We love to rent cars when we travel. Just pick it up (at the airport, city center, or cruise port) and start driving. It’s a great way to experience a new city and just get lost in the moment – and yes, sometimes get lost for real – but that’s part of the fun. Finding places and doing things you didn’t plan or expect - a local restaurant, beautiful view, or even making a new friend when asking directions.
There are a number of things to be aware of when renting cars both here in the US, and when in foreign countries.
- First, to make things much easier, join the loyalty clubs of the larger rental companies. This is free and includes a number of benefits that vary by company. I think one of the best benefits most of these offer is when you get to your destination, you can skip the counter and go straight to your car, key waiting inside, and be on your way.
- Get an international divers license. This is a very easy process that can be completed at AAA, even if you are not a member. Just be sure to call your local office in advance to make an appointment and confirm availability. I’ve never had to show mine, but in some countries, especially Italy, they say that it is required. Getting stopped without one can result in a large fine.
There are a couple other things to be aware of that can have a big impact on your car rental experience. Keep in mind that these vary by company, city and country.
- Tolls – More and more cities now have toll roads, and most of these roads do not have booths where you pay the toll. They work by automatically charging the tolls electronically. The car rental companies have made this “easier” for you by installing transponders in their cars that automatically register when you have passed a toll location. Sounds convenient, right? Be aware that in addition the actual toll charged, almost every rental company adds a service charge in addition to passing these charges on to you. The most egregious of these fees is this: once you pass a toll location the first time, there is a daily fee to use the transponder, even if you never use another toll road for the rest of your trip. Again, the specific policy varies by company, but these fees can be as much as $7.95 per day, for every day of the rental, even if you only have a $1.50 toll charge. That means that you could pay over $50 for a $1.50 toll!
- Restricted Driving Zones – Many foreign cities have restricted driving zones, areas of the city where you are not allowed to drive without a special permit. The rental cars do not have these permits, and unless you know what to look for, there is a good chance you will drive through one of these areas. The only way you will know that you have done this is four to six months, or even longer, after you get home, you will receive a fine in the mail. You might think it’s a scam, but, while it may not seem fair, it is real. Some hotels within these zones can register the license plate of your rental car with the police so that you are not fined if you have to enter a restricted area to get to the hotel.
Don’t let those scare you away from experiencing the freedom of driving through a new city. Just be aware of them, plan ahead, and ask your agent if you have any questions.
Written by Doug Orens, Vice President, Plaza Travel