Renting a car abroad? Coverage can be complex

If you think you can whip out that premium credit card at a car-rental agency in Europe and bulletproof yourself in the event of a fender bender, think again.

"It covers theft and damage to the car," Kenny Thomas, a spokesman at Visa USA, says of the protection offered by Gold, Platinum, and other high-end credit cards that are used to rent cars overseas. But these cards do not pay for any damage to other vehicles should you be at fault, nor do they cover either party's medical expenses or the cost of any lawsuits.

Insurance and renting cars abroad is complicated because terms differ depending on laws of the country where you're renting, the company from which you're renting, and any auto insurance you may already have. An ounce of inquiry could be worth a pound of cure.

"You ... need to check with each [rental] company – and your insurance company," says Amy Bednarcik of travel service World Travelers of America. A Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) is the most common form of rental-car insurance, providing coverage against theft and damage to the vehicle you rent.

But simply using a credit card won't invoke such coverage in such countries as Northern Ireland, Israel, or Jamaica.

Also, CDW credit-card protection typically isn't available on luxury autos, motorcycles, or SUVs that are used off-road. When you do invoke it, though, you must first decline the CDW offered by the rental company.

Renters seeking more than CDW protection can choose from a slew of other protections. Theft protection, personal accident insurance for the driver and passengers' medical care, personal-effects coverage, and liability coverage are among the most common forms.

"Whenever you're in doubt, go ahead an get the extra coverage," says Ms. Bednarcik. This will certainly jack up the cost of the rental, but she adds that in some countries, especially the third world, the added cost is worth more than the legal and financial problems that can arise if you bang up a car.

Overseas car rentals can pose problems beyond insurance. For instance, in Mexico, Costa Rica, and many other nations, rental cars cannot be driven beyond the host country's borders. Renters in Europe generally can roam all over the western portion of the continent but cannot take their vehicles into nations beyond the former Iron Curtain.

An international driver's license is pretty much passé in most countries, but some, including Austria, Egypt, India, and Russia, still require one ($10 and two passport-size photos will buy you one at the nearest AAA office).

Even age comes into play. Some European countries limit rentals to drivers under a certain age. Ireland is a notable example, banning rentals to anyone 74 or older.

Once you've cleared these hurdles, it's time to think about money. Insurance aside, a car rental can be as cheap overseas as in the US.

But in most European nations, extra fees are charged to rent a car at an airport; it can add 15 percent to the cost in Belgium. A simple solution: Rent the car at the agency's downtown location. You still can drop it off at the airport and avoid that tax. Note that some railroad stations in England and Italy, and some cities in Germany, also impose this fee.

Most of the larger rental agencies in Europe now allow motorists to rent a car in one city and drop it off in another in the same country. Some even permit drop-offs in different countries. For $50 Hertz, for instance, will let a driver return a car at any of 30 "gateway" cities.

Still, tales abound of unwitting drivers who left a car in a different country and got billed thousands of dollars extra. So check with the rental agency if your plans include such an itinerary.

Making the reservation is best done well ahead of time, from your home country. Rental agencies frequently offer promotions, such as extra days or price discounts, that are not available to walk-up traffic.

Many websites offer driving, renting, and insurance tips. Among them: www.worldtravelers.org, http://www.hertz.com (for its European Drivers Guide), and www.rentalcars.com.

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