Austria is one of Europe’s most mountainous countries, with 75 percent of its land taken by alpine topography and almost 50 percent cloaked in woods. That translates into gorgeous scenery, from majestic peaks to picture-perfect villages of pastel-colored Baroque buildings. Even if your travels are confined to major tourist cities like Vienna and Innsbruck, you’ll be treated to great views along the way — whether you travel by train, bus, rental car or even bicycle.
Flying to and Around Austria
Austrian Airlines serves Vienna International Airport, the country’s major hub, from Chicago, Toronto, New York and Washington D.C., as well as from major cities throughout Europe. If your destination is Innsbruck or the western end of the country, you can either transfer in Vienna for the one-hour flight to Innsbruck or fly instead to Munich, where airport shuttle buses will deposit you in Innsbruck in a little more than three hours.
Otherwise, because domestic flights are costly, it makes more sense to travel within Austria using ground transportation. It’s also the best way to enjoy the scenery.
Renting a Car in Austria
Renting a car gives you the freedom to travel when and where you want. For some destinations, such as rental alpine huts in remote regions, it might even be a necessity. The Grossglockner High Alpine Road is a glorious trip that takes you through Hohe Tauern National Park, to the base of Austria’s highest mountain and over a mountain pass before ending in Salzburg. But renting a car in Austria is not cheap, and it comes with several caveats.
For one thing, if you’re not used to driving in the mountains, you might find the thrill of doing so more than you care to experience. In addition, from November to mid-April, winter tires or snow chains are mandatory, and heavy snowfall may temporarily close highways or mountain passes (the Grossglockner High Alpine Road is closed from about the end of October to May). In some cities, like Vienna and Salzburg, the Altstadt (Old City) is closed to vehicles and parking is expensive.
If you do rent a car, note that you’ll need to have been in possession of a valid driver’s license for at least a year. Though an International Driving Permit is not necessary, it’s recommended and easily obtainable from motor clubs like AAA. Insurance is optional; check whether your credit card offers free supplemental rental car insurance. Cars rented at airports carry a hefty surcharge, so consider renting from a city location. There are many international car rental agencies in Austria, including Budget, Hertz, Avis and Auto Europe.
Toll stickers (Vignette) are required for cars using Austria’s highways; stickers for 10 days or two months can be purchased at post offices, gas stations and other locations. The Grossglockner High Alpine Road has its own toll. Headlights must be turned on at all times.
Traveling by Train
Train travel is by far the best, most efficient way to zip around Austria and take in its lush scenery. Trains are operated by the Austrian Federal Railways (Osterreichische Bundesbahnen, or OBB), which provides schedules, travel times, prices and ticketing on its website.
The sleek, high-speed OBB Railjet, which can travel up to 143 miles an hour, is one of Europe’s most luxurious and high-tech trains. Offering free Wi-Fi, ergonomic seats and three classes of service, it operates mostly within Austria but also connects the country’s major cities with neighboring destinations like Zurich, Budapest and Munich. There are also regular passenger trains that branch out to smaller towns, as well as sightseeing trains traveling famous scenic routes. The Semmering Railway, for example, has dozens of viaducts, tunnels and bridges along its 25 miles of track. Completed in 1854, it is considered one of the world’s greatest railway engineering feats and is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Because Austria is fairly small, train travel between cities is relatively short. From Vienna it’s about 2.5 hours to Salzburg (or less than two hours from Munich). The trip between Graz and Innsbruck takes about six hours. Trains deliver you to the heart of cities and villages, where you’re likely to find the local tourism board, and are also integrated with onward travel by bus, rental car, boat and even bicycle or cable car to more rural areas where trains can’t go.
Plenty of fare discounts are available with advance planning. The OBB VORTEILSCARD provides up to 50 percent discounts on single tickets, while the Einfach-Raus Ticket allows for a day’s excursion for two to five people on regional trains.
There are also various rail passes, from those that allow travel to 28 countries throughout Europe to regional passes that cover Austria plus a choice of a neighboring country like Germany or Hungary (you should purchase rail passes before departing for Europe). If you plan on traveling only within Austria, Eurail Austria Passes for either first or second class are available for any three to eight days of travel within one month (days do not need to be consecutive), with discounts given on certain sightseeing boats on Lake Constance and the Danube along with other benefits. Discounted Austrian passes are available for travelers younger than 26, two to five people traveling together and families (up to two children under 12 ride free with each adult).
For all rail passes, seat reservations cost extra. While reservations aren’t required in Austria, we recommend them during holidays and other peak periods, especially for the very popular Railjet.
Austria by Bus
Buses can get you to remote regions and villages that can’t be reached by train, including ski resorts and hamlets at higher elevations. Luckily, bus departures are generally timed to coincide with train arrivals, and tickets can be bought onboard. OBB’s Postbus network covers 900 routes that have a combined 40,000 bus stops. There are also night buses to serve more populous areas where people may be out for a night on the town, including Discobus routes in Burgenland and night buses around Vienna and Salzburg. Check the Postbus website for timetables, which you can download and view offline. You can also get the free SCOTTY mobil, a phone app that lets you plan routes, download regional maps of bus stops and surrounding areas, bookmark timetables, and get real-time information on delays and other pertinent alerts during your travels.
Otherwise, WESTbus offers limited bus travel between Vienna, Klagenfurt, Linz and Graz, but its main service is from Austria’s major cities to other destinations like Prague, Munich, Berlin and Budapest. It’s part of Eurolines, a group of more than 30 European coach companies that provide service throughout the Continent.
Austria by Bicycle
Even avid cyclers might find Austria a challenge. But there are some dedicated bike paths that beg exploration, like the 200-mile Danube cycling path from Passau (in Germany) to Vienna or the 214-mile Salzkammergut bike path that skirts around or provides views of 13 lakes.
There are many companies that rent bikes and/or offer guided tours or cycling packages that include accommodations. Note that bike rentals are seasonal, generally from April through October. Nextbike is a bike-sharing system that requires registration and offers wheels in Lower Austria, Burgenland and Tyrol, including Krems, Melk and about 100 OBB train stations. If you have an OBB VORTEILSCARD, your first hour is always free; if you become a Nextbike member, your entire first rental is free.
Another company to consider is Movelo, which specializes in electric bikes — a plus for Austria’s hilly regions.
Traveling by Boat
The Danube, which courses through 10 countries on its journey from Germany to the Black Sea, is one of Europe’s most famous rivers. One of the most popular stretches in Austria for boat cruises is the 22-mile distance between Krems and Melk in Wachau, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes wineries, medieval towns, castles and the Melk Abbey. DDSG, founded in 1829, offers several options, including a combination cruise and bike package that allows you to experience the Danube cycling path. There are also high-speed boats that travel from Vienna to Bratislava and Budapest.
–written by Beth Reiber