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Safe driving abroad
18th August 2008

Escaping by car may not be as affordable as it was a year or so ago, but air fares have gone up too. Driving to a European destination remains an affordable way to take the whole family on holiday, and a carefully-planned journey can be part of the fun.

Of course, even the best-laid plans can go wrong, and a breakdown or accident abroad can leave you stranded far from home. Failing to prepare for everyday problems could leave you with a steep repair or recovery bill, while ignorance of a country's driving laws could see you in even bigger trouble. Even silly mistakes like locking yourself out of the car can be much more serious if your spare keys are 1,000 miles away.

Planning ahead

The first step in planning a foreign driving holiday is, of course, to choose a destination. With regular ferries it's easy to get to Ireland and Scandinavia, while Eurotunnel provides an extra route to mainland Europe. How far you drive abroad is up to you, but if money's a little tight, plan a route avoiding fill-ups in countries with expensive fuel. Don't be tempted to skimp on breakdown cover, though – a hard-to-fix or costly breakdown could leave you stranded.

A return trip to the south of France could put 1,500 miles or more on the clock, and a holiday in Southern Spain or Italy could be almost double that, so it's vital to get your car in tip-top condition before you leave. Make sure it's up-to-date with its services, and book any repairs that you know need doing.

You must also make sure that your car will be legal to drive abroad. Laws vary between European states, but you'll probably need:

  • Warning triangle.
  • Headlamp converters.
  • GB sticker.

You might also need:

  • Spare bulbs.
  • Reflective jacket.
  • De-icer & window scraper (especially in cold or mountainous regions).

Just as importantly, make sure you're ready to drive abroad: familiarise yourself with each country's road traffic laws, signs, rights of way and speed limits. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) provides more detailed, country-specific advice.

Check your car insurance policy to see if it covers you for driving abroad – Cornhill Direct policies do, within certain limits. You should make sure that the countries you'll visit and the duration of your trip both fall within your car insurance cover. If not, speak to your insurers well before you leave – allow plenty of time for amended insurance documents to be sent by post. It's a good idea to check with your mobile phone company that you can make and receive calls from abroad. A car charging kit's a good idea, too, but don't be tempted to make calls when you're driving.

Last minute

A few days before you leave, give your car (and caravan if you have one) a once-over. Double-check your tyres – including spares – for wear and damage, and make sure they're at a suitable pressure – if you're heavily loaded with kids and luggage, your car's handbook might recommend higher than usual pressures. Don't under-inflate your tyres as lower than recommended tyre pressures waste petrol, and are dangerous at high speeds and in the wet.

Load luggage and people sensibly, taking care not to overload your car or obstruct your view. Putting luggage on the roof will cost you more in petrol, so avoid it if you can. Don't forget to take passports, driving licenses, a spare set of car keys and insurance and breakdown policy details. Finally, check the oil, top up your screenwash and make sure your mobile phone is fully charged.

While you're at it, don't forget to charge up any games consoles, DVD players or other electronic kit that you'll be counting on to keep the kids quiet. A stock of spare batteries won't hurt, either. If you prefer a low-tech approach, you can buy travel versions of classic games like Scrabble, or play classic observational car games like I-spy or pub cricket.

If the worst happens

If you break down, stop in as safe a place as you can manage, and put a warning triangle a suitable distance away to alert other traffic before calling your emergency breakdown number. If you're on a motorway or if the car is at risk from other traffic, get passengers and pets a safe distance away first.

Soberingly, recent government research found that tourists are three times likelier to have a road accident than locals. If you're unlucky enough to have a scrape:

  • Turn off your car's ignition straight away.
  • Make sure everyone is safe.
  • Call the emergency services if necessary. The European emergency number is 112.
  • Take photos of any damage, and call your insurer's international helpline for further help and advice.

Cornhill Direct car insurance policy holders who have an accident whilst on holiday in Europe can call Cornhill Direct's 24-hour accident recovery helpline on +44 (0) 20 8666 9228.