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Do's and Don'ts: First Hand Tips for Renting a Car Abroad

Don't be fooled, driving abroad is not all that different from driving in your home country. But, there's some simple things you should keep in mind when renting a car abroad. Here I have gathered first hand tips for renting a car abroad, including some helpful links for rental cars and advice for safe, comfortable travel.


Note: Always Pack Tissues represents many tried and tested travel sites as what is called an 'affiliate' partner. That means if you click on my ads I may get a commission from a resulting sale.


In this article I explore:



How to Book a Rental Car Abroad


DON'T Rent a Car With Just Any Brand

Don't trust strange brands like "Ok GO" or something that feels 'off' just because they're cheap. Do you really want clunker rental car on the bumpy back roads of Mexico? No, you want a brand you know and can trust.


This photo of me in Cozumel in the purple car is exactly the type of company you don't want to rent with. Nothing on the car worked, the engine overheated, the wipers needed our bottled water to help clear the road dust, and I could see the road through the floor. Sure it was cool and very "Mexican" for a one day rental, but the see-through floor boards proved to be especially interesting when we drove through rain and floodwaters later that day. Ole!


purple rental car in mexico

Always rent with someone you can trust.


My Most Trusted Car Company:

My favorite is Hertz (Click here to browse Hertz cars abroad), although these other well known companies have never let me down.


Other Rental Car Companies That I Trust:


  • Sixt

  • Europcar

  • Avis

  • Budget

  • Enterprise


Also, psst: Hertz loves helping people save money - see the deal for ages 50+ below)


black SUV vw

DO Search for Deals

The best way to search for deals is through an aggregate tool. I prefer Expedia. I've used Expedia for almost all of my travel, and occasionally book out directly to the car company if I find a better deal with my loyalty program.


Keep in mind that Expedia is also a host for platforms like the Chase travel cards, Walmart+ travel, and dozens of other places. SO, go ahead and find what you like on Expedia, then cross reference the prices to your travel credit cards or other points systems.


Ultimately, Expedia will be the best place to find cheap rental cars abroad, in my personal experience. Check it out for yourself at the link here, or search cars at the booking tool below.



 

DON'T Ignore Hidden Fees

There's always a "gotcha" in these contracts. In Mexico, we had to put down a good faith deposit/hold on our credit card for the COST OF THE CAR. You really need to read the fine print.


Also, consider one-way drop off charges. For instance, you pick the car up in Madrid but drop it off in Barcelona. This could shoot a cheap car rental up hundreds of dollars since you are not returning it to the place you got it from.



DO Read the Fine Print

Be sure to read all of the fine print until you understand it clearly.


 


DON'T Choose a Vehicle Based on Price Alone

This could really get you, see why below.


DO Consider Your Vehicle Based on Your Destination

You have to consider where you are going when choosing a vehicle. One lane roads and narrow alleys are common abroad and you don't want to find yourself in a tight situation (pun intended).


one lane road

Parking garages can be narrow and best suited for smaller cars, and in Europe the small cars are generally the best ones to consider. My husband couldn't even get out of the car after parking our huge tank in Spain on our last trip. He had to climb out through the backseat!


narrow parking situation

It was embarrassing, but still....pretty funny for me.


Alternatively, maybe you need four wheel drive or something that can handle bumps. In Oaxaca we found most roads to be paved, but with unexpected road closures we were on lots of dusty, rocky back roads without the proper car to handle the impact.



Car brands we like in Europe include:


  • Renault

  • Seat

  • Peugeot

  • Fiat

  • Volkswagen

  • Audi


When I recognize the brand but not the car itself, I look it up on Google to see interior details, trunk size for bags, etc. Typically these cars are very similar to an American counterpart but just have a different name.


Most times in Europe you will encounter budget, affordable small cars like these:




Also with Hertz, we get nice upgrades like Audi, Mercedes and Tesla. It pays to be a loyalty member!


Audi top down in wine country

 

DON'T Pay for Insurance If You Don't Have To

Check your credit card - most good travel cards offer car insurance globally as part of your benefits.


DO check if your country is covered under your chosen plan

Surprisingly in Italy, for instance, we have trouble using our credit card to cover our car rental.


When in doubt, buy the insurance.


Also, some cars are not allowed to cross certain country borders. There could be fines or worse if you get caught.


bridge to sweden

Again, read the fine print.


 

Preparing For Your Trip


DON'T Get an International Driver's License

In all of my experience, it's not necessary. This stands true for all of the European countries I have visited, as well as Norway, Denmark, Malta, Morocco and Mexico.


DO check twice per country if you are unsure.

Why you might need an International Driver's License:

If you are from a country where your driver's license is not written in a Latin language (think Arabic or kanji) then this is a likely thing you may need to help identify yourself abroad.



