As we regarded the shiny, flawless Citroën we were about to rent in Portugal, my husband asked the Europcar representative, not entirely joking, “Don’t you have an old beater?” Europcar’s proud motto is that no car is older than six months, which is probably great if you’re an experienced Portuguese driver who can read signs and pivot when a freeway suddenly divides. But we were American travelers eager to see parts of the country not accessible by public transport.

I’ll never forget the sound when the driver-side mirror scraped along the medieval rock wall of our Airbnb’s tighter-than-tight garage, detached from the car and landed on the stone floor. It definitely had the auditory ring of, “The cost of this vacation just doubled.”

But thanks to some doomsday thinking before we left, the damage was completely covered by our credit card: The Capital One Quicksilver Visa card offers rental-car protection as long as you book and pay for the car with the same card and decline all coverage offered by the rental company.

Read on for some other tips from experienced travelers about renting cars abroad.

Get set up

Before you leave the United States, you need to arrange an international driving permit (IDP), accepted in 150 countries worldwide and required by many to rent a vehicle. It “translates” your identification information into 10 languages, AAA’s website says. Just like a passport, it involves two photographs and a small fee. You can apply for the permit by mail (allow for a few weeks) or stop by a AAA branch office, where the process takes about 20 minutes.

You might also want to rent far in advance to get a good deal. Sasha Abramsky, 49, a freelance journalist in Sacramento who traveled to Iceland this summer, paid $600 a week for a four-wheel-drive SUV.

Know your plastic

Familiarize yourself with your credit card’s policies regarding international rentals. Unlike Capital One, some credit card companies insist that customers purchase insurance from a rental company.

Abramsky also advised making sure you have a large line of credit on your card, because some rental agencies will require an “enormous and scary deposit” on your card in case of damage. His deposit in Iceland was $3,000, but he said there was no problem getting the deposit back.

Additionally, check your card’s foreign transaction fee. Our card was one of the few that doesn’t charge this.

Understand the driving conditions

In many countries, you need to let go of the expectation of a smoothly paved, wide road. We slowed to a crawl and held our breath driving in Porto, Portugal, as we squeezed through walled roadways with mere inches on each side, reminiscent of the Chandelier Tree you can drive through in Leggett, Calif.

It may be a relief to hear that in approximately two-thirds of the world’s countries, people drive on the right-hand side. In addition to the United Kingdom, left-hand-side driving is typical in former British colonies, such as Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Malta and Cyprus.

If you prefer to motor along at a sedate pace, however, you might want to think twice about driving in some places, such as on Germany’s infamously fast Autobahn. And be prepared to face the terror of American drivers abroad: the roundabout. These are often so crowded that you’re tempted to just close your eyes and hope for the best.

“If I hadn’t watched a YouTube video before we left, I would’ve been clueless about what to do and undoubtedly would have killed somebody,” my husband said. “At a bare minimum, [travelers] should watch a video for how to drive in whatever country you’re visiting and know what the speed-limit signs look like and what the word ‘exit’ is in that language.”

Think about transmission and size

Nearly all American rental cars are automatics, yet abroad, you will probably receive a car with a stick shift or pay more for the transmission you’re used to. Renting a manual car in Lisbon for a week runs $475 right now, for example, vs. $734 for an automatic. 

A small car can be better. Cooper Olson, 50, an advertising creative director from Los Angeles, was “upgraded, or at least that’s what the guy said,” to a huge Audi Q7 in Sweden. “Everything in old-world Europe is built for smaller people and smaller cars,” he said. “The Q7 isn’t super large in America, but [in Sweden], we called it the Moose.”

Larger cars are available for families, although Mark Mannell, 50, chief executive of Car Rental Savers and an English expat who lives in Tulsa, said they will not be as large as SUVs in the States. “They’ll list the number of seats and bags” that the trunk can hold, he said.

What if you get stranded?

Country by country, Mannell said, you may be able to find the equivalent of AAA. In England, for instance, it’s just AA: the Automobile Association. He added that your rental package may include roadside assistance for an additional charge.

What goes in the tank?

Surprisingly, many regular cars abroad use diesel fuel. Check what type of fuel your rental requires before you drive away. “If you put in the wrong kind, you’ll get a little way and then it breaks down,” Mannell said. “You have to then drain the tank. It’s a big deal.”

You must be this tall to get on the ride

Age requirements to rent a car vary country by country and sometimes even by rental agency, Mannell said. Younger drivers, such as those under 25, sometimes pay higher rates. In Ireland, there’s even a maximum age you can be to rent a car, generally 75. Another quirky requirement may be proving that you’ve had your U.S. driver’s license for a certain period of time. In France, Mannell said, it’s a year.

Renting long-term can be an option

Maggie Whitney, 51, an attorney living in Kigali, Rwanda, said buying a car there would involve prohibitive amounts of red tape and taxes. But in Rwanda, “you can’t just go to Enterprise and get a car. The service isn’t there,” Whitney said. So she spends a ballpark $30 a day to rent a car by the month. Her latest was a Toyota Rav4 with 30,000 miles on it. The arrangement with her car provider, a man named Parfait, provides a good, personal connection: “I can break down on the side of the road two hours away, and he’ll send somebody out,” she said.

GPS isn’t always right

Haylee Munk Brown, 40, owner of a gymnastics facility in Cameron Park, Calif., traveled with her family in summer 2019 to Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France. (They picked up a BMW 3 Series in Frankfurt, Germany, and paid about $40 a day.) “One thing we didn’t realize is that streets that look like streets aren’t necessarily streets, because you may start driving down them and they’re just for pedestrians,” she said. The GPS sent her family down a narrow avenue that is only open to vehicles certain hours a day, and a Swiss policeman had to escort them out of the crowded pedestrian walkway by walking next to their car.

Take photos or video of the vehicle

Let’s face it: A vehicle is more likely to sustain damage if you’re driving it in an unfamiliar country. Like our family, the Browns did not escape unscathed: Curving roads with high curbs in Switzerland scratched the car’s rims. “When we turned the car in, we showed them the damage, but they also blamed us for damage on the other side,” Brown said. Although those scratches weren’t their doing, the rental company wanted $3,000. Luckily, she had taken a video of the car with her cellphone before leaving the lot and her credit card company, American Express, was willing to do battle. The fees were dropped altogether.

Keep calm and strap in

Different countries have different car-seat laws. Brown and her husband have three young kids, so she bought three seats that satisfied the regulations of each of the countries they visited (the Mifold Original Grab-and-Go booster seat, which retails for about $30). They were adjustable with a belt across the chest and small enough to fit into the luggage.

Enjoy the ride

Everyone interviewed for this story was extremely happy with the flexibility to travel outside urban areas that rental cars provided them. “People travel for different reasons,” Olson said. “I travel to pretend I live in a place, to see if I can get a sense for what it’s like to live and work there.” That’s why he enjoys renting a car and driving cross-country. “You see things that no one else who is visiting the country saw.”

Mailman is a writer based in California. Her website is at erikamailman.com. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @ErikaMailman.

Please Note

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted travel domestically and around the world. You will find the latest developments at washingtonpost.com/coronavirus