Although Switzerland has an excellent rail network, many travellers prefer to rent a car and travel around the country at their own pace.
Having your own car allows you to stop wherever you like and for as long as you like. With your own car, there are no more timetables to adhere to and your itinerary can be as flexible as you want it to be.
If you’re travelling with one or more adults, renting a car can be much more cost effective than buying multiple rail passes, too.
Regardless of whether you prefer to have your entire route planned in advance or are more of a ‘go-where-the-wind-takes-you’ style of traveller, renting a car in Switzerland offers so many advantages.
And just because you have a car, that doesn’t mean you’ll miss out on the chance to ride on one of Switzerland’s scenic trains if you want to.
Many of Switzerland’s most popular mountain peaks – and the mountain village of Zermatt – can only be reached by rail or cable car so you can combine the best of both worlds – the freedom to travel where and when you want by car and the chance to experience Switzerland’s incredible mountain excursions.
In this guide to driving in Switzerland, I’ll cover the essential information you need to know about renting a car and enjoying your own Switzerland road trip.
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Essential information for planning your Swiss road trip
Booking your car rental for Switzerland
Before you book your rental car, you’ll need to determine exactly what size vehicle you require as well as any specific features you need. The main things to consider are:
What size vehicle do you require?
Be sure to choose a vehicle that will comfortably accommodate all passengers but also has enough boot (trunk) space for your luggage.
Do you require a vehicle with automatic transmission or is manual transmission ok?
Manuals are almost always considerably cheaper than automatic vehicles, so if you’re prepared to drive a manual (and have a manual licence in your home country) you can make some big savings.
Do you need to rent a GPS (satellite navigation system) with your vehicle?
If you are happy to rely on printed maps or can access Google maps or other navigation aids via WiFi whilst on the move, a GPS may not be essential for you.
Where will you collect and return the vehicle?
Generally speaking, if you collect and return the vehicle within the same country, no additional charges apply. If you collect a vehicle in one country and return it to a depot in a different country, one way drop off fees usually apply. These can be in excess of CHF 350.
Will winter tyres (tires) be required?
If you plan to drive in Switzerland during winter, special winter tyres are compulsory and may incur an additional cost.
Do you plan on taking the car into another country?
Some car rental companies charge additional fees if you wish to drive your vehicle in a country other than Switzerland.
Once you know the answer to these questions, then it’s time to get a car rental quote.
When to book
The best way to get cheap car rental in Switzerland is to book early. Many suppliers offer ‘early bird’ deals months in advance so book your rental car as soon as your travel dates are confirmed.
Leasing instead of renting
If you require a car for more than 21 days, it’s worth considering leasing a vehicle instead of renting. The Leasing program is available for durations of between 21 and 175 days and is basically a system whereby you purchase a brand new vehicle with the guarantee that the manufacturer will ‘buy it back’ from you at the end.
Whilst that can sound a bit daunting and that you might have to fork out tens of thousands of dollars for a car, in actual fact, you’re paying less than what you would for a hire car for the same period but you’re getting a brand, spanking new vehicle which you just hand back at the end of your trip.
Collection and drop off at any of the depots in France is complimentary but fees do apply when you pick up and/or drop off your vehicle in another country. The good news for those folks travelling to Switzerland is that the depots in Geneva and Basel (Mulhouse) are classified as French depots.
The program is open to drivers aged 18 years or older who reside outside the European Union and hold a valid drivers’ licence. The driver must not stay in Europe for more than 185 days in any consecutive 12 month period, and may not work during the period of the contract.
Some of the benefits of the tax-free leasing program include:
- Unlimited kilometres
- Full insurance with no excess (no added Collision Damage Waiver fees to pay)
- 24-hour roadside assistance
- Brand new car straight from the factory floor with a full factory warranty
- Guarantee you will receive the model you request
- Additional drivers allowed for free (conditions apply)
- You can take the car into some normally ‘restricted’ countries like Hungary, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina to name a few
- Choice of almost 30 locations in Europe and UK – including Geneva and Basel – from which you can collect and return your vehicle
What it costs
Obviously the cost will vary depending on the size of vehicle you lease, how many days you will lease it for, and a number of other factors. To give you an idea of just how economical leasing can be, below is what I have paid for a 37 day lease in 2020.
Vehicle type: Citroen C4 Cactus, automatic transmission, air conditioning and GPS
Collection: Collect from Basel Mulhouse Airport / Return to Basel Mulhouse Airport
Total cost: AUD 2246 = AUD 60.70 per day (equivalent to approx. CHF 1477 or CHF 39.91 per day). Incredible value!
