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How to Plan a European Road Trip

My wife and I enjoyed a long road trip through Europe, but it took a lot of advance planning for things to go smoothly.

Time to hit the open roads of Europe...

Time to hit the open roads of Europe...

Earlier this year, my wife and I decided that we were fed up with waiting around in airport departure lounges only to be told our flight had been delayed, and then finally bundled onto a crowded plane. We love travelling, but needed a break from the airport thing. So, we decided to drive from England through Europe to the Abruzzo region in Italy.

This article details our thoughts and planning process in advance of the trip. Although my wife and I have previously driven in Europe (notably Italy and France), we had not attempted such a long drive.

Getting Across the North Sea/English Channel

Currently, driving across mainland Europe is relatively without restrictions for any UK resident (how this will change once we leave the European Union, who can say?). There is, however, one hurdle that must be dealt with before hitting the wide-open highways of Europe, and that is the North Sea or the English Channel.

So before planning a drive through Europe, we had so look at the options for getting across to mainland Europe. Our online research, in general, told us that the shorter the sea crossing the cheaper the price.

Aside from flying, two other options exist when leaving Britain for Europe, one is by ferry, the other by the Eurotunnel. There are a few options when it comes to ferries, but only one Eurotunnel. How you choose which option to go with depends on:

  • your budget,
  • where you live in relation to your departure point and
  • where you want your drive to start in mainland Europe.

Main Options for Traversing the North Sea/English Channel:


Newcastle - Amsterdam

DFDS Seaways

15 hr 45 min

Hull - Rotterdam

P&O Ferries

11 hr

Harwich - Hook of Holland


6 hr 45 min

Folkestone - Calais

Le Shuttle

35 mins (by Eurotunnel)

Dover - Dunkirk

DFDS Seaways

2 hr

Dover - Calais

P & O Ferries

1 hr 30 min

Dover - Calais

DFDS Seaways

1 hr 30 min

Newhaven - Dieppe

DFDS Seaways

4 hr

Portsmourh - Caen

Brittany Ferries

3 hr 45 min (by Catamaran)

Portsmouth - Cherbourg

Brittany Ferries

3+ hr (by Catamaran)

Portsmouth - St Malo

Brittany Ferries

9+ hr

Poole - Cherbourg

Brittany Ferries

2 hr 15 min

Plymouth - Roscoff

Brittany Ferries

6+ hr

Tips for Getting the Best Fares

You will generally save money by booking your sea crossings early online, as fares offered by the ferry companies and Eurotunnel tend to rise as they get more bookings.

Also compare crossing times, as midweek crossings at the least attractive part of the day are often the cheapest.

In the end, after looking at all the options, we decided to go with North Sea Ferries from Hull to Zeebrugge (Belgium) because the Hull ferry terminal is a few minutes from our home, and we wanted to start our European drive in Belgium. This was one of the more expensive options as it included an overnight crossing in a cabin, but the convenience of location, on this occasion, won out. Note: the Hull-Zeebrugge service is no longer running, a casualty, I fear, of the Coronavirus pandemic and limitations on travel over recent years.

Planning the route

Planning the route

Planning the Route

After deciding how to get across the North Sea, it was then time to plan the route overland. This involved deciding our starting point (Zeebrugge, Belgium as discussed above), deciding our final destination (a small town near Sulmona in Abruzzo, Italy), which countries we wanted to travel through, where we would cross the Alps and where we needed to stop overnight/take a break.

To make this easier, we used the RAC’s online route-planner, first of all entering our start point (Zeebrugge) and end point (Sulmona) to get a rough estimate of how many miles and how long it would take us by the shortest possible route (16+ driving hours, going through Belgium, France, Switzerland and Italy).

However, we were keen to re-visit a spa town in Germany called Bad Reichenhall which is close to the Austrian border, so we clicked on ‘add location’ on the route planner which re-calculated the route via Bad Reichenhall. This diversion raised our ‘driving time’ to around 20 hours, and we would now be driving through Belgium, Holland, Germany, Austria and Italy.

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Once a rough route was in place, we broke the rest of the route into roughly 5-hour drive sections or legs, so we would not be driving too long one day and too short the next in between accommodation stops. This is how we broke the journey up:

  1. Zeebrugge to Aschaffenburg (near Frankfurt)
  2. Aschaffenburg to Bad Reichenhall
  3. Bad Reichenhall to Bologna
  4. Bologna to Sulmona

After working out the route on the RAC route planner, we printed out the whole route and then high-lighted it on a large-scale European road atlas. We also planned to use our Satnav programmed with our drive leg destinations to assist us on our journey.

