This month Gemütlichkeit offers advice on renting and driving a car in Europe, wrapping it all up with five of our favorite backroads routes.
In these weak-dollar days, economics dictate, among other things, our mode of travel in Europe. Most of us go there in twos, threes and fours and the cost of two, three or four rail passes is usually more expensive than one rental car. The countryside is cheaper than the city and the way to get deep into it is by car. (Europe's network of trains is indeed remarkable but many villages and country hotels aren't served by rail.)
In 1995, rail passes increased in price while rates for the most popular categories of rental cars at least in Germany and Switzerland dropped. Two weeks in a snazzy little Opel Corsa perfectly comfortable for two persons in Germany is slightly less than $275, including tax. Figure another $160 for enough fuel to go 1400 miles (more than 100 miles a day and you're spending too much time in the car) and the per person/per day transportation cost is a little over $15. The per person/per day cost of a Eurailpass is $33. The Flexipass, at $398 per person, is cheaper overall, but it only allows five days travel in two months time. That's nearly $80 per day. A better deal is the Europass which limits travel to five days in three countries for $280 or $56 per person/per day. Even the second-class German Rail Twinpass (five days travel in one month for two adults traveling together) costs two persons a total of $267. That's still $26.70 per day/per person and travel is limited to Germany.
So, let's say you've done all the math and reluctantly decided against those splendid European trains. Now you want to know what kind of car to rent and what to expect on the highways of Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Here are our thoughts on these matters as well as a look at of some of our favorite backroads drives.
Choosing a Rental Car
For two persons the Opel Corsa (Ford Fiesta and VW Polo are also in this category) is fine, especially for those who plan to avoid the Autobahn. There is adequate trunk space (covered hatch), the car looks good and is fun to drive. Virtually every European rental car these days comes with a tape player in addition to a radio and the Corsa is no exception.
If you plan to spend significant time on the Autobahn, move up to the next category Opel Astra, Ford Escort, VW Golf. These cars are comfortable at 80 to 90 mph and have a larger trunk figure one big suitcase, two small ones and maybe a garment bag and/or a soft duffel or two. They come in both two-door and four-door models, occasionally with a sunroof and are perfectly comfortable for three adults who go easy on the luggage.
For two couples, our choice is the midsize Opel Vectra/Ford Mondeo category, which comes with four doors. Trunk space is a little iffy, however, and we suggest a visit to your local Ford dealer for a gander at the trunk of a 1995 Ford Contours (the U.S. version of the Mondeo).
The next size category Ford Scorpio/Opel Omega (both about the size of a Ford Taurus) is substantially more expensive. To get a bit more legroom and trunk space you'll pay two to three times the cost of the Vectra/Mondeo. And by the way, the pricey BMW 316i or Mercedes 180C cars are no larger than the Vectra/Mondeo category.
Those who must have customary American amenities and size will pay dearly. The typically available full-sized cars such as the Volvo 960, BMW 730 and the big Mercedes Benz models start at around $600 per week plus tax. Air-conditioned cars in Germany are rare and fabulously expensive. Air is more readily available in Switzerland but only on large, more expensive rentals. Some mid-sized cars in France come with air.
Rates for minivans have skyrocketed in 1995 and substantial savings can be realized by renting two midsized sedans.
Finally, we don't recommend renting in Italy or Austria. Rates in both countries are very high and Italy requires the purchase of theft insurance which is about $14 per day.
The European Driver
In general, drivers in Europe are better than American drivers (o.k., o.k., California drivers). They are better trained, much more predictable and, believe it or not, more courteous. Rarely do they cut you off, pass on the right (illegal) or follow too closely in situations where passing is impossible. In addition, a motorist attempting to turn from a side street or driveway into a long, slow line of vehicles almost never has to wait to join the line. In California, that driver is trapped until the last car passes; in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, he or she will be quickly waved into the line.
But what about those Autobahn bullies who tailgate at 100-plus mph? Well, for one thing, Germany has cracked down and the practice has diminished in the last few years. By the way, if you're being tailgated you are going too slow. Move over!
On the other hand the natives want you to drive by their rules. Pass on the right, fail to signal or do something unexpected and they'll let you know with a scowl, a wagging finger or, yes, a flash of the headlights. (Well never forget the story of a friend who had driven all day through rain and snow from Italy to Garmisch-Partenkirchen where it was a clear but very cold day with much snow on the ground. At a stop light he pulled his mud-covered Fiat alongside a spotless, gleaming Mercedes driven by an ample German matron. She first eyeballed the Fiat for a few seconds and then, after making eye contact with my friend, scowled at his dirty car while shaking her head from side to side and wagging an index finger at this abomination.)
