Driving in Austria: Tips for Road-tripping Travelers

Driving in Europe can be intimidating. The autobahns (motorways) resemble a grand prix, where locals are known to drive at ridiculously high speeds.

Evening traffic in Salzburg with view of Hohensalzburg Fortress in background Photo © Getty Images/aimintang

The roads signs are not often in English, so you can easily miss exits, take the wrong one and just become hopelessly lost. 

However, driving can be the best way to see parts of the country that are inaccessible by public transport and off the well-worn track. In small towns, you can have an authentic cultural experience with locals without paying through the nose to do so or waiting in a two-hour queue.

While Austria is a highly developed and stable country with an excellent network of roads, there are some local idiosyncrasies to be mindful of when driving through it.

A Vignette on the "Vignette"

These are a pre-paid toll sticker that is placed on the windscreen of the car. All of the freeways (autobahn), federal highways (Bundesstraße) and expressways (Schnellstraßen) in Austria are cashless and the stickers, called "Vignette" are required by all drivers in order to use the motorways.

They don't cost much - just under nine Euros for 10 days – but the advice of travelers is this "don't go to Austria without one", and that includes driving through borders into the country.

The local police conduct regular checks on all vehicles and issue very expensive on-the-spot fines for motorists not displaying a Vignette. Police officers speak fluent English so there are no "lost in translation" moments when they are issuing the hefty fine, and you're handing over the wads of Euros you were preparing to spend on other things, like Austrian beer and the Sound of Music tour!

Don't try and dodge it. For peace of mind, purchase a Vignette at any petrol station, tobacconist (Tabak), automobile association, post office and border crossings.

For further information go to http://www.asfinag.at/en

Heavy Toll

If your vehicle is bigger than 3.5 tonne (like a motorhome or caravan), you will need another toll device if you plan to use the motorways and expressways. It's called a 'GO-Box' and is also attached to the windscreen of your vehicle. With a five Euro registration cost, and either post pay or pre-pay options, it's money well spent.

For further information go to http://www.go-maut.at.

Caution Required

Being in the middle of Western Europe, Austria has mild summers and bone-rattling cold winters. But it's the snow-capped Alps that make for such stunning landscapes and fantastic skiing.

During the winter the roads in alpine areas can become dangerous due to snow, ice, and avalanches. Some mountain roads may be closed for extended periods. Between November 1 and April 15, it is mandatory to use winter tires. All-season tires comply if they carry the M S mark and have at least 4mm of tread. In addition, snow chains may be made compulsory by local police during or after heavy snowfall.

Like other road laws in Austria, non-compliance results in a hefty fine and in this case suspension of the vehicle. And you may find your insurance is null and void if the car you are driving is involved in an accident during this season without winter tires.

Constant Road Works

Austria's roads and freeways are second to none (except maybe neighbors Germany!) and are often being maintained and extended. As a result, there can be autobahn construction zones, particularly on the A-1 East/West Autobahn. Reduced lanes and two-way traffic in these zones have resulted in many fatal accidents in recent years.

In 2013 the European Union recorded an average road fatality rate of 52 per million inhabitants in the EU. Austria falls just above the average with 54 road-related deaths per million inhabitants - almost double the amount of the UK or Sweden, who are the leaders in road safety.

For information on road conditions, tune into English radio channel fm4, between 91 and 105 FM, depending on the location you are in.

What is also a noticeable difference between German and Austrian roads is the signage. While the German signs guide drivers every step of the way, sometimes with English translations, Austrian signs can leave a visitor confused and bewildered. Get a map or follow a local.

Rules, Licenses, and Insurance

To drive in Austria you will need an international driver's license. If you are in the country for more than six months you will need to get an Austrian license.

Like most western countries, drink driving is illegal and the punishment is significant. The minimum fine is approximately 360 Euros, and the loss of a driver's license. The maximum limit of blood-alcohol level is 0.05.

When obtaining a rental vehicle, read the fine print of the contract about where you can take the car. Many rental companies prohibit drivers from taking rental cars into Eastern European countries. If you do, and get caught, the ramifications are extreme. You can be arrested, fined and/or charged with attempted vehicle theft. At the least, the Austrian police are authorized to hold the vehicle for the rental company, leaving you car-less.

Fake Police

Austrian authorities warn tourist drivers traveling on the autobahn in Lower Austria about bogus police in "plainclothes" wearing a baseball cap marked Polizei. They drive unmarked cars with a flashing electronic sign in the back window that says "Stopp", "Polizei" and "Folgen" (follow). All highway/traffic police in Austria wear a uniform, and plain-clothes officers identify themselves without being asked. If you are pulled over and not sure, call the emergency number 133.

Park & Tow

Be careful where you park, particularly in the major cities of Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg. The signage can be unclear and even if you think you are parking legitimately, where other cars are parked, it could be a bus lane or restricted area. And the result when you come back after four hours wandering the city... a fine and a towed car!

Get a travel insurance quote for Austria

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4 Comments

  • Angela said

    Do you know if it is possible to travel by car from Germany into Austria then Slovenia without going through long tunnels please. I don't want to go through the karawanken tunnel or any other long tunnels.

  • Nick Hunter said

    Great Job! Your blog is so informative for me.You share some beneficial tips I really like it.It also provides the personal satisfaction of undergoing and completing a creative project. Keep it up Admin.

  • Fred said

    Purleeeeese!

    The motorways are not racetracks and the locals are not airborne! What a ridiculous way to scare away visitors.

    And outside of England, ALL of the road signs are not in English. Which is just as well as the name of the place you're going is also not in English!! It's a foreign country.

    Some of this is good advice albeit let down by lazy and exaggerated comments.

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