Hungry to take a summer road trip someplace exotic? Read up before you give Hertz or Avis a call, and remember, a drive around another continent can be a wonderful adventure as long as you're prepared. So, here's the run-down of things you need to understand before deciding to drive abroad.
1. Parking and driving in restricted areas (and beyond)
Having to actually park your rental car can take a lot of the joy and convenience out of having a car in the first place. This is particularly the case in Europe, where you can finish your nice leisurely drive through Tuscany or the Alps with a two-hour search for a spot within a mile of the restaurant you've RSVP'd for dinner.
Many cities around Europe have restricted areas, or "forbidden zones," where driving AND parking is restricted in a particular area - oftentimes, a good chunk of the city. Depending on the city, driving and parking may be open only to those who purchase a permit - a bureaucratic exercise that you probably didn't have time for before you left home. Restricted areas are generally indicated by a sign of some sort, but this sign may be hard to spot and may not be in English.
Try asking your hotel about any restricted areas in the city you plan to visit, and make arrangements ahead of time or risk getting ticketed or towed. And if you are lucky enough to get a spot right in front of your restaurant, remember that irritated locals in some cities like to key cars that hamper their space on the sidewalk, so beware.
2. Tolls, tolls, tolls
In most countries, tolls are collected for the privilege of driving on certain freeways, or across expensive bridges or tunnels. There are various ways in which this toll is collected. The traditional toll booth is of course most recognizable, and the most straightforward if you can pay cash. In some cases, most local drivers "pay" using a device that is placed on the windshield of their vehicle, leaving you to sit in the one manned lane where a booth operator is taking forever to collect the toll.
In some places, there are no booths. Tolls are collected by filming the number plate of the vehicle, and the bill is sent to the owner (this is always my favorite part of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco). In this type of setup, the car rental agency will pass this cost onto the tourist.
In some cases you can pay a toll by credit card, but be aware that if you pay in cash, your toll may be lower.
3. Confusing line markings
Painted lines that appear on the roads in different countries have various meanings. For example, a broken white line in some countries may indicate two lanes of traffic flowing in the same direction; in other countries it could be used to divide traffic flowing in opposite directions.
Some countries don't know what paint on asphalt even looks like. Absent any line markings, you may assume that a narrow road is a one-way road, when really it is a two-way road.
Fortunately, most countries have clear explanations of what their road markings mean (they are at least more straightforward than rules about parking, at least). Read up, and be sure to keep an eye out for dashed red lines (and crooked green ones too).
4. Even more confusing roundabouts
Many people don't like roundabouts, and they can be particularly perplexing abroad. In some countries, traffic already in a roundabout has the right of way; in others, a car entering the roundabout has it, while vehicles already in the roundabout must yield.
If that isn't confusing enough, realize that many local drivers forget these rules altogether and take the right-of-way whenever they want it. Roundabouts in many countries are a chance for aggressive drivers to flex their muscle and push you right out of the circle. Know the local rules, hold your ground, and keep moving when you need to (just don't get dizzy).
5. Roads from hell
Enough about driver hardships imposed by your fellow driver or crooked crops: This one's about the path itself. In many countries, "roads" are made of gravel, sand(!), dirt, or rocky surfaces. Some are subject to landslides or mini-avalanches. Others are so winding that one distracted moment could send you slipping over a cliff. Many roads (even in Europe) have no shoulder, or the "shoulder" consists of a ditch. Some roads have been built dangerously so that visibility past a certain hill is difficult, if not impossible. Others are grossly uneven, too narrow, right in the path of the sunrise or sunset for what seems like hours per day, or are frequented by tractors, herds of wildlife, or thirteen-year-olds drag-racing in retrofitted lawn mowers (take my word for it).
In short, you should be aware of the quality of your road before you decide to drive and not fly. If you have one particular patch of bad road in the middle of your long-winded trip, there's nothing to say you can't check in your rental car at Point A, fly from Point A to Point B, and check out another rental car at Point B.
6. Reality check please!
In many places, traffic laws are broken left and right. Some men (and women) the world over get their jollies and their power trips out of breaking speed limits, changing planes without signaling, passing on the wrong side of the road, running stop signs, running red lights, failing to yield, and even driving on the wrong side of the road (all while sober!). You, the cautious foreign driver, are following all the local driving laws to a T -- and you may be at greater risk of an accident for doing so and not "going with the flow."
To successfully drive in foreign cities and countries, you'll need to combine your understanding of the rules with your observations of how people are actually driving. When you finally see a cop by the side of the road you'll know how you're supposed to drive -- but in the meantime, you're getting from Point A to Point B without getting the "saintlike driver" halo knocked off your head (and a broken neck to go along with it).
7. Tuk-tuks, rickshaws, motorcycles, and other vehicles on the road
In many places around the world people have a broader idea of what constitutes traffic than in the West. In developing countries, scooters, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, horse-drawn carts, and bicycles may comprise the majority of "vehicles." Not only are these other drivers in a bigger hurry than you are, but they know the roads better and they probably hate you on sight because you're well-off enough to be driving an actual car.
All these different "vehicles" operate differently and at varying speeds, and can make sudden moves that someone steering a car just can't make. You can expect these drivers to cut into any leeway space as you're turning or to merge into your lane after veering off the sidewalk (and if you visit Bangkok or Jakarta enough times, you might even see one drive OVER the hood of your car). Try to stay patient, keep your sense of humor, and turn up your air conditioning -- and oh, remember that you WILL eventually get where you need to go.