I recently wrote about our European driving holiday and a couple of people have since asked me for some more detailed information about the planning process. Unless people want to do exactly the same trip, many of the details will be different, but the key things to check remain the same. Here I’ll detail how I planned our holiday and what tools and sites I used, along with specific examples from our trip
The original idea for the trip was at least partly inspired by the rising cost of flights to Crete. A return flight now costs around £250 during the summer holidays. The best site I am aware of for finding cheap flights (and tracking their price) is SkyScanner. I set SkyScanner alerts for a 2 week return to Crete in early August and tracked it for over 9 months, during which time it varied between £229 and £280. If we were to fly to Crete we would have needed to hire a car, as we always have in the past. Car hire of a basic small car last year was €400 with 121CarHire, which hasn’t changed significantly since 2009, when a Toyota Aygo was €359 from TheBestCars. The basic cost of a holiday to Crete for 4 people would therefore be about £320 — £380. Any driving plan would have to be reasonably comparable to this for me to “sell it” to my fellow travellers.
Estimated journey cost
I started by putting our start and end points into Google Maps, which suggested the drive (done without diversions or stop offs) would be 2,400 miles each way. From this I subtracted the distance travelled on the sea crossings of the channel and the Mediterranean (35 and 205 miles respectively according to google) to get an estimate of the total “land miles” we’d need fuel for which came in at 2,160 each way or 4,320 in total.
Next I needed an estimate of the economy of our car. The car in question is a Vauxhall Astra 1.7 diesel eco car, so it gets pretty good mileage. I had a look at HonestJohn for the official extra-urban MPG (62.8) and also a more realistic estimate of what MPG we might achieve, which turned out to be 52.7mpg. I assumed we’d be using air conditioning and knocked a bit off for this as well and went with a figure of 48mpg.
Finally, I did some conversions to estimate that at 48mpg we’d need 90 gallons of fuel, or 410 litres. At current UK prices (£1.45 or so per litre) that would cost almost exactly £600, or £150 each. So far so good — well under budget, but we’d also need 2 ferries each way.
We decided to get the Eurotunnel service across the channel which ended up being just over £240, altho had we booked it earlier it would have been closer to £150. So this took our total per person up to £210.
Finally, we needed a ferry from Greece to Crete. These run day or night and it is possible to book a cabin for either voyage. As both myself and my partner suffer with sea sickness we decided to travel at night with a cabin — whilst more expensive this would save us a night of accommodation in Athens and give us an extra 2 days in Crete. An overnight ferry with 4‑bed cabin and the car was €577 return. This actually dropped to only €400 by the time I booked, but I didn’t know this when estimating the journey cost. At the summer 2013 exchange rate (around 1.15) this €577 would equate to almost exactly £125 each, taking our total per person up to £335.
There was one final number to take account of — unlike the UK many European countries charge tolls or require road tax. Investigating this was the most challenging part of the planning, but was made considerably easier once I discovered ViaMichelin which provides impressively accurate pricing for both tolls and taxes. ViaMichelin suggested we would require €60 for tolls and €24 for taxes each way. This equated to approximately £35 per person in total. This took my estimated journey grand total up to £370 each — within my target price range!
I also discovered that many taxes could be paid in advance (and automated toll passes obtained) from TollTickets. I got tax for Hungary and Austria from TollTickets and both worked flawlessly.
Picking places to visit
Having established the viability of our plan, and given approval by the other travellers, I started to look in more detail at what route we might go. I quickly decided there wasn’t much point in travelling in the same direction each way — we’d be better to take more of a “loop” to maximise where we could visit. I looked at the “direct route” map and quickly noticed that it passed to the east of Croatia and Austria, both places I wanted to visit. The route also passed to the west of the Czech Republic and Hungary which I was also interested to visit. A more Western route through Croatia and Austria only added 100 miles to the journey, and a more eastern route through the Czech Republic and Hungary only added 80 miles! The extra time and cost of the extra 180 miles was a fairly insignificant fraction of our 4,300 mile total made the decision very easy — we’d take the 2 routes and see lots of interesting places on the way.
