If your schedule is flexible you might be able to get around via public transport or your own two feet and save some money. If your schedule does not allow flexibility or public transport is not considered safe or reliable, you might need to rent a car.

Ground transportation at your destination should be investigated before you depart, so you have an adequate budget to enjoy the sights, and to avoid being duped into risky vehicles with sketchy drivers.  It can be more complicated to rent a car abroad. You can read pertinent safety information on ground transportation and road safety before you decide to rent a car on the US Department of State’s website, specifically for the country you are visiting.

Here are some tips to help you travel smart, rent smart, stay safe and save money on your car rental in a foreign country.

Book early

There are benefits to booking and paying for your car rental far in advance of your trip. There is a better chance you can find deals and specials aligning with the duration of your stay if you start your search early. Some trip packages allow you to save money on rental cars if you reserve a car when you book your hotel room and flight. Some car rental companies have deals for frequent buyers and senior members of motor clubs. Be careful if you are using your frequent flyer number, some car rentals will upcharge for this service. Ask ahead of booking to find out. It is wise to pay in advance instead of on arrival. You will avoid hidden surprises.  Currency exchange rates shift, and unfamiliar languages can make negotiating troublesome.  Keep your confirmation with you, so you can provide evidence of prepayment and the model of car you reserved.  Be aware standard transmissions are common in many countries, check the details.

Do your homework

Shopping around can pay-off with rental savings. Most travel price comparison sites like carrentals.com and hotwire.com make car rental shopping easier.  Booking your car rental together with hotel and plane tickets, or applying your airline frequent flyer number, may provide perks like frequent flyer miles and discounts.

There are often weekend deals for last minute travelers.  You should check for late fees and potential gas refill charges or empty tank penalties. Many car rental companies will charge you for an entire day if  you return the car late. Some will even penalize you for returning the car early, as in breaking a contract. You may want to email or call to ask specifically about discounts and unspecified costs or add-ons. Some countries have surcharges for drivers under 25 years-of-age and over 70 years-of-age. If you are applying a discount, it is best to keep a copy of the discount offer with your confirmation.

Size matters

You will pay more for a larger vehicle. If you rent small, there is a fair chance you will receive an automatic upgrade because most business travelers rent mid-sized cars. Please be aware that compact cars in some foreign countries can actually be much smaller with very tight trunk space for luggage.  Traveling light can save you money when you luggage fits in your car rental.

Cars are generally categorized by compact, midsize and luxury. The total number of passengers the car can seat safely is used to illustrate relative size. How many people will be riding in the car at a given time is a decision point.

Hidden fees

The actual amount you pay for your rental car may end up being higher than the price advertised. Sometimes there are added fees depending on your circumstances. Read your contract carefully and look for added fees you might incur, such as scratches and door dings, missing hub caps or other damage.  Here are a few potential fees you should be aware of and on the lookout for:

  • Permits and Taxes: The rental car company will add on necessary fees to cover taxes and permits.  If you rent at an airport, you will probably pay an airport tax fee. You can avoid this by taking a shuttle away from the airport to a car rental company. Something many weary travelers want to avoid at the end of a long flight.  
  • Early or late returns: Many rental car companies will charge you extra if you return your car late, even if it is only by one half-hour. In some cases, they may charge you for an entire day.  You may also be charged for breaking a contract if you return your car early.  Make sure you ask your rental car agent.
  • Renting at the airport: There may be fees associated with renting a car at the airport, even if the rental car company shuttles you to an off-site lot.
  • Gas: When you rent a car, you are expected to return it with a full tank of gas. If you do not, you will be charged a fee, which will be more expensive than just filling up the tank.
  • Mileage fees: If you are renting an SUV or a high-performance vehicle, there may be daily caps on your mileage, and fees for going over those caps. Make sure you know whether these fees exist for your rental, and how far you plan to drive during your trip.
  • Drop-off fees: If something happens and you have to drop off your rental car at a facility other than the one where you originally obtained it, you could pay a steep additional fee.
  • Equipment rental: If you need extra items in your car, like a GPS or a car seat.
  • Additional drivers:  You may need to pay an added fee for additional drivers on your trip. However, you may be able to get that fee waived if that additional driver is a spouse or a family member. Make sure you ask your rental car agent whether that exception applies.
  • Younger drivers:  You must be 21 years old to rent a car. If the driver is under the age of 25, there is often up charges, but not always.  Some younger drivers can be added to a car rental for no additional fee.  It pays to shop around.  
  • Older drivers: Some rental car companies also charge extra if the driver is over 70 years old. Ask ahead, and negotiate.

