Renting a car can be a great alternative to relying on public transportation when traveling abroad. Having your own vehicle provides you with the opportunity to do things on your own time, take a detour when the mood strikes, and reach places you’d only otherwise dream about.
But renting a car in another country also comes with its own set of potential challenges. Here are four important things to consider.
1. Make sure you’re allowed to drive
If you’re traveling to an English-speaking country, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get by with just your U.S. driver’s license. However, many countries will require you to get an International Driving Permit (IDP). It’s a good idea to at least explore the option, especially since you may need to present one along with your U.S. license at the rental counter—depending upon where you’re renting your vehicle—or if, heaven forbid, law enforcement officials stop you while driving abroad.
An IDP is essentially a piece of paper that translates your driver’s license information into 10 different languages. It’s recognized by over 150 countries, but you’ll need to get yours before you take off for adventure from either the American Automobile Association or the National Auto Club. These are the only two organizations authorized to issue IDPs in the U.S., and your IDP must be issued in your home country.
Don’t let any of this put you off. Getting an IDP is very simple. All you need is a completed IDP application, a valid driver’s license issued by your state’s department of motor vehicles, two passport-sized photos of yourself, and payment for the IDP, which usually runs in the $20 – $25 range.
Also, you have to be at least 18 years of age to get an IDP. This is a good reminder to check the minimum and maximum driving age with the rental car company in the country of your destination. Yes, you read that right … a maximum. Some countries, such as Ireland, won’t rent a vehicle to anyone over the age of 70.
2. Make sure you’re covered
Most U.S. auto insurers won’t cover you while you’re driving abroad, with the possible exceptions of Canada and Mexico. So unless you have a credit card that offers rental car insurance, you’ll probably need to purchase your insurance from the rental company itself.
Your first step is to check with your insurer and your credit card company to see what—if any—coverage you already have. And, while we’re on the subject of credit cards, book your rental car well in advance with a credit card to help you lock in the best rental rate possible.
Getting back to insurance, as a general rule, the U.S. State Department recommends that you get roughly the same international insurance coverage that you have here. Be aware, however, that some countries require additional coverages (Italy, for example, requires theft coverage). And because the laws do vary from country to country, be clear about where you plan to travel. While your insurance may cover you in the first country you visit, it might not cover you when you cross borders.
3. Make sure you’re comfortable
In many countries, manual transmissions are the norm and you’ll pay a premium for an automatic. But driving overseas is often more stressful than driving at home. The roads may be more poorly paved, narrow, winding, or just plain dangerous. And if you’re going to a country like England or Australia, you’ll need to be prepared to drive on the left side of the road. Consider the circumstances, your level of comfort, and remember that an overseas trip is not the time to learn to drive a stick!
It is, however, a good time to make sure you have a reliable map. If you own a GPS, you can usually download international maps for a fee from your GPS provider’s website. That said, it’s a good idea to compare the cost of adding a GPS to your car rental versus going the download route. Rental car companies traditionally charge by the day or by the week for a GPS rental, so depending on how long you’ll have the car, you may be better off renting the GPS at, say, $12 a day than paying around $100 for an international map download.
4. Make sure you know the rules
Stop signs, speed limits, staying alert for pedestrians and livestock … these are all things we’re used to doing when driving and which tend to be pretty consistent across continents. Other rules of the road are more specific, however, and some are flat out unwritten.
Always research driving culture for the country you’re planning to visit to make sure you stay safe and are abiding by the local customs. From passing other vehicles—or letting them pass you—to seat belt laws and alcohol limits, even rules about honking your horn, you’ll feel better knowing you’re doing your best to drive like a local.
One other thing: make sure you do everything you can to keep yourself from looking like a tourist. Always put your luggage in the trunk and put the GPS and any tourism books or pamphlets you may have in the glove box. Lock your doors when you aren’t in the car and exercise the same care you’d take when it comes to protecting yourself from thieves at home.
It’s rare to have the freedom of the open road ahead of you, much less in a foreign country. Take time to plan and understand the details of your rental in advance so you can relax and enjoy the experience when you reach your destination.