German roads are excellent and motoring around the country can be a lot of fun. The country’s pride and joy is its 11,000km network of autobahns (motorways, freeways). Every 40km to 60km, you’ll find elaborate service areas with petrol stations, toilet facilities and restaurants; many are open 24 hours. In between are rest stops (Rastplatz), which usually have picnic tables and toilet facilities. Orange emergency call boxes are spaced about 2km apart.
Autobahns are supplemented by an extensive network of Bundesstrassen (secondary ‘B’ roads, highways) and smaller Landstrassen (country roads). No tolls are charged on any public roads.
If your car is not equipped with a navigational system, having a good map or road atlas is essential, especially when negotiating the tangle of country roads. Navigating in Germany is not done by the points of the compass. That is to say that you’ll find no signs saying ‘north’ or ‘west’. Rather, you’ll see signs pointing you in the direction of a city, so you’d best make sure you have a map. Maps cost a few euros and are sold at bookstores, train stations, airports and petrol stations. The best are published by Freytag & Berndt, ADAC, Falk and Euromap.
Driving in the cities can be stressful thanks to congestion and the expense and scarcity of parking. In city centres, parking is usually limited to parking lots and garages charging between €0.50 and €2.50 per hour. Note that some parking lots (Parkplatz) and garages (Parkhaus) close at night and charge an overnight fee. Many have special parking slots for women that are especially well lit and close to exits.
Many cities have electronic parking-guidance systems directing you to the nearest garage and indicating the number of available spaces. Street parking usually works on the pay-and-display system and tends to be short term (one or two hours) only. For low-cost or free long-term and overnight parking, consider leaving your car outside the centre in a Park & Ride (P+R) lot.
Germany’s main motoring organisation, the ADAC, has offices in all major cities and many smaller ones. Its roadside-assistance program is also available to members of its affiliates, including British (AA), American (AAA) and Canadian (CAA) associations.
Drivers need a valid driving licence. International Driving Permits (IDP) are not compulsory, but having one may help German police make sense of your home licence (always carry that, too) and may simplify the car- or motorcycle-hire process.
Petrol stations, nearly all of which are self-service, are ubiquitous except in sparsely populated rural areas. Petrol is sold in litres.
Finding spare parts should not be a problem, especially in the cities, although availability depends on the age and model of your car. Be sure to have some sort of emergency roadside-assistance plan in case your car breaks down.
To decrease air pollution caused by fine particles, most German cities now have low-emissions environmental zones that may only be entered by cars displaying an Umweltplakette (emissions sticker, sometimes also called Feinstaubplakette). And yes, this includes foreign vehicles. No stickers are needed for motorcycles.
The easiest way to obtain the sticker is by ordering it online from www.umwelt-plakette.de, a handy website in many languages. The cost is €31.90. You can cut this amount in half if you order from the TÜV (Technical Inspection Authority) at www.tuev-sued.de or www.tuev-nord.de, both of which provide easy instructions in English. Once in Germany, stickers are also available from designated repair centres, car dealers and vehicle-licensing offices. Drivers caught without one will be fined €80.
As anywhere, rates for car hire vary considerably, but you should be able to get an economy-size vehicle from about €40 to €60 per day, plus insurance and taxes. Expect surcharges for rentals originating at airports and train stations, additional drivers and one-way hire. Child or infant safety seats may be hired for about €5 per day and should be reserved at the time of booking.
Rental cars with automatic transmission are rare in Germany and will usually need to be ordered well in advance.
To hire your own wheels, you’ll need to be at least 25 years old and possess a valid driving licence and a major credit card. Some companies lease to drivers between the ages of 21 and 24 for an additional charge (about €12 to €20 per day). Younger people or those without a credit card are usually out of luck. For insurance reasons, driving into an Eastern European country, such as the Czech Republic or Poland, is often a no-no.
All the main international companies maintain branches at airports, major train stations and towns. These include the following:
Pre-booked and prepaid packages arranged in your home country usually work out much cheaper than on-the-spot rentals. The same is true of fly/drive packages. Deals can be found on the internet and through companies including Auto Europe, Holiday Autos, and DriveAway Holidays.
Peer-to-peer car rental is still in its infancy in Germany. The main service is Drivy (www.drivy.de). You need to sign up on its website, find a car you'd like to rent, contact the owner and sign the rental agreement at the time you're handed the keys. Renters need to be at least 21 and to have had a driving licence for at least two years. If your licence was not issued in an EU member country, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein, you need to have an International Drivers' License. Payment is by credit card or PayPal. Rentals include full insurance and roadside assistance. For full details, see the website.
German law requires that all registered vehicles, including those brought in from abroad, carry third-party-liability insurance. You could face huge costs by driving uninsured or underinsured. Germans are very fussy about their cars; even nudging someone’s bumper when jostling out of a tight parking space may well result in your having to pay for an entirely new one.
Normally, private cars registered and insured in another European country do not require additional insurance, but do check this with your insurance provider before leaving home. Also keep a record of who to contact in case of a breakdown or accident.
When hiring a vehicle, make sure your contract includes adequate liability insurance at the very minimum. Rental agencies almost never include insurance that covers damage to the vehicle itself, called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW). It’s optional, but driving without it is not recommended. Some credit card companies cover CDW/LDW for a certain period if you charge the entire rental to your card; always confirm with your card issuer what it covers in Germany. Note that some local agencies may refuse to accept your credit card coverage as proof of insurance.
Driving is on the right-hand side of the road and standard international signs are in use. If you’re unfamiliar with these, pick up a pamphlet at your local motoring organisation or visit the ADAC website (search for 'traffic signs'). Obey the road rules and speed limits carefully.
Speed- and red-light cameras as well as radar traps are common, and notices are sent to the car’s registration address, wherever that may be. If you’re renting a car, the police will obtain your home address from the rental agency. There’s a long list of fineable actions, including some perhaps surprising ones such as using abusive language or gestures, and running out of petrol on the autobahn.
The usual speed limits are 50km/h on main city streets and 100km/h outside built-up areas, unless otherwise marked. Limits drop to 30km/h in residential streets. And yes, it’s true: there really are no speed limits on autobahns…in theory. In fact, there are many stretches where slower speeds must be observed (near towns, road construction), so be sure to keep an eye out for those signs or risk getting ticketed. And, obviously, the higher the speed, the higher the fuel consumption and emissions.
Other important driving rules:
If you've decided to rent a car to experience the thrill of autobahn driving or to get off the beaten track, you're well advised to pay attention to your speed. Although you're free to (safely) burn rubber on designated stretches of major autobahns, speed limits apply everywhere else. On regional highways and roads in the Harz, it's common for the speed limit to drop from 100km/h to 70km/h, then to 50km/h, and 30km/h when approaching villages. Coming off an autobahn at 150km/h onto a sparsely trafficked rural highway, there's a natural tendency to keep driving a little faster than you should. Don't.
Mobile police patrols and fixed position speed cameras (Radarkontrole) are commonplace and pop up without warning. While you won't lose points on your home licence, you will be fined: the faster you're driving over the limit, the higher the fine, so driving 45km/h in a 30km/h zone is considered the same as doing 115km/h in a 100km/h zone. Rental car companies process speed camera fines and automatically deduct the amount from your credit card.