Switzerland is a land of incredible mountains, rolling countryside, and charming towns, making it an ideal place for a road trip. Driving in Switzerland can be incredibly practical for your journey, or a complete headache, which is why it is important to learn the ins and outs of driving in Switzerland before you go! You will find that driving in Switzerland can be an incredible experience as you marvel about the engineering of the mountain passes and complex tunnels and bridges dotting the landscape.
As Bettina grew up in Switzerland and learned to drive there, she knows the ins and outs of driving in Switzerland as good as any Swiss, and Kyle brings a North American point of view, for what is different, strange, and just like everywhere else.
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Know Before You Go
To start with the basics, the Swiss drive on the right and on all secondary roads, priority is given to the driver from the right. Switzerland is a country in love with rules and regulations, and driving is no exception. Rules are strict, plentiful, obeyed, and enforced. The road system is very well maintained, and easy to use once you know the rules of the road, however Switzerland is also known for having one of the best public transportation systems.
Switzerland is a great country to explore whether you are looking to spend a day in Zurich or go skiing in the Swiss Alps. It is also a great base to explore many of the other nearby European countries whether you fancy some time in Italy, France, Germany, or Austria!
Is it Better to Drive or Take the Train in Switzerland?
First and foremost, before learning about driving in Switzerland, you have to ask yourself whether it is better to take public transportation. You can reach almost every corner of Switzerland by public transportation, a truly remarkable feature given the landscape, so a car may not be necessary for your trip. In many cases, especially when traversing the Alps or during rush hour, the train can be much faster.
The most common reasons for not taking public transportation are timing and cost. Public transportation in more remote regions may not be as frequent as you would like, causing a lot of waiting and sitting around time. The cost of public transportation, especially as your travel group increases in number of people, can be astonishingly expensive.
For example, a journey from Zurich Airport to the capital of Bern, a direct train journey of just over one hour, will set you back 56 CHF ($61 USD). For two people travelling together, that is over $120 USD just to get from the airport to your hotel. You can reduce the price with a half-fare card or other travel passes, but you will still be paying a decent amount for your travels. You can check the price of your expected itinerary online on the SBB website.
For anyone travelling with one or more travel companions, we generally recommend driving in Switzerland over taking the train, unless your trip consists of mostly only large cities. Cities and popular tourist areas are all well-served by public transportation and parking in cities is also expensive, which can make taking the train the better option.
That being said, there are certain mountain towns, Zermatt for instance, which are only reachable by train as the entire area is completely car free. As such, you will need to access these mountain top towns by cable car or train regardless of whether you plan to drive around the rest of Switzerland.
Top Ten Tips for the Best Driving in Switzerland Experience
In our order of importance, these are the top ten tips so that you can have the best driving in Switzerland experience on your trip!
Before we begin, some general rules are:
- Minimum driving age in Switzerland is 18.
- Seat belts are mandatory at all times.
- Car lights have to be on, even during the day time (make sure to turn them off when parking the car as to not drain the car battery.)
- Every vehicle must have a high-visibility vest in the glove compartment which needs to be worn in case of an accident or breakdown.
- Every vehicle must have a warning triangle in case of an accident or breakdown. The warning triangle needs to be easily accessible at all times.
- It is against the law to use cell phones while driving. If you need to make a call, you should pull over or use a hands-free system.
- All distances are measured in kilometers, and speed in kilometers per hour.
- Children under the age of 12 must be in a child seat.
If you need road-side assistance during your time in Switzerland, here are the most important emergency numbers:
- Emergency Road Service: 140
- Fire department: 118
- Police: 117
- Ambulance: 144
- Mountain Rescue (Rega): 1414
Do Not Speed or Be Prepared to Pay
Nobody likes a speeding ticket, especially when on vacation. As mentioned above, the Swiss love rules, and speeding while driving in Switzerland is taken very seriously and is strictly enforced. The general speed limits are 50 km/h in towns, 80 km/h on secondary rural roads, and 120 km/h on the autobahn (freeway). You won’t see many police cars out enforcing the rules, as the rule enforcing is left to the estimated 1,000 speed cameras dotted all across Switzerland.
No matter where you are driving in Switzerland, at some point you are guaranteed to come across a speed camera. Although, you may not even notice it as they can sometimes be hidden behind buildings or bridges, or even hidden in a parked car. The bottom-line is don’t speed, and you’ll be fine!
If you are coming up to a traffic light and it turns red, be sure to stop and not speed through. Not only are there prevalent red-light cameras, but they also double as speed cameras. So, if you get caught you could be fined for running the red light and speeding all at once. Also, right-hand turns are not allowed at red lights, and you can be sure that the camera will catch you if you do so.
