, too. The RAC can provide road recovery services and breakdown cover in 49 different European countries. Cover is available on an annual basis or single trip, so you can have the security of roadside assistance throughout your European road trip.

Most breakdowns in Europe are a result of tyre punctures or battery failure from devices used in the vehicle. That's why we recommend ensuring you have European Breakdown Cover as part of your package, If you're hiring a car whilst in Europe .

Enquire about European breakdown cover here.

Essential items for your vehicle - checklist

Requirements differ by country, so do your homework and look up what is and isn’t compulsory in every country you plan on driving in. You may end up with some list! 

This checklist includes some of the items you’ll commonly need to have with you during your European road trip:

A GB sticker 

A GB car sticker to display on the rear of your vehicle. If your car is fitted with number plates that have GB’s euro-symbol, you won’t need a sticker as well. If in doubt, get a sticker anyway, just to be on the safe side.

Reflective jackets

Several European countries stipulate that drivers and any passengers must wear a reflective jacket when they get out of the car if it breaks down. So, make sure you have enough reflective jackets for anyone travelling in the vehicle.

Warning triangle

In the UK these are optional but carrying a warning triangle is compulsory in many European countries. In Spain, you need two of them.

Headlamp beam deflectors

It’s a legal requirement to adapt headlights when driving in Europe. Because UK motorists drive on the opposite side of the road they are designed a certain way and can dazzle when in Europe.


In July 2012 it became compulsory for motorists in France to carry a portable breathalyser.

First aid kit

These are compulsory in a number of European countries, including France, Germany and Austria.

Small fire extinguisher

Again, it’s compulsory in some countries to carry a small fire extinguisher in the case of an engine fire or other incident.

Items that aren’t usually required but are useful to have include:

  • Torch
  • GPS/Sat Nav
  • Tyre jack
  • Blankets
  • Food and water
  • In-car phone charger

Many of these items available in the RAC shop, included in our European Driving Kits range.

Essential documents to take with you - checklist

We’ve covered the items you need to have in your vehicle. What about the documents you should have with you, at all times, during your road trip? While you might drive in the UK with little more than your driving licence, you’ll need several essential documents in Europe.

Documents you’ll need to take include:

  • V5c vehicle registration document
  • Car insurance documents - and you’ll need to make sure your insurer knows you are driving in Europe
  • Passport
  • Travel Insurance documents
  • A European Health Insurance Card, often known as EHIC
  • European Breakdown Cover - you may need to upgrade your existing breakdown cover or take out a standalone policy for the trip
  • Emergency contact details - in Europe, 112 is the emergency number
  • An International Driving Permit - needed in some countries

What is an International Driving Permit?

Certain European countries require drivers to have an International Driving Permit (IDP). You’ll need to have one of those in addition to your UK driving licence, so take both with you.

An IDP validates your UK driving licence. It’s available in two formats - 1949 and 1926 - and the one you need depends on the countries you’ll be visiting. An IDP is valid for a year, but you can only apply for one three months before the start of your trip - and you can’t apply for it retrospectively. So, you can’t submit an application a week into your European road trip, for example.

To apply for an IDP, you need to be at least 18 years of age, be a permanent resident of the UK and have a full UK driving licence. 

You can apply for an IDP through the RAC here.

European Toll Roads

In the UK, there are only a few toll roads but in Europe the situation is different. Toll roads are more commonplace on the continent - France, Portugal, Spain and Italy in particular have lots. Some of these toll charges are significant. In France, there are charges on certain roads in the €20-€30 region, so plan your route beforehand. Make sure you have the funds to pay any charges or avoid toll roads if at all possible. This is virtually impossible if you’re driving through France though!

Low emission zones and vignettes

Toll roads aren’t the only ways drivers may be charged when travelling around Europe. Increasing concerns about vehicle emissions and air pollution have resulted in many cities operating Low Emission Zones.

Low emission zones are areas that regulate the vehicles that enter it - so if you drive a high polluting vehicle, be aware that you may not be able to drive in these zones. France, Italy and Germany all have LEZs, but so do several other countries. Drivers should be aware that they may be unable to gain access to parts of cities.

In Germany, motorists need to register their vehicle and buy a low emissions sticker before entering a zone. Service stations also sell the stickers.

