Updated: Oct 27, 2021
When I came to the USA as a child refugee from the Soviet Union, I was pretty blown away by the American car culture. Everybody drove. Everywhere. All the time. People got in the car and drove a block to grab a bag of chips and a soda. People spent hours each morning and evening driving to and from work. People ate regular meals in their cars, their food handed to them right through the car window (I remember being both puzzled and impressed by this).
And when Americans "hit the road", they drove for hours and days and weeks and sometimes months across the vastness of their nation, as the views outside their windows kept changing from small towns to majestic mountains, to corporate malls, to lush forests, to smoldering industrial grunge, to deadly mysterious deserts, to shopping malls, to stench-filled swamps, to idyllic pastoral farmland, to futuristic cityscapes flickering in the distance. This country had everything, including the spirit of the "endless summer road trip".
20th century USA was specifically architected by car manufacturers to be a nation with an infinite "love affair with the automobile" -- and it worked to the point of being anti-pedestrian. For visitors to this wondrous land, the good news is that the American road trip is a fabulous adventure not to be missed. The not-so-good news (and it's really not news to anyone) is that a traveler isn't exactly given a lot of other options to get around in America if they don't drive.
For this reason, I believe, when US Americans travel abroad, they might consider car rental to be the "default" choice without giving much thought to the abundant (and usually quite affordable) public transportation options. Which could mean spending too much money on rentals, taking unnecessary risks on foreign roads and possibly missing out on certain activities that could only be accessed / appreciated from being "out and about in the streets".
Now, I'm not here to tell anyone how to travel. And so much depends on exactly where in the world you are visiting, as the pros vs. cons of local driving fluctuate wildly from one country to the next. I'm merely suggesting that, before deciding on operating a vehicle on foreign soil, it makes sense to do some "homework" about driving costs, laws and common hazards (as well as the availability of alternative ways to move around) there, so that you can make an informed decision about it.
Here are just a few considerations to bear in mind:
The Other Side Of The Road
Wherever you're from, there are countries where they drive on the opposite side of the road from what you're used to. And it can get confusing and, hence, dangerous as both, a pedestrian or a driver. And while pedestrians are no saints, it's the drivers that can do the most damage to themselves and those around them...
I've felt like my American driving instincts actually worked against me in Asian countries where they drive "opposite" of us. This was most apparent when making left vs. right turns. If you're been driving a long time, there are certain ingrained habits you do almost on autopilot, without thinking -- and that's where mindlessly turning into the wrong lane can really catch up to you.
To be sure, plenty of people adapt to the opposite side of the road pretty fast. But if you're an anxious or unsure driver, you might want to spare yourself the white-knuckling. And if you are a confident driver, it's still advisable to do a bit of practicing before you embark on a great journey across the country / continent. There's no shame in giving yourself time to adjust to completely different foreign driving dynamics and psychology.
Hidden Rental Fees
You think you "scored" a super-cheap rental through an online booking process only to show up for pick-up and find out that there's a whole other mondo daily fee for insurance tacked on. No amount of arguing or referencing "the rules" will get you out of paying this hefty surcharge that you thought was included in the original price. This is not a hypothetical scenario: this happens on the daily where I live in Mexico, for example.
Large national car rental chains like Hertz or Budget operating abroad have no idea -- or control over -- how their franchises are run in certain budget destinations. Chances are, they won't be able to help you resolve whatever conflict you're having with their affiliates in a different country. So, be ready to go along with how things are done on the local level, whether that's what you "signed up for" or not -- or walk away from the whole plan.
There's usually a bigger lesson to these incidents, and in this case it's: if something in an unfamiliar foreign destination seems way too good / cheap to be true when you're booking it online, know that, in all likelihood, you're not done paying for it.
Driving yourself around is freeing, but a vehicle can really tie you down in other ways.
Depending on where you go, you can easily run into one of the following parking issues:
Parking is stupidly difficult to find
Parking is available but costs as much as the car itself
Parking is plentiful but your car will most definitely get jacked unless you pay a local "dude" to keep an eye on it
When you go somewhere with a car, you have to invest extra time, vigilance and money into its safekeeping. It may be totally worth it for people on a road trip. But I wouldn't rent a car in a large city as the public transportation will typically get me where I need to go -- possibly faster than driving.
Having lived with a car in NYC several times, I've had it with sitting in traffic for an hour and then circling around the same 8-square-block radius for another hour waiting for a tiny spot to open up in my neighborhood. Public transit can be very frustrating in its own right -- but at least you're not responsible for parking the damn bus that brought you to your destination!
