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Rush hour is relatively mild in Berlin, if you avoid the city's autobahn system, but the public transit system is so efficient here that it's best to leave your car at the hotel altogether (or refrain from renting one in the first place). All cars entering downtown Berlin inside the S-bahn ring need to have an environmental certificate. All major rental cars will have these—if in doubt, ask the rental-car agent, as without one you can be fined €40. Daily parking fees at hotels can run up to €18 per day. Vending machines in the city center dispense timed tickets to display on your dashboard. Thirty minutes will usually cost €0.50–-more in the main tourist areas.

That said, if you're going to drive in Germany, formalities for motorists are few: all you need is proof of insurance; an international car-registration document; and a U.S., Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand driver's license. If you or your car is from an EU country, Norway, or Switzerland, all you need is your domestic license and proof of insurance. All foreign cars must have a country sticker. There are almost no toll roads in Germany, other than a few Alpine mountain passes.

Car Rental

It's easy to rent a car in Germany, but not always cheap. You'll need an International Driving Permit (IDP); it's available from the American Automobile Association and the National Automobile Club. These international permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you problems with the local authorities. In Germany you usually must be 21 to rent a car. Nearly all agencies allow you to drive into Germany's neighboring countries (luxury cars, however, usually cannot be booked for rides in many Eastern European countries). It's frequently possible to return the car in another West European country, but not in Poland or the Czech Republic, for example.

Rates with the major car-rental companies begin at about €55 per day and €300 per week for an economy car with a manual transmission and unlimited mileage. It is invariably cheaper to rent a car in advance from home than to do it on the fly in Germany. Many rentals are manual, so if you want an automatic, be sure to request one in advance. If you're traveling with children, don't forget to ask for a car seat when you reserve. Note that in some major cities, even automobile-producing Stuttgart, rental firms are prohibited from placing signs at major pickup and drop-off locations, such as the main train station. If dropping a car off in an unfamiliar city, you might have to guess your way to the station's underground parking garage; once there, look for a generic sign such as Mietwagen (rental cars). The German railway system, Deutsche Bahn, offers discounts on rental cars.

Depending on what you want to see, you may or may not need a car for all or part of your stay. Most parts of Germany are connected by reliable rail service, so it might be a better idea to take a train to the region you plan to visit and rent a car only for side trips to out-of-the-way destinations.

Gasoline

Gasoline costs are around €1.60 per liter—which is higher than in the United States. Some cars use diesel fuel, which is about €0.15 cheaper, so find out which fuel the car takes. Pumps marked "E10" offer a bio gasoline, which is €0.15 cheaper than regular, unleaded gas. Your car manual will say if your car takes it. German filling stations are competitive, and bargains are often available if you shop around, but not at autobahn filling stations. Self-service, or SB-Tanken, stations are cheapest.

Road Conditions

Roads are generally excellent. Bundesstrassen are two-lane state highways, abbreviated "B," as in B-38. Autobahns are high-speed thruways abbreviated with "A," as in A-7. If the autobahn should be blocked for any reason, you can take an exit and follow little signs bearing a "U" followed by a number. These are official detours.

Road Maps

The best-known road maps of Germany are put out by the automobile club ADAC, by Shell, and by the Falk Verlag. They're available at gas stations and bookstores.

Roadside Emergencies

The German automobile clubs ADAC and AvD operate tow trucks on all autobahns. "Notruf" signs every 2 km (1 mile) on autobahns (and country roads) indicate emergency telephones. By picking up the phone, you'll be connected to an operator who can determine your exact location and get you the services you need. Help is always free for ADAC members; minor emergency help is usually free for non-members–-the cost of materials is never included.

Emergency Services

Roadside assistance. 01802/222–222.

Rules of the Road

In Germany, road signs give distances in kilometers. Some parts of the autobahns have a speed limit of 130 kph (80 mph) or 110 kph (65 mph) but many sections have no speed limits at all. Signs saying Richtgeschwindigkeit and the speed indicate a recommended speed but not a limit. Slower traffic should always stay in the right lane of the autobahn, but speeds under 80 kph (50 mph) are not permitted. Speed limits on country roads vary from 70 kph to 100 kph (43 mph to 62 mph) and are usually 50 kph (30 mph) through small towns.

Don't enter a street with a signpost bearing a red circle with a white horizontal stripe—it's a one-way street. Blue "Einbahnstrasse" signs indicate you're headed the correct way down a one-way street. The blood-alcohol limit for driving in Germany is very low (.05%), and passengers, but not the driver, are allowed to consume alcoholic beverages in the car. Note that seat belts must be worn at all times by front- and back-seat passengers.

German drivers tend to drive fast and aggressively. Usually, there is no right turn at a red light, but a fixed green arrow next to the light indicates that you may make a right turn, traffic permitting. Though prohibited, tailgating is a national pastime on German roads. Do not react by braking for no reason: this is equally prohibited. You may not use a handheld mobile phone while driving.