The Alps are an extensive mountain range system that boasts snowy peaks, fabulous ski slopes, and some of the best views of snow-capped mountains you’ll experience anywhere in the world. They’re also home to some amazing mountain passes and road trip opportunities, which is exactly what this guide on driving in the Alps focuses on!
Road closures, traffic laws, and toll roads are just some of the topics covered in this guide. Whether you want to have a car handy during ski season or you just want to experience what it’s like to drive on Switzerland’s mountain roads, this guide on driving in the Alps covers everything you need to know before you get behind the wheel!
Table of Contents
Driving in the Alps – Important Things to Know
If you are driving in Switzerland, maybe even the whole Grand Tour, remember to drive on the right side of the road. This rule is the same in all the Alpine countries, so it doesn’t matter if you plan on visiting the French, Italian, or Swiss Alps.
A car won’t get you everywhere. Many ski resorts in the Alps are not accessible by cars and there are plenty of small, car-free villages in the mountains as well. You won’t be able to drive everywhere, but there’s a public transportation alternative that will get you to most places in Switzerland.
You must keep your headlights turned on at all times, even during the day. This one is pretty self-explanatory, so just make sure to turn on the headlights as soon as you get in the car.
Parking won’t always be easy. Many times you’ll have to park on slopes, so you might want to practice putting blocks behind your vehicle’s tyres, just to keep the car from rolling down the mountain.
The fines are steep. They’re not as steep as in Finland, but they’re steep enough that you want to avoid breaking any traffic rules while you’re in Switzerland. Just drive the speed limit, pay for parking, and obey any road signs and traffic lights.
Don’t drive alone if you care about the environment. Your carbon footprint won’t be reduced if you decide to drive instead of flying, especially if you are on your own. Also, train travel is a lot cheaper than renting a car for a single person, so consider your other options first, if you’re planning a solo trip.
Driving Rules & Traffic Regulations
The rules for driving in Switzerland in the winter are surprisingly lax, but with a catch. Winter tyres and snow chains are not obligatory, but they are necessary. For one, Swiss laws state that the recommended minimum tire profile depth is 4 mm in winter conditions, so the car needs to be outfitted with either all-season or winter tires.
Also, although Swiss laws don’t require you to have winter equipment on the car, they do forbid you from driving a car that is deemed unsafe. Trying to drive on snowy Swiss roads with anything other than winter tires on your car will be deemed unsafe, so although the law doesn’t specifically request it, consider winter tires as obligatory car equipment.
Another important rule to be aware of when driving in the Swiss (or French) Alps is that the cars that are ascending have the right of way. So, if you’re ever descending a narrow mountain road and you see a car coming your way, you are the one who needs to stop and get out of the way. This is because it is much easier for descending cars to start moving again after coming to a full stop.
The road conditions in the eastern Alps are decent in the winter. But they are still mountain roads, so they are often narrow, winding, steep, and dangerous at times. Driving in the Alps is recommended only for experienced drivers who are entirely confident behind the wheel of a car, especially in challenging winter conditions.
Also, road conditions change on a daily basis in Switzerland in the winter, so you will need to keep up with local news. Whenever you plan to drive somewhere, be it to a different ski resort or to a nearby town, you should check if there are any unplanned closures or roadworks. It’s common for roads in the Alps to be closed in the winter, especially those that are at higher altitudes.
Another thing to note about the Alpine roads in Switzerland is that many of them are extremely narrow, and not suitable for motorhomes.
Road Passes That Are Closed During Winter
Many mountain passes are closed during winter in Switzerland and driving on them is not possible. Also, many roads will close down for short periods because of challenging conditions, so it’s always best to keep up with local news and check the relevant websites when planning a road trip to Switzerland. A road could be closed for a few hours or a few days – in any case, it’s best to be aware of that beforehand, than to only learn about it when you reach it with the car.
The passes that are usually closed in the winter are Albula Pass, Flüela Pass, Furka Pass, Grimsel Pass, Great St. Bernard Pass, Julier Pass, Gotthard Pass, Nufenen Pass, Klausen Pass, Simplon Pass, Oberalp Pass, San Bernardino Pass, Ofen Pass, and Susten Pass. Most of these passes are only open in the summer months, so if you want to see the famous Grimsel Pass or Furka Pass, you will need to plan for a summer trip.
Speed Limits & Road Signs
The speed limit in Switzerland ranges from 50 km/h in towns to 120 km/h on motorways. It’s 80 km/h outside built-up areas and 100 km/h on highways unless you see a road sign saying otherwise.
Regardless of the speed limits, you should always make sure that your driving speed is adjusted for the road conditions. Just because the law allows you to drive 80 km/h outside built-up areas doesn’t mean that it will always be safe to move that fast, especially in winter conditions.
