How to plan a road trip in the Alps

JUAN MARTINEZ

October 29, 2020

How to plan a road trip in the Alps

A road trip in the Alps is a once in lifetime experience and as any other multi-country road trip, the more you prepare for it, the better is it.

When it comes to planning a road trip across the Alps, I was kind of disappointed with the information I found online. Most articles (from bloggers and also established magazines) focused more on personal itineraries and suggestions, rather than the preparation of the trip itself and the best way to cover such a massive region.

Crossing eight different countries, the Alps are the highest and most extensive mountain range system in Europe. Therefore, to travel this region at its fullest, you will probably need a month or two. Additionally, while the Alps are big part within the borders of European Union (with the exception of Liechtenstein and Switzerland), language, regulations and even prices change drastically from one country to the next.

In order to plan the perfect road trip for YOU, understand first which options you have, research which area of the Alps you want to visit and how rules will change from country to country.

Road Trip Alps
Panoramic view of the Alps in Liechtenstein

Starting your journey

Before you even book flights, think about which part of the Alps you want to travel around, how many places you want to explore and which city suits you the most to start and end the road trip.

Due to its inexpensive flight connections, Salzburg, Munich, Zurich, Basel and even Venice are great spots to start the road trip. All of these airports are located outside the city, which makes them perfect for simply landing, picking up the car and get on the road.

Even though Zurich tends to be the most popular place to start a road trip in the Alps, this is the most expensive city of Europe. It’s true you will start your trip in the heart of the Alps, but end up spending in a single day, what you would usually spend on three.

INSIDE TIP: By starting and ending at the same location, you reduce significantly the cost of your rental car. It also makes the logistics of the itinerary easier, as you will end up booking a round trip flight.

Dolomites - How to plan a road trip in the Alps
View of the Dolomites from the air

Traveling should not be a race. Although it’s nice to visit different places and explore new countries on a single trip, take into consideration that you don’t want to drive for hours from one place to another and have no time for a hike or a nice sunset.

Driving times across the Alps are also very unreliable. Roads are narrow, wet or icy, and if you are not used to this kind of drive, a two hour journey can easily turn into three or four. While I was exploring the Alps, I was average driving 60 – 150 km from one place to another – a distance that sometimes took me almost a full day to cover.

These are some suggestions for a round trip road trip across the alps:

4 days exploring the Swiss Alps
(Zurich – Lucerne Lake – Lauterbrunnen – Bern area – Zurich)

4 days exploring the Swiss Alps
Map of the Swiss Alps in 4 days – Click to open the image

7 day across the German speaking countries
(Munich – Garmisch/Neuschwanstein – Liechtenstein – Parc Nazuinal Svizzer – South Tirol – Hallstatt – Munich)

7 day across the German speaking countries
Map for a road trip on the German speaking countries – Click to open the image

10 days in the Eastern Alps
(Lyon – Charmonix – Zermatt – Lauterbrunnen – Liechtenstein -Lucerne – Bern – Laussane – Lyon)

10 days in the Eastern Alps
Map for a 10 day road trip in the Eastern Alps – Click to open the image

10 days in the Western Alps  
(Venice – Kranjska Gora/Bled Lake – Nockberge – Hallstatt – South Tirol – Cortina – Venice)

10 days in the western  Alps
Map for a 10 day road trip in the Western Alps – Click to open the image

14  days for the best of the Alps
(Munich – Garmisch/Neuschwanstein – Liechtenstein – Lucerne – Zermatt – Lauterbrunnen – Parc Nazuinal Svizzer – Cortina – Hallstatt)

Map road trip in the Alps
Map for a 14 day road trip in the Alps – Click to open the image

Before you book your vehicle

Driving across the Alps is not like driving between Germany and the Netherlands. There are several rules you have to comply and things you have to inform your car rental company in advance.

