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National Transport
Driving Basics & Renting a Car

This page last updated July 10, 2022

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This page covers some of the essential points you'll need to know about driving in Germany as well as basic information about renting a car.


On this page:


Rental cars

Car rental counters

Car rental offices at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof

Renting a car in Germany (Mietwagen, Leihwagen) entails pretty much the same process as in the US. Most of the major US and European car rental agencies are represented in Germany including Avis, Hertz, Budget, Alamo, Sixt, and Europcar. Rental cars are available at all airports and many major rail stations and other city locations, although you'll often pay more for the convenience of the latter.

Rental rates vary considerably between the various companies, and the best deals are usually available by booking before departure, although you can often find good last-minute deals. Most online travel sites will let you compare rates, or you can use a consolidator service like AutoEurope or Autoslash. Once you find the best rate and firm-up your itinerary, book it right away to ensure you get a vehicle.

When booking, be sure to check if the quoted price includes taxes and fees. Typically, base rates do not include the 19% Value Added Tax/VAT (Mehrwertsteuer/MwSt), registration fee, or any airport fees; expect those to equal 25% or so of the daily rental rate. Base rates do, however, include the required third-party liability insurance, but damage waivers will cost extra.

License requirements
To rent a vehicle, you will need your driver's license and passport. If you're coming from the US, UK, or Austrailia, you generally will not need an International Driving Permit (IDP), especially if your driver's license is in the internationally-recognized numbered format (i.e. each element of information, such as name, date of birth, etc., on your license is numbered). For other countries, check with the German embassy or consulate or the rental car agency before leaving home to determine if you'll need an IDP.

Insurance
As mentioned above, your rental car contract includes the required third-party liability insurance. This means the rental agency will pay any claims to other parties in case of an accident. However, you are responsible for any damage to or theft of the rental vehicle. Just like in the US, rental agencies offer their own damage waiver (CDW or LDW) that you can purchase when you rent the vehicle. These can be pricey, but give you the peace-of-mind of knowing that (with a few exceptions) you can essentially walk away from the situation without any liability. Be sure to read the fine print and understand what the waiver covers, what it costs, and what your responsibilities are.

If you don't want to pay for the damage waiver, check with your own auto insurer at home-- many cover rental car damage, but be sure they cover it for Germany and any other countries you will be driving in. Also check with your credit card company as most offer automatic coverage for free. Again, check the fine print of the coverage to understand what it covers, what you have to do to activate the coverage, and how to make a claim should you need to. Also realize that many times, credit card coverage is secondary, meaning you'll have to file a claim with your own auto insurer first. Also understand that you may have to cover any charges from the rental company for damages out of your pocket first, and then your own insurance or credit card company will reimburse you later.

Finally, there are coverage options through third-party travel insurance providers. Once again, be sure you fully understand what's covered, how much it costs, and the claims process before purchasing.

Rental options
European rental cars generally come equipped with a manual transmission (the word "standard" really does apply here.) If you want (or need) an automatic, make sure you specify this when you book, but note that this will usually cost extra. Nearly all cars in Germany now have air conditioning standard.

If you really want luxury, you may also want to inquire about renting a high-end German sports car or sedan; most rental agencies keep ample numbers of these available for those tourists with the desire and corresponding budget.

Most car rental agencies will allow one-way rentals within Germany (pick-up the car in one city and return it at another), but most now charge a fee for this. Most rentals also allow unlimited kilometers, but double-check this when booking.

If you plan to travel outside of Germany, make sure that this is noted on the contract and that the vehicle is properly documented for international travel. Most agencies will permit travel to most other western European countries (Italy can be iffy), but probably not anywhere east of Germany except Austria and maybe the Czech Republic. International travel may incur additional fees.

Electric and hybrid cars are now available for rental from most of the major firms.

Things to check before you leave the rental lot
Be sure you understand the contract terms, fees, etc., especially regarding insurance and fuel. Also understand any fees that may be charged if you get a traffic ticket.

Take time to inspect the vehicle for damage and make sure any existing damage is noted on the paperwork. Also be sure to understand what constitutes chargeable damage in case you get a ding or scratch. Many people like to take photos or a video of the vehicle prior to leaving and again when returning the vehicle.

