Driving in Europe for the First Time!

Old Dec 29th, 2000, 05:10 AM
Diane Moll
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Driving in Europe for the First Time!

This coming May will be our 10th consecutive vacation to Europe, but it will be our first attempt behind the wheel. We have always traveled by train and enjoyed "leaving the driving to someone else". However, I know we have missed a lot of out of the way treasures by not having a car. I would appreciate your comments in this area. First, is a US driver's license all you need? We will be picking up the car at the Zurich airport and driving directly to and staying in Austria the entire two weeks. Any special info I need to know? How is it crossing the border from one country to another? I assume it won't be any different than going from the US into Canada? I plan to study all the road signs and gas station signs before we leave. Can you use your credit card just like you would the ATM card in Europe? I checked out one of the "pay gate" car parks when we were in Hallstatt one year and it looked quite confusing. Any comments would be greatly appreciated. Diane Moll.
Old Dec 29th, 2000, 05:25 AM
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Are you flying back out of Zurich as well? I assume this has to do with a better-priced airfare. Otherwise, you might just as well take a train into Austria first and rent there (if you are returning the car there).

Crossing most country borders is like crossing between states in the US, not even like going from the US into Canada. As Switzerland is not in the EU, it is a little more like an "international" border crossing, though not really even that for LEAVING Switzerland. I recently "left" Switzerland headed from Lugano to Italy, and I don't even remember any "crossing" per se.

In Austria, there is a mandatory "vignette" which is supposed to be on all cars using the Autobahns. It is not very expensive, especially if viewed as an expense amortized over your entire two weeks. A car rented in Austria might already have it anyway. There is also a requirement for a vignette in Switzerland (this one is far more "enforced") - - again, if you do rent in Switzerland, I would assume that it will already be on there and the cost (if any) will be already factored into the cost of your rental.

As for other logisitcs, yes, a US driver's license is ufficient to rent and operate a car. There has been debate on this site about the merits, if any, of an "international driver's license" - - which is technically, just a translation of your US driver's license - - it has no validity WITHOUT your US driver's license. They're cheap, readily available from any AAA, and probably worth about what you pay for them. In theory, they might help you in an accident or if you are stopped for a violation of some kind (essentially unheard of?)

Yes, you can pay many parking lots, tolls, etc with a credit card.

Just remember that Europeans consider the faster driver to have the right to travel unimpeded in the lefthand lane. If you don't want to drive those higher speeds, use the lefthand lane for passing and passing only, and be prepared to get back into the slower right lane as soon as you are done passing.

Driving is one of the great joys of traveling in Europe for me. I am betting you won't rack up ANOTHER nine trips without a car!

Best wishes,

Old Dec 29th, 2000, 05:39 AM
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Diane, Your US driver's license is all you need while visiting. If you are a resdient, you would need that country's license, but otherwise, no.

When entering Austria, pick up your vignette or sticker allowing you to drive on Austrian highways. It costs about DM10.00 (in Germany) and you can get it in any gas station just prior to crossing the border.

There is an etiquette that unfortunately not many Americans adhere to. Slower traffic moves to the right and you pass only on the left; Signs with a yellow diamond inside a white diamond indicate right-of-way; Stop at all pedestrian crosswalks if someone steps off the curb; Don't run out of gas on the autobahn and if your car breaks down, put out your warning triangle (it will be in the trunk) about 100m max behind your vehicle and walk on the roadside to a small white pole. There will be a black arrow indicating the direction to the closest telephone. Pick it up and say "auto kaput!". Someone from the automobile club will come out; Avoid letting your car idle uneccessarily; Watch for illuminated signs with "Stau" on them as they are warning of an impending traffic jam; Study those road signs and you'll be OK.

Crossing from one country to another usually does not require you to stop. Make sure you have your passports at all borders, just in case.

For parking, you can buy a pass at an automat machine for a desired time and place it visibly inside your windshield, preferrably curb-side.

Parking lights are not typically the taillights and orange front lights, rather a dimmer version of your headlights.

I prefer using a standard transmission in Europe and automatics are not easy to find and more costly.

Have a great trip.
Old Dec 29th, 2000, 11:42 AM
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Stay on the right and only use the left lane to pass, then move back immediately into the right lane. That alone will save you a lot of hassle.

Look in the glove box of your rental and you will probably find a cardboard clock. This is used to park when the area is marked for only 1 hour, 2 hours, etc. You dimply move the clock to show the time you parked and place it on your dashboard. We sometimes return and move the hands, but it eliminates people from leaving their car.

Gas stations take your credit card. No problem.

International driver's license: We lived in Europe and have made more than 20 trips back. We usually rent a car. I have never had an international license or been asked for one by anyone.

Some countries over there use cameras to track speeders. Best advice is to follow the rules on speed, especially in the towns. They are very strict.

