Driving in Europe with a right-wheel drive
I never worried about the big stuff like getting murdered in my sleep when I was planning my trip around Europe. My main source of anxiety was how I would drive my British right-handed wheel campervan on the wrong side of the road. Anxiety about how the toll roads worked and how I would use an automated petrol pumps, all of which are so different from the UK, gnawed at me for weeks.
I couldn’t find many articles or videos about these seemingly tiny, insignificant things so I questioned friends who had holidayed in France. They humoured my terror-filled questions and tried to allay my fears, but in the end it wasn’t until I was on the road did I learn how to navigate the various traffic rules and the all the nuances of driving abroad.
Now that I am through the other side, I can say nothing was as fearsome as my mind had allowed me to believe. That’s how anxiety works.
I hope this blog on driving in Europe will be helpful to others who also worry about the little things too, but know, in the end you can handle anything that comes your way!
Before You Leave
In Europe they expect you to know what to do when you breakdown. They don’t expect you to cry or scream or panic, or call your Dad with snot running down your nose. They expect you have to a kit with everything you need to stay safe and sane when your vehicle decides to stop working. The expectation is written into law and I kind of respect that no-nonsense, no fuss approach.
You will need at the minimum;
High visibility jackets for each person
Flat tyre kit
Both the RAC and the AA do excellent kits. I bought this one and popped it into the boot, hoping I would never need it.
The kits don’t include breathalysers but you can pick them up cheaply on Amazon here. Europe generally has a zero tolerance policy towards drink driving. I keep mine in the front passenger seat pocket.
Lights and Mirrors
As British cars are right-handed drives our mirrors and lights are designed to be able to see at those angles. In Europe its all the other way around so our lights will dazzle cars coming the other way and our mirrors suddenly have blind spots that didn’t exist before.
To help with this you can buy light deflectors here and little extension mirrors a bit like this. The lights deflectors are obligatory but I’m not sure if the mirrors are. I strongly recommend getting extensions for your mirrors though, especially on the left hand side as you will now be doing the majority of your overtaking from this mirror.
I put the mirrors on before I left to get used to them. When I came out of the EuroChannel Tunnel the first thing I did was pull into a petrol station to put the light deflectors on.
Right now with Brexit I don’t particularly want to declare my nationality, but law says we must. Get a GB sticker and pop onto the back of your vehicle so everyone can tell you are from a country that doesn’t know what it is doing.
When You Get There
Driving on the right or wrong side of the road
I had some experience of driving in Portugal on holiday with a hire car, but I worried about driving a right-wheel drive on the right hand side, not only because all the angles would be off but because it would just...feel weird. I shouldn’t have worried. After driving for a few minutes it felts completely normal. It is amazing what you get used to.
There are a few things to note;
You are now reliant on your left hand wing mirror for overtaking and general manoeuvring, as opposed to the driver’s side which we use more in the UK. I found I had a massive blind spot on the left even with the extensions, so I routinely check over my shoulder before pulling out.
On a motorway the right lane, which is usually our fast lane, is the slow lane.
At roundabouts you give way to the left!
Unlike the UK most major European countries’ motorways are all toll roads. They are fast, empty, clean with plenty of services. These roads are good if you want to travel a long distance quickly, but are expensive.
I used the toll roads quite a bit in France, just to build up my confidence. By the time I arrived in Spain I was confident enough to use the back roads, and in Portugal there is a slightly different system but generally speaking this is what happens;
When you join the motorway the first toll issues a ticket and takes no payment. Keep the ticket. Never lose the ticket or you are charged for the entire route. When you leave the motorway there is a toll at your exit. Insert the ticket given to you earlier, the cost then flashes on the screen. You can pay by card or cash. I find a bank card is quicker, easier and less stressful.
Sometimes it is toll where you pay a set amount such as, $2 for a Class 2 vehicle (most camper vans are this). There are manned booths or automatic ones where you can use a card. I try to go to a manned booth where possible, because they tend to be more patient when I’m scrabbling around rolling down windows and getting my cash together. I also like to see them smile when they see Dougie drive up to their window.
Paying tolls when you’re in a right-hand drive is utterly comical. Toll machines and booths are always on the left, our passenger side. Every time I approach a toll I have to I have to put the van in neutral, scrabble across to the passenger seat where an alarmed but curious Dougie is sitting, roll down my window then reach across for the ticket or payment machine. Roll the window back up, slide back across to the driver seat, put the van made into gear and drive off, all the while laughing hysterically!
Most garages, particularly the ones in large services areas, in Europe are automated petrol pumps. I have yet to come across one where you can’t change the language to English, so if you’re panicking about working a machine in Spanish or Finnish, don’t be. Usually the machines will tell you what to do or at least have a diagram showing you how to work it.
More often than not there is a button with the value of $10, which you can press until you reach your desired amount. Pop your card into the machine, and fill up!
Sometimes there is an option to pay inside like normal, sometimes not. It depends where you are.
A couple of times I’ve struggled to work the pump and both times someone has helped me. People are kinder on the road.
Pumps are black for diesel and green for petrol just like the UK. They do like their numbers such as Gasolina 95 or Gasolina 98, which is the posher petrol, as opposed to our ‘premium’ in the UK, so know which one your van takes.
There is none.
Driving in Europe isn’t quite the Wild West, but in busy cities like Lisbon, it sure felt like it.
Drivers are fast in Europe. They will expect you to get out of the way. They will drive up your arse. They will overtake you the first chance they get. My advice would to be to simply accept this as a fact and don’t let it bother you. When you can allow cars to overtake you safely and take your time.
Drivers also aren’t very kind. If you’re in the wrong lane, they won’t slow down or let you out. If you hesitate at a roundabout, drivers will take full advantage.
I have absolutely loved driving and exploring Europe. The scenery is often spectacular. All the negatives, of which there are few, won’t matter at all when you roll the windows down to let the wind whip through your hair, and you see the crisp blue sea on the horizon, as you sing-a-along to your favourite song.
Just be confident. Own the road. And always give your fellow campers a jolly wave when you see them!
Who knows, you may see me on the road one day! I will be the madwoman laughing manically as I pull away from the toll booths…
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