Driving the Autobahn

Driving on the autobahn in Germany, Austria and Switzerland is fun, fast and at times frustrating when there’s a traffic jam. The autobahn is built for speed with smooth pavement and wide curves. If you are used to driving on the interstate and highways in the U.S., driving the autobahn is vastly different from driving in the U.S.

Know the differences between U.S. traffic laws and those in Europe. Traffic laws for European countries can easily be found on-line. Also, it’s important to know the rules (official and unofficial) of the different style of driving you’ll find when driving the autobahn. I found when talking to Europeans about driving, that unlike Americans, Europeans have an unwritten but strict driving code of behavior.

When driving the autobahn, Europeans expect that the fastest vehicles will drive in the far left lane. The left lane is only for overtaking or passing. The far right lane is for the slowest vehicles. It’s considered extremely rude to drive slow in a fast lane and hold up any cars. I also found Europeans and Germans in particular, are more aggressive drivers. If you are laid back, don’t stay alert and don’t pay attention to your driving, the road and those driving around you – you may have problems. Traffic in Europe is high volume and fast paced, but it is more civilized with well-trained, excellent drivers, who are confident and know what they are doing. They assume you will drive the same way they do – with speed and skill. Overall, I think that driving in Europe is safer, even at the faster and more aggressive pace. The following guide includes things I found essential for driving on the autobahn.

No passing on the right

The first thing any driver needs to know about the rules for driving the autobahn is that passing on the right is illegal and drivers take this seriously. You must move into a left lane in order to pass.

Double check your side-view mirror before moving into the left lane
Always check your rear and left side-view mirror before moving to the left land. This is critical on sections of the autobahn with no speed limit. Even if you are doing the “recommended” speed of 130 km/h (81 mph), you may feel like you are standing still when suddenly another car flies by. Make sure you check your mirrors before changing lanes.

Slower traffic stays to the right.

Whenever possible, stay in the middle lane at a steady speed (if on a 3-lane section of the autobahn) or the right lane (2-lane sections) if driving slower than the rest of the traffic. Move back to the right as soon as possible after passing slower vehicles. If you are in the left lane and see a vehicle coming up from behind, signal and move over to the right – quickly. Speeding cars can suddenly appear out of nowhere, with headlights flashing at speeds exceeding 100 mph in unrestricted speed areas. Drivers flashing headlights is common and a perfectly acceptable way to let someone going slower know you’re coming up from behind. If you see flashing lights, just move over to the right as quickly as possible.

Always use your turn signals
Drivers almost always use the turn signal to indicate a lane change. Do the same.

Follow the speed limit

Contrary to popular myth, there are speed limits on the autobahn. While there are still a few stretches where it is legal to drive at top speed however, those sections are limited. The autobahn often has speed limits in sections with consistently heavy traffic, dangerous curves, poor weather, at entrances/exits, and near towns and cities. When you get further away from these areas the speed limit restrictions are lifted.

The sign that indicates an area with unrestricted speed is gray with diagonal lines. This sign lets you know you can go as fast as traffic (or your car) allows. Occasionally, the signs include a number painted behind the lines; 130, for example, indicates the end of the 130-kilometer-per-hour speed restriction. Even in unlimited-speed sections, the autobahn has a recommended speed of 130 kilometers per hour (or 81 mph).

Driving the Autobahn - Autobahn sign
Autobahn Unrestricted Speed Sign
Driving the Autobahn - Autobahn sign
Autobahn Unrestricted Speed Sign
Driving the autobahn - Autobahn Sign
Autobahn Legal Speed Limit Sign

The speed limit sign for restricted speeds is a black number on a round white sign outlined in red. Dynamic or changeable overhead electronic signs may also show the current speed limit and warnings based on traffic flow etc. Some sections have limits of 120 km/h (75 mph), 110 km/h (68 mph) or lower, especially in urban areas. Speed limit signs on the autobahn are spaced farther apart than those on the interstate in the U.S. Make sure you always know what the speed limit is even if you don’t see a sign.

In Europe, you rarely see warnings like “reduced speed ahead.” One minute you are driving 130 km/h, and suddenly you see a 110 speed limit sign. You are expected to pay attention to the posted limits and slow down. The speed limit signs are not just “guidelines”. From my experience, almost every vehicle immediately slows down when the sped limit changes.

