Hooray! Husband and I have arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at the start of a new 12 day trip that will take us to several destinations: the Rhine Valley region, a short stop on the Romantic Road, Munich for Oktoberfest, a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria, and the Alsace region of France. We rented a car for the entire trip.
We rented through a US company called Gemut.com, which specializes in European and particularly German vehicle rentals for US citizens. I liked the idea of having a US 1-800 number to call in an emergency, with the promise of an English speaker on the other end of the line. Plus, the price was good – really good. Gamut books German rentals through a consolidator called Auto Europe, for a car rental with Europcar. The price was 10-20% less than booking directly to either of those websites. I also priced out Sixt and Hertz, two other big providers. Gemut was also very responsive when I had questions prior to the trip.
Side Note: I’m a Hertz Gold Club member through ownership of a Marriott Vacation Club property, and their prices are just never, ever competitive. Why is that?
We found the Europcar desk and because we had arrived early, the car I had reserved, a 4 door sedan with automatic transmission in the Premium category (BMW, Mercedes, or Audi) wasn’t available yet. I’m not sure I believe that one would have suddenly become available in the next 45 minutes, but whatever. The major difference in what we got was that it was not a sedan, but a station wagon. Maybe not as “sexy” from an American point of view, but as the Europcar agent noted, Germans looooove their station wagons. This proved true – there aren’t many SUVs on the roads here, but a plethora of high-end wagons. My guess is they are more aerodynamic than a behemoth SUV. Also, the agent waived the usual charge for a second authorized driver – we knew we both wanted to drive here. So, no harm no foul. 5 doors instead of 4. All good. I neglected to take a good photo of our actual car, but here is the general idea (credit bmw.com):
I declined the CDW insurance, after reading and rereading the terms and benefits of my Sapphire card – we were clearly covered as primary insurance, this saved us hundreds of dollars. Always read the fine print though : there are exclusions, such as not having the primary cardholder as the renter, super high-end exotic cars, and tires and windshields. In contrast to experiences I’ve had renting cars in the US, the German Europcar agent did not press us to buy any insurance.
We spent a good 15 minutes in the rental car garage, figuring out the car’s menu, setting up bluetooth, and getting the navigation, etc. to work in English rather than German:
Eventually we got it set up and entered our first destination, tiny Oberwesel on the Rhine River, about an hour from the airport. I don’t like to plan a long drive after a sleep-deprived overnight flight, so I always try to keep the first destination within an hour.
The car ended up having a “pop-up display”, visible to the driver only, displaying the vehucle’s speed, speed limits, and navigational information including directions onto the lower windshield. This ended up being very useful. We drove over 1800 kilometers on this trip – about 800 miles – and experienced road closures, border crossings, lots of construction, small cities with narrow cobblestone streets, and widely varying speed limits.
I was impressed with the car’s technology. In addition to the pop up display, parking sensors, and lane deviation/ correction capability, we were frequently rerouted around traffic, and the car seemed to know where every speed limit change occurred. On the highway, speed limit changes were numerous and frequent, and it wouldn’t have been easy for the driver to notice every sign. This car not only displayed the limit, but on both the dashboard and the pop up window, our speed would display as red if we were over the limit, white if under it.
I was also impressed with German highways – the “Autobahn” in general. Here, an important side note/ question: am I the only American who thought there was ONE Autobahn? If so, feel free to laugh at me. “The German Autobahn” turns out to be any major highway starting with “A”. And many, many miles of these “A” roads indeed have speed limits, especially through construction zones and congested city areas. But – then you see a speed limit with a line through it, usually in a wide open, rural area – and there it is – the limitless Autobahn of lore. *tingle*
We did experience a fair amount of traffic, especially around Munich (Oktoberfest brings in 6,000,000+ visitors so this was hardly surprising) and often there were brief slowdowns caused by construction. It seems as though every 10-20 miles, lanes were closed. Bridges, tunnels, open stretches. Germany is spending heavily on road infrastructure. The result, over our 800-plus-mile journey ? NO potholes. And NO accidents. The highways are correctly graded, with minimal intersections and wide exit and entrance lanes. We dealt with a lot of rain, but no ponding of water on the road. These roads are well maintained.
So, want to hear about our little bit of adventure in the limitless Autobahn?
Both Husband and I kind of like to drive fast. We are from New Jersey, after all. But, we also consider ourselves to be safe drivers, never tailgating , minimizing lane changes, and keeping with the flow of traffic. We’re just unlikely to be driving in the right lane, content behind a tractor trailer.
When we hit the limitless areas, we typically enjoyed driving along with most of the other left lane vehicles at 150-170 kilometers per hour ( in the 80-90 mph range). It was rare, however that we could go much faster than this – due to rain, wet roads, and congestion, we hesitated to really test out the BMW’s potential. But , over the course of the trip, each of us got the golden opportunity we were looking for – a wide, 3 lane road , dry conditions, no cars in front of us, and a straightaway with long forward views. When we got that chance …. yep, we punched the gas pedal.
It should be noted that drivers in Germany are much more vigilant about the ‘keep right, pass left” laws that also exist in the States, but are rarely followed, at least where I live. Trucks are almost never seen out of the right lane. And when in the left lane, if a driver sees a faster approaching car in the review mirror, they move to the right. How refreshing !!
Our top speeds were only maintained for a few seconds each, and then we returned to the safer, slightly slower speeds.
The display in kph added to the rush we experienced – seeing “200” on the gauge. Yikes! Husband won the top speed award, hitting 219 kph (136mph!). We were both more than thrilled by the experience.
One final note for those who might be considering driving in Germany, but traveling across country borders. In either Switzerland or Austria, a vignette (toll sticker) is required, and must be purchased either before entering the country, or immediately thereafter in the case of Austria / at the border in the case of Switzerland.
Vignettes are available at most gas stations and convenience stores near the border. The Austrian sticker cost about $10 for a 10-day pass; the Swiss sticker was only available for the year, and cost about $40. It will be a lucky day for any future drivers who rent the same car and want to drive into Switzerland in 2019, I guess… We were glad we purchased our vignette before crossing the Swiss border, because there was a long line for cars waiting to purchase their stickers.
Our German/Austrian/Swiss/French driving experience was, at times, all of the following: