Tips for Driving Abroad

Renting a car in a foreign country doesn't have to be as challenging as it seems. 

Man in front of foreign road signs, renting a car abroad, illus. by Ron Chan, image

Driving in another country can be a headache, but these helpful tips can lessen the pain.

For many travelers, driving in a foreign country sounds daunting. But dealing with the differences—whether in language, customs, or traffic regulations—doesn’t have to set your teeth on edge. It’s worth the challenge if only for the freedom a rental car affords. “As long as you know what to expect, you can just see it as part of the adventure,” says AAA Travel counselor Toni Snyder, who offers these tips for driving abroad.

Get permitted An International Driving Permit is always recommended, and in many countries it’s required. “In Germany, for instance,” Snyder says, “some agencies won’t rent you a car without one.” You can pick up a $15 permit, valid for a year, at any AAA branch.

Consider your coverage Travelers often erroneously assume that their standard vehicle policy will cover them abroad. “Your car insurance may not work outside the United States,” says Snyder, who cautions that most credit card insurance perks won’t cover you either. You can buy insurance when you make your car reservation, but even that won’t cover everything. The only way to guarantee complete protection, Snyder says, is to purchase inclusive insurance when you arrive at the car rental counter.

Start slowly In roughly two-thirds of the countries on earth, motorists drive on the right side of the road. If you’re visiting one of the other places—England, Ireland, and Australia, among others—consider practicing on lightly traveled roads with low speed limits to get accustomed to driving on the opposite side of the road.

Learn the local rules Highway speed limits vary from country to country. So do many other regulations: In Sweden, for instance, headlights must be kept on even in daylight. “It’s never a bad idea to drop by the tourist board when you arrive to acquaint yourself with local laws and customs,” Snyder says. While you’re there, pick up detailed road maps, too.

Beware of borders Rental companies often charge steep fees for picking up a car in one country and dropping it off in another. And in some cases, Snyder says, crossing borders in a rental car isn’t allowed at all. If you plan on visiting more than one country in your travels, it’s simpler—and often cheaper—to fly from one city to another and arrange for rentals in each place.

Illustration by Ron Chan

This article was first published in March 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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