Top tips for road trips
It’s tempting to jump on a low-cost flight to western Europe when they can cost less than a cab into town. But, with a little planning, you can see and do so much more by car – even on a budget.
Planning your own route and being free to change your mind at the last minute is the perfect antidote to the limitations, rules and hidden costs of air travel. Whether you’re travelling alone, as a couple, with family, friends or pets, a road trip can bring all the freedom and fun you need from your summer holiday, with the final destination an added bonus – all from the comfort of your own car.
And there’s safety in technology: the wide availability of WiFi and mobile networks coupled with lower data roaming charges mean help is easy to summon from the side of the road in the event of an emergency. Apps such as hotels.com offer great deals and make it easy to book ahead, or find accommodation at short notice within your vicinity if you’re forced to take an unexpected detour.
You can travel from A to B as quickly as possible via autobahns and toll roads, or meander down country and coast roads, filling your car with foreign fayre along the way.
I speak from experience. Last year, fed up with the same four walls of my home office and the relentless grey dampness of a British ‘summer’, I desperately needed a change of scene. I packed everything – my 16 year old daughter, my cocker spaniel and my office – into my battered old Nissan Almera and set off on a European road trip.
We travelled through seven countries, taking in coasts, forests, mountains and lakes. At times hair-raising (driving through the Austrian Tyrol at midnight, negotiating hairpin bends and sheer drops) and exhilarating (the joys of speeding through the isolated landscapes of central France, singing at the tops of our voices), it was the trip of a lifetime.
After three weeks and 3000 miles, I picked up a few tips along the way.
- Carry out car checks
Before embarking on your trip of a lifetime, carry out a few basic checks on your car to make sure it’s up to the journey. Some you can do yourself, but if you’re not au fait with the inner workings of a road vehicle it’s probably best to get a trustworthy mechanic to check it out for you.
You’ll be covering a lot of miles over a short space of time, so make sure your tyres are up to the job. The tread should have a minimum depth of 1.6mm around the circumference – that’s around the width of the border on a 20 pence piece. If you insert a 20 pence piece into the tread and the border is still visible, your tyres will need replacing before you set off. See www.tyresafe.org/tyre-safety/tread-depth for more information.
Similarly, your brakes will take a battering, so unless you’re an expert in automotives, ask an expert to check the pads to make sure they’ll last the distance. Also check your brake fluid, oil, water levels, windscreen fluid and lights (full beam, half beam, indicators and brakes) before you set off.
Even if you’re certain your car is equipped for the trip, invest in European breakdown cover. Mine, with Swiftcover, was just £94 for 12 months and included full roadside recovery or courtesy car in the event of irreparable breakdown.
- Kit your car out
When you know your car’s in ship shape and raring to go, you’ll need to equip it with the kit you need for every country you intend to travel in. France requires a red triangle, alcohol breath testing kit and headlight filters, while in Italy you must drive with your headlights on at all times and have a high-vis jacket within reach (not in the boot). This isn’t an exhaustive list – the AA has all the information you need on its website: www.theaa.com/motoring_advice/overseas
- Invest in a satnav
Unless you’re travelling with a professional navigator, I strongly recommend you invest in a satnav. Mine – a Garmin Nuvi 2559 – cost £120 but I’m pretty sure it saved me a lot more than that in fuel; without it I would have driven miles off course. There’s a reason map-reading is a dying art – it’s because you can stick a little computer to your windscreen and it will show you exactly where to go.
If you’re unaccustomed to driving on European roads, the split-screen function which shows you which lane to take when you approach a junction is a god send. I honestly don’t think I could have done the trip without it: not without getting hopelessly lost several times over, spending a fortune on extra hotels on account of being hopelessly lost, or becoming a casualty of the Paris rush hour traffic and its motorbikes.
- If you’re travelling with pets, read up on the rules before you leave
Travel in the EU with a dog (or cat or ferret, bizarrely) is relatively easy thanks to the EU pet travel scheme. If your pet is microchipped, a set of requisite vaccinations, boosters and blood tests will get your little mate their very own passport and they’ll be free to move around the EU. It all sounds simple enough.
BUT: getting back into the UK with your pet isn’t as easy as getting out of it. Your pet MUST have a tapeworm vaccination no more than five days and no less than 24 hours before you travel back to the UK. No tapeworm jab, no travel, as I discovered when I tried to get home, necessitating an extra 24 hours in Calais after finding a vet who would do the honours.
