Late evening landscape on the R336, Connemara Coast, near Galway, Ireland
I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to nearly 40 countries to date, and as you’d expect from someone with a blog named The Road More Traveled, some of my most memorable experiences overseas have come on the road in a rental car. Granted, there are some places where I wouldn’t recommend driving, but in many places, having a personal vehicle at your disposal opens up some great opportunities you can’t get if you’re relying on only air travel or guided tours. Some of my favorite such experiences to date include a trip to the world’s only jaguar reserve in Belize, the above road trip from Dublin to Connemara and The Burren in Ireland, and the chance to visit an opal mine in the Australian outback, the last two of which are long term trip-report projects for this blog. That being said, driving outside of your home country, and your comfort zone, can be challenging if you don’t do a little planning ahead. Today, with travel season ready to get underway in a couple of months in the Northern Hemisphere, I present my top eight tips for getting in some enjoyable road trip time across the pond.
1. Take It Easy on Your Arrival Day
It should go without saying – if you’re getting off a 10-hour flight and fighting jet lag, trying to get in 500 miles of driving on your first day is a bad idea. I advise against doing much more on your first day other than picking up your car and heading to your hotel. Get settled in, get a good night’s – or even two nights’ – rest, and hit the road the next day. That’s exactly what I did when we visited Australia; we spent the first day and a half lounging around Adelaide, then only drove about 150 miles the second day, before embarking on our long drive to the Outback on Day 3.
2. Avoid Large Urban Areas
I strongly advise against driving in large areas, i.e. Dublin, London, Sydney, etc. In addition to heavy traffic that can put even the largest American cities to shame, big cities elsewhere around the world can contain many traps for unwary drivers, including congestion charge zones, speed cameras, byzantine parking regulations, and having to dodge pedestrians and cyclists on streets much narrower than what you’re used to. Don’t do it. If you’re starting off a trip in a large city, wait until the day you plan to leave to pick up your car. Most big cities worldwide have excellent, cheap public transportation systems, so you don’t really need a car anyway.
3. Research Basic Rules of the Road Before Leaving Home
Double checking whether the country you’re visiting is left-hand or right-hand drive is an obvious one, but also check other basic rules, such as: whether your home country’s drivers licenses are accepted, or if you need a special permit; typical city and open road speed limits; how to use and pay for toll roads, if any; availability of gasoline; etc. The toll road issue can be a particularly vexing one. Many areas are switching to so-called “open road tolling”, where electronic license plate and/or transponder readers replace cash booths. It’s great for residents, as it avoids the slowdowns caused by toll booths, but can be a problem if you’re in a rental car without a toll transponder. Failure to rent a transponder from the agency, or pay electronic tolls in a timely manner, can easily result in hundreds if not thousands of dollars in administrative fees and fines for only a few dollars of skipped tolls. Example: Dublin’s M50 ring road’s toll system requires you to log in and pay online by 8 P.M. the next day. It’s easy to do, but will result in a painful lesson if you hop on the plane back home and forget.
It’s also important to note that while most countries accept valid American drivers licenses for temporary use within the country, this isn’t universally true. Check before you go. The last thing you want to do is show up at the rental counter and be told that they can’t rent to you because you don’t have a valid permit.
Finally, if the country you are visiting drives on the left side of the road, and you’ve never done it before, before hitting the open road, find a quiet side street to practice driving. Driving from the right side of the car does take a little getting used to. I got used to it after a few miles, though I still found myself turning on the windshield wipers when I meant to use the turn signal instead. (Incidentally, if you hail from a country that drives on the left, driving on the right can be just as challenging.)
4. Don’t Speed or Drink and Drive – EVER
You shouldn’t drink and drive at home, either, but you should absolutely not do so, even a little, outside your home country. Blood alcohol limits can be considerably stricter in foreign countries. For example, a BAC of .05% tags you as legally drunk in New Zealand. It also goes without saying, the Constitutional protections you take for granted in the United States don’t apply elsewhere in the world, and the last thing you want to do is end up in jail on your vacation. As mentioned above, also make sure to familiarize yourself with speed limits on various types of roads and highways in the country you are visiting – and strictly adhere to them. Speed cameras, sometimes with a tolerance level of as little as 4 km/h over the limit, are rampant in places such as Australia and Europe, and elsewhere, it’s not unusual for laws that call for on-the-spot payment of speeding fines and/or confiscation of your vehicle if you are caught speeding. Speed cameras, in particular, can be troublesome in a rented vehicle, because your rental agency is likely to charge you hundreds of dollars in administrative fees, in addition to the fine, if you are caught speeding in a rental car. Anyway, you’ve traveled all that way, and there’s so much great stuff to see, so why the hurry? Take it slow and enjoy the scenery. Just be courteous and stay in the slow lane.
