0EU MapPlanning a European driving holiday

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

Introduction

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

Accommodation

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.
Currency

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

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.

Food

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)

Final details

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.

France
LightsHead­lights on (dipped) recom­men­ded
Must be used in poor vis­ib­il­ity
Speed lim­itsMotor­way: 130km/h (80mph)
Dual Car­riage­way: 110km/h (70mph)
Stand­ard: 90km/h (55mph)
Built-up: 50km/h (30mph)
Cur­rencyEuro
Name of dies­elGazole
Tar­get price€1.29 / £1.13
Alco­hol lim­it0.05
NotesNo speed cam­era mon­it­or­ing allowed
Must have reflect­ive jack­et, inside the pas­sen­ger part of vehicle
Key Phrases
Hello
Please
Thank you
Bon­jour
S’il vous plaît
Merci
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!)

Estim­ateReal­ityDif­fer­enceReas­ons
Pet­rol£600£690£90We 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£110The price went up just before I booked — book early in future!
Greek Ferry£500£350£150The price dropped just before I booked — leave it fairly late to book.
Tax & Tolls£150£280£130Our 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£60I man­aged to get good deals thanks to Hostel­World and Hostel­Book­ers.
Spend­ing cash (Food, drink, trips & tick­ets)£1,280£1,300£20The 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£0I 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£300We 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£440We 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.

Next time we might invest­ig­ate how tak­ing the train com­pares. Bahn.com and Seat61 look like good places to start…

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