Charging around Europe - how to make holiday trips in an electric car

Andrew Till

16.5.2022

Andrew Till is a veteran of cross-continental trips in an electric car. Here's what he's learned.

It’s a common assumption that electric cars are only good for short distances. They’re just city cars, and only good for popping to the shops. You'd have to be mad to try and take one across Europe, wouldn't you? This, thankfully, has not been my family’s experience at all.

My wife is Italian. Our first electric car, a second-hand Nissan Leaf 24kWh, was a fantastic family car but had a wildly-optimistic motorway range of about 60 miles. It was, just as the naysayers said, not suitable for long journeys unless you have a really relaxed approach to family holidays. With a wife and daughter of similarly fiery Italian temperaments, that was never going to cut it for us.

Getting a long-range electric car was always going to be our plan and, although I watched Elon Musk’s Model 3 launch with excitement and promptly put down a deposit, there seemed no chance of getting it for July 2019 when we’d decided to see the family in Rome: a 2,220 mile round trip from our home in Canterbury.

There was a lot of buzz in late 2018 about the Kia e-Niro: a reasonably-priced car, with almost 300-miles of range. With the Model 3 seeming too far off, I got myself on the e-Niro waiting list instead and was fortunate to be one of the first to take delivery.

Approaching the idea of a European road trip in something other than a Tesla (with its extensive Supercharger network) was a bit scary, but all the best adventures are. I’d also started a YouTube channel a few months prior so I thought it might make for some juicy content if my wife started shouting at me in front of a broken charger.

For our maiden voyage, the trip went quite smoothly overall. The e-Niro proved fantastic, and the infrastructure adequate. Fast forward to April 2022 and we decided to do the same trip — this time in our new Hyundai IONIQ 5. The difference in charging speed and the improvements to infrastructure made the journey even easier. So much so, we’ll be doing it again in just a few months.

Flaviana and Andrew are smiling despite the huge journey in front of them

Planning

Arguably the hardest things about planning the journey weren’t electric-related at all, it was instead understanding the various Covid restrictions — could we drive through Switzerland? Germany? Austria? — and working out whether we could take the dog.

Taking your pet into Europe now requires an Animal Health Certificate which a vet will grudgingly do for you for the princely sum of about £200. Once you have that sorted (no more than ten days before travel) you can make your way across to Europe.

Some towns in France are restricting cars that aren’t zero emissions. Although you’ll be fine in an electric car, you will still need a sticker. Look at the Crit’Air website for more information. Ordering a sticker is quick, simple (and in English), and costs €4.51.

A Crit'Air sticker will be needed in some towns in France, but is easy and cheap to obtain

Travelling

Your options for getting to Europe, assuming you don’t have a submersible Lotus Esprit like Elon Musk, are by ferry or tunnel. For electric car drivers the tunnel may be the more attractive choice as there are chargers at the Eurotunnel terminal. The good news? They’re free to use! Pro tip though: don’t rely on finding an available charger. If you want to top-up before reaching the tunnel there are IONITY and Gridserve chargers at Folkestone Services (M20, junction 11). Tesla owners (who will grow increasingly smug throughout this article) have the choice of eight and these are also now open to non-Teslas for those that download the Tesla app. 

If you’re planning to get a boat crossing there are currently zero rapid chargers at the Dover Terminal — even for Teslas. Ferry disappointing.

If Eurotunnel is your chosen route you can stay in your car (ignoring the “turn off your engines” announcement with a satisfied grin) and relax with the air conditioning on. Or, perhaps more likely, start arguing about things you forgot to pack, whether you left the lights on at home, and desperately trying to entertain children in the car with the most boring game of I Spy ever.

Whether you go by tunnel or ferry there are currently no charging facilities on board. There are no toilet facilities currently available on the tunnel either for that matter, so bring an emergency bottle if you miss them at the terminal.

Bring a bottle - the loos in the Eurotunnel are currently closed

Where do I charge?

It would be nice to think we could drive anywhere in Europe on a whim without worrying about where to charge, but that’s currently not practical. Most electric cars have inadequate built-in route planning, so you need to take matters into your own hands. 

I’ve found the best option is to make a rough plan using ABetterRoutePlanner.com (or search for ABRP on app stores). Tell it what car you’re driving and where you’re going and it’ll calculate a route and tell you where to charge, how much battery you’ll have when you get to each stop, and how long you should charge for.

