Things to know before driving abroad

Tips & guides

20 March 2018

Whether you’re a seasoned traveller or driving abroad for the first time, here are some essential road rules you should know before you set off.

Breath-taking mountainside passes, scenic ocean roads and empty country lanes make driving one of the best ways to see Europe's varied landscapes.

Before you pack your bags however, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the different rules of the road you’ll need to consider, and the documentation and equipment you’ll need to carry with you.

The essentials

You might have heard of an IDP or International Driving Permit, which must be used in conjunction with your UK licence when driving in many regions abroad. However, if you're driving in countries within Europe, you'll be fine using just a Britain or Northern Ireland-issued driving licence.

From the 8th of June 2015, the paper counterpart licence is being taken out of use, and will no longer be considered valid legal proof that you have a ‘clean’ licence – so it’s important to carry your photocard licence with you. To find out more, read our guide to how driving licences are changing.

Since April 2015, exit checks at sea ports and the Eurotunnel require all drivers and passengers to have their passports, or national identity cards, inspected when they arrive at the border. Before heading to the ferry or tunnel, make sure you have your vehicle registration documents handy, along with your car insurance certificate, passport and travel insurance details.


Staying safe

When you disembark from the ferry, it's likely that you’ll notice signs reminding you to drive on the right while in Europe. This may seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget – particularly if you’re new to driving abroad. Remember to think right, especially when you’re getting back into your car after a fuel stop or a break at a service station.

There are some other country-specific road safety regulations to bear in mind too. If you’re heading to France, for example, it’s mandatory for all cars to carry a breathalyser – a rule that took effect in spring 2013. Other equipment like GB stickers, warning triangles and first-aid kits may also be compulsory, so check the road rules and requirements for your destination before you set off.

As with any long car journey, your vehicle should be in good condition before you leave, so it’s wise to get it serviced before your trip. There are certain safety measures you can take yourself too, such as:

  • Checking your tyre pressure is correct. You can find the correct PSI figure for your car in the user manual, on the label inside the door frame, or the label inside the fuel flap.
  • Checking whether the tyres have enough tread – this should be a minimum of 1.6mm.
  • Making sure there's enough oil below the bonnet.

Just in case you do come into technical trouble, it's important to ensure you have breakdown cover and that it's valid in the EU. If you're insured with AXA, you can add European Breakdown cover to your policy as an optional extra.


Toll roads

There aren’t many toll roads in the UK, but they’re a fact of life in continental Europe, especially on motorways. In France, Spain, Italy and Portugal, tolls are charged for particular stretches of road, while motorway vignettes (stickers that you display on your windshield) are compulsory in Austria and Switzerland. Vignettes are available in post offices, newsagents and petrol stations and should be on show from the moment you enter the country – failure to do so can result in an expensive on-the-spot fine.

While manned booths used to be the norm on motorway tolls, automated systems are gradually being rolled out and many don't accept cash. If you're travelling to France you should consider purchasing a Telepeage device, which is electronically read as your car passes through the toll booth. One of their benefits is that drivers in right-hand vehicles don't need to lean over the front passenger seat in order to pay the booth’s attendant.


Plan your route

In the age of GPS, getting lost on overseas roads isn’t the problem it used to be. That said, it’s still risky to be solely reliant on technology. If you're heading abroad, it's certainly worth purchasing a sat nav device for the trip, but you should also take a detailed, country-specific road atlas with you to be on the safe side.

Before you head off, take some time to plan the best route – and if you’re travelling with friends or family, ask one of the passengers to familiarise themselves with the route, too. In the event that you do stray off-piste, it's also worth packing a phrase book and learning a few key terms in the local language. Just knowing the correct terms for ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘straight ahead’ can help a great deal if you need to stop and ask for directions.