We had never planned to drive all the way in 1 go, so I started looking along our 2 new routes for places to stay. The criteria were fairly simple — we wanted to stay near significant population centres as these are where most tourist accommodation is found, and the wider the choice the better value we could get. There were also limits to how long we could stay in a car for if we wanted to have a proper bed to sleep in each night. Our total journey time each way (excluding the ferry to Crete) was around 34 hours. If we had 4 days each way this would average to 9 hours of driving each day. With a 7 hour sleep this would leave us 8 hours to eat, refresh and see the local area. Whilst this would be quite a hectic period we decided it was worth it as we could spend 4 days travelling each way and have 8 days relaxing in Crete. We later revised this to give ourselves 5 days on the return journey based on the lower quality of some of the roads.
With the above criteria in mind I looked along our route for places we could stay that we also wanted to see. On the Eastern route we wanted to see Prague, and also see some family near Budapest so I selected these as 2 places to stop off. The third stop-off became the second city of Greece: Thessaloniki as it was right next to the route and split the journey from Budapest in half. The only downside to this plan was the mammoth journey on day 1 from Sheffield to Prague, a journey of over 900 miles taking an estimated 16 hours.
On the western route I was very keen to see Dubrovnik, the Adriatic coast and the Alps. I was also quite keen to see somewhere in Germany with Munich being the obvious choice on our route. The most obvious place to stop off between Dubrovnik and Munich was Venice and this was a no-brainer to add as none of us had been before. The gave us 2 long journeys, Athens to Dubrovnik (an estimated 14 hours) and Munich back the the UK (over 800 miles and an estimated 14 hours). We decided not to attempt the Athens to Dubrovnik journey in 1 go as we knew we had to cross through Albania which has challenging roads and potential boder crossing delays. We weren’t keen to stay in Albania so we elected to stay in northern Greece near Ionannina. This had the added bonus of giving us a bit more time in Athens, and I also discovered that there is a very impressive 1km deep gorge near Ioannina which we could add to out list of places to see.
The last detail to decide was which direction to travel. We decided that we’d rather do the longest journey first (Sheffield — Prague) and we had also heard the border crossing heading south from Italy via Slovenia to Croatia, was often very slow. When we actually passed it coming the other direction the queue of cars was over 4 miles long — we’d really dodged a bullet! So we opted to take the more eastern route first, and return via the more western route
The next task was to find accommodation at each of the places we were planning to stop off. Our accommodation for Athens was effectively sorted by using the ferry overnight, and our accommodation in Hungary was provided by family. This left me to find accommodation in Prague, Thessaloniki, Ioannina, Dubrovnik, Venice and Munich. I estimated initially that it would cost around £20 per person per night (or £120 each) for the accommodation which would take our grand total (minus spending money for food and drink) up to £480 — a very reasonable price when compared to a 2 week package holiday to southern Europe!
We wanted private accommodation (so no dorm rooms), but other than that we really just needed a bed. We didn’t want to drive into major European cities, which can be very stressful in a UK car, but we wanted to be able to visit them quickly from where we stayed, so my criteria for accommodation was that it should be located on the outskirts near to a motorway we’d be travelling on, and it should be within 1 mile of a metro, subway, or rail station we could use to get into each city. I tried several sites like Expedia and some of the sites advertised on the TV like Trivago but these typically came up with prices around £50 pp. I also used HostelWorld and HostelBookers, which despite their names, both find all types of accommodation. My sister had recommended these when she had spent 3 months inter-railing in Europe several years ago. They were excellent and I was able to find accommodation meeting my criteria in each city. In 2 instances it was cheaper to book through booking.com for the same accommodation which I did.
