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European Travel Adventure - Tips and Information
Welcome to Europe - Travel Tips and Information for Newcomers
By Dan and Yollie Bunag
Hello and Aloha! We were fortunate to have had spent years in Western Europe while on various military assignments in Germany spanning over 13 years. We visited most German towns, cities, and suburbs and traveled to neighboring countries such as France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, United Kingdom (Great Britain), and the Czech Republic. We enjoyed the opportunity to travel, do some sightseeing, experience different cultures, go shopping, and raise our children along the way. We decided to write this hub to share our experiences and offer some tips and information to young military members, couples, and families on their way to their first assignments in Europe. Our aim is to help you manage your expectations so that your tour of duty will be more enjoyable. Some of the tips may save you from unnecessary trouble, inconvenience, pain or flat out embarrassment if only you had known or someone has shared you the tips and information. Wilkommen!
Driving and Travel Tips in Germany and Europe
Will You Be Traveling to Germany or Europe?
One of the first things you'll need to start your own adventure is an U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR) driver's license. Once you complete your host base or installation local conditions/orientation course and meet the license requirements, you have to take a 100-question written and European road sign tests. The tests are quite challenging compared to what we know in the states, so seriously studying and reviewing the USAREUR Driver's Manual is a must. Many people have flunked the tests and had to be rescheduled. After passing the tests and paying the minimal fee, you're set with your USAREUR driver's license, which is valid for 10 years. The vehicle registration process is pretty simple and similar to the stateside process. A vehicle safety inspection is required. You will also need to purchase a first aid kit and safety warning triangle available to your local base or post exchange and AutoZone stores. Now that you're licensed to drive and have your vehicle, Europe is now your oyster!
Driving in Germany
Have You Ever Driven on the Autobahn?
Watch out for Traffic Cameras
Since your still fairly new, there are several things you should know about European driving and travel. With the exceptions of the Autobahns (freeways or Autostrada in Italy), most roads and streets are narrower than what we're used to in the states. Some of the towns and cities have been in existence for hundreds or thousand of years and those roads and streets were carried over to the present before urban planning has been developed. For example, you may be driving on one city street then realized that the street name has changed. Or you decide to stay on one lane and be forced to make a mandatory right or left turn. The key is to be familiar with road signs and memorizing the general directions of the places you're heading to in relation to your present location. In Germany and Austria, be careful when you see the word "Einbahnstrasse"; although "strasse" means street, Einbahnstrasse means "one-way street." Otherwise you may find yourself making an abrupt U-turn. When you're new, it's pretty easy to get lost and make mistakes. We strongly advise observing the speed limits and obeying traffic rules. Speed traps, mobile speed cameras, and stop light cameras are fairly common in Europe. Police normally won't chase drivers for speeding or running a red light. They use enforcement cameras and you can expect a traffic ticket with the accompanying traffic fine through your unit (First Sergeant or Supervisor) if you're ever flashed with one of these cameras. Fighting these tickets are a big hassle depending or your location and how much time and effort you're willing to put up with. Be aware of stop light cameras; they're normally mounted fixed on specific locations. Do a California roll and you'll get flashed. There goes another ticker, fine, and traffic points. We don't mean to make you paranoid while driving, but if you make a habit of observing the traffic rules, you'll do OK.
Autobahn and Parking
Driving on the famous Autobahns is blast and down right exhilarating. There are some stretches where there are no speed limits. At one time, we were able to test our Volvo's top speed. In general, the speed limit out of the city is 130 kph; within city limits 100-120 kph. Speed limit or no limit signs are posted. One thing to note while driving on the Autobahns or secondary roads, you need to know and remember the direction of the major towns or cities in relation to where you are. In the states, freeway signs will say East, West, North, South (e.g. 10E, 10W, 25N, 25S). In Europe, the signs will normally not show East, West, North or South. The signs will show the major towns or cities. For example, if you're starting out at Frankfurt International Airport and you need to go to Kaiserslautern (K'town), Germany, you need to take the Autobahn 5 heading to Basel/Heidelberg. If you take A5 Kassel/Friedberg, you will end up north in the wrong direction. A5 splits past Darmstadt to A5 Basel/Heidelberg and to A6 heading to Mannheim and Saarbrucken. You then take A6 and follow the Autobahn to K'town. Unless you have a GPS, memorizing or writing down the names of the major towns and cities is necessary to guide you to your destination. Another thing you need to aware of is the Autobahn exit (aka Ausfart or Sortie). If you're not sure of your exit, slow down and read the signs. Make sure you're in the proper lane ahead of time. Missing your exit may take another 5 to 10 miles before you can go back and head to the correct direction. Cloverleaves on the Autobahns or European highways are quite uncommon. Generally, there are no toll roads in Germany whereas toll roads are common in France, Italy, Spain, and the U.K. In Switzerland and Austria, they use toll stickers or Vignette (road tax) available at Autobahn's entrances or for purchase at nearest ADAC (like AAA in U.S.) offices. The sticker is normally good for the year or remainder of the year.
If you ever found yourself parking in a Park House (parking garage) at an airport or in a town or city, you get a ticket/stub when you go in. You need to pay for the parking fee by inserting it in a machine (parking vending machine) or at a cash counter near one of the building main exits. If you forget to do this thinking that there will be a cash counter at the vehicle exit, you may end up mistaken. You may found yourself embarrassed when there's a long line of vehicles behind you, honking their horns, and throwing the "what's up" sign. Hmm, this brings back some memories, wished someone told us ahead of time.
German Autobahn and ADAC Video
- Get an International Driver's License if traveling outside the country you're assigned to. This is available at your nearest town/city Issuing Office. Bring two identical ID size pictures and money for the fee-normally good for 3 years. Depending on the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), some countries may not recognized your USAREUR driver's license.
- In Germany, buy AAFES gas coupons or ration card through your base or post exchange, Shoppette, or Gas Station before heading out. Gasoline costs 4 to 5 times more on the local economy. You can use these coupons at most Esso, Aral, or BP gas stations in Germany and the Netherlands. Before pumping gas, check first with the Store Clerk to make sure they accept the gas coupons. Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands have similar gas coupons.
- Bring coins, loose change or small currencies (Euro or local currency) and sufficient spending money for the trip you're planning.
- Join an automobile club like ADAC or AVD (provides vehicle and emergency services similar to AAA). The annual membership fee more than pays for itself with one service call or vehicle towing. You don't want to get stuck in a foreign country and unable to find help. We suggest buying the Euro Plus version if you plan on doing serious traveling in Europe. This plan provides additional towing, medical, emergency, hotel, and trip continuation benefits should you need them.
- Make sure you have your military or dependent ID card, passport with the SOFA stamp, and leave documents when traveling out of the country you're assigned to. There is now an open border, but you'll never know when you may be asked to produce these documents. If you can't produce said documents, you may be detained or stuck at the border.
European Travel Guides from Amazon
Europe is now your oyster, enjoy the opportunity to travel, dine, sightsee, and experience the culture while on military assignment in Europe
Great money-saving travel advice