In a time of online reservation systems, renting a car in another country is so simple that's it's easy to forget what awaits you upon arrival. Unfamiliar roads and inscrutable street signs are just a few of the challenges. But with a little preparation, you can take the challenges in stride and enjoy the freedom to explore only a car can provide. After all, how else are you going to get to that little farmhouse in Provence serving up Cavaillon melons filled with Port, or happen upon a handmade pottery shop in the Japanese countryside?
Here are five tips for driving in foreign countries. Have another? Share it below.
- Call your insurer and credit cards before departure to figure out what coverage you'll need: When you get to the rental counter in your destination country, you'll almost always find they recommend the most expensive insurance option. But by knowing in advance what sort of international coverage you already have through your existing car insurance and credit cards, you may be able to save yourself some money.
- Get an International Driving Permit: They don't look very official, but in many countries, you won't be able to rent a car without one of these flimsy booklets with your photo pasted into it. International driving permits are supplements to your drivers license and are valid in more than 150 countries, and cost about $15. They are available from AAA and the National Automobile Club.
- Familiarize yourself with signs and basic rules: What does a Japanese stop sign look like? Who has the right-of-way in France's 30,000 roundabouts? There's no better time to appreciate the cultural specificity of iconography than when you're surrounded by utterly mystifying road signs while driving in a foreign country. Study up in advance (you can often find a country-specific road-sign guide online), or contact the car-rental agency to see if it provides a cheat-sheet you can keep with you in the car.
- Consider a GPS navigation system: The last thing you need when you're keeping up with unfamiliar traffic patterns is to be constantly glancing down to trace your route on a map. If you don't have a GPS device, you can often rent them along with your car. A word to the wise: Be sure your rented navigation system speaks English before you leave the car rental location. Or you might end up like my in-laws, who found themselves on the open road in New Zealand with a GPS system that spoke only Japanese.
- Beware Old Parts of Cities: This one is a personal favorite. When you're planning your driving routes, beware old neighborhoods in cities. What look like normal roads on maps can easily turn out to be streets so narrow you have to flip the side mirrors in to squeeze through. Look for larger streets whenever possible to avoid finding yourself sweating copiously and berating your navigator in strong tones while attempting a 12-point turn around a corner flanked by stone buildings.
Had a formative experience driving in another country? Share your best stories and tips below!