The unexpected result of posting my travel journals has been contact with a wide variety of people who wish to come to Europe and travel by motorcycle. I say "Go for it!" I believe that the biggest killer of dreams is apprehension, which often is the result of a fear of the unknown. I decided to try to compile some general guidelines for international travel by motorcycle in Europe, in order to help reduce some of that fear. I can't speak for other continents, but I have found that these are the generally accepted rules here. Most of these are particular to someone who ships their own bike over here. If you fly over and rent, then the rental agency will help provide the liability insurance, registration, etc.
These procedures may also vary, depending on whether the two countries that share the border you are crossing are both in the European Union. If they are, there most likely will not even be a border or checkpoint.
(ECU Countries:Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain)
Other borders offer varying degrees of administrative challenges, depending on if they are in Western Europe (Passport and appropriate highway tax paid), crossing Western to Eastern Europe (Passport, Int'l Driver's License, highway tax paid), to crossing borders in former communist countries. (Passport, Int'l Driver's License, "Green Card" proof of insurance, Vehicle Registration, and possibly the newly implemented highway tax, etc)
The administrative burden may also be a reflection of what license you're carrying on the motorcycle. Traveling with a USA Passport and license on my bike has never been a problem. Most nations seem to love to have Americans visit, and other than at the Russian border, I've never been stopped and searched.
Some of the issues that I'll address here are: Visas, Drivers Licenses, Liability Insurance, Comprehensive insurance, Vehicle Registration, Currency exchange, Highway Tax Vignettes, Border procedures, Fuel, Right-of way, Road signs, and some general Safety tips.
General Rules of Thumb:
Passport: Goes without saying. If you don't have one, you can't get there from here.
Visas: Most countries in Europe do not require a Visa for an American transiting through. Of the 29 countries that I've ridden in here in Europe, only Russia required a Visa. Canadian riders need to check with their consulates. I was stopped at the Romanian border with a Canadian friend. I could cross for free, but they wanted to charge $25 for him to buy a Visa on the spot. You need to verify the Visa requirements between your own country and the country you are traveling to. Russian Visas require about 90 days lead time.
International Driver's License: Although they are now saying that you don't need an International Driver's License for any country in Europe that uses the Roman alphabet, I have found that it certainly doesn't hurt to have one. For a relatively minor cost (compared to the cost of your entire trip), it is a prudent thing to have when traveling. It is mandatory if you plan on traveling to any country that uses any other style of alphabet (i.e. Cyrillic, Greek, etc). Get one. It is cheap additional insurance against border hassles. International Driver's Licenses are available through AAA offices in the USA, and CAA offices in Canada.
Third Party Liability Insurance: Rental Motorcycles: I can't speak authoritatively for rental bikes, but would assume that it is the responsibility of the rental agency to provide all the appropriate insurance for travel in Europe. They will also stipulate in your contract the countries that you are allowed to operate the motorcycle you are renting. They should also provide you with the "Green Card" or equivalent documentation. Carefully read the fine print on the "Green Card". It will tell you by name which countries it is valid in. Privately owned bikes: You must carry Liability Insurance that is appropriate for the countries that you'll be traveling in. For the majority of countries in Europe this is not a problem. Some US insurance carriers can offer it. You can also arrange to get it from ADAC (European equivalent to AAA) in Germany. Highly recommend that you get it and have it in-hand when you and your bike land in Europe. Trying to get it once you are in country, and before clearing Customs, is stressful and time-consuming. See Court Fisher's Global Touring page on the BMWMOA homepage for specifics about insurance and companies offering it.
Again, ensure that you read the fine print on the coverage. There are certain countries within Europe that do not accept the standard "Green Card". Russia is one. One or two of the Baltic States don't accept it either. Neither will Yugoslavia (currently). If you're just flying over to tour the Alps, then you won't have any problems at all.
Comprehensive Insurance: (Collision, theft, etc.) CONSULT WITH YOUR INSURANCE COMPANY. This may be provided by your normal (stateside) vehicle insurance policy. If you are bringing your motorcycle to Europe, inquire to ensure that your comprehensive policy will still cover you. Some do, but not all. Some will require a separate policy to be issued for the duration of your trip. If you are traveling to former Eastern European countries, theft coverage is highly recommended.
