Renting a car when you travel is one of the best ways to give yourself ultimate freedom. Rather than restricting yourself to a single town or city — or relying on potentially confusing, inconvenient public transportation — a car allows you to come and go as you please. It gives you the flexibility to cover more ground, make last-minute alterations to your itinerary, and beat your own path through unfamiliar territory, which often leads to more unique experiences. Renting a car is not, however, always smooth or simple. Almost like choosing a hotel or Airbnb that suits your specific needs, myriad factors should be taken into account when renting a car. Here’s everything you need to know before you book — it could make or break your vacation.
Don’t let people’s warnings scare you.
It’s hard to remember a time when I’ve rented a car abroad and haven’t heard from my friends or family, “You’re driving? I heard drivers there are crazy!” People seem to have a natural tendency to consider foreign roads “dangerous” and foreign drivers “maniacs.” And usually, the people who call Roman drivers maniacs are the same ones who tailgate at 95 mph when they’re two minutes late for work.
I got so much grief for daring to rent a car in Italy — you know, all those “crazy” Italian drivers — that I actually considered changing my entire trip to avoid it. Yeah, rules of the Italian road seemed to be more like guidelines, but the drivers knew how to handle themselves, and I didn’t witness a single vehicular incident. Remember, everyone just wants to get where they’re going in one piece, and that’s universal.
Get creative with pick-up and drop-off locations.
You don’t have to pick up your rental car directly at the airport. Sometimes it’s cheaper to pick it up just outside of the realm of the airport, potentially closer to your actual destination; you can always Uber it to the rental location. It’s also easy to forget that you don’t actually have to drop your rental car off at the same place you picked it up. You’ll pay a little extra for a different drop-off location, but it’s often well worth it. By returning to a different location, you save tons of time by not having to retrace your steps, driving back to the initial pick-up point. This is especially useful for road trips where you really want to maximize your time spent on the road.
If you’re traveling to the UK, for example, you might be tempted to pick up your car in London, travel around to nearby towns, and then return to London. If you pick up your car in London with a drop-off in Newcastle, however, you have the luxury of making your way north through Cambridge, Leeds, York, the Lake District, and anywhere else along the way to Newcastle without worrying about budgeting enough time to return to London.
Do your own inspection.
Theoretically, cars are supposed to be rented out to customers in good condition with any scratches or issues already documented. This isn’t always the case. If you rent a damaged car, and the rental company thinks you were responsible for it, you’ll be charged a pretty hefty fee. Preventing this is extremely simple. Even if the car looks good at first glance, when you first get the keys, make sure you take pictures of the car from every angle. That way, if you return it and the company tries to claim a scratch was your doing, you can show them the pictures to prove otherwise.
On returning a rental car in Venice, the agency informed me that my license plate was bent and that I was on the hook for the repair. Since I didn’t buy the insurance, this small fix would have cost me (according to the rental contract) about $3,500. Although I was saved by a sympathetic manager, that was the last time I ever rented a car without first taking photographic evidence of its condition.
Think twice before taking the insurance.
Whether or not to get the insurance is probably one of the most controversial subjects when it comes to renting a car abroad. Abiding by the old blackjack rule, I rarely spring for the insurance. The cost can run up to $30 extra per day, and depending on your insurance back home, you may actually be covered abroad. On the other hand, if you’re driving through particularly turbulent weather, on rough roads, or a type of car (manual) that you’re not entirely comfortable with, insurance could give you valuable peace of mind. My issue with the license plate dent could have gone a lot worse if I ended up dealing with a power-tripping employee.
Iceland is one of the more confusing places to rent a car, as it offers several types of unconventional insurance due to its diverse geography. Among the options are gravel, sand and ash, and collision. An active volcano and rugged terrain can make the more unconventional insurances necessary, depending on the nature of your trip. Unsure of what to do, I asked the rental agent what insurance he would recommend based on my trip plan, and he told me to get gravel insurance and forego the others. Always research what’s recommended in your specific location beforehand, and see what others have done.
Make sure you can actually drive the car.
There’s nothing worse than showing up at the rental building, excited to get behind the wheel and start exploring a new country, and then discovering that they drive on the left side of the road — or worse, you booked a manual when you can only drive automatic. The cheapest rental cars in Europe will often be manuals, and they’ll appear at the top of the search list. So don’t be too quick to pull the trigger if you can’t actually drive one (though you’ll probably save a few bucks by being able to do so). Don’t panic if the driver’s seat is on the opposite side than you’re used to; if you’re a competent driver, you’ll get used to it pretty quickly.
Another consideration to remember is that many rental agencies will require you to have an International Driver’s Permit. Don’t worry, you don’t have to take the test again. It’s just a document that’s valid overseas, which takes the place of your home driver’s license. Getting one is pretty simple, especially if you have AAA. Just submit this application at least a few weeks ahead of your trip. If you’re already abroad, you won’t be able to get a permit — it can only be received while at home — but it is possible to find rental agencies that don’t require it. You’ll probably pay extra, and those agencies might not be the most reputable, but I’ve done it before, and it certainly works. Every country has its own law regarding international permits, so be sure to do your research.