Run-ins With Criminals / Corrupt Law Enforcement
In some economically struggling countries, having a car is a sign of wealth, so you can be sure it will attract the "wrong" kind of attention from opportunists and professional criminals looking to shake down rich tourists.
And, as fantastical as it may sound, like piracy in the high seas, highway robbery is still a thing that happens in this world. In some parts of Mexico, for example, it's understood that you're better off not driving highways late at night. In my town, I've often heard it said that nothing good happens after midnight "out there". Be it violent cartel activity or corrupt police stopping vehicles with rental plates to shake them down for bribes -- car accidents are not the only threat on these roads.
Scams are also a thing. Once upon a time, driving through Morocco in the nineties, I recall there being an impressive variety of roadside trickery directed specifically at foreigners with rental cars. Children, instructed to jump in front of cars, in the hopes of collecting a payout, fake hitchhikers trying to lure you into their jewelry shops, pretend accidents and break-downs, with "victims" trying to trap you in their carpet factory -- that shit was wild and non-stop (I detail a couple of the more amusing / instructive incidents in the guidebook).
This is not to discourage but to caution potential drivers to familiarize themselves with the experiences of those who came before them, when renting / driving abroad. If you're prepared for (as opposed to paranoid about) local scams and dangers, you can usually avoid them.
Ordering a meal in a foreign language can be challenging enough and it gets harder when you're under pressure with authorities, insurance agents, medics, etc. Accidents happen and the stress / shock / fog of it can make it extra difficult to communicate.
In certain countries, police checkpoints and border crossings with a vehicle can also be a little tense and, depending on where you are, there may not be anyone speaking English to facilitate the exchange. It's not the end of the world, but it's stressful in ways some people can't handle very well.
The key to uneventful (in the best possible sense) border crossings (with or without vehicles) is to never lose your cool -- as well as to show, with every fiber of your being that, even though you don't speak the language, you are here to cooperate to the best ability you have. It's amusing how many American tourists get "testy" with Mexican border authorities (in English at that!) and only later discover that, as payback, the freshly-stamped visa in their passport gives them 5 whole days in the country instead of 6 months...
Legal / Bureaucratic Hurdles
Speaking of crossing international borders: some countries have extensive, very particular lists of border-crossing requirements for vehicles. Land crossings may seem like a less of a big deal than airports, but they are as thorough (and paranoid) as anywhere else. If your license / vehicle / insurance paperwork are not 100% in order, you get turned around and given the heave-ho all the same.
And speaking of licenses: many tourists find out the hard way that their US driver's license is invalid on its own and must be converted into an international driver's license in order to be legal in certain countries. In some nations, getting caught without proper driving document means paying a fine in court, in others, paying a bribe on the spot -- either way, you're paying...
Again, knowing what you're up against is the surest way to prevent legal mishaps from occurring in the first place. So, doing a ton of thorough research is the name of the game. Doable? Sure. Stressful? Sometimes. Worth it? You decide.
Other Tourist Drivers From Hell
When I arrived in Goa, India, excited to ring in the new year 2019, it was instantly obvious how much having a motobike would help me to get around. Contrary to what I expected, there were no buses or vans to connect the absurdly picturesque villages dotting the shoreline for miles and miles on end.
So, when the owner of my guesthouse in Morjim generously handed me the keys to the bright orange Honda Navi -- the adorable motobike parked at the entrance to the property I've been admiring -- and told me it was mine (for free!!) for as long as I was staying there, I was thrilled.
A few days later, however, red in the face from embarrassment (my younger self would have lost all respect for me for such treacherous wussiness), I handed those keys back to the host, mumbling something about how the last thing I needed for Christmas was brain damage, and went back to hoofing it and taking the occasional taxi.
There were several factors for why I hung up my helmet. I've been vision impaired my whole life and it's getting worse with age. Driving on the other side of the road was challenging for the above-mentioned reason of having to fight my deeply entrenched driver's instincts and reflexes. In addition to the disorienting chaos of Indian driving, I was also mildly intimidated by all the horned giants blocking movement and occasionally charging into traffic. Cows may be sacred in India, but some of the specimens I've encountered on the road were unusually mean looking...
It is probable, however, that the above reasons would still not deter me from zipping around Goa on that adorable orange cupcake of a motobike, if it weren't for all the lunatic tourist drivers.
