Cruise Control changed our lives. But how fast can you go?

Discovering Cruise Control on the 1,300 mile drive back from Romania settles a long running argument about distance driving. But how fast can you go before putting yourself at risk of a speeding fine?

Click for the route.

The usual mash up between an old map, out of date satnav and not really paying full attention sees us drive most of the xx miles between Timisoara and Arad by back roads when they’ve just opened a new motorway.

The usual mash up between an old map, out of date satnav and not paying attention sees us drive most of the 45 miles between Timisoara and Arad, Romania, by back roads when they’ve just opened a motorway.

No booze the night before, no carbs for breakfast (or coffee, it makes you wee), open the windows, gag the kids, stereo on full blast, and keep a pin handy to jab yourself in the eye when you feel sleepy.

The list of advice on tackling a long distance journey is long and literally torturous. But nobody describes the sheer sense of achievement to be had from successfully transporting yourself across a continent.

We were headed for the Nadlac border point, the ‘gateway to Western Europe’, but a hand written sign to Budapest sees us divert to the sleepy Turnu crossing instead. Advantage: no queues. Disadvantage: nowhere to buy the vignette you need for driving on Hungary’s motorways. Result: a gentle drive through the countryside. Did you know 49.5% of Hungary is arable farming land, one of the highest proportions in the world?

We were headed for the Nadlac/Battonya border point, the ‘gateway to Western Europe’, but a hand written sign to Budapest sees us divert to the sleepy Turnu crossing instead. Advantage: no queues. Disadvantage: nowhere to buy the vignette you need for driving on Hungary’s motorways. Result: a drive through the countryside. Did you know 49.5% of Hungary is arable farming land, one of the highest proportions in the world?

Flying a plane is not commonly thought to be boring, even from halfway across the world. So why is tackling much shorter distances in a modern vehicle – likely loaded with features to make the journey comfortable, safe and fast – considered the seventh circle of hell?

A diversion through an interesting sounding town or city is a much better break than a stop in a depressing and expensive motorway service station. This is Szeged in the far south, on the Tisza river, Hungary’s third biggest city, pop 170k. Twinned with Cambridge, Szeged is home to the country’s top university, established in 1581.

A diversion through an interesting sounding town or city is a much better break than a stop in a depressing and expensive motorway service station. This is Szeged in the far south of Hungary, on the Tisza river, the third biggest city, pop 170k. Twinned with Cambridge, Szeged is home to the country’s top university, established in 1581.

In our case it was because of a sharp difference in opinion on how to tackle mega drives. One view came direct from the Sebastian Vettel school – as fast as possible in all situations – relying on lightning reflexes to keep out of trouble and hefty doses of aggression to bully other cars out of the way.

A fearsome 600 mile drive from Bratislava to deepest western Germany in 2012, torrential rain all the way, showed that the sheer determination intrinsic to this approach makes it highly effective.

Stopping to buy vignettes has effectively replaced border controls to the point there’s no net benefit these days to the Schengen Area on transcontinental journeys. But since in Hunagry, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, etc, etc they are available at garages you can double up with a fuel stop to save some time. Once achieved though the smooth and straight Hungarian motorways are uniformly excellent though and brisk too with a 130kmh limit. It’s xxkm to Budapest then xx km west to the Austrian border with only soon to be complete road works on the connecting section to slow us down.

Stopping to buy vignettes has effectively replaced border controls to the point there’s no net benefit these days to the Schengen Area on transcontinental journeys. Since they are available at garages double up with a fuel stop to save time. Once achieved though the smooth and often straight Hungarian motorways are uniformly excellent, with a 130kmh limit. It’s 173 km north to Budapest then 177 km west to the Austrian border with only soon-to-be-complete roadworks on the connecting section to slow us down.

Meanwhile, what we call the Alain Prost approach – the F1 driver who famously never drove faster than he had to – neatly divides the distance to be covered by the time available. This target speed is then rigidly adhered to, calling on all forms of anticipation to avoid harsh acceleration or braking, the enemies of fuel economy.

The 627.5 mile drive between Maastricht and Vienna in 2011 with enough energy left to enjoy the beer afterwards saw a gentle nod of assent from across the table.

Melk Abbey as seen from the A1 West Autobahn in Austria halfway between Vienna and Salzburg. Built in the early 18th century, with five internal courtyards, the Benedictine monastery overlooks the Danube. Definitely worth a look next time.

Melk Abbey as seen from the A1 West Autobahn in Austria, halfway between Vienna and Salzburg. Built in the early 18th century, with five internal courtyards, the Benedictine monastery overlooks the Danube on the other side. Definitely worth a look next time.

After years of wrangling, ultimately it looked like the Steady Eddie approach would win the day. But boy it was boring. On long trips, being seen to be brisk is important.