Stops on Our Trip

Low Emission Zones (LEZ or ZTL)

Low Emission Zones are becoming particularly popular in some European cities, similar to London everyone is trying to cut down on urban pollution. If using a Satnav, don’t let it inadvertently take you into one of these inner-city zones; the fines can be very heavy.

On our trip, we researched the LEZ (also known as the Zona a Traffico Limitato or ZTL) that is in Bologna in advance to ensure we didn’t inadvertently drive into it.

Accommodation on Route

After deciding roughly where we would be ‘breaking’ the driving we then set about booking accommodation at the end of each of the driving ‘legs’. Our first day’s driving would take us close to Frankfurt in Germany, but we didn’t want to drive in and out of a big city and waste driving time, so we searched on Airbnb for accommodation near Frankfurt that was easy to find and just off the motorway, and so ended up staying in the small town of Aschaffenburg. For our next stop, Bad Reichenhall, we booked a hotel for two nights and the same for Bologna in Italy.

Planning for the Driving

In planning for the driving, we only had a couple of rules:

  1. Switch drivers and take a break every couple of hours.
  2. Switch drivers if the driver is tired.

In advance of leaving we also had our car serviced and checked, paying particular attention to the fluid levels, lights, windscreen wipers and tyre pressures—you cannot plan for everything, but it gave us some peace of mind knowing our vehicle was unlikely to let us down over some minor and easily avoidable issue.

Driving regulations for Europe

Driving regulations for Europe

Requirements for Driving in Europe

Needless to say there are certain considerations you need to take into account when driving in Europe, and this mostly revolves around what emergency gear you need to be carrying in your car—I am not going to detail all the requirements for driving in Europe as these can change on a regular basis and you would need to find the most up-to-date information available at the time if you are planning a similar trip.

A good place to find the current regulations pertaining to driving in Europe is via the AA or RAC websites.

We, for example, put our ‘European requirements kit’ together, by looking on the above websites, but basically European driving regulations break into 3 sections

  1. Documentation: All countries require you to carry your passport, vehicle registration, MOT certificate, insurance, driving licence (or International Driving Licence) etc. This is not an exhaustive list, so see the RAC/AA websites for full details of what you will need pre and post Brexit.
  2. Your Vehicle: Will need to fitted with headlamp converter/deflectors when driving a right-hand vehicle – see the RAC/AA website for full details of what else you might require.
  3. Compulsory Equipment: All countries require you to carry equipment in case of emergency such as warning triangles, fire extinguishers etc. Again, check the RAC/AA website for full details of what is required.

For the documentation we required, we bought a compact concertina file so we could easily access all our documents as we needed them.

For the headlight converters, or anything else we needed to carry in the car, that we didn’t already have, we went to Amazon in one go and bought the lot. The equipment was then all checked off and put into an easily grabbable bag.

Tolls and Other Costs

Aside from the costs over getting across the North Sea and our accommodation costs, our other major costs were to be fuel (petrol) and tolls. We did a rough ‘back-of-a-beermat’ calculation to see how many tanks of petrol we would need for the journey and budgeted for that accordingly.

We also put aside cash for tolls, but given the route we had chosen knew we would not need most of this cash until we entered Italy (as Belgium and German motorways are toll free).

Austria, however, which we would be traversing, requires you to buy an authorisation in advance of entering the country to use its motorways or expressway network. This takes the form of a windscreen sticker or an electronic registration, and should always be bought in advance of entering Austria from nearby petrol stations before the border.

Things We Learned Along The Way

As with any journey, there were a few things that we could have not predicted or simply did not consider in our planning. Here are some of the lessons we learned along the way.

  • Never let your fuel drop below a quarter of a tank. We were slow to learn this lesson and nearly ran dry twice, once when getting snarled up in an 8 mile traffic jam on the motorway which moved at walking pace, and another time when 2 service stations in a row failed to provide fuel (one was closed and the other out of fuel).
  • Check on the traffic situation before you set off. We should have checked on roadworks before we set off, particularly in Germany where we seemed to be in one long traffic jam due to roadworks which had obviously been there for months and with a bit of forward planning we could have avoided. Lesson learned.
  • Don't always trust Google maps. At present 'places' in Google maps are often defined by Google users themselves, so that little 'marker pin' is not always accurately placed, in the end use your common sense.

Ready to Go?

This is how we prepared for our trip. It’s not a comprehensive list, and I’m sure you may have some more tips if you have planned a similar venture. If so, please feel free to leave a comment below.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What is your top tip when planning a European road trip?

Answer: Expect the unexpected, so don't be surprised if things don't completely go as planned, always try to remain flexible in your planning.

© 2019 Jerry Cornelius

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