  • Can you drive your rental car across the border – is there an additional cost for each country?
  • How are the regulations for driving to non-EU countries like Liechtenstein or Switzerland?
  • Do you need winter tires for this journey? –  all rental companies charge extra for this service
  • Does your vehicle already has the toll sticker (vignette) for Austria and/or Switzerland?

Getting across the Alps

Driving across the Alps is definitely one of the best road trip experiences in Europe: serpentine mountain roads surrounded by snowy peaks, viewpoints that will take your breath away and incline roads that might give you the chills for a second.

But don’t worry, crossing the Alps can be as adventurous and complicated as you want it to be. Europe’s highway system is probably the best in the world and with modern long tunnels between mountains and 6 lane highways connecting large cities, you can easily cross the Alps from Germany to Italy in less than 2 hours.

Yet, the beauty of a road trip in the Alps does not rely on crossing it fast, but in enjoying the journey. Country and alpine roads are very common for travelers looking forward to a drive closer to nature and well known alpine passes became perfect spots for having a break, go for a hike and enjoying the magnificent views.

Driving from alpine pass to alpine pass is not a bad choice if you want to get a glimpse of the natural landscapes of the Alps and do short hiking routes before continuing driving.

Some of the most beautiful alpine passes in the Alps are:

  • Great St Bernard Pass – Switzerland to Italy
  • Giau Pass and Falzarego Pass – Italian Dolomites
  • Col de la Bonette – France
  • Nockalm Road – Austria
  • Grossglockner High Alpine Road – Austria (It has an extra toll fee of 35 EUR)

Read more: Types of signs at the hiking routes in the Alps

Bled Lake in the Slovenian Alps
Bled Lake in the Slovenian Alps

Tolls or Vignette

In order to drive through the highways of Austria, Slovenia or Switzerland, you have to purchase a toll sticker (vignette).

These stickers are available at any tank station close to the border and should be properly displayed at the front glass before you enter to these territories.

Prices for the vignette in 2021 are:

Austria

  • 9,50 EUR for 10 days
  • 27,80 EUR for 2 months
  • 92,50 EUR for 12 months

Slovenia

  • 15 EUR for 7 days
  • 30 EUR for 1 month
  • 110 EUR for 12 months

Switzerland

  • 38 EUR (40 CHF) for 12 months – this is the only option

On the other side, Italy and France use the traditional toll charge, where tolls are paid at toll gates, where they can be paid by cash, credit card or a fuel card.

Germany and Liechtenstein has no toll fees for using their highways or roads

NOTE: Crossing large tunnels in Austria or Slovenia have additional costs. Usually from 5 EUR up to 12 EUR.

Where to stay

In such a magical location surrounded by mountains, staying in a small hotel room in a large city should be your last option. Cities tend to be more expensive and distant from nature, and while they can offer a better nightlife and restaurant options for you to enjoy, the enchantment of the Alps lies on disconnecting from everything and simply get closer to nature.

Being in the wilderness does not necessarily mean wild camping. Wild camping is forbidden almost everywhere in Europe and with fines that can go up to 10.000 EUR – a risk that is simply not worth it. But don’t worry, there are still amazing alternatives no matter what your budget is.

Camping

Camping areas in the Alps are very popular. They have excellent facilities (clean bathrooms, showers, kitchens) and are usually located next to a point of interest.  They are also the most inexpensive choice when it comes to accommodation and since you are traveling with a car, you can easily carry a tent and a sleeping bag with you.

While Austria has some of the cheapest camping areas in Europe, Switzerland camping spots are at least 3-4 times more expensive than in its neighboring countries.

For example, I camped with a friend in Austria for 12 EUR a night in low season, but two days later in Switzerland I paid 50 EUR.

Homestays & Pensions

Known as a “Gasthof” in German speaking countries, this is the kind of accommodation that will make you feel at home. Way cheaper than a hotel, cozy, regional and serving probably the best food in the area, these lodges are easy to find along the way or in small villages across the Alps.

They are mostly family run and have a history that goes generations back. They are in my opinion the best place for a warm dinner, a cold beer and a night of stories to share.

