Usually when people think about exploring some countries, such as in Europe, they think about taking trains. And in fact, I love taking trains. You can relax on trains, while they whisk you quickly between city centers.
That said, sometimes driving can be a more efficient and convenient way to explore some areas, and it’s worth considering, even if you’re overseas.
Does it even make sense? Consider whether you should actually drive. For example, you definitely don’t want a car in major cities like London or Paris or Tokyo. Transit works so much better there, or for connecting those types of cities.
Similarly, in developing countries, where the local driving culture may be borderline crazy, and where drivers’ wages are relatively low, you might do well to instead hire a driver with a car. Or maybe take buses. In both Peru and India, we paid $60-$70/day for a car+driver, including fuel.
The sweet spot: The countryside in developed countries is a sweet spot for driving yourself. For instance, New Zealand is best explored by car, as are many National Parks in the American West. German autobahns are an experience to have, as are their slower roads such as the Romantic Road in Bavaria, or through the Rhineland. The French countryside is also beautiful to explore by car. That said, we haven’t yet been brave enough to drive in Italy.
Often, renting a car overseas is not too different than in the US. You hand the agent at the counter your driver’s license, passport, and credit card. Often, the agent will speak passing English, and the agency will have English language versions of the documents for you to sign.
Here are some issues to think about, when trying to decide whether driving might work as part of your next trip abroad:
- Scratches and dents: Make sure that the car’s scratches are all noted when you check out. We’ve noticed that rental agencies abroad look the car over somewhat more carefully for scratches when you return the car.
- Road Signs/Speed Limits: Learn the International road signs, as well as the implicit speed limits for each country you visit. For instance, in Germany, there’s a default 50 km/h speed limit in towns, 100 km/h outside towns, if there are no signs. These limit are typically not posted, but you need to know them, as speed limits can be strictly enforced with cameras. Similarly, right on red is often not allowed outside the US. Spend a few minutes reading road rule differences for a country you visit.
- One-way rentals: In many cases, it’s possible to drop off a car in a different location, within the same country, without paying much or anything extra. This makes one-way/open-jaw itineraries easier without backtracking.
- GPS: GPS makes getting around so much easier than in the old days, with the pile of Michelin maps. If you rely on your phone for navigation, make sure you have mobile data in that country, or consider downloading offline Google maps. We always have a coarse-grained backup paper map, since unquestioningly following the GPS in an unfamiliar place can sometimes not be ideal.
- Driving on “the other side of the road”: we hesitated driving in left-hand-drive countries for many years, but finally did so in New Zealand. This took some getting used to (for instance, I kept drifting within the lane the first morning), but wasn’t as impossible as I thought.
- International Driver’s Permit, which is just a translation of your license, is needed for some countries. You can get one from a AAA office for about $20.
- Manual Transmission: In Europe, manual transmission is more common in the basic rentals. If you want an automatic, you might need to upgrade.
- Insurance: while US-based car insurance often covers you for rentals in the US and Canada (check your policy), it’s far less common for rentals outside the US. Call your agent before you assume you’re covered on a non-US rental. That said, in Europe, some form of LDW/CDW is sometimes included in the basic quote. If not, consider a third party policy as well as the rental agency’s policy.
- Car Seats: some countries, particularly in Europe, require these at older ages than in the US. Depending on height, an 11 year old may still need a booster seat in Germany. And naturally, the car seat laws are slightly different right across the border in France. Every age of travel has pros and cons, and requiring a car/booster seat is one consideration!