Take care of your road trip essentials first. Then enjoy the thrill of the open road!
I've driven through snowy mountains, desert sands, congested capitals and remote plains in more than 40 countries, often alone, and I've made almost every mistake you can think of. Luckily, you don't have to do the same.
Learn from me, and plan the perfect driving holiday - anywhere in the world.
You spot koalas snuggled into eucalyptus and want to stop, hushed, to stare. The tight bends on the road open to reveal the crest of a volcano, crushed purple above a bedspread of cloud. A strawberry-milkshake drive-through, the roar of a lion, the smoky-dust of rush-hour in rural Morocco, your eyes in the mirror, your hands at the wheel.
Few things compare to tackling the open road yourself and watching car parks and traffic signs turn into turquoise shores and desert sands. Knowing you can stop whenever you want, eat wherever you want and travel the way you want.
As long as you've taken care of your road trip essentials. Otherwise, things can get nasty.
In November 2009, search and rescue volunteers found the bones of a family of four in Death Valley, California. They weren't wild and reckless. And they hadn't been drinking. They simply wanted to see the world.
But they made planning mistakes and it cost them their lives.
Unfortunately, and I don't want to dwell on this for too long, their case is not unusual. Rangers and wilderness coordinators call it "Death by GPS." And, looking back at my life, there but by the grace of God go I, making basic mistakes I was lucky to survive.
Driving holidays can bring freedom in a way that few adventures can. But they can also bring danger, no matter how often we get in the car without thinking about it at home.
So that's what this article is all about. The revelling in the dreams of a place happens elsewhere. Here, we're talking nuts and bolts, belt and braces approach to planning your driving holiday or road trip.
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Let's get the obvious one out of the way, shall we? You're going to need a driving license, whether at home or abroad.
Yet, ridiculous as it is, it's often the thing that trips people up the most. Probably because it seems so obvious.
Make sure your driving license is:
Car insurance is NOT something to mess around with, obviously. But it can also become extortionate because it's one of the ways car rental companies can make money out of your confusion (and apathy since, let's face it, it's such a dull topic.)
If you hire a car, this should be part of your package (but check in advance!) If you're driving your own car then remember to bring your own roadside recovery details. Bear in mind that limitations may apply if you're out of the country for a certain period of time or, of course, your home package may not cover the country you're driving through.
Keep a copy stored electronically, as well as a paper copy in the car.
Many beautiful places in the world require permits. Permits to enter, permits to drive, permits to park and permits to take photographs. Gathering these permits may require more time and paperwork than your mortgage application did, particularly when it comes to national parks.
Start early and be thorough.
Roaming through the Australian outback, US National Parks, the national parks of Tierra del Fuego and many more besides all have permit restrictions. Some you buy at the gate (so you'll need the right method of payment, in the right currency with the right ID) and others you MUST arrange in advance.
If something like this forms the raison d'etre for your trip then I cannot stress enough that you should look into it in advance!
Long drives through certain parts of the world (particularly in America and Spain) require frequent stops to pay tolls. These can be pretty confusing for visitors, not to mention irritatingly expensive. Sometimes, car hire companies will suggest you use an alternative scheme. It's worth checking this out in advance since jet lag and general travel fatigue can prevent you making the right choice on the ground.
Start early to make sure you have your paperwork ready. Tackle the obvious driving license and insurance conditions but don't forget you may need special permits for certain landscapes, parks or camp grounds.
Again, this feels oh-so-obvious! But there are pitfalls that I've seen others make (and, ahem, I've made) time and time again.
Is it up to the task? Will you be driving through different conditions that require, for example, different equipment like winter tyres and snow chains?
Have you taken into account that you'll have lots of luggage with you? And passengers? Is it too big for city parking?
Do you have your car manual? If not, an electronic copy?
This is an article all by itself. But here's a quick checklist to run through:
Whether using your own vehicle or hiring a car, make sure that it can tackle the road conditions ahead, has space for all passengers AND luggage and (ahem) make sure you know how to drive it.
In Britain, you drive on the left. And Japan. And Australia, Jamaica, Malawi and the Maldives and many more.
So, for one, check whether to drive on the left or right with this handy website.
But the rules don't end there. Some countries require certain equipment, such as a spare pair of glasses in the glovebox, or restrict various others. See not being allowed to drive in flip flops in Spain, among others.
