Europe by car

6500 Km/4000 miles

colorful umbrellas

One of many colorful and unique sites along my travels.

Even though traveling through Europe is a breeze with trains and public transport, I knew with my schedule and the places I wanted to see that renting a car would be easiest this trip. I was spending up to 2 months and traveling between northern Germany and southern France.  For the price of a rental, it may have been worth it to buy a car, but the hassle of finding a reliable one and then selling it in the end, did not appeal to me. I preferred the convenience and reliability that a rental provides and was willing to pay that extra price.

IMG_2096It’s quite the experience country hopping by car. Quite a bit different from taking a train. And, the biggest bonus was that I didn’t have to worry about dumping food each time I moved locations. With a car, it was easy to transport all my luggage and surplus items. Another perk was the ability to go anywhere on a whim, and stop at any point at any time, for any reason. Combine my trains, planes and automobile experience of different countries and I start to get a real picture for how a country works.

My arrival into Frankfurt, Germany was simple. I have come to appreciate this airport despite its initial dark and scary impression when I first came through back in year 2000.  That was the first time I saw airport officers with machine guns. It was simply a forced layover so I didn’t tour the city, but that was my first time stepping foot in Germany–a country with a dark past, clouded, in my mind, by historical impressions. Contrast that with my impression today and Germany is becoming one of my favorite countries to visit.

Mediterranean Sea

From Frankfurt to the Mediterranean Sea. Travel by car makes impromptu site seeing a breeze.

Having spent quite a bit of time in Germany last year, and having rented a car from time to time, I learned how to drive and navigate on German roads, including the Autobahn. The first time I drove on the autobahn, I was intimidated, cautious, and a little apprehensive. Aside from the no speed limit zones, I had to learn the many road signs and get comfortable navigating. There is a lot going on when you are driving on the Autobahn and I quickly learned that I must always be alert and never get complacent, even when driving in the slow lane. Driving is always on the defensive. Stay right, except to pass and pass only when it is safe to do so. Pass quickly, especially when there is no speed limit, then get back right and get out of the way! Someone faster is probably coming. Landing in Frankfurt and immediately getting my rental car brought these memories back. I quickly acclimated to the driving style and honestly was relieved to finally open it up and really drive.

Mont Blanc

Katy pointing out the clouds clearing on the Aiguille du Midi.

Because you don’t need to rent a car to get around Europe, I thought I would outline some of the things that stood out for me as I took on this challenge. Some of them are fascinating differences and some are things you simply need to know or can expect should you wish to take on this type of adventure for yourself. Enjoy and drive safe!

  1. Endless construction.
    • Reminds me of my years driving in Ohio where there are 4 seasons for driving: fall, winter, spring, and construction. 😊Watch for extreme changes in speeds, e.g. 100 kph to 80 kph. There is no “grace period” to reach these speeds. You must brake and get to the speed immediately. Naturally, you do so in advance of the sign, which means you must learn to spot these situations and always stay alert!


      The infamous Ceuse hike. It was every bit I heard it was and HOT!

  2. Vignette’s and tolls.
    • I had to buy an annual pass, called a vignette, to drive through Switzerland. Cost nearly 50 Euro. ☹ But, I could drive on any highway in the country during the year for that cost so it really pays off if you are spending a long time in the country. There is no discount for those simply passing through. 😊
    • Not all countries have this kind of toll, but many do. France is a country that doesn’t make you buy a pass as soon as you enter. However, you end up paying tolls depending on the roads you choose to drive. The main roads typically have toll stations throughout the country making driving a bit more expensive and slow—you must stop to pay these tolls. Tolls can vary from several Euros and up. Occasionally the toll booths only take cash or may have a cashier option. Most have credit card options, but a word of caution about credit card readers, including ATM readers, they can sometimes be tampered with and your card information stripped from you. I’ve had this happen to a friend who had is ATM card read by a tampered machine. The culprits copied his card and then proceeded to use it to empty his account, all unbeknownst to him until it was too late. ☹

      Portal to climbs on the Aiguille du midi

      Katy holding an ice axe at a climbers portal on the Aiguille du midi in Chamonix, France. Almost like a real climber! 🙂

    • Paying cash for tolls are best and they make change. Sometimes you get a ticket at a toll station and pay when you exit. Make sure you look for the visual depicting cash (money with coins) above the toll station, otherwise, you may end up in a lane that is for regular users who have a special pass.
    • If you find yourself in the wrong lane, it is not uncommon to back up—even if there are cars behind you. People want to get where they are going and chances are there are multiple lanes for everyone to choose from. Simply put your car into revers and slowly the cars behind will get the hint and all will start reversing and picking different lanes. This may take a little while, but it is possible to do. Likewise, if you find yourself behind someone who doesn’t know what they are doing or is having problems with the machine, unless you think you can help, you can repeat this process to get out of the jam and into another lane yourself.
  3. Cash is king, except in Sweden.
    • Be prepared to pay cash for many, many things. Tolls, food, gas, medical etc. Sometimes credit cards are accepted but it’s still more common to find yourself paying with cash, especially when visiting smaller towns or going further from the major cities.
  4. When you enter a new country, there is typically a big sign with pictures on it and speed limits and possibly some words.
    • Pay attention to the sign. This is important and a challenge to absorb if you aren’t used to them or expecting them.
      • They usually contain these main 4 elements: Highway (e.g. indicated by an image of a green road), a major road (e.g. indicated by an image of a blue road), Cityscape (e.g. an image depicting a city), and a Town (e.g. an image depicting a small village).
      • Next to each image is a speed limit annotation. This is the maximum speed for each zone.
      • There may be words that indicate something specific or further instructs you about speed limits.

