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Car Rental & Other Transportation

If you’re traveling inside North America, car rental is probably a no brainer if you’re going to be traveling some distance from your destination.  In other countries, you may have many more transportation options than what you’re used to in the US.  We’ll give you some tips and ideas no matter what choice of transportation you decide to make.

Car Rental

There’s no question that with a car, you ‘ll be able to experience more at your own pace, without being constrained by schedules. You’ll also be able to go off on various adventures where other transportation doesn’t go. But don’t underestimate public transportation in other countries.  Europe has some of the best public transportation options around.  Developed Asian countries do as well. The first thing you need to ask yourself is if you really need a rental car.

Many of the popular US car rental firms, do business overseas.  Avis, National (Europcar), Thrifty, Dollar and Hertz can be found in most major cities.  Another company based in Europe is Sixt. Rental cars tend to be much more expensive overseas.  And, you’ll need insurance.  Not only collision insurance, but also theft and probably personal effects coverage.  A GPS is also a good idea. (Remember using GPS on your phone overseas is going to consume mountains of data leading to a huge wireless bill.)  Fuel is considerably more expensive than in the US, plus many more roads are toll roads. Parking charges in major cities can be horrendous, that is if you can find a place to park.

Here’s some tips:

Is your drivers license sufficient?
Most EU countries accept your US or Canadian drivers licenses as is.  In most other countries, you may need an International Driving Permit (IDP).  You can get an IDP from either your local AAA or CAA office.  The IDP is not a replacement for your license, but should be carried along with it.  Check with your rental company to see if one is required for the country you are renting a car from.

Make sure you have insurance coverage.
Don’t assume that your regular auto insurance company or credit card company will cover damage to cars rented outside of North America. Make sure you check before leaving home.  With the high rate of automobile break-in’s and thefts in other countries, you may also want to consider personal affects coverage (PAI).  If you’ve purchased a travel insurance policy, it may include car rental coverage in foreign countries.

Check insurance coverage from the rental car company (CDW)
Insurance coverage on overseas car rentals varies from what you may be used to in North America.  Most companies offer various tiers of coverage that reduce the amount of financial responsibility you will have if you get in an accident.  The less financial responsibility you want means the more you’ll pay.  Be careful as some rental car companies won’t let you get away with total non-responsibility.

Check on driving restrictions for your rental
Rental companies in Europe may have different age restrictions than rental car companies in the US.  Also, don’t assume that you can take your rental car out of the country you’re visiting.  Many rental companies restrict where rental cars can be taken, including some areas within the country you’re in.  If you’re planning on taking your rental car to another country, make sure you have any needed paperwork for the other country.

Can you get lower rates if you “prepay”?
By prepaying your rental, you may not only save on the base rate, but you may get a discount on many of the add-ons as well, such as insurance coverage and GPS.  If you know that the chances of you not going on your trip are slim, it may be worth it for the additional savings.

Get a complete list of charges due at the end of the rental
Before signing on the dotted line, you should make sure you have a complete detailed list of all charges that will be due at the end of the rental.  Beyond the basics, there may be other fees or taxes that you haven’t thought about.  Remember that taxes and fees in foreign countries can be quite large. Finding this out before hand will allow you to make changes before you rent.

Research the type of car your renting
Most cars at rental agencies in foreign countries have manual transmissions standard.  Automatic transmission cars can be significantly more expensive.  Car sizes are also much smaller than in the US, which means a lot less space for luggage.  Before renting, do your research on the car you’re thinking about renting.  Just because the rental agency says it will fit 2 people and 4 bags, doesn’t mean it will.

Plan your basic route before you leave home.
Don’t count on getting a detailed map of the entire country free from the rental agency.  You should buy a road map for the area of the country your visiting before you leave home.  Michelin, has great road maps of most countries.  These are very detailed (which you’ll need in Europe, if not Asia) and often cover just a small portion of the country your visiting.  You can also try to use Google Maps and print directions before leaving home.  Getting a GPS with your rental is probably the best option, but note that many of the rental companies in Europe have a limited supply available.  You should make sure they can confirm a GPS with your reservation.  Just indicating you want one without checking, doesn’t mean you’ll get one.

Toll roads and fuel
Toll roads in Europe, Asia and South America are much more prevalent than in the US.  Tolls can be quite expensive for just a short distance.  If you want to see how many toll roads you may be using while in Europe, you can check this website. Fuel costs in Europe or Asia can be 2-4x what they are in the US.  Also, fuel stations are much less prevalent than in the US.  You should make sure to refuel before leaving medium to large size cities as your next chance may be a ways a way.

Check the rental car before leaving the rental agency
Before you leave the rental agency, make sure to check your car thoroughly for any dents, dings or damage.  You should make sure that the rental representative acknowledges the damage on your rental form before you leave.  It may be also worthwhile to document the damage with photos from your camera or phone.  It’s also a good idea to check, so you can make sure that everything on the car is in working order.

