Driving on vacation in a foreign country may be an ideal way to get around because it gives you so much flexibility. And, if you’re going to a more rural location, it may even be the easiest, most economical or only way to get around. While a driving vacation abroad offers a ton of freedom, it can also be stressful. So, here are some questions to ask yourself before heading off on your adventure!
1. Should I get CDW for my rental car?
CDW, or Collision Damage Waiver, isn’t actually insurance; it’s the waiver of the rental agency's insurance for people who have collision coverage. Basically, it’s the rental company charging you a fee in order to not charge you a high deductible amount if you damage the car. Geez, thanks. Your personal vehicle insurance then becomes the collision insurance provider for you. Still, in some countries (like Ireland and Italy) CDW is legally required and is included in the basic car rental rate. CDW can cost about 30% of the rental, and whether to get CDW (when it’s not required) is a tricky call. So, here are some questions to think about in anticipation of deciding whether to get it. The answers will depend on what your own insurance or credit card covers, the rental company's policies and the country you're in.
What’s covered by my own auto insurance/credit card insurance?Is that enough?
Will I be responsible for a deductible with my own auto insurance if I don’t take the CDW?
If I get into an accident in a rental car using my own insurance, will my premium go up?
What if I get CDW? If I get into an accident and the police take a report – will motor vehicles at home be notified?
Are any countries excluded from coverage under my own policy? If so, which ones?
2. How do I find out the driving rules?
Sometimes, driving rules are listed on the country’s tourism website. While planning a trip to the Faroe Islands, a driving guide to the Faroes is provided right on its tourism website. Nice, huh? Putting such useful info on the tourism website makes total sense - you just don’t see it all that often.
To “drive” home the point - here’s a really good example of why it’s important to know the rules. A recent news article described a British tourist who took his car from England to France. He was stopped and ticketed because he didn’t have the proper emissions output sticker required by some of France's larger cities, under the air pollution reduction initiative known as Crit’Air. Basically, if you get stopped and don’t have the sticker, you’ll be banned from designated low emission zones. You'll also get ticketed and it's payable on the spot. YIKES!
Unfortunately, the only way to find out the rules is by doing some research. Fortunately, a basic internet search like, “driving in France” should get you started. When I did a quick search I found some basic rules of the road for France available online at AboutFrance.com, although I didn’t specifically notice anything about the emissions program. Another place to find basic driving information about a country is the US State Department website.
3. Will GPS work abroad?
That is not an unreasonable question. I’ve been in countries where GPS didn’t work. With a bit of research, you should be able to find out if it does work at your destination. You might consider bringing your own GPS, but if you rent a navigation device in a non-English speaking country, you’ll more than likely be able to program it for English. Alternatively, think about buying a navigation app for your phone (you can buy nav apps that don’t require mobile internet to work). Keep in mind that GPS was originally military technology and depending on what country you’re in, and what part of that country you’re driving in, GPS may be uh, frowned upon…. Even with GPS, or its equivalent, you probably want to have a map handy just in case….
4. How do I pay a road toll in a foreign country?
There are a lot of variables to think about here. Your rental car company may offer the option of a transponder that allows you to pay tolls automatically. That’s convenient, but there may be a daily fee to use it, just like with a rental car in the US. You may be able to pay cash, but what if the cash lanes are exact change only? Or, what if you can’t communicate with the toll taker? In either case, you’ll probably have to scramble to figure out what to do.
Another option may be to pay with a credit card. In both Italy and France you can pay at a kiosk at the bottom of many exit ramps. Payment kiosks are basically toll booths that accept credit cards. You just pay from your car window, get a receipt, and go. Do the kiosks have an English option? I can’t recall, but I also don’t remember them being particularly difficult to use.
You may also come across, what I like to call, “invisible tolls”. In a recent post about a visit to Ireland, I mentioned that some roads are toll roads, even though you don’t see a toll booth anywhere. I did a bit of research before we left so I knew that we could pay our tolls at what are called Payzone outlets (usually service stations and convenience stores). The car rental company mentioned the “invisible tolls” when we picked up our car, but knowing about them beforehand eliminated some of the stress of trying to figure out where to pay.
