Driving overseas? Read this first

It was an open-ended question, the kind you learn to ask after renting countless cars: Is there anything else I should know about driving here?

“Yes,” said the Hertz agent at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, after taking a glance at my keys. “You can’t drive this car in Paris.”

Turns out my visit last week coincided with some of the city’s worst smog in years. In an effort to cut back on pollution, only cars with odd-numbered license plates could drive in the City of Light. Mine had an even number.

Fortunately, I wasn’t driving to Paris.

But that question — what else do I need to know? — is always a useful one to ask. Additional restrictions may apply, particularly if you’re driving overseas. Drivers report being hit with high fines and mysterious tickets, and they don’t know whether to pay them. There’s no easy solution.

Paris is hardly the only city that restricts vehicle traffic. London’s $16.50-per-day Congestion Charge affects vehicles operating from 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. If you forget, you’ll pay a $214.50 fine, reduced to $107 if paid within 14 days, plus an administrative fee if your car rental company handles the transaction.

That’s what happened to Vanessa Morton, a vintner from Dallas, when she drove into the wrong part of London on a recent trip. “Five months later, our rental car agency sent us a letter advising they had charged our credit card for over $200 in fines, which we discovered they were entitled to do under the terms and conditions of the rental agreement,” she recalls.

In São Paulo, your car is assigned a day of rest to cut down on traffic. For example, if your plate ends in 1 or 2, you’re not allowed to drive in the city limits on Mondays, says Suzanne Garber, who works for a New Brunswick, N.J.-based non-profit group. The rules are enforced by cameras, which also catch lead-footed drivers in the act.

“I’ve learned from personal experience on both fronts,” she says.

Before we go any further, a little disclaimer: Most of my columns feature intractable problems and improbable resolutions, thanks to the advocacy work I do on the side. Not this one. I’ve never been able to talk my way out of a traffic ticket, let alone someone else’s.

But if I could, I would forgive all traffic violations against car rental customers in Italy. They are by far the single biggest source of consumer complaints about international car rentals that I receive in my work as a consumer advocate.

For example, Peggy Kroll, an outreach coordinator for a non-profit organization in West Palm Beach, Fla., traveled to northern Italy with three friends in 2012. She was shocked when one of her companions, who had rented the car, received two additional bills almost a full year after they’d returned the vehicle. The violations, for illegally entering a limited traffic area and for driving in a lane for public transport, didn’t make sense to her.

“None of us was aware of any signage indicating that we were in contravention to the laws of the town,” she says. Still, her friend paid the fine.

Here’s where things get a little fuzzy. Because the notices sometimes aren’t in English, it’s hard to know who’s behind the bill — the municipality or the car rental company. It’s also difficult to discern what you’re paying — a car rental company processing fee, or the actual ticket, or a combination of both. And then there’s the issue of what will happen if you refuse to settle up.

“No one knows,” says Elizabeth Knight, an American attorney who writes a blog about Rome called RomeIfYouWantTo.com. “But I would not risk it if the traveler ever plans on returning to Italy, as fines for those with unpaid tickets can be extraordinary. I have heard of vehicles being confiscated due to unpaid tickets. Imagine being left on the side of the road in Tuscany with your screaming children, having had your rented Fiat confiscated.”

I can’t. There has to be a better way of handling moving violations for international visitors. At a minimum, motorists should know what laws they’ve broken and soon after their trip, not months or years later. And ideally, we should have a clearer idea of what we’re paying and our options, including what will happen if we don’t.

Tips for happy motoring

If you’re renting a car overseas, here’s how to avoid a mystery ticket.

• Always ask. Tell the company where you’re driving and ask if there are any special restrictions. Car rental companies don’t want you to get into trouble with the law, either.

• Drive defensively. Adopt amore cautious driving style when you’re in another country. In many parts of Europe, speed traps are automated with cameras but are easy to avoid if you drive the speed limit.

