In most of the sprawl-happy U.S.A., it's hard to get anywhere or do anything without getting behind the wheel of your own car. Most of us see a car as something akin to a wallet or purse: Life without one, even for a day, would be cause for panic. So when we Americans go on an independent vacation in a foreign land, we often think we're going to need a rental car to get around. But do we?
No, actually, we don't. In fact, renting a car in a foreign country can be a bad idea, entailing endless expense and hassle. The car and gas will cost more than in the U.S., you may need to purchase insurance, and the chances of something going wrong are much higher than they are here. Read a year's worth of ombudsman columns, including those of our own Christopher Elliott, and you'll get the impression that schemers and scammers run every overseas rental car office.
Don't forget the parking, either — and the tolls. The toll road from Cancun to Mérida in Mexico costs more than $25. A trip from Paris to Marseille will cost you $75 in tolls. Driving from one end of Japan to the other on toll roads will cost you $330!
Fortunately, you can get around just fine in much of the world without ever putting a key in the ignition. And I don't mean just in the cities, where you can use public transportation. You can also get around just fine in the countryside and get from one city to another pretty easily — once you let go of the idea that you must have a car. Here are four transportation alternatives to consider for your next international vacation.
Hire a car and driver
Having your own chauffeur may sound expensive, but in dozens of countries it's actually cheaper to hire a driver than to rent your own car. On four different continents, I've hired a local driver to take me sightseeing all day for a price between $20 and $70, including fuel. This is especially easy to do anywhere you see a surplus of taxi drivers. Most drivers would rather bank a solid day's fee than drive around continually looking for short-hop fares. If you need help finding a driver, ask at your hotel or at a local travel agency office. You may end up with the owner's underemployed cousin, but he'll know his way around the area far better than you.
Use public transportation
In almost every international city you can get around fine taking local trains, subways, buses and taxis. Even in European cities where public transportation is getting pricey ($8 London Tube rides, anyone?), it would be hard to do better financially by driving yourself. Public transportation extends well beyond the cities, however. Intercity bus service is often comfortable and inexpensive, whether in Mexico, England, Turkey or Thailand. And while passenger trains are rare in Africa and Latin America, public railways are extensive in much of Europe and Asia.
Bike, hike or ski
If you work it out right, the transportation from one place to the next can be a key part of the trip. Adventure tour catalogs are full of self-powered options: weeklong river-rafting trips, cross-country skiing from inn to inn, biking in a loop around a scenic area, or lengthy hiking trips through mountains. Usually you move by body power from lodge to lodge or inn to inn, while a support vehicle carries everyone's baggage. But you don't have to spend thousands of dollars on an organized tour to get this kind of experience. Plenty of travelers strap on a backpack and hike along the Himalayas or the Alps, spending a very reasonable amount on food and lodging. In the winter, you can also move through the Alps on skis, trains and cable cars.
Snag a budget flight
As crazy as it sounds, in most of Europe and Southeast Asia you can often fly from one country to another — or within a large country — for less than it would cost you to rent a car and drive, even if you pay for airport taxis on both ends. For example, you can fly from Paris to Barcelona on several airlines for $60 to $70. If you search out rental cars in Paris at that price, you'll find that $70 a day gets you a two-door hatchback with manual transmission and no air conditioning — plus you will pay a drop-off charge on the other end. Similarly, while a one-way flight from Bangkok to Phuket in Thailand goes for under $30 if booked three weeks in advance, renting a Toyota Camry with automatic transmission from Hertz will cost you $85 per day. Visit WhichBudget.com to research air connections between any two cities.
True, renting a car sometimes makes a lot of sense. If you have rented a villa in a remote area and are carrying kids and groceries, there may not be another viable option. If you are traveling from one country inn to another in a sparsely populated region, a car is going to make it a whole lot easier, especially if you are traveling with a group or family. Just be sure you are renting for the right reason, not just because that's what you do in spread-out America.