Worried about driving  a foreign country?  Need some tips for international driving?  If you are like us, the you love the freedom of driving during your vacations.  Especially when visiting another country, it can be a wonderful experience having your own car and be able to explore your own way.  However, there can be some challenges when driving in another country.  Here are some of our tips for international driving.

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Get the Proper Documentation to Drive Internationally

First and foremost, you should have an existing driving license in your country of residence.  It must be valid, and not suspended for any reason.  Then you may need to get your international drivers license.

The international driving permit (IDP) is really more of a permit than an actual license.  It’s a booklet that translates your current drivers license into 11 foreign languages, and is required to drive in roughly 150 countries.  Also, more than 40 countries require that you have this international driving license in order to rent a car too.

So be sure to check the details if you are booking a rental car.  For more information, read our post about How to Get an International Drivers License.

AAA International Drivers License

Research Driving Conditions in Your Destination Country

This is super important.  You don’t want to show up and get in the car without knowing what to expect.  While there is a lot of commonalities when driving around the world, there are always some differences.  Here are some things to consider:

  • Which side of the road do they drive on (left / right)
  • Major types of roadways & speed limits
  • Toll roads or special permit requirements (such as the vignette toll sticker in Switzerland)
  • Restrictions on where you can drive the car (example:  in some downtown areas of Italy, non-local cars are restricted…I know because I got a citation mailed to my house after a trip!)
  • Major warnings about road conditions or safety in particular areas

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Maps – Digital and Paper

You should review driving maps of your destination well ahead of your trip.  Plan out your route, as well as some alternate routes.  Save the routes to your email, phone and / or print them out.

GPS units are great, and if you have one, bring it along.  However, you may need to purchase the map for your destination before you head out. You can also rent a GPS from a rental car agency with the maps on it; however, they can be expensive.

Another option is just to use the GPS that is built into your smartphone (which most of us have now). Be careful not to use your data on your phone unless you have purchased an international roaming data plan from your carrier.  The fees for international roaming are atrocious!

** Travel Tip:  there are many map apps out there that you can download to your phone and use offline WITH your phone’s GPS connection…so you are NOT using your data!  We really love these and they have been a lifesaver for us on many trip.  Check out some of our recommendations here in our list of best apps for travel.

Lastly, you should always have a paper map backup just in case technology fails.  You never know and you don’t want to get caught without a map.  A great option is to stop by the local tourism office to get a driving map of the area.  An added benefit to using these tourist maps is that they often have tourist sights and attractions listed on them – so it can give you additional ideas of things to do.

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Know How to Drive a Manual Transmission

It’s surprising how many people don’t know how to drive a manual transmission vehicle.  But they are are in for a surprise if they book a rental car and discover it’s a stick shift!  In many countries, a manual transmission is the standard vehicle, and you must specifically request an automatic.  Also, keep in mind that an automatic transmission may be more expensive.  So if you are concerned about budget, then go with the stick shift.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you arrive in another country and they drive on the opposite side of the road / car, it definitely throws you for a loop.  But it’s nothing you can’t handle — so don’t freak out.  We recommend taking it easy at first, perhaps drive around the parking lot a bit or on some side roads that aren’t busy.  If you must exit the rental car facility onto a main road, then be cautious until you get to an open place where you can feel it out better.

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Overall, it will take a little time to get used to the different set up of the vehicle and the lanes.  So you will need to pay more close attention to what you are doing.  It’s best if you have another person in the car who can help you to navigate, and stay on the correct side of the road (or yell “off the road” when you get too close on the wrong side)!

Adding to this mind-body coordination confusion is if you have a manual transmission.  Being from the States, the first time we drove on the left side of the road in Scotland…and on the right side of the car — it felt weird to use our left hand to shift gears!

Luckily, we got used to it (although we did take out a few curbs in the process). However, if you are super worried about this — then just pay extra and request the automatic transmission.

Our car in Ireland - not only was it a stick shift, but driving on the opposite side means using your opposite arm to shift! Coordination required - but doable!

