“So you're going to drive the Autobahn, right???”
Inevitably, when planning a trip to Germany, many friends will ask this question. "Well of course," I responded.
Frankly, tell me that a middle-aged American woman will be driving on the Autobahn, and it sounds a little reckless, and scary. But most friends got a goofy, conspiring grin, with a faraway look in their eyes, and said "You go girl!"
That is because Americans of all ages have a long standing love affair with fast cars and long stretches of open highway that extends back for generations. Oh, yeah, back to when the Germans invented the automobile. Thank the Germans for that!
Of course, Germans have a long term romance with automobiles too, which is apparent in the quality of their vehicles, and their Autobahns.
As Americans typically do, we ran with the new invention, making cars affordable, and putting one in every driveway. But to this day, Americans imagine Germans driving their Porsches and Mercedes on long stretches of highway, at discretionary speed, and it sounds like a dream. We file that onto our "I gotta do that someday" list.
So, to answer the question many friends asked did I drive the Autobahn when I got home, "Hell yes, I drove the Autobahn!"
And the next question, " How was it?"
Well, that is a longer story.
The Roads are Outstanding!
The Autobahn is specially engineered, and immaculately maintained. The road bed is deep, smooth, and clean. There are no bumps or potholes. The surface invites speed. Drivers can go as fast as they want, and they do. We did too. And, well, 155 can be a relatively comfortable speed, sometimes.
But... I hate to be the one to burst the fantasy bubble.. Driving the Autobahn is not exactly the free and exhilarating experience Americans imagine it to be.
Sure, driving on the Autobahn it is an adrenaline rush, but crossing the Mississippi River on a tight rope, would be too.
If you have read any of my prior stories about Germany, you know we stayed with our good friends Kathrin and Monty. They filled us in about everything we would need to know, before we took a car onto the Autobahn, and thank goodness they did!
Just in case you don't have a German friend to put you in the know, I will share it all.
There are many articles featuring tips for driving the Autobahn already out there. I read many of them prior to my travels. But, I did not find any that gave all the information we ended up needing to know.
If you are going to drive in Germany, you NEED this information.
So Lets Get You a Car
Renting a car is far simpler in Germany than in many other European countries. You do have to be at least 21 though. The legal driving age in Germany is 18, but most rental companies will not rent to a foreign driver, unless they are 21
- You will need two forms of identification, along with your credit card. You should always have your passport and your US state issued driver's license on you anyway, so this shouldn't be a problem. Make sure that both have the same address and personal information. You will not get a car if they don't. Put this on your list of things to check, and correct, weeks before your trip.
- With these two form of identification, you will be legal to drive in Germany. If you plan to go into some other nearby countries, such as Austria, Belgium, or Italy, you need to get an International Driving Permit, or IDP. This takes some time, so it is another thing to take care of weeks before your departure. For info on where to get an IDP for countries you plan to visit, use the link. If a country isn't listed, generally, your US license will be accepted. Where to get your IDP
- Standard transmissions are pretty much the standard, (yes, I amused myself,) for rental vehicles in most of Europe. If you NEED an automatic, make sure you request that when making the reservation, and it will cost more.
- Frankly, we have never made a vehicle reservation through a travel site, and had the quoted price be remotely close to the cost we paid. We stopped trying, and now we reserve directly from the rental agent. I am not saying you shouldn't try it, just relaying our experience.
- In Germany, we rented through Sixt, in Dusseldorf proper, and had a good experience. The rate included 400 kilometers a day, roughly 250 miles, with a per km charge for an extra used. By the way, Gypsy With a Day Job is NOT a Sixt affiliate.
- We bought the collision coverage, but I will not advise in any way on this. Do your research with the rental agencies and your credit cards. Insurance from the US, or many other countries, will not cover you in the event of an accident.
- Renting a car was cheaper in Germany, than some other places we have visited, but quite a bit more than we pay on the mainland US. However, we paid for the collision waiver, extra for an automatic, and in-vehicle GPS, which is called a NAVI in Germany.
- Your car should automatically come with the required safety equipment, which includes a reflective orange triangle, and a first aid kit. Most of the time it also comes with a reflective vest. Check this out, and make sure you know where all of these items are, before you hit the road.
On to the Autobahn Experience!
1. No Speed Limits
Yep, it is all true. On thousands of kilometers of Autobahn, there is NO speed limit. You can drive fast, really, really, fast.
