What to Do Before Driving Internationally

Important steps to take before getting behind the wheel in a foreign country.
by Josh Sadlier
As Americans, we know better than anyone that you’ve got to drive through a country to appreciate it. But once you touch down on foreign soil, it’s not as simple as just going to the nearest rental agency and grabbing a set of keys. If you haven’t done your homework, you’re more likely to get into trouble, and the slightest mishap could result in serious financial or physical pain – or both.

It helps to have a handy checklist ahead of time in preparation for your journey overseas. So, without further ado, here’s our comprehensive rundown of what all you international travelers out there need to know before you get behind the wheel.

Stay on the Right Side of the Law

The first step is to make sure that you’re neither too young nor too old to drive in the country you’ll be visiting. It sounds trivial, but we’ve heard of Americans planning an elaborate road trip and then being turned away at the rental counter due to their age. Worse yet, if an inattentive rental-agency employee gives you the keys anyway, you could face serious penalties during a routine traffic stop. However, there are some companies that offer young driver's insurance to those under the legal rental age. So fire up that search engine and see what the age requirements are before you, er, set the wheels in motion.

Second, although not all countries require it, we recommend spending the 20 bucks or so and getting an International Driving Permit from your local AAA branch. It’s a stamp of legitimacy that’s recognized around the world, so if you do end up having an unwanted interaction with the police, flashing your IDP identifies you as a law-abiding guest who took that extra step to do things the right way.

Don't Scrimp on Insurance

We may grumble about how litigious America has become, but on the bright side, we’ve ended up with some of the best insurance coverage on the planet. Do not assume that the default rental coverage in a foreign country will be nearly as comprehensive; indeed, in many countries you can rent a car without liability coverage, which means you could be on the hook for everything if you’re found at fault in a collision.

The U.S. State Department recommends procuring insurance that’s at least as strong as your coverage back home, and we’d even go a step further. Since linguistic and cultural barriers are likely to complicate matters, we always feel better with a little extra coverage if it’s available.  

Know the Rules of the Road

Imagine you’re driving through Japan and encounter a railroad crossing without any flashing lights or activated barrier. You’d probably just carry on through it, right? The policeman who then pulls you over will explain (in Japanese, naturally) that motorists in Japan must stop at all railroad crossings, no matter what. The cost of being unprepared in this case will probably be the equivalent of a few hundred dollars.

Our recommendation? Fire up that search engine again, and spend the hour it might take to bone up on the basic traffic laws at your destination. You won’t have the rules down like a native, but a little due diligence could save you a lot of time, money, and headache.

If you’re going to a country where they drive on the left, try finding a lightly traveled area and practice for a while before you really jump into the fray. Pay particular attention to turning at intersections, because your brain will need time to adapt.

Alcohol Laws
You know the stateside drill: a drink or two is usually fine, because you just have to keep your blood alcohol content below a certain threshold. But some countries have a zero-tolerance policy: if you’re pulled over and there’s any alcohol in your system whatsoever, you could end up facing heavy fines and even jail time, not to mention a revocation of driving privileges. Unless you plan on teetotaling, do not fire up a car abroad without grasping every detail of the alcohol policy first.

Road Security
Beyond understanding what the local cops are looking for, you should proceed cautiously until you have a good feel for the local driving conditions. The roads in many developing countries are in abysmal condition, and they’re frequently filled with all manner of conveyances, from four-wheeled to four-legged and everything in between. Some developed countries are still plagued by roadway chaos, too, as anyone who’s attempted to navigate a Roman traffic circle can attest.

Important Numbers
As a last resort, keep the number of the nearest U.S. consulate or embassy handy. They won’t necessarily have a get-out-of-jail-free card for you, but as an American traveling abroad, you might get a helping hand, especially if injustice was done.

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