Picking up a rental car in a new country and hitting the road isn’t rocket science, of course. You’ll need to know how to drive, meet the requirements for car rental and remember which side of the road to stick to. Once you’ve got those under control, the highways are there to explore - but there is always something you can do to ensure it all goes smoothly.
I have driven in quite a few countries besides my homeland, and the experiences have all been good on the whole - but I’ve had my moments! This is a mix of practical tips and more philosophical advice which will hopefully make your next overseas driving adventure that little bit better.
1 . Check and double check what you’ll need for the rental car.
We asked our rental consultants the most common things people forget to bring or do, and they mentioned trying to use debit cards instead of credit cards (which many companies will not accept), forgetting to check whether an international driving permit or translation was necessary in conjunction with their own license, and failing to check the visa situation which meant they couldn’t even get past customs to begin the trip. I have also had issues with picking up a rental while transitioning between my maiden and married names, when my credit card and license were different - so try to get these changed before you travel.
These aren’t directly related to the road trip itself, just the boring details you need to get out of the way before you can move on to the fun part. However, they can certainly trip you up, so get all your ducks are in a row before you leave home.
It might not be a Ferrari, but it will get you there.
2 . Add a GPS to your rental.
I can’t stress this one enough! They are absolutely invaluable when you are feeling lost or overwhelmed, and make the whole experience less anxiety-inducing. There’s always the option to turn it off and follow your nose, but there will almost certainly be times you’ll be very glad of that robotic voice telling you which turn to take. When you’re at home with a 3G connection, your cellphone can guide you, but in a foreign country a GPS is a necessary item.
Check it is working well before you depart. One of my most stressful travelling memories involved a GPS with a broken charger which was quickly running out of battery while we rushed to get to Old Trafford in time for a tour. Thankfully a new socket for the cigarette lighter, purchased at a roadside gas station, solved all our problems.
GPS working = happy husband.
3 . Check the music situation before you rent, among other details.
Most rental cars are late-model and sport AUX cables, but it pays to check. You might be stuck with a USB connection or even a CD player, but if you know about it beforehand you can figure out a way to work around it and bring your tunes with you. After all, everybody knows that road trip music is the best part of a driving holiday. Bring your own speakers if you must, but don’t be stuck without tunes for your journey.
There are a few other things you might want to check before you go, too - whether the car takes petrol or diesel, and that everything is in full working order. If you’re departing in the daytime, ensure that the headlights are in order. I can tell you from experience that you don’t want to be stuck with malfunctioning lights once darkness falls! It goes beyond the car, too - if you’re forgoing civilisation for a remote spot like the Australian outback, it’s a good idea to know in advance where all the petrol stations are, and whether they still exist!
4 . Get off the beaten track. It’s cliched advice, but it bears repeating.
Highway service stations are a great part of any country's culture for sure, but I can assure you that they are just the tip of the iceberg. When you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination, plan a route that takes the back roads and goes through small towns instead of bypassing them. Some GPS systems even have a “scenic route” option!
A great way to encourage yourself to take some spontaneous turns is to go in search of someplace to eat. It’s a little awkward to leave the main roads for no reason whatsoever, but give yourself a quest (food is a great incentive) and it’ll suddenly feel more purposeful. Searching for the perfect diner, coffee shop or boulangerie takes time, but it’s worth it. Your GPS can help again here, as many can locate nearby pubs, restaurants and hotels.
Just be prepared for livestock!
5 . Familiarise yourself with the local road systems.
With numbers, words, colours, symbols and perhaps a foreign language thrown in, directional road signs can be confusing at best and indecipherable at worst. It’s a good idea to do a quick google search before you travel and make sure you know the basics of the highway system and how the main roads are numbered.
For example, did you know that in the United States, even-numbered interstates and national highways run east-west while the odd-numbered ones run north to south, a handy tidbit to know and one which might not occur to a foreign driver. In Australia, like in Great Britain, the alphanumeric system designates roads with “M” for motorways, “A” for primary highways, and “B” for less significant main routes, with numbers designating the individual road. In France, national routes are numbered in red while departmental routes are in yellow.
It’s all very confusing, and that’s why it’s a good idea to sort it out in your head. Planning a road trip in Europe through multiple countries? We wish you luck. At least the currency’s the same.
6 . Hit the supermarkets.
Although a supermarché in France or supermercado in Brazil might seem a little intimidating, with locals going about their busy lives, there’s no better place to stock up on road trip snacks. Buying gas station food can get expensive and boring, and you’re likely to come across the same things you would at home. Finding the local grocery store will not only help you get a handle on what locals eat, but can take care of number 4 on the list too.
There’s also the fact that foreign supermarkets are entertainment in themselves. I have spent hours in a Carrefours in Lyon marvelling over the range of deli meats, cheeses and wine in juiceboxes. Road trip snacks like chips, biscuits and fruit are universal, but delve deep amongst the shelves of a local supermarket and you’ll find fascinating new flavours and options.
7 . Keep your plans flexible.
The beauty of renting your own set of wheels rather than relying on public transport is that you can go where you want, when you want. Don’t ruin that by having a rigid schedule that’s planned down to the last minute! There will almost definitely be places along the way that will catch your eye, and times when you are running late for the next thing. Embrace it. If it’s a peak season and accommodation will be booked up, you may have to prebook that - but if you think your destination will be relatively quiet, you can probably wing it.
A failed attempt to drive right from NYC
to Niagara Falls
after picking up the rental car at La Guardia
around 5:30pm saw us searching for a place to stay along the I-390 at midnight one night. With a little help from a local police officer who pulled us over for looking suspicious (she understood once she heard our accents), we found a lovely place to stay in friendly Dansville, upstate NY, and acquired a new story to add to our travel memories. Of course, we finally made it to the Falls, and it was fantastic.
Just in time for lunch with a view.
8 . Make use of your contacts.
Being independent is nice, and admirable, and it’s very easy to pass up offers of accommodation, guides or meals from family, friends or acquaintances for fear of being a burden, or out of shyness. However, I highly recommend you take people up on their kindness. You can pay it forward when you get home, and it will almost definitely give you a much better insight into your destination than you would get by staying in a hotel and muddling through on your own. Home-cooked food, local events and markets, hidden gems - there’s so much you can experience if you reach out to people in the area. Of course, common sense is required - don’t jump into a car with total strangers or spend a night with someone you don’t know anything about.
I have stayed with close and distant family members, friends and friends of friends in the US, Canada, the Philippines, New Caledonia, Australia, France, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England and Scotland. I have also hosted many a traveller - some I knew and some I had never met but who were put in contact with me by a mutual friend or family member. Each experience, whether on the giving or receiving end of hospitality, has been enriching and so much better than a hotel.
Who needs a restaurant?
So, there it is - top tips for a foreign road trip, backed up by quite a bit of experience. If you’re inspired to plan your own trip, take a look at some great car rental deals to help you hit the highways.
Do you have anything to add to the list? I’d love to hear your thoughts!