For Americans, there’s nothing less intuitive than driving on the left side of the road. (Just re-watch the part in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” where Clark Griswold gets stuck driving ’round and ’round a London roundabout.)

Roundabout(Photo: Gusev Mikhail Evgenievich/Shutterstock)
But driving on the “wrong” side isn’t the only challenge of driving abroad, given all those unfamiliar street signs and some unusual rules. (In some countries, it’s illegal to honk your horn except in true emergencies, and in Italy and France, police officers can demand you pay a fine on the spot if you’re caught driving without a seatbelt, according to the car insurance company Esurance.)

To avoid a ticket or a crash while driving abroad, read this list of to-dos before you hit the rental car agency and put the pedal to the metal.

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1. Check if you need an International Driving Permit. While some countries – including Canada, Mexico and parts of Europe – allow you to drive for a limited amount of time with just your U.S. driver’s license, many require an additional document known as an International Driving Permit (IDP). A legal form of identification in 150 countries when presented along with your U.S. driver’s license, the IDP translates essential identification information into 10 languages and is valid for one year, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA).

In the United States, only two organizations, AAA and the National Automobile Club (NAC), are authorized to issue IDPs. Beware of Internet scams from other sources selling so-called “international driver’s licenses.” An IDP costs $15 and can be obtained in person or by mail through AAA and NAC offices.

Your IDP must be issued in the same country as your driver’s license, so it’s not something you can get once you reach your destination, AAA says. Contact the embassy of your destination country, or check the State Department’s country-specific travel information pages to see if you need one. Also check with your rental car agency — some require an IDP even if national laws do not.

Although the IDP is valid in much of South America, you’ll need a different document, known as the Inter-American Driving Permit, if you plan to drive in Brazil or Uruguay. It’s available through AAA only.

Related: Travel Abroad Checklist: 8 Documents You’ll Need

2. Make sure you’re covered with car insurance. Adequate auto insurance is essential for any international road trip. With the exception of Canada and sometimes Mexico, most U.S. car insurance will not cover you abroad, according to the State Department. Check with your auto insurance provider as well as with the embassy of your destination country to find out whether you will need supplementary insurance.

The easiest way to guarantee coverage is to opt-in to any insurance offered by your rental car agency. However, this can add substantially to your cost, so it’s worth checking if you’re covered in other ways. Some comprehensive travel insurance plans include rental car coverage as part of their provisions. Many credit card companies also provide some insurance — typically collision damage and theft protection, but not liability, personal injury or personal property damage — for rental cars if you pay using your card. This allows you to decline any overlapping coverage offered by the rental agency. Check with your credit card company in advance for details.

Check on exclusions, too. Most credit card companies will cover rentals only for a limited time — usually one month if you’re abroad. If your trip is longer, you’ll need to break your rental up into more than one contract. Other common exclusions include specific types of vehicles, as well as certain countries, such as Ireland, Israel and Jamaica.

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3. Rent a car you're comfortable driving. Driving on the left or on super-narrow, windy streets can be challenging enough without the added stress of a too-big vehicle, or one that has manual transmission if you’re used to automatic. You might be best off in a compact car with automatic transmission, if one is available. (While some countries, such as New Zealand and Japan, offer automatic transmission cars for rent, others — including most of Europe — mainly rent cars with manual transmission. Be prepared to pay more, and reserve well in advance, if you need an automatic vehicle.)

Related: 8 Key Travel Tips for Seniors

4. Learn the rules of the road. Road signs in many countries differ significantly from their U.S. equivalents, so spend some time before your trip learning important signs used at your destination. Memorizing these before you get on the road will reduce your risk of traffic tickets and accidents.

Find out ahead of time which side of the road you’ll be driving on.

countries drive left(Photo: Benjamin D. Esham/Wikipedia)

Colors explanation - map

Traffic laws also vary. In many countries, it’s mandatory to drive with your headlights on all the time, not just after dark. Make sure you know the speed limits for different types of roads, as these may not always be posted. (And the speed limits may be in kilometers per hour instead of miles per hour.) Other important rules to know: when to yield the right of way to other cars or pedestrians, and whether it’s legal to make right turns on red.

If you’re traveling with children, remember to check car seat rules. In some countries requirements are based on a child’s age or weight, while in others, it’s the child’s height that matters.

Finally, never drink and drive. In many countries — including almost all of Europe — the legal blood alcohol content limit is well below that in the United States. Even one drink may put you over the limit and lead to serious penalties. Some countries, such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, have a strict zero-tolerance policy, according to the European Transport Safety Council.

Related: Road Safety for Kids: All Aboard the Walking School Bus


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Annika S. Hipple is a travel consultant, tour leader, freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel and sustainability. The former news editor for Ethicaltraveler.org, she has also contributed to Sierra Magazine, Earth Island Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, the Seattle Times' Trip Magazine and many other print and online publications.