breakdownCountless thousands of Brits drive abroad on holiday each year. Whatever the purpose, it makes sense to ensure that both drivers and vehicles are properly prepared for the journey – so do make good use of this short guide.

There are 28 countries in the European Union alone, each with its own set of road traffic laws and motoring customs. Driving in Europe can mean a spectacular and sunny coastal road that’s within sight of Africa, or a snowy track amid the biting cold of the Arctic Circle, where the only others on the road are reindeer. Add to this some of the world’s most congested cities, dense clusters of motorways (many with confusing numbers) and a big variation in safety standards and attitudes to risk. No wonder we often risk getting lost, taking wrong turnings or perhaps stopping where we shouldn’t.

But we want to help you put safety first – and cut stress at the same time. Preparation and planning are key to a good journey and a great holiday. It certainly pays to do a bit of research before you go, just to ensure you and your vehicle are up to the journey, your documents are in order and you’re carrying the correct levels of equipment to keep the law enforcers happy.

Before you go

Some sensible planning will help make sure your European journey is enjoyable and – we hope – stress-free. Try to become familiar with the driving laws of your holiday destination, including the local speed limits and which side of the road to drive on. Police officers in many countries have the power to impose (and collect) substantial on-the-spot fines for motoring offences, whether you are a resident of that country or a visitor.

Driving Licence

The new style photocard driving licence is valid in all European Union countries. You could soon face disruption when renting a car abroad, following the DVLA’s decision to abolish the counterpart licence. So if you’re wanting to hire a car abroad, you will need a code to give to the rental firm so that they can see any convictions for offences such as speeding. You can obtain the code (which will only be valid for 72 hours) by logging on to the DVLA Share Driving Licence service or you can call DVLA on 0300 083 0013.

European Breakdown Cover

Don’t risk letting a breakdown ruin your European trip. Ensure you purchase a policy that will cover you for roadside assistance, emergency repair and recovery of your vehicle to the UK, wherever in Europe you may be heading.


Make sure you obtain an EHIC card for everyone travelling. These are free and cover you for any medical treatment you may need during a trip to another EU country or Switzerland. You can apply online (, or you can call 0845 606 2030.There are also application forms available at Post Offices.

For your car

Your car must display a nationality plate of an approved pattern, design and size.

Contact your insurer before you go, to confirm exactly what level of cover you have and for how many days it will be valid if used abroad.

Check the adjustments required for your headlights before you go. Beam deflectors are a legal requirement if you drive in Europe.

Equipment checklist

This checklist represents GEM’s suggestions for what you should take with you in the car:

  • Fire extinguisher
  • First aid kit
  • High-visibility jacket – one for each occupant
  • Two warning triangles
  • Replacement bulbs and fuses
  • Spare spectacles (if worn) for each driver
  • Disposable camera and notebook.

Filling up

Fuel is generally most expensive at motorway service areas and cheapest at supermarkets. However, these are usually shut on Sundays and Bank Holidays. So-called ‘24 hour’ regional fuel stations in France seldom accept payment by UK credit card, so don’t rely on them if your tank is running low during a night-time journey. Fill up in daylight.

Law update

Radar speed camera detectors are illegal in most European countries.  New legislation introduced in France in 2012 required every driver to carry a self-breathalyser test kit. However, the imposition of a €11 fine for failing to produce a breathalyser when required has been postponed indefinitely.  So, in theory, you are required to carry a breathalyser kit, but no fine can be imposed if you don’t.

In Spain you must carry two warning triangles, plus a spare pair of glasses for every driver who needs to use them.

In Luxembourg, there are specific rules relating to how you fix a satnav device to your windscreen. Get it wrong and you could be fined on the spot.  In Germany it is against the law to run out of fuel on the motorway.

Norway and Sweden have particularly low limits for drink-driving: just 20mg per 100ml of blood (compared to 80 in the UK). In Slovakia, the limit is zero.  In Hungary, the limit is also zero.

Top tips for staying safe  

Collisions abroad occur not just because of poor driving conditions locally, but also because we do not always take the same safety precautions as we might expect to take at home, for example by not wearing a seatbelt or by drinking and driving.

1. Plan your route before you go. That includes the journey you make to reach your destination (with sufficient breaks built in) and any excursions or local journeys you make while you’re there.

2. Remember that, wherever you drive, you will be subject to the same laws as local drivers.

3. Take extra care at junctions when you’re driving on the ‘right side’ of the road. If driving in a family group, involve every member in a quick ‘junction safety check’ to help reduce the risk of a collision.

4. Take fatigue seriously. The excellent European motorway network means you can cover big distances with ease. But you must also make time for proper breaks (experts recommend a break of at least 15 minutes after every two hours of driving).

5. Remember the lower drink-drive limits across Europe if you’re flying or ferrying and plan to have a drink on board, as the combination of unfamiliar roads and alcohol in your bloodstream is not a safe one.

6. Expect the unexpected. Styles of driving in your destination country are likely to be very different from those you know in the UK.  Drive defensively and certainly don’t get involved in any altercations on the road.

7. Don’t overload your car, however tempting the local bargains may be.

8. Always wear a seatbelt and ensure everyone else on board wears one. Check specific regulations regarding the carriage of children.

9. Don’t use your mobile phone while driving. Even though laws on phone use while driving differ from country to country, the practice is just as dangerous wherever you are.

10. When you’re exploring on foot, be wise to road safety as a pedestrian. Use proper crossings, but remember that drivers may not stop for you! And don’t forget that traffic closest to you approaches from the LEFT.

Have a safe trip and a happy holiday!