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I am planning to travel in the European countries (Spain, France, Italy etc) by car and would like to take my bicycle with me.

Putting it on the top of the car would make the height higher.

 [Bicycle]       ^
.--------.       |
|         ==\    |  ? meters
.-O-------O-.    V

When driving on highways, cities, tunels, bridges, under bridges etc. is there any case when an eventual high limit could restrict me in this case?

If there is such a limit, I would assume it should be signaled before such that if I know that I cannot enter, I can turn around. Is that true?

What are the downsides of traveling with the bicycle like that? What should I be careful with?

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    Note that nowadays it is more common to have bicycles on the back of your car rather that on the top.
    – jcaron
    Dec 13, 2021 at 8:15
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    @jcaron That is often only possible if you have a tow hitch. Bike racks, which are only attached to the tailgate, are usually only approved for very light bicycles. Having bicycles on the back of the car can also be very inconvenient if they block access to your luggage compartment and you need to take the bicycles off to get to your luggage. Dec 13, 2021 at 11:45
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Willeke
    Dec 16, 2021 at 15:01

8 Answers 8

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I've sometimes driven in the UK and France with bikes on top, more often with kayaks. It's perfectly reasonable but you do need to take care. I assume you have a normal-height car to start with, with an SUV or a van it gets harder. Now I have a campervan which is a similar height (2.6m) to a car with bikes on top, so face similar issues.

Measure the total height, add a margin for error, and stick a note in the corner of the windscreen*

  • Bridges are almost all OK. Some old railway bridges on tiny country lanes or entrance roads aren't. I've seen these in the UK and France.

  • Most tunnels are OK, though minor Alpine roads can have rather cramped ones and you may need to move towards the centre of the road.

  • If a car park has a height barrier, it will be a problem. Car park height barriers are almost invariably too low for cars with bikes on. Look for where the tall vans are parked and join them. At French supermarkets, for example, you can nearly always park, just not near the building. Note that barriers are occasionally hinged and closed only at night. You might have to drive out then put the bikes back on if you get caught out(I don't have that option of course).

  • Note that height limits are supposed to have enough advance warning, but signs can be obscured or omitted, leaving you needing to back up to turn round. That's just something to be prepared for, especially if you're laden enough that seeing out of the back is a problem.

  • You might end up paying more for toll motorways in France (official site) as vehicles are categorised by height. While apparently roof loads don't count for the vehicle height you'll need to seek assistance if you're detected as anything other than category 1. You may also be unable, both by rules and height barriers, to use the quicker lanes (though automatic height detection on all lanes seems nearly universal these days).

  • You will also pay more for large ferries as you have to park on a taller deck with the lorries.

If instead you went for a rear carrier, you need to make sure you were still legal regarding visibility of lights and numberplate. You also need to be aware of the extra width when it gets tight. Rear bike carriers also attract a surcharge on some ferries. Combined with the fuel economy and risk of theft when stopped I often accept the inconvenience of putting my bike inside for the long journeys (even with partial dismantling and protecting things), using the outside carrier for shorter more frequent trips once I'm at my destination.


* You might want to use both metric and Imperial units if you're visiting the UK despite most height limit signs having metric on them

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    I've also had bicycles on top of the car when driving in France, but can't remember that I paid a higher toll than the regular 'category 1'. Are you sure that not only the height of the actual vehicle (not including any load on the roof) is counted? Dec 13, 2021 at 11:48
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    @jcaron in the UK it's more panic about travellers (i.e. anyone who lives on the road and doesn't look like an attractive customer) setting up camp. That's why it's an issue in some rural and small-town municipal car parks. Supermarkets by comparison are quite good. I've occasionally had to park at Intersport or Bricorama next door to the supermarket - they're both likely to have high-roof customers and no barriers Dec 13, 2021 at 13:15
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    ... I tend to move the van between sites every few days, and get the shopping on the way, relying on the bike once camped. A sharp eye for "<- Parking | Parking camping-car ->" is advised. It's been a few years now but I used to visit Brittany/Vendée/Loire every year Dec 13, 2021 at 13:19
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    Measure the total height, add a margin for error, and stick a note in the corner of the windscreen - I will add a suggestion to measure/note the height in both metric and imperial units (i.e. cm and ft/in) - just in case you end up in UK.
    – Aleks G
    Dec 13, 2021 at 14:40
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    @ChrisH-UK I don't think there's only simple rule. Bottom line - measure and note both metric and imperial, to be safe.
    – Aleks G
    Dec 13, 2021 at 15:24
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In UK, this page says

Bridges that have a clearance of less than 16 feet and 6 inches, or around 5 metres will usually have signs.

There are often advance warnings posted, with an alternative route suggestion.

Low bridges are notoriously easy to overlook. The Cambridge News has

Another van has smashed into the infamous Ely railway bridge

enter image description here

You also have to watch out for height restrictions at car park entrances. This page says

  • the actual height can be lower than the marked height

  • the exit barrier can be lower than the entrance barrier


One of the down-sides of having a bike on the roof is more susceptibility to side winds.

