I never drive in a foreign country anymore if I can help it. I've had only two accidents while traveling, both in Germany, but any accident, anywhere outside your own country of residence it a major hassle. However, even as a passenger, foreigners need to exercise caution.
Here I will maintain a list of some of my personal experiences driving, as well as taking taxis while traveling about. If you have an experience to share email it to me.
Are roadside fines actually solicitations for a bribe? In Bucharest, Romania police targeted cars with foreign plates, pulling them over to collect "roadside fines". I had a run in with cops who wanted $100 for an illegal U-Turn. I handed one of the two officers a $20 bill and drove off, leaving them arguing as to how they were going to divide it.
Renting a car can be a costly fiasco, or a remarkably inexpensive surprise...
An example of a costly mistake I made renting a car was in Warsaw, Poland. As I mentioned earlier, I choose not to drive when traveling if at all possible and anywhere in Europe a combination of trains, subways, trams and buses will take you anywhere you want to go. However, when I have to travel back and forth between a city centre and outlining areas, as was the case one one visit to Warsaw, personal transportation is the way to go.
Usually, if I know I'll need a vehicle, which is only the case if I am on business, I arrange for a renal to be at the airport upon my arrival, or to be delivered to my hotel if the service is provided. I was in Warsaw on business, but unfortunately realized after my arrival that I'd need a vehicle. The company I was there to visit was in the city centre, but the manufacturing plant I'd have to visit repeatedly was far outside the city, and not serviced by public transpiration.
I was staying at a Warsaw City Centre Hotel, so rental car companies were plentiful. I selected one close to the hotel, located in the only 13 square blocks to have survived the war and near the Palace of Culture and Science. I figured if I was going to talk a walk through downtown Warsaw, I may as well check out the two must see sights.
The first problem was that the only model car available for rent by walk-ins was the incredibly tiny DAEWOO Matiz. I'd be spending a fair amount of time on the road, so a car not much bigger than a shoe box was going to make for uncomfortable journeys. Also, since I was a walk-in, not only was the vehicle choice what was available to locals, but the rental agreement was in Polish, which I do not understand. Worse still, the clerk spoke very poor English and even worse German. I tried to ignore the nagging voice in my head that keeps saying, "Conducting a rental transaction using hand and body gestures reminiscent of a game of charades isn't advisable."
The smart thing for me to have done at this point, and what I would recommend to anyone asking for advice would have been to return to the hotel and have the concierge arrange for a car rental. Actually, I should have do so from the outset and would have if I didn't want to take in some sightseeing. I fumbled on, finally managing to rent a car and I drove off. The experience with a wholly unsuitable vehicle had me returning it the next day. When I returned to the hotel the night before I'd asked the concierge to arrange for a better rental to be dropped off the next day at the hotel.
I returned the car with surprisingly little difficultly, only having to hand over the keys, walk around the car with the clerk who inspected it for any damage, sign the return slip and leave. The problem surfaced when I was back in Germany and received my credit card statement. It seems I had rented the car for an entire week, and even though I returned it in less than 24 hours my credit card was debited for US$230, plus $20 for fuel, and US$75 for full coverage insurance. Ironically, my taxi receipts for the following 5 days traveling from my hotel to the client's office, and back and forth to their manufacturing facility did not total as much. I didn't pursue a refund because I'd had a friend who spoke Polish review the contract and sure enough, I'd signed for a weekly car rental.
The moral of this story is to avail yourself of the services provided by your hotel, such as the concierge or, if there is one, the in house car rental service, but whenever possible make arrangements prior to your arrival. For example, I rented a far better car than the one I received in Warsaw through the in house car renal outlet in Hotel Victoria, Pitesti, Romania. The cost was just Euro230 for a week, and I'd put 1000 km over the daily 200 km limit on the car. Had I of shopped around and pre book this particular rental I could have paid even less. I say this because I once rented a car well in advance of a trip, which was to be picked up in Budapest, at the airport. I'd keep the car for 3 weeks. I'd book it online through a service in Toronto, Canada and it was to be US$200 for the entire time, with unlimited mileage. I assumed from the outset that the deal was too good to be true and that when I returned it all hell was going to break loose. I was pleasantly surprised when the only added cost was to top off the fuel tank, which I was supposed to have done myself prior to returning it.
Travel agents can, of course, arrange for a car rental when they book your flight and/or hotel. If I am traveling on the dime of a client I will naturally have the travel agent they recommend or are contracted to use arrange a car if I need one. However, if I will need a car when I'm traveling on my own dime I will shop around prior to departure and arrange for a rental myself. I've never failed to save a significant amount of money over what I'd pay using a travel agent, and often I'd get a car from the same rental company.
