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Driving abroad

Make the most of your hire car

Whether you’re a first-time driver or a seasoned veteran of driving in foreign countries, here’s some thoughts, hints and tips that you may find useful next time you find yourself on ‘the wrong side of the road’.

Hiring a car when abroad is a pleasure. It offers total freedom to go where you like, get off the beaten track and see the ‘real country’. There are though a few useful things to keep in mind if you’re to maximise your enjoyment – and minimise the risk – of your hire car experience.

Obey the laws

It doesn’t matter how much everyone else seems to be ignoring their own laws by driving around at lightning speed, as a newcomer you should make a point of obeying the rules. The myth that local police will take pity on the poor, confused foreigner and probably ‘let you off’ with a warning is just that – a myth.

Remember that in many European countries the law demands that you carry your driving documents with you at all times.

Ease your way into the local driving customs

Of course you’re aware that just about everywhere else in the world drives on the right-hand side of the road. Why they all chose to do it wrong is anybody’s guess, but this is only part of it.

In some countries, attitudes to local speed limits are, well, relaxed at best. Local drivers will often appear to have little, if any, respect for their own legal speed limits. What they consider to be a ‘safe distance’ between them and your rear bumper may be a little different to normal UK practices! However, in just as many other countries, speed limits are enforced far more rigorously. In America it can change on a State-to-State basis – as can the limits themselves.

The accepted norms of driving may be totally different. In the UK, a quick flash of your headlights is accepted as a friendly indication to someone that they can have right of way – in many countries it simply means “get out of the way, I’m coming through.” In certain countries, especially in the major cities, the pedestrian is king, and stepping out into traffic assuming it will stop is common practice. Road signs may be different (not only different languages) and sometimes the conventions at road junctions and roundabouts may also not be what you’re used to.

So read up on the specifics of the country you’re planning to rent in so as not to be caught by surprise. Above all:

  • Don’t assume that what goes in the UK goes the same in Europe or America.
  • Don’t race away from the car collection point trying to ‘out-drive the locals.
  • Keep focused on which side of the road you should be on – ideally, observe other road users.
  • Try and drive conservatively and cautiously for the first few hours until you start to get a feel for the local driving customs and your rental car.

Some USA specifics

It’s true that Britain and the USA are two nations divided by a common language, but the landscape and natural wonders of the USA reward the driver in bucket-loads. But the distances can be enormous and the United States has some specific laws and customs you probably want to know about, particularly as they are one of the destinations where traffic laws are enforced pretty rigorously:

  • Some rental car insurance may not support crossing State lines – it’s well worth checking this out as it could impact your cover.
  • Remember that what in the UK we would call 'undertaking' is legal on US freeways.
  • Never ever overtake school buses if its lights are flashing – you will be arrested.
  • In some States, turning right on a red traffic light is perfectly legal (if the going is clear, of course!). In others it’s completely illegal. And in some, it depends on what sign is visible at each individual junction! Do yourself a favour and find out.
  • Keep in mind that the USA is not the UK – some parts of the country are desert or mountain wildernesses and can be dangerous if you and your vehicle are not prepared for the prevailing conditions.
  • Most US hire cars are automatics – brushing up on your technique before you go may be useful.

Know your vehicle

This is one of the most common mistakes, especially among first-timers.

You’ve had a tiring flight, it’s 35 degrees, you’re laden down with cases and the kids are screaming. All you want to do is get in your car and go. But in the rush to pick up your car and get on the road, it’s easy to forget to check the basics of your ‘new’ vehicle. Which is the indicator stalk and which is the windscreen washers? What side is the petrol cap on – and how does it open? Is there a spare tyre – and where is it? How does the handbrake work? The heating and air-con? The radio?

You don’t want to be finding these things out as you’re barrelling down the Autobahn at 80mph – so make sure you familiarise yourself before you hit the road. Now we don’t recommend you spend an hour reading the manual from cover to cover, but at the very least:

  • Check which side the petrol cap is on, how it opens, and what type of fuel it requires.
  • Familiarise yourself with the lights and the operations of the windscreen washers/wipers.
  • Is there a spare tyre? Where is it? How do you get to it – and where’s the jack?
  • Is the handbrake like a UK one? Or is it foot-operated – common on SUVs in America for example.
  • Also check the heating and air-con, the radio or personal entertainment centre, the seat adjusters and how the boot opens.
  • Oh, and speaking from bitter experience, if you’re hiring a convertible, make sure you know how the soft top works before the heavens open . . .

Know yourself

Let’s face it, if you’re flying with baggage and family in tow it can be a pretty tiring experience. If you’re flying long-haul, say to the US West Coast, by the time you pick up your car, you’ll have been up 18 hours or more, it’ll be closing on bedtime back home, and you’ll probably be frazzled from the flight. Many people don’t function so well on tiredness and dehydration.

If you have a long drive scheduled from airport to destination, consider booking the first night in an airport hotel, so you can set off refreshed, fed and re-hydrated the next morning. At the very least, freshen up at the airport (have a wash, clean your teeth etc.), consider a meal with some coffee, and maybe even a walk around in the fresh air.

Falling asleep at the wheel an hour from your destination is a spectacularly bad way to turn your holiday into the trip of a lifetime!

Avoid confrontation

It doesn’t matter how badly you’ve just been cut-up by another driver or how frustrated you are by someone tailgating you etc., don’t give into the temptation to start flashing your lights or blasting your horn. This can be even more provocative in some parts of Europe than it is in the UK.

Be careful in the cities

City centres everywhere are congested, chaotic and often contain highly idiosyncratic road systems at junction points. Shunts and bumps may be commonplace (which is why you may need to consider car hire excess insurance).

Many people who have lived in the UK all their lives will still avoid driving in Central London – why would you think that Rome, Paris or Athens would be any less of a challenge?

City centres at peak times may be well worth avoiding for all these reasons.

Remember to look in the right direction

Sounds like stating the obvious doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many overseas accident reports start with “I forgot I was abroad and looked the wrong way before pulling out.” In particular, this applies to checking your mirrors. For example, the concept of slow, fast and overtaking lanes on our motorways and dual carriageways is not the accepted custom in many countries, where it’s “use whatever lane is free” more often than not. Remember, people may be overtaking on both sides.

Think about your car hire insurance protection

When driving in a strange hire car and in a strange country, there may be a higher probability of you having an accident. It may be advisable to think carefully about car hire excess insurance.

  • If you’re hiring a car in an EU country, the rental deal should include third-party and collision damage waiver cover but it may be advisable to check.
  • In other countries (including the USA) your hire car may come with very little (if any) insurance included in the basic price – and the US courts can make staggeringly high awards following accidents.
  • Your car hire insurance policy probably will come with excess of between £500 to £1500 – that’s the amount you may have to pay in the event of an accident if you do not have car hire excess insurance.
  • It is worth checking to make sure that the rental insurance will allow you to cross national borders if necessary.

Protect Your Bubble offer car hire excess insurance specifically tailored with either European or Worldwide driving in mind. We can offer you a car hire excess insurance policy at a very reasonable price that means if you are charged an excess by the rental company then we will reimburse you (subject to terms and conditions).

Have fun!

Driving abroad can be great fun and very enjoyable. Just use common-sense and all should be fine. If you are concerned about your exposure to excess costs in the event of an accident, then reading our policy details on car hire excess insurance will show you how you can.


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