FLY or DRIVE to UK?

Tony Pettie

Whenever I mention having driven cars (and ridden motos) between Moscow and London the reaction is often one of complete surprise that this is even possible. Questions follow. How long does it take? Why? Finally, suggesting they may be interested, which route?

Before answering these, first be honest about a 4 hour direct flight. At best, it takes an hour or more from the city centre to reach the airport for check-in a recommended 2 to 3 hours before take-off. Add another hour after landing for luggage and passport formalities and another hour or more to reach your destination, if nearby.

Thus the ‘4 hour’ flight is going to occupy a minimum of 10 hours of your time. So much for the instant convenience and time saving of modern jet travel.

Although I describe from Moscow to London this article is valid for most of Western Europe – and back.

How long?

The main unknown is Russia/EU Border processing time. Without this, from the MKAD to the Calais ferry terminal or the Channel Tunnel, at legal speeds throughout, takes 30 hours driving time. That is time at the wheel of a moving car without allowing anything for en-route stops or halts for whatever reason.

Although I have done this in two days with a single night stop, I prefer a slightly longer schedule of two and a half days. But this still requires the priority to be to get there without sightseeing detours and stopping only for fuel and the night stop(s). This approach suits my temperament but not everyone’s. Driving alone makes this easier as there is no one else clamouring to stop to stretch their legs, eat, have a coffee and later stop to get rid of it.

A brief halt for refuelling alone, in practice adds at least ten minutes from the initial slowing down, refuelling, paying and, re-attaining the original cruising speed – plus resulting disruption to ones mental rhythm. To minimise stops, when paying for fuel I buy a sandwich or two and bottle of water to consume ‘at the wheel’. I also have a supply of strong mints to refresh the mouth and taste.

All very strict, but it needs that attitude to minimise overall time to get to the destination quickly – the object of the exercise, for me.

To help the time pass while driving I carry a good supply of music. I tried ‘talking books’ but found the level of subconscious attention on the roads diverted my consciousness from the narrator and I missed big chunks of the book. Local radio stations along the way are very much hit and miss for finding music to my liking and a language I know. Through much of central Germany you can tune to British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) on FM – at least I can understand what they are saying even if it is somewhat targeted and ‘local’ to UK forces and their families serving abroad. In Belgium you can tune to some UK stations.

The overriding concern MUST be driving safely within your own capability and follow local traffic laws, speed limits, traffic conditions, etc. Initially, tiredness can be alleviated by opening windows for fresh air, talking aloud to oneself, even shifting position in the seat, but you must know when not to continue so as not to put yourself and other road users at risk. You must STOP. In such circumstances a brisk five minute walk or ‘cat nap’ usually works wonders for the next few hours.

Why?

Unless the purpose is to import/export the vehicle, for me the principle reasons are the ability to carry far more than standard airline luggage allowances and size restrictions and to have at the destination my car of choice.

Fuel, insurance Green Card, tolls and night stop(s) of a round trip generally cost a little more than a direct BA or Aeroflot return ticket. Taking a passenger or much luggage makes it considerably cheaper than flying.

There is total flexibility of return dates. You are also spared the cost or need to hire a car at ‘the other end’.

An appreciated bonus is having long periods for reflective thought, without a nagging feeling of guilt I could be doing other things with my time.

Which way?

From/to Moscow I use the ‘Riga road’ border crossing into Latvia (or from St. Peterburg through Estonia at Ivangorod/Narva). This is the only border stop between Russia until UK. Belarus is a little shorter distance than through Latvia but requires a separate visa and complicated transit/border procedure requirements at the completely open border with Russia. Getting these wrong, no matter how innocently, can get you ‘black listed’ from entering Russia and Belarus for several years.

The Latvia border is about 6 hours from Moscow. They are quite efficient these days. The combined processes of both countries controls can usually be completed in under an hour but expect longer at peak times. Once I was waiting there for 12 hours but that was exceptional and involved an industrial dispute by some officials following various shift changes. The border procedure is described in another article.

Roads from Moscow, through Latvia, Lithuania and north east Poland are well maintained with long straights but are generally single carriageway. Outside Russia the 90kph maximum speed limit is very strictly followed by everyone and, as with lower town limits, enforced by a visible police presence and the occasional radar gun operated from behind bushes – particularly in Lithuania and close to any national border.

In Poland, routes from both Augustow or Bialystok to Warsaw have seen huge road construction projects.  A few sections of double lane dual carriageways are not yet fully open (April 2018) but should be complete in a few months. From some distance north of Warsaw the road becomes ‘motorway’ all the way to the English Channel. Tolls of about £18 apply on parts of the new motorway between Warsaw and the German border.

In Germany there are sections of autobahn with no upper speed limit. These call for heightened vigilance and constant use of the rear view mirror. No matter how fast you are driving there will always be someone coming from behind, driving faster than you and expecting you not to be in the way by the time they reach you. Despite the increased consequences of a collision, in my view this makes for a better standard of driving, as drivers are highly alert and fully aware of all traffic around them including what is approaching from behind. After overtaking, drivers return to nearside lanes as a matter of course, and never pass on the inside. All a welcome relief from driving styles in Russia!