Court Fisher has pointed out to me that, "The rule is that if you want comprehensive coverage on a US-registered bike when it's taken to and ridden in Europe, you have to buy a special policy for that coverage for the period the bike is in Europe. The policy is only available from any of the several brokers listed at www.bmwmoa.org/global almost all the US brokers use AIU [American International Underwriters] as the underwriter, although some may have comprehensive underwritten by a European company. And comprehensive coverage is only available if you buy the basic 3rd party 'green card' liability coverage from the same company." Thanks Court!
Vehicle Registration: Carry your vehicle registration from your home state with you. Sometimes the border officials will demand to see something that has your license plate number on it. It doesn't matter if they can't read a word of English, but showing them an official looking document or card, where you can point to the license number and the license on the bike is sometimes critical. I have only had it happen a handful of times, but it does happen.
Currency Exchange: Most borders have currency exchange offices co-located with the Customs. If not in the same building, then within sight of the border. Exchanging money is always a good idea because not all stores in all countries will accept credit cards yet. A great many do, but cash is always welcome. If you are traveling in former communist countries, the German DM or the US dollar are usually accepted too. Always ask, and sometimes you'll get an even better exchange rate than the banks will give you. Don't carry large US bills though. Ten dollar bills and smaller, including lots of ones, are best. If you do come to Europe with a credit or ATM card, ensure that your PIN is no more than 4 digits. Also, if you insist on bringing a credit card make sure that it is a VISA card. VISA cards are the most accepted in Europe, Mastercard is not generally accepted. Travelers Checks are a pain in the ass to use. Most places won't take them. You'll have to find a bank to exchange them, and then they'll give you a horrible exchange rate to cash them. Using plastic and doing ATM withdrawals are a better way to obtain cash in most of Europe. I always try to use my credit card for all major purchases, and for all gasoline. By using your credit card you will be buying with a 2 to 3% better exchange rate than by paying cash. You'll always get the purchase at the daily bank rate, which is higher than the cash exchange rate. Go figure. But ensure you call your credit card company prior to your trip, and have them annotate the dates and countries you'll be traveling to. This will keep them from terminating your card for suddenly showing purchases in another country. Don't laugh, it happens.
Highway Tax Vignettes (Decals): Started by the Swiss, this little bid of legal robbery is catching on across Europe. Switzerland charges almost $20 for you to use their autobahn system. They require a decal to be mounted on your vehicle to show that you've paid for that year. If you stay on two-lane roads, the decal is not required. If caught on the autobahn without it, there is a major fine. They won't sell it in lesser time denominations either. Austria does. You can buy a sticker in denominations down to a week, I believe. Cost is about $5 for a week. The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Lichtenstein and Switzerland all require the highway tax stickers now. I'm sure more countries are going to jump on the easy money bandwagon too. If in doubt, ask at the border, or look at the windshield of the cars around you. You'll have to stop at Customs and buy the stickers there. The Swiss border with Germany actually has separate lanes for cars with and without the vignette. They'll gladly sell you one on the spot as you drive through. How convenient! The Slovakian autobahn vignette really was a piece of work because I don't think I ever saw an autobahn then entire time I was in the country. Go figure.
Border Procedures: Transiting an international border can be a bit confusing the first time you do it. You'll actually have to cross two borders each time. First, you have to exit the country that you're in…. and then you have to enter the country that you're going to. These two border crossings can be up to several kilometers apart, but most are within a couple of hundred meters.
Outgoing Border: Most will only want to see your Passport, to allow them to delete you from their computers. Do not ask for a Passport stamp here. Most don't care, and will only want you to move along.
Inbound border: Here they will want all your paperwork. I keep mine in a waterproof pouch around my neck. Makes access easy. Have it all in one place, and easy to provide what they ask for. If you want a country stamp in your Passport, here is where you need to get it. If you are traveling in a group of three or less, it is usually nice to hand all the paperwork from all of you to the Customs Official at once.
Once cleared, if it is a new country to you, you might like to pull over into the parking lot. I generally use this time to exchange money, buy the highway vignette, get all the free information that I can from any information booth, and change my maps.
