My new project: Tact, a simple chat app.

Driving in Europe is fun but costs a lot

January 20, 2006

Last Sunday, I completed what is the longest drive of my current life. I drove all the way from Tallinn to Luxembourg. Well actually from Stockholm, since the Tallinn-Stockholm leg of the trip was a ferry ride. I’ve previously participated in a drive from Tallinn to somewhere near Frankfurt as a copilot/chaperone, but I haven’t driven that long myself. I was a bit scared initially, but as seen below, there was nothing to fear and it all went smoothly. The total distance was about 2500 km (if you also include the ferry ride) and took 48h in clocktime.

The ferries going between Tallinn, Helsinki and Stockholm are pretty fancy cruise-type ships with tons of bars, cafes, pubs, shops and that kind of stuff onboard, and pretty convenient cabins (similar to an average middle-class hotel in a big city, meaning they contain all the conveniences, but are tiny and packed). As the ship departed 17:30 and did not arrive until 11:30 the next day, it meant we (there were two of us on the journey) could just relax and enjoy the nightlife (not too hard obviously ;). Some of the procedures in the buffet were odd, we didn’t get how to pay for stuff and were walking out to pay at the front desk, but it turned out you had to pay to the actual waitress serving you, who was pissed. So was I – there might be people new to this kind of thing on your boat, so how about some more clear instructions? Anyway, that was that, so we watched some shows and then off to bed.

Morning started with a laid-back breakfast and then on to the car to disembark and cross the border. This is where one of the two great inventions of mankind steps in which made our day(s) – my car’s navigation unit. We were basically in the seaport in Stockholm, having no good idea of where to go, so I just programmed our final Luxembourg destination into it and said “OK pal, take us from here to there.” And so it did. (Well actually “she”. We called our car Harry before realizing the navigation system talks to us in a female voice. So unless Harry was a transvestite, which would have been too perverse, we named the navigator Harriette. So Harry was driving and Harriette was reading the map. Kinda odd, but then again, an Estonian rally driver also got a German lady to be his copilot, so apparently Harry and Harriett are not alone.)

So anyway, we were in Stockholm and started the guidance. The navigation system is a marvel and its interface deserves a writeup of its own at a later time. Just suffice to say, I’ve seen so many badly designed human-machine interaction processes, be it simple software or some “real-world” devices like video recorders, that it’s a real delight to come across one that really works the way you expect it to, and has a well-designed and though-through interface. It combines GPS, a DVD map/point-of-interest database, touchscreen, and voice response/guidance in a way that makes navigation in a foreign place easy and fun. These things started gaining popularity in the Western Europe and USA already a while ago, but in Estonia no one uses them. (The local Ford dealer said mine was the first Ford ever bought there to include such a unit. And as I anticipated beforehand to have this journey, it was actually one of the reasons to have the navigation unit.) This is sadly also illustrated by the fact that Estonia and the other “bushcountries” (new EU countries) are not yet included – the database ends with Finland, Sweden and Germany. Hopefully there will be a new revision at some point (meaning a new DVD) that includes these, so that car travellers who rely on these things can also come to my country and have the machine guide them around the place.

Back to Stockholm. So the system started guiding us out of the city and onto the southbound motorway. It did so flawlessly – not once through the entire journey did we encounter mismatch between the database map and the real world. It was all good. So in a while, we were on the motorway to southern Sweden. This is where the other great invention steps in – cruise control, a.k.a auto-speed maintainer. You achieve the desired speed and just flip it on and can relax your foot then. Contrary to the navigator, I actually had used this one before and knew its benefits, but on the motorway, it was even more useful, as the motorway means extended distances and times. Having to control the accelerator can be one of the most stressful parts of driving, as your right foot is constantly tense and eventually gets tired and this can wear you out pretty quickly. People have also told me that driving with me is constant back-and-forth jerking as I have trouble maintaining a constant speed “manually” and keep going up and down. With the cruise control, this worry is gone and you can basically sit idly (and don’t have to mess with the map, as the navigator tells you when and where to turn) and just hold on to the wheel to maintain correct heading.

Most of Sweden was pretty uneventful. The max speed on motorways in both Sweden and Denmark is 110 kph. Conditions were good – temperature was around zero C but there roads were not slippery at all so we could just keep going. We pulled over for a refuel and filled it up with 95-octane fuel which apparently was a mistake – towards the night, the machine started roaring like a bulldozer and couldn’t simply go beyond 110 and up the hills any more, until it got a dose of 98 again. So high octane is your friend on the motorways.

There was a worrying moment about half an hour before Malmö where the GPS lost some signal sync and placed us a few hundred meters off into the woods and couldn’t position or guide us properly. When it re-established itself in a few minutes, all was good again. Overall, the positioning accuracy is excellent, with an error of no more than a few hundred meters on a motorway, and less than a hundred meters in the city when being more slow, which is all you need. Galileo will have to establish some really hard selling points to get people and manufacturers to switch over.

