Winter Holiday Driving – stay safe, and legal

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It’s the time of year to don your salopettes, strap on the skis and tackle the slopes – not to mention a bit of après-ski holiday hospitality.

But if your winter holiday destination of choice involves being behind the wheel of your own car or a rented vehicle, then there are rules of the road you need to know about to stay safe and legal whilst driving abroad in winter conditions.

We’ll cover the basics here, but it’s vital that you research, research, research your particular winter holiday destination for any driving laws or safety issues that could crop up in your resort of choice.

Driving abroad – be prepared

And the first rule of driving abroad in Winter? Always expect the unexpected. So be prepared with everything you may need for any situation. You can hope for an uneventful journey all you like, but Mother Nature may well have other ideas!

If you’re heading to the snow-capped slopes of Europe then you’ll be looking at a minimum 8 hour drive from the shuttle terminal or the ferry drop off at Calais – that’s a lot of "are we there yets?" to deal with! So whilst it’s a do-able day’s driving, do ensure that you take some breaks and share steering wheel time. And be well stocked with snacks, drinks and warm clothing to ward off any freezing cold delays.

If you’re heading further afield to visit the USA or Canada you’ll be taking on a much longer drive in conditions where the weather can turn very nasty, very quickly. You’ll almost definitely need an overnight stop, so plan every tiny detail meticulously. Then find a few more to plan for – they’ll be there. Make a checklist and don’t overlook anything at all that could go wrong. Because if you do, it will!

Keep on the right side of the law


Yep, driving on the wrong side of the road feels strange, but driving on the wrong side of the law could feel a whole lot worse. Especially if you have a sensitive wallet! Every country has its road rules and you could find yourself facing a hefty fine if you break them – even by accident.

It’s safe to say that most countries that don’t grind to a halt with winter weather (when will the UK learn?) will pretty much have the same regulations and will be only too happy to fine you for not playing along:

  • You must have antifreeze fluid in your wiper and windscreen water
  • Your car has to have winter tyres, an ice scraper and a brush
  • All car windows must be clear to provide an all-round view
  • The number plates and headlights and rear lights must be visible
  • The car roof and bonnet must be clear of snow
  • You may only use the rear fog lamp when there is less than 50 metres visibility, and not in rain or snow.
  • You must use your lights in dark weather – though some countries need you to use your lights at any time and in any weather – CHECK!!
  • If your car is not equipped with winter tyres or snow chains where they are compulsory you will have to pay a fine
  • If you cause an obstruction or collision because you don’t have the right winter driving equipment then the fine will be higher

Snow tyres and chains – get fiddly to avoid a fine


Countries where harsh winters are expected and it’s not just the ‘wrong kind of snow’ - just the dangerous-for-driving white stuff – are usually pretty strict on correct use of tyres and snow chains.

It’s not unusual to find police roadblocks on the mountain roads leading to ski resorts known as 'obligatory snow chain' zones – they should be marked with a sign. If you turn up without a snow chain you’ll be sent back down the mountain and not allowed through until you’ve got a properly-attached set of snow chains. You could also end up with – surprise, surprise – a fine.

Driving abroad – be prepared for snow chains

OK, fitting snow chains is fiddly and you really, really have to practise doing it before it’s snowing, freezing and miserable. But be warned! You can’t use snow chains when it’s not snowing so there’s no point fitting them before you leave Blighty to go to your winter wonderland holiday abroad.

You should fit snow chains whenever your tyres lose grip due to snow on the ground or snowfall. When driving abroad to winter holiday destinations you’ll usually see signs telling drivers they MUST fit snow chains at a particular point en-route. In this case there’s usually a lay-by just a little further along the road where you can pull in and fit your chains.

Snow Chain FAQs:


I’m taking my car abroad, how do I get hold of snow chains?

You can hire snow chains for an average £75 per week, but if you’re a serious winter holidaymaker it probably makes more sense to buy them – there are specialist centres in the UK which will also provide lessons in fitting your snow chains. This is a great idea because, believe us, you don’t want to get caught out when you have to do it for real! Also, ask about any deals such as if you change your car and need a different size of snow chain, would they exchange your existing set?

How about waiting until I’m abroad and see if I need snow chains?

Yes you can take this course of action and you’ll often find snow chains on sale at motorway service stations and petrol stations in the winter holiday resorts. However, you’ll pay a lot more for them in these facilities and you’ll probably not be shown how to fit them. And, as Mother Nature knows best, you’ll be miles from anywhere when the snow starts and you’ve no snow chains to get you where you need to be!

With a rented 4X4 do we need snow chains if we have snow tyres?

Well, there’s no clear answer to this one. If you are in an area where snow chains are mandatory, then yes, you’ll need to use them. But in some areas you may get away with not having snow chains simply because you are driving a 4X4. So it’s not really about the legal side – it’s about your confidence in your own driving skills in winter conditions. It’s actually true that a rented 2 wheel drive fitted with snow chains handles better in snow than a 4X4 without chains.


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