Saturday, July 27, 2013

A Guide to Driving Overseas

Highway in the Burren, Ireland

When traveling overseas, one of the first questions to consider is whether to rent a car, and try and drive yourself around to the various tourist sites you want to see, or whether you should rely on group tours and/or public transportation.  Today's article will focus on the pros and cons of driving in foreign countries, and a few things to consider.  NOTE:  for purposes of this blog post, Canada doesn't count as a "foreign country".  Driving in Canada is really no different than driving in the U.S., except that gas is a little more expensive, and your biggest hazards come from moose, caribou, and the occasional polar bear.

Why Drive?

We'll start with the most obvious question - why would you consider driving in a foreign country?  There's really two main reasons, putting aside if you are a road trip freak like me:  there are things worth visiting that aren't easily accessible by public transit, or you're trying to get a more personalized, private experience than going on a group tour.  The second is perhaps the one to consider the most; while a guided tour can be arranged pretty much anywhere, even after factoring in the cost of a rental car, gas, and admission fees to wherever you plan on going, taking the car may end up being less expensive than arranging guided tours.  Plus, you have the freedom to spend your day and explore at your own pace.  No waiting for stragglers to return to the bus, no concerns about whether you'll have enough time to finish that hike, and no worrying about whether you'll like what's on the itinerary or not. 

What Should I Consider When Renting a Car?

If you're contemplating renting a car in your foreign destination, the first thing to think about is, well, how you're going to rent the car.  Most (but not all!) foreign countries will rent to Americans, as long as you present a valid driver's license.  Or, you can head to the local AAA office and pay $15 for an "International Driver's License", which is accepted in most countries for a limited period.  ALWAYS research the requirements, though; a U.S. driver's license isn't valid in all countries, and in some cases, it's only valid for a set period of time (for example, 30 days), after which you'll have to obtain a local license.  The last thing you want is to make a bunch of plans, then show up at the rental counter and be told that they won't rent a car to you because you don't have the proper paperwork.

Assuming the license issue is a non-issue, the other thing to remember is that in many countries, automatic transmission is the exception rather than the rule.  If you don't know how to drive a stick, make triple sure that the car you've reserved has an automatic.  Be aware that since automatic rentals are unusual, especially in Europe, you will probably have to pay more, and if you forget to specifically reserve one, you will probably be SOL when you show up at the counter, especially during peak seasons.

Next, be sure you understand the insurance requirements in your foreign destination.  U.S. auto insurance may or may not be valid in the country you plan to visit; the same is true of any primary or secondary insurance offered by your credit card.  Call your insurance company and/or credit card before you leave to verify exactly what kind of coverage you have.  In some cases, the foreign country may require non-locals to purchase various types of insurance coverage in order to rent a vehicle, either liability, loss damage waiver, or some combination of the two.  Again, double check what you are covered for, and most importantly, DON'T rely on the rental company to tell you what you need!  Research the requirements independently on the internet, or by checking with the local consulate.  If the rental counter attempts to push insurance on you that you know you don't need, politely, but firmly, push back.  If the agent refuses to budge, and you have no other options to rent from someone else, at the least, write out a statement on the contract that you are paying the insurance charge under protest, and get the agent to initial it.  That way, if you need to dispute the charge when you return home, you at least have some documentation that you disagreed with the charge at the time of rental.

And finally, make sure you perform a thorough inspection of the vehicle, inside and out, BEFORE leaving the lot.  The easiest way to do this is to either photograph or video the vehicle with your smartphone or camera (make sure the time/date stamp feature is turned on).  If you find damage, insist that the agent note the damage on your rental form, even if it's a small ding.  There have been far too many stories out there of foreign rental agencies attempting damage claim scams on foreign renters, and the last thing you want when you're returning the car and trying to catch your flight is a fight with the agent about a $1,500 damage bill they're trying to stick you with.  Again, if they insist that you pay before leaving, write out a statement that you are paying under protest, and demand itemized documentation of the charges.

If you're unsure of who to rent from, you can try Auto Europe (they actually rent in many countries outside of Europe, too).  You pay in advance, and are issued a voucher for a vehicle at a name-brand agency; you an occasionally find pretty good discounts here, such as additional insurance thrown in for free.  I used them for a rental in Ireland, and it worked out fine.

How About the Actual Driving?

Bottom line is, driving is a piece of cake in some countries, and an experience I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy in others.  Before you make plans to rent a car and drive, research driving conditions and laws in the countries you plan to visit.  The State Department website provides general information, but also do a Google/Yahoo/Bing search.  You'll find hundred of travel bloggers who have advice to offer on driving in pretty much any country. 

If you're visiting a British-style country, the thing that might worry you is driving on the wrong side of the road.  I've driven in both Australia and Ireland, and while it takes a little getting used to - I had this annoying habit of turning on the windshield wipers instead of my turn signal for a day or two - it's not as big a deal as you think it is, at least in rural areas.  But, if the thought of driving on the left just freaks you out beyond hope, then you probably shouldn't.

Remember also that while basic driving laws are generally pretty consistent around the world, actual observance and enforcement of laws varies widely.  In more developed countries, such as Western Europe and Australia, driving isn't that much different from driving in the U.S., except for the driving on the left issue in some countries.  Signage is plentiful, roads are in good condition, laws are similar to what you find here, and most other drivers follow traffic rules (just beware of the proliferation of speed cameras - you'll have a nasty, expensive surprise in the mail a couple of months later if you get zapped for speeding by a robocop in your rental car).  The one thing to keep in mind, though, is that driving inside large cities outside the U.S. can be challenging.  Most cities, especially in Europe, don't have freeways running through city centers, so you will be faced with traversing narrow, congested streets, and most importantly, parking can be an impossible exercise, both because spaces are small and limited, and it can be difficult to determine what is an isn't a legal space.  Also, in many countries, the "freeways" connecting major areas are in fact tollways, so make sure you have some local currency on hand to pay the tolls.

In less developed countries, though, this can be a challenge.  Signage can be nonexistent and/or not in English and congestion can be a problem, and most importantly, the roads can be in poor condition, and fellow drivers don't follow traffic laws.  Plus, safety can be an issue in rural areas; some areas of Africa, Asia, and Central/South America have issues with bandits harassing drivers, especially at night.  India is a prime, if extreme, example, where traffic rules are routinely ignored, animals can be a hazard, even in cities, and foreign drivers are pretty much automatically declared at fault in the event of an accident.  I would think twice about driving in places like India, unless this is your idea of a good time:

Yeah, I'll pass.

What Would I Do?

I'm a road trip fanatic, so I like driving in other parts of the world, but with limitations.  I wouldn't think twice about driving in Europe, Australia/New Zealand, or even more developed countries in South and Central America, but I would avoid driving in large cities, i.e. London, Dublin, Buenos Aires, etc.  You're better off using public transit in the city, and then renting a car at the airport on your way out of town.  Or, if you're driving to a large metro area, consider staying on the outskirts of town and taking the train or bus into the city (as an added bonus, hotels can be considerably cheaper in the suburbs as opposed to the city center).  I would have to seriously think about driving in a less developed country, though.  I wouldn't even try it in Asia or most of Africa.  Pay the extra money and hire a guide to drive you around - seriously, you're talking a few extra bucks a day.  But if you insist on being adventurous, or if you just have a death wish, do yourself a favor and don't drive after dark. 

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