I am not a car rental expert and not sure why I am even writing this post. Oh yes, it’s because I’m constantly asked questions about this and figured I should just put all of my limited knowledge on this subject in one convenient place so here it is. I have now driven in Mexico, Canada, Chile, Ireland, Croatia, Greece, Portugal, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Italy, and Morocco to name a few so I feel like I may be able to contribute some advice to the novice car renting traveler. I have had my share of snafus which of course I will share. Here are my tips for international car rentals. Keep in mind that this is a sort of generic catch-all where I try to highlight principles that would help in many countries but always research more for the specific country you will be visiting.
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I pick the one that seems to have the best deal and has a somewhat decent reputation. Need more info than that? Well, I try to pick the ones I haven’t had problems with in the past.
This is going to get personal. Let the airing of grievances commence. I have had “issues” with several companies so I choose to avoid them. These include Avis, Fox, and Alamo. Alamo because they refused to accept my personal travel insurance policy for auto insurance (it covers up to 45,000 collision damage) even when I agreed to sign a waiver. I was left high and dry without a car in Playa Del Carmen Mexico and boy was that a stressful day. Fox…I hardly remember it was so long ago but your girl here can hold a grudge. Honestly, you will find travelers that have had a problem with all of them, same as the airlines all have their haters. It’s a tough business.
Sixt is my favorite. I also like Enterprise. If you can find them, you will often get better rates and service from a local company. Word of mouth or traveler forums such as Fodor’s or Lonely Planet forums is the best way to find these local agencies. Usually, I first take a look on Expedia.com where you can book with no down payment and can cancel anytime. If you book directly on the Sixt website they offer a cheaper non-refundable early bird rate. I was recently turned onto a site called Autoslash. This site takes your info, what you are looking for etc and within a few hours, you will receive an email with options for where the best rate for what you want is. I ended up getting a significant discount this way from what I originally found.
Let’s take a minute to talk about insurance. Short answer…yes. You need insurance. The questions is who do you buy it from? Pretty much every car rental company in the world wants to upsell you on insurance, and it ain’t cheap. Insurance is important, however many of us have our own policies. Many Americans are covered by their credit card as well as their own auto policies but you must read the fine print about this before waiving any rental company-provided insurance (and make sure you actually used THAT credit card to purchase the rental car). The coverage that most credit cards offer, typically for damage to or theft of the rental car, kicks in after your personal auto insurance pays but some do provide primary coverage.
I personally have an annual travel insurance policy through Allianz and I am well covered for rental car collision damage so I am confident to allow credit card holds of money or to sign waivers. It does seem scary to allow them to hold $2000 of your money but this money will be returned once you return the car in one piece. I am aware this may not be the best option for everybody.
I have had good experiences with Allianz. Once I had a crack in a windshield from gravel and the car company charged me, of course (even though they made me purchase THEIR insurance). Lesson learned. Allianz reimbursed me. I once hit a curb in the mountains of Cyprus and did damage to the wheel. I was charged $500 and Allianz reimbursed me. As long as you have the correct documents so make sure you keep every single document related to the rental and anything extra the rental company charges you.
Find out what you are supposed to do if you have an accident. The rental agency may want to be called first. In some places, you must call the police, even if another person is not involved. In UAE for example, I had a minor incident with a pole at a gas station and did not think to call the police for something so dumb but the car rental agency said my insurance was null and void and charged me $200 and we literally had a very uncomfortable screaming match in the office. This was Avis in Dubai, FYI. Never again!
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Look up what identification you need. In most places, your driver’s license is sufficient but in some countries, such as Greece and Italy, it is the law to have an International Driver’s License. The car rental agency will not ask for this. They will allow you to rent the car with your regular driver’s license but if you get stopped by the police, you could be fined. This definitely isn’t a cool move by the rental companies but it’s no skin off their backs. They just want your money!
Ask ahead of time how automated tolls are handled. Many companies may have a one-time fee but these are often higher than you need to pay if you won’t be using toll roads. Some will offer a temporary sticker and then you pay for what you used. The others will advise you to go purchase your own sticker for the car window. It really depends on where you are.
In countries with more modern technology, you will be able to pay tolls with a credit card but many places still employ a human who collects cash. Find out which situation you are in and make sure you have cash for tolls.
Be aware of places that have speeding cameras. Europe in particular can be very high-tech with this and you could be like me and not realize you were getting zinged by cameras for MINOR speeding and then have $300 worth of tickets and fees to pay later. Yes, this happened in Estonia and Latvia and I would like to say a giant F-you to Hertz car rentals for charging a $15 administrative fee on top of each ticket fee and not being willing to work with me whatsoever. The thing was, I wasn’t trying to speed and actually really attempted to respect the speeding limit. I had no idea I had been speeding at all until I got home and weeks later got the bills from Hertz. I was shocked. These cameras must have caught me for those few seconds here and there when I drifted over the limit.