German speeds are measured in KPH, and not MPH. (The US is about the only country that uses miles). So, well, it isn't quite as fast as some Americans have imagined. Some people do drive 200, but that is kph, not mph.
Typical traffic flows at about 120, which is 75 mph. That 155 in the title, that is about 96 mph. We may have touched that number a few times, but most of the time, we were comfortable at about 135-145, which is about 85-91 mph. With that, we were blown by many times.
2. Then There are Speed Limits
In inherently risky areas, near or through cities, or other high traffic places, there are posted speed limits. There are no words on the signs, just a number in a red circle. That limit applies UNTIL you see another number, or until you see the number slashed out, as seen below.
When the speed limits are there, they absolutely must be followed. Sure, you won't see Polizei pulling people over for speeding.
That is because there are cameras monitoring traffic, and tickets are issued after the fact. You do not want to get back to the rental office, and have an expensive ticket that costs you your entire next vacation!
Besides, these limits are there for YOUR safety. Really, a country of no speed limits does not impose them in a certain location, without good reason! Be smart.
3. What the... Variable Speed Limits
Did that speed limit just change? Do the lanes really have different speed limits? Yes, that may be exactly the case. Busy areas with high traffic fluctuations have what is called Dynamic Traffic Control, which can be recognized by electronic traffic and speed signs over the highway.
Cameras and computerized systems monitor the road ahead for circumstances such as accidents and traffic. These areas have Variable Speed Limits, based upon the DTC assessments.
A problem on the road ahead means, yes, the speed limit may change, while you are cruising along. It also means the left lane can have a limit of as much as 40 kph more than the right lane.
4. Put Your Seat Belt On!
Get over the "it's my life, and I shouldn't have to," mentality. Wearing seat belts is the law in Germany, as it is in the other Autobahn countries, Switzerland and Austria. By the way, it includes everyone in the vehicle, not just the front seat. Children under 13 are not allowed to ride in the front seat, at all.
Put the situation in context: best engineered highway system in the world, best cars in the world, highest speeds in the world. The law says wear the seatbelt.. Why is that. Never mind. Just put the dang thing on.
5. Stay in Your Lane!
Slower traffic to the right, passers only to the left. It is not just a suggestion. It is the law. Cool, huh, at least for fast drivers like me. Not following it seriously risks lives.
And of course, proper lane usage is also camera monitored, just like the speed limits.
Likewise, passing on the right is strictly forbidden. The minor exception to this in traffic jams, when the right lane may progress a little faster than the left. Even in this case, the right lane cannot be going more than 20 kph faster than the one to the left.
The lanes are a little skinnier than US Interstates, so spend some time in the right lane getting acquainted with the width of the vehicle compared to the width of the lane, before venturing into the center to pass.
Trucks of 3.5 tons or more cannot drive in the left lane, ever.
6. Do Not Stop, Ever!
It is illegal to stop on the Autobahn, for anything, except vehicle emergencies.
This pretty much comes down to meaning the only way you can stop on the Autobahn is if you are involved in an accident. This also makes running out of gas on the road strictly illegal.
Along those lines, bicycle and pedestrian traffic are also strictly forbidden. Pedestrians may walk from their vehicle to use the emergency telephones, if an emergency occurs.
7. Use the Blinkers and Mirrors
Yes, this is the rule everywhere, and it is just common sense.
Unfortunately, I am always amazed at how many people ignore these common sense rules, and expect the other guy to look out for them. You can't afford to ignore them on the Autobahn.
When you are ready to move to a center lane, or make a pass, put your blinker on ahead of time, check your rear view, check your side view mirror, then double check your side view mirror, before moving into the next lane.
Heck, if you have a passenger, have them take a glance too, just to be sure. You will be surprised at how fast a car can come up on you.
7. Respond to the Flashers
Be attentive for vehicles coming up behind you, flashing their brights. If you are in any lane except the right, then you need to move to the right, and let them pass.
In general, you should be moving with the flow of traffic of the lane you are in, so if you are too slow, you will be flashed to get over. This is not a rule, and it is possibly not even legal, but it is common practice. It is definitely not something to get angry about.
Truth is, if you are the one being flashed, generally you are the one not following the basic rules.
8. Traffic IS Coming- Be Ready!
It is common to be cruising along with the flow at 140, only to come around a curve to a traffic jam at 60.
It will happen, and happen more than once. Be ready.
