Unless you’re going somewhere with amazing public transit or walkability, it’s usually cheaper to rent a car on international trips

Unless you’re going somewhere with amazing public transit or walkability, it’s usually cheaper to rent a car on international trips

For some reason, Americans seem to have a strange aversion to renting cars in foreign countries. I am always shocked at how much people shell out for cabs and tours in foreign countries where the roads are just as good as the ones in the US (if not better), the drivers are as good (or better), and they still drive on the same side of the road.

Now, I get that for some people, traveling internationally is supposed to be a leisure activity where you let someone else do all the work and get away from your daily routine, which I could understand somewhat especially for people that drive many miles in traffic every day for their job. But is that really worth hundreds (if not thousands of dollars) more?

A prime example of this would be Iceland, where seemingly everyone you know has either gone recently or plans to go soon (and is a place which I love for its amazing hot springs). While admittedly going in March was before high season, I booked a car rental six weeks in advance for $215 USD for nine days, or roughly $24 per day. We literally drove around the entire island  (probably around 900 miles) and spent $267.51 on gas (and before you say, “It’s not that much cheaper since gas is so expensive in Europe,” remember that not only are the cars more fuel efficient, but the cabs and tours are proportionally more expensive too).

Given that most comparable guided tours are packages that include lodging, it’s impossible to know how much the transportation cost of a similar guided tour would be, but given that many are around $1400/person with lodging, it’s likely that even without lodging, it still far exceeds the $241 per person cost my friend and I spent on transportation.

Now, despite my constant pleadings to people to spend longer in Iceland and drive around the whole country, I realize a nine-day trip may be excessive for some people. Icelandair and WOW have been doing extremely well recently promoting their stopover fares, where someone can fly from the US to somewhere else in Europe and add on a multi-day (or single-day) stop in Iceland for no additional charge. Let’s look at a popular one-day itinerary of Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon, and the Golden Circle. This is roughly a 200 mile trip (including the return) from the airport, so in a rental car for $24/day that gets 40 miles per gallon with gas at $8 per gallon (just a guess), that’s $40 of gas or $64 total.

A tour from Reykjavik is $82 per person, but that doesn’t include the cost of getting to Reykjavik from the airport, which is an extra $39 per person by bus or $117 by cab. And this still doesn’t include the Blue Lagoon. Obviously, the cost savings are not as significant for a solo traveler, but with more people, the cost of the rental car and gas still stay the same; the tour and bus costs (calculated per person) do not.

But even putting cost aside, the other nice thing about renting a car is the “Ooh this looks really cool, let’s pull over!” factor which you can have when in a rental car. The cover photo from this post is from a recent trip I took to Sommarøy, Norway and I was so struck by how beautiful the bridge was that I had to stop. Or when I was driving around Iceland, I was struck by the beauty of all of the ponies on the side of the road:


You lose this aspect if you’re in a big group van where individual requests can’t always be accomodated.

But it doesn’t always make sense

As the title of this post notes, renting a car does not always make sense when traveling internationally. For one, there are certain countries which may restrict renting a car to citizens of that country (for example, China).

And in some, like Japan (where you can rent with an International Driving Permit), it doesn’t make any sense, given the amazing high-speed rail system that runs everywhere (as well as the amazing subways within urban areas).

In other countries with safety issues, it also may make sense to hire a driver in case you run into any sort of trouble. These countries also can sometimes be very unaffordable anyway due to high mandatory insurance costs.

But wait

But contrary to popular belief, one situation that should not deter you from renting a car is being in a country that drives on the other side of the road. There usually is no legal requirement in these countries to be from a country that also drives on the same side, and while it may feel weird at first, you can usually adapt in 15-20 minutes. And you never know what kind of animals you may encounter, as was the case with this baboon I ran into outside of Cape Town, South Africa:


This post took longer than expected to write and while I was originally going to also write about rental car insurance in this post, I think it’s best saved for another post.

But if you have any questions on the above, let me know!

All photos by Mark Ayoub.


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