5. If You Encounter Traffic Police, and Are Asked to Pay an On-the-Spot Fine, Ask for a Receipt
The “toursit shakedown” is a common complaint of foreign drivers, especially in less developed countries. It’s important to note, though, that just because a police officer asks for payment of a traffic fine on the spot, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a corrupt Barney Fife is looking for a bribe; as mentioned above, on-the-spot fines for minor traffic offenses are common elsewhere in the world. The best way to protect yourself from a bogus fine or bribe attempt? Ask for a receipt. If the fine is legitimate, the officer is usually required to provide you with one. A little common sense, however, is in order here. If you suspect you are being manhandled for a bribe, and said bribe is something like $5, while I don’t condone the encouragement of corrupt practices, it’s probably not worth the time, effort, or risk of being hauled to jail if the officer insists on the cash but refuses to hand you a receipt.
6. Check Your Insurance Before You Go
Whether you have the proper insurance for travel outside of your home country is always a thorny issue. Sometimes, unscrupulous rental car companies will attempt to claim that you must buy their overpriced insurance or LDW to be compliant with local law, a claim that is (usually) BS. That being said, check your options before you go. It is true that American insurance is no good in Mexico, but you may have suitable insurance provided through a credit card, or you may be able to buy a temporary policy on the cheap before you leave home (many insurance agencies here in Texas, for example, can sell you a short-term policy for Mexico for a few bucks a day). Ireland can also be difficult, as credit card insurance coverage often excludes Ireland specifically, and loss damage waivers often charge a deductible (sometimes called “excess”) as high as 1,500 euros. Rental consolidators, such as Auto Europe, will often include LDW, and even buy-downs of the deductible (sometimes referred to as “excess reduction”) at a discounted rate.
It is also critical to do a thorough damage inspection of your vehicle BEFORE leaving the lot. Take date and time-stamped photos of any damage, and insist that the attendant notate any and all pre-existing damage on the contract. If you notice any issues with the vehicle’s driveability, particularly with the clutch or transmission, immediately return the vehicle and ask for a replacement. Stories such as this one of renters being blamed for burning out clutches are unfortunately all too common, especially in Europe. Yes, your insurance might cover the damage, but it’s a hassle you’re better off without.
7. If You Need an Automatic Transmission, Ask for One Specifically if Renting Outside the U.S. or Canada
Most of the rest of the world doesn’t share North America’s love of the slushbox. In fact, it can be downright difficult to find rentals with automatic transmissions elsewhere, and where they are available, can be considerably more expensive. If you need an automatic transmission, check very closely to make sure you are renting a vehicle with one. With the lack of automatic vehicles available, there is an enhanced risk of not being able to obtain one if you arrive without a proper reservation.
8. In Some Countries, It’s Just Not Worth the Risk
Ultimately, there are some places where I simply don’t recommend trying to drive yourself around because it simply isn’t safe. India is one such place – crowded and narrow roads often in poor condition, routine flouting of and failure to enforce traffic laws, hazards from livestock, pedestrians, and motorcyle riders, police corruption, and fake accident scams perpetrated against foreign drivers makes driving there a serious risk to your health and sanity. These issues are unfortunately seen in other developing countries as well; thoroughly research the country you are planning on visiting before taking the plunge and renting a car to drive yourself. The good news is, hiring a driver in many of these places is dirt cheap; in India, for instance, a chauffeured vehicle can be had for as little as $25 a day. That gives you the best of both worlds – you can take a road trip, and let someone else handle the dirty work.
Follow these tips, use some common sense, then enjoy seeing great places like the Hummingbird Highway in Belize that you can’t get to with a tour group.