Eight rules for renting a car in a foreign country

Renting a car can be a great way to see a foreign country. Having your own wheels allows you the freedom to take your time, to stop for long lunches in the countryside, to turn down that little lane that looks interesting, and to go where public transportation won’t take you. But, renting a car comes with its own set of challenges and dangers. Here are eight road rules to remember when renting a car on your travels.

If you can’t drive a manual, now is not the time to learn.

Outside of the US, many, if not most, cars have manual transmissions. Finding an automatic rental can be difficult, and the cost will be significantly higher. You may be tempted to save money by taking the manual and if you’re fairly comfortable driving one, that’s fine. But if you’ve never driven one before, took a crash course just before your trip, or haven’t had to step on a clutch in over a decade, get the automatic. You’ll be concentrating hard enough on trying to figure out where to go, decipher all the crazy foreign road sides, and possibly drive on the “wrong” side of the road, that you really don’t want to add learning how to shift into the mix. And if you screw up the car’s transmission while you try to learn how to drive a manual, you could be held liable for the damage.

Always spring for the insurance.
$10-$20 a day for insurance can add up, and it’s easy to figure that, hey, nothing will go wrong, so why not skimp a little on the full coverage. Don’t do it (unless your credit card offers some coverage). On the off chance that something does happen, even if it isn’t your fault, you’ll be kicking yourself when you are stuck with a hefty bill. In some countries it is common to be offered an additional coverage on your tires and windshield. If you’ll be driving on gravel roads, definitely take this option. It’s usually just a few bucks more over the course of your rental and well worth the cost.

Let your hosts know when to expect you.
When you head out for the day with your car, always let your hosts know where you expect to go and when you’ll most likely be back. If you are going from place to place, let the proprietors of your next accommodation know when you’ll be arriving and what route you will be taking. If you do get horribly lost or get stranded along the road, at least you’ll know that one person has noticed that you’ve gone missing and they will have somewhat of an idea of where to start looking for you.

Make sure you have a spare.
In the US, it’s easier to get help if you get a flat tire. Chances are you’ve got your cell phone on you and you may even be a AAA member, making it easy to arrange a tow. At the very least, you can call the rental company and ask for assistance. If you are traveling in another country without a cell, getting help is a bit more difficult. Always check to make sure your rental car has a spare tire, and before you set out on your trip, make sure you know how to change it.

Don’t forget a map.
If you’ve got the cash and the option is available, get the GPS, but also bring a hard copy map with you as well. As we’ve seen, sometimes there’s no substitute for an actual old-fashioned paper map. If GPS isn’t an option, don’t rely on vague directions, be sure to pick up a comprehensive map in case you decide to wander a bit or in the event that the directions you were given turn out to be less than accurate.

Know the rules of the road.
Stop at stop signs, don’t speed, watch out for children and livestock. These are rules we know and which tend to be consistent across continents. Other rules of the road are more localized and often unwritten. Not following them may not get you a ticket, but they may not earn you any friends along the way either. Always research the road culture in a place you will be driving and learn customs that are followed there. For instance, when I was driving in South Africa, I was glad my friends had told me that on two-lane roads I should move over to the far left so that faster drivers could pass me. Had I not known, I probably would have made some other drivers very angry as they tried to pass me while I drove in the middle of my lane.

Don’t make yourself a target.
If you are driving from place to place, you’ll be traveling with your luggage and you may have a GPS unit mounted on your window or a map spread across the backseat. All of this screams “I’m a tourist, come pillage the car!” Always put your luggage in the trunk and stow the GPS and maps in the glovebox. Lock your doors when you aren’t in the car and don’t give anyone a reason to break in.

Read the fine print.
Be sure to familiarize yourself with your rental company’s rules. Some don’t allow rentals with debit cards, and a few countries require than the driver have not just a driver’s license from their home country, but an international driving permit as well. If you’re told something different in person than what you’ve read, be sure to ask for clarification. A couple I talked to in South Africa thought they needed to sign a special form to take their rental out of the country, but the rental agent said it wasn’t necessary. When they hit a cow and totaled the car in Botswana, they were told that because they didn’t sign the form before crossing the border, they could be liable for the cost of the car – about $7000US! Always read the fine print and know the rental rules.

Washington state issues enhanced licenses for border crossings

Border crossings seem to be on my mind this week. For those of you lucky enough to be residents of Washington state (like myself), you are now able to surpass all the identification hullabaloo when crossing up to Canada.

Last year Washington governor Chris Gregoire, in an effort to maintain travel and cultural ties with British Columbia, signed a law launching a pilot program between the state and the Department of Homeland Security. As of this month, the Washington State Department of Licensing is now issuing enhanced driver’s licenses, which are equipped with radio frequency identification technology and therefore approved by the DHS for crossing back and forth over the US Canadian land border. Kiss those border-induced identification fears goodbye.

Washington drivers have to provide a social security number, proofs of residency and citizenship and undergo an interview with Department of Licensing staff. But at $40, the enhanced license costs less than half of the price of a U.S. passport. So keep your fingers crossed, hope that the pilot program works and maybe one day soon enhanced driver’s licenses will be coming to a Department of Licensing near you.

Your driver’s license may not work for airport security check. Get ready for REAL ID

If you thought getting an American passport renewed this last year was a pain, be glad you have one if you do. You’ll be covered for getting past airport security if new regulations from Homeland Security go into effect this spring. The rules were just “unveiled.” If you only have your regular state issued run-of-the-mill driver’s license, it may be just too bad for you if your state doesn’t have a plan to comply to the REAL ID program. In this case, there may problems for that non-compliant state’s residents for passing through an airline security check this May. Or, the government may be bluffing.

In the continuing quest to foil terrorists, the idea is that states need to incorporate the REAL ID program into their mix of valid identification requirements. The REAL ID is a drivers’ license that is obtained through a process designed to ensure that we are who we say we are and not terrorists.

Hmm, when I look at my drivers license, there I am. Maybe there could be a statement under our pictures on our REAL IDs that say, “I promise that the person in the photograph is really really really me and I promise I am not a terrorist in disguise.”

As far as I can tell, if you were born before December 1, 1964, you have until 2017 to get a REAL ID. But, if you were born after this, you only have six years. The thing is, not all states are interested in this program so they may not apply for the waiver and therefore, you may have problems getting the REAL ID when the time comes. If you can’t get a REAL ID you could get a passport, or you could get a special federal border pass. I don’t think these federal border passes exist, but they could be used to go across the border to Mexico, for example.

The reason for this brouhaha and proposed $3.9 billion cost is that the terrorists involved in September 11, had an impressive array of fake ids and fake documents between them. There were 350 aliases. An off-shoot of this is that identity theft might be harder–or it could be easier.

Just to reiterate, people don’t have to get the REAL ID this year. THE PLAN IS IN THE WORKS, but from what I understand, states have to have a plan. Ohio, for example, has plans to start the stricter screening for a license in 2010. The regulations look a lot like the old regulations, but perhaps there are some extra layers I’m missing.

The photograph, by the way is of fake ids on a wall of Wet Willies in Savannah, Georgia. Thanks, Germany Jay for the pic. Maybe the government does have a point? I wonder if perhaps there is a name branding problem. What if the ids were called Elite IDs? Or Turbo IDs? Premier IDs? Platinum IDs? Something that doesn’t have a name that implies that the ids states are already passing out are fake. When I hear REAL IDS, it just sounds bogus to me. Maybe it’s just me.

For info about the states that have a beef right now with the government over this plan, read the AP article. It also gives more details.