Also, don't count on a travel agent to get your car rental needs correct. Back in the early 90s I lived in Germany and had to return to Canada on business. It was a situation where I needed to include a client and an entourage in my travel plans, part of which was renting two cars for a week. The cars were rented from one of Canada's supposedly reputable car rental companies, and were to be picked up by a local facilitator and left at the hotel. The plan was to use an airport shuttle to get to the hotel, thus avoiding the delay at the airport picking up rental cars always cause. The price was incredibly inexpensive since it was the off season, under CAN$200 a week and no additional costs other than fuel if the tanks were not full.
When it came time to depart the cars were dropped off at the airport using the fast return feature offered by the car rental company. The bill should have been CAN$400, but my credit card was debited $1200. Of course I complained to the rental company, and of course I was given a run around. Upset, I contacted my credit card issuer telling them the car rental firm overcharged to the point of committing credit card fraud and sent them copies of the rental agreement. They agreed, and even mentioned that the "respected Canadian car rental company" commonly overcharges when vehicles are dropped off at the airport and advised me not to do so again. The credit card issuer refunded 100% of the amount deducted illegally from my card.
I later learned they did so to the tune of $1 million annually. It seems they never expected to be able to keep all of the money, but if the renter did not double check their credit card statements the overcharges were kept. But even if they had to return the money, it was an interest free loan for however long they were able to give the renter the run around before the funds were clawed back.
Ironically I was contacted later by the rental company asking how I intended to pay for the $400 that was outstanding, since their action resulted in my receiving a 100% refund, which meant they were out of pocket. It was this companies bad luck that I'm Canadian because if this had happened in a country I was not a citizen of I would have paid to avoid any problems locally. I explained to the rather rude person calling me that they should sue me because my position was that by overcharging me, and the matter taking 4 months to resolve I was out the amount I paid out in interest to the credit card company and was out of pocket a considerable amount for overseas calls before getting a refund and was due compensation for my time. I followed by saying that if they thought I owed them $400 and did sue I'd file a counter claim for what I was due to compensate me. I never did hear back about the $400, but later this particular company was mentioned in a news article about their practice of overcharging customers' credit cards.
I brought this particular rental car nightmare to readers' attention because this company is one of Canada's largest, and is still in business. Worse, it's one of the car rental choices available at all Canadian international airports and perceived to be a legitimate business operation. I recommend you do not use automated drop off options anywhere the service is offered because your credit card is automatically debited without you knowing the total. If you have to drop off rental cars without dealing with an actual person, carefully check your credit card statement to make sure you are not overcharged.
I assume taxi drivers aren't to be trusted no matter where I hire them...
During one of my many trips to Prague, Czech Republic, I took a taxi because I was headed for the airport and I was pressed for time. The driver continuously talked on his cell while weaving through traffic until he hit a woman who appeared to have literally jumped out in front of him.
The woman was rolling around on the ground screaming and moaning, and attracting a lot of spectators. The taxi driver suggested that since I was a foreigner and in a hurray that I pay her $500 to avoid involvement by police and a long delay. My solutions was to hail another taxi and continue on to the airport. As we drove off I watched the the taxi driver and the woman he hit. As I suspected, the woman was on her feet and had made a miraculous recovery. This is a common scam taxi drivers pull on visiting foreigners in many countries. The woman was obvious the person the taxi driver had been talking to while driving, setting up the "accident".
The gloves are off when it comes to victimizing tourists...
Overcharging is the most commonly employed scam taxi drivers employ, usually taking the scenic route but also overcharging for "flat fee" fares.
I once took a state licensed taxi from the Sheremetyevo International Airport to my hotel. The cost was US$60, and it was explained that his was a "flat fee". That may be so, but I had the hotel desk call me a taxi for the return trip. It too was a state licensed taxi, and to go from the same hotel, back to the same airport, taking the same route, the cost was just US$20.
A word of caution about taking taxis in Russia: The state taxis are the only taxis that are legal. Any cabs that are not yellow are what are known as gypsy taxis. I've had good experiences with these private entrepreneurs, but they are "use at your own risk". The upside of gypsy cabbies is that if you do find a good one, you can make a deal for sightseeing tours and even to have him act as your personal driver during your stay.
Another concern about using gypsy taxis is best highlighted by the story told to me by a couple of elderly ladies. They were to connect with a tour operator but arrived in Cairo a day ahead to the tour. They grabbed a taxi at the airport, bound for their hotel. Instead of being taken to the hotel they were driven deep into the city where the taxi driver stopped in a narrow lane way, forced the women to surrender their purses and made them exit the car and told them to get out. He then drove off with their luggage. Although not hurt, the ladies were terrified, left lost in a section of the city where no one spoke English so had to wander about for hours seeking help. Then they had to replace their passports, have funds wired when they finally had identification to collect it, and then replace all of their belongings. Basically, their vacation was ruined.
If you've had a negative experience while taking a taxi, tell me about it.