Driving in Poland – tips and advice on self-driven holidays in Poland

Believe it or not, driving in Poland is much easier than it used to be. The country known for its poor roads and many accidents is changing.

You may find it hard to believe, but the driving experience on Polish roads has seen significant improvement during the last 10 years. In the 1990's the order of the day was fast Polish motorist overtaking at speeds sometimes more than double of the speed limits, whereas the slow traffic in old Polish cars (mainly "Maly" Fiats) were still going at their top speed around 80 km/h.

Nowadays, a large proportion of Polish motorist are still speeding, but safety has improved considerably, especially on the major roads of Poland. This has happened mostly due to increased road control, heavier fines for traffic offences, a more efficient police force and, fortunately, some change of Polish perception of road safety.

Roads in Poland - quality of roads and motorways
It has become a commonplace to say that the roads in Poland are of a poor quality. For years Poland has struggled to improve the underdeveloped and underfunded road network and the results of this struggle are finally starting to show.

While many visitors from Eastern European countries will find most of Polish roads below the standards they are used to, it is also true that the roads between major Polish cities, as well as the  arterial roads in urban centres are perfectly transitable, if not to say comfortable. While improving the quality of existing roads seems sometimes a Sisyphean task, Poland is focusing on expanding the network of motorways, which until a very short time ago has been very limited.

The European football championship EURO 2012 held conjointly in Poland and Ukraine has seen a significant growth of the motorway network.

See the map of motorways and expressways in Poland.  

On older roads in Poland, however, you are expected to encounter some problems.

Potholes and truck ruts. Poland is a major east-west transit corridor for heavy vehicles and the great number of trucks on major road, and in many cases also in city centres, does not always make driving easy. Nor does it benefit the quality of road surface. Deep ruts left by the trucks are common on Polish roads, together with potholes. When driving in Poland, you will usually be warned of the existing potholes by the sudden jerking of the car in front of you. The trails left in the asphalt by trucks are harder to avoid. Road ruts are called “koleiny” in Polish. The signs warning about a section of the road with particularly deep ruts looks like this:

Koleiny Poland

Traffic jams. Poland struggles with heavy traffic not only in major city centres. With the constant upgrading of existing roads and building of the new ones, traffic jams due to road-works are frequent, even outside of urban centres. Frequently, the fluent traffic from newer sections of express roads is channelled into old and not so comfortable single carriageways, causing clogging. Also, it is quite common that before the weekends or public holidays in Poland, the roads leading out of any major city get very crowded.

GPS failure. Road works in Poland can sometimes be confusing to the GPS systems. Especially the older versions of satellite navigation do not always prove effective in some areas of Poland. When driving in Poland it is always a good idea to back yourself up with a detailed road map of Poland, available at any gas station.

See road map Poland (click to enlarge).  

Secondary roads in Poland. Taking the secondary roads during your self-driven holiday in Poland allows you to appreciate fully magnificent, varied landscapes of this country. In Poland you will find stunning mountainous ranges, endless plains, virgin forest with rare species of wide life, extensive lake lands and coastline with sandy beaches. Polish countryside is very picturesque and every season of the year holds its own charms, with snow in the winter, blooming flowers in the spring, excellent sunny weather in the summer and the real explosion of colours - red, orange and yellow of tree leaves during the so called "Polish golden autumn".

See a video presenting the most typical of Polish landscapes:

Many of the secondary roads, however, are still of a rather poor quality. If you venture to the most remote areas, especially in western Poland, you may discover that the road you see on the map is little more than a dirt track. It is not a coincidence that the forests and plains of the eastern Polish countryside are the favourite location for 4x4 off-road expeditions for both Poles and foreign visitors in Poland.

Driving in Poland – what to expect as a foreign driver
Not everything has changed. As a foreign driver in Poland, it may seem like chaos in the beginning, but if you are prepared for some of the hard to change habits of some Polish drivers, you will quite comfortably be able to navigate even on the worst of Polish roads.

In Poland you can still from time to time experience:

Dangerous overtaking. It is not uncommon for Polish drivers to overtake hazardously on narrow roads with no sufficient space for a safe manoeuvre, forcing the slower driver, and frequently the oncoming traffic too, to pull onto the hard shoulder. On one-lane road, the drivers who want to take over, will frequently tailgate slower vehicles and flash headlights in an annoying manner. Best advice is to stick to traffic rules and simply ignore any road bullies you might encounter. On the positive side, hazardous overtaking is treated very seriously by the traffic police and incurs heavy penalties.