Almost without exception, European motorists will drive faster than you; not only on the Autobahn but in towns and on country roads. On narrow alpine roads, especially, the locals know the road better and are simply willing to go faster and pass in places you wouldn't dream of. So when another car looms in your mirror, get out of the way.
Gemütlichkeits philosophy has always been tied to backroads travel; leisurely meanders through the pretty countryside, stopping at whim to look at a church or quaff a beverage under a chestnut tree.
But for most of us, there will come a time in almost every trip when we have to get somewhere fast. Then, it's thank the Lord for the Autobahn. But these wondrous roads, particularly in Germany where there is no speed limit, are serious business. At 80 to 135 miles per hour things happen much more quickly than on our more sedate (but less predictable) freeways and turnpikes.
First-time Autobahn drivers will either enjoy the fast driving or be appalled by it. One quickly learns that only the fastest drivers 180 to 240 kilometers per hour (113 to 138 miles per hour) can live in the left lane. At lower speeds they are repeatedly required to vacate the left lane by faster cars. Some cars will come up on them so quickly they virtually materialize in the rear view mirror, left turn signal blinking and occasionally if the car in front is slow to react headlights flashing. It doesn't take a car going 125 mph long to overtake one going 90 mph.
Left Lane/Right Lane Dilemma
Picture this: you are in the right lane cruising at a sensible (for Germany) 140 kph (88 mph). Suddenly, just as you round a long curve, is a giant truck going 60 mph in your lane. Your rearview mirror reveals a BMW in the left lane closing like a low-flying jet at about 115 mph. The choice is to either stand on the brakes and pray you don't rear-end the truck, or jump on the accelerator, switch to the left lane, and pray the Beamer doesn't rear-end you.
The foregoing scenario underscores a major Autobahn danger; the huge difference in speed between lanes. If there are only two lanes in your direction, the left one will have vehicles traveling 50 to 80 mph faster than the big trucks in the right lane which are only going 60 miles per hour slower on hills. Those who want to drive 75 to 100 mph are caught in a no-mans land, too slow for the left lane and too fast for the right. A high level of concentration is required for this sort of driving, particularly if you venture in that 75-100 mph no-mans land.
Running With a Fast Crowd
If you have a fast car and want to compete with the left lane fliers you'll have to be especially alert. Passing a 75-mph line of traffic when you're going 110 becomes a major problem rather quickly if one of them decides to change lanes in front of you. There might be some bailout room on the left shoulder but that's your only escape. Watch every vehicle in the right lane very carefully for the first sign of a lane change.
Also to Consider
Autobahn signs are a bright blue, except in Switzerland where they are green and the signs for secondary roads are in blue.
Yes, They Have Radar
Though you won't get a ticket on the German Autobahn for speeding (unless there is a posted speed limit) you can for other violations. On lesser highways, particularly in the countryside, there are radar speed traps. Justice is swift; one pays on the spot in cash.
Maps and Other Driving Aids
Don't think that nice map the tourist office sent you for free is in any way suitable to guide you in your backroads travels. Each of our three countries has a complex network of roads and detailed maps are essential. Use the free map as a planning device and for an overall perspective of the country. A scale of 1:200,000 (one centimeter equals two kilometers) or 1:150,000 (1 cm=1.5 km) is best. In Austria and Switzerland, the Die Generalkarte series published by Mairs Verlag of Germany fits the bill nicely. The Austria series consists of nine maps and includes Italy's Südtirol. Four maps are required for Switzerland. In Germany, your choice is Die Generalkarte (37 maps) by Mairs or the 1:150,000 ADAC Karten (24 maps) published by the German Auto Club. Michelin rules the roads in France and their series for that country includes 40 individual maps at a scale of 1:200,000.
These maps do more than help you find your way. Scenic roads are edged in green and symbols or special markings indicate such things as panoramic views, picturesque towns, historic towns, special routes (wine roads, for example), footpaths, churches, castles and even golf courses.
As every Gemütlichkeit reader knows (see Gemütlichkeit, February 1995), we strongly recommend Michelin's Red Guides for Germany and Switzerland (there is no Michelin Red Guide for Austria). They are essential to the auto traveler for many reasons, not the least being their many city maps. For example, you probably don't want to spend $6 to $10 in advance on a map for a midsize city such as Bamberg. Since you'll see the city on foot, and a town plan is available free at the tourist office, the principal need is for something in the car to get you to your hotel when you arrive and get you out of town when you leave. Michelin Red does that for about 150 cities in Germany and about 40 in Switzerland.