Road signs are key for determining speed limits when driving in Switzerland, so pay attention to them.
Vignette (Toll Sticker)
You need a vignette for driving in Switzerland. Although most mountain roads in Switzerland are not tolled, the highways and motorways that connect the major cities all are. Unless you want to spend your time going through all the different toll roads in the country and planning longer routes that avoid them, it’s best to just get a vignette.
You can buy one online and it’s valid for about 14 months. The Swiss vignette for the year 2022 is valid from 1 December 2021 to 31 January 2023, so you might just be able to use it more than once if you happen to visit Switzerland again!
You will pay some 40CHF for a Swiss motorway vignette, and unfortunately, there’s no cheaper alternative. It’s not possible to purchase a 1-week or even a 1-month vignette, but here’s hoping! You also can’t pay just for the sections you’ve driven on since there are no toll booths on Swiss roads.
If you are caught without a vignette, you’ll pay a 200CHF fine plus you’ll be forced to purchase a vignette, so it’s best to just buy one as soon as you enter the country. Heavy vehicles (weighing more than 3.5 tonnes) do not need a vignette because they are subject to the heavy vehicle charge for road tolls instead.
Another thing to note is that the vignette doesn’t cover the following tunnels: Grand St. Bernhard Tunnel and Munt la Schera. If you happen to drive on those roads, you will need to pay for them in addition to your existing toll sticker.
When driving on mountain roads in Switzerland it’s important to keep track of where the nearest gas station is. You should always have enough fuel in your car to make it to the next village and you shouldn’t ever attempt to drive on mountain roads with an empty tank.
Petrol stations are abundant on highways, motorways, and most urban roads. But you won’t find them high up in the mountains, and you certainly won’t find any gas stations on winding mountain passes. They’re usually in the village before/after the mountain pass, so if you have any doubts about whether you’ve got enough fuel to make it over the mountain, stop and fill up the tank.
Sometimes you might need to park your car at an incline or in a steep parking lot. There’s nothing scary about this, but it might require some practice, especially if you’re not really used to this.
The most important thing in these situations is to make use of the handbrake. You also need to shift into first after the engine is off, and most people will also turn the tyres. If you’re still not entirely certain you won’t find your car at the bottom of the mountain, you can put some stones or blocks behind the wheels to block them.
Car rental is fairly simple in Switzerland. If you’re flying into the country, you can arrange to have a car waiting for you at the airport if you want. You can also choose whether you want to return the car to the same location you picked it up from or somewhere else in the country – there’s usually an extra fee associated with picking up a car at point A but returning it at point B.
You must be at least 21 to be able to rent a car in Switzerland. Additionally, drivers aged 21 to 24 are considered young drivers, and they will not be allowed to rent every type of vehicle. There’s also an additional fee of around 20CHF per day for young drivers.
Another thing to note is that you can rent a car in Switzerland and cross the border into other EU countries. What matters the most is that you’re allowed to drive to Austria, France, and Italy, so you can do as much Alps driving as you want!
Google Maps is one of the navigation apps that is easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone, and it will help you get around Switzerland even when you have no Internet access – just download an offline map first. The in-app map of Switzerland roads is fairly accurate, with live updates on traffic conditions, road closures, and accidents. You can also use the app to search for parking, but it’s not the best app for that.
SEPP parking is a great app that lets you pay for parking in most places in Switzerland. The only prerequisite is that you park on a lot that supports the use of the app – this should be indicated by a yellow SEPP sticker. If you see the sticker, just open the app and pay for parking – it’s super simple, and it saves you quite a bit of time, compared to running around and searching for parking meters.
ViaMichelin is one of the best navigation apps out there. It’s more detailed than Google Maps, it offers live updates on traffic and road conditions, and it has voice guidance so you can drive safely, without looking at your phone. The app also lets you plan road trips and calculate how much they will cost by calculating your fuel consumption, tolls, parking fees, etc.
How to Drive Safely in the Alps
Go slow. There is absolutely no shame in driving slower than others, especially if you don’t feel safe or confident going faster.
Use snow chains when necessary. It’s a hassle to put snow chains on a vehicle, but it makes all the difference in the world when driving on snow-covered roads. If you start to struggle to maneuver your car or you fear it might get stuck in the snow, don’t hesitate to put snow chains on the tyres.
Use lowers gears when ascending/descending mountain roads. When going up a steep mountain road, you need to keep the engine at about 3000-4000 rpm. This usually means that you’ll be in second or third gear, sometimes even first if you’ve got a very heavy car. It’s the same thing when descending – don’t overuse the breaks, and instead put the engine in a lower gear so that it can do most of the breaking.