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 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
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
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).
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
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.
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
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
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?