Josh practicing shifting with the left hand in the parking lot of our cottage in Ireland

Know What the Road Signs Mean

Luckily, most critically important road signs are quite similar all around the world – in terms of shape and color.  For example, stop signs and most other warning signs are basically the same.  Whenever possible, go online in advance of your trip and research the major signs in your destination.  You should be able to find some pictures and explanations.

For example, here is a good wikipedia page with pictures of different road signs in Europe and what they mean.

However, you are likely to come across some interesting ones too!  If anything, it’s a bit of a fun game to try and guess what on earth the sign means.  Sometimes we can figure it out, but other times it remains a total mystery.  Luckily, these signs aren’t typically important.

Tips for International Driving signs

 

Beware of Unique Road Hazards

As with anywhere you drive, you should always be mindful of hazards in the road.  But especially when driving in foreign countries, because you may encounter things you normally wouldn’t see back at home.  We learned in Ireland that you really need to be careful of those sheep — as well as typical falling rocks.

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Doing a little research about road hazards in your destination country will be helpful so you know what to look out for during your trip.  For example, when we were planning to drive in a rental car around the Yucatan, Mexico we read a lot about the infamous “Topes” — big speed bumps as you enter and leave towns.  So we were fully prepared for them, and it prevented us from accidentally launching our little rental car up into the air!

The World Measures in Kilometers…NOT Miles

If you are an American, then get used to having your entire concept of distance thrown for a loop.  The USA is the only place that uses miles to measure distance, everywhere else they use kilometers.  It’s something to get used to when you see the road signs, or even the speedometer on the car (kilometers per hour).

1 kilometer = .62 miles

1 mile = 1.6 kilometers

So when you see that sign that says it is 20 kilometers to your destination, then it’s really about 12 miles.  To help you feel less confused, go ahead and download a quick converter app to your smartphone.

Go nuts converting the numbers to something at actually means something to you.

Driving around in beautiful Tuscany, Italy!

Driving around in beautiful Tuscany, Italy!

Fueling Up Your Car Abroad

Just as it varies from state to state in the USA, the process for fueling up your car varies from country to country.  You should definitely do some quick research online about your destination country to see if they allow self-service of gasoline / petrol or if you are required to let the attendants pump it.

You should also keep in mind that gas is measured in LITERS around the world, not gallons!

1 liter = .26 gallons

1 gallon = 3.78 liters

So when you see the gas prices, don’t get all excited thinking it’s cheaper than the states.  In fact, it’s probably more expensive – because you need nearly 4 liters to equal 1 gallon of gasoline.  Feel free to get another handy app on your phone to help you with these calculations too.

** NOTE:  If you are doing budget calculations for your road trips abroad — including distance, car fuel mileage, then be sure to take these conversions into account (both kilometers and liters) into your calculations or you could really end up under-budgeting your trip!

Be Safe!  Seatbelts / Helmets / Don’t Drink and Drive

Use common sense when driving in other countries, as you would at home.  While some countries seem to have lax rules on seatbelt and helmets, others are quite strict.  Ultimately, it’s your safety and your decision.

With regard to drinking and driving, of course this should NEVER happen.  However, it’s worth noting that some countries have even more strict laws against drinking and driving.  For example, if you are caught with an alcohol level of 0.05 in Finland then you go directly to jail. And in many Islamic countries it is strictly illegal to drink, let alone get behind the wheel of a car.

Stopping off to admire the view in the Black Forest - Germany

Stopping off to admire the view in the Black Forest – Germany

Allow Plenty of Time & Have Fun Driving Abroad

Our last tip for international driving is to allow yourself plenty of time.  Being in a rush will cause you to get stressed, frustrated…and possibly cause an accident.  Instead, build in plenty of extra time into your itinerary to account for getting a bit lost, or taking a wrong turn.  This way you won’t fret about it so much — and it might actually be kinda fun.

Overall, you should really enjoy your time driving abroad.  Just take in the scenery, stop off at the villages, take the back roads, and relax.  Driving in another country really isn’t that scary if you are prepared, and it can become one of your best memories from your trip.
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