Best Driving Tips for the German Autobahn

Driving on the Autobahn – It’s Not All High Speed Thrills

Car geeks and speed freaks aside, Germany’s autobahns are world famous. The first stretch was laid down between Cologne (Köln) and Bonn in the late 1920s, and by 1938 nearly 3000 miles of smooth flowing ribbons of concrete were criss-crossing the country. Today motorists enjoy more than 8,000 miles of, sometimes, unlimited speedway. Of course there are many rules and regulations that govern traffic on these highways; they are not the freewheeling dragster strips that many people imagine.

Driving On The Autobahn? Follow The Rules Of The Road!

For visitors to Germany these rules and regulations can be quite challenging. Naturally, drivers from other European countries have an advantage here as all EU members share a core set of International road signs. The only thing these autobahn road trippers need to know is that when they see the round, grey and white striped end of restrictions sign, they can put the hammer down and crank up the speed while still maintaining safe control of their rocket car.

For non-Europeans, there are a vast number of differences to keep in mind, including those pesky international road signs. Frankly, I prefer them, as they are (usually) very intuitive and helpful. Having said that, I still don’t really understand the exploding car sign. Anybody? Additionally, everything in Germany is metric, everything. So when you see me going 180 on the autobahn that’s really only 112 miles per hour. Naturally, there will be many cars shooting by like I’m standing still, but that is the upper limit of our comfort zone and a good cruising speed for my car.

It’s Not Just Common Courtesy, It’s the Law

The number one thing that foreigner’s driving in Germany do that is sure to upset German drivers is staying in the left lanes. It is unlawful to pass on the right (except in congested traffic), so when you are done passing (on the left) move back over to the right. You will encounter occasional oblivious drivers that are cruising along at their own comfortable speed in the middle lane. Don’t be that person, because you will also encounter occasional road rage drivers that have been pushed over the edge because of those same oblivious drivers. Really, I haven’t seen much road rage in Germany, but when I do this is always the cause.

Smile and Say Cheese

German Autobahns aren’t really known for speed traps, but they do exist. There are a few places along different stretches of roadways that have stationary, permanent speed cameras. The use of these cameras seems to be increasing overall, but they are still fairly rare on the autobahn. This is isn’t an excuse to speed in a speed limited zone, of course, but you’ll encounter a few local drivers willing to push the limit (usually speeding up to, but not exceeding, 10 kph over). I’ve been complacently following along with the locals when it seems safe enough; they almost always know about any cameras. Of course, there are mobile cameras that can be placed on the side of the road at any time, so be aware of random cars parked near the exits of rest stops, on top of overpasses, or the top and bottom of long hills.

What will happen if you are caught speeding in Germany? It is rare for the Polizei to pull you over while driving down the highway but they will, especially if you are driving recklessly, or not following the stay to the right rule. Most traffic control is done with cameras and generally results in a speeding ticket with a grainy, unflattering yet unmistakable photograph of your surprised face. You pay it at a post office or through your bank if you have international pay capabilities. Sometimes the polizei will take your picture in one location, transmit it directly to a comrade further down the road where they will wave you over with their red and white lollipop. You’ll get a ticket that still needs to be paid at the post office or through your bank. If you are pulled over, just be polite and cooperative. Your valid driver’s license will suffice along with your passport.

Top Ten Tips for Driving Germany’s Autobahns

  1. Stay on the right except when passing or in heavy congestion.
  2. Pay attention to the signs, it’s as easy to miss a reduced speed limit sign as it is to miss an end of speed limit sign.
  3. To minimize time away from the autobahn stop for bathroom, gas, and snack breaks in an easy in/out raststätte instead of an autohof. Autohofs usually have more food choices but are further off the autobahn.
  4. Sundays are the best days for driving on the Autobahn since most trucks aren’t allowed on the road.
  5. Fridays are the heaviest traffic days especially before holidays, try to avoid driving around metropolitan areas between typical rush hours (07:00-10:00 and 15:00-18:00).
  6. Drive like a local as much as possible. This doesn’t just mean to drive fast and very close to the car in front of you. It means to pay close attention to the road and other vehicles, this is what the locals are doing.
  7. Don’t allow distractions like texts, phone calls, fiddling with gadgets (GPS, DVD, radio, etc) while driving at speed; half a second covers way more ground at 200 KPH than at 100 KPH .
  8. Don’t stay in any left lane any longer than you need to pass slower traffic.
  9. If someone flashes their high beams at you from behind, don’t get upset, just finish passing and move over to the right when done and clear the lane for them.
  10. Keep plenty of euro change, bathroom visits will cost 70 cents, but they are clean and you get a 50 cent coupon to use in the shop. You can use the same coupon in most shops at any autobahn paid bathroom stop.

What’s your top speed on the German Autobahn? Do you have a favorite road? Are you a Speed Freak or a Slow Moe?

 

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30 Comments

  1. These are all really great tips. I feel like I would get really overwhelmed but knowing this information before hand really helps. People just need to be smart, vigilant, and do their research! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Thanks Carmen. It really isn’t as bad as most people think. In fact, it’s much safer and easier than most highways in the world.

  2. These are great tips for driving Germany’s Autobahns. I think it would be great fun to drive on a Sunday as suggested by you when the traffic is low and also staying away from the gadgets while driving is always important as that is the foremost precaution one should take while driving – not to get distracted.

  3. I like the idea of following the rules and staying to the right. While I was in UAE, I was warned about staying to the right. Hubby drove us between Dubai and Abu Dhabi and saw some real rockets flash by. The Emirates had just raised the speed limit but it seemed more of a suggestion than a law 🙂

  4. I’m not sure I would feel comfortable driving on any highway that you can say you were “only going 112 mph.” Haha

  5. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to drive on the Autobahn, but there are some pretty good tips in here I’ll make sure to use if I ever find the courage! 😉

  6. Voted! My husband is happy driving anywhere but I am no way an autobahn driving. Great tips!

  7. “Only 112 mph” – that’s great. After living in Penang where the fastest I’d drive was 40mph, it was a big change for me to move back to Texas. One of the tollways near me is the fastest speed limit in the USA at 85 mph. I rarely find myself hitting it. I can’t imagine screaming down the Autobahn. Thanks for all the tips, though, as I really had no idea. (BTW, there’s a message that the InLinkz account has expired, so I am unable to share my post via it this week.)

    1. For some reason, 85 mph on a US highway is scarier than 100 mph on the autobahn. I’m sure there are many factors at play. I do kno that when I drive my US spec Jeep Patriot I won’t go over 90 mph and that is pushing it to the limit. But our German spec VW Touran has much more to give at a very smooth 112.
      Thanks for letting us know about the linkup, Michele. The problem has been fixed.

  8. We rode along the Romantic Road and it was hard to keep up with all the cars! German Autobahns are an experience in themselves. The best part is that they’re so scenic too!

  9. My boyfriend drove us to Germany from the UK last September (we did it all in a weekend for a big conference) he absolutely loves driving on the autobahn but it made me fall asleep, especially at night! I much prefer smaller country roads and taking things slower.

    1. There’s definitely something to be said for back roads. But for long distances I’ll take the autobahn. Corinne always falls asleep, too!

  10. These are great tips. I found driving and navigating in Germany far easier than in Italy. A later generation GPS probably helped. But indeed we found the highway signs easier to follow, towns easier to navigate, and parking was easier and cheaper.

    1. I agree on all of those points Eileen! Italy is a fun challenge though as the drivers tend to be much more aggressive. For GPS we pretty much stick to paper maps and google maps.

  11. Great tips! Thanks for sharing. Never seen anyone else write about them- well done. Would love to have an opportunity to drive on the Autobahn. I’ve owned 3 Volvo vehicles but never did the free trip to drive my car from their plant.

  12. I fear I have control issues as I like the idea of driving the autobahn myself but not so much as a passenger as my husband drives! 🙂

  13. I love the autobahnen! They do their best to stay straight and level. You might find yourself way, way up in the air over a valley because it’s more efficient to build a bridge from one side to the other than drop down and up again via a series of curves.

    Good tips. Here’s one more: when braking suddenly, activate your hazard flashers. That’s an additional warning for any drivers coming up behind you quickly. It means that you are dumping speed rapidly, rather than just slowing down a bit. I drive a German car and it helpfully activates the flashers when I stand on the brake in a firmer fashion than normal.

    I heard the tale of a German picking up an Australian after a long flight. He drove him home along the autobahn, and the Aussie fell asleep along the way. Of course the German driver was on the left and the Aussie passenger on the right. But Australians, like the British and several others, drive on the left side of the road, so when the Australian woke up suddenly, there he was, speeding down the road at 200 km/h – on what was normally the driver’s side of the car with no steering wheel in front!

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