How to drive in foreign countries: A step-by-step guide

drive in foreign countries
Driving gives us the opportunity to visit small cafés, stop at random spots, browse local markets, mingle with locals and go off the beaten track.

In contrast to three decades ago, more people are now traveling to other countries. Whether the travel is for business, work, pleasure or for relocation, the challenge of driving on unfamiliar roads remains a formidable one. There are many who have the skill, but are afraid to take the plunge. This article addresses that topic from the viewpoint of a person holding a driver’s license in India, traveling to Europe for a holiday. It is written as a sequel to my earlier article about how to plan an affordable overseas trip.

What is the advantage of self-drive holidays?

It is said that the true spirit of a country is not often found in crowded big cities. A good way to explore the countryside, admire local scenery and discover quaint villages is by driving our own car. Driving gives us the opportunity to visit small cafés, stop at random spots, browse local markets, mingle with locals and go off the beaten track.

Why drive when there is public transport?

It is true that major towns in developed nations have excellent public transport systems, including metro, buses and trams. For a brief and focussed visit to such destinations, this would suffice. However, for many reasons, one might need to travel outside such areas, and driving a vehicle could be the only way of reaching many places. For those living in many parts of the US, Europe and Australia, it is impossible to reach even the nearest store without driving a car.


Won’t the tour bus take care of all our travel?

Those who opt for packaged tours have the benefit of being driven to a few pre-selected attractions for a designated amount of time. However, to achieve this and to avoid being late, they have to follow the tour guide’s instructions to the last detail, and are often treated like primary school children being taken for an excursion. For those who want more freedom to explore places on their own or eat according to their own wish, this is not a good option. It is not surprising that self-drive holidays are increasingly popular.


Why not get a taxi or ask a friend to drive us?

Taxis are expensive. Getting a friend to drive us around while abroad is not quite the same as getting a friend in India to do that. People abroad work tight schedules and are frequently unable to free up their time for those visiting from India. It is unfair on our part to insist that they compromise on their schedule.


Isn’t switching to left-hand drive difficult?

Those who are used to right-hand drive as in India are often anxious about switching to driving on the other side of the road, and vice versa. In the right-hand drive system, the car is driven on the left side of the road while the driver sits in the right-side seat. In fact, about one out of three countries follow right-hand drive system, while the rest of the world follows left-hand drive. Right hand drive is followed in Sri Lanka, India, Britain, Ireland, Thailand, Malaysia, Kenya, South Africa, Jamaica, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Several of these countries were British colonies of the past.

Canada, US, Nigeria, UAE and most of Europe follow left-hand drive. For first-timers, it is only natural to feel anxiety about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. However, having driven in over a dozen countries, I can say it is no rocket science to switch driving to the other side of the road. In fact, anyone who has driven in both systems would agree that one just has to follow and observe the cars in front for some time in quiet traffic, and we will quickly tune into the system. In other words, the anxiety disappears as soon as we actually start driving.

On the first day, it is always helpful to practice driving in light traffic—that is in areas that are not congested. Once we feel confident, we can start using busier roads and motorways.

However, as described in the next section, advance preparation is a must and there are several clever techniques available now that can help with orientation.


How to make sure we don’t accidentally switch back to the wrong side?

While driving in the left-hand drive system as in Europe or US, it is helpful to keep reminding ourselves to keep to the right half of the road at all times and follow the flow of traffic. However, it is easy to forget which is the correct side of the road when there are no vehicles on the road to guide us. Therefore, while driving on an empty road, one must be careful not to absent-mindedly switch to the wrong side.


What is the main difference between driving philosophy in India and abroad?

For those who are used to driving on Indian roads and are thinking about driving in other countries, this is a critical point to understand and adopt. In developed nations, everybody follows traffic rules; there are no exceptions. Being courteous to other road users is the norm. Everyone -- that is people and vehicles alike – follows the queue system, and no one jumps the queue to get in front regardless of how much of a hurry they are in.


What preparations are needed beforehand?

