Renting a car while traveling abroad means freedom from bus and rail timetables, but it comes with its own set of complications. Rules of the road, manual versus automatic, even permitted blood alcohol levels — not to mention the necessity of car insurance — can vary widely by country. Here are five useful tips for staying safe.
1. Figure out your insurance coverage needs
Don’t leave a decision on insurance coverage to a few panicky moments at the rental desk. Check your coverage in advance: In many instances, the credit card you use to book the car will provide ample coverage (generally, you will still probably need to get liability), and if you have auto insurance at home you might be covered through that as well. Get the policy in writing, not over the phone, and keep it with you throughout your trip.
2. Know the rules of the road
Driving on the left side of the road may be the biggest consideration, but keep in mind that other countries have rules of the road that are less obvious. In some, for example, you can’t turn right on red and in others, the slow lane can’t be used for passing. Read up before you go to avoid a surprise fine.
3. Consider an International Driving Permit
Happily, it’s much less common to be asked for an International Driving Permit than it used to be; these permits cost $20 and remain valid for a year. Check with your rental agency before leaving your country just in case. If you need one, you can get it through AAA (American Automobile Association) and AATA (American Automobile Touring Alliance).
4. Need an automatic? Book in advance
In many countries (though fewer than in previous eras), a car with a manual transmission is the default rental. If you aren’t comfortable driving a stick-shift, it’s wise to reserve an automatic well in advance, as agencies usually stock fewer of these. It is also likely to cost more.
5. Know your limit
Permitted blood alcohol concentration levels are different in each country and even in the European Union there is no single rule: Hungary, for example, has a zero-tolerance policy while Italy’s limit is .5 grams per one liter of blood, or 0.05%. Know the limit at your destination before embarking on a wine tour or having a beer with lunch.