You probably already know that world travel requires preparation.
But if you plan on driving in a foreign country, you'll need to consider even more details. For a short tour, it might be easier to rely on public transit. We understand, however, that nothing compares to getting behind the wheel. Everywhere we go, we'd prefer to be in control of the cockpit. And when we're cruising through our home country, it is not problem at all.
During international travel, though, there are some pitfalls. And unless you anticipate these issues, you might get stuck riding the bus. Whether you want to or not. As it turns out, there's a lot more to it than remembering which side of the road to drive on. There are also the obvious language barriers where they exist. But we've taken a closer look and offered our tips. We think learning these rules of the road will make you feel like a pro wherever you travel.
How to Prepare for Driving in a Foreign Country
Before we tackle the individual steps we think are important, let's cover some of the big issues. Keep each of these factors in mind before you set off to go driving in a foreign country. You might not encounter problems in all areas, but it helps to be prepared.
- License - This could be the most complex issue. Driving in a foreign country means knowing and obeying its laws. In many countries, you can use your existing license combined with an international driving permit. But make sure you're legally covered before setting off on foreign roads.
- Insurance - Here's another area where you'll want to make sure you're in legal compliance. Some domestic insurance policies have limited coverage abroad. But we recommend talking to your provider to make sure you're in good shape. You can always check with the other country's embassy for further advice.
- Rental cars - Chances are, you won't have your own car when you're traveling overseas. Most nations have their own versions of the rental car industry. But you'll need to have all your ducks in a row. It is helpful to make arrangements well before your vacation begins.
- Routes - Of course it is important to make sure you know how to get around when driving in a foreign country. Fortunately, GPS devices help in most countries. But you also need to keep in mind less specific considerations. Research and avoid areas with especially rough roads or dangerous neighborhoods.
Tips for Driving in a Foreign Country
Now let's get to some pointers we think will make the prospect of driving in a foreign country less daunting. We've collected some expert opinions and analysis to provide our favorite tips below.
1. Know your directions like the back of your hand.
One of the first issues most international drivers consider is the direction of traffic. And there's a good reason. As it turns out, there is a lot of variety between countries. Many require drivers to travel on the right hand side of the road. Then others switch that standard entirely. Making it even more confusing, some of these countries share borders.
That means that if you're planning to drive in multiple countries, you might have to switch. And going from one side to the other once is tough enough. Trying to keep all of the reversals straight between nations can seem downright impossible. So try to make it as straightforward as possible for yourself. Arrange your itinerary with clear designations of what the roads will require. And we suggest traveling across borders only when you've had plenty of sleep. Leave any distractions behind and pay full attention to the road and flow of traffic.
Driving on the right side of the road is common. But there are many common travel destinations around the world with an opposite direction. You might know a few of them already, like Australia and the United Kingdom. Then there are several others you might want to be aware of, including Japan, Jamaica and South Africa. And as India becomes a bigger travel hub, keep in mind that you'll drive on the left there, too. Bermuda, Indonesia, Kenya, Thailand and Zimbabwe are among the others. And if you're in doubt, be sure to double check before your trip.
2. Get familiar with the stick shift.
You might be the best driver on the road in your country. But if you aren't up to speed on manual transmissions you might be left in the dust. Driving in a foreign country sometimes means dealing with less than optimal auto choices. Some nations simply don't have a huge number of cars. And others tend to have older or less luxurious models.
This often translates into a higher percentage of stick shifts among your choices. So feel free to disregard this step if you're a master at shifting gears. But if that's a foreign concept, take note.
We recommend brushing up on the skills even if you're not planning a trip abroad. It's just a handy bit of knowledge and you never know when it will prove useful. But if you just don't have the time or interest, make sure you plan everything well in advance. Of course, many countries will have a wide selection of cars for rent. If you're traveling to more remote locales, though, this is a less obvious issue you might encounter.
3. Make sure you consider any little ones taking the trip.
You know that if you're going to be traveling anywhere in a car with kids, you need the right equipment. That means a car seat or booster seat, as applicable. And if you're traveling with kids in tow, we strongly recommend bringing their seats along. Granted, they can be bulky and difficult to carry with you. But if you're flying into your destination, you're probably in luck.
Most child car seats are compatible with airliner seats, too. So just strap your child in his or her seat on the jet as you would in the car. Even if your young one is traveling on your lap, check with your carrier. The airline will likely agree to stow your car seat without counting it as carry-on luggage. Then, when you're driving in a foreign country, there's one hassle you won't have to encounter.
Sure, plenty of foreign rental agencies will advertise car seats to accompany their vehicles. That might be true, but you can never count on a company having exactly what you want. If you get there and they have an unfamiliar size or fit, you'll be in real trouble. Plus, you child probably wants the comfort of his or her seat. You're already going to be in a foreign country, so bringing that piece of home might be reassuring. As a final piece of research before you leave, make sure you know what type of system you'll encounter. Your car seat will likely still work, but installation might look a little different.
4. Supplement driving with public transit when you can.
We get it, you like driving. After all, that's probably why you're reading this article. But we still recommend keeping it limited to longer distances. Especially if you're staying in a city, why not make use of the local public transportation? Not only will it save a little pollution, it will probably save you some frustration along the way.
Traveling in major metropolitan areas can be hard even in your own part of the world. Combined with the stresses of driving in a foreign country, it can be doubly intimidating. We know it can be done and some folks actually thrive on the challenge. But for most travelers, we think avoiding city driving is often the best choice. You have to deal with local drivers, other tourists, unfamiliar laws and sometimes strange road designs.
Meanwhile, public transportation in many of these cities is abundant and inexpensive. Some types of areas of travelers are certainly more desirable than others. So we certainly recommend you check up on the options in your host country before leaving home. Get change in the local currency if needed. Then rely on the professionals to guide you around by bus, train or other mode. By the way, taxis are common in most countries, too. But if you go this route, make sure you use reputable services with a proven safe track record.
5. Brush up on local laws and customs.
We've already touched on the importance of following local laws and ordinances. But it goes far beyond making sure you have the proper licensing and insurance. Of course you'll want to be familiar with the local speed limits. And if you'll do any partying, make sure you are clear about what constitutes driving under the influence. Issues like using a cell phone while driving might also be different in your host country.
And while you'll plan to stay on the right side of the law, you'll want to consider penalties, too. Just in case you find yourself accused of a violation, make sure you feel comfortable handling yourself. Some countries are known for corruption within law enforcement. This could result in attempts to solicit bribes. We recommend checking out the reputation of a specific country before travel. But in general, it is probably best to handle small cash penalties at the point of contact. That will not only likely get you out of a potential jam, it will mean you aren't on the hook.
Some legal systems around the world consider debt a serious offense. So leaving a disputed bill unpaid could potentially open you up to more punitive reactions. We'll also include as a side note that it is important to consider the habits of your fellow drivers. Not everyone obeys the same road culture as you are used to in your country. Therefore, don't be surprised to hear some loud horn blasts or choice phrases. You might just behave as normal and find yourself running afoul of common culture abroad.
There's really no reason to dread driving in a foreign country.
We hope our guide has lessened some of your concerns. In some cases, it might shed light on issues you hadn't considered. And there are possibly a few of you considering scrapping the idea in favor of cabs and bus fare. But if you want to be in control on your international trip, there's no better way than driving.
If you learned a little something new from our article, share it with the world travelers in your life. And let us know in the comments section below if you have any thoughts or questions.
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