Driving in a foreign country can be a challenge for North Americans visiting destinations where most rental cars feature manual transmission, a gear-shifting system rejected by the overwhelming majority of U.S. and Canadian drivers.  

In the U.S., only four percent of drivers use manual transmission, or stick shifting, while 96% drive automatic transmission vehicles, according to a report by the largest used car dealership in the U.S. In Canada, only nine percent of cars available use manual transmission, a massive decrease since the 1980s.  

A vacation is not an ideal time to learn how to drive a stick shift. “It can take some getting used to before it becomes intuitive. Stalling is common when you’re starting out, which is why it’s best to get in some driving time before you start trying to navigate congested intersections and early evening traffic,” according to a transmission service company 

[Related Reading: Rent a Car Abroad? Read This First] 

The challenge only increases when driving on the left-hand side of the road – and not the right – is the rule, especially if the driver is not used to it.  

But there’s some good news. Many rental car companies in Europe now offer a range of automatic transmission vehicles in addition to their manual fleet, particularly in England and Ireland where driving on the left-hand side of the road is the norm.  

british car interior

Speaking of the U.K. and Ireland, they’re not the only countries that drive on the left-hand side of the road. Some 76 countries do the same including India, Japan, Australia, Kenya, Bahamas, Bermuda and many more.  

Following are the tips, tricks and pitfalls from Global Rescue’s expert staff, partners and the most experienced travelers in the world to help you adapt to driving on the left-hand side of the road: 

  • Familiarize yourself with the rules of the road – In many countries the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car, and traffic moves on the left side of the road. Before driving, make sure you understand the rules, such as how to use roundabouts, yield to traffic on the right, and overtake on the right. 
  • Rent a car with an automatic transmission –-If you’re not used to driving on the left side of the road, it might be easier to rent a car with an automatic transmission. You won’t have to worry about shifting gears with your left hand, and you can focus on driving on the left side of the road. “I drive a manual transmission car in the U.S. so when I first drove one in London, I had to get used to the stick shift on my left. Thankfully the shift pattern is the same, too,” said Bill McIntyre, the Global Rescue communications director who has rented cars in seven different counties.
  • Take time to practice – Before driving on busy roads or highways, take some time to practice driving on the left side of the road in a quiet area. This will help you get used to the new perspective and build your confidence.
  • Keep your distance – Keep a safe distance from the car in front of you, especially when driving on highways or in heavy traffic. This will give you enough time to react if something unexpected happens. “Lane changes in Africa look a whole lot different than Kansas and could get you arrested in America. Some countries are like the wild west and have no rules at all. Whenever possible, travelers should hire local, trusted transportation. Automobile accidents pose the largest risk to travelers across the world. One of the best ways to mitigate that risk is to avoid driving altogether,” said Adam Bardwell, a Global Rescue security operations supervisor.
  • Use GPS or a map – Make sure you have a GPS or a map with you to help you navigate. It’s easy to get disoriented when driving on the left side of the road, especially when you’re not familiar with the area. 
  • Stay focused – Always stay focused on the road and be aware of your surroundings. Keep your eyes on the road, watch out for pedestrians, and be prepared for unexpected situations. Driving on the left side of the road on the coast of Ireland with the cliffs on one side and massive tourist buses coming at you from the other direction was scary,” said Meghan Mahoney, a Global Rescue marketing director who has driven on both sides of the road in several countries. 
  • Follow the traffic flow – Try to follow the flow of traffic and stay in the left lane unless you need to overtake or turn right. This will help you avoid confusion and make your driving experience much smoother. “The biggest challenge of learning to drive on the left-hand side of the road was navigating roundabouts,” said Charles McCarthy, a Global Rescue associate marketing manager reflecting on a trip he took to South Africa. “In the U.S., we head right in a counterclockwise direction, but in countries where you drive on the left-hand side of the road, you enter roundabouts to the left and drive clockwise. And because roundabouts were far more common in South Africa than they were in the U.S. when I was there, I was lacking a general familiarity with them, compounded especially by multi-lane roundabouts, which were everywhere on the major routes.”  
  • Be mindful of blind spots – When driving on the left side of the road, the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car, which can cause blind spots. Be mindful of this and take extra care to check your mirrors and blind spots before changing lanes. 
  • Be patient and take breaks – Driving on the left side of the road can be stressful and exhausting if you’re not used to it. Be patient and take breaks, especially when navigating unfamiliar roads or intersections. 

      Driving on the left side of the road can be challenging for North Americans, but with practice and patience, it can be done safely and effectively.  

      Driving on the Right Side of the Road 

      The challenges for travelers who are used to driving on the left side of the road but have to switch to driving on the right side of the road while in North America are similar. Following are tips to overcome the distinctions:  

      Small smart car next to SUV mini van city street

      • Different driving laws and road signs – The United States has different driving laws and road signs than many other countries, which can be confusing for foreign drivers who are not familiar with them. For example, speed limits are typically posted in miles per hour rather than kilometers per hour. There are also different rules for turning, passing and merging. 
      • Different road layout – The road layout in the United States is different from many European countries. For example, many American roads have multiple lanes and are wider than European roads. This can be intimidating for European drivers who are not used to driving on such roads. 
      • Different driving culture – The driving culture in the United States is different from many European countries. For example, American drivers may be more aggressive and less patient than European drivers, especially in urban areas, which can be stressful for European drivers who are not used to this type of driving culture. 
      • Different types of vehicles – American cars are typically larger and more powerful than many European cars. This can be intimidating for European drivers who are not used to driving such vehicles, especially if they are used to driving smaller cars. 

        Overall, driving on the right side of the road can be difficult for anyone used to driving on the left side of the road, and vice versa Again, practice and patience are the keys to minimizing the challenges so you can enjoy the drive and your travels.  

        Do You Need an International Driving Permit? 

        The countries that require an International Driving Permit (IDP) can vary, and it depends on the country you plan to visit and your country of origin. The U.K., Ireland, and Cyprus do not require an IDP for visitors who hold a driver’s license from most countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

        [Related Reading: Driving Safely Abroad] 

        Most European countries recognize and accept the IDP including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, India and China. 

        If you live in the United States or Canada, you can get an International Driving Permit (IDP) from either the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA).  

        Be aware that specific requirements can vary based on each destination, so it’s best to check with the embassy or consulate of the country you plan to visit to confirm whether you need an IDP. Some rental car companies may require an IDP, even if it’s not legally required in the country you’re visiting. Check with your rental car company to see if they have any specific requirements. 

        Motor vehicle crashes—not crime or terrorism—are the number one cause of nonnatural deaths among US citizens living, working or traveling abroad. While car accidents cannot be fully predicted or prevented, preparation can help avert unfortunate situations. Whether you’re seeking advice or immediate medical or security assistance, Global Rescue operations centers are staffed 24/7/365 to assist our members. Click here to contact us about the benefits of membership.