 

DON'T Forget a Cable for Connecting Your Phone to the Car

Not every car has airplay or nav systems that work with your phone. Bring a USB cable from home.


DO Bring the Right Tools and Maps

First, don't rely on cell data to pull in your maps. This is often overlooked. If you do not have a cell phone plan, digital SIM card, or other means of accessing internet maps when you arrive at your destination, then you will need to download your maps before you leave home.


This is good practice even if you do have data abroad, simply because we've been stuck in bad cell zones and sluggish speeds when we needed it most. Always have the maps handy.


Consider the Airalo digital SIM card for internet and cell data on the go. They have plans globally!



Lastly, bring a charger and a dash mount or a/c mount holder so you can navigate on the go. My husband prefers the magnetic style mounts, similar to this one here. It can clip onto an AC vent so it's easy to use in just about any vehicle and it packs small for travel.




 

IMPORTANT!: At the Rental Office Overseas


DON'T Drive Off the Lot Until You Inspect the Car and Contract


  • Take Pictures of Every. Inch. Of. That. Car. Take videos, close ups of scratches, etc. This has saved us so many times. Use a flashlight if needed and be thorough.

damaged car bumper

  • Every little ding should be photographed. You don't want to be blamed or charged for damages that aren't your fault later. They WILL check the time and date stamp of your photos upon return.


pointing at a car dent

  • Check for a spare tire (It isn't always included. Ask the protocol for flats)

  • Take a picture of the dashboard to note mileage and fuel gauges

  • Inspect the contract and ask questions. The pay ahead option for filling your gas tank can often be a confusing trap, used as a clever upsell when you arrive at the rental office. Unless you completely understand the rules, just fill it up yourself before returning the car.

  • Keep gas fill up receipts (and take a picture!) for when you return the car as proof



DO save images and receipts for at least 30 days after your trip.


 

Tips for Driving a Car Abroad


DON'T Speed

Especially in Europe, there are radar speed cameras everywhere.


If you do get hit with a ticket, it will arrive at your home weeks later, along with a confusing bill and overseas wire instructions.


Try fighting that ticket with the Italian government. I don't want you to be that guy.



DO note traffic cameras, signs for radar speed zones, and adhere to the posted speed limit

Both apple maps and Google maps are good at telling you speed limits and if there are speed traps ahead. They will even tell you camera locations on occasion, but that doesn't replace good old fashioned rule following.


Remember, most countries operate on kilometers, not miles. Get used to doing the conversions in your head. (Hint: 100km/hr is 60mph)


 

DON'T Leave Your Car Unlocked or Leave Unattended Items Visible

You already stand out as a rental car. It's shiny clean and often even says the rental company name somewhere on the back or dash.


Hertz sticker on bumper

Don't be foolish. Don't leave luggage hanging around visible through a window, or strapped to the roof.



DO Be Vigilant.

Use my tips of staying safe abroad (above), especially when it comes to petty crime, theft and pickpocketing, all of which can happen on the road or at a gas station.


 

DON'T Be Afraid

That said, don't be afraid.


You may be driving on the 'wrong side' of the road (and the car!) in the UK or Malta, but you can do it. Take your time. Get comfortable.


You might get pulled over by road patrols or police. Some may even try to bribe you for money, or indicate that there is a standard passing fee and you've been randomly targeted. This has happened to us many times, notably in Mexico, Spain and Morocco.


My advice is to not come across as too much of a newbie or, sorry, a gringo. My Spanish native husband was a huge help in all of our situations, speaking Spanish with the patrols in all three countries, so we had no issues.


But, if you do only speak English, don't worry. This is usually cause enough for the patroller to give up wasting his time, and he'll send you on your way anyway.


BUT, if his English is good, be prepared to be asked for that fee I mentioned, and size up the situation to see if it's real or if he's just crooked. In any case, try not to get fleeced, but also try not to get yourself in trouble. Just don't open your wallet right away, k?





DO use your instincts

Other thoughts to consider are getting to know the countries road signs, navigating roundabouts (which are quite popular abroad), and what certain traffic rules are. These are mostly pictorial and intuitive to understand, but study up in advance if you are worried.


dangerous curve sign

Next, follow what the locals are doing. In some places like Oaxaca, they create an additional lane out of one lane by using the breakdown lane as a second lane of travel. Just go with it. Don't be the bottleneck.


creating a lane on a road

Use your intuition and be smart.

  • Keep an eye out for changing weather conditions, especially in the mountains.




  • Keep an eye on your gas gauge (don't be a fool like us and venture on a mountain pass with no visible civilization in sight for hours of 100 degree dusty desert)

  • Keep water in the car (see above foolish tale)


 

Overall, driving a car abroad is not an issue. Be smart, be prepared, and have fun!



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Hi, I'm Maria!

Globetrotting since 1995, I'm not a digital nomad or a social influencer.

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