Preparing the car and related paperwork
It goes without saying that you will require insurance for driving in Europe. We already had European cover as part of our insurance, if you don’t you will need to contact your insurer. If you are planning well in advance you may well have your insurance renewal due before you travel which gives an opportunity to find a new deal which includes European cover at better value than your current insurer. The usual price comparison sites are great for this — I always go via MoneySavingExpert to see which comparison sites are the best to use.
Once you are insured for Europe you will need to check which countries your route goes through — your European cover might not cover all of them. European cover will cover all EU countries and may cover a few others, but is unlikely to cover everywhere. Our cover didn’t cover us for Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro or Bosnia. It may be possible to get additional cover for some countries — you will need to contact your insurance company to find out. I managed to get cover for Montenegro for an additional £35. This cover is provided with what is known as an “international green card”. Even if you are only travelling to countries which are covered by standard EU cover it is worth getting a green card from your insurance company as some local police forces will ask for one and are likely to delay you if you don’t have one. A good example of somewhere like this is Serbia. We found ourselves unable to get cover for Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia. This is a very common state of affairs for most Western European insurance companies, and the countries in question provide a legal alternative — you can buy 3rd party insurance at the border. In Macedonia this cost €50 and Albania €27. Bosnia didn’t require cover as we were driving along the national road from Croatia back to Croatia (Croatia is split in half by a 7 mile wide corridor giving Bosnia access to the Sea). The actual legal status of this road is unclear — Croatia and Bosnia both signed the “Neum Agreement” which in theory means if you stay on the road you stay in Croatia, but neither country ratified the agreement. Regardless, our experience is that you can pass through without a problem and within 10 minutes you’re back in Croatia
Once you have made arrangements for insurance in each country you pass through you will need to make a list of required equipment. Many European countries require items like warning triangles to be carried at all times. The AA have useful guides to each country as well as a summary which include details of the equipment required. Our eventual list of items was: warning triangle, first aid kit, reflective vest inside the car, headlamp converters (and spares), GB plate (and spare), fire extinguisher, spare bulbs, spare fuses, 2 breathalysers, tow-rope, V5 car registration document, drivers license (both parts), insurance certificate, and greencard. We also decided to get international drivers permits, even though no-where we went required them. For a mere £5.50 we felt it was another document that might help prevent any delays or difficulties with foreign officialdom. Many of the items on this list can be bought as an AA branded kit quite cheaply (e.g. from Amazon). The IDP can be obtained whilst-you-wait in some post offices — you will need your drivers license, a passport photo and proof of identity (we used our passports). Finally, we decided to get a cheap windscreen shade for the car as we didn’t want a superheated steering wheel or seat belts when we came back to the car, as had happened to us with hire cars in the past.
Other essential admin
- Check your passport isn’t with 6 months of expiry — if it is, renew it.
- Don’t forget to get travel insurance.
- Take your European health insurance card. Before setting off check that the EHIC is still valid — if not, get it replaced free!
- Contact your bank / credit card company and notify them of your travel plans to ensure they wont block the use of your card abroad.
- Contact your mobile phone provider and make sure you can use calls and texts abroad — this might not be on by default. You may also want to turn voicemail off as some providers charge you if someone leaves you a voicemail whilst you are abroad!
- Don’t forget time changes in your travel planning. Almost all of Europe is 1 hour ahead of the UK. Greece is 2 hours ahead.
- We also took with us printed copies of European Motor Accident Report forms in a range of languages. As far as I’m aware these aren’t legally required, but they make a lot of sense to have just in case you have an accident. They can be downloaded in a range of languages from CarTravelDocs and AccidentSketch.
