Car renters may hit potholes when they cross borders

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’s heard about surcharges imposed on older drivers, mandatory insurance requirements and other unanticipated fees.

“I’m concerned that we’ll be stuck paying for extras,” says Baker, a translator who lives in Pittsburgh. “Will we be fleeced because we’re Americans?”

Probably not. But she’s right to be cautious. Renting vehicles outside the United States 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.

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 needn’t worry about that, says Craig Hirota, a spokesman for the Associated Canadian Car Rental Operators, a trade group. If the couple rents from one of the major American car rental companies, then the company’s Canadian locations will operate similarly to their U.S. counterparts. In other words, no age-related surcharges.

But they’ll still have to pay attention to the terms of their rental, he warns: “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 it’s common to find restrictions on drivers older than 70. 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 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 specializes in car rentals.

Sullivan says auto 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 $500 and $1,800, depending on where you rent. Israel also has a maximum age for renters of 75.

If you’re driving in Italy, your insurance may have a minimum deductible of about $1,220, but there’s no maximum age. Jamaica’s maximum age is 75, and your insurance deductible could be between $750 and $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 hefty deductibles. But some rental companies, in an effort to make their rates look cheaper, don’t include 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 American driver’s license information translated into 10 languages, is sometimes, but not always, 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 International Driving Permit in addition to their national driving license when renting in Greece,” says Hertz spokeswoman Paula Rivera.

The U.S. Department of State authorizes AAA and the National Automobile Club to issue IDPs. Anyone else who offers you an IDP may be trying to sell you 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’ve been driving overseas for years, and no one’s 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 gas 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 insurance is required when, in fact, it isn’t.

It goes both ways. When international renters come to the United States, 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 United States and reserved and paid for a car while in the Netherlands. An Avis agent in Miami refused to rent to Jessurun even though he had a Pembroke Pines, Fla., address and an American driver’s license. 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,” Jessurun says. Sure enough, the AutoEurope site in the Netherlands, through which he booked the car, didn’t display the paperwork requirement. Avis balked at refunding the prepaid voucher.

I contacted AutoEurope on Jessurun’s behalf, and the staff there updated the site to show the requirements for inbound travelers. They also refunded his $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’re less likely to get broadsided by an additional insurance bill — or an outright rejection.

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