Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Driving in a foreign country

While these suggestions pertain to driving in Italy, you can easily apply these to driving in other European countries. Barry Sudbury is a friend of a friend in California, who recently returned from 3 weeks of driving in Italy and Sicily. He was kind enough to allow us to share these tips and pointers.

1)  Make sure you have a GPS and download a map off of Google Maps or other reputable source of each destination. A 3-4 square block view is fine. Very often when you get close to your desired location the GPS doesn't quite lead to the exact address or you might have to park a few blocks away and walk. Also, we used them to ask for directions once we were close because everybody around the world understands a map with an "X" on it. Renting a GPS from the car rental company can be expensive but it's worth it. We ran into people that used their own GPS (probably an older model) and downloaded Italy maps and they had poor results. One friend used an Apple iPhone with GPS and it didn't work in Italy! Because you have limited time you will want to get from place to place efficiently, no hassles or arguments.

2)  Make sure you do a thorough inspection of your car and note every scratch and dent. Inspect the underside, especially under the front bumper. Rent from a reputable dealer, Hertz and Euro Car are good ones. Paying a little extra is no big deal in light of some of the troubles that occur when no cars are available when you go to pick it up or there are hidden fees and you have no leverage to argue. We used Hertz and they were the cheapest by far. Make sure you know where to return the car and the available hours for return. 24 hour service, even at airports is not always available.

3)  Don't rent a really big car. Maneuvering and parking are much easier with a small vehicle.

4)  Have the attendant show you all the controls before taking off. European design is not necessarily intuitive to Americans. We drove for many miles on a sunny day with the rear intermittent windshield wiper going back and forth, and it took about 5 minutes to find out how to open the gas tank door!

5)  Don't rent a car until after you have been in Italy for at least 24hours. The plane trip can be exhausting and you will be in no shape to get behind the wheel in a strange land.

6)  Before you go, learn the European driving signs. You can get this off the internet and get a flyer when you are renting your car.

7)  95% of the rental cars are manual shift. There is a big premium for an automatic (hundreds of $). We got a six-speed on the floor. It was the most fun driving I've had in years!

8)  Rent a car with a trunk, not just a retractable cover. If you are traveling with luggage or other valuables in your trunk, make sure you have all the stuff you need for your outing in the passenger compartment. Thus, you don't have to open your trunk and exposed your cargo when leaving your car.

9)  Rent your car with a credit card which covers theft and damage to the vehicle. This will save you hundreds of dollars. All the car companies will try to sell you extra coverage, above what is required by law in Italy. It is overpriced, very often incomplete, and unnecessary if your credit card company covers it.

10)  AND THE MOST IMPORTANT TIP -- Don't look other drivers in the eye, don't show any signs that you recognize they are there. When they know that you know they are there they will try to cut in front of you.