A must-read guide for taking your car on holiday

Holiday road
Barry put his foot down on the accelerator. The nudist beach was just around the corner...
"The police won’t just wave you on your way because you’re foreign and thus not worth the hassle – you need to comply."
  • | by Daniel Bevis

Going on a driving holiday means different things to different people; for some, it’s tearing across a continent from racetrack to racetrack, dominating apices and vaporising tyres. For others, it’s a communal means to enjoy a family holiday without shelling out for flights and hire cars. And there are many points in between.

I clearly remember my childhood holidays in the family motor; the iffy breakfast on the crack-of-dawn Sally ferry, sticking the beam deflectors onto the headlights, the relentless miles of autoroute through France, the head gasket of the Cortina blowing in the Spanish Pyrénées… and all the while packed in tightly with camping equipment, crisps and story tapes. Bliss.

These halcyon days are not a thing of the past – there’s nothing to stop you and your loved ones leaping into the car and heading for the horizon, whichever country it may lay over. But there are a few things to consider before you go…

Legalities of driving in foreign countries

It goes without saying that you’ll need to be insured – we’ll come onto that shortly. But what about the local requirements that need to be observed? There are myriad considerations, and the police won’t just wave you on your way because you’re foreign and thus not worth the hassle – you need to comply.

For example, in France it’s a legal requirement to carry the following in your car at all times: warning triangle, reflective jacket, and at least one unused, sealed, NF-approved breathalyser (although we’d recommend carrying two – if you’ve only got one and they make you use it, you may be caught out).

It’s also worth carrying a spare set of bulbs and fuses – it’s a kind of semi-enforced requirement, and you might be fined if you’ve got a blown bulb. You’ll also need to remember to turn your dipped beam on in low light, not to allow under-tens to sit in the front without a child restraint, and be aware that motorway speed limits vary between 110km/h and 130km/h depending on conditions. Oh, and speed camera detectors are strictly prohibited, so check your sat-nav settings. You don’t want it to be confiscated by the gendarmes.

There are a number of other intricacies, and that’s just in France. In Germany, don’t assume that all autobahns are free of speed limits – it’s actually only a small percentage of the network that’ll allow you to v-max your family hatchback while your children scream at you to slow down.

In Switzerland you have to beep your horn before driving round blind bends on rural roads, and you can be fined for going through a tunnel without switching your lights on. (You may also find it’ll cost you 40 Euros just to cross the border into Switzerland.)

Meanwhile, in Spain you’re never allowed to use full-beam in built-up areas, while using your horn at night in the Netherlands will cost you dearly. In Ireland you might happen across level crossings with manual gates that you need to open yourself. And if the signs in Andorra tell you to fit your snow chains, this is a legal requirement, so you’d better have some handy! (Presumably they only do this when it’s actually snowing, though – it’d be spectacularly cruel to do it in the summer.)

We have compiled a helpful European driving guide to keep you legit. It could save you more than a few Euros in fines!

Car insurance

Useful, this, if you don’t fancy the idea of spending your holiday crying in a Belgian prison. It’s really quite important to check with your insurer that you’re covered to drive in other countries, and what sort of cover you’ll have when you’re there.

Those AA guides mentioned above outline what level of cover is required as a minimum in each country – in most you’ll find that third-party cover is compulsory – but consider what sort of cover you actually want. If you’re fully comp in the UK, how would you feel about only having third-party cover while abroad? Talk it over with your insurer, there are usually options.

Breakdown cover

Again, check with your provider to see if you’re covered abroad. You don’t want to end up walking three hundred miles down the hard shoulder with bits of crankcase in your pockets.

Be sure to nitpick over the details too – will they collect your stricken car, provide you with a hire car and sort out your accommodation nearby… or will they just tow you to a local (possibly closed) garage and leave you to it?

Put some thought into how you organise your car

The journey is as important as the destination. And if you’re driving from one country to another, you may find that the journey is rather long. So, put some time and effort into ensuring that everything you need is in the car, and that it’s all in the right place. Your maps and/or sat-nav should be easily accessible, and have somewhere to hide the latter when you park up.

A phone charger will be of use. Talking books are great for passing the miles (I’d recommend the BBC Radiophonic Workshop’s production of Douglas Adams’ The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy personally – there is no better driving story) or, of course, put your passenger in charge of finding local radio stations. French broadcasting law dictates that they play a high percentage of French-language songs, for example, so you’ll learn some new stuff.

Make sure you have plenty of liquid refreshment and tasty snacks to keep you going, and local hard currency to pay for tolls. A loo roll’s handy as well, just in case the roadside facilities aren’t always up to scratch…

Be very careful how you pack the car, too. Driving across Europe is no different to driving to your local supermarket in terms of safety, so don’t be silly with the packing: you may congratulate yourself on your Tetris-like abilities with holiday bric-a-brac when you wedge the camping stove onto the parcel-shelf, but that will come and smack you on the head if you get rear-ended by an over-zealous van driver on the Toulouse périphérique. Just be sensible, like you usually are.

Make sure your car’s OK

Basic checks and maintenance are common sense, but you’d be surprised how many people overlook it. At the very minimum, be sure to check your tyre pressures, oil and coolant levels, washer bottle, brake fluid, and that all your lights are working. A functional car is a happy car.

Once you’ve taken care of all of this, you can relax into your holiday without a care in the world. The ubiquity of cheap flights means that the good ol’ family road-trip is a dying art, and you should tackle this head-on – get it right and you’ll create memories that you’ll all treasure forever. Happy holidays!