From age restrictions to an SOS plan, here are 15 things you must know before renting a car abroad.
As we swerved out of the Edinburgh train station and onto Scotland’s “right-side-driving” roads, I could hardly catch my breath. We weren’t just renting a car abroad — we were renting a car in a country that drives on the other side of the road.
They warn you that driving on the opposite side of the road is a bit unnatural, but living through it? That’s another story. A story in which I don’t breathe and press an imaginary break pedal while my brother seamlessly weaves through rush hour traffic.
It sounds terrifying – and it was – but you get used to it. After day one, driving (or in my case, riding) on the opposite side of the road was old hat. But, as we’ve found after many overseas car rentals, driving on the right is one small part of the equation.
Renting a car abroad comes with quite a few learning curves, but it’s absolutely worth it for the freedom of road tripping through a new country. Follow these 15 international rental car tips to avoid last-minute, high-price surprises.
1. Choose a reputable company
While there are plenty of rental car companies out there, it’s best to stick with the one you know. We’re loyal Enterprise customers (not sponsored by Enterprise, I promise), and we’ve never had a bad experience with them. We’ve used Enterprise in Italy and Scotland so far (as well as throughout the U.S.), and have plans to use them again for the Baltics next year.
When we took a chance on another company – shudder, Sixt – it completely backfired. They had some shady business practices that ultimately cost us $400. (Not a lot, I realize, but I could buy a new 50MM camera lens with that money!)
2. Know the type of gasoline needed
Speaking of shady business practices, when we rented a car abroad (Portugal, actually) through Sixt, our agent failed to mention the type of gasoline we should use. At the pump, we had three options: gasolina, gasoleo and Diesel. We knew Diesel wasn’t the right option (he would’ve said Diesel since that’s so unusual, we assumed). Then we had the choice between gasoleo simplistico and gasolina. Realizing we had no idea which was which (and there was no information in or on the car) we chose gasoleo.
Miles later the car sputtered, froze and completely shut down. While yes, Sixt should’ve told us what to use, it’s also on us – we should’ve researched ahead of time to know (and we’ll never make that mistake again).
3. Get insurance
Sure, you’re a safe driver, but life overseas is unpredictable. Driving in Iceland, we didn’t foresee the nicks and scrapes our car could’ve gotten from the windy, rocky drives. The couple returning a rental car in front of us got dinged for having many scrapes (and no insurance) and were not happy campers. While it’s more of an upfront cost, insurance saves you a tremendous amount of money if something were to happen. (Overseas we typically do the full package, and in the states I go with the basic option unless we’re doing some extreme offroading.
4. Figure out driving ages and restrictions
In Scotland, we planned to have my brother (30) and my boyfriend (28) drive the rental car. After arriving, we learned that the price for an SUV rental in Scotland jumps tremendously if the driver is under 30. What?! This was entirely not the case in Italy, where my boyfriend (29 at the time) was able to drive just fine. Moral of the story? Read ahead, and dig into those FAQs to determine driving age restrictions for your particular destination.
5. Get the right ID cards
Just like age requirements, when you’re renting a car abroad, some countries require an international drivers license while others simply need to know you have a license at all (aka, your state license will work just fine). In Portugal and Iceland, no international ID was required. Portugal supposedly needs it, but we didn’t have to show it. In Italy? It’s a necessity. To be safe, I’d go ahead and get your international drivers license and keep it on hand (you never know when the road trip mood strikes!); you can get it at your local AAA with a quick in-person, test-free visit.
6. Know where to park
When we visited Iceland, I put a custom Google map together, reserved our rental car and called it a day. Yep, forgot that whole “where does the car go?” part until we touched down at Keflavik Airport. Fortunately, my ever-so-savvy boyfriend quickly learned where we could park (and where we couldn’t to avoid towing) so we could enjoy all the sights I mapped out. Whether it’s finding a hotel with parking or figuring out parking lots near your must-see sights, planning your parking options is integral to a stress-free trip.
7. Determine your SOS plan
Remember that time our rental car broke down in the middle of nowhere Portugal? Yeah. We didn’t have a phone. Or a plan. Or, really, any glimmer of hope, until we realized the GPS unit we rented could make direct calls to Sixt. (Imagine our relief after hours of “Welp, this is how it ends…”).
Without the phone, I’m sure we would’ve figured something out, but dear God, I’ll never rent a car without an SOS plan again. Make sure you have some sort of communication option – be it your own cell service, in-car WiFi or a car phone – to avoid those unexpected disasters. The more you road trip internationally, the more you’re likely to run into problems. This isn’t meant to scare you; it’s just an honest and urgent reminder to set yourself up for success.
8. Pick the right GPS system
Going into our Iceland trip, we tried to game the rental car company by having our own DIY directions with an Iceland map downloaded to an SD card and one of our own Garmins that supposedly reads said cards.
Nope. Not that easy.
We proudly told the rental car agent, “No, we don’t need a GPS!” … only to pull out of the parking lot and realize the system didn’t work. Ruh roh. Thankfully we bought a paper map that got us through the entire trip (remember those?!) but moving forward, we almost always rent the GPS through the rental car company to be safe.
9. Always have a paper map
Speaking of paper maps, you must, must, must keep a hardcopy map handy when you’re renting a car abroad. Technology notoriously fails, so having a good old fashioned backup will ensure you don’t get totally lost when your tech goes haywire. (To save money, buy one ahead of time on Amazon!)
10. Prepare for high prices
While road tripping is a freeing experience, it’s far from frugal. Expect to spend at least $100 per day with fees and add-ons, although many times it’s higher – particularly for automatic drive. Trust me, a little extra on a good car with a reputable company is worth it for the reassurance that you won’t get screwed over and nickled and dimed when your trip ends.
11. BYO music
If you plan on jamming out to your favorite tunes, pack an auxiliary cable and download your Spotify playlists as “offline.” The auxiliary cable has proven successful many a time, leading to very important jam sessions on the open international road. (Note – you can follow my Spotify road trip playlist here; it’s the best!)
12. Get an automatic car if you don’t drive stick
Don’t be tempted by the cheap prices of manual cars; if you don’t drive stick shift, go automatic. Yes, it’s pricier, and sure, everybody learns one way or another, but for the safety of you and those around you (and the wellbeing of your bank account), please don’t attempt learning stick shift on an overseas rental car.
13. Research drinking and driving rules
Obviously I don’t condone drinking and driving, but in America, it’s not a sin to drive after a glass of wine or two, depending on your tolerance. The same goes for most countries – but not all. In places like Japan and the Czech Republic, you’re not allowed to drive with any trace of alcohol whatsoever, so make sure to read ahead on your destination to stay out of trouble with the cops.
14. Bring a car charger
I keep a USB lighter charger in my travel backpack at all times so I can power up my iPhone or cameras on the go. While teeny tiny, it’s come in handy on numerous road trips throughout the years!
15. Choose a “hidden trunk”
When possible, it’s best to get a closed trunk so you can hide any valuables you don’t want to lug with you while sightseeing. Be it shopping bags, suitcases or a backpack, that closed trunk will give you the security – and freedom – you need to explore without unwieldy luggage.
Do you frequent the road on your overseas travels? Share your tips and insights in the comments below!