1. Is your driver’s license accepted?
If you’re traveling to an English-speaking country, it is probable that your American driver’s license will be accepted. Other countries might ask you for an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is accepted in over 150 countries. This is a paper with your driver’s license information translated into ten languages.
While this is the "official way" to rent a car in non-English speaking countries, I’ve managed to rent a car in Indonesia, Chile, and Morocco without an IDP. As long as the clerk at the rental company can understand English, you should be okay. But, take my experience with a grain of salt, because this could vary drastically depending on your destination.
You must be at least 18 years old to obtain an IDP with one of the only two agencies in the U.S. authorized to issue IDP's: the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the National Automobile Club.
2. What insurance is included with the rental?
When renting online, over the phone, or in person, always ask which insurance is included in your rental quote. Most of the time, the only insurance included is the mandatory one that will only cover basic damage after a high deductible. Check which other insurance options are available and their price and decide how much coverage should you get depending on the type of trip you’re doing. Will you be crossing rivers with your rental? If not, then you don’t need river-crossing insurance, as just one example.
If you don’t know how much should you get, try comparing your trip’s risk with how much are you willing to pay in deductible (should something happen), and how much is the total cost of insurance for the duration of the rental.
Unless you have no other choice, avoid getting extra insurance right at the counter since that’s where it will be the most expensive. Get all the coverage you need online (RoamRight sells it!), or over the phone beforehand.
3. How much are gas prices?
The rental price is only half the story. Gas prices can easily double your transportation costs, so it’s good to take them into account beforehand. Check online the current (or recent) gas prices at your destination in addition to the average miles per gallon your car rental can run (this can be Googled if you know the year and model of your rental). Divide the estimated total of miles you plan to drive by the miles per gallon of your model. This will give you the approximate amount of gallons you’ll use during your trip. Multiply that by the cost per gallon (or liter, which you’ll have to convert) and you’ll have your approximate spending on gas.
Gas prices vary drastically around the world. For example, in Iceland, it can cost about $7.00 per gallon vs. $0.90 per gallon in Mongolia.
4. Is the car you're renting suitable?
Not all cars are appropriate for all trips. Is it big enough for all your bags and passengers? Are you tackling a lot of steep hills or going off road? You might need to rent a 4x4 then.
Equally, some rental companies forbid you to drive certain car types on certain roads. If you want to drive those "forbidden" roads, you will need to rent a model suitable for them. For example, in Iceland, I had a small VW Polo which was perfect for my trip. But, I was forbidden to drive any road marked with an "F" in front of the road number (i.e. F208). Those "F" roads are reserved for 4x4 vehicles. Had I driven on those "F" roads and damage the car in any way, my insurance would have been voided, and I would have been responsible for all the damage.
5. Will the Car be Manual (Stick-shift) or Automatic?
Automatic cars are very common in the US, but in other countries, they are very rare and often more expensive to rent than manual ones. Make sure you’re renting a car you can drive. If the site or clerk is not presenting that information clearly, ask them before committing to the rental. Don’t make my mistake of renting a manual car when I didn’t know how to drive manual. It turned out to be a funny experience, and I drove it in the end (after starting the car a million times), but you might not have the same patience or will to test your driving skill in a foreign country.
6. Will you be driving on the left side or right side of the road?
Search this online before renting. In the US we drive on the right side of the road, but did you know that 55 countries around the world drive on the left side? If you’re driving on the left side of the road, this means that your car rental will probably have the steering wheel on the right side of the car. Everything is reversed, except for the pedals that stay in the same order. Here’s a list of all the countries that drive on the left and right.
7. Can you rent outside of the airport?
If you don’t need to pick-up your car right at the airport when you arrive, consider renting it in town. Not only you might avoid long pick-up lines, but there’s also a chance that the rental might be slightly cheaper outside the airport since they might not have additional airport fees.
Also, outside the airport, you could find smaller car rental companies that are just as good and reliable, but cheaper.
Feel confident enough to rent a car abroad? If so, get ready to hit the road and explore a new country at your pace!