Not maintaining the safety distance between vehicles. Drivers in Poland tend to tailgate, especially in the areas of intense traffic. If you, for your own safety sake, decide to maintain a reasonable distance from the car in front of you, the chances are that some less precautious driver will try to squeeze in the gap.

Constant changing of the lanes. Many drivers in Poland seem to believe that in heavy traffic, a frequent changing of lanes will get them faster to their destination. The result of such thinking is a chaotic zigzagging, very distracting to a foreign driver in Poland.

Speeding. The fleet of cars driven in Poland has improved significantly in the last decade. The quality of road network in some parts of the country - not that much. Many of the owners of better and faster vehicles will take any opportunity to explore the potential of their engines, meaning that on open roads, the allowable 90 km/h speed will be exceeded significantly. Should you be tempted to imitate the local’s behaviour, be prepared to pay heavy fines: police patrols are frequent in Poland and the number of speed cameras is constantly increasing.

Speed limits in Poland
The structure of speed limits in Poland is comparable to other European countries with the allowed speed ranging from 50 km/h (31 mph) in build-up areas, through 90 km/h (56 mph) outside built-up area, to 120 km/h (75 mph) on expressways. The maximum speed limit on some sections of Polish motorways has been, rather high, at 140 km/h (87 mph).

Read more about Speed limits in Poland.  

What a first time foreign driver in Poland might not expect, though, is how rapidly the speed limits change within a short distance on the same road.

Still only the biggest cities in Poland have ring-roads, allowing to contour the city without having to drive through its center. A majority of Polish roads intended to be express ways, however, leads through cities and towns, where the allowed limit decreases abruptly. This means that if you are planning to drive to a place in Poland that cannot be reached via highway, you will need to allow extra - more time than the distance would suggest.

Speeding tickets in Poland
Speed traps are very common on Polish roads. In the beginning of 2013, the number of speed cameras in Poland increased dramatically in comparison with previous years.

See map of speed cameras in Poland (beginning of 2013).

Speed cameras get activated by vehicles exceeding the applicable speed limit by 10 km/h and more. An accidental speed excess of a couple of kilometres per hour will not put you in risk of receiving a speeding ticket in Poland.

In case of a proven speed excess in a hire car, Polish police contacts the supplying car rental agency , which is obliged to provide the personal data and contact information of the driver and the ticket is sent to the indicated address. Some of the car hire companies in Poland will charge the client with an extra 'administrative fee', each time they have to give the client's information to the police.

However, should you be stopped by a police patrol while speeding, as a foreign driver in Poland you will have to pay the fine on the spot.

Traffic police patrols are very frequent on Polish roads, including unmarked police vehicles with speed measurement equipment.

Read more about speeding fines and in Poland and Polish road regulations.

Legal requirements for driving in Poland - important documents
If you are stopped by the traffic police in Poland be sure to have with you the following documents:

  • a valid driving licence. Driving permits issued by EU member states are mutually recognised by other member states. Therefore a valid UK driving licence is sufficient to drive in Poland.
  • vehicle registration and ownership documents, as well as the insurance papers. This also applies to rental cars in Poland. Your car hire company should provide you with the set of legally required documents.

All vehicles in traffic on Polish roads, including rental cars, are required to be equipped with a warning triangle, a reflexive jacket and a fire extinguisher.

When driving in Poland, please be reminded that:

  • headlights must be used all year round, at all times, day and night. (Most hire cars in Poland have the lights on as default settings).
  • legal limit of blood alcohol content for drivers in Poland is 0,02% (or 0,2 20 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood).
  • the use of seatbelts is mandatory for the driver and the occupants.
  • children under 12 years old are not allowed to use front seat; suitable child seats or booster seats are required.
  • use of hand-held mobile phones while driving is strictly forbidden in Poland.

Car hire Poland - compare Polish car rental companies
Car hire services are widely available in Poland.

Most of the major car rental companies operate in Poland, amongst them: Avis Rent a Car, Budget, Hertz, Europcar, Dollar Thrifty and Sixt. Cheap car hire deals in Poland can also be found with local car rental agencies, for example Panek Wypozyczalnia Samochodow, or Express Rent a Car.

Prices of Poland car hire depend very much on location. In Warsaw, in the peak of the tourist season in August, the cheapest rental cars can be found with prices from around £150 for a 7 days rental of a small city car.

If you are arriving to Poland by plane, usually the airport car hire offers are slightly more advantageous than Poland car rental with the pick-up in city locations.

Find cheap car hire in Poland here

Driving in Poland – tips and advice on self-driven holidays in Poland
Article: Driving in Poland – tips and advice on self-driven holidays in Poland
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