Mountain Huts

Very similar to a pension, mountain huts are very cozy places located in scenic spots. These mostly family run businesses are the best option if you are planning full days of hiking or skiing. However, due to their unique location and limited capacity, they get fully booked months in advance and tend to be more expensive.

On the other hand, mountain huts offer that cozy and warm alpine experience you expect from the alps – a warm cabin with just 10 people and nothing but wilderness around you.  

Alpine resorts

If you want to treat yourself with something fancier, alpine resorts are your choice to go. Extravagant, luxurious and located in the heart of the action, these are the right place to relax and enjoy after a long day outdoors.

Alpines resorts tend to be expensive though. With prices higher than in 5-star hotels in big cities, these are mostly an option for that occasional splurge once or twice a year.  

Read more: Driving along the most epic alpine route in Austria

rifugio lagazuoi dolomites road trip alps
Rifugio Lagazuoi is one of the mountain huts located in the Italian Alps

Highlights to see during a road trip in the Alps

Chamonix

Located at the foot of Mont Blanc, Chamonix attracts visitors who come to experience not only the beauty of a typical alpine village, but also want to explore one of the most scenic alpine landscapes in the world.

Climbing, hiking, skiing or cycling. No matter which outdoor activity you have in mind, Chamonix probably is one of the best places in Europe to do it.

Chamonix at the French Alps during a road trip
Chamonix and the French Alps in the background

Zermatt

Known for being one of the most expensive places to travel in Europe, the magnificence of Zermatt does not lie on its luxury chalets, cobblestone streets or horse-drawn carriages. It lies in its particular location.

Zermatt is right at the feet of Matterhorn, one of the most iconic mountain peaks in the world and a natural symbol of Switzerland. From Zermatt, dozens of hiking routes begin, where some of the most scenic spots in the Alps can be found.

View of the village of Zermatt at the feet of Matterhorn
View of the village of Zermatt at the feet of Matterhorn

Garmisch Partenkirchen

Offering almost every outdoor activity you can think of, Garmisch Partenkirchen is one of the best places to get a first glimpse of the beauty in the Alps.

Mostly known for its winter activities, Garmisch is also known for its proximity to the idyllic Schloss Neuschwanstein. With that said, this is the perfect hub if you are planning a road trip around the German Alps.

Read more: How to plan a road trip in Namibia

View of Neuschwanstein Castle in the German Alps
View of Neuschwanstein Castle in the German Alps

Cortina

Right in the heart of the Dolomites (my favorite mountain region in Europe), Cortina lies in one of the most beautiful valleys in the world. It is surrounded by some of the most magnificent peaks in Europe and is the gateway to the most scenic hikes in whole Italy.

In comparison to most other places in this list, Cortina is not a place for one or two nights. From here, travelers can do multiple day hikes (such as the iconic Alta Via 1) or day trips to some of the most beautiful parts of the Dolomites.

Read more: Exploring the Alta Via 1 – Dolomites most beautiful hiking route

Passo Giau in Cortina - Dolomites
Passo Giau in Cortina is one of the most scenic spots in the Dolomites

Hallstatt

Yes, Hallstatt is a little bit overrated, overcrowded and the worst example of what tourism might become. However, the beauty of this town is undeniable and doing a road trip across Austria without visiting Hallstatt for at least a couple of hours is a little bit like visiting Paris and not walking under the Eifel Tower.

But the uniqueness of Hallstatt does not rely only on the beauty of the village.  It’s central location makes it perfect for a stop during a road trip in Austria – only a couple of hours away from the famous Grossglockner High Alpine Road, and 45 minutes from the ice caves of Dachstein and Eisriesenwelt.

Read more: Visiting the ice caves of Austria

Halstatt Austria Alps-road-trip
View of the Hallstatt village at twilight

Planning a road trip in the Alps?

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How do I find cheap flights to Europe and the Alps?

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I check all my flights first at Skyscanner, and in 90% of the cases, I find the best option for me to book.

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