Poland is a relatively large country (ranking 9th in Europe), although in terms of the size of the US, for instance, by no means impressive, with the area equivalent more or less to the Land of Enchantment. Traveling around the country may be a bit of an undertaking, however, with most of the roads and railroads under construction or reconstruction, thanks to the funding generously provided by the European Union to assist with the infrastructural development. To give you an idea of the potential contingencies you may be faced with while sight-seeing or doing business in Poland, the following is a subjective guide to traveling across the Polish lowlands and highlands. This article will focus on car travel, with the following articles covering train and bus options.
The car is by far the easiest option, and you will be well-advised to book your car in advance from a reputable rent-a-car company (wypożyczalnia samochodów), with most of the leading world brands now available in the country, both at major airports and in city centers. A US driving license will be sufficient if you are not staying for more than a few months, so no need to worry about getting an international. The rates offered by the rental companies will probably be significantly higher than what you might be used to in the US, but hey, this is Europe – everything’s more expensive;) Gas prices (ceny benzyny) may also come as a shock (about $6 per gallon, although sold by the liter in Poland, at some 5.5 PLN/liter), especially when you realize that the average Pole makes about $1,000 a month, with some 650,000-700,000 of the population getting paid the minimal wage of approximately $400-$500. There you go, then.
Before you hit the road, though, and unless you are in the know about the roads (rather uncommon, presumably), make sure you also get a grip on a good, large-scale road map (atlas drogowy), or better still, a GPS navigation kit (zestaw do nawigacji GPS) (most rental companies offer these as extras) to guide you during your travels across the country. Remember, we also drive on the right, although the speed limits (ograniczenia prędkości) are expressed in km/h, and the distances (odległości) are stated in kilometers rather than miles. Your car will have the right dials (i.e. for km/h), so just make sure you stay within the range when driving. A must-remember thing for all drivers in Poland is that you always need to make sure your headlights are on (włączone światła mijania), irrespective of the time of day or weather conditions – it’s the highway code. Police patrols (patrole policyjne) are frequent, and they will often be situated in places where you can hardly spot them, thus making sure drivers make their contribution to the national budget. Also watch out for the ubiquitous speed cameras (radary drogowe) – in the past most of them did not work, but the authorities soon understood what they were missing in terms of the lost income and ordered newer models – they operate just fine, so beware!
And now to the driving itself: forget the wide US highways and the ever-present German Autobahnen – Poland is currently building its high-speed road network (sieć dróg ekspresowych), with many construction projects now underway. There are several types of roads in the country including the following: autostrada (equivalent to a highway), with a speed limit of 140 km/h (roughly 90 miles/h), dwupasmowa droga ekspresowa (dual carriageway express road), with a speed limit of 120 km/h (roughly 75 miles/h), jednopasmowa droga ekspresowa (single carriageway express road), with a speed limit of 100 km/h (roughly 60 miles/h), dwupasmowa droga główna (dual carriageway main road), with a speed limit of 100 km/h (roughly 60 miles/h), jednopasmowa droga główna (single carriageway main road), with a speed limit of 90 km/h (roughly 55 miles/h), and drogi w obszarze zabudowanym (built-up area roads), with speed limits of 50 and 60 km/h (roughly 30 and 40 miles/h) depending on the time of day (5am-11pm and 11pm-5am respectively).
Some of the highways are toll roads, so be prepared to pay the dues when accessing the road, with most, however, being entirely free. The quality of the road surface may at some places leave a lot to be desired, and you need to be aware of this, especially when departing from the major transit routes. Traffic tends to be heavy in places, and you may well spend hours in congestions, with one of the prime examples being the route from Krakow to Zakopane (the popular Zakopianka) which, although only 100 km in length and a dual carriageway along some 50 km, makes a frequent news item due to the throngs of vehicles meandering in either direction, especially at Christmas, New Year or winter holidays.
Also, when driving in Poland it may hit you how many road signs (znaki drogowe) you will see along the roads, with some repeated or unnecessary, but who cares – the more, the merrier. If driving at night make sure you do not deviate towards the hard shoulder (pobocze) (some drivers do to allow overtaking on single carriageway roads) as there may be pedestrians (piesi) there hard to see for lack of high-visibility retroreflective elements.
All in all, assuming you are a careful and responsible driver, Poland will not overwhelm you with the traffic rules, but driving may be discouraging knowing you have to pull along some busy and narrow roads. However, remember to buckle up (zapiąć pasy) and… szerokiej drogi! (common wish for drivers in Poland, literally: may the road be wide!).