This rate includes full comprehensive insurance with no excess, full factory warranty and 24 hour Citroen Roadside Assist.
Collecting your car
On/off airport collections
If you’ve booked a car to collect from an airport location, it is wise to check whether the collection point is on-airport or off-airport. On-airport means that the rental company’s office/desk is located inside the airport terminal and your rental car can be collected from the adjoining parking lot.
Off-airport collections mean that you will be met by a representative of the rental company at the airport and transferred to their office which may be 10 to 15 minutes’ away. The paperwork is completed at the off-site office and the vehicle is collected from this location, too.
Make sure you factor in the additional time to transfer to the airport if you are returning your vehicle to an off-airport depot, too.
If your flight arrives (or departs) early in the morning or late at night, or you are short on time, on-airport collections have many advantages.
Note: Almost all collections for the tax-free leasing program are off-airport.
What documentation you need to present
When you arrive at the car rental office or depot you’ll need to present your current driver’s licence from home and a credit card in the name of the driver.
If you hold a valid national (Roman alphabet) driving licence, Switzerland regulations do not require you to also present an International Driving Permit (IDP) however some other countries in Europe do.
This means you should be fine driving in Switzerland on a US license (or a licence from a country that uses the Roman alphabet – Australia, UK, Canada, etc.) – however, I always obtain an IDP prior to travel in the event that I will drive to a neighbouring country during my visit to Switzerland.
International Driving Permits can be obtained from the national motoring organisation in your home country and cost around USD 25 / AUD 40.
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Reducing the vehicle’s excess
Rental car rates generally include basic insurance covering Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), Third Party Liability and Theft Protection, however should the vehicle be stolen or damaged (no matter who is at fault), the renter is usually liable for an excess.
At the time of vehicle collection it is sometimes possible to pay an additional daily fee to reduce the excess you are liable for but these days it is more common for the excess amount to be ‘blocked’ on the driver’s credit card.
If the car is returned undamaged, the excess is then removed from the credit card, although this can take a few days to take effect.
Many travel insurance policies include cover for hire car excess charges. Should you be charged an excess for damage caused to your rental vehicle you can then claim the excess amount paid (up to a pre-specified amount) via your travel insurance. (Refer to your policy’s PDS for full terms and conditions.)
Allow time for the paperwork
Collecting your rental or lease vehicle does take some time. At busy airports like Zurich there are likely to be numerous people waiting to collect their vehicles. You might be lucky and arrive at a quiet time but chances are you’ll have to wait to join a queue, so I recommend allowing an hour to collect your car.
At larger airports you may also need to walk some distance to the parking lot where your car awaits.
What to check before you drive off
Once you have completed the paperwork and have the keys to your rental car there are a few things I suggest you check before you drive off.
- Firstly, you should check all the panels on the vehicle for any dents and scratches. These should all be marked on your rental contract but if they are not, you should bring these to the attention of a representative of the car hire company.
- You should also check the tyres and windscreen and raise any concerns you have.
- Check that all doors – including the rear doors – lock. We learnt this the hard way when we discovered a rear passenger door on a car we hired would not lock.
- If the vehicle is fitted with a GPS, check that it is set to English. If not, ask the rental company representative to change this for you.
- Familiarise yourself with the gear shift – including how to select reverse, lights, windscreen wipers, fuel tank release lever, boot (trunk) release lever and how to start the ignition. It’s amazing how different each vehicle can be.
- Check that a current Swiss vignette is affixed to the windscreen/windshield.
Now that you’re familiar with the vehicle, it’s time to hit the road!
Switzerland driving rules and regulations
- In Switzerland, vehicles drive on the right hand side of the road.
- Minimum driving age in Switzerland is 18 years.
- Seat belts are mandatory.
- The blood alcohol limit is 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood.
- It is compulsory to carry a high-visibility vest in the glove box which must be worn in case of an accident or breakdown.
- Third party insurance is mandatory.
- It is against the law to use a mobile phone while driving, except when using a hands-free system.
- All vehicles are required to drive with their lights on, even during the day.
- All distances are measured in kilometres.
You can read further information about Switzerland’s driving rules here.
As I mentioned above, all drivers must carry a current Driver’s Licence from their home country. It is highly recommended that drivers also carry an International Driving Permit which can be obtained from the Automobile Association in your home country.
Speed Limits in Switzerland
The speed limit on motorways is generally 120 km/h, 100 km/h on main roads, 80 km/h on normal roads outside towns and 50 km/h within towns.
