Cars offer speed, freedom, access to the countryside, and an escape from the town-to-town monotony of trains. Before setting off, know the laws of the coun tries in which you’ll be driving (e.g. both seat belts and headlights must be on at all times in Scandinavia, and remember to keep left in Ireland and the UK). For an informal primer on European road signs and conventions, check out www.trav- lang.com/signs. Scandinavians and Western Europeans use unleaded gas almost exclusively, but it’s not available in many gas stations in Eastern Europe.
SAFETY. Cheaper rental cars tend to be less reliable and harder to handle on dif ficult terrain. Less expensive 4WD vehicles in particular tend to be more top- heavy and are more dangerous when navigating bumpy roads. Road conditions in Eastern Europe are often poor, and many travelers prefer public transporta tion. Western European roads are generally excellent, but keep in mind that each area has its own hazards. In Scandinavia, for example, you’ll need to watch for moose and elk (particularly in low light), while on the Autobahn, cars driving 150kph will probably pose more of a threat. Road conditions fluctuate with sea sons; winter weather will make driving difficult in some countries, while in oth ers, spring thaws cause flooding due to melted ice. Roads in mountainous areas are often steep and curvy, and may be closed in the winter. The Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT), 11769 Gainsborough Rd. Potomac, MD 20854 (US & 301-983-5252; www.asirt.org) can provide specific info about road conditions. ASIRT considers road travel to be relatively safe in most of Western Europe and slightly less safe in developing nations due to poorly maintained roads and inadequately enforced traffic laws. Carry emergency equipment with you (see Driving Precautions, 52) and know what to do in case of a breakdown.
DRIVING PERMITS AND CAR INSURANCE
INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT (IDP). If you plan to drive a car while in Europe, you must be over 18 and have an International Driving Permit (IDP), although certain countries (such as the UK) allow travelers to drive with a valid American or Canadian license for a limited number of months. It may be a good idea to get one anyway, in case you’re in an accident or stranded in a smaller town where the police may not speak English; info on the IDP is also printed in French, Spanish, Russian, German, Arabic, Italian, Scandinavian, and Portuguese.
Your IDP, valid for one year, must be issued in your own country before you depart. An application for an IDP usually requires one or two passport photos, a valid local license, and a fee (about US$10). To apply, contact the national or local branch of your home country’s automobile association.