If there's one thing that's generally cheaper in Switzerland than elsewhere in western Europe, it's gasoline. If you are crossing borders, try to fill the tank in Switzerland unless you happen to be driving a diesel, which is cheaper in Austria, France, and Germany, but not Italy. Regular unleaded gas costs just over 1.65 SF per liter (about $3.78 a gallon, leaded is unavailable). Prices are slightly higher in mountain areas. Have some 10 SF and 20 SF notes available, as many gas stations (especially in the mountains) have vending-machine pumps that operate even when they're closed. Simply slide in a bill and fill your tank. Many of these machines also accept major credit cards with precoded PINs. You can request a receipt (Quittung in German, quittance in French, ricevuta in Italian) from the machine.
Parking areas are clearly marked. In blue or red zones a Parkenscheibe, disque de stationnement, ordisco orario (provided in rental cars or available free from banks, tourist offices, or police stations) must be placed clearly in the front window noting the time of arrival. These zones are slowly being replaced by metered-parking white zones. Each city sets its own time allotments for parking; the limits are posted. Metered parking is often paid for at communal machines that vary from city to city. Some machines simply accept coins and dispense tickets. At others you'll need to punch in your parking space or license plate number, then add coins. The ticket for parking may or may not have to be placed in your car window; this information is noted on the machine or ticket. Parking in public lots normally costs 2 SF for the first hour, increasing by 1 SF every half hour thereafter.
Road signs throughout the country use a color-coding system, with the official route numbers in white against a colored background. Expressway signs are green, and highway signs are blue (unlike in the rest of Europe, where expressway signs are blue and highway signs are green). Signs for smaller roads are white with black lettering. All signage indicates the names of upcoming towns as well, and it is generally easiest to use these names for navigating.
Swiss roads are well surfaced, but when you are dealing with mountains they do wind a lot, so don't plan on achieving high average speeds. When estimating likely travel times, look carefully at the map: there may be only 32 km (20 mi) between one point and another—but there may be an Alpine pass in the way. There is a well-developed expressway network, though some notable gaps still exist in the south along an east-west line, roughly between Lugano and Sion. In addition, tunnels—notably the St. Gotthard—are closed at times for repairs or weather conditions, or they become bottlenecks in heavy traffic. A combination of steep or winding routes and hazardous weather means some roads will be closed in winter. Signs are posted at the beginning of the climb.
To find out about road conditions, traffic jams, itineraries, and so forth, you can turn to two places: the Swiss Automobile Club has operators standing by on weekdays from 8 to 5 to provide information in all languages. Dues-paying members of the Touring Club of Switzerland may contact the organization for similar information. Note that neither of these numbers gets you breakdown service. For frequent and precise information in Swiss languages, you can dial 163, or tune in to local radio stations.
Swiss Automobile Club (031/3283111. www.acs.ch.)
Touring Club of Switzerland (090/0571234 0.86 SF per min. www.tcs.ch.)
American Automobile Association (800/765-0766. www.aaa.com.)
All road breakdowns should be called in to the central Switzerland-wide emergency numbers, 117 (for the police) or 140 (for roadside assistance). The Touring Club Suisse, the local equivalent of AAA, handles breakdowns for nonmembers as well as members, and many rental agencies have arranged for assistance through them. If you are on an expressway, pull over to the shoulder and look for arrows pointing you to the nearest orange radio-telephone, called bornes SOS; use these phones instead of a mobile phone because they allow police to find you instantly and send help. There are SOS phones every kilometer (½ mi), on alternating sides of the expressway.
Rules of the Road
As in most of the rest of Europe, driving is on the right. Vehicles on main roads have priority over those on smaller roads. At intersections, priority is given to the driver on the right except when driving on a road with right of way and when merging into traffic circles, where priority is given to the drivers coming from the left. In residential areas in some places—notably Geneva—traffic coming from the right has the right of way.
