Essential Tips for Renting a Car Overseas

Because your next international road trip should be easy and fun.

Travelers, start your engines: You are now entering The [Scenic] Route, a rip-roaring exploration of the world’s most incredible international road trips, from lush Rwandan jungles and ancient Peruvian mountains to seaside Irish villages, dreamy Japanese forests, and twisty Romanian hillsides. For more reasons to hit the pavement—plus tips, interviews, and a custom road-ready playlist—cruise over to the rest of our coverage here.

The drive from Oslo to Bergen, Norway is the kind of beautiful that threatens to ruin any other road trip you might once have found breathtaking. You’ll cling to mountain roads over sheer drops to ice blue fjords, pass through seemingly endless tunnels, and cross the rugged, isolated terrain of Hardangervidda National Park. And yet, as with many other international drives, the same things that make this route worthwhile (the mountainous terrain, the solitude, the unexpected twists and turns) also make it feel a little riskier than driving at home. After all, driving abroad means you’ll need to rent a car, navigate through unfamiliar surroundings, and be prepared for anything the road might throw at you. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s going to take a little more preparation and an intrepid attitude. So how exactly should you prepare?

Depending on your destination, there are a number of key questions to consider before you hit the road in a rented set of wheels. Will you need an international driving permit? What are the traffic laws you should know? Are you covered in case of an accident? And of course, the classic question: How do you avoid getting ripped off?

We can’t promise perfect weather, or even perfect roads, but we can promise to get you started on your overseas car rental journey—and we can reassure you it’s worth the effort, particularly for those who prefer to take the route less traveled. Renting a car overseas can be such a fun way to explore a new country, so make sure you get started right. Here are a few tips to make your foreign car rental as hassle-free as possible.

International Driving Permit and passport
Flickr/Tony Webster

Get an International Driving Permit if necessary

The first step is determining whether or not the country that you're visiting requires an International Driving Permit (IDP). Show up without one and you could get turned around at the rental counter. And, since no two countries are the same when it comes to driving laws, the US State Department suggests checking with the embassy of your destination country before you go. 

Fortunately, obtaining an IDP is pretty easy. Currently, U.S. travelers can apply for these through AAA, either by mail or in person. You'll have to supply two passport-style photos, a valid driver's license (in person) or a photocopy of your license (by mail), as well as pay a $20 fee. The permit will be valid for up to a full year, but must be issued within six months of your trip. Just remember: A permit does not replace your government-issued driver's license, so be sure to carry your passport and driver's license at all times, in addition to the IDP.

Sign that says "Drive on the left in Australia" on side of road

Learn the rules of the road

Every country has its own driving rules so it's smart to do some basic homework on your destination before you ever climb behind the wheel—especially if said wheel isn't on the side of the car that you're accustomed to.

In many countries, you'll need to know how to drive a manual transmission (or be prepared to pay a premium for an automatic vehicle), and in some places (England, Ireland, and Australia, for example) you'll also need to learn how to drive on the left side of the road. It's also good to read up on the kinds of traffic, road conditions, and access you're likely to encounter. For example, São Paulo, Brazil is known for its intense traffic, while remote areas of Patagonia might offer isolated roads without other drivers—but also without closely-spaced gas stations.

And speaking of gas, don't forget that it can be A LOT more expensive in other countries. The website can provide a quick price check on country fuel prices so you can come up with a budget before you leave.

Signs for Avis, Europcar, and Hertz
Flickr/Hakan Dahlstrom

Compare rates between U.S. and local rental car agencies

It might be tempting to go with familiar American rental car agencies like Hertz, Enterprise, and Avis, but be sure to check out all your options before you settle on a specific agency. While these companies are convenient and operate in many different countries abroad, their rates can be more expensive than local or national agencies. You'll want to compare rates online through sites like Kayak or Expedia before making a decision. Also, be aware of holiday and other peak tourist-season pricing. 

There are a few ways to save money when renting abroad: first, specialty pricing may be offered through your airline or a travel membership programs, like AAA. Second, If you have some flexibility in your travel schedule, it’s not uncommon for local agencies to offer walk-in service for short-term and weekend car rentals. It may pay to wait until you arrive to book. And finally, thanks to the sharing economy, there are a number of popular trip and ride share options in Europe, including BlaBlaCar and Liftshare

Car on side of road

Make sure you're covered in case of accident, theft, or other car troubles

Your personal car insurance probably won’t cover a rental car abroad, let alone an accident in a foreign country. That's why it's crucial to get basic insurance (at least!) and make sure you read the fine print so you're well-versed in what exactly that insurance actually covers. It's also worth asking if the agency offers a zero-deductible collision damage waiver (CDW). It’s probably expensive, but it will give you peace of mind if there’s an accident or issue on the road.

You might also want to ask about a loss and damage waiver (LDW) and theft protection. These may be secondary considerations, but they can be mandatory in some countries where vehicle theft is more common.

One thing to note before you agree to the rental car company's insurance, however, is that some travel credit cards offer international coverage. If your card provides international coverage, it could be your cheapest option, so definitely take a look. If you do have coverage with your credit card, read the fine print and make sure there are no specific clauses and exclusions to liability coverage.

GPS on iPhone in a car
Unsplash/Mert Kahveci

Download GPS apps you can use offline

Using a GPS at home is simple, but you'll want to download some GPS apps for travel that you can use abroad when cell service may be spotty or nonexistent—or just really expensive. Google Maps, of course, is a well-known classic for driving anywhere, but you can also download offline maps through the app. These aren't always incredibly detailed, so you might want to grab a backup offline map app just in case.

Your options include Citymapper, a free app that gives you all of your transit options, including car, subway, taxi, bike, and walking routes in select cities like London, Singapore, Mexico City, and Paris. If you plug in a specific trip when you have service, you'll be able to star it for offline use. There are also premium GPS road apps that give turn-by-turn driving directions without using precious data. Sygic GPS Navigation and Navmii are two that come preloaded with driving information, alerting you to any construction, vehicle tolls, and border crossings coming up ahead. 

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Tim Ebner is a food and travel writer. For more travel tips, follow him on Twitter @TimEbner.

Kori Perten is a senior travel editor at Thrillist.