I ONCE rented a car at an agency in a garage under the Villa Borghese in Rome. The parking structure was tight and poorly lighted, and before I even exited I put a dent in the vehicle, thanks to a low concrete barrier I couldn't see in the rearview mirror.
I'm a careful driver at home with a clean record. But renting abroad poses special challenges, as well as the risk of unintended encounters with foreign objects, which in my case have included an ill-placed guardrail at a tollbooth in Switzerland, a milk truck in Jamaica and hedgerows all over England.
Eventually I decided that dings, dents and scrapes are an almost inevitable consequence of driving in unfamiliar territory, and I resigned myself to buying comprehensive accident protection from rental car agencies. When I travel abroad, I routinely take out a collision damage waiver (which generally covers damage to the rental car, theft, towing and loss-of-use expenses incurred by the company while the vehicle is being repaired), and liability (for injury to people and damage to property outside the rental). These two plans alone can cost up to $30 a day, but allow me to drive away knowing that, whatever happens, I'm covered.
Are You Covered?
People who refuse rental car agency protection plans might call me a sucker. Many of them think that peddling insurance is a deep profit center for big rental companies, most of which have their own repair shops and sometimes don't bother to fix dents and dings. (For this reason, inspect a vehicle before you take it off the lot to avoid being charged for pre-existing damages.)
Others assume they have adequate coverage through policies that insure their cars at home and generally extend to rentals in the United States. But personal auto insurance from most companies, including Allstate and Travelers, rarely applies to vehicles rented abroad.
However, other kinds of insurance can come into play. Some health and home policies may help cover injuries and theft. Those who take out trip insurance are likely to be covered for damage to rental cars abroad, according to Vikki Corliss, a spokeswoman for insuremytrip.com, a travel insurance aggregator. And many credit cards (but not debit cards) provide auto insurance that extends to rentals abroad at no extra cost, though according to Ben Woolsey, director of marketing and research for creditcards.com, an online catalog of credit card offers, only 10 percent of cardholders are aware of the benefit.
MasterCard, Visa, Discover and American Express generally offer collision damage waivers for foreign and domestic rentals, but the coverage is a patchwork, with myriad exclusions and claim requirements that vary from card to card. "It is incumbent on consumers to find out exactly what is covered by calling the toll-free number on the back of the card," Mr. Woolsey said.
In most cases, the rental must be booked and paid for using the card. Vans, expensive or exotic cars and long-term rentals are usually excluded. Claims stemming from accidents in which the renter has been cited for speeding or drunken driving are rejected. Moreover, the plans are inoperative in certain countries because of statutory issues and difficult driving conditions; Ireland, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica and Mexico often make the list.
Card coverage tends to be secondary, meaning that if the renter has any other applicable insurance it must be tapped first to pay for damages, with the card picking up deductibles and extras like towing. One exception to this is Premium Car Rental Protection, available only to American Express cardholders, which provides primary insurance with no deductibles for a flat $24.95 per rental of any length.
Drivers who have no other form of insurance must pay for repairs out of pocket and then file a claim for reimbursement with the credit card company. The procedure is not onerous, but the time limit for generating a claim is strictly enforced.
Imad Khalidi, chief executive of Auto Europe, a rental car consolidator based in Portland, Me., says people who hope to use a credit card plan to cover the cost of an accident abroad must call the card company immediately and do exactly as instructed. Paperwork from the rental company will most likely be required; police reports are necessary only in the event of major accidents.
Mr. Khalidi recently discovered another useful tool for expediting claims: the photo function of his BlackBerry. Three months ago, when his rental car was rear-ended near Avignon, France, he took pictures of the accident scene, the damage and the license plate of the vehicle that hit him, which the rental company was glad to have when he returned the bashed-up car.
"How Protected Are You?" (at hertz.com) is a resource for understanding the ins and outs of rental insurance. At the very least, travelers should make sure they know precisely what coverage they have before landing at a rental car counter in Palermo or Puerto Vallarta and trying to communicate with a clerk whose English language skills may be shallow.
Beyond that, it behooves travelers to seek information on driving rules and road conditions in the countries they plan to visit. "We Americans drive roads that are very forgiving, but there are places without shoulders and guardrails where rules differ from those at home," said Rochelle Sobel, president of the Association for Safe International Road Travel, a nonprofit based in Potomac, Md. The organization's Web site, asirt.org, has driving reports for 160 countries.
Americans who embark on auto tours abroad can also refer to United States State Department consular information sheets at travel.state.gov. "We have a section in each sheet that focuses on road travel safety, prepared by the embassies and updated every six months," said John Marburg in the State Department's Office of Citizen Services. These assess the advisability of driving in underdeveloped and insecure areas and point up idiosyncrasies; for instance, if you're headed into the Arabian Desert from Dubai it helps to know that camels have the right of way.
It's all too easy to underestimate the differences between driving at home and abroad, especially if you fly to a place, rent a car at the airport and then hit the road. Suddenly you may be confronted with a perilously short highway entrance ramp, or — surprise, surprise — the fact that you've rented a vehicle with a manual transmission.
"Don't assume that the vehicle you rent will have an automatic transmission, air-conditioning, power brakes and windows," said Neil Abrams, founder of the car rental industry consulting company Abrams Consulting Group. "When renting abroad you must request these thing specifically."
In general, it helps to rent a car as similar as possible to the one you drive at home so you can venture with confidence into a new country — and the occasional hedgerow.