Check the rules of the road in the country (or state) you plan to drive in. You may be surprised...
At last! The fun part! Or at least it is to begin with. And then, well, it's easy enough to run out of steam.
First of all, why bother planning?
I am, by nature, a footloose and fancy-free kind of girl. And part of the whole point of arranging a driving holiday is to be flexible with your itinerary, stopping to see what you want and zooming past the rest.
Getting off the beaten track.
But remember our worst case scenarios at the top?
That's not what anybody wants.
But even without being that extreme, a certain amount of road trip planning does make life better. And if you're travelling with children, in a challenging environment or anywhere popular then you need to plan a bit.
It's taken me a long time to realise this, but you don't need to reinvent the wheel (sorry!) every single time.
In fact, it makes sense to use someone else's itinerary as a guide. You can always add to it, tweak it, tinker with it and everything else but at least you have a starting point.
We've started to add detailed itineraries to this site. For example:
In Europe, I find the best way to do this is through the AA route planner. Elsewhere, Google can be handy and you can save your own map there as well.
The older I get, the more I book. Booking on your phone is easier than ever, which, unfortunately has meant that it's now harder than ever to book somewhere by just showing up.
From pen and paper to fancy schmancy apps, you'll find lots of options for planning your trip. And it doesn't really matter which you use, so long as you use something!
Here's an article I wrote on the best apps to help plan your road trip for Avis over here.
And another tool that's very useful for planning a trip in America is the Hertz Road Trip Planner here.
Gah. Another boring but important part of arranging a driving holiday. Parking can make or break your trip. It's definitely worth making it a key point of your checklist when you book accommodation to avoid driving around circles or paying more than your whole trip cost for the pleasure of getting out of the car.
Check your checklist and book essentials like accommodation (and possibly parking) in advance. Download apps and templates in advance and check drive times between key destinations.
Sometimes I feel a bit foolish writing articles like this, I really do. I mean with a headline like that?
Nevertheless, it's a good reminder. Everyone I've ever met has forgotten to pack something they need, particularly when doing something new.
Are you everyone? Thought so. Let's move on.
Don't forget safety essentials like a spare tyre, jack, water, high-vis jacket, jump leads, hazard sign, fire blanket and torch. These are mandatory in some countries. A decent car rental company should make sure they're provided if you need them but check in advance.
Also, it's good sense to pack a charging dock for your phone, paper map, toilet paper and tissues, rubbish bag, more water and spare bulbs and fuses. You can buy roadside emergency kits or put one together yourself. First Aid Kit. Umbrella. Blanket. Hand sanitiser. Towel. Cool box. Swiss army knife. Picnic blanket. Air freshener?!
Hands-free kit for your phone (and check the legal requirements for this. Always better to be safe than sorry.)
For family travel with older children, consider a car organiser that hangs over the front seats into the back. Stock with snacks, toys, games and rubbish bags.
Snacks, spare contact lenses or glasses, and essential medication. Insect repellant and sunscreen, depending on conditions.
Pen and paper for leaving notes on the dashboard if needs be (Just unloading, back soon!)
Cash for parking and entrance fees.
Key phrases in the language you need - eg, Dear Officer, I'm sorry, Please fill the tank with petrol, Do you know the way to... etc
Reward cards and apps.
Here's where you get into the realm of road trip playlists, boiled sweets, and claiming shotgun. I'll leave that up to you (but lemon barley is my favourite.)
If you've been wondering whether or not to invest in a GoPro and have an epic road trip or driving holiday coming up, then now's the time to buy. With accessories that mount the camera to the dashboard and software to magically turn your miles of shaky footage into a neat, clipped vision of wonder, these babies are made for road trips.
Or... Failing that, buy something to mount your smartphone to the dashboard instead. Hit timelapse when the going gets pretty and enjoy the memories for years to come...
Paper maps. Wherever possible. Believe me.
If ever a mistake has happened that could have been avoided, it's arrived in the innocuous looking shape of not having a paper map.
And don't rely on the car rental company either. Or service stations (gas stations.) I have been burned by all of these and more!
Paper map. Paper directions. AND a SIM card or other way of getting online while on the road.
Seriously. Seems so ridiculous when you're sat at home planning by a roaring open fire or squinting at a blinking computer screen at work. Seems completely and utterly different when you're lost, cold, hungry and bored and wondering whether you're about to turn into The Blair Witch Project.