Consistent with the theme of everything being expensive in Switzerland, traffic violations are no exception. Every few years a story makes the news of an incredibly high speeding fine into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The current record is 1.08 million CHF ($1.2 million USD). That is one way to ruin your vacation.
Understand the Unique Rules of the Road
Driving in Switzerland is similar to driving in many other European countries or North America with respect to the general rules of the road. However, there are a few uniquely Swiss, or uncommon, rules that you might not be aware of.
Responsibility as a Passenger
You can lose your driving license and be fined as a passenger in car of a drunk driver, as you might be considered just as irresponsible for letting them drive.
Mountain Road Driving – Who Has the Right of Way?
On narrow mountain and country roads where there is only enough width for one vehicle, the uphill driver has priority (such that it is expected that the downhill driver backs up until there is sufficient room for passing), unless the uphill driver is nearer to a pull-out (then they are expected to move over). Basically the car closer to a pull-out will have to back up, and if there is no pull out, the uphill driver has the right of way. It seems more complicated than it is.
Who Has the Right of Way Any Other Time?
When approaching intersections that do not have a roundabout, stop sign, or stop light, you must be extra careful to identify who has the right of way. A common method the Swiss use is to paint lines on the road, which can sometimes be hard to see. Driving through the countryside, the ‘main’ road may not in fact have right of way when intersecting with a smaller side road.
Generally, it is always the person on the right that has right of way, unless they have a triangle shaped pattern in their lane, which means they need to give way the right of way to the other road. It’s fairly complicated and can take some time to get used to if it is not common where you are from.
The Three-Tone Horn of the Swiss PostBus
Take extra care if you hear the famous three-tone horn of the Swiss PostBus. This horn is used on narrow routes in the mountains where the bus may need to use both lanes around corners. They sound the unique horn to let the other drivers known that the Swiss PostBus is coming. Of course, the Swiss PostBus has right of way!
You will be able to identify mountain roads which are used by Swiss PostBuses by the following sign. Other than leaving them the right of way and listening for their horn, there is not much you need to consider.
Know Major Cities and Signs in German, French, and Italian
You need to know three different languages (kind of). When driving in Switzerland, you will eventually pass through the German-speaking region, to the French-speaking region, or Italian-speaking region. As you pass through, all the road signs will switch to the new language. Once you have mastered the ‘Sortie’ of the French-speaking region, you will be left giggling as those signs transition to ‘Ausfahrt’ in the German-speaking region. It’s an added layer of complexity, but there are only so many signs, so once you know them you’re good.
Use GPS AND Read the Road Signs
The road system is well-signed in Switzerland, but it is not always easy to follow, especially as a foreigner unfamiliar with where you are going. Speed limits change frequently, and lanes can abruptly end, or go off in another direction. While you can almost guarantee that everything will be appropriately signed, it may not always be signed well enough in advance for a foreigner to read the sign, understand what they need, and make their driving decision. This happens even more frequently in and around Zurich and in constructions zones.
We recommend using a GPS to get a good sense of when your turnoff might be coming up, but then ultimately basing your decisions off the signs you see on the road. Google Maps proved an extremely helpful tool while we were driving in Switzerland, but ultimately should not be trusted! The shortest route is often not the fastest (especially when in the mountains), and the poor English-speaking Google Maps voice is no match for the complex German street names!
Avoid Rush Hour
For a relatively small country, Switzerland has a lot of traffic. This partly has to do with the continued increase in the Swiss population over the past decade and road development not keeping up, but also that Switzerland is a popular destination for many people from all over Europe. Even if Switzerland is not their main destination, being positioned in the middle between France, Germany, Austria, and Italy, there is a lot of ‘through’ traffic, clogging the main highways.
Driving in Switzerland can be significantly slowed down during the typical morning and evening rush hour as everyone drives to and from work, but also during each weekend heading South into Italy over the mountain passes and through the tunnels. If one of these major routes has an accident, expect to add multiple hours to your journey.
Generally the busiest highways are the highway from Bern to Zurich in both directions, the highway from Solothurn to Basel, and the Gotthard Tunnel, which is the main route south into Italy for most of Switzerland. If you are planning to drive any of these routes, make sure you check the traffic conditions on Google Maps beforehand.
