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National Transport
Driving Basics & Renting a Car

This page last updated August 13, 2010

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

Rental countersRenting a car in Germany entails about the same as it does 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.

For Americans, the best deals are usually available by booking with a US firm before departure.  You will not only get the best rate, but it will be set in US dollars.  You will need to book these at least 14 days before you plan to pick-up the vehicle.  Rental rates vary considerably between the various companies, but all are fairly competitive.  Call around or check the web to get the best rate.  Alternatively, you can use a consolidator service like AutoEurope.  Once you find the best rate and firm-up your itinerary, reserve right away to ensure you get a vehicle.  Note that base rates do not include the 16% Value Added Tax (VAT), registration fee, or any airport fees; expect those to equal 25% or so of the daily rental rate.  Rates do, however, include the required third-party liability insurance.

To rent a vehicle, you will need your driver's license and passport.  I would recommend using a major credit card for the rental as most automatically cover your insurance deductible in the event of an accident or other mishap.  However, be sure to check with your credit card company to verify that it does offer this coverage, that it applies to rentals in Germany, and what you must do to qualify for this (e.g. waiving the Collision Damage Waiver [CDW] option on the rental contract.)

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.  It will probably cost extra, though.  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) for no extra fee.  If you want to do this, make sure that this is the case before you rent.  Most rentals also allow unlimited kilometers.  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.  Chances are, most agencies will permit travel to most other western European countries (Italy can be iffy), but probably not anywhere east of Germany except Austria.

Things to check before you leave the rental lot
Every rental vehicle should have a green insurance certificate ("Green Card").  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.  Make sure that the vehicle has all of the required emergency equipment (warning triangle, first aid kit, spare tire, and jack) and a parking disc.  Also, verify what type of fuel the vehicle uses-- many German cars use diesel, which helpfully is the same word in German.  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 located at intervals along the Autobahn and major highways.  The major brands are Aral, Avia, BP, Elf, Esso, Fina, Jet, Total, and Shell.  Most stations are now self-service (Selbstbedienung, or SB-Tanken.)  Like the US, unleaded fuel (bleifrei) is now the norm.  Pumps in Germany work basically the same as in the US.  Europe uses a different formula to calculate octane ratings, so the scores will appear to be higher than those for corresponding grades in the US.  Also, remember that fuel is dispensed by the liter.

Filling station

Typical filling station

Americans will likely experience "sticker-shock" when it comes to gas prices in Germany.  Expect to pay three to fours times more for gas in Germany than in the US.  As of January 2010, regular unleaded averaged €1.35 per liter (or about US$7.25 per gallon) and diesel was about €1.13 (about US$4.27 per gallon).  Most of this cost is due to high taxes.  See the "Other sites of interest" below for links to a sites with current fuel rates.


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 the usual array of motorist services.  Of most interest to the tourist is the roadside breakdown service (Straßenwacht, Pannenhilfe) operated by both clubs (but especially ADAC), which offers assistance to both members and non-members.  Basic help from these "yellow angels" is free, but you will have to pay for parts or towing.  To summon help, use the nearest emergency telephone, located at 2 km intervals along the Autobahn (see the "Emergencies" section of the Autobahn page) and 5-10 km intervals along Federal Highways.  Arrows on the roadside posts will direct you to the nearest one.  Where emergency telephones are not provided, call 0180/2222222 from a phone booth or mobile phone.

Yellow ADAC vehicle (photo by Frank C. Müller)

ADAC breakdown assistance vehicle


Maps

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 the same size 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 second largest road system (after the US)-- pretty amazing for such a small country.  There are 636,000 km of roads, with over 221,000 km of this total being trunk roads and highways, providing paved access to even the most remote corners of the country.  These roads carry a huge and growing volume of traffic.  In 2009, there were over 55 million registered vehicles, up from 36 million in 1990 and 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 than Americans are used to.  That is one reason (along with high gas prices) that small vehicles are the rule 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:

  • Forest/country lanes (Waldweg, Feldweg) - Paved and unpaved one-lane roads.  These are in generally good repair.  Forest lanes are usually restricted with access controlled by a barrier.
  • 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.  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.  Sometimes 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 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 may even be expressways (Kraftfahrstraße, Schnellstraße), or so-called "Autobahn-similar" (Autobahnähnlich) roads, marked with Expressway signs.  Federal roads connect large towns and cities and tourist areas.  Usually equipped with emergency phones at 5-10 km intervals.  Universally well-maintained.  Generally heavy traffic.
  • Motorways (Autobahn) - See my special 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 route sign.
     

Romantic Road sign

Romantic Road route marker

Tourist routes
Germany has over 80 theme highways for tourists.  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.  Guided bus tours are available along these routes, but 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, do so outside of the prime tourist seasons to avoid the crowds and 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-tourism.de/ENG/destination_germany/master_tlfstrasse.htm


This page and all its contents are Copyright © 2010 by Brian Purcell

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The information provided on this website is provided on an "as-is" basis without warranties of any kind either express or implied.  The author and his agents make no warranties or representations of any kind concerning any information contained in this website.  This website is provided only as general information.  The author expressly disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based upon the information contained herein or with respect to any errors or omissions in such information.  All opinions expressed are strictly those of the author.  This site is not affiliated in any way with any official agency.