How hard is it to drive abroad?

I was giving some advice to a friend of mine this weekend since he has an upcoming trip to the Yucatan region of Mexico.   Since I’d been there before, he was curious to know how I got around and how I visited the sites of Chitzen Itza and others without a car since he knows how much I hate organized tours.  When I told him I got a rental and drove myself, he was floored since he’s never driven abroad.  

Here’s the thing, driving abroad isn’t any different than driving at home for the most part.  With the exception of certain laws, driving is pretty much the same. Although there are some differences in terms of passing lanes, roundabouts, and other quirky issues, driving abroad is more nerve wracking but not more difficult than driving at home.

Do you need an International Driving Permit?

First things first.  An International Driving Permit (IDP) is not a license that gives you free reign to drive in whatever country you choose.  All it does is translate your driver’s license into multiple languages. Now you’re supposed to have it with you in conjunction with your normal driver’s license just in case something happens.  

Depending on the country, you may not need an IDP or a rental company will allow you to rent a car without one.  However, getting an IDP is easy if you have AAA. All you have to do is go to your local AAA office, fill out the form, and pay the fee.  

You’ll want to check what the requirements are to drive in each country.  You’ll want to check with state department for eligibility. Some countries may also limit driving depending on your visa.  Certain countries also allow you to skirt the rules by offering different types of rentals to tourists as well ie. E Bikes in Myanmar. 

Big Name Brand or Small Shop?

So, do you go with a well known brand like Hertz or Avis or do you go with a local mom and pop shop?  This will depend entirely on what you’re comfortable with but I usually try to go with a big name brand vs. a small local shop for a couple reasons. 

Sri Lanka Toll Road
Driving in Sri Lanka

First, if something happens, you can always call a national phone number and get it squared away.  You won’t be stuck dealing with only the local rental office where you might have a language barrier or if you’re in a rush to catch your flight or if you have other pressing issues (like injuries).  

Second, you’ll typically have a larger selection of vehicles to choose from.  If you need a specific type of vehicle (maybe a large SUV for your entire family and luggage), you’ll have better luck finding it with a larger company since they have a larger network.  If you go with a smaller rental agency, you might be forced to take 2 smaller vehicles since they can’t accommodate your request. 

The caveat to all this is sometimes, larger companies won’t allow you to drive in certain areas.  When I drove across the border to Guatemala from Belize (you can read that post HERE), I was forced to rent from a local rental company in Belize because none of the larger companies would allow me to drive across the border.  

How does insurance work abroad?

Obviously this will all depend on your individual policy and you’ll definitely want to check with your insurance provider before leaving.  However, certain credit card companies will act as your primary or secondary rental car insurance as long as you use them to pay for the rental.  Examples of credit cards offering this benefit are the Chase Sapphire Reserve (primary) and the American Express Platinum Card (secondary).  

The difference between primary and secondary insurance is that with secondary insurance, you’ll need to file a claim and go through the claims process with your primary insurance first before secondary insurance kicks in.  However, if you have either of these cards, it’s certainly a good option to have. Just remember to read and understand the terms and conditions. 

Should You Drive Automatic or Manual?

The first question is, can you drive a manual and do you feel confident enough to drive a manual in a foreign country?  If you only drive automatic at home, you really shouldn’t drive a manual abroad. You certainly won’t feel more comfortable driving an unfamiliar vehicle.  Yes, a stick may be cheaper, but it won’t do you any good if you’re too afraid to drive it and it just goes unused your entire trip. 

However, in some cases, finding an automatic rental can be impossible.  At this point, you’ll want to evaluate your comfort level of driving stick.  Again, the point of having a rental is to enjoy the freedom that comes with it.  If your rental ends up just sitting in the parking lot, there really is no point in renting it.  

Driving and eating on Easter Island…I know, such an American thing to do…

I’ve driven in every scenario EXCEPT a manual on the left side of the road.  That is something I’ve never done and not sure if I really have the guts to do it without some practice beforehand.  The whole shifting with the left hand just freaks me out.  

How tough is it to Drive in Cities?

This can be tough and your biggest help is going to come from your GPS or driving app.  There are too many things to be aware of that I don’t know if it’s physically or mentally possible to pay attention to everything while looking at a map for directions.  If you’re traveling with someone, use them as your copilot so you can focus on driving.  

Cities are tough because you’re not only dealing with other cars who are happy to honk wildly but also with pedestrians who will walk through the middle of the street without a second thought.  Add to that the confusing nature of roundabouts and where you need to be in order to get out, and city driving can be a mess.  

When I was driving through Jordan, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get around with all the traffic and not being able to read the street signs didn’t help either.  However, by constantly having Google maps on and just focusing on where I needed to be to make the next turn, I was driving like a local by the end of the week.  

You’re also going to need to use some common sense and some “creative” driving sometimes.  Google maps isn’t the best at identifying one way streets or streets with a center divider and it’ll blindly send you down streets.  When that happens, I usually pull over, wait until the coast is clear, and do whatever I feel necessary to get back on track. If I’m just looking for a restaurant, that’ll mean just parking and walking.  If I’m going to a destination off in the distance, that may mean taking the car for a slight detour on grass or gravel.  

Know the Speed Limit and Other Laws

Look, you don’t want to attract unwanted attention to yourself.  The few times I’ve been stopped, I genuinely don’t know if I did something wrong or if it was just a checkpoint.  That said, I don’t think most officers are going to bother writing a ticket. But you shouldn’t be driving recklessly either.  Sometimes you have to take control of the situation but that doesn’t mean drive like a maniac and weave in and out of traffic.  

Final Thoughts

Driving abroad is more nerve wracking than it is scary.  You won’t know all the rules and you certainly won’t know the diving customs of the locals. But I think the secret is to take things slowly, be confident, and never be afraid to ask questions or take a break if you start to feel overwhelmed.  I’d also say that driving abroad is not the time to learn how to drive a stick or try something new. Leave the distractions at home and concentrate because you’ll need every ounce of energy to focus on not getting lost and going the wrong way.  But give it a try and my guess is after a couple hours, you’ll get the hang of it and you’ll be driving like a local.  

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