Gasoline is Blei Frei (lead free) in Germany. Probably same in Austria.
Old Dec 29th, 2000, 11:46 AM
wes fowler
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Check out the website
which is partially sponsored by Renault. Click on the "Online guide" in the left frame then, in the next window the countries you plan to visit. You'll find rules of the road, listings of toll roads and toll costs, phrases appearing on road signs, i.e., "speed bumps ahead". In the coloumn captioned "on the road" check road signs and signals for graphic pictures of the most common signs. Check phrasebook in the same column for useful phrases, i.e., "I've got a strange noise coming from the crankcase" in multiple languages.

In the section on Austria, note that an International Driving License is required. Available from the AAA at a cost of $10.00 plus two passport photos, it's good to have. In the event of accident or incident, particularly on rural roads, you may encounter police not proficient in English. If you're required to surrender your license, give up the International license but retain your state license. Here, from the Austrian tourist office website are comments regarding the required vignette:

Motorway subject to toll: Austria's motorways and speed roads (also city motorways) are subject to toll. The toll is effected by purchasing a sticker that has to be attached to cars' windscreens. The annual toll is ATS 550. - for automobiles and motor homes (up to 3.5 tons), for motorcycles ATS 220. - For people on holidays 2-month stickers (ATS 150.-) and 1-week stickers (ATS 70.-) are available.

Infringements of the toll regulation will be punished with an additional charge of ATS 1,100. - or an administrative fine. The toll stickers may be purchased at automobile clubs in Austria and abroad, at petrol stations and stores close to the border as well as post offices, tobacco shops and petrol stations all over Austria.

Rent in Switzerland, not Austria. The Swiss VAT of 7% on auto rentals is the lowest rate you'll find.
Old Dec 29th, 2000, 12:29 PM
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Pick up Michelin guides for the areas you'll be traveling. Be sure to get the ones that include all the small towns and minor roads. Also, ask when you pick up the car how to get into reverse -- you'll find it different than here, and you'll spend a lot of time trying to figure it out (when you most need it) if you don't ask first.
Old Dec 29th, 2000, 02:49 PM
Diane Moll
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Thank you all so much. I will take your advice and print out your replys. The only other question I might have is parking meters. Is there anything special I need to know? I love this forum and it has helped me so much in planning our European trips. Thank you again.
Old Dec 29th, 2000, 03:30 PM
wes fowler
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You'll rarely find parking meters that are similar to those you may be familiar with here at home. More commonly, on streets where parking is allowed you'll find a boxlike device mounted near the corner where you insert coins and receive a receipt of one shape or another that you then place on the passenger side dashboard. It'll denote the time of purchase and expiration time.
Old Dec 29th, 2000, 04:30 PM
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Diane, you will park in most areas using the cardboard or plastic "clock that Bob mentioned. If there is not one in the rental when you get it (and that frequently happens), just pick one up at your first "benzin" (gas) stop. They're inexpensive and you will need one to park most places. Again, no one can emphasize the "stay out of the left lane except for very quick passing" enough, and the importance of getting the Austrian vignette. They're not kidding when they say it's mandatory... don't play games with it. But my big tip is to tell you how to read maps: Do NOT expect to find highway signs that say north, south, east, or west, even on the autobahns. You must find the next largest town in the direction you want to travel on the map, and look for that on the directional signs. You will find the highways are marked by number and then note the next large town, so if you don't know, for example, that you want to take Autobahn 8 towards Rosenheim and Salzburg rather than towards Munchen, you will be heading west rather than east. It is not complicated, just a case of planning ahead and knowing what the next town is... the smaller highways work the same, just with smaller towns instead of big cities to be on your radar. You will love the freedom you have, the experiences you will have, the fun you chance upon, and if you make a couple u-turns, who cares? Good luck...
Old Dec 30th, 2000, 06:21 AM
Hans H
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I haven't got a lot of experience with driving in Switzerland or Austria but I think it's quite similar to Germany:

1.) Pedestrian crossings are strictly observed. This means that some pedestrians might simply step on the street without looking at the traffic. It's the responsibility of the cars to look out for the pedestrians. By the way, the degree of observing pedestrian crossings varies widely within Europe.

2.) No passing on the right as long as the traffic is flowing (in case of a traffic jam things are of course different). This is maybe the most important rule for the highway and breaking it gets you in serious trouble. It's dangerous since it happens very seldomn and other drivers won't expect another car doing it. Don't hang on the left side of the highway even if you are going with the speed limit of a highway. At least German courts consider someone breaking the speed limit as less dangerous to traffic than someone who blocks the left lane and upsets other drivers to a degree that they do something stupid.

3.) In case that you aren't used to street cars: Treat them with respect. The problem is that they can't easily stop if they picked up speed.


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