Renting and Driving a Car in Europe
In order to rent or lease a car in Europe, non-Europeans need a valid driver’s license from their home state or province. Although the legal driving age is 18, drivers usually must be over 21 (sometimes even older) to rent a car. (Only 18 for leasing.) As of July 1, 2011 foreign drivers must also be at least 18 years of age to drive any car in Germany, even the family car. (See more below.)
International Driving Permit
If you will be driving in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, or some other European country, you may want to get an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is actually just a translation of the original license from your home country. However, in Germany you don’t need an IDP for a license in English, and the rental car agency only wants to see your US or Canadian driver’s license. If you plan to drive a lot outside of Germany, you may still want to get an IDP, which is valid in over 150 countries. The minimum age for the IDP is 18. In the US, you can get an IDP for a small fee from most AAA offices or online.
More important than having an IDP is knowing and following German and European traffic laws. Learn which international road signs mean what. They are often different from those in North America. You don’t want to be surprised after your return by a traffic or parking fine charge on the credit card you used to rent a car in Germany. Make sure you know the laws and regulations. (See Radar Photo Speed Traps below.)
More on The German Way
Driving on the Autobahn
Seven important rules of the road!
Automatic vs Stick Shift
While most cars in the US have an automatic transmission, it’s exactly the opposite in Europe. Germans and other Europeans learn to drive with a manual “stick-shift” transmission, and most cars on the road in Germany have a four or five-speed transmission with the shift lever in the center floor console (“four on the floor”).
If you’re planning on renting or leasing a car in Germany or anywhere in Europe, this gear-shift business can be important. First of all, most rentals are also manual-shift models. You can get an automatic, but it’ll cost ya — in two ways: (1) A higher rental fee. (2) Higher fuel costs. Automatics usually get lower fuel mileage than manual-shifts. (Don’t forget, gasoline in Europe costs about twice as much as in the US.)
Many Americans have never even learned to drive a stick-shift vehicle. If you have no idea how to use a clutch and shift gears, you’ll need to rent an automatic.
Leasing vs Renting
If your European trip will last at least three weeks, it may be cheaper to get a short-term car lease rather than renting. Leasing also has the advantage of including full auto insurance coverage in the lease fee. The only disadvantage of a short-term lease in Germany is that your leased vehicle must be brought into Germany from France. (France is the only European country that has favorable laws for short-term auto leases. All of the tourist auto-leasing firms in Europe work out of France, even German Sixt.) So if you pick up your vehicle at the airport in Frankfurt (FRA) or Munich (MUC), there will be an extra charge of about $200 – for both the pick-up and drop-off. It is the same for other locales outside of France. If possible, pick up your vehicle in France or Geneva, Switzerland to save about $400. Another option is Strasbourg, France, near the German-French border. In any case, your leased vehicle will be a French brand: Citroen, Peugeot, or Renault. You have the usual choices of a diesel or gas model, plus various sizes (compact, medium, SUV, etc.) and models.
Despite the German leasing drawback, if your trip will last longer than about four weeks, you may still save money by leasing a car in Germany versus renting. It pays to compare. Don’t forget to take the cost of insurance into account.
Although you will seldom see a parking meter in Germany and much of Europe, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay for parking!
When parking in an urban area (business or residential) in Germany, always look for a sign that says “Parkscheine” (“Parking tickets”) and the machine that dispenses them. Never just assume that parking is free. You insert coins to pay for the amount of parking time you want, then place your ticket on the car’s dashboard in plain sight. See photo.
Parking Payment App
Some German cities, including Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Wiesbaden and others, now offer the EasyPark or Pango smartphone app that allows you to pay for parking using your mobile phone (Android or iPhone). The parking fee is charged to your phone account! (A few US cities also have this option, but usually only for parking garages.) The app even sends you a warning 15 minutes before your parking time expires!
Rental Tip: GPS Navigation
Want a GPS navigator for your rental? You can rent a portable GPS “Navi” (NAH-vee) for about 9 euros a day (EuropCar) or get a rental car with a built-in GPS navigation system. Mention this when you make your reservation, since they are not always available. Note: A lease may include GPS at no extra cost. – More alternatives: Rent or buy a portable GPS navigator that also works in Europe before you go. Just make sure it has current European maps!
Driver’s License Age Requirement
Since July 1, 2011, a non-German driver must be at least 18 years of age in order to legally drive in Germany with a foreign driver’s license. This applies to US exchange students and other foreign residents in Germany, as well as tourists visiting Germany. This has always been true for driving rental cars (many rental agencies require a minimum age of 21), but the new law means that a US teen aged 16 or 17 may not legally drive any vehicle in Germany with a US driver’s license. (There may be an exception for US military dependents, but you should verify this with the appropriate authority.)
Violating the new law is a criminal offense that can result in an expensive fine, but more importantly, such a violation can also mean that the offending driver may have great difficulty in ever obtaining a German driver’s license or car insurance! If an under-age driver has an accident, the insurance company may refuse to pay any claims.
More Driving Tips for Germany
Expat Tip: Driver’s License Requirements
Non-EU expats (i.e., Americans, Canadians, Australians, etc.) living in Germany have six months before their home country license is no longer valid. (If you’re staying a year or less, you can usually continue to use your American license, but you have to apply for an exemption.) If you’re staying longer than six months and you’re lucky enough to have a driver’s license from a state or province with a reciprocity agreement, it’s fairly easy to get a German license. If not, be prepared to spend time and money to attend a driving school (Fahrschule), take tests, and obtain a license. — The reciprocity odds are not in your favor. Only about half of the 50 US states have a license waiver agreement with Germany, and some populous states (California, New York) are not among them. If you’re headed for Austria, you’re in luck! Unlike Germany, Austria now allows the automatic conversion of a US driver’s license.