• Pay the fine. Fighting a traffic ticket from afar is possible but almost never practical. Not paying it at all could land you in serious trouble if you ever return. Besides, you broke the law, even if you didn’t know it.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Helio

    A correction: in São Paulo, the restricted area aren’t the city limits, it is something called “expanded downtown”. It is something like if NYC decides to restrict traffic in Manhattan, but not in Harlem, Queens and Bronx. And the restriction isn’t for the full day – only during the morning (7 to 10am) and early evening (5 to 8pm). The rest of the day you can drive without problems in the restricted zone.

    The black outline in the map shows the city limit; the red area shows the actual restriction zone. The traffic authority is proposing to include some avenues outside the expanded downtown to the restriction – the red lines show them.

    In order to put in perspective, São Paulo city area is about 20~25% bigger than NYC area.

  • Cybrsk8r

    WOW! I don’t have a comment. Just, WOW!

  • sirwired

    I imagine travelers to the US get hit with traffic tickets all the time. The US makes less use of the ISO-standard signage than most countries, making heavy use of US-only English-Language signage instead.

  • TonyA_says

    I was waiting for the article to blame the car rental company for renting to idiots who expect everything to be like America.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Look kids. There’s “Big Ben”.

  • http://www.jeffkolkerart.com Jeff Kolker

    I got a ticket in Venice (not the island part, but the mainland part) for driving in a restricted zone. Had no idea, but a year later the ticket came in the mail. I even remember driving on that street, thinking….”oh, not much traffic here…finally a break”. Oops. Apparently a sign that has a circle or something indicates the restricted zone. The ticket came in Italian with a not so very good English translation. But it had an email address, so I emailed asking for proof of my infraction. A couple of days later I received an email with a picture of a car, time and date stamped, that looked like the car I had rented. Paid it…

    Rented a car in Vienna, and asked about driving it to other countries. Especially since Vienna is close to a few borders. Was told it was no problem, as long as it wasn’t Slovakia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, or Hungary. Germany, Switzerland and Italy (all far away) were no problem. I asked why those countries weren’t allowed…. and the agent told me “they steal cars there.” So I had to ask, don’t cars get stolen in Austria? The answer was “Yes, but not as much”.

    Always try to ask about the driving restrictions at the time I pick up the car. But the traffic laws… you just try to do the best you can. I should have know, in Venice, that something was up when there were virtually no cars on that part of the road with me.

  • TonyA_says

    Very nice. Thank you. It is intelligent people like you whose fine contributions make me come here (again and again) to get an education. Once again, thanks.

  • Helio

    Tony, I must confess I live in the area… My apartment is inside the restriction zone ;-)

  • Helio

    For me, the major problem with restricted zones is the signs aren’t standardized, and usually they are written in the local language, and sometimes without enough information.

    Using (again) Sao Paulo as example, I don’t believe someone not fluent in Portuguese be able to understand the signs. Worst, I didn’t find (and I don’t recall seeing) any road sign showing what plates aren’t allowed in a certain day. Even in Portuguese. Brazilian people outside Sao Paulo are very likely to have problems too.

    PS: It’s difficult to translate “RODIZIO” word. It means alternate or rotation of positions (and it is also used to describe all you can eat barbecue places with attendants serving meat slices in the nails…)
    In the traffic case, “rodizio” is used to imply you need to alternate the day you can’t drive.

  • John Keahey

    My one driving ticket — I’ve gotten a few parking ones — after a few dozen trips to Italy was last spring in a small town near Bologna. My rental company notified me that a photocop picture had me running a light, which I don’t remember but will accept. Hertz charged me 50 euros for researching my info for the police. I have yet to hear from the police — they may send the citation to me in the U.S. — and I understand that could be more than a year from now. I’ll pay it when I get it, because I don’t want any problems while driving on future trips. Italians now track driver license numbers on computers.