5. Do I need an international driving permit (IDP)?
Not every country accepts every other country’s license and nothing will put a damper on your driving trip like finding out your license is no good. So having an IDP can help, but it doesn’t necessarily replace your own driver’s license. Confusing, huh? You’ll need to check if your license is valid in the country you’re headed to and/or if an IDP's is recognized. AAA and the US State Department are good resources to finding out where your license is accepted. Something else to think about is that you may be required to have an IDP as a condition of renting the car. For peace of mind, I think IDP’s are worth it. You can buy one for about $20 at AAA, but keep in mind that even if a country honors an IDP, there could still be additional requirements or fees. Check AAA’s website under Travel Planning Tips and Tools to find out which countries accept IDP’s and for an IDP application.
6. What if I get stopped?
It goes without saying to follow a country’s driving rules from the get go, but if you do get stopped, try not to make the situation worse. It may be helpful to know whether a country can demand “on-the-spot” payment for violations. I told a story in a recent post about a couple we met from Zimbabwe when we were on safari. The couple explained that driving in some countries in Africa, you may be stopped at various check points by uniformed personnel who suggest that you committed some traffic violation that requires you to pay a fine on the spot. They may say that you can pay them or they will issue you a ticket which will require you to go to the police station. What do you do? The couple said to ask for the ticket and tell them you’ll go to the police station to pay. Why not pay? They said that if you pay at the checkpoint, it’s possible that the personnel at that checkpoint might radio ahead to the next checkpoint and before you know it, you’re out of money because you’ve committed so many “traffic violations”.
What happens once you’re stopped may also depend on the country. Is the country stable and largely free of corruption, or just the opposite? Knowing that information may help you act/react appropriately. I’ve read articles about how common it is in eastern Europe and Africa to be stopped for imagined traffic infractions. That hasn’t been my experience, but it’s always a safe bet to check the State Department travel alerts page and specific country information page.
7. What if I get stopped and I don’t speak the language?
Well, communicating can be a problem, unless the official speaks English. Although, it could work to your advantage. Just a thought…
8. What if I get a ticket?
Some tickets are payable on the spot (see above). In other cases, you may have the option of going to the police station to pay the ticket.
Here are some things to think about if you get a ticket while driving abroad:
How countries deal with foreigners getting traffic tickets/fines really depends on the country. Try to avail yourself in advance of some of the most common driving rules and what to do if you get a ticket.
If you get a ticket and have to pay on the spot, you should get a receipt. If you can’t get one, it may be a red flag that your traffic infraction is a scam.
You may be able to pay a ticket online, but there might not be an English option or you may have difficulty paying. For example, I’ve read stories of payment links being broken.
You might have the option to dispute it. But that may have its own set of problems, like if you don’t get a response, or disputing the ticket becomes more costly than simply paying it.
What if you ignore the ticket? Nothing may happen, but you could incur additional fines or fees. You may also be prevented from renting a car in that country in the future.
If you’re given a ticket that isn’t immediately payable, or you're in an accident, rental car companies will likely be notified and they’ll probably pass your details on to the police.
The rental company may get hit with a charge which it may then pass onto you. You could even see a charge on your credit card.
Again, how rental companies handle you getting a ticket will depend on the company’s policies and the country.
Last but not least......
Driving in another country can be a blast! Even though I’ve covered a few things you'll need to think about before driving in another country, I recommend looking into the driving rules at your destination to be fully informed. Sure, driving in another country can also be stressful. In addition to the things we already reviewed, road signs may be different from home and not easily understood. Culture may also play a role in how people drive, so you’ll need to adapt to a country’s driving habits. Remember – it’s all part of traveling! Hope this helps as you’re planning your own driving adventure!
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Any suggestions for a future post? Drop me a line at Traveleidoscope@gmail.com!