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3 BIG Mistakes to Avoid When Renting a Car in a Foreign Country

red car in white snowy field during daytime

We are probably the last people on earth to glamorize or romanticize driving a car. Usually it feels like more stress than it’s worth, especially when traveling overseas. However, there are times when renting a car in a foreign country makes sense and is clearly the most efficient way to get around. Just be sure to avoid these mistakes to give yourself the best chance for the smoothest experience possible.

Two people in car in wilderness area

Mistake #1: Booking with a “Big Name” Agency

This one is bound to be controversial, as many find comfort in renting with large, multinational corporations. They assume that their massive footprint must be indicative of trust and reliability. In our experience though, this is just about the opposite of the truth. The “big guys” with name recognition often have the lowest prices because of economies of scale and because they can make that money back (and then some) by nickel-and-dime-ing their customers, especially on the back end of the transaction.

Think about it. Their name recognition is so vast that they can afford to absorb thousands of negative reviews. Lazy customers will still gravitate towards a company like Hertz and Avis because they’ve heard of them before and would rather stick to the “known” than gamble on the “unknown.”

On the other hand, a smaller, local car rental agency can’t afford the reputational hit of a poor customer review. They will often bend over backwards to make sure you have a good experience. They are less likely to resort to cheap tricks like blaming you for pre-existing damage on the car when you turn it in.

Man holding car keys

The caveat here is that you need to do your research ahead of time. I’m not suggesting you blindly rent from the smallest agency available. Almost all agencies have at least some reviews; check TrustPilot and Google Maps for starters. Often you’ll find some small outfit with glowing reviews compared to the horror stories on the big players’ pages.

As a bonus, these guys tend to be about as competitive price-wise as the large companies. But they don’t always show up on the big car rental aggregator websites such as priceline.com. You may have to google “car rental [city]” or scan around the airport on google maps to even discover them in the first place. Once you find a company you like, you can often book directly on their website.

Mistake #2: Paying (Extra) for Insurance

Obviously, having car insurance in case of accidents is important. However, many credit cards offer rental car insurance as a benefit at no extra cost to you. Check the fine print of your credit card benefits statement to verify whether or not this is the case for each of your credit cards.

If none of your cards offer this benefit, you should seriously consider applying for a credit card that does offer it, as this is a very useful benefit when traveling overseas.

Once you verify that your card offers insurance, the general process is simple. Usually you have to decline the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) when filling out paperwork at the rental agency. This can be hundreds of dollars worth of savings by itself. Make sure your name is listed as the primary renter on the auto rental contract and pay for 100% of the charges with the same credit card. It doesn’t hurt to have a copy of your credit card coverage details handy in case the agent tries to pressure you into paying for their insurance.

Car with Damaged Headlight Area

This is even more useful when renting a car in a foreign country. Why? Because your primary car insurance in your home country will be null and void overseas anyway. So if something happens, there’s no way they can raise your premiums or penalize you in any way.

I recently had a minor accident with a rental car in Montenegro. I had to go through the full claims process via our credit card company. It was actually fairly easy and involved submitting photos and documents in an online form. The $460 in damages were 100% paid for in a matter of days! Just make sure you take photos yourself and get all the relevant documentation from your car rental agency before leaving.

Mistake #3: Being Ignorant of Local Laws & Customs

We’ve been very careful to avoid renting cars in big cities with 6-lane highways, massive roundabouts, traffic jams, one-way streets, complicated parking stipulations, and other stressful situations. But there is always something unique about driving in any given country. Before you commit to renting a car in a foreign country, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do they drive on the right or left side of the street?
    • If this is the opposite of what I’m used to, am I comfortable trying to figure it out on the spot?
  • Are most of the cars manual or automatic?
    • If most are manual and I can’t drive manual, am I willing to pay a premium to rent an automatic? (the takeaway here is NOT to drive a manual if you haven’t before, but rather to make sure to check if your rental car company even has ANY automatics to rent in the first place!)
  • Does the rental agency/local law enforcement require an international driving permit (IDP)?
    • This simple document translates your home country’s license into several other languages.
    • For Americans, only two organizations issue valid IDPs: AAA and AATA. These cost about $20 and are valid for one year, but you really want to obtain them before leaving the U.S.
Traffic Police Parked on Street
  • How aggressive are the drivers in my destination country?
    • If they are aggressive, are there ample opportunities to pull over and let others pass?
  • How much does gasoline cost in my destination country?
    • Have I factored this into my travel budget?
  • Is there a legal limit for blood alcohol concentration when driving?
    • Note that some countries like Czechia and Hungary have a zero tolerance policy, meaning it’s illegal to have any amount of alcohol in your blood while driving.
  • How does paid parking work in the areas I intend to go to?
    • Sometimes it is difficult or impossible for a foreigner to pay. For example, in Montenegro there are certain areas where you have to text your parking spot to a local phone number and they will charge a card on file.
  • Are the street signs symbolic or language based?
    • Usually they’re symbolic, which helps when you don’t know the local language.
    • If they’re language-based, consider asking for some help from the car rental agent ahead of time for the most important ones.

Final Thoughts

If you avoid these three big mistakes, renting a car in a foreign country shouldn’t be much more difficult than doing so at home. At the end of the day, you actually might be surprised at how easy it is to drive in a country different than your own. The similarities tend to outweigh the differences by far. Keep your wits about you and drive safe!


3 BIG Mistakes to Avoid When Renting a Car in a Foreign Country
3 BIG Mistakes to Avoid When Renting a Car in a Foreign Country
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Tyler Kimble
Tyler Kimble
Tyler has been traveling the world nonstop since Fall 2015. Originally from Wisconsin in the U.S., he discovered his passion for travel thanks to his wife Linda. He is very analytical and keeps detailed notes for every place he and Linda visit together, especially cost of living data. As a co-founder of Travelitic, he is excited to share his wealth of travel knowledge with the world!
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