When we watch the Amazing Race on TV, we’re often baffled by competitors who fall behind in the race because they can’t drive a manual transmission.
One would think they’d brush up on that skill before going overseas. But it’s not always so easy to get that opportunity. According to the car review site Edmunds.com, only 2 percent of cars sold in the United States in 2017 had a manual — stick shift — transmission. By contrast, manual transmissions are found in about 80 percent of cars in most of Europe and Japan.
This scarcity of automatic transmissions overseas makes them costlier to rent when traveling. A one-week rental from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris might cost an extra $80; in smaller locales we’ve seen a price differential of $200 or more.
Here are some things to consider when renting a car abroad:
Do you know how to drive a manual transmission? If not, a foreign destination is not the time to learn. Navigating unfamiliar roads — with signs in a foreign language — is stressful enough. Spring for the extra bucks and get an automatic. Your stress level (and personal safety) will appreciate it.
Will you be driving on the opposite side of the road? Even if you are confident in your manual driving skills, you might want to consider an automatic in countries like England, Ireland, and Japan. The combination of sitting on the right side of the car and shifting with your left hand may be more than you want to mess with while also staying on the left side of the road.
We drive a manual transmission car in the United States and have found that, after a few miles, shifting on the left has not been an issue for us. But we wouldn’t want to try it after an overnight flight or leaving a busy international airport. Which brings us to …
Consider renting at more rural locations. It’s never any fun trying to navigate busy highways in strange cities, and that discomfort is magnified in a foreign country. We often take a train to a town closer to our road-trip destination; the cost might be higher than an airport pickup but getting familiar with the car and local roads is much easier and less stressful in a quiet rural (or even suburban) setting.
Consider bypassing a car rental altogether. In the U.S., a car rental is our go-to option outside of major cities, but there are alternatives overseas. Europe and Japan offer extensive rail networks; on recent trips to both we’ve taken trains to remote towns and then used local taxis or Uber/Lyft. In many Asian countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand, hiring a driver for the day is very affordable.
Above all, consider your comfort with driving in a foreign country and not just your own safety but other drivers’.