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Tips for steering clear of trouble

When in Rome -- or Milan or Paris -- drive as the locals do, study your maps and pack some rockin' tunes.

June 15, 2008|Susan Spano

Driving in Europe isn't so very different from driving in the U.S. But here are some helpful hints and a few precautions.

1. Choose the optimal time: Fall and spring are the best seasons for a European road trip. With the kids out of school, summer can be crowded, and it's the Dark Ages all over again during Northern Europe's cold, gloomy winter.

2. Stick with what you know: My late, great friend Margaret Fleetwood of Santa Barbara loved driving around Europe and kept at it until she was in her 80s. She once told me that the secret to feeling comfortable driving abroad was to rent a car like yours at home -- in her case, a Mercedes with an automatic transmission and power steering. Renters should avoid vehicles with manual transmissions if they aren't accustomed to driving them. And it always pays to do a little practice driving on small roads before hitting the superhighways.

3. Take heed: After you park your car, before you leave it, make sure you didn't leave any valuables in sight. Auto break-ins are not uncommon in big cities.

4. Do homework: Before leaving on a road trip, study the map. Plan your route. Get acquainted with the highway numbers and cities you plan to go through. Decide where you want to stop for the night. Trying to do this along the way can be dangerous. (Everyone knows you shouldn't read a guidebook and drive.)

5. Assign duties: There should be one driver and one navigator, both in the front seat. The navigator controls the maps, keeps track of toll tickets and readies the payment at toll booths. The driver does what the navigator says. Everybody else watches for road signs. Any other division of labor results in chaos.

6. Open carefully: Europeans take the appearance of their cars seriously. So be careful not to ding the vehicle next to yours when opening the door in parking lots. Also, never tap the car in front or back when parallel parking. If you're spotted , you'll get the lecture of your life, even if you don't leave a mark.

7. Know where your path leads: The key to finding your way on European highways is to look for destinations along the way -- Milan, Italy; Basel, Switzerland; Paris; and so on -- as opposed to trying to find route numbers, which are inconsistently posted and continually change. So before you get in the car, it's essential to know which cities your route takes you through.

8. Follow the customs: Except for the occasional speed demons who zoom by on the far left, European drivers tend to stay right. When they need to pass a slow vehicle, they do so -- often without signaling -- and then tuck back into the lane they came from, an excellent custom that deters road hogs.

9. Move around: Entrance ramps are short -- so short that cars sometimes reach the end and come to a full stop because they're unable to merge. While driving on highways, allow cars to merge by moving to the left lane, and then go back to the right.

10. Pack well: Pack water, snacks, maps, books and music. There are plenty of places to buy supplies along the way, but you'll pay premium prices. And if you want some music more interesting than "The Best of Tom Jones," you'd better bring it from home.

-- Susan Spano

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