People are sometimes amazed or surprised that I rent a car when I visit Germany. I hear “aren’t the street signs confusing?” and even more often, “isn’t it scary driving at those high speeds?“. The truth is, driving in Germany might seem intimidating, but because people tend to follow the rules of the road, it’s actually fairly straightforward. Still, there are some things you should be aware of to safely drive in Germany. Because driving in Germany is NOT just like driving in the USA, and I’m not just talking about the Autobahn.
Before I go any further.
Your American Driver’s license is valid in Germany for up to a year for visitors, after this you can get an international driver’s license for Germany.
Before you Can Drive, You need a Car
Unless you have a generous German family member, you will probably need to rent a car. Companies like Auto Europe have websites that are fairly easy to navigate, plus you will see the prices ahead of time. However, if you are doing something more complex than picking up and returning to the same place, you may want to call the company, or have a travel agent handle it for you.
One BIG tip- While my normal preference for driving in Germany is to rent a smaller car (parking lots are tight, and gas is expensive), it’s a good idea to reserve something bigger if you are traveling with more people. On my last trip, we were four adults…each with a suitcase and carry-on. We certainly didn’t overpack, but it took a shoe horn to get our gear into the first car. Even worse, although the car interior was quite comfortable, and was spacious enough… it was low to the ground, and uncomfortable for older knees getting in and out. Fortunately, we were able to upgrade to a SUV, but it took a few days for something to become available. If you need space and height in a car, plan ahead.
Finally, certain classes of cars you rent in Germany may not be allowed to cross the border to Poland or the Czech Republic. If you are planning a side trip, let the rental agency know.
Some basic tips for Driving in Germany
1. A stick shift will be cheaper to rent, and a lot more common at the rental places, than an automatic. I thought…”Heck, I drove a stick shift for YEARS! How tricky could it be”. Well…. since I HADN’T driven one for 10 years, there was a learning curve. I’m happy to report that after stalling out 3 times on the ramp out of the parking garage, we managed to safely drive through the streets of Hamburg to the hotel. (And I’m sure that man will recover from his panic attack soon). If you are at ALL unsure, go with Automatic. The extra money you spend could add years to a parking lot attendant’s life.
2. There are a LOT of lines on the road. Don’t cross the solid ones.
3. About those lines... some are white, and some have yellow NEAR the white, especially in construction zones. Yellow is more important than white… and DON’T cross the solid ones.
4. No, the entire Autobahn isn’t a “speed limit free” zone. The round circles with numbers in them are the speed limit. They seem to randomly go up and down. Mostly in construction zones (and there are LOTS of construction zones) but also near cities, and seemingly randomly… And OBEY the Speed Limit! You may not see policemen, but those blue pillars are equipped with radar and cameras. And it will catch up to you.
Fortunately! Most car displays now seem to be tied in to the speed limits! The correct number will show up on the dashboard (even in construction zones), and will flash if you are going too fast.
5. Stau (traffic) happens, especially on the first day of vacation in each state. Sometimes driving in Germany means sitting still. Plan accordingly.
6. Cars in Germany are smaller than in America. But that’s ok because roads are narrower, and parking garages are downright tight. I’m sure that somewhere on Youtube is a video of me making a 27 point turn to get my car into the world’s tightest space.
7. A navigation system in the car is a lifesaver. You can set some to speak English (I think). Ours is German. She seems nice, enough, but sometimes the directions come at the last second (we just go around the block and try again). It’s good to have someone riding shotgun to keep track of directions. Mostly because if you miss an Autobahn exit (the famous AUSFAHRT) (giggle) you might have to travel MILES (well, Kilometers) before you can get turned around.
7a. Even if you have a “Navi”, carry a map. Your car should come equipped with one, and your phone will have one too. Still, we were surprised to find out that sometimes the navigation system couldn’t connect to satellites in some corners of Germany. Luckily, we had a map book along so we could figure out what exit to take.
8. Turning Right on red is totally illegal. (This isn’t California!!)
9. Speaking of red… The traffic lights are NOT on the other side of the intersection. If you go too far into the crosswalk, you won’t see them. AND pedestrians will give you a nasty stink eye.
10. More about those traffic lights… they take FOREVER. It’s not unusual for people to shut off their car while waiting for the light to change. (Some intersections will even have a “turn off your engine” light).
11. Don’t worry about missing the light change… When it’s about to go from red to green, the light will flash yellow (and you will hear a dozen cars start up at once).
12. When you drive, stay to the right. If you want to go faster than someone else, pass on the left. Don’t even THINK about passing on the right.
13. If you are trucking along on the left, and a car zooms up behind you and flashes lights, move to the right. This is no time to get into some macho contest about who is faster. You can go back after he’s gone.
14. If there is an accident, a gap or Rettungsgasse will be created between the lanes of cars for emergency vehicles. (Not on the far right or left as we are used to.) Just follow the person in front of you… and watch the overhead signs for picture directions.
15. Should you have an accident, or a break down, get to the side if possible. Then put on your safety vest. It’s bright yellow, most likely tucked into the back of the car, and they are a requirement for any person walking around on the Autobahn… even if you are well off it and in a safe place. (No one will fault you for your fashion sense… in Germany it’s “safety first”)
16. Buying Gas is different from California. You gas up FIRST, then you go in and pay the attendant. It’s quite a trusting system… And remember, gas is sold in Liters, not gallons. (And be sure to double check what KIND of gas you put in, so you don’t accidentally grab diesel when you need regular).
17. Don’t expect all hotels (especially those in the Altstadt) to have a parking lot or garage. We have had to park a few blocks away more than once. (And let me tell you, pulling bags over cobblestones is a special adventure).
18. Parking Garages are TIGHT. Honestly, here isn’t a ton of room, and the ramps are crazy narrow. (But, if you were lucky enough to rent a smaller car, you should be fine.)
Finally, relax. There are differences, but in no time at all you will feel comfortable behind the wheel in Germany. Before you know it, YOU will be the one zooming up behind the noobies and flashing your lights to get them out of the way. ZOOOM!
(BTW… the word Ausfahrt NEVER stops being funny!!)