Winter is a great time to visit Europe with snowy, fairytale scenery and cooler temperatures. It’s this weather, however, that stops many travellers from driving in Europe in winter. With the right preparation, a winter driving holiday in Europe can be a very rewarding experience.
To ensure your self-drive holiday in Europe goes as smoothly as possible, take the time to plan ahead so that you know what to expect from the road conditions and that your vehicle is well prepared.
Further reading: General tips for driving in Europe year round
Preparing your vehicle for winter driving in Europe
During cold weather, sleet and snowstorms, your vehicle is subjected to some extreme conditions so some precautions need to be taken. Before you hop in and press the ignition button, you’ll need to ensure that your vehicle has been protected against the elements.
Cold temperatures can have a detrimental affect on the life of your car’s battery. If your vehicle is left outside in very cold temperatures, you may notice it is very hard to start or that the battery has actually gone flat.
When you collect your rental or lease vehicle, it is advisable to check that the battery is relatively new and is holding charge.
Anti-freeze and ‘winter’ fuel
Just as cold weather can affect your vehicle’s battery, regular fuel or diesel can freeze in the tank when temperatures drop. It is therefore imperative that you check that your vehicle has been supplied with anti-freeze or fuel/diesel that is suited to very cold conditions.
In most European countries, the anti-freeze is included in the fuel at the pump if needed. However if you fill up in France, for example, where anti-freeze is deemed not necessary, and are driving to Switzerland on the same tank of fuel, you'll need to ensure anti-freeze is added.
Most (but not all) rental cars are supplied with anti-freeze or fuel/diesel that is suitable for below zero conditions, however you still need to check this for your specific rental.
Depending on which country they are collected in, rental cars are often “winterised” for local conditions. The cost is normally included in the daily rate.
Tax free lease vehicles are NOT usually supplied with anti-freeze or fuel/diesel that is suitable for below zero conditions. It is up to you, the temporary owner of the vehicle, to check that your car is protected for winter conditions.
Further reading: What is the tax free vehicle leasing program?
Vehicles left outside overnight or in extremely cold conditions will more often than not need to have the windscreen de-iced. The number one rule here is NOT to use boiling water as this can cause the windscreen to crack.
Room temperature water should be sufficient to clear the windscreen of any ice.
It’s also wise to ensure you have plenty of windscreen washer fluid to clear the windscreen as required.
Remember your sunglasses – the sun reflecting off snow can cause extreme glare on your windscreen.
It is mandatory in many European countries to use headlights year round, even during daylight hours and in sunny conditions.
This handy resource gives details of each country’s regulations in regard to headlights, winter tyres and snow chains. (Select the desired country from the drop-down menu at the bottom, and then select ‘other specific rules’.)
Do I need winter tyres (tires) in Europe?
In many European countries it is mandatory for vehicles to be fitted with special winter tyres, also known as M+S (or mud and snow) tyres, from 1 November to 15 April. These tyres are designed to maximise grip throughout winter on wet, dry and icy roads.
Winter tyres are marked M+S or have a snowflake symbol on the side wall of the tyre. They are made from a different rubber compound (so they don’t harden in cold conditions) and have a thicker tread than regular tyres, usually 3mm but a 4mm tread is compulsory in some countries.
Each country’s laws are different when it comes to winter tyre requirements. Mountainous countries like Austria and Germany, mostly have a mandatory requirement for the fitting of winter tyres. France, however, does not and most car rental suppliers in France do not offer vehicles with winter tyres fitted.
In Germany, the law states that all vehicles must be fitted with M+S tyres when conditions are wintry which could extend beyond the regulation 1 November to 15 April period.
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When booking a hire car or lease vehicle for travel during winter in Europe, it is essential that you confirm with the rental company that winter tyres will be fitted.
Keep in mind also that if you will be driving the vehicle in more than one country that you abide by the regulations of each country visited.
We once collected a hire car in November in France where winter tyres aren’t compulsory and had arranged to drop the car off in Austria. As Austria requires winter tyres to be fitted, we had to drop our original hire car off at Geneva Airport (on the French side), then cross the ‘border’ to the Swiss side of the airport (a distance of only a few metres) where we collected another vehicle which was fitted with M+S tyres!
This article provides a list of the tyre requirements for winter driving in some of the most-visited European countries, including Germany and Italy.
What’s the law for carrying snow chains in Europe?
Just as each country has different rules for the fitting of winter tyres, so too do their laws differ when it comes to snow chains.
Generally speaking, France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Austria and Andorra all require snow chains to be carried when travelling in mountainous regions.
Snow chains should be fitted when indicated by road signs or when road conditions warrant their use.
It is highly recommended that you practice fitting the snow chains in dry conditions so that you are comfortable doing it should the need arise.
The majority of rental car suppliers can provide snow chains at an additional cost. You should check that this is possible – and request your set - prior to setting off for Europe.
If you’re heading to the slopes, a ski rack might be a handy addition to your rental car. Ski racks aren’t available from all suppliers or for all vehicle types, so check well in advance to make sure your request can be fulfilled.
You’ll find some useful information about hiring snow chains and ski racks in Europe in this article.
Hopefully you’ll never need it but it’s worth considering having an emergency kit in your vehicle in case of long delays due to bad weather.
Items you might like to carry include a mobile phone (with plenty of battery life), a blanket and some food.
If you are travelling with children, it’s a good idea to ensure they have plenty to keep them entertained during delays.
Check weather conditions before setting off
Before setting off on your journey, it is advisable to check the weather conditions along your route. If heavy rain or snow is forecast, you can then consider taking an alternative route or postponing your trip.
A number of European countries including France, Finland and Sweden have reduced speed limits when weather conditions are bad (rain, snow or fog) regardless of the time of year.
In some cases, road signs indicate the speed limits for both dry and wet conditions but it pays to be aware of the law as signs are not always displayed, particularly in rural areas.
What will the road conditions be like in Europe in winter?
Now that your car is well prepared for winter driving and you know the weather conditions will be favourable, you can hit the road.
If you’ve never driven in snowy or wintry conditions before you may be a bit apprehensive, so here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Major roads and autobahns, as well as city streets, are regularly cleared of snow by snow ploughs but extra care should always be taken when travelling in wet, snowy and icy conditions
- Slow down. Everything takes longer on snow-covered roads. Accelerating, stopping and turning all take longer, so allow extra time
- Check your brakes regularly
- Keep a good distance (eight to ten seconds is recommended) between your car and the vehicle in front in case either of you need to stop suddenly
- Allow extra time on your journey in case of delays. Heavy snow falls or accidents can disrupt traffic flow and bring traffic to a standstill
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