Whether it’s for business or holidays, we usually use the motorway when we make our journeys. In the UK 21% of all the traffic happens on motorways and the popularity of such roads abroad is even higher. Although traveling across Europe by car might not seem to be the fastest or most convenient way, once you decide to go for such an adventure, the opportunity of visiting amazing places on the way will surely compensate.

If you have a fellow driver and a well-maintained car or, ideally, a campervan, you’re in the perfect position for a road trip across the Continent. Just decide how long each driver is willing to spend behind the wheel and check how far you can get from London!

Before you embark on your road trip adventure, you should know what to expect from a motorway network in terms of service stations, restrictions, and toll roads.

To make your trip easy and stress-free, we’ve gathered practical data on both British and European motorways. With our comprehensive guide, you’ll know what to expect while driving around the UK and Europe.

Motorway network in Europe - European routes

Tolls and speed limits by country

Motorway infrastructure

Motorways in the UK - facts and figures

Toll collection systems in the UK and abroad

Smart motorways

Driving in Europe: better smart than sorry

Motorway network in Europe - European routes

Built in 1921, the German road - AVUS is considered to be the oldest motorway in Europe. The stark, ghostly grandstand that can be seen next to it reminds drivers of the motorway’s unusual past - it used to be a racing circuit for both cars and motorbikes.

Today’s motorways are “simply” motorways and by “simply” we mean they have a complex network of lanes, junctions, access roads, and exits. Numerous road connections, which include tunnels, flyovers, overcrossings, and bridges, facilitate moving around the Continent immensely.

The international E-road network enables motorists to get to almost any corner of Europe. The longest international European motorway, the E40, has an impressive length of 5281 miles and it flows between France and Kazakhstan.

Although motorways in Europe are developed under unified EU standards, there are still differences across countries. When it comes to the total length of motorways, Spain takes the cake with more than 10.5 thousand miles. The United Kingdom holds 5th position, preceded by Germany, France, and Italy.

If we added up all the motorways in the European Union and Schengen Area, they’d circle the Equator almost 1.5 times and together they’d be four times longer than the Great Wall of China! And even though we’re still a long way from reaching the Moon by motorway, the numbers are impressive.

Tolls and speed limits by country

Toll roads

One of the worst drawbacks of travelling by motorway is the cost of not only fuel but tolls and vignettes also.

So, what expenses should you expect when hitting the road? This depends on the route and destination as different countries have different toll systems.

There are 3 common options when it comes to charging motorists on the road.

  • Toll roads, toll bridges, and toll tunnels - a road pricing plan which charges drivers only for specific stretches of road or passages (often private). The fee is supposed to recoup the construction and maintenance works. It’s a fixed price collected manually or electronically. Generally, most motorways apart from the paid stretches are free of charge.

  • A standard toll system, based on one-off payments for certain motorway stretches used by drivers. In this system, prices depend on the distance and sometimes on the size and weight of a vehicle. The countries where car goers are charged this way include Croatia, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Poland, Portugal, and Ireland.

  • A system based on vignettes which requires a special sticker (vignette) to freely use the motorway network in a given country. You’ll need a vignette when traveling to countries such as Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia.

The prices vary between borders. Some European countries have unique or mixed toll collection systems: in Portugal, for instance, it’s possible to both buy a vignette or pay for a certain stretch of motorway.

Usually, tolls in Europe depend on the size and weight of a vehicle - the prices are higher for heavy goods vehicles. For example, in Latvia and Estonia using all public roads is free for passenger cars but those weighing over 3.5 tonnes are obliged to pay, and this fee also applies to heavy goods vehicles registered abroad.

When it comes to specific tolls, it’s always worth checking national and local operators’ sites for a given country such as autopistas.com (Spain), autoroutes.fr (France) or autopass.no (Norway). You’ll find the most recent fees and useful information on payment options. There’s a possibility to buy e-vignettes for some countries and doing this before you hit the road may save you time and money.

Speed limits

As much as motorway tolls aren’t fun, the chance to put your foot down and shorten the journey certainly makes up for the material loss.

Germany is famous for autobahns with no speed limits, to the joy of many heavy-footed drivers. However, not many motorists from outside of Germany know that this doesn’t apply to all the motorways in the country. So as a friendly reminder: always pay attention to road signs when driving abroad.

Poland and Bulgaria seem to have the highest motorway speed limits in Europe, which reach almost 87 mph (140 km/h) and the majority of European countries allow driving up to 75-80 mph (120-130 km/h). If you like to put your foot down, be especially careful in Norway and Cyprus where the maximum speed is 62 mph (100 km/h).

Interestingly, some countries have fluctuating motorway speed limits. For instance, in Finland, you’re allowed to drive at various speeds depending on the route. Luxembourg has a different speed limit for dry and wet roads, and in Lithuania, it depends on the season. From April to October passenger cars can run 12.4 mph faster than between November and March.

Motorway infrastructure

No matter how excited you are to hit the road, the thrill of traveling fades when after ages behind the wheel your eyelids become heavy, your spine hurts, and you can no longer feel your backside. Fuel is running low, you’re hangry, and there’s no place to stop on the horizon. We’ve all been there.

Fear not, your misery should come to a quick end as motorway service stations are placed in regular distances across the continent. Spain, as the country with the longest motorway network in Europe, can also be proud of the highest number of petrol stations near motorways. France is the leader when it comes to motorway service stations - there are around 600.

Naturally, these numbers strongly depend on how developed a motorway network in a given country is. In Cyprus, for example, the two biggest cities are connected by a motorway only 45 miles long, so it’s natural that no facilities like that are needed.

