Europe in the Fast Lane

By Rick Steves Modified: October 30, 2013 at 10:52 am •  Published: October 30, 2013
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Driving in Europe can be scary--a video game for keeps, and you only get one quarter. European drivers can be aggressive. They drive fast and tailgate as if it were required. They pass where Americans are taught not to--on blind corners and just before tunnels.

   For Americans stressed out about driving in Europe, expressways and toll roads are the answer. I favor them because they’re safer, cheaper (saving time and gas even if there is a toll), and less nerve-wracking than smaller roads. Sure, you'll need to take back roads to find some Back Door destinations, but usually superhighways are the fastest way to get from point A to point B. Here are some tips on what to expect.

   Germany: The toll-free autobahns in Germany are famous for having no speed limit, but some sections actually do have a maximum speed, particularly in urban areas and complicated interchanges. In areas without an "official" speed limit, you will commonly see a recommended speed posted. While no one gets a ticket for ignoring this recommendation, exceeding this speed means your car insurance no longer covers you in the event of an accident.

   Obstructing traffic on the autobahn is against the law--so running out of gas is not only dangerous, it can earn you a big ticket. In fast-driving Germany, the backed-up line caused by an insensitive slow driver is called an Autoschlange, or “car snake.” What’s the difference between a car snake and a real snake? According to locals, “On a real snake, the ass is in the back.”

   France: Most of the autoroutes in France have tolls (the exception is in Brittany). While the tolls are pricey, the alternative to these super “feeways” usually means being marooned in countryside traffic--especially near the Riviera.

   But paying the tolls can be tricky. At many tollbooths, American credit cards are not accepted unless they have a smart chip (what Europeans call "chip-and-PIN" cards). Use cash--it’s best to have smaller bills, since the automated machines won't take 50-euro bills and often there aren't any cashiers. At pay points, avoid booths showing only "Telepeage" or a credit-card icon. Look instead for green arrows above the tollbooth or icons showing bills, which indicate they accept cash.

   Road speeds are monitored regularly with speed cameras (a mere two kilometers over the limit gets a pricey ticket). The good news is that drivers are usually warned first. Look for a sign with a radar graphic that says "Pour votre securite, controles automatiques." Anyone caught driving over the limit will be fined a minimum of about $180.



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