Fuel: Except for Russia (which is an exception to everything), finding unleaded gasoline has never been a problem in any of my travels. If you keep a healthy reserve of gas, you can also almost always find a gas station that will take a credit card. The unleaded pumps are generally color-coded green, if you cannot read the signs. Bleifrei, Sans Plomb, or the international "No" (circle with a red stripe) over a Pb, all mean lead free gas. Oh, "gaz" in Europe is natural gas. The fuel that goes in your tank is "Benzene". In Germany, a gas station is called a "Tankestelle".
Right of way and road signs: If you can, obtain an international road sign pamphlet before you come to Europe. Try your local AAA. Also be aware that Europeans are much better drivers than Americans because the cost of operating a vehicle is so high, and their standards are so stringent. The German autobahn has no speed limit because everyone knows the rules and ADHERES to them. It boils down to this… Stay right, yield right. NEVER get in the left lane of the autobahn in any country unless you are passing another car. Overtake and immediately get back in the farthest right lane that you can. In towns, you must always yield to a car on the right, if there are no other traffic control devices or signs. Be aware that in many small towns, there are no traffic control signs or markings on many of the intersections. Always look right and yield right. Europe is not America, and there isn't a road sign every five feet telling you what to do. The Europeans EXPECT you to know what you are doing, and to know their rules. Some will blast through an intersection and take their right of way without even looking to the left. It is your responsibility to know when to yield.
Immediately upon entry to any new country there will be a huge road sign that shows the nation-wide speed limits on highways, two-lane roads, and in cities. Look at this sign and pay heed. Ignorance is no excuse. Norway has a nation-wide speed limit of 80 km/h (50 mph) on secondary roads, but on their autobahns you can wick it up to 90km/h (56mph). France may not think twice about issuing you a speeding ticket if you transit a section of their toll highway system too fast (proven by your computer issued toll-ticket), although I have yet to experience this. Many countries use photo-radar too, for speeding tickets. If you are hit by a bright red flash suddenly, you've just been busted for speeding. Chances are that within 400m you'll be pulled over by an officer standing in the road and waving a little paddle. If you're lucky, they'll let you pay cash on the spot.
Safety: The risk of physical crime (armed robbery, assault, rape, etc) is almost infinitesimally small in Europe. Petty crime and theft is far more common. The farther you go into the eastern bloc countries, the greater the risk. In Germany, and in the Alps, I've never chained my bike, and routinely leave my tank bag on the bike when I go into a store or shop. I've never had anything stolen. But I have traveled a bit and heard many horror stories about theft of bikes and/or gear off of them. Met one guy who traveled all over Croatia and never had a problem. Then on his way home to the UK, had all of his soft luggage cut off his bike while waiting for the ferry at a French port. He was gone from the bike less than two minutes.
Traveling to Czech Republic or Poland is a different matter. Both are the car theft capitols of Europe. Do not, under any circumstances, leave your bike and gear unsecured. At night, find a hotel or pension with a gated compound, and preferably a real guard. I'll go to the extreme of asking the owner to park behind the building and out of sight of anyone walking by. I also carry a huge Kryptonite "Barbed Wire" cable and disk lock. I chain the bikes together, or to an immoveable object. In Russia we actually paid someone to guard the bikes for two days. If traveling in a group (in the former eastern bloc), I'd always ensure someone stayed with the bikes while the others went inside to shop or pay bills, etc. I also purchased an item called a "Pac-Safe". It is a steel wire mesh that can be placed around you camping gear, and padlocked to your bike. With the hard saddlebags, this works perfectly. I then just take my tank bag with me if I have to leave the bike to go sightseeing. Everything else is secured. Pac-Safe Products.
Hope you find these tips helpful. I've tried to compile them from my own travels, and the experience of friends/aquaintances whom I've met on the road. Please use comman sense and double-check all insurance information with your own provider. I am NOT an insurance expert! Feel free to let me know if these tips match your own experiences, or if you have any to add from your travels! Just click here (email Jeff) and let me know. I'd love to hear about your travel experiences.
See you on the road.