7 questions to ask yourself before driving abroad

Summer’s finally here, which means that it’s time to pack up the car and head off on your summer road trip. Whilst hitting the open road is exciting, there are a number of things that need to be considered before you drive abroad. In fact, research from the RAC shows that 76% of British motorists feel uneasy about driving abroad. So to give you some peace of mind, and to help you to feel prepared for every scenario, here are the 7 questions you should ask yourself before driving abroad.

1. Is my car in good enough shape for a trip abroad?

Even if you’re not heading abroad, it’s a good idea to give your car regular health checks, and to make sure that its road safe. This is especially important if it’s a long trip with lots of driving involved – the longer the drive, the more chance there is that something could go wrong. Give your car a full check over before you head off, paying special attention to the following:

Tyres

Check the tyre pressure and tread depth, as well as keeping an eye out for any wear and tear. If you don’t know already, it might be a good idea to learn how to change a tyre before your holiday, as well as making sure you have a spare tyre available should you need it on the road.

Fluid levels

Check the water, washer and oil levels. It can actually be dangerous to run out of water for washing the windscreen when driving, so it’s best to fill it up before your trip. During the winter months, it’s also a good idea to mix in some washer fluid to stop your tank freezing, as well as keeping some anti-freeze in the car – just in case. 

Lights

Check that all of your lights are still working, and that you know how to use them - you'd be surprised how many people don't know how to switch on their fog lights! It’s also good practice to keep an eye out for any dashboard warning lights that might come on during your trip.

While you’re giving your car that final check over before you travel, it might be worth making sure that your vehicle’s tax and MOT are valid and up-to-date. Double check the local car maintenance laws in your destination country as well. Some countries specify, for example, that you need to keep a spare bulb in the car, just in case a light blows while you’re on the road. With this in mind, it’s worth making sure that you’re meeting all of the local requirements.

2. Are the road rules the same abroad as they are in the UK?

While a lot of the driving rules will be the same across Europe, some traffic laws do vary, so brush up on the local laws before you hit the road. Not only that, but if you’re uncomfortable with certain types of road (such as busy motorways), then it’s a good idea to know what you’re letting yourself in for before you head off.

In Germany, for example, the Autobahn doesn’t actually have a federally mandated speed limit, instead providing an advisory speed limit of 130 km/h, or 81 mph. To put it into perspective, the national speed limit in the UK is 60 mph for a single track road. So if you’re a bit twitchy about travelling at high speeds, then it might be a good idea to research the local area beforehand to make sure you’re prepared for any potentially perilous stretches.

Aside from watching out for speed limits in foreign countries, you’ll also want to consider which side of the road they drive on, as well as any unusual road layouts or conditions that you might come across – the Atlanterhavsveien (Atlantic Road) in Norway, for example, is a well-known stretch of road not only because of its eight small bridges that cross over an archipelago of eight different islands, but because the road is also prone to autumn hurricanes. While this isn’t necessarily a reason not to visit the area, it’s something that you’d want to be aware of beforehand so you can mentally prepare yourself for any potential risks.

Driving on the wrong side of the road is also an easy way to get caught out – the fact that we drive on the left hand side of the road in the UK is actually a bit of an anomaly, as the only other countries that do so (apart from us) are Cyprus, Ireland and Malta. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re clued up before you drive the wrong way down the Autobahn.

For more country-specific information on what’s required of you when driving abroad, please visit the European Union website.

3. Will my driving licence be valid abroad?

While the UK is still a member of the European Union (EU), you can still use your UK driving licence when driving in EU and European Economic Area (EEA) countries. This includes the 28 countries currently in the EU, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. If you’re planning on driving anywhere else in the world, then you’ll want to find out whether you need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) to take with you, as well as your UK driving licence.

The IDP is currently required in over 140 countries, and is essentially used in conjunction with your driving licence to validate it in other countries. The IDP also translates your driving licence into a number of different languages for ease.  

Bear in mind that while the IDP is a legal requirement in some countries, it isn’t in all. Do your research before you head off to find out what the rules are with regards to IDPs. In some countries, for example, even if it isn’t a legal requirement, you may not be able to hire a car from an agency without having purchased an IDP beforehand. You may also need to be over 21 years old to hire a car in another country, so have a look into the details before you get there, and make sure you have a contingency plan in place. 

It’s important to remember that the IDP isn’t a replacement of your driving licence, but an addition to it – so make sure to carry both with you when you’re driving abroad. Dependent on the country, you could be handed a penalty if you’re caught driving without one.

In order to apply for an IDP, you must be over 18 years old, be a UK resident and hold a full UK driving licence. You can apply at the Post Office up to 3 months prior to your trip, at a cost of £5.50 for the year. You’ll just need to take along your driving licence, a second form of ID (e.g. your passport) and a passport-sized photo (that you’ve signed on the back) when you apply.

4. What other items might I need to take on my trip abroad?

As well as considering the road rules for each country, you’ll also need to consider legal requirements for what must be kept inside the car when driving abroad, as these rules will differ between countries as well.

Make sure you’re clued up on local laws regarding seat belts and child seats, as well as any safety equipment that you’ll be required to keep in the car. In France, for example, you’re legally required to carry the following:

  • A reflective jacket for each occupant
  • A warning triangle 
  • Headlamp beam deflectors 
  • A breathalyser or alcohol test (although you won’t receive a fine should you be unable to present one at inspection)
  • A GB sticker 
  • Spare bulbs - by law you’re also mandated to carry a spare bulb kit for your vehicle, as the French police deem it necessary to replace it there and then in the interest of safety.