 Are you ready for the stress?
If you think driving in downtown Manhattan or the 405 in Los Angeles is stressful and time consuming, wait till you try to drive in a large foreign city.  Streets can be very poorly maintained, as well as poorly marked.  Traffic can be unbearable at all times of day, not just during “rush hour”.  Parking availability on streets is almost non-existent.  If you get in an accident, will the local police speak English?  Do you know how to read foreign road signs?  Do you know the foreign “rules of the road”?  Many laws and regulations for traffic differ widely from what you may be used to in North America.

Car Services/Guides

If you’re going to be in a city or area for a few days, consider hiring a car service or guide.  These can be expensive, but again if you’re traveling with a group, the price can be very reasonable.  An advantage of a car service/guide, is that it will be more than just a ride from place to place.  You’ll also have someone who knows the area and give you great advice on where to go and what to see.  You can find reputable car services in various travel guides and major travel websites.  Car services can add an extra level of safety and security.  They usually speak most major languages (German, English, Spanish, Italian) and offer continuity as you’ll deal with the same person you’re entire trip.

We’ve used car services/guides extensively in Italy, Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea.  They’re very adept at driving “challenging” roads, can take you to places off the beaten path, share their local knowledge and history of a location, plus you have a built in translator whenever you make a stop.  We usually try to make arrangements with car services and guides a month or two before we leave for our destination.  Like anyone who is good at what they do, they book up fast.  If you arrive at your destination and decide you want a car service or guide, check with your hotel’s concierge.  We’ve done that for last-minute day trips and it’s worked out well.

Trains

Traveling by train can be very easy and efficient in most countries.  It’s also a great way to see the countryside, while leaving the stress of driving behind.  For many major destinations, you’ll have the ability to take “express”trains.  Express trains make less stops, reducing travel time.  Regular trains are nice as well, as it gives you a chance to see more of the countryside.  With it’s more frequent stops, you can hop off the train if a place looks interesting, explore it for an hour or two and then hop on the next train that comes through.  It’s a great way to make your travel more spontaneous and less structured.

Trains in Europe and Asia tend to run on very precise time tables.  While the occasional delay may occur, you’re wise to be ready to board the train and the exact time of departure.  Even being just a minute or two late can mean that you’ll be waiting for the next train.  Also, on some trains, storage is extremely limited, so pack wisely.  Unless you’re planning on buying snacks on board, you should also plan on bringing food along.  For routes that have frequent trains, you can hop off in a town, run to the bakery and meat shop to grab supplies for lunch and hop back on the next train a few minutes later and continue your journey.

Here are just a few of the different types of trains in other countries:

Urban trains
Urban trains usually run throughout a large metropolitan area.  These types of trains are similar to the “L” in Chicago or CalTrain in the Bay Area.  Most urban trains give you easy access to far-flung suburban areas, as well as around large city centers.

Regional Trains
Regional trains go beyond a local city.  Sometimes they can cover an area such as a country, province, canton or even multiple numbers of those.

National Trains
National trains, as the name implies, usually cover most major cities within a specific country, but may not stop in smaller cities along the route.

Night or Scenic Trains
These type of trains usually cover longer distances with fewer stops.  Night trains usually have sleeping cars, which you can reserve so you can arrive refreshed and relaxed at your destination the following morning.  By traveling at night, you’ll also be able to travel while sleeping and be ready to go right away the next day in your new destination.  You should be aware that most sleeping cabins on trains are shared.  So, if you’re a light sleeper, you may want to think about a private cabin.  Scenic trains usually have special cars (think glass top coaches and railcars with larger windows) to experience the scenery as you travel throughout a single or multiple countries.

High Speed/Bullet Trains
These trains generally cover long distances at very high speeds (220 mph +) with minimal stops.  When you need to go a long distance in a very short amount of time, this can be a great option to minimize travel time.

While train fares have increased in the past few years, they still can save you money and time over airlines and rental cars.  The best place to start looking for train tickets is Rail Europe.  Rail Europe offers multiple different kinds of passes for single or multi-country travel.  The longer the pass, the more you save.  If you’re primarily staying in one country, you can also check websites for trains that serve that specific country.  For some special trains or high traveled routes, you may have to pay a supplement, in addition to the price of your rail pass.  For popular trains and routes, you may have to make advance reservations to ensure you have a seat.  The same goes for overnight trains, especially during peak periods.

The quality of trains vary widely from country to country.  A few years ago, we took an overnight train from Germany to Denmark.  While the sleeping cars were OK, they were old and pretty worn.  The A/C and heat didn’t work very well.  Also, the “bedding” provided was minimal.  By contrast, we took an overnight train in Vietnam and while the sleeping car was a bit dated, the sleeping compartment was very clean and everything was in very good working order.

In most countries, you can choose between First and Second Class.  Sometimes, there’s barely any perceptable difference.  In others, there’s a huge difference.  If you can tolerate the price variance and will be traveling extensively by train, it may be well worth the upgrade.  You’ll usually have a much more modern car, in cabin service and much more comfortable (a.k.a “padded”) seating.  While many countries have made great strides in upgrading their train cars, you’ll find trains in the Nordic countries tend to be the best, as well as the high speed/bullet trains.