Learn more: How to Get a German Driver’s License
Radar Photo Speed Traps
Americans driving in Germany often remark that they seldom see the German “highway patrol” (die Autobahnpolizei, autobahn police). Although they’re out there, there is far less active police enforcement than in the States. But there’s a lot of passive enforcement by “Blitzer” (radar cameras). In Germany and Austria it’s called getting “blitzed” (geblitzt werden). Germany and much of Europe makes heavy use of radar speed traps that use automated cameras triggered by radar measurement that “flashes/blitzes” you and your license plate if you are exceeding the posted speed limit. If you live in Germany, your speeding ticket will arrive in the mail. For tourists or other non-residents driving a rental car, the speeding ticket (with your portrait) will be sent to the rental car company, which will then usually bill you for the fine. The higher your speed, the higher your fine. For details see this official German site (in English): BMVI: Schedule of Fines (Speeding)
While speed trap warning apps and GPS map warnings are legal in France, Germany and Switzerland have laws against radar detectors and speed camera warning apps. In France your Garmin or Tom Tom GPS will show speed camera locations, but when you cross into Germany, the warnings stop. Of course the best way to avoid speed traps is to obey the speed limit! There are posted speed limits on most of the autobahn in Germany. In Austria and Switzerland there is a standard limit of 120 km/h (75 mph) unless posted otherwise.
Since 2008, many cities in Germany have introduced environmental “green zones” (Umweltzonen) that require cars to have a special sticker (Umweltplakette) for entry. Motorists driving into these zones without the proper sticker are subject to a 40-euro fine. The law applies to foreigners as well as residents. If you have a rental car, you need to be sure it has a green sticker. Expat residents also need to get a sticker for their car. An Umweltplakette for cars registered in Germany costs only 6 euros. A sticker for foreign vehicles costs 12.50 euros.
Learn more: Driving: Environmental Zones
Which Side Is the Gas Cap On?
You’re enjoying driving around Germany, but now it’s time to refuel your rental car for the first time. You pull into a gas station (Tankstelle), and only now do you realize you don’t know which side of the car the gas cap (der Benzindeckel) is on. But there’s an easy trick for solving that mystery that very few drivers know.
Look at the photo on the left. Do you see the white arrow next to the gas pump symbol? It points to the side of the car where the gas cap is located. (In this case, on the passenger side, not the driver’s side.) No more guessing when you’re driving an unfamiliar car. The gas cap arrow indicator is found on the gas gauge of most cars manufactured after 2005, including vehicles in Germany, Europe, the USA and most of the world. Most German-made cars have the fuel inlet on the right side, but using this trick, you don’t have to guess.
Tip: Winter Driving
In 2010 Germany introduced new, stricter laws and regulations concerning winter tires and winter driving. These laws also apply to rental cars. Learn the “O to O” rule: Oktober bis Ostern (October to Easter). Put snow tires on in October and take them off at Easter. Make sure your rental car has the right tires if you’re driving in snow-tire season. See Snow Tires and Winter Driving in Germany for more.
Tip: Other Requirements
Drivers must carry a warning triangle (Warndreieck) and a first-aid kit in the vehicle (found in the trunk of all rental cars) for use in an emergency. Since your North American auto insurance is not valid in Europe, be sure you have coverage from the rental agency and/or a credit card. Most rental cars require unleaded (bleifrei, pron. BLY-FRY) gasoline or diesel fuel (Diesel, much more common in Europe than in the US).
Tip: Diesel Cars
Diesel cars, also as rentals, are more common in Europe than in North America. When filling your car’s tank with diesel fuel, make sure you do not mistakenly pull up to a truck diesel pump. The size of the nozzles for the auto pumps versus the truck pumps is different. A truck fuel nozzle is bigger and has a higher flow rate. It won’t fit in the narrower automobile diesel fuel pipe.
Next | The Autobahn
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- The Autobahn – Legend and reality
- Driving on the Autobahn – Seven vital rules!
- Autobahn Tolls in Austria and Switzerland
- Driving: Environmental Zones – Many cities in Germany have “green” environmental zones that require a special auto sticker for entry.
- Snow Tires and Winter Driving in Germany – Learn about the “O to O” rule.
- Driving in Germany – General information
- Living in Germany for expats in German-speaking Europe
- Police – The Polizei in Germany, Austria and Switzerland
- Travel and Tourism – Travel-related information and resources of all kinds for Germany, Austria, Switzerland
ON THE WEB
- The Autobahn – From “Getting Around Germany” site by Brian Purcell
- Autobahn online – A very good German site about the autobahn
- Arbeitsgemeinschaft Autobahngeschichte – The history of the autobahn from a German association
- Driving in Germany (U.S. Embassy: Living in Germany)
- Porsche Club of America
- Travel Page – Travel-related links of all kinds for German Europe (this site)
Auto Clubs & Information
- ADAC – The main German autombile club
- AvD – Another German autombile club
- ÖAMTC – The main Austrian autombile club
- EUAC – The “other” Austrian autombile club
- ACS – Switzerland
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