Preparing to drive in a foreign country requires substantial homework and commitment, and must only be attempted by those who are safe, courteous and experienced drivers. One must be well-versed with road signs in the country of interest. Road signs have regional variations, and can be browsed on the internet. One must know all the priority rules specific to the host country before attempting to drive there.

Watching YouTube videos of driving in that region on a large TV screen, using video games that teach driving, or riding in the front seat of a taxi or bus will help get orientation with driving on the other side of the road. Signing up for a one hour driving lesson with a local driving school after arrival in the destination country is another way to quickly get oriented.


What are the usual speed limits?

Speed limits vary by country. For instance, in the Netherlands, residential areas have a limit of 30 kph, built up areas have 50, other roads have 80, expressways have 100 and for motorways, it is 130. Besides, roadside displays may indicate new speed limits as road conditions vary. Most roads have speed cameras. If we cross the speed limit, substantial penalties get charged through the credit card that was used to book the vehicle. As easy way to avoid overstepping the speed limit is to use the speed limiter function on the car if available, and set the desired speed for each area.


How to use the roundabout?

The roundabout is a fantastic invention that eliminates the need for traffic light at intersections. It is basically a circle comprised of one or more lanes, at a point where two or more roads intersect each other. Each exit of the roundabout takes us in a different direction.

In left hand drive as in Europe, the rule is that we always look to the left before we enter the roundabout to check for cars coming from our left. Once they have passed and there is no one else coming from our left side, we can enter the roundabout by turning right and then driving slowly along the circle in an anticlockwise direction. Thus, anyone who is already in the roundabout before us gets priority. As we approach the preferred exit, we must indicate our intent to leave the roundabout by flashing the turn signal in that direction. The directions are reversed for right hand drive. The following video will demonstrate how the roundabout works.

How to negotiate a four-way intersection without traffic light or roundabout?

A four-way intersection is where two roads cross each other. If there is an all-way stop sign, as commonly seen in the US, all vehicles must stop and then proceed. The person who arrived first will cross first, and this decision is based on mutual trust. If there is no stop sign, stopping is not mandatory, but we must slow down and be prepared to yield to those who reached the intersection before us. If two people should reach at the same time, the rule is that the person to our right gets priority at an intersection—unless stated otherwise by road signs.


How to drive on the motorway?

Motorways are multilane roads where vehicles travel at 120-130 kmph. In left-hand drive countries such as those in Europe, the right lane is the slow lane, and the left lane is meant for passing (overtaking) only. For routine driving, we are expected to use the right lane as the default lane. The extra lane provided on the extreme right side of the motorway is only for emergencies; it is not meant for driving, resting or parking. The turn signal must be used before all lane changes.

It is important to maintain the same speed as the other cars so that we are not slowing people down. A safe two-second gap must be maintained from the vehicle in front. This is defined as the distance our car would travel in two seconds at that particular speed.

Entering and exiting the motorway requires some preparation and practice. These ramps are one-way only. While attempting to enter the motorway and searching for the entry ramp, be careful not to inadvertently go up on the exit ramp instead. Looking out for NO ENTRY road signs will help prevent this problem.

While entering motorways along the entry ramp, remember to accelerate well to match speed with other cars, identify our gap and then merge into traffic seamlessly. As we are seen entering the motorway from the right, other cars will either shift to the left lane, or slow down to make room for us. While exiting, keep in the right lane, maintain steady speed and gradually leave the motorway as our exit approaches. The video below will demonstrate how it really works.

Parking: Correct use of parking areas and exact payment methods in the host country must be understood before renting the car, or else we risk losing considerable amounts of money as parking fees and fines. In most parking areas, there will be a parking meter where payment can be made using a credit card or coins. Payment is either made just before leaving, or upon arrival—after entering the registration number of our car, and the intended duration of parking.

Tolls: We should know how to pay for tolls, as the methods vary. It may involve displaying a prepaid sticker called motorway vignette as in Switzerland, or throwing coins into the toll booth box as in Italy. Some countries such as the Netherlands have no toll roads.


What mistakes can occur while driving?

