Our European road trip from the UK to Turkey and back was everything we had hoped for and more. It goes without saying though that not everything went to plan. Here are just a few learned that we learned while driving between Brighton and Istanbul, via more than a dozen countries.
1. Be prepared for your maps to be wrong
We are a bit old school and prefer to travel using paper maps, though it’s possible that this can happen with GPS too.
We had just crossed the border into Bulgaria from Turkey and when deciding which map (we had two) to use for our initial journey, I noticed that some of the roads were labelled somewhat differently.
Perhaps the publishers did not expect anyone to take their wares all the way to the far reaches of south-eastern Bulgaria and skimped a little! Luckily, we were in a reasonably remote area, so we didn’t have too many road choices….
2. Toll roads can be cheaper than you think, and sometimes well worth it
Driving along the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), with the beach on one side and the charming coastal towns on the other sounded nice before we got there and experienced the extremely slow speeds of 50km per every three hours. We weren’t really in a hurry to get anywhere, but it was pretty tedious.
In Italy, we took a different approach and tried some of the toll roads. Fast, far cheaper than we expected (less than 20 euro for 170km for example) and a much more enjoyable experience overall. We took a mix of toll and normal roads in Italy after that, depending on where we were travelling.
3. Some of the best places to see are unexpected and free to visit
There are hundreds of museums, art galleries and attractions that are well worth your time and money in Europe, but there are also lots of free places and things to go, see and do that could also be highlights of your trip.
Our favourites include Lake Bled in Slovenia, hiking between the Cinque Terre villages in Italy, the twisty Transfagarasan road in Romania, snorkelling in Croatia and Cantobre village in France.
4. Parking outside a city and travelling in is a LOT easier than driving in
With the narrow streets, one way systems, trams, bicycle lanes and lack of parking, driving around large towns and cities in Europe can be difficult. Public transportation was usually so good that it seemed silly to be fighting against it.
So after a couple of times of bad experiences, we started to park outside of cities and then get a bus or train in. Sometimes, we would park at the airport as it provided an easy place to leave the car, and also felt a bit safer. The parking costs at airports are of course not particularly
Sometimes, we would park at the airport as it provided an easy place to leave the car, and also felt a bit safer. The parking costs at airports are of course not particularly cheap, but we felt it was definitely worth it to avoid the hassle.
Our worst experience was on the outskirts of Istanbul in Turkey – we felt a sense of achievement just reaching the airport let alone actually going further into the city!
5. A Green Card is still required in some countries (ignore your vehicle insurer!)
Even if you have purchased insurance, some countries accept nothing less than the old style Green Card. We experienced this in Turkey; the only acceptable form of car insurance (compulsory to enter the country with a vehicle) was a Green Card.
Having ‘Turkey’ listed on our insurance was not enough, so we had to purchase one month’s insurance then and there. I’ve heard that it can be requested in Albania too, but we had no problems here luckily.
6. Camping sites can move, close or even be demolished before you visit.
Most of the time, we didn’t plan where we were going to sleep every night. The few times we did try to head for specific campsites, we were pretty unlucky.
For some reason, both of these incidences happened in Slovakia, along with some other misfortunes. After crossing the border we tried unsuccessfully for a few hours to find an already-closed-for-the-season campsite, and then the day after ended up at a site that had been completely bulldozed.
This confirmed our preferred plan….to not plan!
7. Do not underestimate the complexity and uncertainties of border crossings.
If there was one part of our European road trip that I did not enjoy, it was crossing borders. It made me really appreciate the free travel within the Schengen zone (most EU countries plus others such as Switzerland). The further east we travelled, the more complex they became. When I say complex, I really mean confusing.
For most borders, it was necessary to show our passports and customs (usually car documentation) information when leaving the first country, and then show this again at the borders of the country were entering. At the latter, there was often a car inspection and sometimes a compulsory cleaning (with a fee).
Also thrown in, occasionally, were additional fees for environmental taxes, vignettes (car tax) and even written questionnaires about our visit. It was a bit of a guessing game to work out what was needed at each border; at
It was a bit of a guessing game to work out what was needed at each border; at some, we had to park and walk around the border area to visit various offices. At others, we just continued driving through seemingly endless booths.
Writing about it now, it sounds interesting, but at the time, we just wanted to get through and into a new country. Being at the mercy of border officials isn’t that fun!