When our Alfa Romeo sedan scraped against a medieval wall in Montepulciano, my heart sank. Then I remembered that I had added collision insurance to our Italian car rental -- and relaxed as we navigated the narrow Tuscan streets.
Renting vehicles overseas has a few more pitfalls for Americans than picking up a car in the U.S. Besides insurance coverage, you'll contend with higher fuel costs, language barriers, and different driving habits. Ever watched the traffic circle around the Champs-Élysées in Paris? (yeah, it scared me, too).
In addition, many regions have such extensive train and bus networks that having your own car is an unnecessary expense. In Europe or Asia, you can even find airfare that's cheaper than a car rental, particularly if you're heading between major cities.
But sometimes you'll want to explore quaint and historic areas that are inaccessible by public transportation. Renting a car in Europe, Mexico, or elsewhere can be done without incident, as long as you protect yourself. Here are a few things to consider:
Local or global? Your first decision can be the toughest. You can find better deals from local rental car providers, especially if you need a car for an extended period of time. A local agency can also help you with itinerary planning and other tips. On the downside, you may face inconvenient hours, varying customer service standards, and employees who might not speak English.
Get it in English.Never sign something you don't understand, and have the company point out where the collision coverage and policies are in your contract. Then ask the agency for a full English copy -- and make sure you keep it through the end of your trip and beyond, recommends Deborah Lyon of Carrara LLC (www.carrara.us.com), a company that rents villas in Italy.
Check the type of fuel. Many cars overseas use diesel fuel instead of unleaded. And if you put the wrong kind in, you're in for an unpleasant and expensive surprise, as Pete Meyers of EuroCheapo (www.europcheapo.com) found out on a trip to Lake Como, Italy.
What had been a pleasant day turned into a $300 mess that involved towing, fuel charges for a new tank of gas and the wasted one, as well as good-natured heckling from the locals, said Meyers, who documented the ordeal in a photo essay.
And check the type of car. Anyone who has watched drivers suffer on The Amazing Race knows that a standard car in most countries has a manual transmission. If you can't drive stick shift, make sure your rental is an automatic before you get there.
Ask about local roads.One of the biggest problems that Cristobal de Barrionuevo of Black Book Villas (www.blackbookvillas.com) sees with her clients that rent cars is that they are unprepared for the terrain. Check with your rental agency before you book to see if mountainous areas will be passable, or if the roads are good enough for the type of car you get.
Consider hiring a driver if the roads are too hazardous. That's what my sister and I did on Italy's Amalfi Coast one year, after realizing that neither of us had the nerve to navigate the area's steep cliffs. The euros we spent on the car service were a bargain, considering the peace of mind we enjoyed -- while avoiding the stressful speed demons around us.
Document, document, document.After hearing stories about unscrupulous rental car companies in Mexico, I photographed every inch of my vehicle, making sure the images were date and time stamped. That attention to detail made a difference at check-out, when an agent claimed that I had caused a small dent in the car's fender (the company backed down after seeing the evidence).