Like many Britons, our idea of a holiday abroad is packing up the car and going across the channel (via ferry, rail, or tunnel) to mainland Europe (called “the continent”). One of the first things you notice as you drive off the boat is the cars are driving on the opposite side of the road from the UK and the drivers sit on the opposite side of the car (so American drivers, it’s the same side of road and car that we’re used to). This can make for some very interesting driving on small country back roads as the passenger tells the driver “you’re too far over!”, and even more fun on the motorways – particularly if you get passed by a driver who looks over and sees the person in the “drivers seat” (left side of the car) napping or reading a book!
Europe has some regulations for driving that you must follow, including carrying appropriate safety equipment with you. You can even purchase the required items on the ferry if you have forgotten them, but most auto supply shops (like Halfords) should stock everything you need.
*The first thing you need to do is pick up a pair of headlamp beam converters. These are round stickers you stick on your headlights so that the beam of light coming from them doesn’t blind other drivers, since UK headlights point in a different direction from European cars. These stickers are removable, and you should try to remember to remove them as soon as you return from Europe. I think our car might still have the stickers on it. Ooops!
*The second requirement is to display a GB sticker on the back of your car. Most post 2001 tags include the GB symbol on them, however this does not exempt you from needing the sticker in all countries. You can purchase this as a magnet if you do not wish to have a sticker permanently on the back of your car.
*Most European countries also require a reflective vest if you will need to get out of your car on the motorway. Some countries require this only for the driver, some require it also for passengers. A good idea is to make sure you have enough vests to cover everyone in your car. There are no requirements on the colour or style of vest, only that you must have one. If you work in a profession where you need a vest, you can use that one or you can even pack along the vests you wear while cycling if you already own some.
*Another item MOST European countries require is a warning triangle if you are stopped on the motorway.
*Lastly, you also should carry a first aid kit. Not only is it a requirement, it could come in handy. If you already have a first aid kit in your car, now is the time to check it and make sure it has plenty of supplies and that the adhesive hasn’t gone off on the plasters (US: band-aids). Your first aid kit does not need to come from an auto supply shop or be specially marked for Europe. Just like the vests, you can use a first aid kit you already own.
There are also some regulations that are country-specific. For example, if we had been going to Austria between November and April, we would have needed to fit snow tyres to the car. A great website for checking the requirements for the countries you plan on visiting is The AA’s Driving Requirements by Country page.
So…we’re ready to drive our UK car in Europe, right? Wrong. You also need to call your insurance company to make sure you have European coverage. It’s best to do this at least a month before your trip to make sure you have copies of the require paperwork, but some companies can email you the documents you need to print. Make sure you carry these papers with you.
It also is a good idea (but not necessary for European travel) to contact your emergency breakdown provider (AA, RAC, etc.) and enquire about services while in Europe. Tim and I were able to get coverage for Western Europe for 14 days for about £65 from the RAC. Pricey, yes, but better than getting stuck somewhere with a broken car. The RAC services we signed up for even included a hotel stay if we needed to wait for the car to be repaired, and would pay for getting our broken car plus ourselves back to the UK if it came to that.
In addition to getting your car ready for European travel, it’s a good idea to make sure you have valid travel insurance and if you are a European resident, a valid EHIC card. An EHIC card is not a substitute for travel insurance, so it is wise to carry both. The EHIC card is free to European residents, including those of us here on spousal visas. The website states that you need to apply via post, however if your UK spouse has an EHIC card, they just need to call 0845 606 2030 and request a card for their spouse.
Oh, and don’t forget to take along your paper counterpart to your driver’s license. You probably won’t need it, but I always like to be prepared.
You also might want to pick up a road map for the countries you plan on visiting. We purchased a Michelin map from Amazon that covered Germany, Austria, BeNeLux, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. Tim already owned a map book for France, and then we also picked up a large-scale Austria map while we were in Austria, since it had on it the Austrian names for places and had some of the off the beaten path places we wanted to go.
So, we’re ready to go to the continent. Keep reading this week as I start to (finally!) write about our trip in September.
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