Norbert Figueroa a RoamRight Blog Author

Driving In Eastern Europe

Romania, formerly also spelled Roumania and Rumania, is a country located at the crossroads of Southeastern and Central Europe CT

There’s something about the freedom of the open road that makes traveling a liberating experience. Europe, especially Western Europe, is well known for its great roads and gorgeous landscapes; but what about Eastern Europe? This side of the continent is becoming increasingly popular among road trippers since it offers the beautiful landscapes of the western side of the continent, yet there is still a sense of adventure due to the less developed roads and infrastructure of several of the eastern countries and the sense of the “unknown” many of them still have. 

Here are a few tips to consider when planning a road trip through Eastern Europe and surrounding areas.   

Before you start the trip

Have a driver’s license?

While it is possible to rent a car and drive it with a driver’s license from your country or state, it is recommended to have an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). If you have a EU driver’s license, it is valid in all countries in the EU.

Before starting your trip, check the rules and laws of the countries you plan to visit to see if it is necessary to have an IDP or if your driver’s license will suffice.  You can get an IDP at your national automobile association or government’s department of transportation.

Navigation

Navigation is key when you’re driving in Europe, unless you enjoy getting lost quite often. Even though GPS is fairly advanced and reliable in the area, it is always recommended to have up-to-date printed maps for corroboration. Often, GPS and Google Maps don’t have the most accurate information and tend to recommend routes that are either not optimal or that don’t exist. Road layouts change often since new roads are built every year. Always double check, especially if you are driving around areas that are far from major points in the country.

If you use your phone’s GPS, don’t forget to have a car lighter charger since the GPS apps tend to drain the battery rather quickly. It is also a good idea to study the map before departing to be familiarized with the road. Check printed maps (you can find them at any petrol station), Google Maps, and/or ViaMichelin for road time estimates and routes.

Take some extra time into account

Two great differences between driving in Eastern Europe and Western Europe are the road quality and borders. Road quality in Eastern Europe is often below the quality found on the western side, which means that speeds often recommended by the GPS software or even marked on the road are not achievable. For this reason, it is good to estimate 1.5 times of the recommended time on Google Maps or GPS. 

Borders can also be time consuming in Eastern Europe. The western side has what is known as Schengen Area, which is a group of countries with open borders. Most countries in Eastern Europe don’t share this type of agreement, so crossing the border means passing through immigration. When you cross the border, you need to present your car’s documents, your valid driver’s license, and in many cases your car’s insurance and road tax (I’ll get to this soon). Add at least one to two hours to your driving time per border crossing, depending on how busy it could be.

Also important to note is that if you’re renting a car, you need to make sure that the rental company allows you to cross borders, and which borders.

Take into account drop-off fees for car rentals

If you’re doing a one-way rental always take into account the fee that will be charged for returning the car in a different city or different country (which is even higher).

Have insurance

Check what’s covered with the rental company’s standard insurance policy or your own insurance policy for your privately owned car.

Know what the excess is (the maximum amount you would have to pay in the event of loss or accident) and whether any of your own insurance policies (such as your travel insurance) provide any coverage. Also make sure you’re not paying twice for the same coverage.  For example, certain credit cards provide insurance for car rentals when the transaction is made with that credit card. Check with your card provider to see if it applies to you.

Manual or Auto

It might sound silly, but make sure you can drive the car you rent. Most rental cars in Europe have manual transmission. Automatic transmission cars are sometimes available, but they are usually more expensive.

While driving

Different countries, different rules

Each country has its own set of driving rules. Some allow you to turn right on a red light while others don’t. Some require you to have the headlights on all times, while others don’t. Check online to see which rules apply to each country you’ll be visiting by doing a Google search or by visiting the transportation department website of each country. 

Also know the parking rules. Different countries might have different color-coding for parking spots, which might be confusing for US drivers. A yellow or a while line on the side of the road doesn’t always mean you can park there. Some actually mark private parking spots or other special spaces.

In addition, some cities might have a “limited traffic zone” where you might not be allowed to enter with your car. This applies specially in historic city centers or major urban zones.

Road tolls and road tax

It might not be apparent, but several Eastern Europeans countries require a road tax (often called vignette). This is often a paper or sticker you buy at a gas station right after you enter the country. It is valid for a number of days and it is checked upon at the time of exiting the country. Failing to pay the road tax will make you vulnerable to a hefty fine or will put you in a possible bribing situation (speaking from experience). Paying the vignette has a much lower price than the possible fine or bribe. 

You can often find tollbooths on major highways but they might not be the kind of tollbooths where you pay at the moment. Many of them work with the vignette stickers, so make sure you get the vignette before you get into any highway.

Gas prices vary drastically

Gas prices in Europe are often higher than in the US due to taxes, but still, you can find some relatively cheap gas prices the easternmost you go. One big exception is Turkey (even though it is not in Eastern Europe), where gas prices are almost $5 per liter (as of summer 2013). Yes, also have in mind that gas is priced per liter, not per gallon like in the US.

Watch your speed

Last but not least, watch your speed! Roads in Eastern Europe are famous for often changing their speed limit in short stretches and not “announcing it properly”. And, without any warning, you have a police car stopping you for speeding (when you didn’t even know you were). Many policemen are smart and catch foreign drivers at these transition points, but, if you have a good GPS, they often tell you the current speed limit, so you could reduce your chances of unintentional speeding. 

After all these tips, are you still considering that Eastern Europe Road Trip?

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About the Author

Norbert Figueroa

Norbert Figueroa, a RoamRight Blog Author Norbert Figueroa is an architect who hit the pause button on his career in 2011 to do a round the world trip. He's been blogging for over three years at globotreks.com, where he shares his travel experiences, budget travel tips, and a good dose of world architecture. From hiking Mount Kilimanjaro to diving with great white sharks, he is always on the search of adrenaline and adventure. Norbert is originally from Puerto Rico and he is currently based in Milan, Italy... when not roaming around the world, that is. He has traveled to more than 80 countries in 5 continents and his goal is to travel to all 193 U.N. recognized countries. Follow Norbert on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Plus.

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