5 Tips for Driving Abroad

Exploring the back roads of Iceland

When planning a holiday, whether it be a short city break or a longer 'travel' experience, there is always a certain degree of logistics to be considered. The inevitable question: 'Should we just hire a car and drive ourselves?' usually arises at some point when attempting to negotiate foreign public transport. Admittedly, organising how to get from A to B is not my forte. My concept of time, distance and spacial awareness being somewhat limited, coupled with the desire to do everything, makes for a particularly unhelpful combination. Throw in an extreme hatred for 'travel time' - or 'dead time' as I lovingly term it - and you have the perfect storm of indecision and stubbornness. 

Don't I sound delightful?

That said, I have seen some incredible places and realised some ambitious itineraries. So this (ridiculous) planning does appear to work. If you are thinking about hiring a car for a holiday, here are my 5 top tips:


1. Evaluate all costs and benefits

Not just the financial ones

Hiring a car abroad rarely saves the pennies. Even if it originally appears cheaper, costs rapidly escalate once petrol, insurance, parking, toll roads, etc. are factored in. Exercise your judgement with these additional payments: Not all insurance is equal. Paying more to lower the excess is worth the peace of mind, but paint cannot be stripped by ash dust in Iceland nor by sand particles in Oman. Nor I imagine in other countries.

Driving doesn't necessarily save time either. Yes, you don't have to pause at all the stops the world and his wife want to visit, (think the number 100 bus Nice to Monaco,  cheap and cheerful but costly in time, there's a reason why its local nickname is the 'people wagon'), but trains may go a faster, more direct route (Moscow to St. Petersburg) and you won't possess the road knowledge to match the local taxi's speed (New York, London, etc.). 

What you do gain is flexibility and choice in abundance. With your own vehicle, you are the master of time and the joy of not having to clock watch when exploring new places is immense. Rising before crowds of tourists overrun the next place of interest and stretching days out beyond sunset after the last bus departure; this is what a hire car offers. It will also afford you opportunities otherwise unavailable. Without a car I would not have stayed in a strange, wooden hut at the bottom of a volcano in Iceland and so would have missed the most spectacular Northern Lights display. Similarly, using only public transport in Morocco would have rendered the desired itinerary impossible. Marrakesh, Chefchaouen, Ourika, the Atlas Mountains and Essaouira within a week was pure madness and wonderfully so.


2. Google is your greatest friend

And your worst enemy

How many of us have gone irreversibly wrong in our home country while reliant on Google Maps? Yet we all have a tendency to utilise it as our sole source of information abroad, repeating the same mistakes.  

Used well, Google Maps is a powerful and cost effective tool when hiring a car. Replacing expensive GPS devices and with familiar settings, not to mention languages, it is often all you need to navigate the roads.

Used poorly and you can only laugh or cry in frustration. We have all been in a lay-by cursing data roaming charges or even worse the lack of signal among city skyscrapers, on a tiny remote island, in the middle of the desert, or similar scenario. Not to mention driving down what Google thinks are roads, only to discover at a point of no return that they are really disused footpaths unpassable as they become more narrow, with large rocks from landslides ready to cause damage and at a gradient too steep to reverse. (Yes, this was a real personal experience, thank you Sicily.)

How to avoid this? Invest some time into planning ahead of each journey. Download the local area maps when you have wifi, saving your accommodation, a couple of parking options and other useful places. It will be invaluable when you arrive and want to avoid being singled out as lost tourists whether in a sleepy village such as Ambleside, the Lake District or hectic city like Marrakesh, Morocco. And for some places, in the Middle East where roads are being constructed more rapidly and cars driven faster than Google can keep up, just get a GPS. 


3. Music, have lots of music

That you will love after hours on repeat

Yes all cars come with a radio. No, these cannot be relied on. English speaking records are internationally popular, but that does not mean you want to hear cheesy pop for 8 hours straight. Even once a good station is found, the nature of a radio results in wavering signal quality, not to mention being forced to endure white noise crackle in more remote areas. Plus, radios that have experienced an array of uncaring users tend to reset every time the car starts and fall out of their casing when going over bumps. Fun. 

So make a playlist. Or rather, lots of playlists. It is surprising how much music variety is appreciated during a day of travel. And how Justin Beiber sing-along tunes are great for raising energy levels, but slightly incongruous for a majestic mountain views. If you don't have the time to artfully curate your own, I recommend downloading movie and television series' soundtracks to provide an assortment of choice without any jarring tracks. Select carefully and don't forget a portable power pack or device to charge via the car. Music is great, perhaps necessary, but not to the detriment of directions. 


4. Accept that you will get lost

It will save you emotional pain

The duration of every journey will be longer than suggested. Partly because consistently maintaining the upper speed limit is impossible, mostly because you will get lost. The only way to get around this is to embrace getting lost as a positive part of hiring a car. 

Getting completely lost is not fun. But not following the quickest route is. In Iceland, driving around the entire island included stopping off at whimsical sightings of caves, waterfalls and ponies just because a road off the main one seemed like a fun place to explore. So while we arrived late at almost every destination, in the dark and slightly concerned we wouldn't make it in time for dinner, the discoveries left far more memories than perfectly planned evenings with heaps of time to shower and change. I'm sure hundreds if not thousands of other people made it to the 'secret' spots stumbled across, but at the time the excitement and wonder of being the only person capturing those moments was spellbinding.

Taking the alternative scenic route isn't welcomed when you are just trying to get from one place to the next, but the reality of a holiday experience is that the accidental finds are often the best. So take the back route (just check they are open!) and factor in lots of opportunities to stop for a still moment or two. 


5. Decide who should drive

It doesn't have to be you, or your buddies

Sometimes the best driver, isn't the optimum choice. In Mykonos our best driver was also our best drinker, automatically self-opting out of the race. And asking the least confident driver to take control also isn't going to do the holiday any favours. Usually if the option of a hire car has been thrown out there, someone will be an able volunteer, but even then I would recommend having two drivers insured.

Not just useful for the long stretches when breaks are required to allow the journey to continue safely, but it helps each other understand how best to direct and navigate. It also comes in handy if the primary driver can't take the wheel, whether a result of the bottle of red from the night before or sickness. Plus driving in alien places can be strangely fun and satisfying, even for the most discerning - it isn't every day that you climb to the top of the hill and see a brand new city sprawled out in front or get to glide across desert dunes. 

On the other hand, sometimes you want the flexibility and luxury of a private vehicle without the stress or responsibility. Here, hiring a car with a driver could be the best option. This was my choice in Nairobi, Kenya. With just one day to play with, using a recommended local driver permitted a whirlwind tour of the city and suburbs with a few lesser known gems thrown in. It was safe, practical and meant no one missed the views from the window. Similarly in Australia, while safe to drive myself up the typical backpacker route, I only drove for the fun factor experience on Magnetic Island. For the rest of the trip, taking overnight Greyhound buses, direct planes and booking on tours where I was driven allowed me to maximise time spent taking in the vast landscape rather than staring at the asphalt.

What are your tips for driving abroad? Comment below.

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