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Driving through France, Germany and Swtizerland

I will be traveling to Europe in June. We arrive to Paris by train from London, spend 3 days in Paris and then plan to rent a car and drive through parts of France, Germany, And Switzerland. Is this a crazy idea? I love the freedom of a car. Can anyone give me tips about driving there that I may not know? I don't like surprises so I am trying to be as informed as possible. Thank you.

Posted by
969 posts

I'm with you that driving in Europe gives maximum flexibility and freedom. Some things to remember:
a) are you American? If so, start getting familiar with metric. Distances and speeds will be in kilometres, fuel in litres.
b) in order to drive in Switzerland, you need to purchase a "vignette" at the border and affix it to your windshield.
c) the main motorways in France and Germany are very much like US interstates, convenient but boring. Try to get on the secondary routes for better experience.
d) in France, they have "ailes" which are super-convenient highway rest stops with gas, restaurants, etc.
e) in Germany, even if you're going 150 km/h, expect to be passed.
f) some of the mountain secondary highways in Switzerland are VERY narrow, yet still have large trucks coming fast the opposite direction. Be alert!
Have a great time.

Posted by
321 posts

We have really only driven in Germany, so my hints may or may not apply to France and Switzerland.

• When renting a car, get a compact car. City roads are narrow.

• A lot of rental cars are manual transmission. If you cannot drive one, make sure reserve an automatic

• Also don't skimp on the insurance. We get the loss damage waver. It came in very handy on our last trip.

•The left hand lane is the passing lane make sure once you have passed to move back over

• Use your turn signal

• Check your mirrors and blind spots several times on the Autobahn (Germany's interstate system) to make sure there is nothing there. Mainly as the superfast cars are not there one second and are there the next

• When parking in a garage, there is a kiosk near the entrance/exit. Before you leave, pay your ticket, or else you will have angry people honking at you while you figure it out.

• Some times what looks like free parking is not free parking. Gratis is the German word for free as in no money. If you are unsure, look for a little kiosk. If you see one and buy your ticket and display it on your dashboard. (It is always fun to get a parking ticket added to your rental car fee :( ) Frei which also means free but as in open spaces. (It always takes me a minute to remember that one)

• It is illegal to run out of gas on the Autobahn (this didn't happen to us, but it has been repeated to us over and over again)

• Some of the Autobahns do have speed limits. When one is there, make sure you are not driving above it. As Germany has cameras and will send the rental car company the speeding ticket which they send to you. (we did not have this happen, but a friend of ours did)

• Have your rental car company put the GPS into english. I would recommend a GPS it is worth it.

• Oh I do remember that our tiny bit of driving in France, it had some tolls. It is always a good rule of thumb to have some cash on you.

• It is more expensive to pick up a car in one country and drop it off in another. So keep that in mind

• The German word for drive is fahren. I still giggle like a 12 year old when I see Gute Fahrt (have a good drive/trip).

Posted by
2916 posts

Some additional items:
If you're not from the EU, you should get an International Drivers Permit.
The fee for dropping off a car in a different country than you picked it up is substantial.
France has gotten very strict in speed enforcement, and has thousands of speed cameras throughout the country.

Posted by
8889 posts

Where are you ending up? If you have rented your car in France, you need to return it in France or face heavy surcharges.

Learn road signs for all countries you are visiting. Start here:
Learn the traffic laws in each country. Start here:
This is the website of the British AA, so it is for British drivers and highlights the differences to British law. Things which are the same are not mentioned, like overtaking on the "wrong" side is illegal.

  • French autoroutes have tolls, except near big cities. Pick up a card when you join the autoroute and hand in the card and pay (per Km) when you exit.
  • German Autobahns do not have tolls.
  • Swiss Autobahn/autoroute have a toll, but not per Km. You pay a flat fee of CHF 40 per year. You get a sticker ("Vignette") which you attach to your windscreen to prove you have paid. You can buy this at all manned border posts, and some fuel stations before and after the border. If you cross the border on a Autobahn/autoroute, you must have a Vignette before your wheels touch Swiss tarmac.

As Susan said: "The German word for drive is fahren". In a car park, you may see signs to "Ausfahrt" and "Ausgang", in opposite directions. If you look these up in a dictionary, they both translate as "Exit". But "Ausfahrt" is the exit for vehicles, and "Ausgang" is the exit for people.

Posted by
2 posts

Thank you all for your helpful input. We are renting a car in Paris, my thought is from CDG airport so I am not driving in the my thinking correct? We will travel all the way to Fussen Germany and then back through Switzerland. Any other hints and tips are much appreciated. I have driven in Ireland and that is the extent of my International driving.

Posted by
8889 posts

so I am not driving in the my thinking correct?

Yes, cities weren't designed for motorised traffic, and after a bit of aberrant thinking in the 1960's and 1970's most European cities decided they liked their cities that way, and it was better to keep traffic out than it was to re-build the cities. Do not drive in Paris or any other big city. Even small towns usually have pedestrianised centres.

We will travel all the way to Fussen Germany and then back through Switzerland.

