Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hints on Driving, Directions, Parking


  • In the big cities (e.g., Paris, London) cars are far more trouble than they are worth. Park them once you are close enough to use the subway systems. Don't even think about it for China, Japan, Taiwan.

  • If you reach a section where the road narrows to one lane (e.g. over a bridge), look for a sign. If it is red, that means you must yield the right of way if someone is coming the other way.

  • Normally with roundabouts the cars on the circle have the right of way, you must yield to them. Roundabouts are very convenient if you need to make a U-turn or if you need to buy some time while your navigator frantically looks for city names on the map. You can circle around until they find it, or until you all get car sick...

  • In Italy things are a bit crazy, but I have driven there multiple times without problems. The main thing to remember is that in Italy you are only responsible for what is forward from your side view mirrors. Everything behind that is someone else's responsibility.

  • Driving on the left side of the road is not as hard as you might imagine. Don't start in a city, pick some sparsely populated area to begin. The key for me is continually reminding myself to "KEEP LEFT". If in doubt "KEEP LEFT". For example, you enter roundabouts on the left and go clockwise, not counterclockwise like the USA. The slow lane in the freeway is on the left side, when turning left, turn into left-most lane. Be extra careful when you start in the morning, or after a long break. Exiting out of parking lots on the left side is one of the hardest things to remember.

  • Maps are a must--doing without to save money is a massive false economy. You have spent a lot of money getting to your destination and paying for accomodations. Being lost is a pain. Maps are commonly available at airports, gas stations, etc. They don't need to be in English, you are primarily looking for cities and streets which don't translate anyway.

  • Maps in Europe tend to come in three levels: country level, region level, and “detailed”.
    * The country level are useful for an overall perspective and covering large distances via freeway/toll roads
    * The regional ones are good for finding hotels, sight seeing locations, and non-freeway driving
    * The detailed ones will typically show every street, subway stops, etc., and are very helpful when sightseeing in a city. In Venice for example, you will miss most of the charm of the city, and be lost most of the time if you do not have a detailed map.

  • If we are going to be in a specific region for a while I will buy the map for that area. The level of detail you get will often be a great help you navigate through cities, find important sites, etc.

  • Signs are typically marked with destinations & cities, typically not compass directions, occasionally route numbers. Finding the cities they reference can be a real pain because they are often major ones that are a long ways away. On your map trace the major roads until they reach a major city, or the last medium city before crossing the border into the next country--this is often the one they refer too. When you are on small local roads usually the next town on the road is the one they mention.

  • Try to plan your route before you start. Just driving, and trying to figure out what to do is pretty tough. Sometimes I will look over the route and write down the steps--it lowers the stress level a lot. Because Europe is much denser than the USA you will need to make decisions much more often than you are used to. If I am navigating I keep a finger on the map where we are approximately, so that I don't have to re-find where we are each time we come to a decision point.

  • Asking directions when there is a language barrier is hard and unreliable, but don't hesitate to try if you are stuck. If you can have any information you have written down (I carry a small notebook & pen), this is much easier for them than trying to understand your attempts at pronunciation

  • If you miss a turn, backtrack; don't try to just take the next exit. It is rare outside the USA to have roads laid out in a grid fashion, taking the next exit and then trying to backtrack is usually a quick way to get lost

  • Try to get comfortable with being lost, it's inevitable, and you get to see more of the place you're visiting. We've stumbled onto some pretty neat things this way. If you’re stuck in a big city and recognize that you are getting nowhere, follow someone--unlike you, they probably aren't going in circles

  • When coming into a big city, they will usually have "center" or "zentrum" signs to the old town center.

  • Throughout Europe they use a green or blue sign that looks like a bridge to indicate freeway. Follow those signs and you will get to the closest freeway.

  • Moderate to large hotels usually have someone that can speak English at the reception, they are usually very helpful with directions.

  • Don't be afraid to get off the beaten path. It is hard to get seriously lost in the countryside (assuming you have a map) --big cities are harder .


  • In Euorpean parking garages you usually have to take the ticket you received at entry to a nearby kiosk when you are ready to leave. There you put in your ticket and pay the indicated amount. The kiosk encodes that information on your ticket and spits it back out. You then have a few minutes (no big rush) to put that ticket into the machine at the exit gate. Sometimes the machine doesn’t return the ticket, so be ready to go when the gate goes up.

  • In some areas you park and then go to a nearby machine to buy a parking permit. You put in enough money for the time you want and then tell it to print out the permit—which shows when your time is up. You then put this ticket on your dashboard.

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