So from Malmö it was onto the Öresund bridge-tunnel compound, constructed a few years ago, with a total length of 20 km or so. They actually constructed an articifial island to enable the transition from bridge to tunnel. It was already dark by then so we couldn’t see much, but the construction itself was quite impressive and nicely lighted. It was soon followed by another equally impressive bridge to Odense. Both of these were the only toll “roads” throughout the whole route where you had to stop by the toll kiosk. These days, they’re machine- and creditcard-operated, so no cashier or language problems, just slip your card in and off you go. (I’m not sure if I should have actually bought some sort of voucher or vignette in Germany? I know trucks must pay to drive there, but there wasn’t any roadside info about passenger cars and no toll booths or anything, so we left it at that.)

Enter Germany. The fun thing about Germany is that there’s no nationwide hard speed limit on Autobahns. There’s a “recommended” speed of 130 kph, plus lower limits in urban or major intersection areas, but at countryside, you can pretty much floor it. I didn’t go much beyond 150 kph though, not least because I had the Nordic winter tyres and they did wear out pretty badly even at this speed. Usually my winter tyres last several seasons, but not these ones I guess.

So by then it was well into the night and we were getting pretty worn out and realized it was time for a break. We could have kept going to pull over at some roadside trucker hotel, but apparently there were not so many of those around in the north as we could see the next day in the south. So we were somewhere on the outskirts of Hamburg, with no real indication of nearby accommodation, and we didn’t feel like randomly going to cruise the city to look for a bed would be that much fun. So we pulled over and told our navigator Harriette, “ok pal, now show us some hotels nearby”, and after finding what sounded like a good one, “take us there”. Which it did, and we arrived at a nearby Novotel doorstep just about 3 minutes after that. This was one of those WOW moments for me where you realize that a piece of technology has accomplished to actually make your life easier and conserved you a bunch of time and effort. So off to bed.

Not much interesting about the rest of Germany, except that due to increased speed, we also ate more fuel and had to pull over to refuel more often, and it was interesting to see the rather plain north gradually turn into more hilly and chilly southwest, where you could see real winter over nice landscapes. Some hills and valleys in the Rheinland-Pfalz and Mosel area were really impressive and had we had more time, we would definitely have pulled over to take a stroll there. Now we at least know were to go back for a quick hike. And then we came to Luxembourg and the journey was over. Final soothing words: “You have arrived at your destination”. Even though she was still just a computer, I kinda started to like her.

I expect to repeat this journey in both directions a couple more times later this year. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s different in various times of year and week and all that. Fortunately, we didn’t encounter major traffic jams or Staus this time, just a few local congestions due to road repair works.

Travelling this route by car is definitely more expensive than air in terms of both time and money. All in all, this journey for two people by car in one direction cost at least as much as return flight ticket for two. And in time, the plane journey from Tallinn to Luxembourg takes about 6h (either by switching in Copenhagen, or going from Tallinn to Frankfurt and from there on by train), whereas by car it takes 48h. Then again, you can have more stuff with you, pick your own schedule and deviate from the route as you please, so it’s fun to do once in a while. When I discussed the trip with some people in advance, they said they had got from Sweden to Amsterdam in one day, arriving at Ams 8pm the same day, but I can’t really see how that could be possible, unless you wildly and constantly went over the speed limit, which I was not so much up for.

We kept time and expense sheets for future reference, posted below. (The expenditures are mostly complete but don’t include food bought in advance for the trip and other such tiny stuff, as well as the almost full tank we started with.)

Start in Stockholm: 11:00 (1750 km to go)
Fueling break 14:00-14:20, cumulative 3h
Malmö, Öresund bridge, Swedish-Danish border 17:30, cum 6h:10m
Denmark, fueling and dinner break 19:15-20:00, cum 7h:55m
Danish-German border 21:20, cum 9h:15m
Pull over for the night 22:30, cum 10h:25m
2nd day – start 9:30 (650 km to go)
Fueling break 10:30-10:45, cum 11h:25m
Fueling and lunch break 13:45-14:45, cum 14h:25m
German-Luxembourg border 15:30, cum 16h:10m
Reach Luxembourg City 16:00, cum 16h:40m, 2nd day 6h:15m
Total time on road: 16h:40m
Average speed (distance / time on road): 105 kph

Tallinn-Stockholm overnight ferry, 2 people+car, 4610 EEK = 295 EUR
Fuel 46.84 EUR
Fuel 396.48 SEK = 42.5 EUR
Fuel 396.61 DKK = 53 EUR
Fuel 59.42 EUR
Öresund toll bridge 235 DKK = 31.5 EUR
Odense toll bridge 200 DKK = 27 EUR
Hotel+breakfast 103 EUR
Food 17.70 EUR
5L of windscreen washing liquid 85 SEK = 9 EUR
Food 177.50 DKK = 24 EUR
Total: 708.96 EUR