It’s not perfect — I tend to reach chargers with more battery than I was expecting, and charges tend to take a little longer than it thinks — but it’s better than anything else I’ve tried for planning a long journey, not least because it accounts for topography and weather. In-car sat navs tend to be woefully inadequate in comparison. If you have Android Auto or CarPlay you can share the route with Google Maps and use that to navigate to each charger. It works really well.

By default ABRP will tell you how to reach your destination as fast as possible. This means not charging up to 100% (which, in most EVs, starts getting slow after around 80%) but instead topping up to get to the next charger. Invariably your plans will end up changing a bit and, after a stop for lunch you may end up charging more than planned, so check the app and enter your current battery percentage for it to recalculate the journey.

If you’re feeling particularly geeky, you can link ABRP to your car to get the battery percentage automatically, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. Search online for ABRP OBD2 integration although it’s not for the faint-hearted!

One thing that caught us out on the way home is that ABRP told us to charge at IONITY Baralle, but it wasn’t clear that this involved a soul-destroying 20 mile u-turn. If you’re driving back to Calais then I recommend charging as much as you can at IONITY Champfleury to avoid stopping again.

The recent announcement that UK drivers can charge at some Tesla points has complicated things a little, as they may not be listed on all the sites. It's worth cross checking with the Tesla app to see if the Superchargers on your route are open to all.

IONITY Baralle - available after a 20 mile U-turn (pic: Chargemap)

Destination charging

If you’re spreading your journey out over multiple days, consider finding a hotel with a charger. That way you can wake up bright and fresh in the morning with a full charge and shave significant time off your journey. Websites like hotels.com, booking.com or airbnb.com all have filters for finding places with EV chargers. In the good old days when electricity was cheap, this was often a free perk. These days the hotel may charge you for it.

One word of warning is that you never know whether someone else may be using the charger, so have a plan B just in case. It’s also worth contacting the hotel beforehand to double check they’re not Tesla-only chargers. I also use a website called plugshare.com when I’m choosing a hotel as it’s a great way of seeing what chargers are in the area. Plugshare is also free on the app store and is well worth downloading. It also works on Android Auto and CarPlay, showing available chargers while you’re driving.

Paying for the charge

If you’ll allow me to bask in some brief national pride for a moment, most of our chargers in the UK — although still not numerous enough in many areas — can at least be activated with good old-fashioned contactless payments. In mainland Europe it’s not quite as simple. 

The most common way of activating a charger is using an RFID card from providers like Chargemap, Plugsurfing or Shell Recharge. These cards enable you to charge at thousands of chargers from different networks across Europe. Car manufacturers are also getting in on it now as well. All but one of the rapid chargers I used on my journey to Italy and back was activated using the Charge myHyundai RFID card which I got with my IONIQ 5. 

RFID cards tend to be very reliable but if you have pre-planned your route, it is also worth installing some apps for the charging networks you’ll most likely be using, just in case.

Some hotels will let you charge overnight

The IONITY equation 

My first trip across Europe was made far easier due to the presence of IONITY — a charging network run created by a consortium of car manufacturers to give non-Tesla owners access to a fast, Europe-wide network. This year, doing the same journey, it was even easier with more chargers available in more locations. 

IONITY chargers are 350kW which means your EV can potentially charge very fast, if it is capable of accepting it. I say potentially because batteries are sensitive to temperature. If it’s a warm day, you should charge quickly. If you’re visiting the Arctic Circle, it may take a while longer than expected. 

Naysayers often stress the fact that electric cars don’t refuel as fast as a petrol or diesel, but I often find my IONIQ 5 has reached 100% on IONITY chargers before I’m ready. In fact, I got a notification while I was still in the queue at a Burger King to say the car had finished charging. That’s a whole new kind of anxiety because then I felt I had to run back to move the car so I wasn’t hogging it for others. Great for quick charges, not so great for heartburn. 

But IONITY is not cheap. At 69p/kWh it’s the most expensive charging network, as I assume they’ve priced it high to make subscriptions more attractive. That rate will be lower with some RFID cards but if you’re planning on making regular long journeys, consider subscribing to get a lower rate. If you have a car from Audi, BMW, Ford, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, MINI, Porsche, Skoda or VW then you can get an RFID card from them which will give you cheaper rates. 

Many new cars actually come with free IONITY subscription for a year. My IONIQ 5’s Charge myHyundai RFID card was just 25p/kWh, for instance - that’s cheaper than charging at home at peak rate! If you’re fortunate to have a car that charges fast, you’ll have an unexpected benefit of charging at IONITY in France: they charge by the minute, not by the kWh. 

