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Off to the slopes? Essential winter info for driving through Europe.

Kwik Fit | Monday 12th February 2018 1:08pm

car with roof rack and skis

Winter in Britain may be nearing the end for another year so the best place to go if you are still craving snow and slopes is a trip to the Alps. The ski season runs roughly from November to April so there’s still plenty of time to get on the piste. However, once you’ve added up the cost of the flights, accommodation and equipment, it can be quite pricey, especially if taking the family. But there is one thing you can do reduce the overall cost – drive to the Alps instead of flying. It’s arguably more relaxing (if you have plenty of in-car entertainment), and offers an amazing family adventure featuring beautiful countryside and scenery. On top of that there’s also no lugging cases and equipment around airports, and no transfers to struggle with. You just jump into your car and drive all the way to your skiing destination.

You do, however, need to give careful consideration to your car, and in particular your tyres. Yes, tyres. Read more and discover what the rules are on the continent about winter tyres and chains.

Driving to France

From the United Kingdom it’s very achievable to drive all the way to the French Alps in one day, albeit a long one. If you’re travelling from the south east of England you can reasonably expect to be in the car for about ten hours. With this in mind it’s no wonder most self-drive skiers opt for resorts in France like Méribel, Courchevel and Chamonix that can be reached in time for dinner.

snow capped mountains

Of course it takes a bit longer to get to the Italian Alps, but that’s certainly doable, and plenty of skiers regularly make this journey too, to enjoy the pleasure of the ski resorts at Cervinia, Sestričre and Courmayeur. You’ll have to drive through France most of the journey, before crossing over the border with Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Wherever your final destination, if you’re driving in or through France there’s a standard, mandatory list of driver safety items that you absolutely must have in your vehicle. These include a warning triangle, high visibility vests and 2 breathalysers. You will also need to make sure you attached headlamp converters to your headlights (so you don’t dazzle oncoming drivers). These items are easy to pick up at the Euro Tunnel terminal in Folkestone but it is usually more cost effective to buy these online before you set off. Make sure you have everything you need for driving in Europe before you set off.

Are winter tyres compulsory?

In both France and Italy, winter tyres are “mandatory in certain areas”. Needless to say though, driving through the mountains during winter is certainly one of the areas where winter tyres are required. It’s important to make clear at this point that tyre chains are not a substitute for winter tyres. You will need to fit winter tyres, or face the consequences of breaking the law.

Leading premium tyre manufacturers, like Continental, offer an extensive, comprehensive range of superb winter tyres that are ideal for travelling in Europe and are designed and built for the most demanding cold weather and snowy conditions.

tyre on snowy road

Contrary to popular belief, winter tyres are not just for driving in snow. The special rubber compounds they’re made from will improve grip on dry roads too if the temperature falls to 7°C or below. Improved grip in the cold means reduced stopping distances, significantly reducing your chances of having an accident. So that means you’re not just buying a set of winter tyres for when you hit the snow during the last few miles up the mountain to your ski resort. In fact, they’ll keep you safer for the whole trip. They will also be useful when  you get back to the UK’s typically cold weather conditions while the temperature stays below 7 degrees.

When to fit snow chains

You’ll also need a set of snow chains but UK drivers frequently get this bit wrong. Many will put the chains on their tyres at the foot of the mountain, in anticipation of snowy roads ahead. You should never do this. Not only will you potentially damage your tyres, you’ll also be limited to very slow speeds causing traffic chaos and encouraging dangerous overtaking manoeuvres from others on the mountain roads.

If you’re driving in snowy, icy, cold weather conditions to your ski destination, only put chains on your tyres when there’s a significant amount of snow on the road and your winter tyres are not able to grip effectively. This is typically when the inclines get that little bit steeper.

Driving to Austria and Switzerland

If you’re heading to a Swiss ski resort such as Zermatt or Verbier, your drive will more than likely take you through France before reaching your destination. Switzerland has more or less the same winter tyre rules as France so make sure you read the section above for precautions to take when driving in France.

car on mountain road with snow

If you’re travelling further to Austria for resorts like St Anton or Lech – you’ll probably be driving through Germany. In Germany and Austria, it is compulsory between November and April for all vehicles to be fitted with winter tyres, specifically, those with the “M+S” symbol on the tyre wall. It’s a legal requirement to have tyres with this symbol fitted. If you’re involved in an accident and your car is not fitted with them, irrespective of the facts you will be deemed responsible. What’s more, you’ll also incur an additional fine if it’s deemed that the accident you caused has resulted in delays for other drivers. Ouch!

It’s not just the Germans who take winter tyres seriously, In Austria there are very large fines - up to €5,000 - if you’re stopped by the police and they discover that you do not have winter tyres fitted. Best not to chance it.

Winter tyres – not just for your ski holiday

Not surprising, most British drivers are just not used to switching to winter tyres in the cold season. Other than some remote parts, our climate means we don’t typically get much snow and because most people think winter tyres are only for driving in snow, we don’t feel the need to switch. But don’t forget, winter tyres are all about driving in cold temperatures (7°C or below) something we do get a lot of in the UK during the winter months.

If you take regular ski holidays and you’re driving to Europe during the colder months, winter tyres are a very worthwhile investment – one that will not only protect you while you are on the continent, but also make your car safer when you’re driving back here in the UK during the winter months too. 

To learn more about winter tyres, speak with your local Kwik Fit tyre professionals. We can offer you tyre safety advice, expert fitting solutions and much more. Find your nearest Kwik Fit centre here. 


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