Carefully weigh the pros and cons of car travel before choosing to rent. If your plans are to see Vienna and one or two other urban destinations, you're better off taking the train, avoiding hassles, and saving money. Bear in mind that in addition to the not inconsiderable cost of renting, you'll have to pay for gasoline (which costs more than twice what it does in the United States) and frequent tolls. In addition, you might find yourself dealing with heavy traffic on the main roads. Added to that is the constant headache of finding a place to park. Central Vienna is completely restricted and the situation is not much better in the smaller cities.
On the other hand, if you have the time and your plan is a more leisurely tour of the country, including back roads and off-the-beaten-track destinations, then car rental is certainly an option. You'll have more freedom—and roads are mostly very well maintained, even in rural districts and mountainous regions. Bear in mind that if you’re traveling in winter, your car should be fitted with winter tires and you should also carry snow chains. Even in summer you can come across sudden winterlike conditions on the high mountain passes.
Vienna is 300 km (187 miles) east of Salzburg and 200 km (125 miles) north of Graz. Main routes leading into the city are the A1 Westautobahn from Germany, Salzburg, and Linz and the A2 Südautobahn from Graz and points south.
Gasoline and diesel are readily available, but on Sunday stations in the more out-of-the-way areas may be closed. Stations carry only unleaded (bleifrei) gas, both regular and premium (super), and diesel. If you're in the mountains in winter with a diesel, and there is a cold snap (with temperatures threatening to drop below -4°F [-20°C]), add a few liters of gasoline to your diesel, about 1:4 parts, to prevent it from freezing. Gasoline prices are the same throughout the country, slightly lower at discount and self-service stations. Expect to pay about €1.38 per liter for regular gasoline and slightly less for diesel. If you are driving to Italy, fill up before crossing the border, because gas in Italy is even more expensive. Oil in Austria is expensive, retailing at €14 or more per liter. If need be, purchase oil, windshield wipers, and other paraphernalia at big hardware stores. The German word for "receipt" is Quittung or Rechnung.
Renting a Car
Rates in Vienna begin at about €80 per day and €100 per weekend for an economy car with manual transmission. This includes a 21% tax on car rentals. Rates are more expensive in winter months, when a surcharge for winter tires may be added. Renting a car is cheaper in Germany, but make sure the rental agency knows you are driving into Austria and ask for the car to be equipped with the Autobahnvignette, an autobahn sticker for Austria. The answer will usually be that you have to buy your own vignette, which you can get from service stations near the border. Get your sticker, also known as a Pickerl, before driving to Austria . When renting an RV be sure to compare prices and reserve early. It's cheaper to arrange your rental car from the United States, but be sure to get a confirmation in writing of your quoted rate. Extremely big savings can often be made by renting from a company that has partnered with your chosen airline—airline websites will have the link—or use Arguscarhire.com, which has connections with a range of car rental companies and often comes up with the best prices.
The age requirement for renting a car in Austria is generally 19 (the minimum age for driving a car in Austria is 18), and you must have had a valid driver's license for one year. There is no extra charge to drive over the border into Italy, Switzerland, or Germany, but there may be some restrictions for taking a rental into Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, or Poland. If you're planning on traveling east, it's best to let the agency know beforehand.
In Austria your own driver's license is acceptable. An International Driver's Permit (IDP; $15), while not strictly necessary, is a good idea; these international permits are universally recognized, and having one in your wallet may save you a problem with the local authorities. Check the AAA website (www.aaa.com) for more info.
Roads in Austria are excellent and well maintained—perhaps a bit too well maintained, judging by the frequently encountered construction zones on the autobahns. Secondary roads may be narrow and winding. Remember that in winter you will need snow tires and sometimes chains, even on well-traveled roads. It's wise to check with the automobile clubs for weather conditions, because mountain roads are often blocked, and ice and fog are hazards.
If you break down along the autobahn, a small arrow on the guardrail will direct you to the nearest emergency (orange-color) phones that exist along all highways. Austria also has two automobile clubs, ÖAMTC and ARBÖ, both of which operate motorist service patrols. Both clubs charge nonmembers for emergency service.
ARBÖ. 01/891–21–0; www.arboe.at.
ÖAMTC. 0810/120–120; www.oeamtc.at.
No area or other code is needed for either number.
Rules of the Road
Tourists from EU countries may bring their own cars into Austria with no documentation other than the normal registration papers and their regular driver's license. A Green Card, the international certificate of insurance, is recommended for EU drivers and compulsory for others. All cars must carry a first-aid kit (including rubber gloves), a red warning triangle, and a yellow neon jacket to use in case of accident or breakdown. These are available at gas stations along the road, or at any automotive supply store or large hardware store.
The minimum driving age in Austria is 18, and children under 12 must ride in the back seat; smaller children require a car seat. Note that all passengers must use seat belts.
Drive on the right side of the road in Austria. Unmarked crossings, particularly in residential areas, are common, so exercise caution at intersections. Trams always have the right of way. No turns are allowed on red.
When it comes to drinking and driving, the maximum blood-alcohol content allowed is 0.5 parts per thousand, which in real terms means very little to drink. Remember when driving in Europe that the police can stop you anywhere at any time for no particular reason.
Unless otherwise marked, the speed limit on autobahns is 130 kph (80 mph), although this is not always strictly enforced. If you're pulled over for speeding, though, fines are payable on the spot, and can be heavy. On other highways and roads the limit is 100 kph (62 mph), 80 kph (49 mph) for RVs or cars pulling a trailer weighing more than 750 kilos (about 1,650 pounds). In built-up areas a 50-kph (31-mph) limit applies and is likely to be taken seriously. In some towns special 30-kph (20-mph) limits apply. More and more towns have radar cameras to catch speeders. Remember that insurance does not necessarily pay if it can be proven you were going above the limit when involved in an accident.
If you're going to travel Austria's highways, make absolutely sure your car is equipped with the Autobahnvignette, a little sticker with a highway icon and the Austrian eagle, or with a calendar marked with an M or a W. This sticker, sometimes also called a Pickerl, allows use of the autobahn. It costs €82.70 (valid for one year) and is available at gas stations, tobacconists, and automobile-club outlets in neighboring countries or near the border. Some rental cars may already have them, but you need to check. You can also purchase a two-month vignette for €24.80, or a 10-day one for €8.50. Prices are for vehicles up to 3.5 tons and RVs. For motorcycles it's €32.90 for one year, €12.40 for two months, and €4.90 for 10 days. If you're caught without a sticker you may be subjected to extremely high fines. Get your Pickerl before driving to Austria from another country. Besides the Pickerl, if you are planning to drive around a lot, budget in a great deal of toll money: for example, the tunnels on the A10 autobahn cost €11, the Grossglockner Pass road will cost about €34 per car (you can buy a ticket for €10 for a second ride over the pass in the same calendar year and in the same car if you show the cashier the original ticket). Driving up some especially beautiful valleys, such as the Kaunertal in Tyrol, or up to the Tauplitzalm in Styria, also costs money—around €23 per car for the Kaunertal.