AutobahnConstruction delays and traffic jams are also part of driving on the autobahn. At construction zones or near exits, you will see a series of speed limit signs, usually starting with 100, (62 mph) then another sign with 80 (50 mph), then another with 60 (35 mph). You can’t resume speed until you see an end-of-speed-limit sign or a new posted speed. Some GPS units, can identify traffic problems and route you around them.

Don’t Take Aggressive Driving Personally

Drivers in Europe can be – well, actually most are – aggressive. They honk, they flash headlights and they drive fast. They pass and suddenly cut you off. You are not given a wide berth when passing like what is typical in the United States. Don’t take it personally – it’s just the way they drive. Learn to go with the flow. You are not in Kansas anymore or anywhere else in the U.S.

Take a Break

Driving the autobahn takes concentration, can be stressful and is tiring if you are not used to the intensity of driving it. When you need to, take a break and relax a bit. The autobahn has rest stops (Raststätten) about every 35-40 miles with gas stations, restaurants (some are very good), shops, picnic tables and toilets or WC (with an entrance fee – keep change handy). There are also smaller stops along the way that are simply parking lots or areas with picnic tables, a WC and parking. Watch out for “Autohof“, larger service stations located near the Autobahn, but not directly connected to it.

Tolls on the Autobahn

Austria and Switzerland charge drivers a toll for using their autobahn. Both countries use autobahn stickers and require display of the sticker on the windshield – driver’s side.

Switzerland uses an annual fee for driving on the autobahn. I purchased the sticker at the border crossing (after leaving France), where I was also able to change our Euros to Swiss Francs. The sticker can also be purchased at post offices, petrol stations, garages, touring club offices (TCS) and Customs. The price for the sticker during our trip was 40 francs. See The Swiss Motorways for more information on tolls in Switzerland, as well as general information about the autobahn in Switzerland.

Austria also requires a sticker for driving on the autobahn, but is available for shorter lengths of time – 10-day, 2-month etc. with the ten-day toll sticker you can use Austrian toll roads for ten consecutive calendar days, with the punched day counting as the first calendar day of this ten-day period. Austrian toll stickers are available at most petrol stations, tobacconists and automobile clubs, as well as at all ASFINAG toll stations. See ASFINAG for more information about tolls in Austria.

There is a heavy fine in both countries if you do not buy the sticker. You can avoid the fee if you stay off of the autobahn in these countries, but it is not easy to do.

I hope this guide helps when driving on the autobahn. Have fun and happy driving!

Driving in Europe – Tips For First Time Visitors

Driving in Europe for the first time is a challenging experience, but it can also be a lot of fun and sharpen your driving skills. There are a lot of articles and books that cover road signs, laws and standard information for driving in Europe, but very few talk about the least expensive way to rent a car, what happens when no one speaks English at the rental desk, driving on the autobahn, paying tolls, buying fuel, should you use a GPS, and what to expect from European drivers. These are some of the things I discovered when driving in Europe for the first time and tips that may make your driving experience more enjoyable.

Renting a Car in Europe

Arranging for a car rental while in the U.S. can be simpler, less stressful and cheaper than waiting to do it in Europe. I checked online with several worldwide (Hertz, Avis, Budget ) and European (Auto Europe, Europcar, Sixt) rental companies and found a wide range of rates for France. We wanted to pick up a car outside of Paris to avoid heavy traffic and delays, and decided to take a train to Dijon. I talked to an American Auto Association (AAA) travel agent, who was able to find a lower for France – better than those I had found on-line. AAA’s best rate was with Hertz booking at least thirty days in advance and there was a rental desk at the Dijon train station – perfect for our plans.

Renault Megane Hatchback is a great car for driving in Europe
Renault Megane Hatchback

We rented a Renault Megane hatchback, diesel, manual transmission, compact car, drivers over 25 years, 12 days for $257.00 (US). This was a great deal. To avoid paying for the required insurance, which could be purchased through Hertz, I used the auto insurance provided by my Capital One credit card at no additional charge.(Note: Also, the Capital One credit card did not have a service fee for charging in foreign currency.- a big savings when traveling abroad).