Urban trains are convenient for traveling within a large metropolitan area.  Many cities offer discounts to tourists who choose to use public transportation.  Many of them sell “combination” tickets that allow you to also use city buses, trams and urban rail on the same ticket.  Some also offer short “stop-overs” that let you get off for a certain amount of time, hop back on, yet still have it be considered one journey or one ticket.  Check the official website of your destination city for their public transportation offerings.

Ferries

If you’re traveling somewhere where there are large bodies of water, ferries make a very convenient and fast form of transportation. People don’t ordinarily think of ferries, but there are many that not only link local areas, but also countries as well. In Europe, some passenger trains are actually loaded on to ferries for part of their journey. In Greece, ferries are used to link many close-by islands. In Sweden, you can use a ferry to travel to several other countries. Even if you’re renting a car, you may have a need for a ferry. One example is when you’re traveling in New Zealand and need to go from the North to the South island or vice versa.

Many of the basics that apply to trains, apply to ferries as well. Some ferries are very short, while others have sleeping cabins for longer journeys. Some ferry routes also utilize different types of boats. You can take a regular ferry or in some cases a hydrofoil or jet boat. The latter can cut your travel time in half, but are often more expensive. You should check out your destination to see if they offer ferry service. It could open up a whole new transportation or destination alternative.

Before you book your ferry trip, you should check the ferry operators safety record. As you see in the news from time to time, ferry disasters are much more common than on other modes of transportation. You should be especially vigilant with ferries in third world or underdeveloped countries.

Subways

Subway systems can be found in many major urban cities.  From the MRT in Singapore to the “tube” in London, these transportation systems make it easy to get around the city.  Just like urban trains, many cities offer discounts to tourists to use subway transportation.  It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the subway maps before you leave on your vacation.  You can usually print a pocket sized map from the internet or purchase a map online. Many subway systems also offer their maps and timetables in Smartphone versions, so you can always have it with you. This advance planning will save you time once you arrive at your destination.

Many cities now have subway routes to major airports.  Many of these trains have special cars that have places to store your luggage while on the train. This can be a huge savings over taxi fare or other transportation methods.  Check your arrival airports transportation section to see if they offer subway or train service into the city. Two examples are the Heathrow Express in London and the KLIA in Kuala Lampur.  The KLIA offers an additional valet service, where someone will take care of your luggage once you clear customs, put it on the train for you and then a car will meet you at the train station in the city and take you to your hotel or final destination.

Taxis

Taxis and car services can be one of the most expensive forms of transportation in any country.  That is, unless you’re traveling with others.  In this case, it could be much more economical than other forms of transportation. For short hops, taxi’s make sense.  They’re convenient, easy and can take you door-to-door.  Here are some thoughts:

Agree on the fare
Before you leave your hotel, make sure you agree on the fare to your destination.  Fare disputes arise more often than not and in a foreign country, misunderstandings are frequent.  The last thing you want is to be hassling with a cab driver at your destination or worse, talking to the police.

The shortest route
Ask your cab driver to take the shortest route possible.  If you feel they may not understand you, ask the doorman or concierge from the hotel to communicate that to the driver for you.  It could save you tons of cash.

Return trip?
If you’re going to a destination where it may be difficult to get a cab, ask your cab driver if they can come back and pick you up at a certain time.  If you aren’t sure when you’ll be returning, ask your cab driver for his mobile phone.  In many foreign countries, cab drivers like the idea of having a guaranteed “customer” and will happily offer up their card with their mobile number.

Start that meter
Make sure your driver starts the meter when you get in the cab.  While there’s always the possibility that meters may not be “accurate”, it will at least allow you to keep an eye on the charges that you’re racking up.

Play it safe
If you feel uncomfortable with a driver when you enter a cab, don’t go.  Get out and wait for another cab.  If you’re traveling alone, be extra careful.  Stay aware during your ride.  Put down your wireless phone and pay attention.  If you’re distracted, you can soon realize you’re somewhere you don’t want to be.  It’s a good idea to have the local emergency number programmed into your phone before you leave.  Also, if you’re catching a taxi at a hotel, let the concierge, bellhop or desk clerk know where you’re going and when to expect you back.

Make it official
Before you leave for your destination, research what “official cab companies” cars look like as well as their company names are.  Beware of hawkers at the airport offering extraordinary cheap rides.  You’re best bet is to go the transportation counter at the airport or arrange for a ride before you leave home directly with the hotel you’ll be staying at or the cab company itself.

Language barriers
If you’re in a foreign country where English is not the primary language or you don’t speak the local language, it’s a good idea to have your hotel concierge give you a card with your hotel’s name on it for your return journey.  Have your hotel doorman or concierge explain to the driver where it is you want to go, to avoid any misunderstanding.  We were in South Korea once where cab drivers speaking English were a rarity.  We had the hotel concierge give us a few of their cards with their address in Korean, so we knew we’d always get back to the right place.  Never assume your driver will recognize the hotel name.  During that same trip, we learned that the hotel was known by Sofitel to foreign travelers, but a completely different name to South Koreans.

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