This blog post was updated on January 17, 2022.
There are some foreign cities where you don’t want to be stuck with your own automobile. Amsterdam for example, or Venice. But others are just begging to be seen from the windows of a car.
In 2016, I drove with my husband and toddler from the top of New Zealand to the bottom in eight days. We stopped nearly every 20 minutes to take a picture or get out and explore. It’s the only way to see such a beautiful place; at your own pace, with your camera at the ready.
The convenience of the trip didn’t hurt, either. With a toddler, we were able to stop whenever we needed to take care of her. She could nap in her carseat and yell as loud as she wanted without us feeling the need to shush her. For eight days my husband and I discussed everything under the sun, jammed out to our favorite songs, and made memories I’ll never forget. It is so much more relaxing to move at your own pace instead of relying on a tour group or public transportation. You can take as long or as short as you want.
For eight days my husband and I discussed everything under the sun, jammed out to our favorite songs, and made memories I’ll never forget.
Since then, road-tripping has become our favorite way to see a new country. It’s easy to get stuck in the mindset that big cities are the only places worth visiting. But the truth is, the countryside is always more memorable (and enjoyable!) to us. We’ve now seen the Swiss Alps, the oceans of Australia, the coast of Mallorca, and the rain forests of Costa Rica — all from inside a rental car. And we’ve learned the hard way what to do, and what not to do, when road tripping in a foreign country.
Here are things I wish I’d known the first time we road tripped abroad:
Always Book in Advance
Rental rates are almost always higher in person than they are online, so booking in advance saves you money. And you’ll be less likely to pay hidden fees. But keep in mind that you will probably be paying more than you initially thought. The exchange rate, unfamiliar rental specs, taxes, and optional (or not optional!) insurance can all add up. But you’re less likely to encounter those when you book from home. And you can avoid negotiating with a potential language barrier.
Give Yourself a Generous Barrier for the Car Return Time
There’s nothing worse than missing sunset at The Twelve Apostles because you have to return your car rental. Give yourself more time than you think you’ll need. A lot of rental companies charge you for each 24-hour period from the time of rental. If you return the car late, they’ll bill you for another 24-hour period — even if you return it just a few minutes late.
Spring for a Reputable Car Company
Even if an off-brand car company’s price is much cheaper, it pays to go with a reputable company. There are often hidden fees with the cheap car companies. In Costa Rica, we went as cheap as possible and got roped into not only a lot of hidden fees, but the smallest cars ever! We couldn’t fit all of our people and luggage inside one, so we had to rent two! So don’t forget — read reviews before you book abroad.
Order a Little Bigger Car Than You Think You Need
We made the mistake of requesting an economy car in New Zealand. When my sister and brother-in-law joined us, all five of us were uncomfortable on the drive. Fortunately, we were able to upgrade, but sometimes there is no alternative. European cars tend to be smaller than their American counterparts, so if you’re tall, have a lot of luggage, or have a lot of people traveling with you — pay for the upgrade.
Make Sure It’s Automatic if You Can’t Drive a Manual
In many countries, manual is the norm and automatic costs more. We learned this the hard way in stop-and-go traffic on our way out of Mallorca. Many Spanish curse-words were thrown our way!
Check the License Requirements
Every country has its own requirements, but most English-speaking countries will accept your American or Canadian driver’s license. Some countries require an International Driving Permit (IDP), however. You must be at least 18 years old to get an IDP and can apply for one at the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATP). Be sure to apply before you arrive at your destination — and bring your American or Canadian driver’s license too.
Be Prepared to Fuel
Gas can be more expensive abroad, but in some places it’s actually cheaper! My best advice is to fill at a station with an attendant. In Switzerland we put 100 euros in a machine to fill our rental tank and were not given change. They did not accept our credit card. Apparently no change is offered there, which we didn’t know. We ended up paying almost 50 euros more for our gas than we had to — and there was no one working at the station to help.
Call Your Insurance Before You Go
You will most likely not be covered for car insurance in a foreign country, but your current insurer can cover you there if you plan ahead. Otherwise you’ll need to purchase coverage as you rent the car. Some credit cards offer coverage for foreign car rentals, so we’ve always relied on that for our travels!
Get the GPS
Driving on the other side of the road — or in a new place is stressful enough. Spring for the GPS; it’s often not much more expensive, and since coverage can be spotty when you’re abroad even if you have an international data plan, it will save your life. Make sure the attendant changes it to English before you take off though — or you may have to troubleshoot for a while.
You’re in a new place. Chances are you don’t understand all of the driving rules and requirements — so be as safe as possible. Minimize distractions, focus on the road, and follow the rules. If you get a citation abroad, it will find its way to you at home (a parking ticket was waiting for us when we returned from Australia!).
There’s no better way to see a beautiful place than from a car. It’s convenient, private, and relaxing. By taking a few precautions and planning ahead, you’ll be ready for the road trip of your dreams.
Got any other interesting tips or experiences from road tripping abroad? Share them with us in the comments.