A gap year is an excellent opportunity to go on an adventure; to learn and experience new things before you complete your degree and move on towards your graduate career. One great way to do this is to take inspiration from the old tradition of the Grand Tour and travel around Europe, and the best way to give yourself the freedom to explore at your own pace is to drive – that way you can go and see exactly what you want to see.
Before You Go
The first thing you’ll need to plan for is your driving license. You can apply for a provisional driving license when you’re 15 years and 9 months old; you can ride a moped at 16 and you can start driving a car at 17. Getting on the roads with a moped at 16 can help you to develop your road-sense before you upgrade to a car.
It’s vital that you become a confident driver long before your trip – ask your driving school about pass plus schemes, and talk to your instructor about how to adjust to driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Once you go, you’ll have to adapt to different rules and regulations in each country; this will be much easier if you’re already comfortable and in control at the wheel.
If you need an International Driving Permit for the country or countries you’re heading to, make sure that you apply in plenty of time. You must be 18 or over and have passed your test before you can apply for this, and you can get it easily from the Post Office.
Make sure that you have the right documents ready to take with you – you’ll need your full (not provisional) driving license, including both the paper and photocard components; your International Driving Permit where applicable; original vehicle registration documents (not a copy); motor insurance documents; travel insurance documents, and – of course – your passport. If your number plate doesn’t already show it clearly, you’ll also need a GB sticker on your car.
Generally speaking, you must be at least 18 years old to drive in Europe on your UK license, and have at least third party compulsory insurance.
First Stop: France
Leave the UK by the ferry or the tunnel, and arrive at your first stop in France. Straight away, since you’re in continental Europe now, you’ll have to start driving on the right!
Pay close attention to the speed limit. French authorities are very strict on speeding, and can issue heavy on-the-spot fines – they can also confiscate your UK license, which means impounding your car too if you haven’t got another driver with you.
There are often two speed limits posted on dual carriageways and motorways in France. If the weather is wet, or if you have had your license for less than 2 years, you must obey the lower limit. There’s also a minimum speed limit on the motorways of 49mph (80 km/h)
A single continuous white line is the equivalent to a double white line in the UK – no overtaking.
Dipped headlights should be used in poor visibility.
Required Equipment: You must have a warning triangle, a reflective jacket (which must be put on before exiting the car in an emergency breakdown) and a breathalyser in your car. The breathalyser must be certified by French authorities, with an NF number on it. Although there is currently no fine for not carrying a breathalyser, it’s wise to carry two (in case one is damaged) anyway.
The official website of the France Tourism Development Agency has more information on transport in the country.
Second Stop: Germany
In the land of the Autobahn, you can only drive on the motorway if your vehicle is designed for speeds of at least 37 mph (60km/h). The recommended maximum speed on dual carriageways is 80 mph (130km/h), but in bad weather with visibility below 50m this drops to 50 km/h. If you’re driving slower than the surrounding traffic, you must find a suitable place to stop and let others pass.
Watch out for school buses; if their hazard lights are flashing, they are approaching a stopping point and passing is prohibited.
It’s recommended that you have dipped headlights or day time running lights at all times – this is compulsory if fog, snow or rain reduce visibility. You must have your lights on in tunnels.
Again, drink-driving is strictly frowned upon; if you’re under 21 or you’ve had your license for less than two years, it’s zero tolerance with a fine of €250 if any alcohol is found in your bloodstream. Be a polite driver – motorists can be fined for using abusive language or making derogatory signs!
Some German cities enforce emission zones or “Umweltzone”, and in order to enter these areas you must obtain and display a vignette or “Plakette”. This is something you’d need to order in advance of your trip, so check your destinations carefully.
Required Equipment: Although not required for visitors, it’s recommended that you carry the same compulsory equipment that residents would have – a warning triangle, a first-aid kit and a set of replacement bulbs.
The RAC offers further information on driving in Germany.
Third Stop: Switzerland
You must drive with dipped lights or daytime lights at all times – there’s a fine for driving without lights, even on the brightest day.
Drink-driving penalties are strict; the police can request any driver to take a drink or drugs test, and if you’ve held your license for less than three years the limit is only 0.01 per cent.
Outside of built up areas, you should honk your horn (or flash your headlights if it’s after dark) before taking sharp bends where visibility is limited.
Pedestrians generally have right of way – watch out for people stepping into the road as they’ll expect you to stop for them!
Required Equipment: You must have a warning triangle kept in an accessible place – not the boot – and in certain areas you must have snow chains fitted on at least two drive wheels. A tax applies to users of motorways and semi-motorway roads – a sticker called a vignette must be purchased and displayed. You can get the vignette from customs offices at the frontier and from service stations.
For more information on driving in Switzerland (and Liechtenstein), check out this PDF from the AA.
Fourth Stop: Italy
If you’ve held your license for less than three years, you must adhere to a speed limit of 55 mph (90km/h) outside built up areas, and 62 mph (100km/h) on motorways. Fines are particularly heavy for speeding, and are applied on the spot, so be careful.
Outside built-up areas, and if there is poor visibility due to rain or snow, you must use dipped headlights. Your rear fog lights must only be used when visibility is less than 50 metres.
Be very careful if you’re drinking in Italy – for drivers with less than three years experience, there is zero tolerance – any alcohol in your bloodstream at all and you’re over the limit.
Watch out for signs that say “zona traffico limitato” – usually in historical town centres. This means that traffic is restricted, and non-residents will get a fine in the post for driving through.
Required Equipment: Again, you must have a warning triangle, and if you break down at night or in poor visibility you must have a reflective jacket on before you get out of the car. Again, some areas require snow chains, and the maximum speed limit if you’re using them is 31 mph (50 km/h).
The official Italian Tourism website gives more information on driving in Italy.
For any other destination, you can get up to date information on driving regulations from the AA or RAC. By checking what you need to know in advance, you’ll be much better prepared for your gap year adventure – leaving you better able to enjoy all the experiences and sights in store!