Top 10 tips for driving to the Alps
Worrying about driving to a ski resort in France, Austria or Switzerland? Have no fear – it’s almost the same as driving at home, except that you’re on the other side of the road, and the service station snacks are better. With a bit of prep and a few tips there’s nothing to worry about, and it’s a fun and convenient way to get to the mountains.
Have you seen airline baggage charges? That’s one very good reason for driving to the mountains, especially if you are going en famille with little people who don’t carry their own stuff yet. Or if you’re the sort of person who likes to take a whole quiver of skis and snowboards.
Also, did you hear about global warming? That’s another good reason. Your carbon footprint is almost twice as big if you fly, and that’s if you don’t take any passengers. With four people in the car you can be sure you are doing your bit, plus there’s lots of people to play eye-spy with. Bonus!
And it's fun!
It’s not all about the roofbox and the environment – driving to the Alps can be a lot of fun too. Everyone loves a good roadtrip, and it gives you the time to appreciate that you really are travelling. Plus there’s the who-can-see-the-snow-first game, popular with Mad Dog’s overexcited designer who panted out of the window all the way from Reims.
1. Get on the right, right?
It’s not the first few miles out of Calais that you have to worry about – there are warning signs there, and you’re probably all wired from the lattes on the ferry. It’s later in the 11-hour drive that you’re more likely to pull out into oncoming traffic. Everyone’s done it, and it’s terrifying. Write ‘right’ on the steering wheel, or recruit a passenger to be on right alert.
2. Lots of breaks
Sample the joys of the French service station frequently – they are much better than UK ones. Get fresh air, a 10-minute snooze if you need one, and remember, on a transcontinental drive Red Bull is your friend.
3. Kit to take
If you are driving through France you need to take a reflective jacket and a warning triangle. You can be fined up to €135 if you don’t have them. You also need to take a self-test breathalyser, which are available through the AA shop, Halfords, some service stations etc.
Not compulsory but a good idea is a good stash of screenwash – the combination of ice and muddy splashes from the gritted roads makes for a really grimy windscreen. Anti-freeze is recommended too.
Check you have all of your documents (license - the paper bit and the photocard, insurance, registration and MOT, and your passport, of course), a GB sticker and headlamp converters. Check with your insurer before you go abroad too.
If you wear glasses or contact lenses you should also have a second pair spare, when driving in France. And it seems a good idea when driving anywhere!
4. Snow chains at the ready
It was some years ago that MadDogSki’s overly-relaxed Gallic hosts in a certain French ski resort chose to stand about smoking and chatting rather than getting a move on in an airportly direction. Outcome: a frozen-fingered faff halfway down the hill trying to get snowchains off in hurry, followed by a missed plane. The moral: know thy winter hardwear. And don't smoke and chat when there's a plane to catch.
If you are driving to the Alps in deepest winter you need to have snow chains at the ready. In some places you can be forced to turn back if you don’t have them. Do practice putting them on – they’re tricky things at the best of times, and guaranteed if you do have to use them, it won’t be the best of times. Only use snow chains while there is snow or ice on the ground, and stick to 50km/h.
5. Or consider snow tyres if you’re serious
If you’re spending a while out there, or if the UK makes a habit of these snowy winters, you might consider snow tyres instead. Snow tyres work by having little cuts taken out of each tread block which pinch together and grip the snow. You can also opt for studded tyres, which have very hard rubber studs that dig into the ice and snow to find traction. Snow tyres can be used all the time, but the studded ones wear down over time, and are less grippy on tarmac, so take these off in spring.
6. Tolls and vignetes
On French motorways you pay for the roads you use – make sure you have plenty of cash to pay at the tolls. You can cross the country without using the toll roads, but they do make life a lot easier. If you drive in France a lot, it might be worth getting a tag that allows you to use the automatic toll lanes and saves queueing - see more about Sanef Tolling here.
To use motorways in Switzerland you need to buy a vignette, valid for the whole year. This can be bought at the border, and is best just thought of as part of the cost of driving. Trying to avoid motorways is annoying, and not buying one can get you a 100 Swiss franc fine.
7. Work out your route
Google maps, satnavs and good old dog-eared paper maps - none of them necessarily tell you the one main thing to watch out for when driving to the Alps. Mountain passes. They're almost inevitable towards the end of your trip, and many are passable year-round, but not all. Passes like Andermatt in Switzerland are closed right through the winter, and you wouldn't be the first to be forced to hole up in a hotel, waiting for morning and a rather longer diversion than expected. This Infotrafic site is useful for France, and there are links for other countries here.
Try to find out about parking in resort before you go – some places can charge a fair amount. Your accommodation might have parking, there might be a municipal car park, or in the case of resorts like Zermatt, Les Arcs or Avoriaz the village is car free, and you have to leave your vehicle some distance away. Check with the tourist board to see what the situation is.
9. Speeding fines
Ah, those long and tranquil stretches of motorway – it’s understandable that sometimes the foot can press down just a little more than you’d intended. Watch out though – speeding fines are often handed out on the side of the road. If you are not too far over the speed limit you’ll be fined around €90, but go more than 50km/h over the limit and you can get fined up to €1500!
The use or possession of radar detectors is illegal in most European countries, and penalties can include a fine, a driving ban, and even imprisonment. If your satnav can detect fixed speed cameras, you need to switch the function off. Instead check out www.mappy.fr It is a useful resource – amongst other things it’ll tell you where the speed cameras are on your route. But police patrol the roads too, so to be on the safe side just don’t speed!
10. It is worth it!
If all this sounds like a terrible hassle, please don't be put off. It may be a long way with a lot of rules, but driving to your resort is a real experience - a good way to see parts of the countries you pass through that you'd never otherwise notice on a boring plane journey, and snoozing on an expensive transfer. It's also a whole lot cheaper, especially if you are taking the whole family, and having a car at the other end can be really handy, allowing you to do a supermarket shop before you reach the pricey resort, for example, or giving you a chance to visit lesser known resorts nearby. You also get to listen to a lot of music, eat your bodyweight in Haribo and enjoy the retro delights of a cross-channel ferry - what's not to love?
The AA website has great country-by-country guides to driving, updated regularly and well worth a good peruse before your trip.