    One bit of advice: Always rent a vehicle at an off-airport location (this is true for U.S. as well) because the fees are less and the rental can be significantly lower per day. In Palermo, I always pick up the rental office at the end of my stay in that city before driving elsewhere. No reason to have one in the city: transportation is good, the traffic is horrible. And, for Americans, make your reservations through your agency — mine is Hertz — in the U.S. rather than in an office in Italy. Much cheaper. In Italy, basic theft insurance is required. Always buy the recommended level of insurance.

    The parking tickets can be handled by paying at any post office in Italy; you don’t have to pay them in the town where you got it if you don’t want to. And, pay them! Your car-rental company will give the authorities your info, and the Italians will eventually track you down. If you don’t pay, your rental company will eventually pay and charge you for it!

  • http://about.me/thomasbourke Thomas M Bourke

    I spend my time between Ireland (around Dublin) and NJ/NYC… so here is what I find works for me…. i) The steering wheel is closest to the center of the road (useful if you drive to JFK, get off at DUB and have to drive more!) note where that gas stop is near the airport – if you choose to refill a rental it will be your best friend on the return ii) if you travel a lot to a country, get your own toll tag (e.g. EZpass (US)/ eToll (IE) tag) – saves a lot of grief! iii) If your credit card provides you with primary, check the limits and value you are covered for and where (most US Credit Card insurance wont cover you in Ireland. I think they are scare of leprechauns) iv) if you have an accident, admit nothing, photos and call the cops. (112 works all over Europe)

  • The Travel Geek

    Have gotten three tickets over the last couple of years and none of them had to do with the ISO signage. One was being nailed by a speed camera I missed on the motorway in France. One was on a small road in Germany where I realized too late I was in a town and the speed had dropped from 70 to 50 kph and I again blundered past a speed camera. The third was a simple parking ticket in Trier where we were fifteen minutes late to what we had paid for. As I said the signage had nothing to do with it! Speed cameras, on the other hand, but those go after locals and foreigners alike.

  • Carchar

    How are you defining “fine contributions?” (Just kidding!)

  • redhousecat

    We noticed a weird charge from our rental car company on our last cc statement. We inquired, and
    found out it was for an unpaid congestion charge in London. Yeah, we had no clue. We have rented cars all over Europe and UK previously and never had a ticket or mysterious charge. I find it odd that this particular charge is one that “popped up” particularly since we always, always check the driving rules.

  • bodega3

    In Ireland, Master Card is the only accepted credit card for not having to take out the mandatory insurance. Some travel insurance companies include coverage for rental cars and that is not accepted in Ireland either. Noting where or asking at the counter where the gas/petrol station by the airport is located before heading out is an excellent tip.
    Most car rentals in Ireland get damaged. Plan on it. Side mirrors are usually involved.

  • Miami510

    If everyone reading this site were to send an individual email to the Italian Embassy or the Italian Auto Club telling them that you won’t be visiting Italy until they correct the unfair rules which result in fines for foreigners, they will quickly change things. Tourism is an important part of their economy and that’s where voices will be heard.


  • Thoroughlyamused

    Or blaming the car rental company for not explaining that tolls need to be paid and traffic regulations need to be followed. I had angry customers yelling at me constantly when we charged their CC when we got a camera violation for the vehicle they were driving at the time of violation. I personally hate ATE programs and think they are the biggest scam in local government, so I would usually tell people to complain to the county. My local jurisdiction required a court appearance by the registered owner of the vehicle to even submit a request for transfer of liability, and when you’re dealing with 100s of violations a week it isn’t practical to send an employee to court for each and every one.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    Only certain MasterCards work, not all. And you better be prepared to show proof of coverage to the rental agent, because all rental companies require it in Ireland to decline their coverage. The rental companies know full well that many people go in totally ignorant of what the CC actually covers and expect that their credit card magically covers them everywhere, then when they find out it doesn’t all of the sudden it’s the car rental company’s fault for not explaining it.

  • Thoroughlyamused

    I was in Puerto Rico over New Years and did a day trip from San Juan to Vieques. We had already rented a car at SJU but NO ONE at the rental counter told us that the car was not allowed to go on the ferry to Vieques. Only by reading a tour book, and then subsequently calling the rental agency, did we find this little fact out. After actually getting to Vieques, it was clear why those rules were in place. The roads leading to the best beaches aren’t usually paved.

