I was advising a reader of my blog on renting a motorcycle in Europe when he recommended that I write an article on the subject for the benefit of other readers as well. This is by no means a comprehensive “how to” guide on renting motorcycles around the word. Just my thoughts on what I have done in the past in various countries and what things I keep in mind when renting motorcycles outside India, my home country.
At the outset I would like to make it clear that each country (sometimes even each state or region of a particular country) has its own laws and rules with respect to renting vehicles and they are constantly changing. For example, on my recent trip to Belgium, I was unable to rent a motorcycle anywhere in the country because the rentals there had stopped renting to non-EU citizens. So it’s best to seek local advice after you do your initial research.
International Driving Permit (IDP)
An IDP isn’t a new driver’s license. It is a document that is issued against your existing driver’s license. The number on the IDP is exactly the same as that on your driver’s license. The IDP is essentially a multi-lingual translation of your existing driver’s license. Which makes some believe that if their driver’s license is in English then they don’t need an IDP.
Technically, an IDP isn’t required if your existing driver’s license matches the requirements of the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which was streamlined later in the 1968 and 2011 Vienna Conventions. And there lies the problem for me. I don’t want to be arguing the Geneva and Vienna conventions with a traffic cop on a highway in a foreign country trying to justify why my Indian driver’s license is good enough to ride a motorcycle in his country. I also don’t want to give an insurance company even a slightest reason to deny my claim citing a lack of IDP. But more importantly, some rentals in some countries won’t rent you a motorcycle unless you produce an IDP. The countries where I was asked to show my IDP before I could rent a motorcycle were Italy, Scotland and Sri Lanka. In the USA, the Netherlands, France and Mongolia I was able to rent a motorcycle without an IDP. So I would strongly recommend that you get an IDP.
Unfortunately, an IDP is valid for one year only. I guess this is because if you are going to stay for more than a year in a country, you will legally need to obtain a local driver’s license. So you need to undergo the hassle of renewing your IDP every year. But I think its worth the trouble. I’m on my sixth IDP at the moment.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but you need to pay very close attention to the condition of the motorcycle when the rental company hands it to you. In Europe, the rentals are very particular about scratches. If you see a scratch on a fairing, hand guard, exhaust heat shield or even a scrapped foot peg, point it out the rental’s employee and have him mark the spot on the rental document. I once rented a KTM 1050 Adventure from Utrecht in the Netherlands and dropped it. The brake pedal bent inwards and touched the engine side casing, leaving a dent so small that it was almost not noticeable. The right hand guard plastic also got a scratch. When I returned the bike I was charged the price of a new engine casing and hand guard plastic. I’m pretty sure they didn’t replace the engine casing and hand guard plastic after I returned the bike, but they still made me pay for it. It’s more of a scam if you ask me. I say that because there were scratches on other parts of the motorcycle which I had pointed out during the inspection. They must have charged all the previous renters the full price of the parts that were scratched, but didn’t bother to replace them. If they did then the motorcycle should have looked spotless and brand new every time it was rented out, which wasn’t the case.
Of course, this varies from country to country. In Sri Lanka I rented a Honda Dominator NX 650 which was already falling apart. The tachometer and speedometer needles worked using gravity and swung to the end of the scale every time I rode into a pothole. The gear shifter was so hard I actually wrecked the top of my shoe struggling to shift gears. The rental just wanted me to bring back the motorcycle using its own power so that they could rent it to someone else until it died. The condition of the motorcycle when I returned it really didn’t matter to them.
In Mongolia I rented a KTM 450 EXC, a bike that’s designed to be dropped and the rental company understood that. I got the bike with scratches all over itself and I added a few more of my own, for which I wasn’t charged anything extra.
It’s important to note that the decision of the rental company is final. They place a hold or around 2,000 USD on your credit card for such things before they rent you the motorcycle. This is also something you need to consider. You will need a credit card which a high enough limit so that the hold can be processed successfully. Otherwise you will need to deposit hard cash instead.
Parking Lot Test
This usually happens in the US when you rent a big and heavy motorcycle like a Harley-Davidson or an Indian. After doing all the payment and paperwork, if they get the feeling that you may not be able to handle the motorcycle, they ask you do ride the motorcycle around the parking lot. If they don’t like what they see, they will cancel the rental agreement and give you a full refund. This makes sense for them as well as for you. If you are not used to riding a motorcycle weighing in excess of 300 kgs then you really shouldn’t be renting one, that too in a foreign country where you may need to deal with traffic situations and roads that you are not used to.
Emergency Phone Number
Before leaving the rental always get a phone number that you need to call in case of an emergency. In most cases this phone number will be in the rental agreement paperwork or on the key fob. It could be a toll free number of a road side assistance company or a phone number of a person at the rental company. Speaking of toll free numbers, they mostly work only if you have a local number. I mean you can’t activate international roaming on your Indian mobile number and hope to call a toll free number in the US. At least you couldn’t do this in the past. I’m not sure if that has changed now.
