Taking a road trip through Costa Rica? Renting a motorbike in Vietnam? Plenty of travelers do, but not all of them prepare appropriately. Get behind the wheel in another country before doing your homework, and you could face consequences ranging from financial hardships to jail time.
Every country handles driving, liability, and licensing a little differently. In the U.S., for example, some insurers check drivers’ auto insurance score to determine eligibility and set rates; other nations offer auto insurance publicly or don’t even require it.
The point is, there’s no one-size-fits-all checklist for renting or driving a car in another country. Follow these guidelines to stay safe and legal when exploring new places:
1. Learn the rules of the road.
You may know that people in the U.K. drive on the left side, but do you know whether that gives you the right to turn left at a red light? Do all the areas you’re visiting operate under the same set of road rules? If you’re nervous about fighting your muscle memory in a strange place, practice in a parking lot before you leave.
Also consider how culture may affect the way other drivers treat you. If you plan to drive through cities or similarly crowded areas, don’t be surprised if other drivers have different expectations than you do about personal space.
2. Research rental contracts.
Most international rental car companies play by easy-to-follow rules, but just like in the U.S., the fine print can come back to bite you. That goes double if you decide to trust a local rental company when you arrive. Rental agencies know travelers don’t want to spend their trip disputing a charge, which means their contracts often include unnecessary charges and options.
Before heading to the airport, research how rental agencies at your destination treat foreigners and what type of car you might receive. Will you have an automatic transmission option, or will manual-drive cars be your only choice? Will you need four-wheel drive, as is required in many areas of Costa Rica? Should you rely on your phone, or will you car have built-in GPS? Know your options, and don’t let yourself be talked into unnecessary extras.
3. Don’t assume you can go anywhere you want.
You know your own town like the back of your hand. Even if you don’t consciously avoid certain areas, you remember not to take busy roads during rush hour or to avoid areas with high crime rates at night. Those same factors affect drivers in other countries — but when you don’t know the landscape, you can’t avoid them like you would at home.
Learn about common scams and conflict areas before you leave. Avoid paying “parking attendants” who have no control over the areas they claim to own. In some countries, government officials and police may even expect you to pay a bribe to continue your journey unmolested. Trust your gut about bad situations, and don’t set off for a new location unless you know what to expect.
4. Verify your license or get a temporary one.
Does your U.S. driver’s license allow you to drive at your destination? Canada and Mexico accept them, but many other countries do not. Even if you have an international driving permit, you may need to secure additional documentation before getting behind the wheel in a new country.
Contrary to popular belief, International Driving Permits, or IDPs, are not international driver’s licenses. IDPs translate the legitimacy of your existing U.S. license to officials in other countries. Think of your IDP as a passport for your driving skills. You can get one before you leave through AAA for $20. Do so at least a month in advance to avoid paying expedited service fees.
5. Know your insurance strategy before you arrive.
American auto insurance covers cars in the U.S. with some extensions to Canada and Mexico. Your standard policy will almost certainly not cover you if you crash a rented motorcycle in Africa or get into a fender-bender in Italy, though. Call your insurance company to discuss options before you leave.
Many premium credit cards offer rental car insurance as a perk when you pay for the rental with the card. As with your insurer, check with your credit card provider before you leave. Keep in mind that “primary” coverage kicks in immediately (assuming your accident is covered), while “secondary” coverage will only cover you if your primary source declines or hits a cap — and even then, secondary coverage may not kick in.
Don’t let the challenges of driving in a strange place prevent you from having an adventure. Exploring a new country in a rental car is an excellent way to live like the locals and discover experiences off the beaten path. Take the proper precautions, familiarize yourself with local rules and customs, and hit the road.
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