Austria (German: Österreich, literally "the Eastern Realm" or "Eastern Empire") is a landlocked alpine German speaking country in Central Europe bordering Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the west, Germany and Czech Republic to the north, Slovakia and Hungary to the east and Slovenia and Italy to the south. Austria, along with neighboring Switzerland, is the winter sports capital of Europe. However, it is just as popular for summer tourists who visit its historic cities and villages and hike in the magnificent scenery of the Alps.
Rural or sparsely populated regions in Austria are easier to explore by car as bus services can be infrequent. Many popular spots in the mountains are accessible only by car or on foot/ski. Renting a car for a couple of days is a good way to go off the beaten track. Driving in Austria is normally quite pleasant as the country is small and the roads are in good condition, not congested and offer fantastic scenery. Beware of dangerous drivers, however: Austrians are generally a very law-abiding bunch, but behind a wheel, they seem to make an exception to their considerate attitude. Comprehensive maps of Austria, specific regions within Austria (including city maps), as well as maps from neighbouring countries can be bought at any petrol station. Expect to pay around €7 for one map.
As in many European cities, parking in cities is subject to fee on work days. Usually those parking zones are marked by blue lines on the street. Some cities (such as Vienna) have area-wide zones not denoted by blue lines. Fees vary from town to town as do the fines, which are charged if you have no valid ticket, generally between €20 and €30. Tickets can be usually bought from kiosks, some cities (such as Graz) have ticket machines on the street. A cheap alternative is to park your car a bit outside of the town in parking garages called Park and Ride, which can be found in any bigger city.
Travelling on Austrian motorways (Autobahnen) or Schnellstraßen means you are liable to pay tolls. If your vehicle is under 3500 kg in weight, you have to buy a Vignette toll pass, in advance, which can be purchased at any petrol station or at the border. Vignetten can be bought for 10 days (€ 8.00), 2 months (€ 23.40) or 1 year (€ 77.80; technically valid until January of the following year).
If you intend to transit Austria via the A14 from the German border to the Swiss border at Hohenems/Diepoldsau, you can instead purchase a Korridor-Vignette. This is valid for a single trip along this road and can be purchased for €2.00 (or €4.00 for a round-trip) at the border.
Vehicles heavier than 3500 kg must instead purchase a GO-Box, a transponder which deducts tolls as the vehicles travel along the Autobahn or Schnellstraße. The cost of the GO-Box is €5 and tolls can either be prepaid (€75 initially, followed by increments of €50 to recharge) or paid through an invoice at a later date. Rates vary from €0,16 to €0,33/km based on number of axles, with extra charges paid based on time of day and for certain Autobahnen.
Driving a car on a motorway without a vignette is punished with either payment of a substitute toll of €120 (€65 for motorcycles) (that allows one to travel on the motorways for that day and the day immediately following) or a fine of upwards of €300, and if the fine is not paid on the spot, valuables may be seized from your vehicle and person to ensure that the fine is paid. You must affix the vignette to the front windscreen of your vehicle, preferably in the top centre or on one of the driver's side corners, otherwise it is not valid, a common mistake made by foreigners in Austria. The motorway police regularly check for vignetten. Driving without a valid GO-Box, if required, costs €220, and setting an incorrect toll class carries a €110 substitute toll.
Driving in Austria Tips:
- During the winter the roads in alpine areas can become dangerous due to snow, ice and avalanches.
- Between November 1 and April 15 it is mandatory to use winter tyres. All-season tyres comply if they carry the M S mark and have at least 4mm of tread. In addition, snow chains maybe compulsory by local police during or after heavy snowfall.
- Driving in Austria requires an international driver’s permit.
- Read the fine print when renting a vehicle in Austria, many rental companies prohibit drivers taking cars into Eastern European countries with extreme charges should you be caught.
- Be careful where you park, particularly in major cities of Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg as often signage can be unclear and result in your vehicle being towed and you being issued with a fine.