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before driving abroad

or, “lost in transportation”

Driving abroad can be a memorable highlight of any vacation, but the potential for lowlights is certainly there. From unique rules of the road to post-accident claims procedures, we'll explain how to handle the unfamiliar roads.

First things first: are you allowed to drive abroad?

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Typically, yes. It's a good idea to get an International Driving Permit (IDP), which serves as an official translation of your drivers license in 10 languages. Many countries and foreign rental car companies will gladly accept your U.S. license, but the IDP is a nice failsafe that costs less than $20.

The U.S. State Department authorizes AAA and the National Auto Club to distribute IDPs. As long as you're 18 or older, you can apply for one by showing your valid license and bringing 2 passport-sized photos.

Age restrictions

The most common driving limitation abroad is your age. In countries with a minimum driving age of 18, a U.S.-licensed 17-year-old wouldn't be allowed to operate a car. Just as in the U.S., many rental car companies also have their own minimum age limits. And in places like Ireland or Romania, drivers aren't allowed to rent cars when they're older than 70 or 75, respectively.

Next step: finding and insuring your rental car

Most U.S. auto insurers don't cover drivers in other countries (with the possible exception of Canada). So unless your credit card offers insurance, you'll most likely need to get rental car insurance from the rental company.

Here are some tips on how to find and insure your rental car:

Do

  • Book your rental well in advance. This can help you compare cars and lock in a low rate. And you'll have ample time to research and mull your insurance options (roadside assistance, replacement parts coverage?).
  • Check with your insurer and your credit card company to see what (if any) coverage you already have.
  • As a general rule of thumb, the U.S. State Department recommends that you get roughly the same international insurance coverage that you have here. Some countries require additional coverage — in Italy or Slovakia, you'll need to buy theft coverage at the rental counter.
  • Reserve your rental with a credit card. Many major credit cards offer a coverage (known as a collision damage waiver) that provides financial protection in case the car is in an accident, stolen, or damaged. Call your credit card company to find out exactly what is and isn't covered.
  • Be aware of where else you might go. While insurance may cover you in the first country you visit, things might change as you move around. Your credit card's coverage may not extend across borders. Italy, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel may fall into this category.

Don't

  • Wing it. Traveling abroad is tricky enough without waiting until the last minute to book a rental car. After a day packed with taxis and long flights, you'll appreciate the peace of mind a booked rental can provide.
  • Jump at the cheapest car deal. While an automatic-transmission ride may be (alarmingly) more expensive, driving in a new country isn't the right time to learn stick. It's best to choose a car similar to your own.
  • Assume you can return your rental whenever or wherever. Some companies are closed on certain days and may charge you a fee if you return your car to the wrong location.

The rules of the foreign roads

Before driving in a foreign land, remember that many of the unspoken and actual rules may be different than what you're used to.

  • The driving lane — Right or left? It's perhaps the first thing you should ascertain about your destination. (Though if you make a mistake, you'll know pretty quickly). If it's the left, give yourself plenty of time to get from A to B as you acclimate.
  • Get maps — In some countries, numbered routes can be little more than dirt roads. Anticipate confusion by snagging as many maps and reading as much info as you can before you travel. And when you get lost anyway, take heart: You're making a memory.
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  • Drinking and driving — A glass of wine as the finishing touch to a packed day? Just make sure you're not hopping behind the wheel afterward. The most common international blood-alcohol limits for drivers are .05 and .08. But some countries, like Japan and the Czech Republic, have zero-tolerance laws.
  • Seat belt requirements — Just like in the U.S., some countries fine drivers who aren't wearing their seat belts. But unlike in the U.S., police officers in some places (including Italy and France) can demand that fine on the spot, which can be awkward.
  • Blasting the horn — As odd (and pleasant) as it may seem, honking your horn is forbidden in some European countries unless it's a true emergency. Flashing your lights is the accepted way to signal another driver.
  • Emergency gear — Ask for emergency gear at the rental counter if it's not in your car already. Some countries may require drivers to carry cones, reflective vests, and a first-aid kit in case of an accident.
  • Look into special road permits — Instead of the toll routes we're used to, some countries require permits on certain roads, like divided highways.

Esurance pour vous

Currently, Esurance extends its coverage to drivers visiting Canada but not to drivers in Mexico or other countries.

Before you drive abroad, make sure you have a good understanding of your coverage needs and options. Use the Internet as a resource, but also call your credit card company to find out what coverage you may already have. The more legwork you do now, the fewer (expensive) surprises you'll have in store later.

Related links

Insurance for drivers visiting Mexico
We can help you find reliable temporary coverage.

Safety tips for travelling abroad from the State Department
Discover ways to be a safer traveler in a foreign land.