If you live in the United Sates and you are thinking about going overseas for vacation, there are some advance preparations you should take if driving while there is part of the plan.
Traveling Abroad by Car
I have traveled numerous times to different countries, but I have only driven in a foreign country a few times. Each time was an adventure: driving alongside a fjord; heading to the top on a two-way road that was barely wide enough for one car, providing a bit of excitement when meeting another car traveling in the opposite direction. Or driving in a country where the left side is the proper side to drive, not the right, repeating, “Stay on the left, stay on the left, stay on the left,” especially as I was making a right turn. It became my mantra.
Traveling in a car while abroad allows us to visit areas outside of the typical tourist locations and see more of the country. However, it also comes with its own headaches. I know of one couple that booked a rental car in advance, only to be told when they arrived at the rental agency that the country had a maximum age limit, which the husband was over. No one had told him before they arrived there might be a problem. He had a perfectly valid license here in the States, but he could not drive in that country. His younger wife had to drive.
We take for granted the roads, the highway signs, and traffic lights here in the U.S. But when traveling overseas, we can no longer take any of it for granted. Advance planning can make all the difference in the world.
First and foremost, should you obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP)? As a general rule, yes. An IDP does not replace your current driver’s license; it provides additional information for those countries where you will be driving. Many countries do not recognize a U.S. driver’s license, but they will honor an IDP. The U.S. State Department has approved two organizations to provide an IDP: the AAA (American Automobile Association) and the National Auto Club. To obtain one:
- You must be 18 or older
- Have two passport-size photographs, and
- Present your valid driver’s license.
The cost will be under $20, and if you can get to the appropriate office in person, it can be accomplished in a fairly short amount of time. Keep in mind that while driving overseas, it is important to keep both the IDP and your driver’s license with you.
Obtaining car insurance is also a very good idea. While you should always check with your insurance company, it is unlikely your own car insurance will apply. However, if it does, make sure that the amount is sufficient for the countries in which you will be traveling. Some countries have a minimum requirement that might be higher than your policy. Also, it is a good idea to check with the rental company. Some rental car companies require only minimum coverage. In that case, you may want to purchase extra coverage, at least equivalent to the amount you carry in the States.
To help U.S. citizens, the State Department offers a webpage on driving in foreign countries. In addition to the U.S. State Department’s website, you can get useful information from the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT). ASIRT’s mission is to save lives and minimize crash-related injuries throughout the world. It has put together a number of publications and resources for driving in foreign countries.
Tips on Driving Abroad
Specific tips provided by the U.S. State Department include:
- Obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP).
- Carry both your IDP and your U.S. state driver’s license with you at all times, since many countries have different rules about licenses.
- Try to obtain a copy of the foreign country’s driving laws before you begin driving in that country. Information may be available from the country’s embassy or consulates in the United States, foreign government tourism offices, or from a car rental company in the foreign country.
- Certain countries require special road permits instead of tolls to use their divided highways (the equivalent of our interstate highway system). Authorities may fine those found driving without a permit.
- Always “buckle up.” Some countries have penalties for people who violate the seatbelt law.
- If you rent a car, make sure you have sufficient liability insurance.
- If the drivers in the country you are visiting drive on the left side of the road, it may be prudent to practice driving in a less populated area of the destination country before attempting to drive in heavy traffic.
- Always know the route you will be traveling. Have a good road map, and chart your course before beginning.
- Use common road safety sense: Do not pick up hitchhikers or strangers, and be aware of your surroundings when entering or exiting your vehicle.
- Check to see if the country of destination has a minimum and a maximum driving age.
Of course, it is always important to know the laws where you are driving. You can check out a specific country’s laws at the State Department website. Some foreign laws worth highlighting:
- In Australia, it is illegal to drive with your arm (or any other part of the body) out of the window, unless you are indicating a change of direction.
- In Bulgaria, drivers must carry a fire extinguisher in the car at all times.
- Some countries, in particular Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Serbia, have a zero-tolerance alcohol policy.
- In Cyprus, if it’s hot and you’re thirsty – pull over. Drinking (even water) and eating while driving is against the law.
- In France, there is an on-the-spot fine for not having a breathalyzer in your car.
- In Greece, smoking while driving is illegal, as is using a mobile phone.
- If you drive a car in Spain while wearing flip-flops you can get fined; and also for putting your groceries on the back seat of a convertible.
- In Switzerland, if you wear prescription eyeglasses, you must carry an extra pair in your car.
- And, in Thailand, it is illegal for men to drive topless. (The laws don’t mention women, so it must be assumed the same goes for them.)
Finally, as a heads up, if you get stopped and have to pay a fine, look out. Some countries assess the fine based on your net wealth. In Switzerland, a Swiss millionaire paid a speeding fine of $290,000. The man was caught driving a red Ferrari at 85 mph through a village, 35 mph over the posted speed limit. The penalty was calculated based on his wealth, assessed by the court at $22.7 million. It didn’t help that he was also a repeat offender. So, if you have a lead foot, watch out.
Ultimately, for a fantastic trip, plan ahead, get the IDP, and learn the country’s laws. In the meantime, safe travels and enjoy the view—just not while you’re driving.
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