French Tolls and Swiss Taxes

We crossed the Swiss border last year without knowing what we were doing. As in France and Spain, there’s a fee in Switzerland to use the motorway network. Unlike French and Spanish charges, Swiss fees are calculated by time rather than by distance. Drivers don’t need to pay Swiss road tax if they avoid major highways. Unfortunately for us, using minor roads often involves negotiating high and narrow passes frequently covered in thick snow during the winter and early spring. Our heavily laden front wheel drive Hymer performs poorly if there’s a little sleet or ice, even on a flat surface. Attempting snow-covered twenty-five percent gradients flanked by unprotected vertical drops into distant river beds would be asking for trouble.

Switzerland’s motorway vignette is like an old style UK road tax disc. It’s available at all border crossings if the checkpoint is manned, or in nearby shops if it’s not. Complying with the motorway tax regulations is simple; you part with forty Swiss francs for a twelve months permit, regardless of the time you plan to spend in Switzerland, and then you place the paper disc on your windscreen. It must be fixed in the right position using the correct adhesive. Any deviation from the precise mounting instructions is likely to result in a stiff fine and immersion in a giant vat filled with bubbling fondue.

Last year’s border crossing was at an unmanned checkpoint. We purchased a vignette from a nearby store, spent an eternity making sure that the disc placement was correct and then enjoyed ten glorious days in mountainous Switzerland. We congratulated ourselves on a trouble free stay as we crossed the Swiss border into Lichtenstein. Our smugness was premature. A gun-toting border control officer flagged us down to ask why we were using an inappropriate tax disc.

We discovered that vignettes are for vehicles weighing less than three and a half tonnes. Our Hymer is two tonnes over the vignette weight limit. We endured a lengthy roadside interrogation followed by half an hour of laborious form filling in the border control office. We expected a hefty fine for rule breaking. Much to our delight we were given a refund for the difference between the vignette purchase price and the total big vehicle tax due for our ten-day stay. The cash was handed over with an unsmiling recommendation to buy the correct road tax on our next visit.

Frustratingly, vehicle tax for heavy vehicles can only be purchased at manned border crossings. A form has to be completed which isn’t available anywhere else. More by luck than judgement our checkpoint this year was fully staffed.

We slowed down to ask an officer glaring at passing vehicles where we could pay our tax. He waved in the general direction of a steel and glass roadside office next to four lanes of crawling traffic. We couldn’t understand why there was so little parking available for the hundreds of lorries, buses and large motorhomes passing through the checkpoint every day. Most are too big to use many of the mountain roads. They need to use the motorway network. The owners are obliged to complete a written form before they can drive on the country’s major highways, so there should have been acres of large vehicle parking available. There wasn’t.

I squeezed the Hymer into a small space on an empty disabled parking bay. I conveniently ignored the disapproving stare from a nearby policeman and many honking horns from frustrated lorry drivers trying to avoid the Hymer’s protruding back end. We marched into the tax office to pay our fee and to complain about the checkpoint’s meagre parking facilities.

Imagine my surprise when a solitary clerk in an otherwise empty building smiled and offered me some unexpected advice. “We have an agreement with the Swiss government. They’ve promised not to offer currency exchange as long as we don’t offer road tax.” He pointed to a large neon sign above his building’s front door. “That’s why the sign says twenty-four-hour money exchangeThe tax office is next door.” He shook his head as he returned to his paperwork.

There was, of course, acres of available parking for drivers needing to stop for tax. We purchased ours and left as quickly as we could before we made any more foolish mistakes.

Our last two days on the road have strained our modest travel budget. We have driven four hundred miles, mainly on the excellent French motorway network. Pain-free driving in France comes at a cost. Ours was £73.21 in toll charges, £0.21 per motorway mile, plus £0.26 a mile for diesel. Pricey, but not a bad total for moving our house and all our worldly goods to another country.


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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 8 comments
andy - April 5, 2018

Just to point out that there is no such thing as ‘Road Tax’; what we have is in fact ‘Vehicle Excise Duty (VED)’, colloquially known as ‘Car Tax’. The problem with referring to ‘Road Tax’, apart from being incorrect, is that it suggests motorists fund the road network – it doesn’t and they don’t. It is, in fact, just the same as any other general duty such as that placed on alcohol, fossil fuels and other goods, and indeed VAT. For any tax or duty to be hypothecated for a specific purpose requires an act of Parliament. That was the case for Vehicle Excise Duty between 1920 and 1937, when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, rescinded the act because a) it didn’t cover the costs and supporting the road infrastructure and b) it engendered an attitude amongst motorists that they ‘owned’ the road and entitled them to priority and privilege over horse-drawn vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. Roads are paid for by general taxation and provided for use by for free. It’s worth noting that, as VED is based on emission levels of air pollution, 75% of newly registered motor vehicles are zero rated for VED and so pay nothing. More information on http://ipayroadtax.com/ .

    Paul Smith - April 6, 2018

    Thank you for the clarification, Andy.

Richard Langdon - April 5, 2018

Hi Paul, I remember a long time ago my wife and i drove from Calais to Zermatt then into the top of Italy and back into France,that was an unmanned check point.Down to and along the south of France then back to Calais.All that way and i never payed any fee’s or taxes the whole trip, i guess those day’s are gone!?.

    Paul Smith - April 6, 2018

    Much as we object to paying motorway tolls Richard, I’ve calculated that they don’t actually cost us more in the long run than taking minor roads. If we consider the extra time taken to reach a destination using minor roads, the additional fuel we would use is about the same as the fee to use the motorways.

Tony - April 5, 2018

Maybe a good idea to be tried in the UK.

    Paul Smith - April 6, 2018

    Don’t you think that there are enough taxes already in the UK Tony?

Guy - April 13, 2018

Hi Paul, I enjoy reading about your adventures on the near continent, but I miss being able to rate your blog…it takes away my feeling of power! Many the time I contemplated what a one star would do to your heart rate before leaving a four or five…
Also, although I appreciate the reasons behind the random appearances of your missives, I had this crazy expectation that they were going to be shorter, but more plentiful. They just seem to be shorter. And not so many photos.
And yes, we have enough tax to pay in the UK already, and we’re stupidly optimistic that the windfall we get when we finally leave the EU will enable all the potholes in our roads to he magically repaired!😊

    Paul Smith - April 14, 2018

    I’m sorry I can’t post more regularly Guy. Much as I enjoy writing blog posts and replying to many website comments and email resulting from them, I have to focus on a more pressing need. We own two boats, one boat more than we can afford. Our income can’t keep up with the high cost of maintaining one and preparing the other for sale. We need more money. I have to find a job. The website’s maintenance is another financial burden. It no longer provides me with an income. After eight years of constant blogging, I may have to either close or neglect the site for a while until I can afford both the time and money to focus on it again. It’s a sad state of affairs, but food on the table is more important right now than words on the internet!


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