The short section through south east Holland usefully has speed limit repeater signs every kilometre. These are generally 120kph, reducing to 110kph for Belgium and France, to the Calais area.

Crossing the English Channel can be by sea ferries, with restaurants and bars, or the Tunnel for which you drive into a large double deck train, stay with your car and drive off at the other end. Crossing prices vary with the method, dates, time and type of ticket you buy. The sea ferry takes 90 minutes to Dover. The Tunnel costs more but takes only 35 minutes to north of Folkestone, 11 miles nearer London – a net time saving of an hour and a half. From there the M25 (London’s MKAD) is 40 minutes further.

Documents

Passport, obviously!

You must have the vehicle’s registration document. If Russian, the Свидетельство о Регистрации (the plastic card). For UK vehicles it is the V5C. If these are not in the name of a person in the car, you should have their written permission to use the vehicle in the intended countries, ideally in both Russian and English. Some say to have this Notarised, but I am not aware of this being obligatory or heard of problems.

For Russian registered vehicle you will have to show a valid Green Card when entering the EU. The Latvia border people also ask to see it when returning from the EU – doubtless looking for opportunities to impose retrospective penalties! The Green Card is an internationally accepted Certificate of Insurance for the countries shown thereon. This can be bought in advance in Moscow or shortly before the border in petrol stations, shops or roadside kiosks specifically there for the purpose. Cost depends solely on vehicle power and time required. As an example, I recently paid 4,000 Руб for a month Green Card covering all Europe for a powerful 2 litre car.

For UK/EU registered vehicles re-entering EU you will have to produce a ‘home’ Certificate of Insurance. These generally automatically include driving throughout the EU.

In either case, these insurances are only for the very minimum levels required by the Laws of each country. If you want greater levels to cover the vehicle, passengers, etc this should be organised beforehand with your usual insurer.

Latvia Customs sometimes ask to see your Driving Licence as an additional “documents link”.

Other

Fuel cost depends on your car and how fast you drive it. There are Websites listing current fuel prices in all European countries. Russian fuel is cheapest, by far.  Poland is usually next cheapest with Holland being the most expensive. Filling a car at the Russia border will see it far into Poland. A top-up close to the German border should get it to Belgium, neatly avoiding buying in Holland! You can usually save money, at the cost of a little time, by leaving motorway roads and buying fuel nearby – most SatNavs show filling stations.

Motos do not have the range of cars and will require several more fuel stops.

Steady driving at the low-ish speed limits on the straight ‘normal’ roads and cruising within motorway limits produces surprisingly good fuel economy. A couple of years ago, from the Russian border to Calais I achieved over 50mpg (imperial), or 17.7kpl, in an elderly Ford Mondeo 1.8.

Other than the Zeloty in Poland, the Euro is the currency all the way between Russia and UK. Credit cards are accepted everywhere but resist the ‘kind’ offers in Poland to convert the charge to GB pounds or other currency of your card – their exchange rates turn out to be between 5% and 10% worse than leaving it for your Card provider to convert the Zeloty.

I have driven this in all seasons, including winter through heavy falling snow across Latvia. Main roads are kept clear either by ploughs or moving traffic and, unlike Britain, drivers and their cars are well prepared with winter tyres, screen wash etc.

For those who prefer to enjoy the journey more than just using it as a means of getting to the destination, I suggest detours and breaks in north east Poland or the Latgale area of Latvia close to the Russia border. Both areas are attractive, advertise many places of interest and tourist activities, and look inviting while driving through. Crossing both areas I always promise myself to take time out to explore them – next time!

An interesting alternative is the Curonian Spit on the Baltic coast of Lithuania and Kaliningrad. After a brief ferry crossing at Klaipeda, this UNESCO World Heritage site is a 100km long peninsular of sand dunes, at times less than 500m wide, separating the Baltic Sea from a large lagoon. There is just one road that includes a border crossing in the middle. This was my quickest ever Russia/EU border crossing – 15 minutes in total. I have seen the spit three times; once on a moto and the other two occasions from the windows of aircraft flying to London!

Kaliningrad petrol stations close to the Poland border all have large blocks of wood in front of the pumps. These puzzled me. Then I saw cars drive one wheel onto them, thereby raising/tilting their cars to get the filler higher to get in a few more drops of cheap Russian fuel.

For a two day journey I take a night stop in north east Poland which is about midway in terms of time. Travelling more leisurely with two night stops I prefer a night stop at Ludza, Latvia close to the Russian border and the second in Poland close to the Germany border. I don’t book ahead as the main roads (but not the new motorways) have many roadside motels and hotels offering clean, comfortable and quiet ‘en-suite’ twin or double rooms and breakfast for 90 Zeloty (£19) – far cheaper than in Germany.  Don’t be put off by seeing trucks in the parking areas. Most drivers sleep in their cabs having been attracted by the secure parking and food service, which for me gets washed down with a beer before bed.

A good breakfast and I’m off again, warmly anticipating unwinding with a pint late that evening in my local pub, just west of London. Cheers!

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