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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Jeff, who learned an expensive lesson about crossing European borders in a rental car:
I was on a wonderful trip in Germany, where I spent some time in Berlin solo and then met up with a few friends for Oktoberfest in Munich. We had a festive weekend day in the tents, and followed that up with a day trip to Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles. I rented a car to get us around Bavaria with no issues.
Two of my friends left early the following morning, while another friend and I had an extra day before traveling home. We decided to take another day trip to the Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden, and due to time constraints, decided renting a car was again the most logical option.
On the Autobahn route to the Eagle’s Nest, we crossed over the Austrian border before reaching our destination in Germany. Police stopped us at the border, and while I was expecting a passport check, I instead received a fine of 180 euros for not having an international driving permit sticker on my rental vehicle. The police advised us these are available for around 10 euros at fuel stations along the Autobahn before crossing the border. Shame on me for not doing my research, but I thought the fine was quite aggressive. The sights in the Bavarian Alps were still worth the fee on a gorgeous day.
The sticker Jeff needed is known as a vignette, and it’s compulsory for passenger vehicles on certain roadways in a string of European countries stretching from Switzerland to Moldova. Each country has its own vignette system with varying costs and fines, and most offer an inexpensive short-term sticker for visitors that lasts for a week or two. Switzerland is a notable exception, as they only offer an annual vignette (for roughly $40).
Rental cars typically come with a vignette for the country in which they’re rented, but you should check before you leave the lot, and don’t expect a vignette for any other country to be provided. As Jeff mentioned, you can generally buy vignettes at gas stations or rest areas near the border, or you may be able to purchase a digital version online. Police are vigilant about checking stickers near borders, so even if you’re just crossing briefly, it’s worth paying the fee to avoid a much larger fine like the one Jeff received.
The larger takeaway here is that it’s crucial to read up on driving laws and customs when you’re planning to operate a vehicle in a foreign country. That applies to basic rules (like whether turning at a red light is allowed) as well as more vital ones (like blood alcohol limits). Advance research can help you not only avoid fines, but also keep you safe on the road, and it’s especially important if you don’t know the local language, since you may be unable to interpret posted signs. You should also make sure you’re legally permitted (your U.S. license may not be enough) and properly insured before driving abroad.
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Jeff a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.
Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!
Featured image via Shutterstock.
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