Renting a car and driving it in another country can seem daunting. You think about why, how,
when, where, and “Can I do it?” If you already live in a first-world country and are going to
another first-world country, it’s easier than you think.
Although I haven’t driven in every
country I’ve visited, I have rented
and driven cars in Spain, Italy,
Portugal, and Mexico. And, that
first time you get behind the wheel
is exhilarating. At times, I was solo
and at others, with a friend. There
have been wonderful adventures
and some misadventures. All have
made my travels better!
By having your own car, you have
the luxury of your own agenda.
Going when you want, where you
want, and stopping on a whim. It
changes the way you travel and
may not be for everyone, but keep reading and see if it’s for you.
My First Rental
It was a solo trip to Mérida, Spain. I’d reserved the car on-line through Avis in the states. When I
arrive at the local Avis office, the car isn’t ready. The agent tells me that she will come to the
hotel and pick me up when it is. Since this is my first experience, I’m a bit worried. But, she
follows through, and soon I have a car.
The last time I’d driven a stick shift was years ago, but I manage to leave the hotel without any
mishaps. As I get onto the highway, I push the accelerator and begin to pick up speed. I ‘m now
smiling and shout, “Ha! I’m driving in Spain!”
Soon, I look at the speedometer. 120! “Holy Crap!” Shaking and waiting to hear a siren, I
immediately slow down. Then, I realize that I’m really driving 75 MPH. I’d forgotten that I now
had to think in KPH (kilometers per hour). At 120, I’m actually going the legal limit.
New Roads, New Rules
Roundabouts, or traffic circles, are more
popular in other countries than in the
states, and you have to get used to
entering and exiting them. The good
news is that people in other countries are
better at knowing when to go and when to
stop. My first experience is easy,
because it happens in small village. The
roundabout is not much more than a loop
around a small fountain in front of a
monastery. Yet, a policeman is directing
traffic, even there is none.
While sightseeing in Zamora, we park the car and go to lunch. When we return, no car! Although
we thought we’d checked all parking signs, we missed the one that indicated no parking after
4:00 p.m. I’m still thinking someone has stolen the car but looking down at the curb, I spot a
sticky note. It has a phone number for the police, who I call and learn how much we owe and
where the car is. A quick taxi ride takes us to the impound lot.
Tip: Remember to look
everywhere for signs—poles, fences, doorways, curbs, even on the road itself.
In yet another small town, I get a parking ticket, which I decide not to pay. Three months later,
AVIS tracks me down. You can run, but you still have to pay.
At the airport in Granada, Spain, I rent a car to drive to Ronda--about two hours away. Except
that it takes me almost four hours, because I hadn’t checked the weather. Otherwise, I would’ve
known that the mountains I had to cross were covered in fog and drizzle. With a death grip on
the steering wheel and in low gear, I drive through pea soup-like fog and inch the car forward
the last 20 or 30 miles to Ronda. Eventually, I arrive sweating and panting but safe and sound.
What’s more, I feel exhilarated because of the experience. I did it!
On a different trip, I’m heading for a town in La
Rioja. It’s a beautiful morning. Cool, clear, sunny.
The two-lane highway stretches out in front of me,
and snow-covered mountains are in the distance. I
keep admiring them, so it takes me awhile to
realize that I’m approaching those mountains. I’m
heading north, and that’s where they are. Now, I’m
not thinking just about the snow on the mountains,
but also the snow on the road!
When I‘m just about at the base, I see how the road switchbacks up to the top. It’s a bit
unnerving. But, instead of looking ahead, I decide to just take one hairpin turn at a time and
keep moving forward. Luckily, it’s now mid-morning, and the ice on the road is mostly slushy. I
get through the pass at the top and head down into the green valley below on the other side.
Maybe if I’d been driving slower, I would’ve read all the information on the signs. Because now,
the road I’m on simply ends with a big barrier blocking it! I think, “No way; it’s a joke. They just
haven’t removed the barrier.” Then, I look farther ahead and see only dirt and where a road will
I back up and turn around. Except for a few houses, I’m in the middle of nowhere. A few
hundred yards ahead I see a farmer on the side of the road. As I pull over and lower the
window, he’s smiling at me. He’d probably watched me drive up to the barrier.
“Perdóname, por favor,” I call to him. “The road ended, and I need to go to La Guardia.” “Si’,” he responds, almost laughing. “It stops here, but there are two other ways to go to La
Guardia.” Although my Spanish is good, his northern dialect is different, so I miss some of what
he is saying. But, I figure I’ll get close and then stop again!
Becoming One with My Car
Trujillo, Spain is my introduction to the ancient, narrow,
medieval streets of so many Spanish towns. I do fine. I’m
becoming one with my little car. In fact, I’m amused and
pleased with myself for being able to maneuver the Renault
without running into something or someone.
Tip: Don’t get smug.
On another trip, my inn is on a very, narrow side street, and I
have to find a place to park. By now I’ve navigated numerous
narrow, winding streets in other towns, but these are like
walkways. I pull in the side-view mirrors on the car and slowly
drive forward, intending to squeeze through two buildings
and then hear, “screeeee. . .” I stop, back up. Small scratch
on the one side of the car. But, I don’t panic.
From a rental
car experience many years ago, I learned that small
scratches, especially on a dirty car, are typically forgiven or
overlooked. (That’s a funny story for another time.)
The Joyful Unexpected
I’m staying in a village at an inn along the Camino de Santiago. Most
guests stop here for a night or two before walking up a very steep
road for the next part of their journey. One morning, a group of
travelers is leaving, but one woman stays behind. When I ask why,
she says, “I can’t make the hill because of my heart. I’m calling a
“No worries, I’m taking you.” Although she objects, I insist. Then, I
get to spend a wonderful day at the hilltop with her group. The very
next day at the inn, I overhear a young American couple asking for a
room, but the inn is full. Because of a physical disease, the wife can’t
walk any farther. So, they plan to call a taxi. You know what happens next. And, the experience
fills me with joy and gratitude.
Another time, a friend and I are traveling in southern Italy. One
day, we decide to go to the end of the “boot” to look across the
sea at Albania. A beautiful day, driving south along the coast
through the countryside. A sign on the side of the road reads
“fresh cheese.” On a whim, we turn onto a dirt road, leading to a
farm. At the end of it, we meet the farmer who treats us to a minitour and samples of cheese from his cows. We are thrilled!
Cheese in the “boot” of Italy!” Just because we had a car.
Renting Your Car
Nowadays, I use the internet to search for the best deals from recommended companies. To
date, I’ve been very happy with Avis and Europcar in Europe. I no longer take cumbersome
maps. I’ve gotten lost many times, especially in old
city centers. Google maps have made traveling
much easier. I plug my phone into the sound
system of the rental car and use the map
application to get to destinations. Now and then,
I’ve encountered errors. But, typically after a few
minutes, the map application figures out where
you are and where you want to go. And, you can
always stop, ask for directions, and have a
Some Other Tips:
• Always make sure you have insurance. Each country has its own laws about accidents and
responsibility. You don’t want to end up in court, or worse, jail.Instead of renting at a major
airport, I often take a train to my first destination and rent a car there. This is ideal for
avoiding stress with airport traffic.
• Often there is no drop off fee for returning to a different location.
• Go with the compact size. If you’re visiting historical, medieval cities, smaller cars are better.
Gas is expensive, so you’ll save there, too.
• If you can’t drive a stick, make sure that you rent an automatic.