We in Britain are used to paying pretty high fuel duty, alongside modest (by European standards) annual Vehicle Excise Duty, and in return get a barely adequate road network: very heavily used, often poorly engineered and maintained. And at some major bridges and tunnels we cough up a toll payment, which increasingly is justified as 'congestion management' rather than recovering the cost of the infrastructure itself.

The 'deal' for the motorist looks a bit different in most other countries.

In France they get much better roads, but everyone has to pay hefty tolls for most stretches of inter-urban autoroute. Spain also has, generally lower, motorway tolls, but an astounding amount of recent investment in improving the road network as a whole. Drivers in Italy seem to get one of the worst deals: high-ish tolls for some pretty heavily used autostrade, and slow going on much of the rest of the network.

You should also expect to pay tolls, based on the distance you travel and the type of vehicle you drive, on motorways in
Portugal, Greece, Hungary, Croatia and parts of Norway, Poland and even Ireland.

Germany and the Netherlands take the British approach: motorways free of use (sensibly seeking to minimise the risk of diversion to less suitable ordinary roads), with occasional tolls for the captive customers of bridges and tunnels. But change is imminent in Germany - see right.

Increasingly a third approach to charging is gathering momentum: the vignette system of requiring drivers to buy a permit valid for a fixed period of time if they want to use specified roads, usually the whole of a country's motorway network,
Switzerland started this off in the 90s, as a way of collecting revenue from the great volumes of foreign traffic just passing through. Being outside the EU, they didn't need to worry about blatantly discriminating against foreigners, so could keep locals sweet by not charging. Since then, several, mainly smaller, EU countries have jumped on the bandwagon, notably Austria, Czech Republic and Slovenia. EU rules force these countries (unlike Switzerland) to make a shorter period (less than a year) available to visiting drivers. But it can still make driving in these countries expensive: Slovenia is not a big country, but even a short transit trip of a few km on the motorway en route to Croatia would incur the minimum charge of €15. Diverting on to the older road may well make sense in these circumstances - an irritating, or stimulating, challenge, according to taste.

Make the most of
Belgium's generosity whilst it lasts: no user charges for any of their motorways which, whilst busy and rarely scenic, do cover every corner of the country. It's proved far from easy for the disputatious Flemish and Walloon regions to reach agreement, but there's still the intention that Belgium should join the vignette club. Date no yet fixed, but when it happens, it'll be difficult for British drivers heading east and south to avoid it.


country names left coded using this colour key:

red: Tolls for (most) motorways

purple: Tolls for bridges and tunnels only

blue: Vignette: permit to use all motorways for specified time period


The last Merkel Government sanctioned the introduction of the hotly contested 'PKW Maut' - moving beyond lorry charging to levy also a c€100 p.a. fee for Autobahn use, for all cars, including for the first time foreigners. Full details are still being finalised, including the price of the shorter period options that will have to be made available. Expect this finally to come on stream shortly, once a new Coalition Government is in place in Berlin.

Given the scale of the autobahn network, this is likely to constitute pretty good value compared with the plethora of vignette charges already in place across much of central Europe.