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, as both regular and diesel gasoline are cheaper than in neighboring countries. Regular unleaded gas costs just over 1.90 SF per liter (about $8 a gallon). Prices are slightly higher in mountain areas. Be sure to 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 the station is 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, or disco 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, although prices vary by location, with cities charging more than small towns.
Road signs throughout the country use a color-coded system, with the official route numbers in white against a colored background. Expressway signs are green, while other major roads have signs in blue (unlike in the rest of Europe, where the colors are reversed). 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 miles) between one point and another—but the road may cross an Alpine pass. 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, especially over holiday weekends. 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 many 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.
American Automobile Association. 800/222–4357; www.aaa.com.
Swiss Automobile Club. 031/3283111; www.acs.ch.
Touring Club of Switzerland. 0900/571234; www.tcs.ch.
All road breakdowns should be called in to the countrywide emergency numbers, 117 (for the police), or 140 (for roadside assistance). 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 (roughly every ½ mile), on alternating sides of the expressway.
Rules of the Road
As in most 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 (i.e., those already in the traffic circle). In some residential areas—notably Geneva—traffic coming from the right has the right-of-way.
In urban areas the speed limit is 50 kph (30 mph); on major roads it's 80 kph (50 mph), and on expressways, the limit ranges from 100 kph (60 mph) to 120 kph (75 mph). On expressways the left lane is only for passing other cars; you must merge right as soon as possible, and passing on the right is a no-go. It is illegal to make a right-hand turn on a red light. The blood-alcohol limit is 0.05.
Despite its laid-back image, Switzerland suffers from aggressive driving. 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. Headlights are compulsory and should be switched on at all times. 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 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 €33, and is valid for a year. Driving without a vignette puts you at risk for getting a 200 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 make 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 is fitted with snow tires and that you have snow chains in the trunk. Snow tires are mandatory in Switzerland in winter. Snow-chain service stations have signs marked service de chaînes à neige or schneekettendienst, meaning that snow chains are available for rent.
Switzerland is exceedingly pedestrian-friendly, so whether you are walking or behind the wheel, be on the lookout for crosswalks. Cars must stop for people waiting to cross, and it is common for someone to walk right out in front of you. Caution should be your modus operandi when driving through towns.
Car rental rates in Zürich and Geneva begin around $50–$70 a day for an economy car with air-conditioning, a manual transmission, and unlimited mileage. Some, but not all, prices include the 8% tax on car rentals. Although you can usually rent a car upon arrival, significant savings can be made by booking in advance through a third-party wholesale website. European companies like Europcar and Sixt often have better deals.
Your 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 10 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. The minimum age is generally 18. 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 will request a deposit.
All children under the age of 12 who are less than 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; 0848/808099; www.europcar.ch.
Sixt. 0848/884444; www.sixt.ch.
Alamo. 888/233–8749; www.alamo.com.
Avis. 800/633–3469; www.avis.com.
Budget. 800/472–3325; 800/218–7992; www.budget.com.
Hertz. 0848/822020; www.hertz.com.
National Car Rental. 877/222–9058; www.nationalcar.com.
Auto Europe. 888/223–5555; www.autoeurope.com.
Europe by Car. 800/223–1516; www.europebycar.com.
Eurovacations. 877/471–3876; www.eurovacations.com.
Kemwel. 877/820–0668; www.kemwel.com.