If you’re an avid traveler, the idea of road-tripping in a foreign country has probably crossed your mind. It looks awesome, but is it really a good idea? Yes, absolutely, but there are some important things to consider ahead of time.
Guidebooks tend to make driving in foreign countries (especially in the developing world) sound frightening and confusing. Many outright discourage it, especially at night. If you don’t drive much, or are the average, A-to-B driver, it’s decent advice. For enthusiasts who enjoy driving and aren’t intimidated by challenging conditions, it’s really not that bad. With a little planning and a bit of caution behind the wheel, you can gain access to a world of sights and experiences off the normal tourist routes, all on your own schedule. It just takes a bit of planning ahead of time, and a few important rules to keep in mind
Before You Go
Learn to drive stick
Many of you already know how to drive a manual transmission, but if you’ve been putting off learning, now’s a good time. In most countries (and especially so in the developing world), manual transmissions are more common than automatics. Yes, you can find an agency that will rent you an automatic, but more often than not, it’ll cost more. Rental agencies also like to throw around disclaimers like “or similar” when you book, in case the exact car you reserved isn’t available. It’s unlikely, but you don’t want to show up at the counter and find out there aren’t any automatics available.
Learn the road signs
Most road signs are pictorial or have both English and local languages. Occasionally, however, they’ll be in the native language only and knowing what the shape and color mean can be essential. It wouldn’t hurt to Google your destination just in case, as certain countries, like China and Japan, have some unique signs no one else uses.
Consider your fuel
In many countries, diesel is both more common and cheaper than gasoline. Regardless of how far you actually plan on driving, the rental agency will expect you to return it with a full tank or pay an outsized fee, so you can save money here with some foresight. It’s also important to consider the availability of fuel. The less dominant fuel type can be hard to find well outside of the city, and even stations that carry it can run out. In some countries, gasoline and/or diesel can be bought right on the side of the road in a pinch, from locals selling it out of liter-sized bottles, but don’t count on it.
Map your route
On the ground, you’ll want a paper map at minimum and preferably a GPS device, but regardless, planning your route ahead of time reduces stress. Use a map website to decide what route you want to take, what towns you want to pass through, what sights you want to stop at, and what obstacles (such as passes closed in the winter) might be in your way. Take special note of the distances you want to cover each day, and keep in mind that unless you’re spending the entire trip on a freeway, it’s going to take a lot longer than the website estimates.
Talk to someone who’s been there
If you know someone who’s driven in the country you want to visit, fantastic! If not, get on a travel forum and start asking questions. There are plenty of helpful people out there full of tips specific to the country and region you want to drive in. Some will even help you plan your trip, or suggest interesting detours and sights.
Get an International Driving Permit
An International Driving Permit is, frankly, a paper booklet that says “I have a driver’s license” in several languages. It doesn’t grant you any special permissions or protections, but you’re still technically required to have one. You don’t even get it from the government; you buy it at AAA. It expires after only one year and each one will cost you $20, plus the cost of two passport-sized photos. It seems silly and unnecessary, given that all participating countries recognize your U.S. license, but believe me, you don’t want to try to explain that to a small-town cop on the side of the road in a foreign country. You’ll probably never even take it out of your bag, but it’s worth the money to have it. Also, many rental agencies will ask to see it.
Learn a bit of the local language
This is a general travel rule everyone should follow. No one expects you to be fluent in every language, but learning a few basic phrases will go a long way with the locals. Phrases like “hello” and “I’m sorry, my [insert language] is not very good, do you speak English” show people you’re trying and make them much more willing to be patient with you. Learning to count to 10, ask where the bathroom is, and how much something costs are all useful, and of course, learn please, thank you, and goodbye. It’ll help you in every interaction, including with the cops should you get stopped.
When You Arrive
Get a GPS
Whether you bring your own GPS and download a local map, rent a car with a built-in navigation system, or rent a hand-held GPS device, make sure you have one. Don’t count on your phone. Not only will it be a lot more expensive to use that much data abroad, but cell service is inconsistent outside of cities, even in the U.S.
Even if you know what roads you want to take, a GPS is invaluable if you get lost. They’re also a handy reference when you need to know how far you are from a destination or landmark, what road you’re on, or how close you are to your turn. Swallow your pride, here. You’ve never been to this country, you don’t know the roads, and you have only a vague idea of what you’re looking for looks like. A GPS is a big confidence booster and stress-reliever.
If you want to try getting by on just your phone, plan ahead. Save money by mapping your route ahead of time while you’re still on free Wi-Fi at the hotel or restaurant. Tap on the steps or route preview and take screenshots of each. When you’re ready to go, leave the route overview up on the app, but don’t tap “start.” Even in Airplane Mode, your phone still receives GPS signal and the app will track your location. If you’re a decent navigator, you should be able to find your way just by zooming in on the section of the route overview you’re interested in.
