Heading out of the country any time soon? An adventure awaits those intrepid enough to rent a car internationally and venture out beyond the airport. We’ve driven in two-dozen countries on four different continents, and we’ll admit that we still have an occasional moment where we find ourselves driving loops around a traffic circle, like Chevy Chase in European Vacation (“Look kids, Big Ben, Parliament!”) While sometimes challenging, driving abroad gives you the flexibility to get to those hard-to-reach places. A car also gives you a little more cargo room than a suitcase, another plus. But your rental experience doesn’t have to be like something out of a Griswold family adventure. Here are 10 lessons we’ve learn driving abroad through the years.
10. Learn to Drive a Stick
It has happened more than once on The Amazing Race — a team gets in a car, only to discover that neither member can drive a stick shift. Manual transmissions are far more common than automatics in most of the world, including Asia, Europe and Africa. Automatic transmissions are considered a luxury. Plus, renting an automatic transmission in some countries can often cost twice as much.
9. Learn the Difference Between Diesel and Unleaded
More than once we’ve pulled into a gas station in a foreign country, only to discover all of the pumps labeled in a foreign language. Knowing the difference between diesel and unleaded beforehand when it comes to filling up can save you a ruined engine. A good general rule is that diesel is less expensive than unleaded. In some developing countries, a roadside gas station is nothing more than a shack with 5-liter jugs filled with gasoline.
8. Remember These Tips For Driving on the Left
If you’re headed to countries such as Japan, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom, you’ll have to learn to drive on the “wrong side of the road” very quickly. We find that we have to stay perpetually alert driving on the left side of the road, lest we suddenly veer over into oncoming traffic. Three cardinal rules to remember are to “stay left, look right (especially when entering a traffic circle), and give way to the right.” Many new drivers actually overcompensate, and I’ve hopped the curb staying too far left more than once. It takes me about a week to adjust, and after returning to the U.S. I actually find it hard to switch back for at least another week or so.
7. Some Urban Areas Are Easier to Explore on Foot
Learning to drive in a strange country in the heart of a big city is not for the timid. A good rule is to pick up a car in an urban area, then head for the rural towns. Heading back in to explore the big city, we prefer to simply target a parking garage and then head out on foot. Rural driving can present its own challenges as well, with narrow roads, wandering livestock, etc.
6. Practice Your Parallel Parking
Parallel parking is something the rest of the world does that Americans soon forget after they get their driver’s license. Most street parking, especially in Europe, involves the dreaded task of parallel parking. The concept is counterintuitive, and most novices approach parallel parking exactly the wrong way, trying to enter a spot nose first. You need to pull up next to the car ahead of the coveted spot as close as possible (that’s the parallel part), and then back around and into the spot, using the front steerable wheels to maneuver. I’m never ashamed to ask my wife to get out and spot (passengers have duties, too!) A skilled driver can insert a car in a spot only a foot longer than the length of the car. Of course, we once watched a local driver parallel park in Morocco by banging into each car. Ironically, Europeans actually seem to have a problem with diagonal street parking, placing cars at random, haphazard angles.
5. Watch What the Locals Do
Riding in a local taxi can be very enlightening (and sometimes heart stopping) before hopping behind the wheel yourself. Europeans, for example, will only pass on the driver’s side on the highway, and will sit behind you and flash their high beams if you linger too long in the fast lane. We had to unlearn our driving habits we picked up in Italy on our return to the States … and we have the traffic ticket to prove it. The very worst cities to drive in are those places like Miami Beach or Kuwait City, where international drivers meet in large numbers, all wanting to drive like they do back home.
4. Be Wary of Insurance and Hidden Extras
Extras can really soak you for cash, and insurance is the top one. We’ve seen car prices reserved online more than double at the rental counter due to pricey insurance offered by the company. Check beforehand to see if your car insurance company back home offers rental insurance abroad. Shopping for your own insurance for a trip can also save you a bundle. We’ve also seen companies offer GPS units as extras for high daily rates. We’ve used Google Maps on our smartphone to navigate in other countries just fine, and you’ll at least have a GPS unit that you’re familiar with.
3. Familiarize Yourself With Your Car
If money is no object, you can insist on renting a car that’s a duplicate of what you drive back home. For the rest of us, renting means jumping into a strange auto and learning things quickly. Things I’ve had to quickly Google on my smartphone getting into a strange car include how to open the gas cap, how to shift into reverse, where the hazard lights are located, how to turn off an annoying alarm, etc. Many standard transmissions in Europe shift into reverse by pushing down on the stick, something unfamiliar to Americans. A rental agent in Gibraltar once told us of a client that actually broke the shifting column off trying to force it into reverse.
2. Learn to Understand ‘Horn Language’
Hear that cacophony of horns outside your hotel window? We rarely use our horn in the U.S., but to the ears of drivers in other countries, the din of car horns forms a complex driving language. In places such as Morocco or Turkey, the constant horn blowing can mean anything from ‘I’m in your blind spot,’ or ‘I’m passing,’ to ‘the light is green,’ and more. In mountain passes and on narrow, blind turns, horns and flashing lights are used as a warning to signal an approach. The first thing we always notice on returning to the States is the relative serenity of our highways.
1. Expect the Unexpected
Goats crossing the street in downtown Casablanca? A long, winding one-lane country road in Wales that is, in fact, two way? There are many unique situations awaiting U.S. drivers worldwide. We’ve seen crazy things driving abroad, such as two cars stopped to chat in the center of a busy freeway in Kuwait and drivers barreling down the road at night in Morocco with their headlights off. Many drivers in some countries have little to no formal training before getting behind the wheel, and getting a driver’s license simply means paying a bribe to the appropriate government official. Safety culture is also often lacking. For example, every taxi driver we rode with in Morocco actually insisted for some strange but pervasive reason that we not wear a seat belt! Did they take it as a personal affront to their driving skills, I wonder, or did they revel in the hubris of tempting fate?
Slideshow photo credit: © Walid Hassanein