Hiring a car in Thailand isn’t as difficult as it may seem and even if you don’t speak Thai, it can still be a quite straight-forward process. If you don’t want to self-drive, there is also the option of hiring a car with a driver because regardless of how competent you are on the road, there are some unique challenges for driving in Thailand.
What type of licence do I need?
If you want to hire a car in Thailand that you will be driving yourself, you will need to be in possession of a full license (not probationary) from your home country. In many cases the hire company will also ask to see an international driving permit (obtainable in your home country). If your driving license is not in English you may be asked to provide a translated copy before you can hire a car. Your driving license, permit and passport should always be carried with you when driving in Thailand. Most car hire companies also have a minimum age requirement of 21.
Please note that the advice contained in this article is aimed primarily at tourists or those in Thailand on a short-term stay. If you aren’t a tourist or are going to be in Thailand for the longer-term, you should consider applying for a Thai driving licence.
Hiring a car with driver
At many car rental places and tour offices in Thailand you may be given the option of hiring a car or mini-van together with a driver. This can be a great way to explore the local area and also saves you the potential problems of driving yourself in a foreign country, but not all drivers will speak English. If you are not travelling with somebody who can speak Thai, you may find it helpful to use the services of a dedicated tour guide who can speak your language. Some tour guides will double as drivers, but it is more usual for a tour guide to work separately to the driver although most guides will also know good drivers that they’ve worked with and can recommend.
This can be a cost-effective way of going on day-trips if you are travelling as a family and don’t want to go on a group tour or just want more freedom to explore the town or city you are in. Please note that it is common practice (and courteous) to pay for the lunch of your driver and guide. Some drivers may politely decline your offer at first, but in my experience if you insist that they join you for lunch it is much appreciated. In fact, it is your driver or guide who is most likely to know the best places to eat (where the locals go) so let them choose for you. Tips at the end of your trip are at your discretion, but from a personal view I always like to tip the driver and guide. Although most trips are likely to be for the day or half-day, it’s also possible to hire vehicles and drivers for overnight trips or long-distance touring, but you will need to establish the price beforehand. The price should make allowance for the extra costs the driver and/or guide is going to incur e.g. food and accommodation.
How much does car hire cost?
The cost of car hire may vary slightly depending on where you are in Thailand although the main nationwide rent-a-car companies (Budget, Avis etc.) tend to have standardised prices. VAT at 7% is usually included in the net price and you should also note that you may need to present a credit card or leave a deposit in cash as a guarantee. In many cases, one-way rentals are available. See the links below for comparisons and more details.
Avis Car Rental (Thailand)
Budget Car Rental (Thailand)
North Wheels (Chiang Mai and northern Thailand)
Tips for driving in Thailand
For the most part, Thai roads are quite well-maintained especially in the main towns and cities and on principle routes. Although the roads themselves are generally good, the standard of driving seen on them is variable. Driving in Thailand you will need to pay special attention to motorbikes that will appear from all directions. Similarly, stray dogs wandering into the road (or just sleeping on the road) can be a hazard no matter whether you are in the city or countryside so keep an eye out for them. I would personally advise against driving at night on the main highways if you can avoid it. Trucks and heavy goods vehicles use the highways at night and often seem to have less regard for other road users. These drivers are also under pressure of time to get goods delivered and a combination of tiredness and speeding means that accidents are more common on Thai highways at night.
On the face of it, Thai drivers seem to be quite calm and you won’t often hear the sound of honking horns. However, like anywhere, Thai drivers will also get annoyed by people making offensive hand gestures or using their horn aggressively. There are also some differences that you will need to get used to. For instance, in some countries when a driver flashes their lights at you it may mean they are letting you go or giving you the right of way. In Thailand, when a driver flashes his lights it means ‘Get out of the way/I’m not stopping/I’m coming through’.
If you run a red light or are found to be speeding you could be stopped by the police. If nobody in the car speaks Thai you may find yourselves being waved on with nothing more than a finger-wagging. Alternatively, the police officer may issue you with an on-the-spot fine. You should really pay this at a police station which means that the officer must write out a ticket. However, in reality it is common practice for locals to take the option of paying a ‘discount’ directly to the officer concerned so that he does not have to go through the process of writing out a ticket.
In Thailand, they drive on the left. It is also compulsory for drivers and front-seat passengers to wear a seat-belt. Look out for speed limits which on suburban roads and lanes is usually 50 to 60km/h (30-37 mph) and on express-ways and other roads can vary between 90 and 120 km/h (55-75 mph). All drivers are legally required to have third-party insurance as a minimum, but it is advisable to have comprehensive insurance. Check with your hire company that you have comprehensive insurance included in the hire agreement.
Driving in Bangkok
Bangkok is notorious for its traffic and for good reason. If you are hiring a car from the airport to drive out of Bangkok to another province or destination (e.g. to Pattaya) the highways are good and traffic en route isn’t usually too much of an issue. The main congestion problems take place in the heart of the capital which is best avoided if you don’t know the city because it is all too easy to get caught in a Bangkok traffic jam. Add to this the unfamiliar road signs and drivers doing unexpected U-turns and it can be a better option, and much less stress, to use public transport whilst you are in Bangkok.
Filling up with fuel
Petrol or gasoline stations are easy to find and numerous in Thailand. Most hire cars seem to run on unleaded petrol or Gasohol (gasoline with ethanol mix) whilst mini-vans tend to use diesel. Unleaded fuel and Gasohol is currently around the 35-40 Baht a litre mark with diesel hovering around 30 Baht a litre. Credit or debit cards can be used at the bigger gas stations (Esso, Shell, Caltex etc.) and in most Thai towns, cities and resorts although in some countryside areas it is cash only so it’s always a good idea to have cash with you. When you pull into a filling station in Thailand you won’t usually need to get out of your vehicle once you arrive at the pump. An attendant will fill up your tank for you, take the money and will also clean your windscreen if needed. If you do want to stretch your legs, gas stations are as a good a place as any to do so with parking, toilets and places to eat all close at hand.
Image credit: Budget Car Rental