Parking in Switzerland
If you are driving in Switzerland, you will invariably have to park your car at some point. Parking can be quite difficult to find in small medieval towns and most town centers are pedestrian zones which means you are better off parking your car in a nearby parkade. Generally any train station will always have paid underground parking and since each city has clear signs leading to the train station, this might be the easiest way for you to find parking.
Every city usually has multiple underground parking options which are signed with a blue P.
Parking is primarily paid in all cities, as well as many other areas which you think should be free. Parking in small villages, remote parking lots for hiking, and shopping centers are more often than not, paid. Parking is also generally fairly expensive, compared to what you might be used to.
Many of the parking machines do not accept credit cards, or sometimes even Swiss bank notes. Be sure to carry along lots of Swiss coins to pay for parking. Some parking meters now allow payment with the Swiss Parkingpay app which functions similar to any other parking app.
That being said, there is free parking available for shorter stays. It is important to learn about the Blue Zones to save some money. Blue Zones are indicated for parking with blue painted lines on the ground and usually an accompanying sign which explains the time limit and hours of the Blue Zone parking. In these areas you can park for free based and parking is allowed for 1 hour unless otherwise noted.
Each rental car from Switzerland should have a blue disk included in the car, and when you park your car you set the ‘clock’ on the blue disk for the time you arrived and place it on the dash. If you do not have a blue disk, they are generally available at tourist offices, newsstands, and gas stations.
Familiarize Yourself With Swiss Road Signs
Like in every country, familiarizing yourself with the road signs is very important to make sure you don’t get lost and know when your lane on the highway is going to end.
The road signs in Switzerland are very similar to other European countries but might be confusing if you are visiting from other parts of the world. These are the most common signs which are worth learning.
Standard highway sign to signal the beginning of the highway, or autobahn. You can usually find this sign on the highway ramp or if a road turns into a highway. Unlike certain sections of the German autobahn which have no speed limit, rest assured that the autobahn in Switzerland is limited everywhere and speeding is enforced!
Equally important are highway exit signs. These signs look the same but are different in the various regions of Switzerland, depending on the spoken language. From left to right are the exit signs in German, French, and Italian: Ausfahrt, Sortie, and Uscita.
Speed Limit Signs
These three signs are all speed limit signs. The first sign signals the speed limit and you can find it at every town entrance as well as throughout town or on highways. General speed limit in towns is 50 km/h, 80 km/h on secondary rural roads, and 120 km/h on the Autobahn (highway).
The Swiss have an interesting system of lifting speed limits. Instead of showing the speed limit, the oftentimes signal that the previous speed limit has been lifted. The sign in the middle means that the previous speed limit of 60 km/h is now lifted and the general speed limit for your type of road is applicable. This can be quite confusing as the speed limit is different depending on what type of road you are on. If you are on a secondary rural road and come across this sign, you are no longer restricted to drive 60 km/h and can now drive 80 km/h.
The sign on the right can only be found on the highway and it means that all speed limits are lifted and you can drive 120 km/h, which is the maximum speed anywhere in Switzerland.
Vehicle Driving Permissions
There are a variety of signs signaling if vehicles are permitted to drive on a certain street. The first sign on the left prohibits all vehicle traffic from using the street. You can often find this sign at the beginning of pedestrian zones in Swiss old towns, and it is an easy one to miss if you are not familiar with it as it does not clearly indicate what it is instructing you to do, if you don’t already know what the sign means.
The sign in the center indicates that cars are not allowed to drive here. The sign on the right indicates that no cars, motorcycles or mopeds are allowed to drive here. There are other variations of these signs with pictures of large trucks, horses, pedestrians, and many others.
One Way, Right of Way, and Dead End Signs
The sign on the left symbolizes no entry, meaning it’s a one way street but you are facing the wrong way. The center symbol indicates that oncoming traffic has the right of way, and the sign on the right signals a dead end, or a road with no exit.
Yield Sign and Usage
The yield sign on the left can be found at intersections and symbolizes that you do NOT have the right of way. In other words, oncoming traffic and traffic to the right has the right of way.
The scenario on the right shows a 4-way intersection where the main road runs from the bottom of the image and makes a right curve. As you can see, the streets from the left and from the top have a yield sign, meaning they do not have the right of way. This image also depicts the triangle pattern painted on the road, which was mentioned above when initially discussing right of way.
There are several different parking zones in Switzerland and we will talk about parking in more detail in the parking section below.
These signs are good to keep in mind if you want to make sure to not get a parking ticket. The sign on the left symbolizes paid parking. You will need to find a parking meter and pay prior to leaving the parking lot.