If your car has a built in NAVI, many rental companies have them pre-programmed to cut in on when there is traffic congestion ahead. Hopefully you have taken the time to learn a little German before your trip, but the word for traffic congestion is Stau. The word for accident ahead is Unfall.
Check the traffic signs. There are often warning signs before you approach high traffic areas. Sometimes these will be regular roadside signs, and in DTC areas, they will be lighted overhead signs.
9. When in a Traffic Jam..
If you see hazard lights flashing ahead, brake. German drivers who suddenly come upon unexpected traffic turn their hazards not only to warn the drivers behind them, but to protect themselves from being rear ended. Give the same courtesy to those behind you, and click those flashing lights on once you have maintained control of the sudden braking,
In dead-stop traffic, it is expected that cars in the left lane will pull as far to the left as possible, and cars in the right or center lane will pull as far to the right as possible, so if an emergency vehicle needs to come through, there is a path.
10. Plan Drive Times
With a little forethought, you can make sure you are driving on the Autobahn during less congested time periods, at least in areas around the cities. Like every where else in the world, the roads are busiest during the primary work commute, so 0630 to 0830 in the morning, and 1600 to 1800 in the evening, will be times of highest traffic density.
Friday afternoons and evenings are the absolute worst. People want to get home, or out of town, for the weekend. Wherever you are going, you might as well skip it, because it will take hours to get there. You could take the train. Trains are packed on Fridays too, so you may have to stand, but at least the schedule is maintained.
Better yet, plan your drive for Sunday. There is very little work traffic, AND there are no trucks on the highway, at all. Truck drivers are legally forbidden from driving any time on Sundays!
Sunday is the closest it will ever come to your Autobahn fantasy.
12. Be Vigilant
German drivers behave differently than Americans. They are better trained, and drive more aggressively than US drivers are accustomed to. It can leave a newbie feeling a bit edgy.
Be ready for drivers who ride closer, cut in tighter, and brake a little more suddenly. This is the normal driving pattern, and it has nothing to do with you. Put your road rage to rest. You are the stranger here and you need to be aware of your differences, and be attentive.
Don't forget Europe is pretty small. Just as in the US drivers from different states will be seen, there will be drivers from different countries on the Autobahn. They also drive differently- different than you, and different than Germans.
Watch out for them! We had to break hard when a car from Spain came into the right lane from the on-ramp, going about 60 kph, when traffic was flowing at about 110.
Driving distracted is stupid, and dangerous, anywhere. This is 10 times more true on the Autobahn.
Don't scan the radio, don't check your hair, don't look at a map, don't pick up your phone. Pay attention, constantly. Truthfully, you cannot even afford to check the scenery when driving the Autobahn!
Driving without distractions is taken seriously in Germany, and you will note that billboards and other marketing signs are not allowed to be visible from the highway.
If you have any sense of your own mortality, you will find yourself extremely keyed up in a short amount of time. Your neck and shoulders will be strained. Your hands will be sore from gripping the steering wheel. Your eyes may be burning because you are watching everything, intently.
This is the common Autobahn driving reaction. Drivers should take a break every 2 hours or so. It is even recommended by German driving authorities. The government has taken many steps to ensure that there are ample opportunities to take a break from the highway, and that they are inviting. For information about Autobahn Raststatts, or rest stops, see below.
Driving on the Autobahn can be fun, but most of the time it is demanding and stressful. It feels like work.
That sounds like a lot of stuff to remember, I know. Believe me when I tell you that you DO need to remember it.
But, if you have made it this far with us, you must have your airline tickets!
If an Accident Happens
With these conditions, and the stress, you might think that the accident rate on the Autobahn is high. You would be wrong.
In fact, the accident rate, per killometers driven, is half of the rate on US Interstates. Impressive, right!
One big reason for this is the extensive training that German citizens are required to have to get a license. Germans must attend between 25 and 40 hours of professional level drivers training. This training includes some specific mechanical functioning of their vehicles, so they fully understand the capabilities.
German citizens must also pay about 2000 Euros to get their license. If they lose their license, through tickets, or any of the other variables that maintaining a license depends upon, it would be another huge cost. Americans would freak the heck out about such a price, but it is a great big incentive to follow the rules and drive safely!
Hopefully, knowing the rules ahead of time, you will be able to drive the Autobahn without incident. But, if you do somehow get involved in an accident, get off on the shoulder if it is possible, as soon as you can.