Every rental vehicle should have a "green card" insurance certificate (Versicherungskarte). It is important that you have this before you drive off. If you are stopped by the police, travel to a different country, or have an accident, you will need to produce this document. This will usually be in a plastic document wallet either handed to you at the rental counter or already in the vehicle (check the glovebox.)

Emissions stickerCheck that the vehicle has a green emissions sticker (Feinstaubplakette or Umweltplakette) on the windshield (typically on the passenger side) like the one shown at the right. This will be necessary if you want to drive into one of the many low-emissions zones (Umweltzone) in most German cities. (More on these zones on the City Driving page.)

Make sure that the vehicle has all of the required emergency equipment (warning triangle, first aid kit, safety vest, and spare tire and jack) as well as a parking disc.

Verify what type of fuel the vehicle uses-- many German cars use diesel, which helpfully is the same word in German. Otherwise, they probably use regular gasoline (discussed below.) You can also check the fuel cap to see if it's noted there.

Before venturing out on the road, make sure you know where all the buttons, knobs, and controls are. Take a little test drive around the lot to get a feel for the car-- this will allow you to make any necessary discoveries or adjustments before you get out into the foreign driving environment where you will need to concentrate. If you have any questions, ask the lot attendant-- in my experience, they're more than happy to help.


Fuel

Gasoline (Benzin) and diesel (Diesel) are readily available throughout Germany, although filling stations (Tankstellen) are not nearly as prolific as in the US. Still, you should have little problem finding a place to "tank-up" (volltanken) when you need to. Most small towns have at least one station, and there are 24-hour stations and truck stops located at intervals along the Autobahn and major highways. The major brands are Agip, Aral, Avia, BP, Elf, Esso, Fina, Jet, Total, and Shell. Nearly all stations are self-service (Selbstbedienung, or SB-Tanken.)

Filling station

Typical filling station

Like the US, unleaded gasoline (bleifrei) has long been the norm. Diesel fuel is also widely used in Germany and therefore available at nearly all filling stations.

Pumps (Zapfsäule) in Germany look a bit different than the ones in the US, but otherwise work basically the same. Pay at the pump is still rare in Germany, though. Instead, pump first, note the pump number, then go inside to pay. If you plan to use a credit card, you may want to go inside first and ask if they accept it before filling up.

Fuel types
Be sure you are selecting the correct type of fuel. Both unleaded gasoline and diesel are widely used for passenger cars in Germany. If you have a rental and didn't ask when picking up the car what fuel to use, check for a label on or near the filling cap or in the owner's manual.

Regular unleaded gas is typically labeled "Super" or "Super 95" (meaning 95 octane), with higher octane unleaded (usually 100 or higher) labeled "Super plus". Note that Europe uses a different formula to calculate octane ratings, so they are higher than those for corresponding grades in the US.

Additionally, unleaded gas will be labeled "E5" or "E10", which means it contains 5% and 10% ethanol respectively; again, check to see what your vehicle can use. When in doubt, stick with E5.

There will typically be a couple of diesel nozzles as well-- both are usually the same grade of fuel, but one has additives to help clean the internal engine parts. Both are typically labeled "B7", meaning they contain 7% "biodiesel", but you may also find some pumps dispense B10 diesel-- be sure to confirm what fuel you can use. As with unleaded, use the lower grade (B7 in this case) when in doubt.

Remember that fuel is dispensed (and priced) by the liter.

Gas pump

Typical gas pump

Americans will likely experience "sticker-shock" when it comes to gas prices in Germany. Expect to pay significantly more for gas in Germany than in the US. As of April 2022, regular unleaded averaged €1.98 per liter (or about US$8.08 per gallon) and diesel was about €2.03 (about US$8.29 per gallon). Over €5 of the price is due to taxes, which includes a flat tax per liter plus the national 19% VAT. See the "Other sites of interest" below for links to a sites with current fuel rates.

Alternative fuels
LPG (Autogas) is widely available in Germany, with nearly 7,000 stations. CNG stations are much less prolific with about 900 nationwide, and hydrogen stations are starting to be added, with about 92 now in operation nationwide.

After a slow start, Germany has dramatically increased the number of electric vehicle charging stations (e-Tankstelle) over the past few years. As of mid 2022, there were about 29,000 electric car charging stations around the country. Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in November 2019 a goal for Germany to have 1 million charging stations by 2030.

