Entry formalities for motorists are few: all you need is proof of insurance; an international car-registration document; and a U.S., Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand driver's license. If you or your car is from an EU country, Norway, or Switzerland, all you need is your domestic license and proof of insurance. All foreign cars must have a country sticker. There are no toll roads in Germany, except for a few Alpine mountain passes, although the autobahn may change to a toll system in 2017. Many large German cities require an environmental sticker on the front windshield. If your rental car doesn't have one, it's likely you'll be required to pay the fine.
It is easy to rent a car in Germany, but not always cheap. You will need an International Driving Permit (IDP); it's available from the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the National Automobile Club. These international permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you problems with the local authorities. In Germany you usually must be 21 to rent a car. Nearly all agencies allow you to drive into Germany's neighboring countries. It's frequently possible to return the car in another West European country, but not in Poland or the Czech Republic, for example.
Rates with the major car-rental companies begin at about €55 per day and €300 per week for an economy car with a manual transmission and unlimited mileage. It is invariably cheaper to rent a car in advance from home than to do it on the fly in Germany. Most rentals are manual, so if you want an automatic, be sure to request one in advance. If you're traveling with children, don't forget to ask for a car seat when you reserve. Note that in some major cities, even automobile-producing Stuttgart, rental firms are prohibited from placing signs at major pickup and drop-off locations, such as the main train station. If dropping a car off in an unfamiliar city, you might have to guess your way to the station's underground parking garage; once there, look for a generic sign such as Mietwagen (rental cars). The German railway system, Deutsche Bahn, offers discounts on rental cars.
Depending on what you would like to see, you may or may not need a car for all or part of your stay. Most parts of Germany are connected by reliable rail service, so it might be a better plan to take a train to the region you plan to visit and rent a car only for side trips to out-of-the-way destinations.
Major Rental Agencies
Avis. 800/331–1212; www.avis.com.
Budget. 800/472–3325; www.budget.com.
Hertz. 800/654–3001; www.hertz.com.
Car Rental Comparison Sites
Auto Europe. 888/223–5555; www.autoeurope.com.
Europe by Car. 212/581–3040; 800/223–1516; www.europebycar.com.
Eurovacations. 877/471–3876; www.eurovacations.com.
Kemwel. 877/820–0668; www.kemwel.com.
Gasoline costs are around €1.30 per liter—which is higher than in the United States. Some cars use diesel fuel, which is about €0.20 cheaper. If you're renting a car, find out which fuel the car takes. German filling stations are highly competitive, and bargains are often available if you shop around, but not at autobahn filling stations. Self-service, or SB-Tanken, stations are cheapest. Pumps marked Bleifrei contain unleaded gas.
Daytime parking in cities and small, historic towns is difficult to find. Restrictions are not always clearly marked and can be hard to understand even when they are. Rental cars come with a "time wheel," which you can leave on your dashboard when parking signs indicate free, limited-time allowances. Larger parking lots have parking meters (Parkautomaten). After depositing enough change in a meter, you will be issued a timed ticket to display on your dashboard. Parking-meter spaces are free at night. In German garages you must pay immediately on returning to retrieve your car, not when driving out. Put the ticket you got on arrival into the machine and pay the amount displayed. Retrieve the ticket, and upon exiting the garage, insert the ticket in a slot to raise the barrier. You must lock your car when it is parked. Failure to do so risks a €25 fine and liability for anything that happens if the car is stolen.
Roads are generally excellent. Bundesstrassen are two-lane state highways, abbreviated "B," as in B-38. Autobahns are high-speed thruways abbreviated with "A," as in A-7. If the autobahn should be blocked for any reason, you can take an exit and follow little signs bearing a "U" followed by a number. These are official detours.
The best-known road maps of Germany are put out by the automobile club ADAC, by Shell, and by the Falk Verlag. They're available at gas stations and bookstores.
The German automobile clubs ADAC and AvD operate tow trucks on all autobahns. "Notruf" signs every 2 km (1 mile) on autobahns (and country roads) indicate emergency telephones. By picking up the phone, you'll be connected to an operator who can determine your exact location and get you the services you need. Help is free (with the exception of materials).
Roadside assistance. 01802/222–222.
Rules of the Road
In Germany, road signs give distances in kilometers. There are posted speed limits on most of the autobahns, and they advise drivers to keep below 130 kph (80 mph) or 110 kph (65 mph). A sign saying Richtgeschwindigkeit and the speed indicates this. Slower traffic should stay in the right lane of the autobahn, but speeds under 80 kph (50 mph) are not permitted. Speed limits on country roads vary from 70 kph to 100 kph (43 mph to 62 mph) and are usually 50 kph (30 mph) through small towns.
Don't enter a street with a signpost bearing a red circle with a white horizontal stripe—it's a one-way street. Blue "Einbahnstrasse" signs indicate you're headed the correct way down a one-way street. The blood-alcohol limit for driving in Germany is very low (.05%), and passengers, but not the driver, are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages in the car. Note that seatbelts must be worn at all times by front- and back-seat passengers.
German drivers tend to drive fast and aggressively. There is no right turn at a red light in Germany. Though prohibited, tailgating is the national pastime on German roads. Do not react by braking for no reason: this is equally prohibited.
You may not use a handheld mobile phone while driving.
Germany has many specially designated tourist roads that serve as promotional tools for towns along their routes. The longest is the Deutsche Ferienstrasse, the German Holiday Road, which runs from the Baltic Sea to the Alps, a distance of around 1,720 km (1,070 miles). The most famous, however, is the Romantische Strasse , which runs from Würzburg to Füssen, in the Alps, covering around 355 km (220 miles).
Among other notable touring routes are the Strasse der Kaiser und Könige (Route of Emperors and Kings), running from Frankfurt to Passau (and on to Vienna and Budapest); the Burgenstrasse (Castle Road), running from Mannheim to Bayreuth; the Deutsche Weinstrasse , running through the Palatinate wine country; and the Deutsche Alpenstrasse, running the length of the country's Alpine southern border from near Berchtesgaden to the Bodensee. Less well-known routes are the Märchenstrasse , the Weser Renaissance Strasse, and the Deutsche Fachwerkstrasse (German Half-Timber Road).