Ten Tips for Renting a Car Abroad6 min read
You can get to a remarkable variety of places and tourist attractions by way of plane, train, bus, and boat. Sometimes, though, the only way to veer off the beaten path and explore lesser-known destinations is to have your own set of wheels.
Renting a car is relatively simple in the U.S. — aside from navigating all of the “extras” that rental car companies pressure you into purchasing — but the process gets more complicated when traveling abroad. Here are a few things to keep in mind when renting a car in a foreign country.
Assess your comfort level
It is important to carefully consider whether you’ll feel comfortable driving in the country you plan to visit, as it is not always a given. While renting a car may seem like a great way to get from point A to point B, you’d be wise to review your itinerary for potential complications, such as driving through a traffic-choked city or navigating narrow cliff roads. Take time to understand the country’s rules of the roads, as the regional driving style may be unfamiliar or jarring, particularly if you’re not familiar with the route. Once you factor in parking and other considerations, choosing another mode of transportation may ultimately be less of a hassle than renting a car.
Choose between automatic and manual transmission
Americans tend to forget that much of the world drives manual-transmission vehicles. As a result, foreign rental car companies may only have a small inventory of automatic vehicles, which tend to be larger in size compared to manual-transmission options. Be prepared to pay a premium for automatic vehicles, particularly for American brands.
Match the vehicle to your needs
It may be tempting to focus on price when evaluating rental car options, but remember that every driving trip is different. You may need a 4WD vehicle with a high clearance if you’re planning to travel on rutted dirt roads in Iceland, whereas you may prefer a small car to match the scale of narrow city streets in France. Of course, you’ll also need to factor in the numbers of passengers and quantity of luggage when determining how much interior and trunk space you need. If you wish to blend in with the locals, just keep in mind that what is appropriate in the U.S. in terms of vehicle size and style is not always the norm in other countries.
Ensure it fits your itinerary
When researching car rental options, make sure the car rental arrangements will work well with your broader travel plans. Consider whether it makes more sense, for example, to rent a vehicle from the airport or from a location in the city based on where you’re staying and will need to go. Determine also whether you’ll need to drop off the vehicle in a different location from where you pick it up, as that will likely add to the overall rental cost. Also avoid planning your trip in such a way where you end up paying for your car to sit idly during a multi-day layover in a single place.
Know your international insurance coverage
Your domestic auto policy probably won’t cover you abroad, but your credit card might include international coverage. Visa, for example, will cover physical damage and theft of the vehicle, as well as towing charges, if you use their Signature card to pay for the entire rental agreement and decline the optional collision or damage waiver offered by the rental company. This does not, however, include personal injury or liability or cover damages to other vehicles. As always, exclusions apply so be sure to read the fine print before you make a selection.
Beware unexpected charges
Even if you’ve done your homework and know what add-on options to decline, be prepared for additional charges that may balloon the cost of renting a car. The appealing $21/day rental rate may end up costing you twice as much or more once you factor in all charges and fees, including:
- One-way drop off fees if you return the car at a different rental car location
- Additional driver fee
- Surcharge for drivers under 25 or over 70
- Airport surcharges if renting a car from an airport location
- Licensing fees, sales tax and VAT
- After-hours fees (e.g., to rent a car on a Sunday when the office is closed)
- Optional add-ons such as car seats or GPS
- Temporary hold charges on your credit card while you have possession of the car
No matter what coverage you decline and add-ons you select online, be prepared to go through it all over again when picking up the car in person.
Check for a weekly rate
If you plan to rent a car for an extended period, check to see whether there is a discounted weekly rate. You may be surprised to learn that the cost of renting a vehicle for five or six days is comparable to renting it for the entire week. Before finalizing an agreement, make sure you also understand how pick up and drop off times impact price. This will help you avoid the surprise of being charged the equivalent of two days for a 26-hour rental or being assessed a hefty late fee for returning the car after the designated drop-off time.
Book in advance
As with booking various other modes of transportation, it is often best to reserve a rental car well in advance of your trip, particularly during peak tourist season. This will ensure a greater availability of vehicles from which to select. It can also be substantially cheaper compared to walk-in, same-day reservations. Most rental car companies do not have cancellation or modification fees when booking in advance online, so you can make adjustments if your travel plans change.
Shop around for better rates
The largest U.S. rental car companies operate internationally, but their rates can be more expensive than local competitors. Unless brand loyalty prevents you from straying from your go-to domestic rental car agency, use online services such as Kayak and Expedia to compare rates in search of the best deal. You may also wish to check your guidebook for recommended independent rental companies specific to the region where you plan to travel, as online comparison tools may not include them. If it is your first time renting from a particular company, research their online customer reviews before committing to the rental.
Check license requirements
Ready to hit the road? Not so fast. Depending on which country you’re traveling in, you may need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) in order to drive. An IDP, which is carried in conjunction with a regular driver’s license, is officially recognized in over 150 countries and serves to transmit important information from your license in eleven languages. You may wish to contact one of two approved issuers of IDPs, AAA and the AATA, to learn if an IDP is required to rent a car in the country where you’ll be traveling.
The bottom line: renting a car abroad can give you the freedom and flexibility to explore new places on your own time, but it can also add stress and inflate your trip costs. Thinking through each of the above considerations before you rent will minimize surprises and prepare you to hit the road confidently.