If you can get to the shoulder, and safely exit the vehicle, do so. Get that reflective triangle out of your car, and up behind you, to prevent being rear ended by oncoming traffic. Get that orange vest on, so you don't get hit.
If your cell phone emergency call system is functional, make that call. If your cell phone is not functional, you may need to use the roadside phone. They are placed every 2 km along the Autobahn. Roadside phones function by intercom buttons.
Help will come.
Raststatts are rest areas that are found about every 40 to 60 km along the Autobahn, because EVERYONE needs a break during the Autobahn experience. They are far more frequent than those found on US Interstates. The range of services does fluctuate, but generally they are full service rest areas.
We found the gas stops to be pretty awesome. Most of them had a large lot for resting, with some area to walk around, as well as a gas station, and at least one fast food restaurant. Quite often it was a Burger King, which seems to be hugely popular.
A good percentage of the stops had even more. Many had a hotel, a sit down restaurant, and sometimes there was even a little gift shop. We did all of our driving on Monday to Thursday, but I have been told that on Sundays these areas will be packed with semi trailers and drivers.
Use these stops to get a break from the stress of the Autobahn. If you intend to use the other services at the Raststatte, there are a few other things to know.
Get the Gas
- Pay at the pump is far less common that in some other countries. You will often pump outside, and walk inside to pay.
- Not all gas stations accept credit, so it is good to have some cash Euros on hand.
- Gas is a little more expensive than in most US cities. It is also sold by the liter. Whatever the posted price is then, is multiplied times 4 to get the aproximate comparison for a gallon. It really doesn't matter, since you have to get it, but it is one of those things I like to know.
- Gas is generally less expensive at stations within the cities, than it is at those on the Autobahn, just like many other countries. When you return your car, you are better to refill at a station in the city close to the rental store, rather than at the last stop off the Autobahn.
Use the Facilities
- It is typical for the main outside door of many public restrooms to be open. Yes, this feels weird the first few times, because you can see those going in and out, or standing in line, and Oh my God, others can see you in line too.
- However, once inside, you will note that the stalls themselves are actually far more private than those at home. The doors and walls go both higher, and lower, sometimes all the way to the ground. In addition, they are generally tight at the seams, meaning that there is no little crack that can be peeked through, as is the case in most US public facilities.
- Carry coins, because in the vast majority of public bathrooms in Germany, there is a charge. At this time, the charge is generally 70 cents, which is accomplished easiest with a 50 and 20 cent coin. There is normally a machine at the entrance, which controls a turnstiles entrance. Some machines will accept a 1 Euro coin, and give change.
- There will usually be an attendant somewhere in the area. The attendant is responsible for ensuring that the machine is operable, and that the facility is kept clean. Indeed German bathrooms were kept very, very clean. Some gas stop toilets also had a nifty rotating seat mechanism that ran the seat through a sanitizer after the flush.
Grab a Drink
- In Germany, and in many European countries, beverages are normally served without ice. Many of the Raststatts will have soda fountains, but they will not have ice dispensers. If you want ice, you can go to the restaurant, but it will not be automatically given. You must request your drink "mit Eis."
- Nicknames for drinks are not commonly used. Asking for a Coke will get a perplexed look. Ask for a Coca-cola.
Wow. We Covered a Lot of Territory
Could there possible be anything else to know about a driving on the Autobahn??
Just remember the Autobahn is not made for "road-tripping" or pleasure driving. It is made for speed, precision, and efficiency, as a means to an end. It is not US Interstate driving.
Otherwise, if you are driving only in Germany, I can't think of anything else, except to know the directions to where you are going.
If you are driving into another country, then yes, there is. I won't go into it all, but be aware that all adjacent countries do have speed limits that start at the border, and that Austria has a toll which requires a Vignette. Maybe we will write about Austrian Autobahns in the future, but until then, do your research before you cross that country line.
Otherwise, when you are out on the Autobahn, enjoy those smooth roads, and the amazing ride of the German cars.
Drive fast if you want to, but mind the rules. Be diligent in your attention, and be safe!!
We want to hear your Autobahn stories, and any further tips you learn, when you return!
Some of the pictures in this article are ours, and they are recognizable by our watermark. Other pictures in this article have been taken from Wikimedia Commons.
If you want to watch live video of Autobahn driving, there are lots of choices on YouTube.