THE BLOG
05/20/2014 02:45 pm ET | Updated Jul 20, 2014

Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know

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Getting from Point A to Point B in a foreign land is a fundamental part of traveling -- and should be one of the more enjoyable aspects of exploring a new country. New and seasoned travelers alike take their choice of transportation -- whether on vacation or a business or family trip -- very seriously. The experiences you've had on prior trips with trains, buses, taxi drivers, and short-distance air travel may inspire your desire for independence and solitude, and for many of us, the sense of the familiar: a car. Rental car companies exist in almost every nation of the world. So what do you need to know before you get behind the wheel for the ultimate private tour?

There's a lot you need to understand before you make the commitment of booking a car in another country and becoming a part of that country's "driver culture." With peak holiday season coming up, this is a good time to go over the ups, downs, and roundabouts of driving abroad. Yes, there are lots of potential headaches that can come with exotic road trips - but the allure never grows dull. So take a few minutes to start this three-part series on what you need to know about traffic, roads, laws and plenty of smaller details that won't quite fit in your glove compartment. If you keep yourself steering in the right direction, you'll slowly leave behind the anxiety that comes with those pesky train timetables, obnoxious cabbies, overcrowded tour buses, and terminally late hotel shuttles.

1. International Driving Permit

Before you start dreaming of your foreign road trip, take a good hard look at the license in your own wallet, because you'll need it. There are some misconceptions about international driving permits (IDPs). An IDP is a document that translates your license into different languages; it is not a laminated free-for-all to drive all over the globe. Since the permit is not a license to drive in itself, you will need to carry your own, domestic driver's license wherever you go. Not all rental car companies will ask for your IDP, but you should never be caught on a foreign road without it since you in the event that something goes wrong, you will need to present it to police, others involved in an accident, or when filing an insurance claim.

Your driver's license may not be valid in all other foreign countries. Since different countries make up different rules about this important issue and sometimes change rules without notice, check your country's embassy webpage for up-to-date information. Whether you are allowed to drive with your own country's driver's license may also depend on your visa status. Certain countries may allow you to drive there for up to 30 days, but after that require you to apply for a local license.

2. Insurance Coverage

Most countries have compulsory auto insurance laws of some type. There are generally three types of insurance:

-- That which covers your liability to the rental car company in the event their vehicle is damaged while in your possession

-- Insurance that covers injury to yourself and other occupants of your vehicle

-- Insurance that covers your liability toward other drivers if you are at fault in an accident (including damage to that party's vehicle and injury to its occupants)

None of this will come as much of a surprise, but it can be difficult to assess whether your domestic auto insurance will actually cover you abroad. Many auto insurance companies in North America claim to "have you covered" overseas, but there are plenty of loopholes in the coverage policies. If possible, have a meeting with your insurance agent before going on your trip, and ask him or her to exchange emails with your rental car agency abroad regarding the type of coverage you're expected to have in the foreign country.

If you don't fully trust either your domestic auto insurer or your rental car agency, go to your embassy webpage as they may have useful and unbiased information on what is required to drive in a specific country.

3. Automatic vs. Standard Transmission

Automatic transmission is something that many in North America (and increasingly, beyond) take for granted. In many countries around the world, though, renting a vehicle with automatic transmission is difficult, or sometimes impossible -- and if you can find it, it can be much more expensive.

In North America, it's estimated that only about 20 percent of all drivers know how to drive manual transmission ("stick shift"). If you want or need to drive somewhere that only offers rental cars with stick shift, try calling your AAA or department of motor vehicles for classes you can take on driving stick shift. If you're going to be driving stick shift in a country that drives on the other side of the road, you may opt for a simulator since any practice you get with right-hand stick-shift will be "backwards" when you step into your rental vehicle.

4. Cultural Influence on Driving Habits

Cultural values, such as attitudes about gender, value for human life, and value for animal life can impact how people drive around the world. In some countries, women rarely get behind the wheel; if you're a woman renting a car in one of these countries (particularly in the Middle East) expect to be stared at, honked at, and have your right of way repeatedly robbed by aggressive macho men and other gents that are just plain outraged that you're exercising your freedom to roll down the street on your own.

In places where overpopulation and endless crowds have left a negative impact on individual psyche, drivers may regard others with all the respect and patience of ants littering their path. Well, no, it's not quite that bad, but you can generally expect less courteous driving in places where personal space is at a minimum.

You, the sensitive Western driver, may swerve to avoid hitting small animals such as rats, squirrels, and even cats skittering across the road, while other drivers make no such adjustment and could care less about what poor four-legged creature they hit. Your swerving and braking may take them by surprise and lead to prolonged horn-blasting, shouting, etc.

Drivers in more materialistic countries may be more careful on the road -- i.e., make a little more effort not to ram right into you and cost thousands of dollars of damage. In places where the average car looks like it's older than you are, expect others to take less care in coming within a few inches of your polished, rented fenders.

5. Right-Side vs. Left-Side Driving

I have great respect and admiration for Aussie, Kiwi, British and Irish drivers who come to North America and handily take to the wheel on the opposite side that they're used to. I don't have that kind of dexterity, and I don't think I'm alone in acknowledging that I'd probably crash into a tree if all of a sudden I had to drive on the left.

It's one thing to get used to driving on the other side of the road; it's another to have to suddenly change from one side to the other. Several bordering countries around the world drive on opposite sides, requiring you, the driver, to switch sides once you cross the border. For example, Hong Kong drives on the left while mainland China drives on the right. Thailand drives on the left while all of its neighbors drive on the right. The southern countries of Africa drive on the left, while the remainder of Africa drives on the right. And of course, as we know, Britain drives on the left, while just a short ferry ride away, Belgium and The Netherlands drive, you know, on the wrong side (I mean, on the right side).

If you're on a multi-country trip in any of these regions, ask yourself how quickly you can adjust to driving on the opposite of the road. It may be wise to make your border crossing when you're most refreshed (i.e., after a nice relaxing stay at a border hotel) and muscle memory doesn't steer you to the wrong side of the road.

6. Traffic Citations

As most of us know, traffic laws are generally enforced by either live police officers who have the authority to stop vehicles and issue citations, or by cameras (or videocameras) that film violations, followed by a citation and fine being mailed to the vehicle's owner. The latter is becoming increasingly common, even in developing countries.

A traffic ticket isn't something you can "hide" from once you leave a country. Many nations have different laws regarding the handling of traffic violations committed by foreigners. Some countries will demand payment of an on-the-spot fine; others won't allow you to depart until the matter is settled (and this can be quite an embarrassing thing to learn when you're in the customs line at the airport). If your vehicle is cited by camera, your car rental company will be billed, and the company will in turn tack the charge onto your bill. If for some reason the rental car company can't do this, they may pursue civil action (think a collection agency, or even a lawsuit). And if the agency operates in your own country, they may be able to take this action in your country's court system -- and they'll probably charge interest on your fine.

Try to address any traffic citation as quickly and proactively as possible. You might be cited for something that is unfair or nitpicky, but chalk it up to a lesson learned and get on with your trip. Opt for paying an on-the-spot fine where possible, since in some countries, even the smallest amount of debt is regarded as a criminal matter, allowing such debt to be pursued in the criminal justice system if the powers-that-be so wish. This may lead to your arrest if you ever step foot (or drive) in that country in the future.

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