Normally only 1 currency is required for going abroad, but as we were passing through 18 countries we realised we couldn’t make do with just the Euro. Quite a few European countries still use their own currencies, and we would need some of each. I wasn’t keen to carry lots of difference currencies for most of the journey so planned to keep it as minimised as possible. I e‑mailed each of the places we had booked to stay to find out if the accepted credit card. Where they did I arranged to pay on my Post Office Mastercard. I got this card several years ago primarily because foreign transactions aren’t subject to a charge and are exchanged at the official Mastercard daily rate — basically the same as the official exchange rate. MoneySavingExpert have an article dedicated to the best deals for foreign transactions which is worth reading. We eventually settled on Czech Coruna and Croatian Kuna in addition to the Euros we were taking. We opted not to get Hungarian Forints, Serbian Dinar, Macedonian Denar, Albanian Lek or Bosnian Marks. I made sure that anything we would need in these countries could be paid on card or in Euros (for example the Macedonian 3rd party insurance was paid in Euro cash and the toll roads in Macedonia and Serbia were paid on credit card). Whilst my writing about this section is quite short, the actual planning was quite substantial — I had to anticipate anything we might need money for in each country and check if it could be paid for in advance, on card, or with Euros.
Buying fuel in Europe is much like in the UK — pull in, fill up, pay, and drive off. However there are a few things well worth knowing. Outside the EU there are often 2 or more grades of “Diesel”. You don’t want to put the really cheap stuff in a modern Diesel car — its designed for older HGVs and will not do good things to your car! Diesel that is of the same grade as standard EU diesel is sometimes called “Euro Diesel” — if you see “Euro Diesel” being offered then opt for this. That doesn’t mean you have to get branded “premium” fuels either though. Diesel is helpfully called Diesel or Dizel in every country (except France who of course have to invent a new word — Gazole) as it is named after a German gentleman who was called Diesel. I can’t tell you about petrol but generally look for the 95 octane stuff which is available everywhere.
The price of fuel varies substantially across Europe. Generally speaking Diesel is cheaper than petrol (in a reversal of typical UK prices). Our most expensive tank was bought in the UK at £1.40 a litre. Our cheapest tank was bought in Macedonia at just under £1 a litre! I did quite a lot of research in advance to find fuel prices in different countries, and locating specific petrol stations along our route. A good starting point for prices is Fuel-Prices-Europe which will give you a rough idea of prices in each country. Rather than actually tie ourselves to specific petrol stations I found “best prices” for each country, worked out which countries we should fill up in and which we shouldn’t, and then used the “best price” as a target as we drove. We aimed to pay no more than the equivalent of 3p per litre above the best price for each country and were very successful in doing so.
I hadn’t anticipated that “duty free” fuel would be available between some border crossings. I didn’t make a note of locations at the time, but there were several borders with petrol stations in between selling fuel for very low prices. This obviously doesn’t apply to borders between EU countries which are barely borders at all, it was mostly in south-east Europe. I will definitely investigate this prior to a future trip.
Europe is as well served for food as the UK. Despite his fears, our vegetarian travel companion was always able to find things he liked, as was I despite my intolerance of various dairy related foods. I did a bit of research before travelling and concluded the European service stations are generally a lot better than UK ones, and certainly no worse. There are frequent fast food options (Subway, McDonalds etc) and a lot of Italian AutoGrills (which are a slightly higher grade of fast food). There is also the highly rated German Nordsee, a fish and seafood fast food chain. I also found an article by Heston Blumenthal recommending some specific service stations. As much as possible we ate a good breakfast and a good evening meal in the cities we were staying in, and snacked on food we took with us in the car during the journeys. We also had a few sandwich+crisps+drink deals at service stations. I made a list of car foods before we left, where I deliberately tried to leave out very sugary foods (which tend to result in a sugar low and then argument!). We also wanted to avoid foods that drop lots of crumbs or make a mess (e.g. bread or cherries), foods which melt or go sticky (e.g. chocolate) and foods which would go off quickly without a fridge (eg meat). The list I came up with served us surprisingly well: Seedless bagels, Apples, Haribo-like Sweets, Mints, Nuts, Dried fruits, Beef jerky, Museli bars, Crisps, Small crackers (e.g. ritz biscuits)
I made maps for each city we visited, including the location of our accommodation, the main tourist attractions, and the main public transport routes. They are all available on google maps: Prague, Budapest, Athens, Crete, Dubrovnik, Venice & Munich. I took printed copies of these with our travel documents. I also made a set of fact sheets for the roads of each country which could be stuck onto the dash board (an example of which is below). These included the speed limits, any requirement to use headlights, the drink drive limit, the local currency and exchange rate, the local name for Diesel, and any other relevant notes (e.g. that speed camera warning systems are banned in France). I would also recommend a similar sheet with details of a few basic words and sentences in each local language although I didn’t make one for our trip I will in future.