Keep a squeaky clean driving record

Many rental car companies will look at your driving record before you can book one of their cars. They are trying to protect their assets by selling to clients with safe driving histories. Ask your rental car company whether they’ll be looking into your driving record. They may scan for things like reckless driving, seat belt violations, accidents, leaving the scene of an accident, DUIs or driving without a valid license. Having recent driving violations may disqualify you from renting a car.

Cautiously insure

Most rental car companies will offer your rental car insurance when you book with them. It is a perfectly good idea. Getting rental car insurance will reduce your liability if an accident happens while you’re driving the rental. It could end up saving you thousands of dollars. However, you might already be covered for rental cars through your auto or homeowner’s insurance policies.  Call your car insurance agent and ask.  Most often, you are not insured when you drive in another country, or sometimes, even another state.  This includes US territories like Puerto Rico. If you are traveling on business, you might also be covered through your employer’s insurance policy. Know before you go.

The rental car company may also try to sell you a Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), which guarantees the rental car company will pay for damages to your rental car. However, it does not generally guarantee to pay for any damages to you or your property.  Travel insurance can save your life, and replace your property. It can cost upwards of $50,000 to $300,000 to medivac you to quality care or home. Insurance protects you from the probability of an eventuality.

Re-check your rate

Once you book your vehicle well in advance of your trip, check back every now and again to see if your rate changes. If the price goes down, you can re-book your vehicle and get a car at a better price. You might also look for discount codes online.

Check out consumer reports and reviews on the car rental company. Are customers satisfied with the pickup and return processes? Are they surprised and unhappy with add-on fees? Is the pick up and drop off location convenient? Often, quality over price is worth the investment.

Inspect your car

You can end up paying dearly for rushing through inspection of a rental car. Make sure you look for scratches, dents, interior damage and signs of wear and tear before you accept a rental. If the rental car company does not acknowledge any damages, you may be accused of causing it and billed for repairs.

Here are a few savvy auto rental ideas from Travel Insurance Review.  

  • Trouble: Ask the agent what number you should call if the car breaks down or you lose the keys.  This number can be very handy.
  • Bring a flashlight: Bring a small flashlight and store it in your glove compartment. If you get lost, the car breaks down or you lose a bolt while you are changing a tire, you are going to want a good source of light. Using the flashlight feature on your phone can be problematic if you also need to be on it.
  • Get photo evidence: Before you leave the lot, snap a few photos of the panels and any signs of damage, and get a sign-off of the dings. This will help you prove that you were a responsible driver, and those dings and dents were there before you got the car.
  • Check the fluids: Do a quick check on all of the car’s fluid levels. Make sure everything is ready to drive. You can use a paper towel from the bathroom to wipe the oil gauge.
  • Inspect the tires: You should check out all four tires, of course, for pressure or damage. Remember the spare! If you should get a flat tire, you will not only need a spare, but the equipment to change the tire.
  • Look at the mileage: Take a look at the odometer. If there’s more than 25,000 miles on the meter, you might want to reconsider taking this particular car. It is considered old by auto rental standards.
  • Adjust everything: How is the seat? The side and rearview mirrors? The radio? Climate control? Make sure everything is to your liking before you start driving. This is a new car to you. You should not be distracted while you are driving.  Check for an owners’ manual in the glove box or side door pocket.
  • Hide items when you park the car: Rental cars are common targets for thieves, who know travelers may be bringing something valuable with them on their trip. Take your valuables with you, including cords and cases for any electronics. Cords are tip a device may be hidden in the car.  You should also hide any evidence your are traveling, like airline ticket stubs, rental agreements, hotel cards, etc. You should also be careful where you park your rental. High traffic areas are a good idea, or a garage with security cameras.  If you see broken glass, this is tell-tale sign of a prior break-in.
  • Take it for a practice spin: Drive around the rental car lot for a few laps to familiarize yourself with your new car, test the brakes, signals, headlights.

