Are you planning a road trip in another country? For a first-timer, renting and driving a car abroad can be a nerve-wracking experience, and even seasoned drivers struggle with different road and driving conditions, plus a potentially very different culture and standards.
We love road trips and have driven in various parts of the world where things are a little different from back home. Driving on the left or on the right, miles or kilometers, manual or automatic, tarmac or gravel, sea level or high mountains, you name it. Many countries later, we have experienced a bit of everything you can expect while renting and driving a car abroad and thus decided to put together a selection of tips for you to prepare your own road trip.
Here are 14 tips for renting and driving a car abroad.
1. Driving laws
First things first. Before you get started on driving, plan a bit ahead and get acquainted with the local driving laws. While these days most things are pretty much the same everywhere and easy to understand, there are still certain ones that are not. For example, traffic signs and road markings may be slightly different than what you’re used to.
Important basic things to find out before driving:
- Side of the road (drive on the right or on the left)
- Speed limits (inside of towns, outside of towns, and highways)
- Miles or kilometers
- Special signs and signals
In some particular cases there are special rules. For example, can you make a right turn on a red signal? Who has priority at a roundabout? Do you need headlights on during the day? Just to name a few.
2. Country’s driving style
Getting used to a different driving style is probably the biggest challenge when driving abroad. Whether on a big and busy city or a remote stretch of road, it can be significantly different from your day to day driving habits.
The two main things to bear in mind when driving abroad are to drive defensively and to expect the unexpected. These may sound like a cliché but they’re very important so you can get used to the country and study how other people drive.
Stay alert and pay extra attention the first hours or days while on the road.
3. Choosing car
Choosing a car is very important and you should get one that suits the conditions you’re likely to face on the road as well as the type of trip. When renting and driving a car abroad, picking a car or car type that you’re used to definitely helps, but if you’re driving up the mountains, maybe a tiny city car is not the most suitable one. Choose accordingly.
Things to consider when booking a car:
- total price (including any hidden costs such as an additional driver)
- included insurance (excess and optional coverage)
- limits (eg: mileage)
- restrictions (eg: traveling to other countries)
- extras (eg: GPS)
When you collect your car, don’t forget to validate if everything is in order. Check for damage and take pictures! Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you don’t understand something about the car.
In some cases adapting to a car takes longer, for example when you’re driving a bigger car, on a different side of the road, or a manual car instead of an automatic (or vice-versa!). Take your time to get used to the car and road conditions.
Insurance is very important and you should always get comprehensive coverage. Car rental companies require you have at least third-party insurance and, in certain countries, extra coverage is also mandatory. An option that is usually available is the possibility to reduce the excess in case of accident or damage.
Travel insurance and credit cards can provide extra coverage and you should check if you qualify for these with your providers.
Insurance jargon is purposely confusing. Some types of coverage you may see:
- CDW – Collision Damage Waiver
- LDW – Loss Damage Waiver
- SCDW – Super Collision Damage Waiver
- TP – Theft Protection
You can’t rent and drive a car without bringing along some very important documents. Here’s what you mustn’t forget:
- driving license
- id (passport or identity card)
- credit card
The first two are pretty self-explanatory. A credit card is almost always required in order to guarantee your booking and for a deposit which is freed upon returning the car. Local debit cards can usually also be used for deposits.
Certain countries require you have an IDP – International Driving Permit, which is basically a temporary document with your license translated into multiple languages. Check if the countries you are traveling to require this document.
Navigation with GPS is super easy but yet the biggest mistake one makes is to follow the instructions blindly. Check your whereabouts and the route to make sure you’re going the right way. Having an idea of where you are going and taking a glance at a map will help you select the proper route.
While a lot of the modern rental cars already include a built-in GPS, hiring one is usually an expensive extra. We currently use MAPS.ME for offline navigation on our phones, a nice app which is frequently updated and works pretty well.
7. Drive to the conditions
Always drive to the conditions. This usually means paying attention to the weather conditions (rain, ice, snow, etc..) and the actual road surface. For example, speeding on a rainy day with precarious road conditions (potholes!) is not a good idea nor is driving on a gravel road where there’s less traction like you would do on a normal one.
Check out the local weather forecast and road closures before you venture out for the day.
8. Take it slowly
If there’s one we can’t stress enough when planning a road trip is to take it slowly. There’s a tendency to overestimate the distances and try to drive 500 km in a day. Word of advice, don’t!
Don’t drive too much in a day or consecutive days and make frequent stops. Sightseeing is much better outside the car.
9. Crossing borders
If you’re on a road trip that crosses multiple countries, you need to make sure your rental agreement allows it. This is usually due to insurance limitations. Get in touch with the rental company in order to arrange the necessary paperwork – usually a green piece of paper.
In certain cases, a country may be off-limits and you’d be risking being uninsured if you take the car there. Some countries will make you buy special insurance at the border.
10. Toll roads
Toll roads can be an extra expense on a road trip. While there are usually alternatives, toll roads are usually the most efficient way to get to a place. Make sure you know the rules of the roads you’re using.
There a few different systems for toll roads
- Manual – you stop and pay (potentially with a ticket you collected earlier)
- Automatic – you need a device associated with your car
- Electronic tolls – your license plate is used for charging
- Vignette – proves that you’ve paid to use the roads
In some places, you’ll also have to pay for bridges and tunnels.
Parking is only a problem in cities where you most likely will have to pay to park. Our recommendation is to park in a place where you can easily access public transportation and take it from there. Moving around a city with your car rarely is a good idea.
Be aware of your surroundings and park in safe place. Depending on the country, your can ask your accommodation hosts for specific recommendations.
Outside cities, make sure you park legally. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you can park anywhere you like.
Make sure you know which type of fuel your car uses. The choices are, normally, between gasoline and diesel, and selecting the wrong one will get you and your car into trouble.
Also, don’t forget to return the car with the agreed fuel level, which usually means full. Returning with less than you’re supposed to will lead to extra charges. Another option is to pre-pay a full tank so you can return it empty.
Safety is as important when renting and driving a car abroad as when you do it back home. Follow the usual recommendations:
- wear seat belts
- don’t drink and drive
- don’t use your phone
- lock your car
- keep your valuables out of sight
An important thing to have is the country’s emergency number, for example, 112 or 911.
And now the most important thing – enjoy! Take these tips into consideration but don’t stress too much and your trip.
Bonus – country guides
Check out our country-specific guides for more in-depth information:
Ready for your road trip? Don’t forget these tips for renting and driving a car abroad
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