Renting a car overseas can be a bumpy ride

AVOID NASTY SURPRISES: Do the homework on your paperwork requirements before booking a car, and you are less likely to get blindsided by an additional insurance bill or outright rejection.


    Dec 24, 2014

    Renting a car overseas can be a bumpy ride

    KATHIE Baker has reservations about her rental car, and with good reason.

    She's flying to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in July to attend a conference with her husband, and then taking a few days to explore Canada's scenic Maritime provinces. But she has heard about surcharges imposed on older drivers, mandatory insurance requirements and other unanticipated fees.

    "I'm concerned that we will be stuck paying for extras," says Ms Baker, a translator who lives in Pittsburgh. "Will we be fleeced because we are Americans?"

    Probably not. But she's right to be cautious. Renting vehicles in a foreign country is an experience that can have unexpected detours. They include age-related charges, special insurance requirements and potential paperwork problems, such as the requirement of an international driving permit.

    Ms Baker has heard about international car renters paying surcharges for being over a certain age, and fears that her 72-year-old husband might have to shell out more despite his clean driving record.

    She need not worry about that, says Craig Hirota, a spokesman for the Associated Canadian Car Rental Operators, a trade group. If the couple rent from one of the major American car rental companies, then the company's Canadian locations will operate similarly to their United States counterparts. In other words, no age-related surcharges.

    But they will still have to pay attention to the terms of their rental, he warns, adding: "There may be mileage caps and over-mileage charges applicable if the vehicles are driven out of the province, so prospective clients should inquire prior to committing to a rental."

    The Bakers might run into trouble if they were trying to rent in Europe, where restrictions on drivers older than 70 are common. In Australia, there are restrictions on drivers older than 75, and in Morocco on drivers over 80.

    Special requirements for older drivers can be extensive. For example, to drive in Ireland after you turn 75, you have to show your car rental company a letter from your insurance company verifying that you haven't had any accidents in the past five years. You must also show a letter from your physician confirming that you've been in good health for at least a year and are fit to drive.

    "The rules vary by country and by car rental company," says Nanci Sullivan, a vice-president of marketing at AutoEurope, an online travel agency that specialises in car rentals.

    Ms Sullivan says car insurance requirements are all over the map, too. When you rent in Israel, for instance, you're required to carry insurance with a deductible of between US$500 (S$660) and US$1,800, depending on where you rent. Israel also has a maximum age for renters of 75.

    If you are driving in Italy, your insurance may have a minimum deductible amount of about US$1,220, but there's no maximum age. Jamaica's maximum age is 75, and your insurance deductible amount could be between US$750 and US$2,000, based on your location and the rental company.

    The best way to avoid an insurance or surcharge-related misunderstanding is to ask your car rental company about this before you make a reservation.

    A company such as AutoEurope rents cars with various insurance options, and in most cases offers a "zero-excess" policy that removes your liability for the damage and deductible.

    But some rental companies, in an effort to make their rates look cheaper, don't include the required insurance in their quoted prices.

    That isn't the only driving obstacle you might encounter when crossing the border. The International Driving Permit (IDP) can also be a source of confusion.

    The permit, a photo ID with your driver's licence information translated into 10 languages, is sometimes required for car rental. In Europe, for example, the IDP is "recommended" for rentals, except in Greece, where it is required.

    "All renters from non-European Union countries must present an IDP, in addition to their national driving licence when renting in Greece," says Hertz spokesman Paula Rivera.

    In the US, the Department of State authorises the American Automobile Association and the National Automobile Club to issue IDPs. Anyone else who offers an IDP may be trying to sell an expensive knockoff.

    But as a practical matter, you probably won't have to worry about a permit if you're visiting a popular tourist area. I have been driving overseas for years, and no one has asked me to show an IDP. If a car rental company insists on the paperwork, you can always cancel your reservation and take your business elsewhere.

    It's true that car rental companies sometimes see foreign drivers as an easy mark for so-called "upsells" on expensive insurance or other extras, like fuel-purchase options (which allow you to prepay for a tank of petrol and return the car without filling it up). In destinations with lots of international visitors, it's not unusual to find unscrupulous rental agents who claim that insurance is required when, in fact, it isn't.

    It goes both ways. When international renters come to the US, they, too, can be stuck with unnecessary fees or daunted by seemingly arbitrary restrictions.

    That happened to Wim Jessurun, a sonographer who has a home in the US, and reserved and paid for a car while in the Netherlands. An Avis agent in Miami refused to rent to Mr Jessurun even though he had a Pembroke Pines, Florida, address and an American driver's licence. He was asked to show a passport, IDP and airline ticket with his rental voucher. He couldn't.

    "My printed paperwork did not ask for these documents," Mr Jessurun says. Sure enough, the AutoEurope site in the Netherlands, through which he booked the car, didn't display the paperwork requirement. Avis baulked at refunding the prepaid voucher.

    I contacted AutoEurope on his behalf, and the staff there updated the site to show the requirements for inbound travellers. They also refunded his US$321 voucher.

    When it comes to international rentals, you don't have to end up carless at the end of a long flight. Do the homework on your paperwork requirements, and you are less likely to get blindsided by an additional insurance bill or an outright rejection.