The symbol in the center symbolizes a blue zone where parking is free for 1 hour unless otherwise noted. Make sure you place the blue zone card on your dashboard before leaving the car. We explain how it works exactly in the parking section.
The sign on the right indicates underground parking.
The two images below are a great illustration of Swiss parking rules. The first image means that parking is not permitted between the hours of 8:oo AM and 11:30 AM and between 2:15 PM and 5:30 PM. In the second image, parking is permitted between the hours of 8:00 PM and 6:00 AM.
No Passing Sign and Rules
No passing signs are extremely common around the world and they are no different in Switzerland. You can find these signs on highways in construction zones as well as on secondary rural roads with poor visibility or on mountain roads.
One thing to note is that passing in Switzerland is strictly on the left side. If you come from North America, especially the USA, you might be used to cars passing on both sides on the highway. In Switzerland, passing on the right is not allowed and it is enforced. If the police finds you passing a car on the right on the highway, they will fine you.
This may lead to some frustrating situations on the highway when you are in the passing lane and are stuck behind a slow vehicle. However, the Swiss have generally great lane discipline and will move over as soon as they passed a car.
Saving Money When Driving in Switzerland
Switzerland is an expensive country, and there is no real way of getting around that. However, there are a number of ways to save money easily when driving in Switzerland. If driving in Switzerland, your car rental will be your number one expense for transportation.
One of the best ways to save handily on a car rental is to actually rent your car from nearby Germany, where the cost of the rental can be substantially less. If you do bring a car into Switzerland from outside the country, know that it is mandatory that the car has a vignette (sticker) to drive on the Autobahn, which can be purchased at gas stations and are good for the calendar year.
Gasoline is comparable in price in Switzerland to neighboring countries, and can even be cheaper, whereas diesel is almost always cheaper in neighboring countries. If you are filling up your tank in Switzerland, the gas stations along the autobahn are always at least 5 to 10 cents more expensive per liter compared to other stations away from the highway.
Tip from the local: The gas station chain Coop will sometimes offer rebates in the form of coupons which you can find in their booklets which you can pick up at their store (usually there is a magazine stand right in the entrance). These coupons can get you between 5 to 10 cents off per liter.
Have Some Fun Driving in the Swiss Alps
If you are driving in Switzerland, don’t let all the rules of the road get you down. Switzerland has some of the very best driving roads in the world, with unparalleled views. Roads in Switzerland are well-maintained and driving a curving mountain road is an incredible experience for those not used to it. Just remember to keep your eyes on the road and pull over to snap a photo of the view!
Switzerland has many famous passes such as Furka Pass, Gotthard Pass, Simplon Pass, and many more and on a warm sunny day, you will be in great company driving these mountain passes as the Swiss as well as any of their neighbors will be taking their sports cars out on a drive through the alps.
Furka Pass got it’s claim to fame from a chase scene in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. It is so well known, that the most famous curve of the road is named “James Bond Strasse” in honor of the famous movie scene. Additionally, Furka Pass is famous for a tight hairpin corner which contains the Hotel Belvedere. Amazingly, the hotel was built in 1882 and still looks beautiful today, despite being closed for a number of years. If you are looking to stay somewhere near Furka Pass, the Swiss mountain town of Andermatt is a popular destination with a beautiful Radisson Blu hotel, a perfect base for a weekend exploring the Furka Pass.
Car Trains in Switzerland
Now this is a truly unique Swiss experience, and unlikely something that you have experienced before. Kyle was extremely excited his first time in Switzerland when we drove on the car train for the first time.
When taking a car train, you drive your car onto a train on one side of the mountain, park your car, and sit in your car as the train takes you through a mountain tunnel, before you can drive off the train at the other side. It is a great way to get from one side of the alps to the other without either having to drive all away around the mountains or trying to get over the mountain passes. Especially during winter, taking the car trains can save you a lot of headaches as many mountain pass roads are closed.
There are about six of these car trains in Switzerland, and it can be a really fun and unique experience. The cost to get through a tunnel on a car train is between 25 CHF ($27 USD) and 30 CHF ($43 USD) per car. You can purchase the tickets online on BLS Autoverlad or directly at the car train station. Generally, the cost of the car train is offset by the savings in gas that you would use if you were driving the long way around the Alps.
Driving in Switzerland in Winter
Driving in Switzerland in winter is not much different than any other mountain area. The weather conditions play a huge role in the safety of the driving on the roads, however Swiss roads are well-maintained and plowed often. That being said, the more rural roads you drive, there is a chance you find roads that are unplowed shortly after a snow-storm.