|Lights||Headlights on (dipped) recommended|
Must be used in poor visibility
|Speed limits||Motorway: 130km/h (80mph)|
Dual Carriageway: 110km/h (70mph)
Standard: 90km/h (55mph)
Built-up: 50km/h (30mph)
|Name of diesel||Gazole|
|Target price||€1.29 / £1.13|
|Notes||No speed camera monitoring allowed|
Must have reflective jacket, inside the passenger part of vehicle
S’il vous plaît
How good were the estimates
It’s not much good planning a holiday based on my system for estimating if my estimates ended up being way out. So below I’ve produced a table of my original estimates for the various costs, what they ended up costing, and any reasons for a discrepancy.
We ended up driving 5,160 miles. Our original route estimate (after taking into account diversions to visit places) had been 4,630 miles (a mere 300 miles more than the most direct route). The extra 530 miles were racked up driving in Crete itself, driving the scenic route along the Croatian coast and taking a few drives to places along the way (e.g. to Vikos Gorge). In future I would make an initial estimate the same way I did this time and then add 10% for these kind of trips to get a more accurate estimate.
Alternatively, it would be reasonable, with a similar vehicle, to estimate a cost of around 14p per mile assuming current fuel prices remain relatively stable (don’t hold your breath for that!)
|Petrol||£600||£690||£90||We did 500 miles (10%) further than anticipated which accounts for the majority of the difference. Whilst fuel was often cheaper than my estimates we didn’t always manage to get it from the cheapest places.|
|EuroTunnel||£150||£260||£110||The price went up just before I booked — book early in future!|
|Greek Ferry||£500||£350||£150||The price dropped just before I booked — leave it fairly late to book.|
|Tax & Tolls||£150||£280||£130||Our change of route took us over the Alps, over the Rio-Antirrio bridge, and through more of France. In future we will avoid French and Italian roads as much as possible as they are some of the most expensive. German roads are far better and free.|
|Accommodation||£480||£420||£60||I managed to get good deals thanks to HostelWorld and HostelBookers.|
|Spending cash (Food, drink, trips & tickets)||£1,280||£1,300||£20||The estimate of £20 per person per day was pretty much spot on. We would have been under budget if we hadn’t spent over £100 during the 2 ferry journeys.|
|Car equipment||£50||£50||£0||I managed to borrow some items, like a tow-rope, but we hadn’t anticipated paying £5.50 each for IDPs. Overall it balanced out.|
|Car service||£150||£450||£300||We needed new brake pads and discs before we departed. We also developed a small leak from the radiator and had to have it replaced upon return.|
|Total||£3,360||£3,800||£440||We spent an unexpected £300 on the car (which would have had to be spent anyway in reality) and £100 on expensive food and drink on the ferry. Without these 2 expenses we would have been within £10 each of the estimate.|
|Total per person||£840||£950||£110|
Finally, I’d like to note that my original comparison with a 2 week flight + car hire price worked out absolutely bang on the estimate of £370 (if you exclude the need for maintenance on our car and the extra miles we choose to do). We now have the required car equipment (e.g. warning triangle) so that is a 1‑off expense. In future we’ll also save money by using the cross channel ferry rather than the EuroTunnel and avoiding the French roads. A similar holiday in future should come in at about £180 less for the channel crossing, and £50 less in tolls, making an estimated total of £315 per person. The ever rising cost of flights makes this an almost guaranteed better deal. The numbers even become worthwhile with only 3 people sharing: the estimate of a flight + car hire being £370 and the estimate for driving being £420.
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