A need-to-know about the various methods of charging to use Continental roads, by country, including likely costs, links to official sources and – where appropriate – where to buy them and stick them, and the right words to use.
There are two kinds of ‘road charging’ in Europe, traditional road tolls paid at a booth, before or after a journey, and ‘vignettes’ which allow drivers to use some or all of the road network.
To cut a long story short, most countries are eyeing new revenue streams to fund road building and maintenance. Inevitably that means some form – or forms – of road charging.
Traditional pay-as-you-go road tolls have been the dominant method in Western Europe but the ‘time-based vignette’, currently confined to Central and East Europe, is making a comeback – irritating because stopping to buy it negates the advantage of the border-free Schengen Zone.
(MOSTLY) FREE TO DRIVE
These countries do not charge to use the roads in general but there are often charges to use bridges or tunnels:
Belgium, Denmark, UK, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Sweden.
Belgium: experimenting with a GPS-based pay-as-you-go road toll system but no final decision announced.
Germany: due to bring in a ‘foreigner vignette’ in 2016 but implementation delayed by EU objections.
Lithuania: campervans 3.5t+ need the commercial vehicle vignette.
REGULAR ROAD TOLLS – CASH OR CARD
There can be flat charges for certain sections but tolls are usually paid by the kilometre. However, because individual motorways are normally operated by different companies – in Western Europe anyway – there is no set national per-km charge. See below for ball park figures.
Just turn up at the booth, roll down the window and pay up, either cash or a debit/credit card (but watch out for card charges). The payment method and/or vehicle type normally determines the lane to use.
France: not every motorway is tolled – see here for the toll-free network – but most are and the charges quickly mount up. Expect to pay in excess of €70 to drive through France, north to south.
Typical per kilometre charges range from Calais-Avignon (8.5c/km), Calais-Bordeaux (9c/km) and Metz-Nice (7.9c/km), i.e. it is slightly cheaper in the east.
However, driving across the north of France is significantly cheaper than driving across the south – 4.5c/km Rennes-Strasbourg v 8.6c/km Bordeaux-Nice or 9.8c/km Bordeaux-Annecy.
Check toll rates at Autoroutes.fr.
Italy: typically around 7c per kilometre – true for Bolzano-Milan, Milan-Bologna/Rome or Rome-Reggio Calabria – but Turin-Milan is 10.8c/km.
Check rates at Autostrade.it from the company which operates fifty percent of Italian motorways, but the site includes a trip planner for the whole network, in English (but use Italian place names).
Spain: massively cheaper than France or Italy, but not because the tolls themselves are cheaper – Zaragoza-Barcelona is 9.7c/km – but because 80% of the motorway network is free.
Only Autopistas – roads with AP in the name, like AP-2 Zaragoza-Barcelona – are charged, but not always.
Autovias – using just A in the name, like A66 Seville-Salamanca – are always free.
The typical overall charge per kilometre is around 5c but can dip as low as 3c/km, like Bilbao-Malaga.
There are two types of vignette, sticker or paper (also called e-Vignette). They apply to the whole road network or just the ‘national network’ of motorways and some dual carriageways (expressways).
Almost all countries that use vignettes sell a range, depending on the length of the visit, though one day/transit passes are no longer available. One week/ten days is the modern minimum, then one month/two-months and one year. The prices also vary by vehicle category – motorbike, car, minibus/motorhome, truck, etc.
Vignettes are widely available – from most petrol stations, even in neighbouring countries near the border, or at or around border crossings.
Needless to say, fines for not buying vignettes – or not displaying them correctly – can be hefty, and always buy the vignette before driving on the charged network.
Switzerland: only sells an annual vignette, for 40CHF. After de-pegging its currency from the Euro this year, the price increased for foreigners for the first time in more than a decade. It still costs 40CHF but this now equates to €40 (up from €33). There are a limited number of places outside Switzerland where they can be bought but they are available at border crossings. Drivers can pay in pounds sterling or dollars but the change is in Swiss francs. See the charged network (type Switzerland in the bottom box).
Bulgaria: is the only country where the vignette applies to the whole road network.
Austria: the vignette is needed to drive on the national motorway and expressway (dual carriageway) network, but also to use motorway service stations. Also, some roads (and tunnels) – notably the A13 Brenner autobahn south from Innsbruck – have traditional pay-as-you-go tolls and drivers do not need the vignette to use them. See more.
Costs: improbably the Austrian vignette is the cheapest of its neighbours at €8.70 for ten days for a car, rising to €10 in Slovakia and the Czech Republic and €15 in Slovenia. The Bulgarian weekly pass is £3.75.
Paper or e-Vignettes
e-Vignettes have to be ‘applied for’ (the ‘e’ means electronic though they come in paper form).
Even though the application is done on an as-you-wait basis it’s longwinded compared to picking up a vignette sticker from a garage and can be a hassle, especially with a long queue…
Take all your ID including car registration. The vignettes should also be kept in a safe place and presented on demand to police/law enforcement.
Hungary: vignette should be kept for one year (the authorities can track you down back in the UK). Only needed for the motorway network. Costs from 2,975HUF (£6.90) for a week for a car but 5,950HUF (£13.80) for a campervan.
Romania: the vignette is needed to drive on all main roads outside towns and cities. It costs from €3 per week for a car.