  1. Honking is forbidden in developed nations.

  2. If there is a cyclist ahead of us, we are expected to follow him at a safe distance, and overtake with a really wide margin only when the oncoming traffic is clear.

  3. If a pedestrian is waiting to cross at a zebra crossing, we must stop the car for them.

  4. If a pedestrian is walking along the road, we must pass him by a wide margin.

  5. When turning right at an intersection, watch out and yield for pedestrians crossing the road.

  6. Do not drive in bus lanes or cycle lanes; they have markings on the road surface.

  7. Be aware of tram lines while driving in cities. Trams share the roads with cars. Tram lines look like steel tracks embedded in the road.

  8. Do not look at a map or multitask while driving. If there is a doubt, pull over to a safe place and check the map.

  9. Do not block other road users by driving slowly and absent-mindedly.

  10. In school zones during school hours, drive very carefully at the designated speed limit and be prepared to stop for children crossing. In the US, if a school bus is stopped with lights flashing, all traffic must stop in all directions.

  11. On single-lane two-way roads, do not overtake (pass) in no-overtaking zones. Typically, a solid line or two in the middle of the road means that you cannot overtake. Overtaking is rarely required abroad.

  12. If a road is too narrow for two-way traffic, show courtesy to the oncoming vehicle by pulling over to a side early and then briefly flashing headlights to let him pass you. Flashing of lights in developed nations means “Please proceed; I will let you pass”

  13. Avoid driving in congested urban areas where possible. Absent-minded tourists wandering around staring at their phone screens, impatient cyclists, commuters and trams can make it quite challenging unless you are an expert. Many cities have a park and ride facility, where we can park our car outside the city and use public transport to get around inside the city.

  14. Avoid driving while jet-lagged after a long flight; it is better to pick up the rental car the following day after a good night’s rest. This will also give us a chance to study the local road conditions better.

  15. Habitually aggressive drivers must avoid driving abroad, unless they can switch to courteous mode.

  16. Do not drive too close behind the car in front. Also known as tailgating, this is not only seen as rude behaviour; it can be dangerous if that car braked suddenly.

  17. Know the road sign for one-way street; never drive the wrong way up a one-way street.

  18. Do not park in non-designated areas.

  19. Speed limits must be learned ahead of time, and adhered to without fail. Speeding tickets—generated through speed cameras, can significantly increase the expense of the trip.


Where to rent a car from?

Cars are available for rent from all airports and train stations in developed nations. Large cities have several outlets that rent cars. Smaller towns might not have a rental car dealership and one might have to take a bus to the nearest place to do that.

What rental company should we choose?

The major multinational companies include Hertz, Avis, Dollar, Enterprise, Sixt and Europcar. There are several smaller companies too, besides a few family-run businesses with smaller fleets of cars. The selection is based on our preference for vehicle, accessories and the price. It is possible to compare rates of all companies online before travel, and reserve with the most suitable company.

Why make a reservation? Can’t we just walk up to the counter and drive a car out?

Reservations can be made several months in advance, and allow us to lock in cheaper rates. They can also be modified later if needed. Making a reservation ensures that there are no last-minute surprises at the rental car counter. On busy days, all cars could be out and we might end up waiting for a day or two to get one if we do not have a prior reservation. Reservations are made on a credit card, which will be charged only after the vehicle is allotted at the rental car counter.

While making reservations, it is advisable to plan to return the car to the same location. One-way-rentals are outrageously expensive due to additional charges for returning the car to a different location.

What car to select?

That decision depends on our budget, need and preference. Smaller cars are cheaper to rent, and easy to park in tight spaces. They are suited for countries like Italy, where some rural roads can be narrow. However, for a family of four, a small two-door car will not suit. Those who have luggage would prefer a sedan with greater boot space than a hatchback.

Occasionally we get lucky with a free upgrade, if the model we reserved is not available at that moment. Rental companies also have exotic cars that can be enjoyed for a higher daily rent.

Manual or Automatic transmission?