        Climbing Mont Blanc in background

        Katy taking on one of her first outdoor leads in Chamonix.

  5. Whatever you thought you knew about speed limits prior to entering this new country, is now obsolete. These rules are the new enforceable rules.
    • For example, in Germany, their green roads could have no speed limit, but in France, those green roads have a maximum of 130 kph.
  6. Fueling your car
    • When fueling the car, you typically fuel first, pay second.
    • This feels very old school to me. I recall having to do that in my very early days of driving. Nowadays, this is a very rare occurrence in America. I’m not sure why it’s this way in Europe, but it is.

      Mont Blanc

      Mont Blanc

    • Paying at the pump.
      • Sometimes there is a machine in the fueling area where you can pay. This can be confusing. Not all pay machines would take my credit card so there were times when I did not know how to get fuel at that station. (these machines tended to coincide with no attendant on duty)
      • A few times, I learned that these machines will request information in the native language with no English option, before I could pump. (e.g. Enter your pump number). After successfully answering the questions, I could pump fuel. Then I had to return to the pump to pay. Be aware that it will request information again (most likely starting with “Enter your pump number”.
      • The best thing to do here, if you don’t know what it’s asking because of the strange format, is to guess what it could want. Of course, if that fails (and it failed me) then you may have to find a local to translate. 😊

        Mont Blanc

        Mont Blanc

  7. The roads are smaller/narrower.
    • Construction zones are horrifying at times. I remember being white knuckled in a 2 lane, barriered zone attempting to pass a truck. The lanes were so narrow, I thought I would scrape the barrier as I went past. Sometimes passing a truck or getting caught beside a truck is unavoidable. This trip was the first time I saw a van scrape the barrier as he tried to pass one. I always wondered if that happened.
    • I had to get comfortable with the dimensions of my vehicle. Pulling in mirrors when parked and squeezing in and out of spaces was not unusual.

Since I’m a climber, I spend time in the countryside, which means I had the pleasure to drive on very petite roads. These roads are meant for 2-way traffic, but barely allow, if it allows at all, 2 cars to pass at the same time.



Driving at night is the most problematic because these same roads do not have good visibility. Blind corners abound and the locals scream down these roads. In my case, one such road had a nice drop off at the edge of the road making it nerve wrecking to find myself in a passing situation at times.

Typically, and especially in the day time, one of the cars pulls to the side to allow the other to pass. What I learned is that, on some of these roads, you must back up to a passing area to make the pass safe for both vehicles. I had to learn these petite roads to know where the potential turn offs could be so that should an oncoming vehicle appear, I would know if I should make them pull off or if I needed to find a way to pull off.

My mistake one night was in being nice and trying to let the other car pass. I wasn’t in a good passing zone and the other car should have pulled off because there was a pull off closer to them, but they saw me slow down and make room so they sped through.

I was knowingly very close to the drop off edge but when I went to drive away, my back tire slid into the ditch. The whole ordeal was anticlimactic. The car was just suddenly stuck in the ditch. Once I realized this, it became an epic night in the middle of nowhere France trying to get my car out.

Roadside assistance is amazing! Slow, but awesome. And, they were free! I used them to get my vehicle out of the ditch. Once they arrived, it took 5 minutes to get the car unstuck. No damage. I was lucky!

These types of roads can be found all over Europe so be prepared.

Bug Patrol

Country living. Here, my friend Katy is on bug patrol. Brought back memories of a time with me and my sister.

  1. Parking
    • Parallel parking is super handy in the city.
    • Most parking in the city has pay stations and signs or notations on the pay stations that tell you the hours you must pay. Sometimes 1 hour is free. Most drivers have a placard in their car with a clock that you can adjust the hour. This is used for those situations. Essentially, you place the placard on your dash with the time that you parked and you leave. The attendant can see that you are parked within the free time, based on that. After this time, you must pay the meter and put the receipt in the vehicle.
  2. In Germany, you can drive with a beer in your hand.
    • Of course, the police have the right to ask for a blood alcohol screen at any time. And, they have a strict 0.05 mg of alcohol per mm of blood limit. But, so long as you aren’t drunk driving, you are legal to drive and drink. In my experience, the people who do this aren’t abusing it. They have a beer on the way home from climbing or to the restaurant for food. Open containers aren’t an issue for passengers either, so long as no one was driving over the limit.
    • This is a great article to more information and a comparison of Germany’s drinking laws and Americas.
      cycling Chamonix, France

      You don’t need a car all of the time. Cycling is a great alternative!


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About Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek is a rock climbing athlete and computer software/technology enthusiast.
This entry was posted in Climbing, Fun, Musings, Road Trip, Travel, Writings and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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