Pets can travel by ferry, Eurostar or in your car on the Eurotunnel trains. The former two options require your pets to either stay in the car alone or in the travel operator’s own kennels. As I am the owner of the neediest dog that ever was, leaving her simply wasn’t an option so we chose the Eurotunnel train; you drive your car onto the train and remain in it for the 35 minute crossing. Even without fussy Flossie the spaniel, I’d have chosen this option; it’s quick, easy, and relatively cheap. Prices vary depending on time of crossing and when you book: see www.eurotunnel.com
It’s your responsibility to make sure your pet complies with all Defra’s regulations for bringing animals back into the UK, as well as the rules of the operator you travel with. See www.gov.uk/take-pet-abroad/overview for more information, and check the conditions of carriage on your channel crossing very careful several days before you plan to return.
- Pack a picnic
Your car and your pets have been showered with attention – now it’s time to make sure you’re well catered for. Although European service stations can be places of wonder and delight – Italy’s Autogrill service stations in particular are perfect for picking up bulk supplies of very reasonably priced local produce – they don’t always cater for restricted diets. If you like baguettes, ham and cheese, you’re in luck. If you have any sort of allergy or intolerance, or are vegetarian or vegan, you’ll find yourself eating a lot of pommes frites. Make sure you have enough supplies to see you through a few days, particularly if you plan on sticking to the high-speed motorway routes.
- It will take you a LOT longer than you think
While satnavs and route planners are gifts from the gods of travel, do not have blind faith in the timings they decree. Yes, it may take four hours to drive from Calais to Luxembourg on a sunny Wednesday afternoon when the birds are singing and the planets are aligned, but chances are your journey won’t see such favourable conditions.
Take the timings the route planners give you, and add an extra 50%. Even without going off route, a service station stop is a minimum of half an hour by the time you’ve pulled in, parked up, queued for coffee and the loo and, if you’re travelling with a pet, made sure they’ve had some exercise. And there’ll be traffic. And toll queues (see (8)). And any number of “OH MY GOD PULL OVER I LEFT MY PHONE/PURSE/KEYS IN BELGIUM oh no it’s alright I didn’t” situations.
Unless you have nerves (and a bladder) of steel and are well versed in the techniques of extreme fasting, trust me on this one. Don’t do what I did and think you can do a nine hour journey from northern France to the Austrian Tyrol in nine hours. Not unless you want to negotiate hairpin bends on mountains with sheer drops in the pitch black after a 12 hour drive. Like I did.
- Plan your pit stops
If you want to stop off in the Belgian equivalent of a country pub, don’t just take a random turn-off and hope for the best. You’ll end up eating your lunch in a petrol station on the edge of an industrial estate and adding two hours onto your journey. Leaving your route without a clear idea of where you’re going will simply take you onto another dual carriageway going in the wrong direction. You don’t have to stick to the route rigidly – it is possible to be spontaneous AND sensible. Just identify which village, river or coastal town you want to stop at before you set off on the next leg of your journey and ask your satnav to take you there.
- Don’t let tolls take their toll
Never experienced French toll booths? I envy you. It’s too late for me, save yourself.
Even if you don’t hit a major traffic route on a major holiday weekend in peak holiday season (like I did), toll booths can be a struggle if you’ve never come across one before. And trust me: being the only driver blocking the toll funnel to freedom by getting out of the right hand driver’s side to walk across to the left-hand side intercom to ask the operator why your card isn’t being accepted when there’s a queue of 178 angry drivers beeping furiously at you and the only French you know is voulez vous coucher avec mois isn’t much fun at all.
I travelled with two cards – a Mastercard and a Visa – and neither was accepted at the toll booths. I know not why. They just weren’t. There are ‘cash only’ lanes, handily marked by giant green neon Euro signs for those clever enough to spot them (unlike me). A much easier option is to invest in a windscreen tag before you go, so you can whizz through the lanes unencumbered. See www.saneftolling.co.uk for more info.
- If music be the food of love, drive on
One of the things I love about travelling in different countries is immersing myself in the culture. However, when your experience of the culture is driving for nine hours down a dual carriageway with only the radio to stop you from certain madness, it’s a good idea to be prepared.
I enjoy listening to the radio in different countries. I foolishly believe that if I listen to that country’s equivalent of Radio 1 for four hours at a stretch, I’ll absorb the language by osmosis and emerge at my destination joshing with the locals in their native dialect. Obviously, that ain’t never gonna happen, so unless you like listening to the same 18 songs on repeat, interspersed with travel news that you can only understand via the medium of leaning out of the car window to see cars sitting in stationary queues for miles ahead, pack lots of CDs. Or, if your car doesn’t have a CD player (Y-reg Nissan Almeras tend not to, in my experience), invest £20 or so in a handy little tape device that will convert your iPhone/iPod/generic MP3 player into a listenable device that works in your trusty old rust bucket.
If all else fails, turn the radio off and have a conversation.
- Sit back and enjoy the ride