Breathtaking drives

Once you have your rental car, you are free to explore your destination. Use your vehicle to get from Point A to Point B, and to take long, peaceful, unforgettable drives, once you map out your route. Breathtaking drives around the world to make renting a car a priceless experience:

  • Furka Pass: This winding road in the Swiss Alps became famous on the silver screen when James Bond eluded the bad guys in his Aston DB5 in the hit movie, Goldfinger. You can feel like an international spy as you sweep through picturesque views and past stunning vistas. Just make sure to take the turns with caution.
  • Inishowen 100: Ireland’s Inishowen 100 is named for the approximate amount of miles it covers. The trail winds between Muff and Burnfoot, with plenty of green, hilly countrysides in between. You will see amazing coastal views. Roll down the windows for a lovely blast of fresh, sea air.
  • The Enchanted Circle: Enjoy an 83 mile scenic byway through the valleys, mesas and mountains of the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico. The Enchanted Circle passes by Taos, the Red River and the Rio Grande del Norte national monument. It will take several days to explore everything the Enchanted Circle has to offer.
  • Ruta 40: Here is a route to see the Andes like no other. Ruta 40 in Argentina is one of the longest stretches of highway in the world. The way also connects about 20 national parks, and UNESCO world heritage sites, filled with natural beauty along every mile of a 3,000-mile stretch, including rugged Patagonia views.
  • Col de Turini: This mountainous road in France has been featured in several Tour de France races. Travelers can take in the rugged beauty of the Swiss Alps by driving the switchback roads. Competent drivers only need apply. This road can be a tricky one to conquer even if you are not on a bicycle.

The most dangerous roads in the world

Wonders List informs readers of ten of the most dangerous roads in the world, including intriguing photos foretelling an accident waiting to happen on:

  1. North Yungas Road, Bolivia is also known as the road of death. Several hundred people die on this road every year.  Road markings spot the locations where vehicles have fallen off.  Yungas earns the title the most dangerous road in the world.
  2. Jalalabad, Kabul Road, Afghanistan is a 65 kilometer snaking, climbing roadway.
  3. James Dalton Highways, Alaska is a 667 kilometer trek with a lot of dirt between lightbulbs connecting Fairbanks and Deadhorse near the Arctic Ocean and Prudhoe Bay oil fields,  expect a lot of potholes and flying rocks.
  4. Karakoram Highway, Pakistan is called the friendship highway by the governments that built it. It is acclaimed as the highest paved international road in the world with an elevation of 4,693 meters.  It is subjected to landslides and floods and is a tourist attraction because of the spectacular gorges along the Old Silk Road.
  5. Guoliang Tunnel Road, China carves alongside and through a mountain.  
  6. The Zoji Pass, India is often closed during the winter. It keeps the people of Ladakh in touch with the rest of the world.
  7. Skippers Canyon Road, New Zealand is a very scary, narrow cut, sheer cliff face. You must have a special permit to drive it.  
  8. Los Caracoles Pass, Chile has many steep slopes and sharp turns without railings and is snow covered most of the year.  
  9. Stelvio Pass, Italy is the highest paved mountain pass with hairpin turns in the Alps.  
  10. Sichuan-Tibet, China experiences landslides and rock avalanches.  It holds a record 7,500 deaths for every 100,000 drivers.

Death by accident

Most people know driving is dangerous.  Auto accidents claim 10/100K deaths every year in the United States and the US enforces traffic laws.  Even so, according to a United Kingdom report by Telegraph, it is twice as dangerous to drive in the USA as it is to drive in Canada. Here are death statistics by Telegraph:

Safest places to drive:

  1. San Marino – 0 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants
  2. Micronesia – 1.8
  3. Maldives – 1.9
  4. Norway – 2.9
  5. Sweden – 3
  6. Denmark – 3
  7. Palestinian territories – 3.2
  8. Israel – 3.3
  9. Switzerland – 3.4
  10. UK – 3.5

Most dangerous places to drive:

  1. Eritrea – 48.4 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants
  2. Dominican Republic – 41.7
  3. Libya – 40.5
  4. Thailand – 38.1
  5. Venezuela – 37.2
  6. Nigeria – 33.7
  7. South Africa – 31.9
  8. Iraq – 31.5
  9. Guinea-Bissau – 31.2
  10. Oman – 30.4

Being a pedestrian has its risks also. If you are crossing a roadway in a foreign country, make sure you have eye contact with the driver before crossing, even if traffic signals give you the right of way, then hurry across.  Driver’s may push the gas to speed through an intersection ignoring yellow warning lights.  In some countries pedestrian deaths outnumber auto accidents.
Wherever in the world your travels take you, download the travel safety checklist so you can Depart Smart and return to the people and places you love.  The only surprises should be good ones.  You can get a free travel safety checklist from Depart Smart.org. Your charitable donation is the highest compliment.