Going on a driving holiday abroad is becoming ever more common for Indians and I recently did the same. But there can be some potholes in the process. Here are some tips to avoid those
Get an International Driving Permit
In most countries your Indian Driving Licence (DL), at least newer ones with clearly legible text and a printed picture, are perfectly valid because licences in Roman script are valid. But, that said, in some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates for example, you will still need an International Driving Permit (IDP). And even if your Driver’s Licence is accepted by a car rental company, keeping a IDP is always a good idea for insurance purposes or if you are pulled over by the police. Sometimes, at the rental agency, there is the possibility that you will be asked for an IDP, so keep it handy. Nowadays, in Delhi and some other states, the IDP is a printed sheet of paper, which you can apply for very easily. In Delhi, the application process is automated and you have to just visit your local Transport Office for the issuance and it costs just Rs 1,000. But in countries like China, you need to apply separately for a permit.
Book your car in advance
There are several car rental agencies at most major airports across the world. However during peak vacation season there is huge demand for cars. This could mean not only long wait times, expect to wait an hour, occasionally more at popular holiday destinations. High demand also means that your chances of getting a car at the last minute might be slim, so book in advance.
Choose your car and rental agency carefully
This is important, you often want to rent a car that you might not get to drive in India, such as a convertible or a luxury car. But before you set out, choose the car that suits your needs the best. Are you travelling with kids and a lot of luggage? Well, if you are, you should choose something that suits your requirements, in Europe that would mean something like the Ford C-Max. It can get very warm in Europe and America during summer and while a convertible is a cool car, it can get very hot inside. Due to the roof mechanism, they have more limited luggage room. Also, in some countries in Europe, the historic town centres are very narrow, a larger car may not be easy to maneuver in these narrow streets, especially given that driving on the left-hand seat is unnatural to most of us. While there are many rental agencies to choose from, I would suggest you stick to the global majors and their subsidiary firms. I chose a car from Budget Car rental, a subsidiary of French rental major, Avis. There is also Hertz, EuropCar, Sixt, Enterprise and more to choose from but do your research in advance.
Get ready to be disappointed that you do not get your car of choice
Since I was in Italy recently, I wanted to rent a Fiat or Alfa Romeo badged car. After all, do what the Romans do, right? I had chosen the extremely popular Fiat Panda, a tall-boy small car that Fiat should really sell in India. But when I got to the counter, I was told that they ran out of pandas and I got "upgraded" to an European-spec Ford EcoSport instead. The EcoSport was a more than capable replacement, it was a bit bigger with more luggage room and came with Ford’s superb SYNC3 infotainment system which allowed me to use Google Maps navigation and Google Play Music with my phone, something I really appreciated. But I was a bit disappointed that I did not get the car I wanted.
Take full depreciation insurance
Now this is a slightly controversial tip, adding full depreciation insurance that reduces your excess in case of damage or theft to zero. It can pretty much double the rental cost of your car but it ensured complete peace of mind for me. I was driving in some very narrow streets and almost all the cars that I saw had a few scratches here or there. Given that often driving on the ‘other’ side in many countries is alien to Indians, you can very easily have issues dealing with space and taking some corners, so a scratch here or there could easily happen.
Some car rental firms are notorious for charging customers for even small scratches, so yes, if you do not want to worry, ensure you do this. In case you do not take this package, because it is expensive, ensure you check the car thoroughly and in good lighting for any pre-existing damage. You do not want to be charged for prior damage. Even so, it may not be a bad idea to at least take ‘partial’ coverage for damage or theft.
Full to Full
Most car rentals across the world work on a ‘full to full’ basis, that is you get a full tank (sort of) when you leave and you return the car with a full tank when you return. Car rental firms can be very difficult and charge major penalties if you do not do so, so ask the rental firm about fuel pumps close to the airport, or wherever you have rented the car from in advance, you do not want to be left holding the can, literally.
Second driver or not?
Personally, I do not believe this is a bad thing, because if more than one of you can drive, you should be able to drive in case the primary driver gets injured or maybe has had a few too many drinks. Check the costs of an additional driver before leaving. Don’t think you can save a few dollars or Euros by doing this on the sly. In case an unauthorised driver has an accident, you will be liable for the full damage to the car.
Follow the rules
This is stating the bleeding obvious but do remember that you are not in India and you can’t really make a phone call for help or offer a bribe to get out of trouble. Driving in most other parts of the world is very organised and you should know your road signs very well. When to give way, when to not overtake and also be aware of speed limits. In the UK and the US, you should remember that limits are posted in miles per hour instead of kilometres. Some countries are a bit more ‘lenient’ when it comes to speed limits than others, but unless you are on an unrestricted German Autobahn you can’t really lose it, and you should know the sign for the ‘unrestricted’ bit (A circular white board with three thin black diagonal lines). However, while driving though towns, limits are strictly enforced in Germany and elsewhere, so be doubly careful and always keep an eye on the speedometer at all times. Fines can be huge for speeding and matters can be worse still for drunken driving, which might involve arrest and a time behind bars and you can’t get out with a tweet to Sushma Swaraj over here. Remember, you are not in your own country while driving and you have to follow the rules where you are. Rules that preclude you from stopping willy-nilly and if you must get out of the car, you have to wear a high-visibility vest.
Also, most countries are very strict about child safety, so children must be put inside child seats or on booster seats. If they are not, keep in mind that the authorities can charge you for child endangerment and in extreme cases even take your children away from you. You can rent these seats at car rental agencies, but do book them in advance.
Plan your parking and routes in advance
Of course, have a navigation system handy. Thankfully, Google Maps is fairly accurate in most countries but many cars do not have a ‘plug and play’ Android Auto or Apple CarPlay (Apple Maps is far superior in western countries). It may not be a bad idea to pick up a local SIM card with a data plan, so that you can have maps planned on your phone. I used Google Maps constantly on this trip and on prior international drives I have depended completely on car navigation systems. Also, many towns and hotels have ‘paid’ parking only, keep that in mind before you set out.
Parking can cost as much as 10 Euros per day or 1 Euro per hour in some towns and the systems are automatic. Please ensure you pay for your parking in advance lest you be charged a massive fine. Talk to the hotels where you are staying in advance to figure out parking.
Most of all, have fun
A driving holiday is a holiday after all, and a holiday is about fun. Don’t be tense while driving and just remember to have fun while following all the rules.