The theory might be right, the costs lower and the stress less but maintaining a terminal velocity of eighty odd miles an hour even on derestricted autobahn is beyond ludicrous.

Overnight stop after 448 miles, Lovely Linz. It‘s all in the mix, of old and striking modern architecture in Autria‘s third largest city, straddling the Danube, but also in the way cars, trams and pedestrians are happy to share Hauptplatz in the city centre. Thanks to a ring-round by the Tourist Info we bag virtually the last available hotel room, at the okay Spitz ‘design’ Hotel and, thanks to cruise control, while away a long evening in this spectacular square.

Overnight stop after 448 miles, Lovely Linz. It‘s all in the mix, of old and striking modern architecture in Autria‘s third largest city, straddling the Danube, but also in the way cars, trams and pedestrians are happy to share Hauptplatz in the city centre. Thanks to a ring-round by the Tourist Info we bag virtually the last available hotel room, at the okay Spitz ‘design’ Hotel and, thanks to cruise control, while away a long evening in this wonderful square.

Just in time – only 103 years after its invention – cruise control rides to the rescue. Previously disregarded as one of the host of gimmicky extras loaded on our car, trying it for the first time on this trip from Romania now sees it join xenon headlights and digital speedos on the list of essential extras for driving in Europe*.

No more heel ache from keeping the throttle in a set position. No more approximation. No more steadily and inevitably declining average speed as the day wears on. No more constantly checking the speedo to see if the mandated average speed has been exceeded.. And keen progress through road works, for instance, while other drivers hover below the limit.

Finally, no more achieving only what you set out to do. In these early days at least we’ve gone further, faster than ever before.

Autobahn: the lure of derestricted autobahn entices many but while it’s not strictly true that they are steadily being outlawed a combination of road works, heavy traffic and dual carriageway in many places will slow you down. If it rains it’s max 130kmh.

Autobahn: the lure of derestricted autobahn entices many. While it’s not strictly true that they are steadily being outlawed a combination of road works, heavy traffic and dual carriageway in many places will slow you down. If it rains it’s max 130kmh.

Indicated speed versus actual speed. The argument now rages around the optimal cruising velocity. How fast can you afford to go before putting yourself at risk of a speeding fine?

By UNECE Regulation 39 all speedometers must overestimate. The margin varies by manufacturer but must not exceed 10% plus 4kmh (so a maximum 92kph in a 80kph zone). That’s a significant difference on a long trip.

Then there’s how much over the speed limit law enforcement will allow before they pull you over. Put all that together and an indicated 145kph in a 130kph zone is pushing it, but not too far.

Decadent Luxembourg: having something to look forward to is a great way to perk you up particularly in that middle part of the day when energy flags and motivation slips. Even so we completely overdo it at the Sofitel in Luxembourg. After eight hours and 488 miles by 18:30 we’re in the roof top bar sipping custom designed cocktails, all thoughts of sightseeing abandoned. But hey, what is there to see we can’t make out from up here?

Decadent Luxembourg: having something to look forward to is a great way to perk you up, particularly in that middle part of the day when energy flags and motivation slips. Even so we completely overdo it at the Sofitel in Luxembourg. After eight hours and 488 miles by 18:30 we’re in the roof top bar sipping custom designed cocktails, all thoughts of sightseeing abandoned. But hey, what is there to see we can’t make out from up here?

New fangled smartphone speedometer apps theoretically put all this beyond doubt, but there are a number of issues. First and foremost for these apps to work you need the roaming function switched on. Not a problem in the UK but prohibitively expensive on the Continent.

We’ve used four different ones now – out of the 400 available on iTunes – and to put it politely they’ve all been unreliable. The GPS system they use is not 100% accurate in Europe plus all GPS devices are affected by ‘atmospheric conditions’, i.e. the weather.

We’ll have to wait for the European satnav system Galileo before we can fully put this one to bed. And who knows when that will happen?

There’s no escaping the torrential rain that has literally ravaged central Europe since early April and continues to do so at the time of writing.

There’s no escaping the torrential rain that has literally ravaged central Europe since early April, and continues to do so.

What do you think? Are we too fast, or too slow? How do you tackle long distance journeys? Have you found a reliable speedometer app? Leave your comments below.

Bittersweet. Bitter because it cost us €105 to cross from Dunkirk to Calais. Sweet because we’ve survived the trip and the atmosphere on-board is always relaxed as we all sail back to our little island.

Bittersweet. Bitter because it cost €105 to cross from Dunkirk to Calais, compared to about £40 in advance. Sweet because we’ve survived the trip, and the atmosphere on-board is always relaxed as we all sail back to our little island.

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* Xenon headlights can be switched automatically for driving on the other side of the road, so no fiddly headlight stickers, while digital speedos will also read in kmh.

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Next: all the data from our May 2013 ‘Istanbul or Bust’ trip: how long, how far, driving time – and how much it all cost…

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