Driving in tunnels requires heightened attention. Maintaining sufficient distance from the car in front of you and paying attention to traffic signals are mandatory.
Swiss speed limits should be strictly adhered to. Speed cameras are used throughout Switzerland and fines can be expensive – and infringement notices will be sent to your home address.
Switzerland Road Tax and Toll Roads
Switzerland has an excellent road network and you might be surprised to hear there are no Switzerland toll roads.
Instead, all motorists travelling on highways in Switzerland are required to display a Swiss motorway vignette (road tax sticker) on the windscreen of their vehicle.
The benefit of displaying a Swiss road tax sticker is that traffic on motorways is that traffic remains free flowing as drivers aren’t required to slow down and queue at booths to pay tolls in Switzerland.
A Switzerland vignette costs CHF 40 per calendar year. You must purchase an annual vignette even if you will only be driving in the country for a few days – or one day.
Vignettes can be purchased at Swiss border crossings, petrol stations, post offices and tobacconists or you can buy your Swiss vignette online*.
*Allow time to have the vignette delivered to your home address if ordering it online.
If you are collecting a rental car in Switzerland, you should check that the vehicle has the vignette attached to the windscreen and, if not, purchase one immediately.
Should you be driving to Switzerland from another country, you should ensure you purchase a vignette at the border crossing.
Even if you are just driving through Switzerland, you should ensure you purchase and affix a vignette. Switzerland traffic authorities can issue fines in excess of CHF 200 to drivers not displaying a vignette.
Children under the age of 12 must be secured in a child car seat if they are less than 150cm in height.
Child seats can be ordered when reserving your rental car.
Useful tips for when you hit the road
Swiss Road Signs
Most traffic signs in Switzerland are of standard international design and you’ll already be familiar with most of the symbols used on road signs. Even the English word ‘STOP’ is used on stop signs in Switzerland.
Different coloured signs represent different kinds of roads. Green signs indicate motorways. These roads usually require a vignette (road toll sticker) to be affixed to your vehicle. Blue road signs indicate main roads that aren’t toll roads.
You can familiarise yourself with Swiss road signs here.
Common signs that you’ll see when driving include Ausfahrt (exit), Einfahrt (entrance), Zentrum (centre of town), Einfahrt verboten/Kein Eingang (no entry), Straße (street/road), Parkplatz (parking place), Rastplätze (rest area),
It’s a good idea to know the name of the place you are heading to in the local language. The French name for Lake Geneva is Lac Leman whilst German’s call it Genfersee! Lucerne is called Luzern in German. If you know the correct name to look for on a road sign there’s less chance you’ll miss the turn off.
There are some good translation apps now available that enable you to snap a photo of a sign for instant translation. These are also handy when trying to decipher parking signs.
Parking in Switzerland
Parking in the street in Switzerland can be tricky as many town centres date back to medieval times and the streets are very narrow (often one-way) and cobblestoned.
Often the centre of town is a pedestrian-only zone, too, so look for public car parks and use them. Public car parks are always sign-posted with the internationally recognised ‘P’ sign and are generally only a few hundred metres from the town centre.
You’ll rarely find somewhere to park for free in Switzerland, but paying a few francs to park your car can save quite a bit of stress – not to mention costly parking fines.
To save having to carry around loose change, you may be able to use the SEPP parking app. The app allows you to charge parking fees to your predetermined credit card simply by swiping to start the timer.
It’s currently available in a number of locations including Bern, Interlaken, Thun, Grindelwald, St. Gallen and Winterthur with more locations being added.
In Switzerland, unleaded 95-octane and 98-octane petrol (bleifreies Benzin) and diesel, are available at all petrol stations.
Petrol stations in many small towns and villages are often closed for a two hour lunch break, and many are also closed on Sundays, so make sure you have enough fuel in the tank if you plan on travelling any distance on a Sunday.
In some cases, fuel can be purchased by pre-paying with a credit card at special pumps when the petrol station is unattended.
Fuel is sold by the litre in Europe and is generally more expensive at service stations located along the autobahns and motorways. Larger supermarkets in towns sometimes have their own service station in the parking lot and these can be an economical place to purchase fuel.
Major fuel brands in Switzerland include Eni, Avia, Socar, BP, Coop and Migros.
Approximate prices for unleaded petrol (gasoline) in Switzerland in February 2020 were CHF 1.66 per litre and CHF 1.70 per litre for diesel. You can check current fuel prices in Switzerland on this link.