Rental companies offer a range of insurance options. I have found that the ones in the middle are the best. The cheaper options are sometimes very basic and are meant to keep you legal. The high end options contain covers for way too many things that you will never need. I see that the option I pick covers the motorcycle for damage and theft.
Apart from motorcycle insurance, you also need to have your own travel insurance. It’s best you get that from your home country. Ensure that your policy covers you for medical evacuation. This is very important if you are traveling to countries where specialized healthcare isn’t common. It may cost you a little more, but it will be worth it. The thought of some village doctor fixing me in a rural Mongolian clinic didn’t appeal to me. In fact, when I rented the bike in Mongolia, even the rental company told me that in case I had a serious crash, they would be air lifting me out of the country and either my insurance company or I would have to deal with the cost of doing so.
Most rentals don’t have a mileage limit. But in some countries like France, they do. Make sure you ask about the limit as it may be hidden somewhere within the fine print of the rental agreement.
Fuel Station Near Rental
The rental company will give you a motorcycle with a full tank of fuel and you will need to return it the same way. Before you leave ask the rental company for the location of a fuel station close by. I usually tank up on the highway just before entering the city as city traffic can sometimes be a pain to deal with. It’s the end of my ride and I just want to return the bike and go back to my hotel. So I want to find the shortest way back to the rental company and not roam around the city searching for a fuel station. If you are running out of time return the bike unfilled. The company will estimate the amount of fuel required to fill the tank and charge you for it.
Always plan to return the motorcycle at least a couple of hours before the rental closes for the day. City traffic may delay you and then you will be left with no option other than returning the bike the next morning. Not only will you be charged for an extra day, but this may also mess with your travel plans as you might be flying home the next morning or maybe even the same night.
Some rentals have a key drop box for late returns or for returns on Sundays and holidays when they are closed. Ask the rental company about this before you leave. In the US, I have found that some rental companies will add another key to the key fob. This is for a gate lock of a compound where you are supposed to park the motorcycle if you are returning it when they are closed. The key drop box is usually just outside the gate. So you unlock the gate, park the motorcycle in the compound, take your stuff off the motorcycle, lock the gate and drop the keys in the drop box. The rental company employee will explain this to you when giving the bike. If such a provision exists then you are free to ride late into the night on the last day and return the bike late. However, if you have stuff lying inside the rental company office, like your suitcase or helmet case, then you better return the bike before they close. I usually have a rental car which I park inside the rental company’s parking lot. In case I need to keep anything back I keep it in my car instead of the rental company’s office.
USB Charging Port
I always make it a point to ask the rental company if the motorcycle I’m renting has a USB charging port near the handlebar. I need this to charge my GPS or phone for navigation. Depending on their response I know what to carry with me before I leave home. Some rentals will fit your USB charging port for you. Some rentals don’t allow you to add electrical accessories to their motorcycles.
Recently, I rented a BMW G310 GS from Paris. The bike didn’t come with a USB port and neither would they let me add any electrical accessory to the bike. So I carried a power bank in my waist pouch. Every time I stopped for a break I would charge my phone.
Constant usage of a navigation app on a mobile phone drains the battery quickly. The problem gets worse when you ride a motorcycle because the phone auto adjusts the brightness to high so that you can see the screen in direct sunlight, something that doesn’t happen using a navigation app in a shade of a car. The increased brightness drains the phone’s battery even faster.
GPS and Maps
I use a GPS device or my mobile phone for navigation. Some rentals offer GPS devices at an extra charge. Some even give you paper maps of surrounding areas for free and guide you on scenic motorcycle routes if you haven’t already planned anything. I don’t use paper maps. It’s not that I don’t like them. But I have the habit of downloading offline maps in the Google Maps app. That serves as a highly detailed paper map when you want it to.
Riding Gear and Helmet
Some rental companies offer riding gear and helmets. Some include it in the price, while others charge extra. Previously, I used riding gear from the rental companies, but not any longer. I prefer to carry my own riding jacket, pants, raincoat and even my hydration pack. When riding in Mongolia I even carried my humongous AlpineStars Toucan riding boots. I knew what I was getting into and preferred to be safe than sorry.
I’ve had some really nasty experiences with rental helmets. My coconut is on the larger side and on more than one occasion I was forced to squeeze it into a helmet that didn’t fit well. A helmet is supposed to fit snugly. So the rental companies tend to have a lot of smaller size helmets. For the people with larger heads they usually have open face helmets which can be stretched open to wear. I’m not comfortable wearing open face helmets riding at highway cruising speeds.
Rental companies also offer luggage. Again, some include it in the price, while others don’t. Make sure you ask about luggage while booking the motorcycle. If the rental company doesn’t offer luggage I take my Frogman Expedition Dry Duffel bag with me. It can be folded and tucked away neatly in a suitcase. It can be opened up to fill just about anything. The bag takes the shape of the contents, and last but not the least, it can be strapped to just about anything.
I’ll keep adding more points to this article as and when I think about them. What I wrote above sums up my experiences renting motorcycles in foreign countries. Many of you may have different experiences or have useful advice. Please feel free a comment. Or you can ask me a question about some aspect of renting a motorcycle and I may update the article with my response.