In urban areas the speed limit is 50 kph (30 mph); on main highways, it's 80 kph (50 mph); on semiexpressways, the limit is 100 kph (60 mph), and on expressways, the limit is 120 kph (75 mph). On expressways the left lane is only for passing other cars; you must merge right as soon as possible. It is illegal to make a right-hand turn on a red light. The blood-alcohol limit is 0.05.
In spite of its laid-back image, Switzerland suffers the bug of aggressive driving as well. Tailgating, though illegal, is a common problem, as is speeding. If you are being tailgated on the expressway, just move into the right lane and ignore any high-beam flashing and visible signs of road rage behind you. If you are driving extra slowly, let the people behind you pass.
Children under age seven are not permitted to sit in the front seat. Use headlights in heavy rain, in poor visibility, or in tunnels—they are compulsory. Always carry your valid license and car-registration papers; there are occasional roadblocks to check them. Wear seat belts in the front- and backseats—they are mandatory.
To use the semiexpressways and expressways, you must display a sticker, or vignette, on the top-center or lower corner of the windshield. You can buy one at the border or in post offices, gas stations, and garages. A vignette costs 40 SF or €27. Driving without a vignette puts you at risk for getting a 100 SF fine. Cars rented within Switzerland already have these stickers; if you rent a car elsewhere in Europe, ask if the rental company will provide the vignette for you.
Traffic going up a mountain has priority, except for postbuses coming down, in which case the ascending traffic must makes way for the buses. A sign with a yellow post horn on a blue background means that postbuses have priority. On winding mountain roads, a brief honk as you approach a curve is a good way of warning any oncoming traffic. In winter be sure your car has snow tires and snow chains. The latter are mandatory in some areas and advisable in most. Snow-chain service stations have signs marked "service de chaînes à neige" or "schneekettendienst", meaning that snow chains are available for rent.
If booked from overseas, rates in Zürich and Geneva begin at around $50 a day and $200 a week for an economy car with air-conditioning, a manual transmission, and unlimited mileage. This does not include the 7.6% tax on car rentals. Try to arrange for a rental before you go; rentals booked in Switzerland are considerably more expensive. European companies like Europcar and Sixt often have better deals.
Eurailpass and Europass both offer discount passes combining rail travel and car rental.
Your own driver's license is acceptable in Switzerland, but an International Driving Permit (IDP)—available from the American and Canadian automobile associations and, in the United Kingdom, from the Automobile Association and Royal Automobile Club—is a good idea. An official translation of your license done in ten languages, it can help local law enforcement understand the terms of your license (IDPs are only valid in conjunction with a valid license). If you intend to expand your trip beyond Switzerland, you may need an IDP to rent a car. Check the AAA Web site (www.aaa.com) for more info as well as for IDPs ($10) themselves. The minimum age is generally 20, and you must have held a valid driver's license for at least one year. Note that some agencies do not allow you to drive cars into Italy. In Switzerland some rental agencies charge daily fees of about 25 SF for drivers under 25. If you wish to pay cash, agencies may request a deposit.
Since April 2010, all children under the age of 12 who are less than 150 cm (59 inches) tall must be fastened in an infant car seat, child seat, or booster seat while riding in a motor vehicle. If you are traveling with children and renting a car, be sure to ask the rental car company for the appropriate seats in advance, or plan on taking trains and buses instead. (There are no exemptions to this rule for taxis, and finding a taxi willing to provide the seats is nearly impossible.)
Car Rental Resources
Europcar (044/8044646. www.europcar.ch.)
Sixt (0848/884444. www.sixt.ch.)
Alamo (877/222-9075. www.alamo.com.)
Avis (800/230-4898. www.avis.com.)
Budget (800/472-3325. www.budget.com.)
Hertz (800/654-3001. www.hertz.com.)
National Car Rental (877/222-9058. www.nationalcar.com.)
Auto Europe (888/223-5555. www.autoeurope.com.)
Europe by Car (212/581-3040 or 800/223-1516. www.europebycar.com.)
Eurovacations (877/471-3876. www.eurovacations.com.)
Kemwel (877/820-0668. www.kemwel.com.)
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