Since October 2018, fuel pumps (and vehicles) in EU member states have been labelled with standardised symbols instead of the name of the fuel (Unleaded or Diesel). Fuel pumps for Unleaded 95 and Unleaded 98 will display the letter E followed by the amount of biofuel it contains, and diesel pumps will display the letter B, again followed by a number representing the percentage of biofuel.
In Switzerland, gasoline antifreeze is included in the fuel at the pump if needed depending on the weather. This means the fuel is different between countries and is modified to suit the weather conditions.
Fuel stations which are situated along the motorways, often have restaurants which offer an excellent choice of food. You’ll often find a buffet-style restaurant with a full menu, not just the usual fried take-aways.
If you plan on driving your rental vehicle from Switzerland to another country (or vice versa), you should advise the rental company at the time of making your reservation and the countries you are allowed to drive in will be noted on your rental contract.
Border crossings are indicated with a Zoll – Douane sign. If you are not requested to stop, you should pass through the area at 20 km/h.
When driving between Schengen-member countries*, there is generally no physical border crossing point and you will not be required to show your passport, however all passengers should carry their passport with them just in case.
If you cross from a Schengen-member country to a non-Schengen-member country (or vice versa) you will be required to stop at the border crossing booth of both the country you are leaving and the country you are entering and have your passport stamped.
If at all possible, I recommend you avoid border crossings that require passport control checks on weekends, particularly during the summer holiday season.
*See a list of Schengen-member countries on this link.
Driving in Switzerland in winter
Alpine winters often make driving more difficult and vehicles rented in Switzerland from 15 November to 31 March are required to be fitted with winter tyres. Your rental company will charge a Winterisation fee (sometimes included in the rental fee) which covers the cost of winter tyres.
Switzerland, of course, has many mountainous roads and snow chains are obligatory in some winter conditions. You should check road conditions before you set off.
You’ll find more tips for driving in Switzerland in winter in my eBook “The Stress-Free Guide to Driving in Europe”. Click here to learn more.
If the unfortunate happens and you are involved in a traffic accident in Switzerland involving injury to any person, you must immediately report the accident to the police. Accidents involving material damage must only be reported when mutual identity has not been established. Accidents involving material damage must only be reported when mutual identity has not been established.
In the event of a breakdown, assistance can be requested 24 hours a day by dialling 117. The TCS patrol can be contacted on 140 in the event of a breakdown. Non-members are charged a fee for this service. The Automobile Club of Switzerland (ACS) offers members’ breakdown assistance across Europe.
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Never leave your valuables on display in your car, even if you are only going to be away from it for a short time.
Always carry your passport, money, credit cards and other valuables on your person, and remember – thieves love cameras and laptops, so lock them in the boot out of sight if you can’t take them with you.
You should also familiarise yourself with your travel insurer’s policy when it comes to theft from a vehicle. Many insurers will not pay claims if items are stolen from a vehicle after dark.
Emergency road service: 140
Fire brigade: 118
Mountain rescue (helicopter) 1414
Best driving roads in Switzerland
The beauty of doing a Switzerland road trip is that there are an incredible number of roads that could easily be classified amongst the best drives in Switzerland.
Mountain passes like the St. Gotthard Pass, Furka Pass and the San Bernadino Pass (to name just a few), are superbly maintained roads that offer amazing scenery – and sometimes a few whiteknuckle moments!
You can even combine three mountain passes in one. The ‘Three Passes Tour‘ is a 120-kilometres long driving route that includes the Susten Pass, Grimselpass and Furkapass.
If you’re planning a Swiss alps road trip, you will marvel at the quality of roads and the work it would have taken to build them.
Don’t be afraid to take the smaller roads, either. Whilst you can often see sparkling lakes and pretty villages from the motorway, taking the smaller road means you’ll be able to travel at a more relaxed pace and stop on a whim.
Suggested Switzerland driving itineraries
When planning your Switzerland self-drive itinerary you’ll need to factor in a number of things. These include how much time you will spend in Switzerland and which places you want to visit.
To make it easier for you, you can read my suggested 7 day Switzerland itinerary (Plus 3, 5, 10 and 14 day options).
I’ve also designed my own 14 day version of the Grand Tour of Switzerland by car.
Start planning your driving holiday in Switzerland
Have I convinced you that driving in Switzerland is a great way to travel? Renting a car has allowed us to explore so many places in Switzerland that I’m sure we wouldn’t have found without our own wheels.
You, too, can get off the beaten path and discover your own hidden gems at your own pace.
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