While this is the legal requirement in France, these items might be a good idea to keep in the car wherever you travel - after all, the unexpected can happen anywhere, and at any time. Some other useful items to include in your car travel kit might be:

  • Something to keep you warm (such as boots, a winter jacket, and a blanket)
  • Some food and water
  • A portable phone charger
  • An ice scraper
  • A first aid kit

5. Do I know where I’m going?

This applies even if you’re driving in the UK, but it’s a good idea to know where you’re going before you set off. That way, you can know exactly what to expect when you get there and prepare accordingly. Consider the climate, and whether there’s anything extra you should be storing in your car to prepare for potentially hazardous terrain.

It may be common sense, but plan your route carefully beforehand, as this will help you to conserve as much fuel as possible. Not only that, but it’ll cut down your travel time so you can fit in a bit of sightseeing along the way! Knowing your route ahead of time will also mean you can schedule convenient pit stops for when you need a break from driving.

Then there are the tolls to consider. We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve been caught out by a surprise toll booth without any change on us, so it might be worth keeping some coins in the car - just in case. Mapping out your journey beforehand and making a note of any toll booths you might come across could also help you to find alternative routes to avoid them.

But sometimes, even with the best of intentions and the most organised, colour-coded road map that ever existed, we do still get lost on occasion. If your sense of direction leaves a little to be desired, it might be worth investing in a Satellite Navigation system to help you out. But maybe keep the paper map as well, just in case your Sat Nav loses signal halfway through your journey.

6. What would happen if my car were to breakdown abroad?

Breaking down is a pain at the best of times, let alone when you’re on holiday. That’s why it’s a good idea to save the number of a local breakdown service to your phone. It’s also a good idea to write it down on a piece of paper in case your phone breaks or runs out of battery.

Your car insurance policy might even have breakdown cover included as standard, so check your policy documents. If not, then you can pay an additional premium to have breakdown cover added to your policy, but you’ll need to find out whether this covers you when driving abroad.

It may be worth having a look into whether you need specialist European breakdown cover. This works in the same way as normal breakdown cover in the UK, except that it’ll also protect you from what could potentially be an awkward language barrier while driving abroad, as well as a large recovery bill.

Aside from insurance, there are a few simple things you should do if you breakdown, either at home or abroad. Make sure you stop in a safe place, and wait away from your car and moving traffic. Before getting out of your car, make sure you turn on your hazard lights to warn other drivers of the stationary vehicle, and if you have a warning triangle, it might be worth putting that out as well. Once you’re safely behind the roadside barrier (if there is one), call your breakdown recovery team for assistance.

7. Do I have the right car insurance in place?

Before you head off, make sure you have the right car insurance in place for your destination country. In most countries the minimum legal requirement for car insurance is third party cover, so you should make sure you have this in place before you drive anywhere, including in the UK. Check the local laws for the country you’re travelling to, just to make sure you’re covered should anything go wrong. As well as ensuring you have suitable car insurance in place when driving abroad, you might also want to consider whether you need any travel insurance for your holiday to cover your other belongings, such as your mobile phone or tablet

When considering car insurance, you’ll need to factor in whether you’re driving your own car, or a leased or borrowed car when driving abroad, as this will affect the type of insurance you need in place.

If you’re driving your own car within the EU, then your normal car insurance policy should extend to give the minimum legally required insurance cover in each country (usually third party only for up to a certain number of days). You should speak to your insurer if you want to extend this to cover damage to your own car or belongings.

If you’re hiring a car, then find out exactly what’s covered under the car insurance they provide. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the excesses applied to the policy as well, as car hire companies typically have higher excesses on their policies that can be anywhere between £500 and £1,500. Consider whether paying this amount would financially impact you should you get into an accident abroad.

Dependent on the country, you might also be legally obligated to have any, or all, of the following covers in place:

  • Cover for theft of the vehicle (‘theft protection’ or ‘vehicle theft cover’)
  • Cover for damage to the vehicle (‘collision damage waiver’, ‘damage excess waiver’ or ‘vehicle damage cover’)
  • Cover for injury or property damage suffered by a third party (‘third party cover’ or ‘supplementary liability’)

When thinking about car insurance for your road trip, you’ll also need to consider whether you need a Green Card. The Green Card system is facilitated by the Motor Insurance Database (MIB) in the UK, and is essentially an international system that proves the existence of insurance when moving a car across international borders. Ultimately, the Green Card acts as proof of insurance if you were to be involved in an accident in a foreign country.

The Green Card system currently operates in 47 countries, including all 28 currently in the European Union, the additional countries that make up the EEA, Switzerland, Russia, several countries in the Middle East and others bordering the Mediterranean Sea. However, if you tell your insurer that you’re driving in Europe, then they should provide you with a Green Card automatically. If not, then make sure to ask for it, as the card itself is free.

To make sure you’re kept up-to-date, and understand what’s legally required of you when driving abroad, visit the government website.

Read our disclaimer.

Naomi Soanes

Naomi Soanes is a Digital Engagement Executive in our marketing team.

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