It is not always mandatory for your car to have winter tires, however if you were to get in an accident while driving with summer tires in the winter, it is unlikely your car insurance would cover you. It is preferred to have winter tires, and almost everyone does. It is advisable to seek out tunnels through the mountain passes rather than try to master the twisty roads on the mountain pass during winter.
If you are comfortable driving in winter conditions elsewhere, driving in Switzerland should be no different. Of course, with the Swiss’ love for rules and regulations, having a bit of fun drifting or sliding around corners is highly frowned upon, and you can expect a hefty fine if caught.
Tips for Renting a Car in Switzerland
Renting a car in Switzerland is the same as in any other country. However, there are a few things which are good to know before you rent.
What Vehicle Size Should I Get?
Cars in Europe are generally much smaller than in North America – mostly because the roads are incredibly small and parking spaces are tight. Rent a vehicle that can fit all passengers and luggage that you have for your trip, but if you don’t feel comfortable driving a large SUV in small streets, make sure you get the smallest option that meets your needs.
Should I Rent a Manual Transmission or Automatic Transmission Car?
Renting a manual transmission car is usually cheaper than renting an automatic transmission car. This is generally true for all of Europe. If you have never driven a manual transmission, it is highly advisable to rent an automatic transmission car. Learning how to drive with a manual transmission is not as “easy” as it looks and unless you are very comfortable driving a stick shift, we would not recommend you driving one in a foreign country where you are not familiar with the road signs and where you are going.
Do I Need Winter Tires in Switzerland?
It is advisable to get winter tires for your rental car starting in October of every year. Early snowfalls are not uncommon in Switzerland, especially if you travel to mountain areas. Generally speaking, most rental cars in Switzerland that are rented during the winter months should come with winter tires, however that is something that is good to confirm with your car rental company.
While you might feel comfortable driving with summer tires, your car insurance won’t cover any accident cost if you were driving with summer tires after October.
When Should I Book My Rental Car?
It is best to book your rental car as early as possible as you are able to get early bird discounts with certain rental companies. If you already know your travel dates a few months in advance, book your rental car right away as you can save quite a bit of money.
A great place to book your rental car is Rentalcars.com. They conveniently compare prices of all major rental car companies so that you can easily pick the best option for you.
What Documents Do I Need to Rent a Car in Switzerland?
When picking up your car at the car rental place, you need to present your driver’s license from your home country as well as a credit card. If you driver’s license is not written in a Roman alphabet (English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, etc.) you will need to get an International Driver’s License from your home country.
Generally, you don’t need an International Driver’s License when driving in Switzerland but it is convenient to have one with you regardless as other countries in Europe might require you to do so. Many Americans ask “can I drive in Switzerland with a US license?” and the answer is yes!
Can I Drive Across Borders From Switzerland?
With Switzerland located at the heart of Europe, it is common to drive into the neighboring countries of Germany, France, Italy, Austria, or Liechtenstein when going on an extended holiday to Europe. With a rental car, you should have no problems driving across these borders, or through almost any country in Europe. If you do plan to spend a lot of time driving in countries other than Switzerland, be sure to confirm with your rental car company if that is permitted in your rental agreement.
Things to Check Before you Start Driving
Whenever you rent a car, there are a few things you should check before you start driving. This is no different in Switzerland. Use this check list to remember what to pay close attention to before you leave the car rental place:
- Make sure you inspect the car for damage such as scratches, dents, and chips in the windshield. These should all be marked on your car rental form. If they are not, make sure you ask a rental representative to add them. Further, we always advise to take photos of the outside of the vehicle before driving off, as well as of the gas gauge (with the number of kilometers of the car also in the same picture). That way you have proof of your car’s condition upon pick-up.
- Make sure there is an Autobahn sticker (Vignette) on the windshield of your car rental. Without the sticker, you are not allowed to drive on the Autobahn and will be fined heavily if you get caught.
- If you got a car with GPS, make sure the GPS is in English so that you can use it to navigate. If it is in German (and you don’t speak German), ask the rental representative to change it to English.
- Familiarize yourself with the car and where everything is. Especially if you are renting a manual transmission car, take a close look at the gear shift and the reverse gear.
- Ensure that you have all appropriate insurance documents and know the correct procedures if you have any sort of bump, scratch, or accident with another car. Generally speaking, the Swiss have very strict procedures when any sort of incident occurs, and the police must be called, and all appropriate parties notified.
- If you are renting your car in winter, be sure to check that the rental car does in fact have winter tires.
Are You Ready to Go Driving in Switzerland?
Have you been driving in Switzerland before? Let us know how it went!
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