Run through a detailed packing list for you, your passengers and the car itself. And for the love of all that is good and sweet in this world, bring printed instructions and a paper map. An extended driving adventure is one of those scenarios whereby the internet is not your friend.
So far, we've covered pretty general scenarios. But this article promised to cover the road trip essentials to help you plan the perfect driving holiday anywhere in the world, right? So, a few more things to think about...
I've driven solo in Morocco, Austria, Australia and more, through cities and on long, extended trips. And believe me, if I can do it, you can do it. BUT there's no need to be foolish. A very well educated and responsible friend of mine nearly lost her life on an academic dig in the Australian outback.
In some ways, of course, it's no different to travelling with other people. In others, it's all the difference in the world, particularly but not exclusively for women. All of the road trip essentials apply equally here...
But. You will need to be a little more cautious in the ground you cover (however great you are, there's only one of you.)
Plan for more breaks, more stops for navigation, more streetwise approaches to camping outside or what you plan on doing if your car breaks down. Be extra vigilant in how you dress and what you leave in your car at night (ideally, nothing on show.)
Car seats, car seats, car seats! Different places have different rules but physics and gravity stay the same wherever you go.
Children's car seats save lives, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence to back that up. Check the rules where you go (bear in mind that even between Europe and the US, the specs change, even within states in America.)
Is it worth taking your own car seat to use on the plane?. Do you need to reserve a car seat in advance with the car rental? Will you need a bigger taxi to take the car seat if you're not picking up the car right away but spending a few days in the city?
Apart from that, double down on all the road trip essentials we've talked about. Little people can't tolerate as much as adults and, remember, you're only happy if the kids are happy.
Snacks, hats, sunscreen, entertainment, water, shade... Read the whole article again and double down on it for travel with children!
Will you need snow chains and do you know how to put them on? A torch is essential for this, as well as decent, waterproof gloves. Have you changed to winter tyres? Do you have a snow shovel and ice scraper. Don't forget to put the windscreen wipers up in the air overnight. Look at what others are doing and follow!
Hey, look. If any of the following are likely to be scarce, stock up: spare fuel, wiper fluid/screnwash, coolant and extra water. Consider a compass and a personal locator beacon. Have a backup plan. Check with park or land authorities and ask for their advice.
You'll need plenty of water in the car and look for air conditioning when booking your vehicle.
Buy and pack your own silver reflective windshield guard reflector and use it. Pack sheets or dark cloths to use as shades if you have children (or adults!) trying to sleep in the back.
Sunscreen, obviously. Make parking in the shade an absolute priority.
It's obviously not a good idea to be stranded in the Serengeti at night when the temperature plummets and the man-eating animals prowl around. Particularly if you need to pee.
What's possibly not so obvious (particularly if you live in Britain) is that dangerous animals are more common than you might think. You know those cute yellow kangaroo signs in Australia? They're not just for fun.
Kangaroos can be massive. Collide with one of them, or a moose or bear in Canada, a kyote in the US or a cow in India, and everyone's in trouble.
On the Great Ocean Road, for example, which runs from city-slick Melbourne, you're advised not to drive around dusk in order to avoid hitting kangaroos. In Morocco and in Oman, you have roaming camels to contend with.
Ask around online before you go and at the car hire pick up desk when you get there for any locally specific wildlife warnings. And follow them.
First of all, do you have to? In some cities you need to drive, but in most it's just a hassle. Traffic congestion and parking charges, not to mention teeny-tiny pre-car roads mean that driving in many global cities is about as pleasant as ending up with the middle seat on a long haul flight with turbulence.
Honestly, in many old cities, like Seville in Spain, it is simply physically impossible to drive through many of the central old parts of town.
Carless for a few days?
Consider a few days in the city before going to pick up your car for the bigger journey ahead. Or, if you must, pick a smaller car to make parking easier (and car rental cheaper.)
Finally, don't forget that many modern cities have inner city charges that the visiting traveller has little hope of understanding. The London Congestion Charge and the Dublin orbital motorway charge spring to mind.
Check with your hotel concierge and, well, you have been warned!
Different conditions call for different plans. Consider your passengers, the weather and the access to help if you need it.
Take care of your road trip essentials and then go and have an absolutely amazing driving holiday!
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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