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    +1 for mentioning car park entrances
    – Aleks G
    Dec 13, 2021 at 14:41
  • The side profile of the car is going to catch significantly more wind than the side profile of a bike. Even than 2 or 3 bikes on a roof rack. They are, after all, mostly space when looking at the side (unless they're laden with touring panniers, but then you're probably riding the bike as the vacation, not taking it by car on vacation).
    – FreeMan
    Dec 14, 2021 at 18:17
  • @FreeMan hopefully the panniers have been removed for long car journeys anyway (though I sometimes leave toptube bags etc. on mine if they're very secure). A child seat can catch the wind and not be easily removable or fit easily in a car. It could of course be a TT bikes with disc wheel, but somehow I doubt it. However the bike being so high means extra leverage and more likelihood of being above shelter (e.g. fences, hedges) from crosswinds. A bike isn't as bad as a kayak on its side but you can feel it if the wind picks up, especially coming out of the wind shadow of big vehicles Dec 15, 2021 at 10:07
  • @FreeMan the side profile of a car is aerodynamically shaped to some extent, for example a curved transition between side and roof is better than a sharp angle. Also the bike's frame, wheels and spokes are not insignificant. Between them they create drag and air vortexes. Also as ChrisH mentions, the bike is much more exposed to side winds than the body of the car (as well as winds being stronger further from the ground). Dec 15, 2021 at 10:13
  • That Ely crash article is a couple years old: it happened again 3 days ago: cambridge-news.co.uk/news/local-news/… (and I mean it consistently happens over 10 times a year, despite the new bypass, I’m surprised it still makes the news)
    – Tim
    Dec 15, 2021 at 19:26
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Regarding Italy, this page has some links to the relevant legislation. Google translator does a good job converting the page to English.

The main points are:

  • the bicycle carrier/rack must have the CE marking
  • total height must not exceed 4 meters
  • total weight must not exceed the maximum roof load as stated by the car manufacturer

Underpasses are clearly marked, in meters. In my experience (mainly driving in Northern Italy, mostly near cities - the countryside might be different) detours are readily available.

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You're right to be careful, I've had "encounters" with low overhead entries on at my local supermarket and a park and ride in Oxford.

The difficulty with the supermarket is that I go there all the time, and normally don't have the bikes on top. When it was suggested at the last moment that we pick up an easy dinner after a tiring ride, I didn't re-evaluate my planned stops.

With the park and ride, I'd already done the 50 mile ride and was being collected from a spot chosen for clearance. Then on the way out, we changed our minds and thought we'd go into town for dinner -- but the parking lot we then needed to use had a barrier.

I've been lucky in the damage area, but perhaps a little model bicycle on the dashboard for when the bikes are overhead might be a good idea. :-)

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On minor roads, there may be occasional super-low bridges and such, but they should be clearly marked.

I have found a roof carrier very convenient when driving. No significant added noise, bike stays clean even in bad weather, fuel consumption slightly higher but nothing major. In fact, the biggest risk may be forgetting that the bike is there and driving into a parking hall. You will probably destroy the car and/or the bike.

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When driving on highways, cities, tunnels, bridges, under bridges etc. is there any case when an eventual high limit could restrict me in this case?

In France, some tunnels, bridges, toll lanes and parkings have a height limit that you may reach with your setup, but it's typically clearly indicated beforehand.

What are the downsites of traveling with the bicycle like that? What should I be careful with?

Slight increase in gas consumption due to lowered aerodynamics. Unlike what another answer claims, one doesn't have to pay more for the tolls on the highways, but sometimes mistakes happen.

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  • For reference, in France, if there’s no sign, the available height is at least 4.10m (may be more depending on the type of road).
    – jcaron
    Dec 13, 2021 at 7:57
  • OK so they're not supposed to charge you, but they often do and it's a hassle getting it sorted. How many visitors would end up paying rather than (a) realising, and (b) having enough French to get it fixed? Dec 13, 2021 at 12:04
  • @ChrisH-UK "they often do": the link says 10% for automated tolls. For human tolls, no pb if you're aware of the law. Dec 13, 2021 at 12:08
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    @FranckDernoncourt the experience of my friends with kayaks and/or multiple bikes was far more than that article (which I sort of read; it's a bit beyond my French), close to 100%, and these days it's more often an intercom than a human actually present. Anyway I've adjusted the warning in my answer to say cost or hassle rather than definite cost. Some warning is definitely needed so they can push the button for assistance Dec 13, 2021 at 12:14
  • @FranckDernoncourt 10% per toll gate, which means it's all but guaranteed to happen at least once on any substantial trip :)
    – hobbs
    Dec 13, 2021 at 16:52
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In Sweden heights lower than 4.5m are marked with this sign, I couldn't find any relevant regulations besides the car maker's own limitations on weight

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If you consider the trip using a passenger car typically sedan, estate/kombi or hatchback there is a no problem for you - the total height will be lower than big trucks or tall lorries. All bridges, tunnels etc. should be labelled with proper roadsigns.

If you consider using MPV, SUV or van, then there might be a problem, because these are sligtly taller. You shall still be okay with that because the trucks are really tall - the small roads may have some risks but very little.

On the other hand, if we consider fuel costs and tolls of the round-Europe trip, it might be a good time to count costs and benefits of mounting options.

  • On-roof rack:
    pros - you have it, it does not obstruct entrances
    cons - huge drag, fuel consumption
  • On-door mount:
    pros - inexpensive, lower drag
    cons - car-specific design, possible damage to the car (scratches and hits), obstruct the trunk door.
  • On-jack mount:
    pros - easy to mount/unmount, low drag cons - expensive, obstructs the trunk door, needs the trailer jack.

The calculations may, but may not, end up that the on-jack mounted rack will pay off its price only by reducing the drag. And the faster you go, the more significant the drag is.

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