The Dent-Free Guide To Renting And Driving A Car Abroad

Jul 3, 2014

Matthew Brumley had researched his rental car in advance, found a good deal and booked early. Then he got to the counter in Cabo San Lucas, and the clerk asked him if he had insurance. He told her he did, but she insisted he needed extra coverage.

“That slapped on another $30 a day,” said Brumley, KPLU's travel expert. “Then there were taxes and VAT charges.”

By the time he got the bill, the car he reserved at $14.99 per day ended up costing about $43 per day.

Renting and driving a car in a foreign country can be vastly different from the experience in the United States and Canada. Here are Brumley’s tips:

1. Check For Extra Insurance: Your credit card might have you covered on this one. Call the customer service number or go to the website, and look for a “benefits” department. Many credit cards provide travel insurance and can quickly provide proof. Print it off and bring it along. Additional insurance (beyond whatever auto insurance you already carry) is mandatory in some countries.

2. Pick Up At The Airport: Brumley says it’s better to get your car at the airport, rather than in a city center, for two reasons: The first is that most airport car rental offices are open all the time, unlike city offices, where you could have a wait before you pick up your car. The second reason is to give yourself time to adjust to driving. Traffic is often less congested near airports, and roads tend to be bigger and more open.

Road signs like these in Ireland are fairly clear. But not all symbols mean the same things in the same countries. Research traffic signs before you get behind the wheel.
Road signs like these in Ireland are fairly clear. But not all symbols mean the same things in the same countries. Research traffic signs before you get behind the wheel.
Credit Ed Ronco

3. Study The Signs: The red octagon almost always means stop. The red triangle almost always means yield. But beyond that, there’s a lot of difference. In the United Kingdom, blue circles give you mandatory instructions, and red circles tell you what not to do. In Japan — another left-hand-drive country, a stop sign is a solid red triangle, not an octagon. The signs are easy to find on the internet in advance of your trip. And there are quizzes you can take, but they’re mostly for fun, and not meant as a comprehensive study guide. 

4. Beware Of Extra Charges: Gasoline can cost twice as much in a lot of foreign countries. Tolls can hit hard, too. “Just recently, I drove from Venice to Florence, and it was about $52 in road tolls,” Brumley said. That’s for a four-hour drive.

5. Automatic Vs. Stick — Specify: Manual transmissions are the norm for foreign rental cars. You will have to specifically request an automatic transmission, and it might cost extra.

6. GPS Is Worth It: You can rent a Garmin or TomTom unit for about $10 a day. Brumley says it’s worth it. “I remember driving for hours within a block of a hotel in Milan,” he said. “But there were so many one-ways, I couldn’t get to it.” And then there’s what happened to Clark Griswold and his family:

7. Go Small: In the U.S., we usually hope for an upgrade, from the economy size to the full-size sedan, or from the sedan to the SUV. But in a lot of foreign countries, roads are narrower and parking places are smaller. Get a little car, Brumley says. You’ll be happier.

8. Know The Restrictions: If you’re younger than 25, you could face a surcharge. If you’re older than 70 or 75, some countries might not even let you rent a car.

9. Shop For Deals: Book early and use comparison sites, like Hotwire.com or Kayak.com.

And of course, drive safely.

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Matthew Brumley is the founder of Earthbound Expeditions, which organizes group travel to destinations around the world for various clients, including KPLU. "Going Places" explores all aspects of getting from Point A to Point B, what to do once there, and in between. 

Have good stories about driving overseas? Been burned by fees? Tell us about it in the comments below.