Driving in a foreign country can be a frightening experience, but it doesn’t need to be.

Photo by Devon Janse van Rensburg on Unsplash

Prepare for Driving Abroad: Know the Traffic Signs

By the time I arrived in Goleniów and was squared away with my rental car, it was close to 1 a.m. and I still had an hour and a half to drive. Because my plane arrived so late due to a delay in Dublin, I had one advantage: there was no one on the road. I had no sooner turned out of the rental lot and was extremely confused by the first traffic sign I saw. It was a blue circle with a red “X” so I slowed way down and then stopped–which is exactly what you’re not supposed to do at that sign!

While on the plane, review the road and traffic signs you will encounter in Poland. Most signs are designed to use pictures only. However, prohibition signs are significantly different from those found in the United States. The one sign in Polish I quickly became familiar with was any sign with variations of the word “droga,” which means “way” in Polish.

Road Conditions and Traffic

S10 has three lanes while S3 is a two-lane expressway. Most major highways connecting larger cities are at least two lanes. However, highways in rural Poland are single lane.

The most nerve-wracking experience for me was driving the larger highways. In the U.S., roads have a generous amount of space in each lane and usually an ample shoulder. I’m not sure if the lanes in Poland were narrower or if it was that the shoulder were almost non-existent, maybe both. The lanes had the lines striped mere inches from the grass. It never felt like an issue until I reached sections of road that had guard rails, barriers, or mile marker posts. Then, I gripped the wheel tight. Driving in rural areas was much more comfortable.

A road with no shoulder.
A road with a shoulder on the right. Notice the lack of space on the left side.
A rural road near Brwice (Blankenfelde in Neumark)

In these rural areas, the speed limit outside of villages is typically 90 kilometers per hour, which is close to the 55 miles per hour posted in the U.S. On main roads, this is typically not a problem. However, on back roads, you will want to drive much slower. One of the saddest things I noticed while driving was all of the dead animals, which frequently included cats. This made me drive between 50-60 kph, which angered the drivers behind me.

A rural road in Żółcino (Soltin, Kreis Cammin)

Back roads were typically only one car-width wide, narrower than most American driveways, and felt more like bike paths or ATV trails in the Midwest. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the quality of the roads in Poland. Honestly, their roads were usually better paved than most of the roads I drive in Minnesota and Wisconsin. On occasion in the smaller, further out villages, roads will be paved with bricks only about twice as wide as car tires.

Occasionally, it becomes necessary to pull over to allow oncoming traffic through in areas where the road is too narrow for both vehicles. Likewise, sometimes it’s easier to pull off to allow aggressive drivers to pass you. Be careful with this, though. I pulled off to make a U-turn and discovered that the grass that was even with the road was actually two feet high and my car went in the ditch. Within seconds, I had a biker and several drivers coming to my rescue, helping me push it out. We all wound up with rashes from the stinging nettles in the ditch. One of the friendly locals reminded me, “slow, slow” and I felt like an idiot for not realizing the edge was a ravine instead of flat ground.

During the high-peak for European travel and vacationing, traffic can become unbearably slow for miles. The was the case when trying to drive from Koszalin to Kołobrzeg on the weekend. A part of this was all of the people trying to get to the beaches, specifically Mielno. The other part of this is that the Baltic tends to be a popular vacation destination for Germans.

In the major cities, traffic is jammed. It can take 10 to 15 minutes to make it through several stoplights to make a loop if you miss your stop. Looking for a parking space is a nightmare. Plan ahead and leave early. I do not recommend keeping a rental car in cities like Szczecin. Most areas of the city are close enough to walk from your hotel.

However, even cities that are “big” by our standards are not terrible to drive or park in Poland. Koszalin and Kołobrzeg can have some traffic, but it’s usually not that bad. I’ll cover more on parking in a bit.

Also, plan for more time than you think it will take to arrive at your destinations. Polish roads don’t adhere to grid systems, and routes wind around villages. Although scenic, they can be inconvenient, especially when the only other road is under construction, which can tack on and extra 20 or 30 minutes to the drive time.

Winding roads: the road from Groß Rambin to Klein Damerow requires driving northwest and then south, a drive of 7.5 km over 15 minutes rather than connecting straight to the destination. No road exists to connect the two.

Much of the driving between smaller villages is similar to the map shown above. Frequently, there is only one road that will take you to your destination.

Also, as mentioned earlier, keep an eye out for stray animals and wildlife. The roads start where the fields end, and there isn’t much space between the two. Critters can pop out at anytime and without notice. That’s why I recommend driving slow and paying attention to the road. And if you don’t care about the animals, think about the expenses for repairing a rental car–it can get pricey.