In France, an emissions sticker scheme called the Crit’Air vignette - Air Quality Certificate - has been introduced. Vehicles are required to display a sticker on their windscreen before entering some cities. There are six stickers, each a different colour, ranked in order of how heavily polluting the vehicle is.

The cleanest is Crit’Air 1, which is a green sticker - for electric vehicles, mainly. At the other end of the scale, Crit’Air 6 is black. Older, diesel-powered cars will typically carry this.

Lyon, Paris, Lille, Strasbourg and Bordeaux all enforce the scheme, with other cities expected to join over the next few years.

Understanding the rules of the road

It’s common knowledge that drivers must drive on the opposite side of the road to the UK in  the vast majority of European countries. Cyprus and Malta are the exceptions. But there are other rules of the road when driving in Europe that UK motorists should learn and adhere to:

SPAIN - It’s illegal to wear some types of footwear when driving, including flip flops and high heels - as well as completely barefoot

FRANCE - The speed limit on motorways can reduce in wet weather

GERMANY - While some sections of their motorway (Autobahn) have no speed limit, some do, so pay attention

RUSSIA - It can be illegal in some areas to drive a car that is deemed to be dirty

CYPRUS - It’s illegal to eat or even drink anything at the wheel, so pull over if you feel peckish or thirsty

SWEDEN - Drivers in Sweden have to keep their car’s headlights dipped at at times

If you’re travelling to Europe for a short trip, check out our Single Trip European Breakdown Cover product today.

The best drives in Europe 

Looking for inspiration? You’re in luck. If you’re searching for great drives in Europe, there are plenty to be found and enjoyed. Here are just a few of the best drives in Europe:

Italy - The Amalfi Coast

A spectacular coastal route, this is suitable for experienced and confident drivers. The traditional starting point is Sorrento, then following the narrow, zig-zagging road to Salerno, passing through towns including Positano, Amalfi and Praiano. The winding roads mean it’s not for the faint-hearted but is definitely a route to remember.

Germany - Route 500

The B500 - also known as the Schwarzwald Hochstrasse - is a panoramic stretch that runs through the Black Forest, between the towns of Freudenstadt to Baden-Baden. It’s a popular holiday route so can get busy with tourists in peak season.

Norway - Trollstigen

Trollstigen - translated as the ‘Trolls Road’ - is a famous mountain route that includes 11 hairpin bends. The route stretches for just over 100km but this isn’t a journey to be rushed; make sure you stop often to admire the mountain views and waterfalls. Sections of the road are closed during the winter season, which runs from October/November into May.

Portugal - N-222

This has been hailed as one of the world’s best driving routes. At 27km it’s relatively short but is still a glorious road, running from Peso de Regua to Pinhao and right through the middle of the Douro Valley, Portugal’s famous wine region. The road runs adjacent to the River Douro, which increases its visual appeal.

France - Route Napoleon

Named after Napoleon Bonaparte, this road follows the route once taken by the legendary general as he marched from Elba to Grenoble in 1815. The route starts in the French Riviera and runs along the bottom of the Alps. In full, the route is around 150km but there are plenty of beauty stops along the way.

Spain - San Jose to Cabo de Gata

This drive showcases the very best of picturesque Andalusia. This route is close to a 40-mile loop, starting at San Jose in Almeria and finishing in style, at the Cabo de Gata-Nijar Natural Park. This is one of the truly unspoilt areas of natural beauty in the Mediterranean, with beaches and charming towns. Perfect to rest and refuel.

Join the RAC now and start your European adventure

Our Comprehensive Plus cover is the BEST European breakdown cover policy in the market*

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Countries Covered

Our policies can be extended to cover up to 49 countries, you’ll struggle to find European Breakdown Cover as comprehensive as ours. The covered countries are separated into Zones, allowing you to easily select the best cover for you and your trip.

If you’d like to learn more about driving in these countries, click the country name to read our extensive guides which include local driving laws, travel advice, parking regulations and fuel availability.

We also cover the offshore islands of all the countries within this zone.

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Zone 2 (includes Spain & Italy)
  Vatican City

We also cover the offshore islands of all the countries within this zone.

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Zone 3 (includes Poland & Greece)

We also cover the offshore islands of all the countries within this zone.

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