One upside to the current economic tumult is that international travel has become considerably more affordable. The Euro is falling to record lows against the dollar, so the time may be right to plan a 2011 European vacation. Team VETTE has visited the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Luxembourg, Italy, and the Czech Republic on numerous occasions. Each country offers historic landmarks, great food, and a variety of shopping opportunities to satisfy any taste. For the gearheads among us, Europe is filled with historic racetracks such as Spa, Zolder, Le Mans, Hockenheim, and the legendary Nürburgring.
We've used a wide variety of transportation methods during our travels, including trains, rental cars, personal cars, and even Corvettes. If your vacation time is limited, you can use Europe's modern high-speed rail systems to move from country to country and rent a car when you arrive at each destination. These trains are fast (185 mph), affordable, and comfortable.
Stranger in a Strange Land
At home, Corvettes compete with the world's best supercars at half the price. But in Europe this price advantage narrows, due to the taxes and import duties imposed on cars as they enter the European Union (EU). This makes Corvettes very expensive-and scarce-in EU member nations. Until it went bankrupt in 2009, the Kroymans Corporation was GM's official Corvette importer, supplying Vettes via its large dealer network throughout the continent. Fortunately GM is in the process of creating a new import system, so our favorite sports car will soon be available in Europe once again with a full, factory-backed warranty.
While we've always used press cars in the past, it is possible to rent a Corvette in certain European countries by going through specialty rental agencies such as Luxury Car Hire. Another option is to ship your own Vette, a process that takes about six weeks each way. The two methods of transport are called Roll On, Roll Off and Container. In the former, your car is driven onto a ship and stored unprotected for the duration of the trip. This is the cheaper of the two methods but also the riskiest. The Container method, on the other hand, stores your car in a sealed, locked, weatherproof steel box. This usually costs around $3,500 round trip to and from a U.S. port-expensive, yes, but guaranteed to provide a unique and unforgettable driving experience.
Rules of the Road
Plying the motorways of Europe can be strikingly different than driving Stateside. First, Europeans are very serious about their cars and their driving skills. Perhaps their most notable trait is that they vacate the left lane without prompting. When you drive in Europe, never stay in the left lane, except when passing. This is a very important safety tip, in addition to being good manners. Always use your signal lights to alert a fast-approaching driver of your intent to change lanes. Never flash your headlights as you approach a slower car in front of you; the driver will usually move over for you.
Speed cameras are the enforcement method of choice. They record your photo, date, time, and the speed of the infraction, and the ticket is mailed directly to your home (or to the rental company) for payment. Radar detectors are illegal in Europe, and your U.S. insurance is invalid. It is therefore important to get overseas insurance to cover you and your car during your trip.
If you've never driven in Europe, and you're not traveling with a group, you might want to consider making your first touring trip in a rental car. You can always ship your Corvette over in the future. This decision depends on how adventurous you are and the size of your travel budget. What's important to remember is that it's almost always more fun exploring various countries in a car than schlepping about in a bus with a tour group. Armed with a good GPS loaded with European maps (a must in our opinion), you'll be prepared to explore a lot of sites on your own. We recommend mapping out your trip beforehand using the Michelin website (www.michelin.com). Click on the Travel tab, then on the Via Michelin tab, to start your planning. The site includes hotel listings, historic sites, and locations of the photo radar units discussed earlier.
We recommend planning your trip so that it begins and ends at your arrival airport. We always try to stay overnight at a nearby airport hotel on the day of our arrival; this gives us a chance to collect our bags, pick up our rental car (or Corvette), relax, and get an early start the next morning. Make sure your hotel provides free airport transportation and that it has an ATM that provides Euros. Staying overnight near the airport before your return flight will allow you to return your car and get to the gate with time to spare.
Consider driving no more than 320 kilometers (200 miles) per day during the course of your trip. This will give you plenty of time to stop at various sites, take photos, have a leisurely lunch, and not be rushed. We also recommend making advance hotel reservations for each night of your trip. This approach will provide you with a GPS address to follow and allow you to wander around during the day while still having a destination at night.
Once you have your trip destinations planned, your next task is selecting a rental car. About 80 percent of all European cars are powered by diesels. They get excellent fuel mileage and cruise efficiently at the national speed limits of 130 km/h (81 mph). Diesel is also the lowest-priced fuel, with prices ranging between 1.10 to 1.25 Euros per liter (3.8 liters per gallon). Unleaded 95-octane fuel that will run in your Corvette costs around 1.45-1.55 Euros per liter. Be warned that automatic transmissions are usually not found in lower-level European rental cars unless requested in advance. And as we mentioned earlier, your U.S. insurance is not valid in Europe, so get the maximum coverage offered by the rental agency.
Lords of the 'Ring
The only places you can drive a car like you stole it are in some parts of Germany, on the Autobahn. Most portions of the Autobahn have speed limits that are strictly enforced, especially around major metropolitan areas and construction zones. Our favorite no-limit stretch is the A1 that begins about 19 km (12 miles) southeast of the German town of Adenau. The A1 is one of the newer highways in Germany, with billiard-table-smooth road surfaces and, at most times, minimal traffic. It's a great road to exercise any car, especially a Corvette, and a place where we have touched 200 mph-legally!
The entrance to the famed Nürburgring circuit is located in the town of Nürburg. The track has a short, 5.148-km (3.2-mile) F1 circuit and the longer, 21-km (12.9-mile) Nordschleife course. The F1 track is closed to the public, but the Nordschleife is open at various times during the week at a rate of around 20 Euros per lap. Lapping the 'Ring can be a hair-raising experience, since all types of vehicles are allowed to use it, including motorcycles, tour buses, and race cars. Rental cars are not permitted to lap the 'Ring, but you can rent a 'Ring "taxi" at the track's entrance and be driven around the course by an expert. These rides are well worth the price for the thrill you'll get going around the "Green Hell."
Hopefully we've given you enough of a teaser to get you thinking about planning a driving trip to Europe. In our next installment, we'll share with you some of the details of our trips to various racetracks and historic sites that might be of interest. Stay tuned.