Speed Limits

Speed limits are posted and are enforced through traffic cameras, which can typically be identified by the large yellow boxes affixed to posts on the side of the road. Several of my hosts made note of these cameras and advised me not to drive over the speed limit. Supposedly, when the cameras are triggered, a flash of light goes off as the picture is taken. I never pushed it to find out, but reports vary about whether tourists receive tickets or not when driving rental cars. A friend of mine passed three cameras in Germany on the Autobahn and received incremental tickets for each offense. A couple I met in Nawino told me that people are killed on the road all the time because of speeding and that offenders are fined. Poland has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in Europe, though they are still below number that die in the United States.

According to the official website of the European Union, speed limits in Poland are as follows unless otherwise marked:

For more comprehensive coverage of speed limits, view the European Union’s page about transport and road safety.

Here’s an approximate conversion to put speeds into perspective:

Poland (kilometers)United States (miles)
50 kph31 mph
60 kph37 mph
90 kph56 mph
100 kph62 mph
120 kph75 mph
140 kph87 mph
My Experience

Because most rural roads in the interior farmland areas of Poland are so narrow, I drove well under the speed limit in most cases. There was one exception on the way to return my car from Kretomino to Goleniów. There was a large Mercedes van that had been rude and on my tail. I floored my car and pushed it close to 200km (that’s about 124 miles per hour!); the driver still overtook me with ease and then sprayed me with his windshield washing fluid. Case and point: there’s really no reason to speed. If anything, you’ll probably want to drive slower than the posted speed.

Other Drivers

If you get road rage easily, let someone else drive.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. Most of the Polish people I met were extremely friendly and helpful. I think they would agree that other drivers on the road are a point of concern, even for the locals.

With that being said, drivers in Poland were some of the worst I’ve ever seen in my life. Tailgating. No turn signal. Blinding me with high beams. Motorcyclists riding on the center line to pass the traffic. Cars zipping around me on single car roads with old oaks growing inches from the side of my own vehicle. No speed ever feeling like it’s fast enough to keep other drivers from riding my bumper. Many won’t even slow down for blind curves. It’s not every driver, but the ones who are aggressive will make your trip miserable. Let them pass you–you’ll probably see them at the next stop.

Emergencies

Just like at home, move over for emergency vehicles with flashing lights and sirens. If you’re on a congested multi-lane highway, you must form an “emergency corridor” to allow the police or ambulance through. The left lane moves to the left side of their lane while all other lanes move to the right.

But what if you’re the one involved in a traffic accident or automotive breakdown? Each car should be outfitted with emergency warning triangles to alert other drivers. Your rental should come equipped with these. Check to ensure they are with the car before driving off the lot.

If you have an emergency and need to call for help, dial 112. It’s the Polish equivalent of 911. There are other numbers you may dial as well, such as 999 for an ambulance, 998 for the fire department, and 997 for police. While 112 should work from a cellular device, the others might only work from a stationary phone. Also, in case of an emergency, not all police stations will have someone who speaks English. The numbers below will help put you in contact with emergency services.

  • Tourist Helpline: +48 608 599 999 and +48 222 787 777.
  • Emergency Line (for tourists, in the summer only): +48 608 599 999 and +48 800 200 300
  • U.S. Consular Agency in Poznań: (48) (61) 851-8516
  • U.S. Consulate General in Krakow: (48) (12) 424-5100
  • U.S. Embassy in Warsaw: (48) (22) 504-2000

Alcohol

Poland has strict laws regarding the consumption of alcohol before getting behind the wheel. Anyone with a BAC over 0.02% can be heavily fined and penalized. When driving, I limited myself to one beer during my meal and left plenty of time between.

Parking

One of the questions I had before traveling was “where can I park?” The answer was not as complicated as I had expected.

In smaller villages, you can typically pull off to the side of the road of use a common parking lot. In Stepnica, there was a parking lot. In Rusowo, I parked in front of the church. In other villages, I found an out-of-the-way place. No one ever hassled me or told me I couldn’t park.

In larger cities like Koszalin, Kołobrzeg, Białogard, and Myślibórz, there’s free street parking if you find the right place. Be willing to walk a little further. It makes finding a parking spot easy. In busy city centers like Szczecin, parking can be difficult to find. There, street parking is metered.

GPS and Directions

I strongly recommend having a phone plan that allows you to use data on-the-go. Although coverage can be spotty, having access to a GPS map makes traveling much easier, whether by car or by foot. It is also advisable to download offline maps in case you lose a signal in the middle of nowhere.

For safe measure, I made routes of all of my destinations on Google Maps and printed them out. This doubled as a way to ensure the best use of my time by finding routes that linked multiple locations I wanted to see.

As a final note, plan for more time than you think you will need. I found that even at a breakneck pace, it took at least 15-20 minutes to see each village and take pictures. I originally planned to see about 200 places. This was whittled back to about one-third of that. Unexpected conversations will pop up, and you might find yourself invited to lunch with some locals. If you over plan and cram too much in, you might not enjoy some of the more spontaneous adventures that arise.

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