If you get parking tickets as I did in Athens, find out where to pay these and do it as soon as you can so that you don’t get that added car rental agency fee on top of it. Because if you don’t take care of it, the local government will eventually find the rental car company and bill them (oh and they will bill you PLUS the exorbitant administrative fees). In this situation, we were able to pay at the airport which was interesting.
I still remember when the car rental company handed you a street map. If you didn’t already come ready with your “trip tix” from AAA with your route mapped out. Nowadays you’ll have a hard time even buying a map at a gas station. The digital age baby. Ain’t it grand? Think about your navigation plan. Maybe you want to upgrade to a car with GPS or wifi? Personally, I prefer to have navigation on my phone. To do this you will need reliable service. I have Google FI phone service which gives me data in most of the world. T-Mobile is another good phone service for travelers. If you don’t want to switch phone providers for one trip, I am pretty sure Verizon offers customers some sort of plan for traveling…that isn’t cheap but may be necessary. Either way, make sure you download google maps offline for the area you are traveling in because the service could be patchy or fail you.
Hot tip, bring one of those little air vent clip-on magnets to hold your phone. SO GREAT for navigating hands-free.
Learn the rules of driving and street signs in the country where you are. Some rental companies will have an information packet but in the digital age, they just expect that you looked this up on your own. In some countries, the signs are intuitive, but in others, they mean the complete opposite of what we think. Here is a handy guide that will help interpret road signs in some countries.
Filling up with Gasoline
First thing is to figure out how you are expected to return the car. Usually, they will tell you to return the car with a full tank and they will OFFER to let you pay now for a full tank and then you can bring the car back empty. This seems like a tempting offer but I never do this. Firstly, they usually charge more than the market price. Secondly, it’s kind of hard to return a car with an empty gas tank..it’s challenging to gauge how much gas you need to get you through your last day and use it all. I attempted this once and ended up gifting the company half a tank of gas. I think it was in Jordan, I received a car with 1/4 tank left…which was surprising. I was told to just return it the same. Ugh.
In some countries, you don’t pump your own gas. In some, you do. If I remember to ask, I ask when I rent the car. If I forget to ask, I sort of just figure it out at the gas station. Usually, it’s obvious if people are pumping their own gas or a station worker is. You can always try and wait to get yelled at…haha.
Diesel or unleaded? MAKE SURE YOU PUT THE RIGHT TYPE OF GAS IN YOUR RENTAL CAR! In many countries, even in western Europe, you will get a diesel car. Typically the shape of the gas nozzle is different and will not fit in the wrong tank but people have still made this error. If you’re not sure, ask for help at the gas station. It’s better to look clueless than make that kind of mistake and ruin the car and disrupt your trip.
Always be polite. In some countries police stops are routine and they may ask where you are from and where you are going. Maybe to see your passport. Then they say “Welcome to my country, Have a nice day”. But some are not so nice. Some are looking for bribes.
If the police stop you and they demand money, politely request a ticket or official document. Typically they won’t have one because 1. You didn’t break any laws. 2. They want cash. Just say you don’t have cash, again request a ticket, and say you will go to the station to pay with a credit card (or whatever excuse you can make up on the spot to dissuade them from collecting cash from you). This has never happened to me but it happened to 2 friends in Mexico, near Cancun, FYI.
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Those coming from the UK and countries colonized by the UK may find driving on the right side daunting. For those of us from the western hemisphere and most of Europe, driving on the left can be uncomfortable. This was a huge deterrent to me for many years. I drove literally only one day in Ireland and wanted to die. But last summer I went to Cyprus and rented a car without realizing that I would be driving on the left. So I had to get over my fears. Following other drivers helps when they are there. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is to make sure your body (as the driver) is in the middle of the road. Think about this and it will make sense. Other than that I can just tell you to go slow and be mindful and after a few days, it won’t seem so weird.
Also, there WILL be roundabouts. In the United States, we don’t have many of these but I encounter them in most other countries where I’ve driven. Roundabouts are very organized in some countries, with lane dividers and signs, while in some places it is a scary free for all. Just always look into the roundabout before entering and wait for any cars already engaged in your direction to pass. If you miss your exit because you weren’t in the right spot of the roundabout, don’t panic. Just go around again and get it right next time. Or if you already took an exit, just find a place to turn around. Give yourself time to make mistakes.In general when driving in another country, always assume it will take you more time than google maps says it will. Give yourself time to make mistakes and enough time so you don't feel rushed. Click To Tweet
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Overall renting a car can make your trip much more personalized and easy but it truly depends on the country and how you like to travel. You need to balance the added stress and responsibility that comes with car rentals. Sometimes it is just easier to take the train if that’s an option. However, in certain countries, it is almost impossible to see the things you really want without a car. If you are new at driving in other countries I recommend starting somewhere “easier” like France or Germany rather than going right to Morocco. You need to build up your skills and confidence. I still have places that give me pause to drive for several reasons(looking at you Italy!)
Where have you driven abroad that was scary? Where was less scary than you thought? Would love to hear your stories and also your tips for international car rentals!