Most rental cars in Europe have manual transmission, but upgrading to automatic transmission ensures hassle-free driving while on vacation. Those who are used to right-hand drive cars employ their left hand to change gears. This can become confusing when they switch to a left-hand drive car, where the right hand is used to change gears. Although more expensive, automatic transmission eliminates the need to reach out for the gear stick on the unfamiliar side. It allows the driver to focus more on the road and road signs ahead.

What accessories to ask for?

One can opt for an add-on GPS unit, which will incur an extra cost per day in addition to the car’s rental rate. Having a built-in GPS makes driving easier, the voice guidance comes seamlessly through the car’s speakers. For those who already own a dedicated GPS unit that works in the destination country, this add-on purchase is not necessary. A child seat will be needed for smaller children.

Why not use our own phone for GPS?

It is perfectly okay to use the mobile phone for GPS use. Apps such as Google maps and Sygic allow downloading of maps of specific countries, which can be used offline. Voice commands can be directed through the car’s speakers through Bluetooth. Offline Google maps also include information about local attractions and restaurants. One must remember to specifically download Google’s offline map to be able to do this. The downside is that if the phone runs out of power, GPS guidance stops.

What about insurance?

Appropriate insurance coverage is mandatory before driving the car. It is useful to check if our own personal car insurance policy covers rental cars.

For a rental car, it is generally acceptable to get a basic third-party coverage with a deductible, which means that the company will pay for the other guy’s damages, while we are liable to a pay only a fixed amount (also called deductible) for any damage or loss that happens to our car. If desired, this amount can be waived by purchasing an EWI (excess waiver insurance) also called CDW (collision damage waiver).

It is cheaper to buy CDW beforehand through online car rental booking sites such as Expedia, rather than purchase directly at the rental desk. Many credit cards offer collision damage waiver (CDW) coverage—on condition that the booking was done using the same card. Car rental companies are known to try to sell expensive add-on insurance policies to the customer. It is easy to get fooled into buying an unnecessary policy at the counter if we are ignorant about basic insurance terminology and our own prior coverage details.

How to fill fuel?

Most car rental contracts require that we return the car with a full tank of fuel. If this is not done, heavy fees will be charged. We should know exactly what type of fuel can be used for the car we get. The names of fuels abroad can seem exotic. For instance, Euro 95 does not immediately tell us if it is petrol, and the rental agency will tell us what is suited.

We should know beforehand how to open the fuel lid, and how to fill the car by ourselves at the pump. Payment is generally made inside the gas station after filling up the tank. Filling the wrong fuel can incur a lot of damage and expense. Many cars are electric and we must know how to charge the car if we rent one.

What about driving license?

Most countries accept an overseas license that is in English, with regional language translation if required. The Indian driver’s license is accepted in several countries including Australia, Germany, Switzerland and France to name a few. A better option is to obtain an international driving permit from the Motor Vehicle Department.

What should we check for in the car before driving out of the rental parking lot?

Various brands of cars have vastly contrasting dashboard buttons, levers and switches. In most instances, even though we have indicated the category of the vehicle, we get to know the exact brand we are getting only in the last minute. We must therefore learn how to operate the ignition button, parking brake, turn signals, mirrors, seat adjustments, wipers, GPS system, boot, fuel cap and headlamps. The assistant at the parking lot will help us become familiar with all the controls. Be aware that the instruction book could be in a foreign language, hence a thorough tutorial from the assistant is a must before driving out.

It is important to check the car ourselves for any scratches, dents or damage beforehand, just in case we get blamed and charged for it when we return the car. A quick check of the boot for the spare tyre, jack and essential toolkit is helpful before driving off.

While returning the car after office hours, unless otherwise instructed, we must only return the keys in the designated drop box. This is because a thief could potentially pose as a rental car employee and take possession of our keys.


Further reading

» How plan an affordable overseas vacation

» Handbook for drivers in California

» Road signs and regulations in the Netherlands

» Priority to the right: How to negotiate an intersection

» Simulation video of driving in Europe and US

» Car rental collision damage waiver by credit card

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