If you drive from Füssen to Switzerland, you are probably going round the east end of Bodensee (a lake), via Lindau (worth a stop) and Bregenz. Click here to show route on the viamichelin website. Bregenz (and the east end of the lake) is in Austria. As well as adding another country, you will need to buy an Austria Vignette at the border in order to drive on Austrian Autobahns. And a Swiss one at the Swiss border.

Posted by
31536 posts

If you hire a car in France it will come with a sticker on the windscreen showing that it is permitted in French low-emission areas in many French cities.

It will not have a German Umweltplakette sticker (yes redundant) which permits entering similar low-emission areas in most German cities and some towns. So not only have you decided not to drive in cities you won't be allowed to in Germany. You need to learn the signage because it can sometimes be a little subtle and fines can be very high - in addition to paying the rental place a significant fee to give your details in response to a police request.

It is not very difficult for a foreign car to obtain one but it time consuming and has a not insignificant monetary cost as well as the time and effort, and inspection stations are not everywhere. My car has one because I take regular trips to Europe and often drive into German cities.

I get that you crave the "freedom" of a car. Just be aware that often costs are much higher than you may expect.

Drinking and driving is very much forbidden, breath alcohol readings for impaired driving are much lower than in North America and if you are caught the price paid can be very high. You will often find that fines are based on your earning potential rather than a fixed price.

Become aware of the German word STAU. You can search this website archives for it.

It is a good idea to have an IDP in Germany and Switzerland although not required by law. France requires an IDP for every driver. Some people will say that any translation into French of your home license is sufficient but that is not what the law says.

Posted by
5697 posts

How long will you be driving ?? You plan to cover a lot of ground on unfamiliar roads. Heed the warning to carry cash for French toll roads -- the toll booths are run by different companies which may NOT accept your credit cards. (Carry small denomination bills, too, since a €50 euro bill can leave you with quite a pile of €2 and €2 coins as change!)

Posted by
16893 posts

See more driving tips at, including the article on leasing a car, if you'll keep it for 3 weeks or more. Try to focus your planning around smaller-town and rural destinations where the car can really be a benefit, rather that cities that are easily served by train on another trip (and more hassle to navigate on this trip).

Posted by
703 posts

we have dropped a car at CDG twice now and with a GPS you will find the roads around the airport probably the most complex that you will encounter ( like any major airport) but once you are a few miles from there you should have no problem. you are very quickly in the fields.
as others have mentioned keep plenty of euro coins in the car for tolls ( in france mainly) and look for the toll lane that accepts notes/coins.
a cheap michellin map ( with names in french etc) can be a good thing to have with the GPS as it allows you to input the name of closer destinations , so it forces the GPS to take a particular route. then just select another town etc etc.
we have driven many thousands of kms in europe and we find the freeways can be narrower ( the guard rails are closer) and just keep in the right lane unless you are in the process of over-taking. also there are lots of trucks. so the minor roads can be an option.
the real trap can be speed limits in towns. in france the town speed limit is not posted, the town sign is the speed sign, both entering and leaving the town.
we find the minor 'issues' of having a car are more than out-weighted by the freedom to see things by car. if you make the right preparations etc.
hope this helps.

Posted by
1026 posts

•The left hand lane is the passing lane make sure once you have passed
to move back over

• Use your turn signal

Of course, this applies to U.S. driving as well. Unfortunately, most people ignore these points here.

Posted by
2916 posts

Of course, this applies to U.S. driving as well. Unfortunately, most people ignore these points here.

I think that many Americans must not realize that cars come with turn signals.

Posted by
6825 posts

almetzger4, we did exclusively train travel for our first five or ten trips to Europe. I think you will find the long highway stretches boring and tedious. Each "interesting stop" is likely to be 20 minutes or more off the highway, with a struggle in surface traffic to get to a paid (if well-signed) underground or indoor parking garage with market-priced, tiny parking stalls and much more narrow driving lanes than in American garages. Many first-time posters on this board don't reckon properly with the size of European countries. If you check on Google Maps, you'll find (after adding 15% for real-world conditions, but not for rush-hour city vicinity traffic!) that it takes eight to ten hours to drive from Bremerhaven, Germany to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. That's a big country.

Because you didn't give a list of destinations, it's hard to know whether a car is absolutely essential for your plans. Your online profile doesn't say where you're from. I grew up in NYC, and neither of my parents owned a car at any time in their lives.

I suggest that you develop a tentative itinerary, based on your investigation of areas that interest you, and post it. After your first refining of the itinerary, then you may be able to get a clear idea of whether you need a car for the trip.

Posted by
437 posts

One point regarding drop off fees - hundreds of euro for returning in a different country - the Geneva airport has a “French side” where you can return your car and avoid the fee if you pick up anywhere in France.

I think most of the Aires on the French highways are wonderful, with fresh espresso and croissants, not at all like American highway rest stops. If you enjoy road trips in the US, you probably will enjoy driving in Europe even more. I remain amazed at the empty space in Europe which I had envisioned as far more congested.

Enjoy the planning and the trip!