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5 Things to Know BEFORE Road-Tripping Through Germany

If in your travels you have the chance to rent a car, take a road trip through Germany. For 4 days we set aside our train passes and took to the roads, venturing across the majestic heartland. Cottage houses, farmlands stretching hill after hill, mountains high enough to shadow the towns miles away—it all brought with it an amazing sense of wonder. But driving in another country with another culture of drivers can be a bit nerve-racking—so we've put together a few tips to help you stay far more mindful than we were when we took to the inter-country roads and the fast and furious Autobahn.

1. Don’t freak out when your car “shuts off” at a stop light.

Cars in Europe aren’t always like the U.S. In an effort to save money on every mile per gallon and go-green…the car “shuts off” when idling. This means every time you fully brake for more than about 2 seconds—your engine will cut off until you release the brake. It feels super weird when it happens the first time. When we rented our car ( a stick shift the first time) we thought it continued to stall…only to find out later about the start-stop feature.

2. Diesel is less expensive than Gas

Opposite of the U.S.—diesel is cheaper and gas more expensive. And be very mindful of which you use to fill your car at the station because the color markers are different as well. In our trip through Germany, we ended up with an automatic car (Alex can drive a stick cause she’s a boss, I can’ all). But with an automatic car comes gasoline, and gas is expensive! Well, diesel is too—paying by the liter. You know what, ALL FUEL is expensive. So with that, be aware of the cost before you go revving your engine on the Autobahn and racing every person beside you (however fun that definitely will be).

3. No speed limits on the AUTOBAHN…sort of.

Oh, the magnificent Autobahn. Renowned as one of the most famous highway/intercountry roads in the world—it crosses most of Germany and its branches connect to neighboring countries (Austria, Switzerland, etc.) And yes, it’s true, there are parts of the Autobahn that have no speed limit (and yes, it is totally awesome.) But with speed limits, firstly being that of course they’re in kilometers, not miles—there are a few things to be aware of.

FIRST, where they are located. In a very modern way, most of the speed limits are displayed in digitized signs over the road. They illuminate to show any different speed, and being that they are digitized, they can change as needed, i.e. traffic, road conditions. (Step up your game, America. This system is great.) However, be EXTRA aware of those signs, because the speeds WILL change on you.

SECOND, “no speed limit” zones. Spaces without a speed limit(or recommended max speed) are shown as a number, typically 120, within a circle and bearing a red slash through it. This means that until you see a number without a slash through it, it’s off to the races. And believe me, you’ll know when you're in a no speed limit zone because, just like a starting line of an actual race, every car around you will rev their engines and shoot off like a bullet.

LAST, surprise tickets and fines! It most likely won't be a cop that pulls you over in Germany—or Austria (you won't find many on the Autobahn)—it will more likely be a nice fine taken from speed traps and sent straight to the rental car agency. The same rental car agency that, already having your credit card information, will cover your fine and add it to your bill later. So when you drive around BE EXTRA CAUTIOUS of those speed trap cameras just waiting to catch your zooming license plate. Most locals know where the traps are and can slow down for them, but you probably aren’t privy to that knowledge…so, overall, obey the speed limits!

4. Dodging Tolls - Set your GPS to help you save money!

The Autobahn is your expressway through Germany, but it also has a fair amount of tolls. To dodge this, we recommend you set your GPS to avoid toll roads. With that setting we promise you’ll get some of the most amazing scenic drives through the heartland and see more of the country than you possibly could staying on the main road. It’s a beautiful and memorable drive anywhere you go and you’ll be amazed and confused that your GPS even knows these back-roads exist.

5. Driving Across Country Borders and AVOIDING THE FINES

This tip requires a little bit of story time.

We rented our car in Munich after a huge fiasco at the rental agency. Alex had lost her phone with all the pictures from France, no data was turned on to be able to track it down, the manual car had it's auto shut-off feature that the workers couldn't explain, nobody could direct us on changing the car language or working the GPS—the minor things started to add up. Fortunately, after the ordeal (things like that will always happen, all part of the learning experience of travel) our wonderful representative did us a favor and placed me as a driver, loaned us an automatic car for no extra charge, and let us on our way.

We hit the road, and all the tips mentioned above—we were blissfully unaware of.

I had trouble reading road signs in another language, the car shut off at stops, I didn't know about speed traps (I drove cautiously regardless), I couldn't understand the speed limits and overall...I just felt pretty unprepared. And I'll admit, that can be pretty unnerving—but take a breath, enjoy your gas saving idling car, and you'll do fine.

We were on our way to Austria...and on that close to three hour drive, we got hungry. We stopped off the road at a station that sold some of the most amazing Bratwurst and fries we had on our trip. However, as we were purchasing the food, at that point already near the Austria border, the clerk asked us (mostly in German) if we wanted a vignette pass.

Seeing as though we had no idea what that was, we politely declined.

As we sat there eating our delicious Bratwurst we continued to see people buying it. So we asked a man near us if he could describe to us what it was, thankfully he spoke English and was kind enough to explain it to us and save us some major trouble.

So we'd like to share this information with you. A vignette is a little sticker to be placed on your window and lets the neighboring country (Austria) know you’re coming. Without border gates or big markers, driving between countries there is as easy as driving between states. The vignette lets the Austrian police know you're okay to cross borders and not to follow you around and fine you every hour you’re there past a limit. At least, those are the horror stories of it. However, as we found out much later, they are a necessary expenditure. At only 8-10 euros, most lasting 10 days—buy it and save yourself from an unwanted fine!

To finish the story, we weren't sure whether we should get one. But thanks to the kind man from the rest stop we were informed to buy the pass and crossed the border and made our whole road-trip with zero fines. I'll count that as a win because I know when my dad drove around Spain he ended up with about 3 sent directly to the rental agency. :)

All in all, driving in other countries is not always remarkably different, but it can give you pause. So if you have any more questions about an upcoming road trip, send them to us. We’ll answer as best we can and maybe talk about the trials and rewards of renting a car, too.

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