Charging stations can be found at large stores and shopping centers, Autobahn service areas, truck stops and travel centers, and increasingly on the street. On-street charging may also have time-limited parking requiring the use of a parking voucher or parking disc.

Signs indicating alternative fuel stations show a blue "shadow" gas pump symbol with either "LPG", "CNG", or "H2" to indicate the type of fuel available, or the pump with an electric plug to indicate charging stations.

Electric vehicle charging station

Electric vehicle charging station sign

On-street electric vehicle charging station in Munich (left) and signs (right) indicating parking reserved for charging at all times but limiting parking to up to four hours with the use of a parking disc while charging between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm


Breakdowns

Germany has a couple of major automobile/motorists clubs. The biggest is the ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil Club, General German Auto Club). The other is the AvD (Automobilclub von Deutschland, Auto Club of Germany.) Both offer a roadside breakdown service (Straßenwacht, Pannenhilfe) that provides assistance to both members and non-members. In fact, ADAC claims to provide assistance every eight seconds and can repair the vehicle on the roadside more than 85% of the time. Basic help from these "yellow angels" is free, but you will have to pay for parts or towing.

To summon help on the Autobahn, use the nearest emergency telephone, located at 2 km intervals; arrows on the roadside posts will direct you to the nearest one (see the "Emergencies" section of the Autobahn page). On other roads, call 0180-2 22 22 22.

If you are using a rental car, it's best to contact the rental agency for assistance.

Yellow ADAC vehicle (photo by Frank C. Müller)

ADAC breakdown assistance vehicle


Maps

Nowadays, many of us depend on online maps. But if you still prefer old-fashioned paper maps (or just want to have one as a backup), German maps are, like most other things Teutonic, excellent in quality. The best maps are from Hallwag (the German franchise of Rand McNally) and the ADAC auto club. The RV Verlag Euro-City series of city and metro maps is excellent (each map seems to be almost as big as the city itself!) Michelin also publishes a competent collection of regional and city maps. Even the free maps available from tourist offices tend to be more than adequate in scope and detail.


Traffic laws

Licensing, traffic and parking laws, and signs and signals are covered in detail the traffic laws and signs and signals pages.


Roads

Germany has the world's 12th largest road network-- pretty amazing for such a compact country. There are 644,480 km of roads, with over 225,000 km of this total being trunk roads and highways including about 13,000 km of Autobahn and 40,000 km of Federal Highways (Bundesstraßen), providing paved access to even the most remote corners of the country. These roads carry a huge and growing volume of traffic. In 2020, there were over 65 million registered vehicles, up from 55 million in 2009, 36 million in 1990, and just 17 million in 1970. In addition, Germany serves as the crossroads of Europe funneling much of the continent's east-west and north-south traffic.

Typical rural German road

Typical rural road

You will find that the roads in Germany are well-engineered and maintained; rarely will you find a pothole, and snow removal is almost instantaneous. Signage is uniform and comprehensive. To put it succinctly, Germany's roads are first class.

One note about the road system: most of the roads in the former East Germany have now been rebuilt or upgraded from their previously dilapidated condition. Unfortunately, the expense of doing this has resulted in delays in maintenance and expansion of roads in the west. Still, the overall quality of the road system is excellent.

Roads and streets in Germany and in Europe in general tend to be narrower and smaller scale than what Americans are used to. That is one reason (along with high gas prices) that small vehicles predominate here.

Germany has a hierarchical road system ranging from unpaved forest paths to the world-renown Autobahn. Here is a brief description of the road types in Germany going up through that heirarchy:

  • Forest/country lanes (Waldweg, Feldweg): Paved and unpaved one-lane roads. These are in generally good repair. Forest lanes are sometimes restricted with access controlled by a barrier (Schranke.)

  • City streets (Straße): All town and city streets are paved, sometimes with cobblestones. Generally in good repair. Frequently narrow with tight corners, but usually with enough room for two cars to pass. Usually named (although signs may be hard to find at times.) Variable traffic.

  • Community link roads (Gemeindeverbindungsstraße): Two-lane roads connecting villages and smaller towns. Usually well-maintained. Generally light traffic.