Manual vs. Automatic

When you are driving in Europe, requesting an automatic transmission car could almost double the cost of the rental – provided an automatic is even available. Manual transmissions vehicles are the most common in Europe, and many car rental locations do not have cars with an automatic transmission. With a manual transmission or stick shift you’ll have a wider variety of cars to choose from, pay more attention to your driving, the car will have better power in the mountains – and last but not least – it’s FUN! However, learn to drive a stick shift/manual transmission before going to Europe.

Narrow streets in Europe found while driving in Europe Driving in Europe on the Autobahn Driving in Europe

With heavy traffic on motorways, confusing roundabouts, narrow winding streets in villages, hard to read maps and road signs, impatient drivers, and hills and mountain roads – learning to drive a stick shift in Europe could end up being a nerve-wracking experience. You may have a bumpy ride with a lot of jerking and sputtering as you figure out how to use a clutch.

Diesel vs. Gas/Petrol

If possible, when driving in Europe, rent a car that uses diesel. Diesel is usually is less expensive that than gas/petrol in Europe and gets better mileage. We drove 2800 kilometers and the Megane diesel averaged 60-70 miles per gallon. I kept track of the fuel we used, and was amazed when I did the conversion after returning home. While driving I knew we were getting great mileage with only filling up 4 times, but it surprised me just how good it was.

When buying fuel, if you need diesel, and the pumps do not say diesel, ask. Gasoline will ruin a diesel engine. Plan on pumping your own fuel and at most stations I paid inside after finishing pumping.

Is GPS Helpful?

No mater how much driving in Europe you plan on doing, say yes to a GPS. I decided to use one because it just seemed like it would make life easier and we would not get lost – or at least not as often. Little did I know just how great it would be. We planned our trip using Google Maps on-line and had Michelin maps with us. But, the Garmin Nuvi with preloaded maps of Europe was a life saver. Each day we entered a destination – our next stop, the address of a hotel etc. and instantly saw a route. Along the way if we chose to wander or explore, we would enter recalculate and a new route based on the destination appeared. We could also recalculate a route if we missed a turn, ran into heavy traffic on a motorway and decided to take side roads or had to take a detour due to construction.

Using a GPS in cities lets you easily find museums, restaurants. attractions – almost anything with an address or well-known name. Driving in a foreign city can be stressful with long street names, heavy traffic, roundabouts, circle roads, bicycles, pedestrians and swarms of motorcycles, but thanks to the GPS we easily found our way in locations like Munich, Vienna and Salzburg. Without it would have had a next to impossible finding hotels in the old city centers of Annecy, Fussen and Rothenburg ob der Tauber, with their narrow, winding streets and minimal signage.

You can rent a GPS as an option with most car rentals. Before doing this compare the price of renting the GPS versus buying. I found last years’ model of a Garmin Nuvi with pre-loaded U.S. and Europe maps on sale at Amazon for less than renting one for 12 days. Try to find pre-loaded maps of Europe – it’s easier than adding them later.

Look up in the manual or on-line ahead of time how to turn on the maps when you arrive in Europe. If you start in the U.S. with North American maps, maps of Europe will not automatically appear when you get there. To switch between maps on my Garmin, I click on the wrench symbol, then the map icon and then “map info”. Two maps are listed with check marks next to them. Check the map you want to use. This switches between maps.

This is a good website for information about Garmin and other GPS units.

Final Tips if Your’re Driving in Europe

  • Be prepared for smaller cars. Economy class fit only two adults and three suitcases in the trunk. The back seat is tiny.
  • Have the right license. While a U.S. driver’s license is acceptable in many parts of Europe, some countries may require an international driving permit. You can get one through AAA. Also keep your passports close at hand. You made need them if you are stopped.
  • Be familiar with the metric system. Distance in Europe is measured in kilometers rather than miles, and gas or diesel is sold by the liter.
  • Know the meaning of red and blue on road signs. Red is a warning, while blue on a road sign lets you know there’s a service ahead, such as a garage, rest area or place to eat.
  • If you get into trouble, dial 112, the emergency number for the European Union.
  • Carry change in the currency of the country where you are traveling. Many toll booths are just machines and not all take credit cards.
Next time: Driving on the Autobahn. What is it really like?