Motorways in the UK - facts and figures

With a constantly growing number of vehicles registered in the UK, motorway traffic rose by 0.7% between the summer of 2017 and 2018. According to the Department for Transport, during that time, passenger cars drove around 253 billion miles. Data from 2017 points to a 10% increase in Great Britain’s motorway traffic over the last decade.

The first motorway built in the UK was Preston Bypass. Opened in December 1958, it became the fastest way to get to the Lake District and Blackpool. Currently, it’s a part of the M6, the country’s longest motorway which has a total length of 236 miles and connects Rugby to Gretna ‎- all the way North of the Scottish border. The M6 offers connections with 17 other motorways and A roads on its length. It continues North as the Scottish A74(M).

At 396 miles long, the A1 holds the title of the longest road in the UK. It’s probably the country’s most important A road as it connects London and Edinburgh. It’s linked to 12 other major roads. The A1 is also famous for its variety (or inconsistency as some call it) - sometimes you can encounter stretches which are wide dual carriageways, then the next thing you know, the road quickly changes into a modest single carriageway.

The M1, in turn, is the first British full-length motorway. Built in 1959, this 200-mile motorway currently runs from London to Hook Moor. It’s considered to be one of the most important British motorways. As the main road North from London, it also facilitates the connections with many important and populous regions in East Midlands, Yorkshire, Leeds, West Midlands, Lancashire, and Scotland.

The best and worst motorways in the UK

The UK has its famous and infamous roads. As a very important element of the national infrastructure, they greatly facilitate the life of British people, but relying on them can at times be a source of sheer frustration.

The M6 connects some of the UK’s most important agglomerations. Tons of people depend on it and therefore it’s often extremely busy. Multiple incidents and huge traffic jams, as well as frequent roadwork, have all contributed to its poor reputation. It’s often considered to be one of the country’s worst motorways and motorists admit to feeling unsafe while driving there.

The M25 is also subject to unfavourable opinions. This road was designed with less traffic in mind compared to the number of people who actually use it, which makes it too busy for the conditions it really offers. It’s known among many drivers as the “UK’s biggest car park or the Road to Hell”. Motorists complain about dangerous junctions, road debris, bad signage, and poor lighting.

As much as some roads are particularly hated, it turns out that drivers also have their favourite motorways. In a study by Insure the Gap, the M40 was chosen as the best motorway in the UK. It runs from London to Birmingham and interestingly, when it was built, there were no service stations along it. Now motorists enjoy this road more mostly because of reasonable amounts of traffic, lack of debris, and … many good quality service stations.

Yet the most likable road of all turned out to be the A66 which is not a motorway. It runs from Penrith to Scotch Corner. British drivers claim it has plenty of light and good service stations with a wide choice of shops and restaurants. They believe the amount of debris is acceptable and the volume of traffic doesn’t overwhelm. Beautiful scenery was among the top reasons for voters to pick this road, but they also indicated it was far less important than road safety and the comfort of driving.

Toll collection systems in the UK and abroad

Traveling on motorways in the UK is generally free excluding paid tunnels, bridges, London’s low emission zone, the entrance into central London and Durham, and the private M6toll. Motorists are expected to pay at toll gates in cash, by card, or using the automatic toll payment system.

When going abroad you’ll obviously have to use a ferry or the Eurotunnel, which is another cost you must take into consideration. The fares for the tunnel start with around GBP 40 per car but the price may go up if you’re buying less ahead of time. You can also get a special deal or a personalised offer like frequent traveller, short stay, day trip, etc.

The (r)evolution of motorways

As a result of the technological advancements, motorways will soon be able to transmit traffic information directly to drivers, plan future investments according to traffic patterns, or warn against potholes and congestion. That’s why they will be appropriately named smart.

Smart motorways

Smart motorways are stretches of road equipped with technological and strategic features such as dynamic hard shoulders, variable speed limits, monitoring sensors, and cameras. The system known as active traffic management is currently being improved with technologies such as drones, smart LED road studs, and built-in sensors.

There are multiple startups that are trying to take smart motorways to the next level and pursue a futuristic vision of roads and traffic. They promote solutions such as solar motorways which would generate sustainable energy.

The opinions are varied and the idea of building solar roads gets a lot of criticism because of numerous technical, financial, technological, and practical challenges. However, with the advancements we currently see, it might become a viable option not that far ahead from now.

Plans for 2019

Looking at some of the ambitious projects and advancements it seems that the future is here already- and actually, there are a few projects which are to be realised… this year.

For example, the works between junction 16 (Crewe) and junction 19 (Knutsford) on the M6 are in full swing. The J16-17 stretch is being improved with "Average Speed Check" cameras, electronic VMS signs, and new generation road studs. A new concrete central barrier has been installed and Emergency Refuge Areas will be placed along the road. What used to be a hard shoulder will now run as Lane 1.

This smart motorway will be opened this coming spring and will facilitate the flow of traffic on one of the busiest national roads, shortening the journey and, hopefully, lowering the number of road accidents.

Other smart motorway upgrades for this year are planned for the M62 in West Yorkshire. The stretch between junctions 10 and 12 will be turned into an all-lane running smart motorway. In 2020 the stretch between junctions 20 and 25 will also undergo similar improvements.

Major upgrades are either in progress or planned for important A roads, with the A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon, the A63 in Hull and the A38 in Derby among others.

Driving in Europe: better smart than sorry

Once you get to know everything about the European speed limits and toll roads, it’s a good idea to check other abiding laws as well. There are certain rules and restrictions, for example, alcohol limits, necessary equipment, or driving culture to keep in mind when driving from country to country in Europe.

Being aware of such country-specific driving rules, which may seem odd to a foreigner, can help you a great deal. Plus, it’s time to stop being a nightmare on the European roads.

See you on the road, bon voyage!

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