When renting a car abroad, it pays to educate yourself on how to be safe and avoid unnecessary expenses. You will be a foreign driver in a country that has its own set of laws and customs. And as a foreigner, if you are not prepared, you could also be subject to rental car scams and unwarranted insurance costs.
Before embarking on your journey, familiarize yourself with that country’s basic “rules of the road”. The various regulations and road conditions in each country will be unfamiliar and will take some getting used to, and the driving habits of the locals will differ as well.
As a foreign driver, you will still need to be in compliance with that country’s laws. The laws governing drivers in the United States do not apply abroad. You can get fined for making a mistake, and pleading unfamiliarity with the laws in another country may not work to your benefit. This can be a stressor if you are not prepared.
On the plus side, having your own mode of transportation will allow you the freedom to visit areas that are off the tourist track.
16 Tips for Driving in a Foreign Country
- Many countries drive on the left side, making it more confusing when driving. There are also different traffic laws to be aware of, such as what vehicle needs to yield, diverse speed limits (that can change if it is raining), and more. Be aware of speed cameras that up your risk of getting pulled over if you are exceeding the speed limit.
- The road signs and directions are usually in a foreign language.
- Gas prices are much higher abroad than in the U.S.
- If traveling with children, find out what the law is regarding restraints and car seats. For example, in France, children under ten are not allowed in the front seat, unless the back seat is taken up with younger children. Car seats are usually required for children, so plan on bringing yours from home.
- You may be required to carry specific items in the vehicle. In France, drivers are to carry a warning triangle, spare bulbs, and a reflective jacket. Check if the rental company will include these items. If not, you may be responsible for purchasing them.
- If you are pulled over for a traffic offense, you may be expected to pay the penalty deposit on the spot. This amount is equal to the penalty or a set deposit for a court fine.
- Many countries have low emission zones where you will either have to pay a fee to drive through, or vehicles may be banned from entering at all.
- Most cars are a manual transmission with limited passenger space and small trunks. An automatic can add about 50% more to the cost.
- Many winding roads in the mountains or steep areas may be narrow and without guardrails.
- Certain countries may require special road permits (instead of tolls) to use their divided highways. You may be fined if you do not have one.
- There may be an age restriction for drivers that are allowed to rent a car. Typically, if you are under the age of 25 or over 70, the rental agency may refuse to rent you a vehicle, or they may add a surcharge. Those under 21 generally are not allowed to rent. If you add an extra driver, there is an added daily charge.
- Many countries have zero tolerance for alcohol (including minimal amounts of alcohol that can be smelled on your breath) or drug usage while driving. Criminal penalties can be severe and may result in prison sentences.
- Several countries have strict penalties on the use of a hand-held cell phone while driving. For example, in the United Kingdom, using a cell phone while driving could result in severe fines, and if an accident occurs, jail sentencing could result.
- Some roads may be dangerous and should be avoided. Check with the U.S. Department of State or that country’s embassy to find out what areas are not safe to travel in.
- Pedestrian Warning – When crossing the street in many foreign countries, oncoming traffic approaches from the opposite direction of what you are used to. Many U.S. citizens are injured abroad while crossing the street. Remind your children of this important safety aspect.
- International Driving Permit – An International Driving Permit (IDP), in conjunction with your driver’s license, is required in most countries. An IDP is a translation of your driver’s license in ten languages. You generally cannot rent a car without it, and if you get pulled over by the police, you can be in trouble if you do not have one. An IDP is accepted in most countries. These must be attained before you leave the U.S. You can get an IDP from AAA, or if you require expedited service, check out Fastport Passport.
For helpful information on European Touring Tips and a “country by country guide to local rules for drivers,” visit the European Automobile Association (AA).
6 Tips for Renting a Car Abroad
1. Plan on renting a vehicle that fits in with the locals. Criminals target more expensive cars and SUV’s, so it is best to avoid those.
2. Insurance Needs – Before leaving the U.S., know what insurance coverage you currently have for rentals abroad. Check with your auto insurance provider or credit card companies to get the specifics on what is covered. Some rental companies in Europe may include collision damage waiver or liability insurance with their rentals.
Be aware that if you purchased a travel insurance policy that includes rental cars, it may not include liability insurance. Be sure to clarify exactly what is covered. If your rental car is damaged and you do not have the necessary insurance, you could end up paying thousands of dollars for repairs or the replacement cost of the vehicle, in addition to “loss of use” charges by the agency.
Some countries require that you purchase insurance specifically for that country (like Mexico) or from the car rental agency. The rental agencies oftentimes pressure renters into purchasing its insurance or collision damage waiver. By being aware of what coverage you have, you can make an educated decision on whether you need to purchase it or not.
3. Beware of Hidden Fees – Car rental companies oftentimes charge hidden fees. For example, if you return the car to a different location, you could face a hefty charge. There are also charges for mileage if the rental does not include unlimited miles. Late fees can equate to a full day rental, even if you are only fifteen minutes late.
Rental agencies will charge substantially more for filling up the tank (some charge double), if the vehicle is returned without a full tank of gas. Fill it up right before you return it. Some agencies have been known to charge the customer if the needle is not exactly on the full mark.
4. Temporary Charges on Credit Cards – Many car rental companies place a temporary charge (it may be the value of the vehicle) to the credit card you use. This then ties up your available credit. If you do not have enough credit available on your card, the rental company may refuse to rent you the car. When you return the vehicle, have the agency confirm that this charge is removed from your credit card. Some agencies have been known to leave the charge on for several weeks.
5. Before adding any extras such as a GPS navigation system, check on how much it will add to the daily rental fee. The rental agent may try to talk you into these extras, but may not let you know that they come with a hefty charge.
6. Avoid Car Rental Scams – Unfortunately, some car rental agencies have been known for billing customers for damage that they were not responsible for. Customers have received a bill for repairs several weeks after the car was returned. To avoid this problem, take before and after pictures (or a video) of the inside and outside of the vehicle and point out any damages. Make a list of the damages found and have the rental agent sign off on it.
I realize that this can be difficult if it is dark, raining, or you are exhausted, but without this added protection, you could end up paying for repairs on damage that you did not do. When you return the car, have the agent sign off that there was no damage
For additional information on renting a car, check out Rental Cars: How to Protect Yourself from Financial Losses.
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