On my recent trip to the Bavaria region of Germany, I made a decision that surprised many of my friends, family members, and readers.
I decided to rent a car, and drive from town to town.
“But public transportation in Europe is SO good,” they said. “You should take advantage of it while you’re there.”
Yeah, I get it. Believe me, I love a good scenic train ride as much as the next person. And yet, I was sure I was making the right choice–and looking back, I stand by that decision.
I loved the freedom and flexibility of having a car. I didn’t have to rely on train or bus schedules, and if I saw a cute town or scenic area that I wanted to spontaneously stop and explore, I could make that decision.
If I woke up and was feeling tired, I didn’t have to worry about missing my train; I could just hit snooze and wake up when I felt like it, and hop in the car a bit later than I had planned. No big deal!
And, if I arrived to a new town in the morning and wasn’t able to check in to my hostel yet, I could just stash my stuff in the trunk while I explored. Double win!
But, obviously there is a lot to consider before you decide to rent a car in a foreign country, and I can see how the idea could even be a bit intimidating. So, what’s it really like to drive in Germany?
The Autobahn isn’t exactly how you’re picturing it.
Before driving on the German autobahn, I couldn’t help but to envision it as an imposing, ten-lane super highway that doubled as a death trap.
I mean, the autobahn is famous worldwide for having no speed limits…that has to say something, right?
Well, it’s time to bust myth #1, because the autobahn actually does have speed limited areas.
Parts of the autobahn that pass through or near cities and towns definitely do have speed limits, as do exit/entry ramps and areas that are more difficult to drive through, such as steep roads or areas that are under construction.
And, in case you’re wondering, people do abide by the posted speed limits! I regularly saw speedy sports cars zooming along at 150 km/h and immediately slowing down to the posted 80 km/h when necessary.
Oh, and that whole ten-lane super highway thing…?
German drivers are courteous drivers.
“Courteous” is really the key word that comes to mind when I think about the other drivers I encountered in Germany.
Apparently, driving in the far left lane really isn’t a thing. It’s strictly used for passing…you know, kind of how it’s supposed to be (in theory) in the US, except people in Germany actually use it that way.
Just take a moment to reflect how glorious that truly is.
It means that no matter how fast/slow you are going, and no matter how fast/slow the cars in front of you are going, there will ALWAYS be an open lane to your left for you to pass (unless someone else is currently passing you).
Seriously, nothing made me as happy as always having an available lane for passing. NOTHING.
Even the very fastest cars I saw in Germany all drove in the right lane. They would quickly use the left lane for passing when necessary, and then immediately switch back to the right.
Imagine if we could make that happen in the US?! No more cars going exactly the speed limit (or under) in the far left lane and feeling totally entitled to do so, and refusing to move over for the faster cars behind them.
I’m telling you, driving in Germany is AWESOME because of this.
One important note on this topic: If you’re going to drive in Germany, don’t be “that car” that breaks this unwritten rule. Seriously, you don’t want to be the roadblock for the car behind you that’s going twice as fast as you are. Just don’t.
Renting a car is easier than you think.
I was pretty nervous about the whole idea of renting a car in Germany, but it ended up being easy as pie.
I recommend Europcar, because according to the endless research I did about car rentals in Europe, the big-name rental companies tend to be your best bet. I reserved my car online, and selected the option to pay in person when I picked up my car.
Also, it’s SUPER important to remember that most cars in Germany (and the rest of Europe) are manual transmission, so you’ll need to specifically ask for an automatic car if you can’t drive a stick shift. You’ll be charged extra for this, but trust me when I say that you don’t want to stall out on German roads if you don’t know how to properly use a car with manual transmission. Talk about stressful!!
As far as necessary documents, all you’ll need is your U.S. drivers license (if you’re not from the U.S. or another Western European country, you may need your passport). You don’t need any proof of insurance.
You’ll be given the option of selecting different types and levels of insurance, which is totally up to you depending on how much risk you’re comfortable with.
Get ready for some fuel-related surprises.
You know, I really thought I was prepared for the sticker shock associated with fuel prices in Europe. But, alas, I was wrong.
Back home in Texas with my little Hyundai, I can completely fill up my tank for about 40 USD. Recently, when fuel prices were down to less than $2/gallon, I could fill up for closer to 30 USD.
Granted, it’s not a huge tank, but it’s also quite fuel efficient and the fuel lasts me a while.
During my road trip through Bavaria, I used exactly 3/4 of the tank and needed to return it with a full tank. So, before returning my car I stopped by the Shell station next to the drop-off location to fill ‘er up.
Luckily, my rental car also used diesel fuel, which is slightly cheaper than regular gasoline.
However, it was still SIXTY EUROS to fill up 3/4 of my tank. Which means it would have been EIGHTY EUROS to fill up the entire tank. Which incidentally is almost NINETY USD for one tank of gas, for a not-so-big car.
That’s like what my parents pay for their giant SUV!
Yikes. Good thing public transportation in Europe is so good!
Aside from the sky-high fuel prices, I was also shocked to discover that at German gas stations, you don’t pay for your fuel until after you’ve filled up. In fact, there isn’t even the option to insert your credit card at the pump before filling up–you’ve got to wait to pay until you’re done.
Once you’ve added the fuel to your car, you simply go inside and speak to the cashier. Tell him/her what station you used, hand over card or cash, and you’re done.
This was surprising to me, mostly because I wondered how frequently drivers take advantage of this system. I mean, how do you enforce payment? What stops people from filling up and driving off?
Security cameras? Strong punishment if caught? A really, really good trust system or an extremely ethical population?
Not that I would ever even think about driving off without paying, but this phenomenon totally caused flashbacks to Halloweens of my childhood, when certain lazy houses would just put out a gigantic bowl of candy and tape a sign to the bowl that said “Please just take one piece.” Like, what’s reallllyyy going to stop me from taking as much as I want and hitting the road?
But, I digress.
Parking can be pricey, but convenient.
In the areas I visited (meaning mainly small towns), metered parking and paid lots were abundant.
Typically, there wasn’t much difference in cost between the two. Both the metered spaces and paid lots that I used were about 1 euro per hour. However, if you’re planned to be parked for a long time (such as overnight) a lot with a flat rate would be your best bet, although I didn’t see many.
The bottom line?
Driving in Germany isn’t as scary or difficult as you may expect.
In fact, it’s quite similar to driving in the United States!
Road rules and signage are clearly posted, and if you have access to a navigation system (either rented along with your car or via an app on your phone) you’re practically guaranteed not to get lost.
Just stay calm, obey the rules, and drive as you normally would at home.
Oh, and enjoy the views; they’re going to be awesome.
Have you ever rented a car or driven in a foreign country? If so, where and how did it go?