Need wheels for your next trip abroad? There's more to consider than driving on the "other" side of the road. From international driving permits to liability insurance, renting a car in a foreign country can be a bit more complicated than renting one stateside. Here are some tips for getting a great deal, making sure you have the right documentation and driving safely while abroad.
Booking your car
Book in advance. Rental rates are almost always higher at the counter than they will be over the phone, even just 24 hours before pickup. If you have time, comparison shop. Visit the Web sites of several rental agencies and search for identical cars on your travel dates.
Whenever possible, make all car rental arrangements, from booking to payment, before you leave the United States. Doing it this way generally makes the process cheaper, easier, safer and less likely to include hidden clauses. Once you are overseas, shifting exchange rates, unfamiliar rental specs, language barriers and other cultural differences can cause unexpected problems.
Ask about weekend specials, late penalties and gas charges. Many hidden discounts or car rental hidden costs will not be explained at the time of rental, and it may be too late once you find out.
Ask what time a car is expected for drop-off. Many rental agencies begin charging for each 24-hour-period from the time of rental, and will bill a full day for cars returned after another 24-hour period begins.
Be aware that many countries have a minimum and maximum age for renters. Drivers under the age of 25 or over the age of 70 may face surcharges or not be permitted to rent at all.
Whenever possible, if you see an ad for a rental car special rate, clip the ad or write down the promotional code. Many of the best rates do not show up on agents' computer screens without a little prompting.
Always ask about senior citizen, AAA, credit card and frequent flier program discounts or add-on offers.
When making reservations for car rental pickups at an airport, choose a smaller car than you would typically desire. Airport fleets are often stocked with larger cars, as they are primarily used by business travelers, and you will often receive a free upgrade from a subcompact booking. Be aware, however, that European cars tend to be smaller than their American counterparts; while this might be useful if you're planning on driving on narrow country roads, it's not so great for those who are extra-tall, carrying a lot of luggage, or traveling with a family or large group. In these cases, don't take a risk — be sure to order the size you need just in case you don't get an upgrade.
Most European cars have manual transmissions, although automatic cars can be found, often at a price. If you can drive a stick shift, it could save you money and hassles. Driving in Europe is often more strenuous than driving in the United States, as back roads and even some highways tend to be hilly, winding and often precariously placed on a mountainside or ocean cliff. But don't expect one person to do all the driving. So if not everyone can drive a manual transmission, consider looking for an automatic. Also, if you're going to a country like England or Ireland, be sure everyone's comfortable with driving on the left side of the road — it can be challenging!
International driving permits
If you're traveling to an English-speaking country, chances are you'll be able to get by with an American driver's license. However, many other countries will ask that you also obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is basically just a piece of paper that translates your information into 10 different languages and is recognized by over 150 countries. If you are planning to rent a car abroad, you may be asked to present one along with your regular state license. You must be at least 18 years old to get an IDP.
To obtain one, go down to your local AAA with two passport photos (with your signature on the back of each) and a copy of your state-issued license. You will be asked to pay a fee of $15 for a one-year issue and fill out an application, which can be printed online beforehand if you want to get a head start. If you can't get to a local office or would rather apply by mail, print and complete the application and send it with two signed passport photos, your $15 payment and a photocopy of both sides of your driver's license to:
1000 AAA Drive
Heathrow, FL 32746
Attn: Mailstop #28
Beware of phony IDP's! Only two agencies in the U.S. are authorized to issue IDP's: the American Automobile Association and the American Automobile Touring Alliance. Hundreds of Web sites sell fakes, many charging over $100, believe it or not. For more information or to locate the AAA nearest you, go to the official AAA Web site.
Be sure to get your IDP before leaving home, as it must be issued in your home country. An IDP is not a license itself, merely a translation of the license issued in your country of residence. If you are stopped by law enforcement officials abroad, you must present both your IDP and your U.S. license. The only driving record you have, therefore, is within the United States, so obey the local driving rules! Any infraction or citation issued abroad will be waiting for you when you return home.
Check with the consulate or embassy of the country you're visiting to find out their policies on international drivers.
Know before you go
Make sure you have a realistic idea of how much you'll pay to fuel your car in the country you're visiting. Generally, drivers in the U.S. pay less at the pump than drivers in most other nations. Leave plenty of room in your budget for gas expenses.
Familiarize yourself with the local rules of the road well before you actually get into the car. Study up on such details as which side of the road to drive on, who has the right of way in a traffic circle and whether you're permitted to turn right on a red light. The best sources for this type of information are the country's consulate or embassy, or an up-to-date guidebook.
Check with your auto insurance company to see whether a rental car abroad would be covered under your current policy. Unless you're renting in Canada or Mexico, you probably won't be covered under your existing policy, so you'll need to purchase insurance from your rental car company at the time of booking. Be sure that your coverage, whatever the source, meets the foreign country's minimum coverage requirements.
Don't forget your map! Particularly if you're planning on driving extensively, the security of having a detailed road map or atlas is more than worth the price you'll pay for it. If you own a GPS, you can usually download international maps (for a fee) on your GPS provider Web site. For example, a selection of maps are available at Garmin.com and TomTom.com.
Most car rental companies offer GPS rentals, so check the GPS rental rates for your rental car before you purchase an international map from your GPS provider. Rates to rent a GPS are charged per day or per week; for a two-day car rental, you will be better off renting a GPS and paying, say, $12 per day than paying upwards of $100 for an international map download for the GPS you already own.