  • dave3029

    If the system is so stacked against the international traveler, I wonder what would happen if we planned specifically for this? Something like using a credit card obtained JUST for the trip, pay the bill off immediately upon return to the US, then close the credit card account. Good luck trying to charge additional fees and crap on a closed account.

  • MarkKelling

    Won’t work. The credit card issuers retain the right to pass on any valid charges to you.

  • bodega3

    Yes, it isn’t all MC’s. Corporate ones usually do have the right coverage. But I always tell clients to be prepared to get the car companies coverage just in case the card coverage is declined as they are not getting a car in Ireland without the insurance.

  • nhjp

    In some cases, in Ireland and in a couple of other countries, if you decline the CDW, the car rental company will put a huge (like, 2000 Euros) hold on your credit card as a sort of deposit or guarantee against damage, even if you have a letter from your insurance company or credit card company that states you are covered.

  • nhjp

    It would be nice if the Italian law that defines the amount of time that foreign drivers can be billed for a ticket could be changed (current time frame is one year, but it’s much shorter for Italian residents), but the rest of the laws are actually designed to get Italian drivers to actually follow the rules of the road, not to torture tourists. I’ve lived there twice and been back one time since (and, yes, we got a speeding ticket from an Autovelox box in 2012), and the change in driving habits has been amazing. Italians actually slowed down and stopped going down one-way streets the wrong way, because it became too expensive to flout the traffic laws. It is much safer to drive there now. Fines for cell phone use by drivers are huge and instantaneous, and that has also helped.

    We got the speeding ticket notification from our rental car company nearly a year after we came home, and the ticket itself came a couple of months after that, just within the one year time frame. I paid it, because if I had contested it and lost, the fine would have been doubled, according to local (Lazio) law. (Unless you read Italian, or have someone explain this to you, it would be very hard to get this information easily.)

    It’s been about 8 months since I paid that fine – I sent it via wire transfer in mid-August, hoping it would take them a while to sort out, as August 15 is the beginning of the national; vacation period in Italy – so I am guessing that I’ll be hearing from the Lazio police again this summer if the transfer was not easy to identify.

  • dave3029

    I’ve read through several terms and conditions that mention NOTHING of this, so it is entirely dependent on the bank that issues the card. If it’s not spelled out in the T&C, it’s not enforceable.

  • bodega3

    Credit cards can be reactivated and they will do it for certain reasons.

  • MarkieA

    A few years ago, I was planning a trip to Italy and was researching “driving in Italy” on the Internet. I expected to find out about which cities to avoid driving in (Naples and Rome) and about the speed cameras I had heard so much about. What I got was pages and pages about the ZTL – the Zona Traffico Limitado. Outside most of the Tuscan hilltowns – where we were taking our trip – are little signs – not very noticeable if you’re not looking for them – that mark the boundaries of the city’s traffic zone(s). Seems that the Italians want your tourist dollars, but please don’t crowd our very narrow streets with your car. If you pass by the sign and enter the town, you WILL be caught – they have cameras all over – and you will be fined; 80 euros at the time of my trip. If that’s not bad enough, some of these small little towns have 5-6 zones. You get fined per zone that you pass through! So, a little jaunt through Montelpuciano in your little European Fiat could run you close to 500 euros. Do this a couple of times during your trip – and we saw a couple of “lost” tourists driving through the narrow alleyways – and you could very easily run up a few thousand euros in fines. And they will collect it from you. Now, the good news is that they have ample parking outside the city, close enough for a 5-10 minute walk. And, if you know what you’re looking for, the fines are easy enough to avoid, It appeared to us that the ZTLs mostly came into play in walled towns. See the big entry gate to the down and notice the ZTL sign right there. Pretty obvious.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Closing a credit card will not prevent legitimate charges from going through.