The dusty / bumpy / loopy roads of Goa were teaming with foreigners who just got on a motorcycle yesterday but were already "owning the road". Considering that the part of Goa I was staying in was dominated by my fellow Russians -- and it brings me no pleasure to say this! -- drinking and driving was the rule, not the exception.
For what it's worth, national tourists were plenty guilty of ill-conceived driving behaviors too. Unlike their foreign counterparts, many of the Indian visitors came to the libertine party central that is Goa from regions of the country where alcohol isn't even legal, due to strict religious prohibitions. These guys had the benefit of riding motobikes all their lives, but the disadvantage of not being able to hold their liquor (or drugs) for diddly squat, which greatly compromised the intelligence and skill with which they [mis]handled their vehicles.
So, the reason why I was having visions of my skull cracking like a watermelon against the pavement was because, in the few weeks I was there, I witnessed / heard about enough motobike wipe-outs to know that driving myself around Goa was not going to be a relaxing time.
Why, just a couple of days after I retired the Navi, a guy staying at my guesthouse ended up in a local hospital with -- you guessed it -- severe brain damage. He was, classically, drunk-driving his motobike with no helmet on in the middle of the night when he was run off the road by a larger vehicle whose driver may or may not have done it on purpose. The dude had no money, an expired visa and no personal contacts to get in touch with. And his only languages were his native Georgian and a bit of Russian. It was a battle with the local authorities just to make sure they didn't stop treating him and toss him out into the street to die. I never found out if he woke up from the coma.
From all I've seen during my travels: getting really hurt in a foreign country without financial resources, ability to communicate or friends / relatives to call for help is a nightmare to be avoided. Don't let ambiguous fears of "something going wrong" keep you from traveling -- but do try to bypass the common-sense / well-documented hazards a destination is actually known for.
Missing Out On Socializing
For many, making friends with diverse people is a huge part of the appeal of international travel. Solo travelers such as myself live for moments of social serendipity that can spark up at any moment when you're a stranger in a strange land.
But how likely you are you to meet cool locals and travelers if you're cooped up inside a coupe??
Driving is a fairly individualistic, autonomous, and straight-up isolating activity that, essentially, keeps the "rest of the world" on the other side of the glass. Alternatively, when you're jammed inside a public bus -- or running around the city on foot, spontaneous social encounters are guaranteed. From asking what is the next stop to exchanging impromptu commentary about a thought-provoking piece of public art -- you will be making connections and memories with other humans left and right. That's not something you can typically do from behind the wheel of a car making your way through traffic (and no, road rage does not count as a magical travel connection with a stranger!)
Today, most vehicles available around the world for rent still run on gasoline. Which is the thing that pollutes the very air we breathe -- and costs a pretty penny at that!
Next to flying in private jets, driving cars is the most self-centered way to get around. It may seem like too big a fight for just one traveler to take on, but it's actually the opposite: reducing our fossil fuel consumption is the least we as travelers can do, considering how much this planet accommodates our curiosities and pleasures. We don't have to be fanatical about it, but it's also not too much to ask to be civic-minded about our environmental impact when possible.
* * *
Driving is easy. Driving is fun. Driving is practical, useful. Comfortable. Driving is zen. Driving lets us hide. Driving is freedom. Driving is control.
So many reasons to drive! But just as many not to.
I've rented cars in several parts of the world when traveling with companions -- but never by myself. Too much hassle, too much money, too much responsibility. And I don't stop being the captain of my ship just because I'm crammed into the rear corner on a "chicken bus" -- I'm still calling all the shots in my life from back there, dammit!
Being on the road in any capacity is a thrill for those with wanderlust. Because motion is life. And it's pretty cool that we have so many different ways to keep it going. And, since travel is about exploring the unfamiliar, why not give other modes of transportation a shot, just to mix it up?
As for me, driving can sometimes really hit the spot, but I am really a perpetual passenger, always hopping on and off other rides that were put in motion long before I got on and will keep on rolling way after I'm gone.
And, at the heart of it, I'll always be a pedestrian city kid. I trust my legs more than I trust my mind sometimes: they just seem to know when it's time to go (and knowing when to skedaddle is a golden travel sense, believe you-me...) In the end, it's simple: it's just one foot in front of the other, on and on, into the sunset / night / sunrise / light of day, my present on my back, my past at my heels, in search of the next shelter, a bite to eat, a drop to drink and a puff to toke.
And some WiFi too -- anyone got the password, por favooor?