If you don’t have one of the car brands listed before, you can subscribe to IONITY Passport plan for £16.99 a month for 12 months. That enables you to charge for 35p/kWh. Whether that £203.88 is worth it will depend how much you plan to public charge. I’ve found having the IONITY subscription makes me more comfortable making long journeys though and driving around Europe is undoubtedly more of a pleasure with it. 

IONITY’s reliability can be a bit flaky though — I have occasionally found a stall not working, but thankfully there are usually enough other chargers to move across to another. If you’re travelling in a busy period you may find there’s a queue. Since cars can charge so fast there, you shouldn’t find you’re waiting too long. You may be looking longingly at nearby Tesla Superchargers though which usually have far more capacity, better reliability, and rarely any queues. Whether that will still be the case now some are open to all remains to be seen. 

Charging up at an IONITY en route - not cheap, but fast

Taking its toll 

I’d argue the most irritating (and expensive) part of driving in Europe are the constant toll-booths. If you’re driving alone as I did on the way to Italy, you’ll find you have to perfect your toll-booth shimmy. This involves undoing the seatbelt, climbing clumsily across to the other side of the car, winding your window down, getting or inserting the ticket, paying (most in France are contactless, thankfully), climbing back (squashing whatever food you’ve left on the passenger seat), belting back up, all the while conscious that the impatient Italian driver behind you is gesticulating. 

Thankfully, you can get a device that fits to your window and can get you through the toll without any of this hassle. One option is the eMovis Tag which can be used in France, Spain, and Portugal. It can be ordered easily from the Eurotunnel website. If you also want to travel to Italy, you’ll need the wonderfully-named BIP&GO which can be ordered here. There is a subscription cost involved (on top of toll payments) so you’ll need to weigh up whether it’s worth it for you.

Efficiency 

Something we tend to obsess over as electric car drivers is the range. Just remember that the range your car quotes is just an estimate (it’s affectionately called the guess-o-meter) and it’s based on your previous journeys. 

Once you start driving at 80mph through France, your range will drop considerably (especially with a headwind). If you really want to maximise your efficiency, drive a little slower. You’ll annoy drivers behind you but you’ll also have fewer splatted insects over your car. I single-handedly halved France’s insect population based on what mine collected. 

This is where big, heavy cars like my IONIQ 5 really suffer. I regularly get 250 miles at home charging to 100%. It dropped to about 190 miles coming back home through France. It’s comfortable and charges like lightning, so it’s a trade-off I’m happy to accept.

Toll tags are invaluable for right hand drive cars in Europe

What I’ve learned 

An electric car is only as good as the infrastructure so your mileage will, quite literally, vary. Some countries are much better than others. I’ve found a general rule of thumb in Europe is the warmer the country, the worse the infrastructure! 

If you’re in a rush to reach your destination, you may find the journey frustrating in an EV. Any potential issues you face — unavailable chargers or queues — will compound the stress. Especially if you’re driving with impatient children, a frustrated partner, and a dog that doesn’t like the car. 

I’ve found taking a more relaxed approach to the journey helps enormously. Split the journey up into manageable chunks, stay in interesting places along the way — especially ones with chargers. Airbnbs are particularly good in this respect as you’ll know you won’t be fighting over the one charger in the car park. 

A lot of people just want to get to their destination as fast as possible. If that’s you, I would strongly recommend getting a Tesla (if you can) because its route planning and charge network makes life so, so simple. You’ll rarely find any issues at Superchargers, and the car will preheat its battery to get the fastest possible charging speed — something not many other EVs currently so. 

One of the reasons Tesla owners often seem so smug is they know all this and wonder why the rest of us battle with RFID cards, route planning, and unreliable charge networks. Whether they'll start to see queues now some of the network has been opened to all remains to be seen. 

If becoming a member of the Teslarati doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll find European journeys in your EV a pleasure if you take it easy, accept that there might be some hurdles along the way and just remember you’re a pioneer! The infrastructure is improving all the time. One day, long-distance journeys in your EV will be simple and boring. That’s no fun, is it?

Bon voyage! 

Further reading 

The blog, Electric Felix, is a fantastic resource. Felix drives around Europe in an EV documenting his travels: the cheapest RFID cards, best chargers and so on. Finally, if you have any questions, I’m always procrastinating on Twitter so feel free to ask me anything there. Anything to get out of real work!

Red Tesla Model Y driving front Tesla - for those who like their European adventures to be less of an adventure

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