  • County roads (Kreisstraße): Two-lane roads connecting small and medium-sized towns. These roads have official numbers starting with a "K" or with the official county code. Occasionally these numbers may appear on guide signs or maps, but usually not. Universally well-maintained. Light to moderate traffic.

  • State roads (Landstraße or Staatsstraße): Very similar to county roads. Usually connect larger towns. Again, these roads have official numbers (usually four digits) starting with an "L" or "St", but these numbers do not usually appear on signs. Universally well-maintained. Moderate to heavy traffic.

  • Federal roads (Bundesstraße): Somewhat larger and usually significantly busier than state and county roads. The routes are numbered with "B" numbers (e.g. B35) and marked with federal highway Federal highway signs. These roads are usually two lanes but frequently, especially in cities and busy tourist areas, they may have four or more lanes. In larger cities, they are often expressways (Kraftfahrstraße, Schnellstraße), or so-called "Autobahn-similar" (Autobahnähnlich) or "Yellow Autobahn" (Gelbe Autobahn) roads, marked with expressway Expressway signs. Federal roads connect large towns and cities and tourist areas. Universally well-maintained. Generally heavy traffic.

  • Motorways (Autobahn): See the dedicated Autobahn page.

  • European Highways (Europastraße): These aren't separate roads, but rather are co-designated with other highways, usually Autobahns. The European Highway System, with routes designated with an "E", provides for continuous numbering between countries, regardless of domestic route numbers. For example, near Saarbrücken, the German A6 crosses into France and becomes France's A32. However, both roads carry the E50 designation, making it easy for international travelers to follow the route. European Highways are marked with the European Highway European route sign.
The federal government recently revised standards for rural roads, dividing them into four classes for purposes of standardized design and driver expectation. These standards will be implemented as roads are reconstructed or new roads are built.
  • Trunk roads: These roads are intended carry long-distance traffic at high speeds. These roads will have three continuous lanes: one through lane in each direction and a center passing lane that alternates direction at regular intervals. Intersections with other roads will typically be grade-separated with entrance and exit ramps. The centerline of these roads will be marked with a one meter wide buffer space painted green. 

  • Interregional roads: These roads will also carry long-distance traffic at relatively high speeds. To facilitate safe overtaking, these roads will have passing lanes at regular intervals. Intersections will be limited and will typically be signalized. The centerline of these roads will be marked with a double white line: solid where overtaking using the oncoming lane is prohibited, broken where such overtaking is permitted.

  • Regional roads: Designed for shorter journeys, these roads will have one lane in each direction, no overtaking lanes, and will have conventional intersections or roundabouts. The centerline of these roads will have a single stripe: solid where overtaking is prohibited, broken where overtaking is permitted.

  • Local roads: These are narrow, one lane roads that are wide enough to allow oncoming vehicles to pass each other at lower speeds. Intersections will not feature any special design. These roads will have no centerline but will be marked with broken white lines along both sides to provide a visual cue for drivers to slow down. Drivers should center themselves between those lines when there is no oncoming traffic, then straddle the lines to the right when encountering oncoming traffic.
 

Romantic Road sign

Romantic Road route marker

Tourist routes
Germany has over 80 themed highways for tourists. Perhaps the most well-known is the Romantic Road (Romantische Straße), a 180-mile route through small, picturesque Bavarian villages from Würzburg to the foothills of the Alps at Füssen. Other popular routes are the Castle Road (Burgenstraße) from Heidelberg to Nürnberg, and the Fairy Tale Road (Märchenstraße) from Frankfurt to Hannover.

While guided bus tours are available along most of these routes, the best way to see them is by driving yourself. The routes are well-marked and information is available at every town along the way. If you do choose to travel one of these routes, you should consider doing so outside of the prime tourist seasons to avoid the crowds and traffic and to get the best hotel and restaurant rates.


Other sites of interest

Current fuel prices in Germany
http://www.benzinpreis.de/statistik.phtml
ADAC auto club
http://www.adac.de
AvD auto club
http://www.avd.de/
German tourist theme roads
http://www.germany.travel/en/leisure-and-recreation/scenic-routes/scenic-routes.html


This page and all its contents are Copyright © 2022 by Brian Purcell

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