Understand the rules of the road
We like to complain about bad drivers in the U.S., but people for the most part follow the rules of the road. That’s true of many places around the world, but others are a different story. Every guidebook will make it sound like total and complete anarchy on the roads of the developing world, but it’s not that bad. The actual rules of the road are pretty similar everywhere, it’s the unofficial local rules you need to know. After driving on five continents (I’m coming for you, Australia), I can tell you that, despite what the guidebooks say, it’s all about the same. Driving in Thailand is not much different than driving in Peru or Morocco (or Rome, frankly).
In most developing countries, driving is very libertarian in the sense that everyone acts in their own best interest. If you do the same, you’ll get there fine. Understand that everyone around you will use whatever bit of pavement (and perhaps the shoulder) not already occupied and will take the path of least resistance. They’re going to be aggressive. They’ll pass wherever possible. You’ll have to act accordingly. Expect other cars (and trucks, and motorcycles, and horse carts, etc.) to tailgate, pass on either side, create lanes, drive in the middle of the road, and more.
Here again, you need to swallow your pride and let them pass you. They know the road, they’re comfortable with the traffic, and they know their vehicle. You don’t. Let them go.
There are only two hard and fast rules
There are two universally respected rules I’ve learned in my travels: traffic in the roundabout has the right of way, and obey the stoplights. No matter how crazy the locals may seem to drive, it’s universally understood that cars already in the roundabout (or traffic circle, if you prefer) have the right of way and you must wait for a safe gap in traffic before you enter. You may not have to wait long if there’s no traffic, but if there is, you stop. Same goes for stoplights. The motorists around you may speed, tailgate, cut you off, ignore lines on the road and street signs, but they stop for red lights. They may have rolled through a stop sign a block earlier, but when they get to the signal, they obey.
Tickets and fines are paid on the spot
In most of the world (including much of Europe), traffic fines are paid on the spot. If the police pull you over, they’ll expect you to fork over cash. It’s not extortion or a bribe (usually, make sure you get a ticket), it’s the way business is done. If you don’t have the cash on you, most will happily escort you to the nearest ATM. Some will impound your car and/or your license. Don’t ask me how I know.
Police checkpoints are common
Rather than roam the highways looking for offenders, police in many countries wait for you to come to them. They park on the side of the road with a radar gun and flag down anyone they catch. If they wave you down, stop. You don’t want a police chase in a foreign country.
It’s also not uncommon for the police to set up random checkpoints on the road to combat everything from drug trafficking to terrorism and smuggling. In some places, there’ll be a checkpoint entering every town. Approach slowly and follow the officer’s hand signals. Most of the time, they’ll just wave you through. If they stop you, be polite and make sure you have all the documentation the rental agency gave you on hand. The more it seems like a waste of time to be questioning you, the quicker they’ll send you on your way.
There will be obstacles in the road
You can encounter obstacles anywhere, but it’s more common in the developing world. It might be a horse or mule pulling a cart or being ridden. It might be wandering livestock. It could be a disabled vehicle, rocks, or garbage. It could be pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, or other cars. Keep alert when driving in the developing world, because there will always be something in the road ahead of you. People and animals will walk out in front of you. Other motorists will make dangerous passes. There will be stuff in the road behind a building or blind corner. Make peace with this, and be prepared for it. You don’t want to be surprised.
Try not to drive at night
It’s hard enough to figure out where you’re going in a foreign land in broad daylight. The added challenge of finding signs and landmarks in the dark only gets worse when streets are poorly signed, the signs are in a foreign language, and there are fewer people around to ask for help. All of that is also compounded by the other challenges of driving in a developing country. To top it all off, it’s not uncommon to encounter cars, motorcycles, trucks, and carts without any lights or reflectors. There’s also no guarantee the lights you do see will correspond to what you expect, as people sometimes put white lights on the rear of their vehicles and red lights on the front. These challenges are lessened significantly in a well-lit city, but it’s still tougher than driving during the day. Out in the countryside, it can be downright hazardous.
There will be motorcycles and scooters everywhere
Whether it’s because of narrow streets and a lack of parking or just economics, motorcycles and scooters are far more prevalent everywhere else in the world. Their riders will split lanes, ride on the shoulder, hang in your blind spots, cut you off, and more. It’s your responsibility not to hit them, because they’ll assume you’re used to driving with them every day.
Take pictures of your rental car
Even a mom-and-pop rental car agency will do a walk-around with you and identify any existing damage to the car. They’ll mark it on the contract so there’s no question later, but do yourself a favor and take photos as well. Odds are, the same person won’t be checking it back in, and you don’t want to end up in an argument over damage that isn’t your fault. This is especially important if you’re returning the car to a different location than you rented it, as they may not be able to get the other office to vouch for the condition of the car when it was rented. Better agencies will take pictures for you so there’s no dispute about when they were taken, but don’t rely on them. Take your own.
While you’re poking around the car anyway, take a look at your tires. They’ll most likely be in decent condition, but if they’re not, you’re going to want to know that before you set off. If you plan on any enthusiastic driving, it’s also good to know what you’re working with, because let’s be honest, most rental agencies aren’t putting performance tires on their cars.
Bring snacks and water
If you’re going on a long drive, it’s best to get your provisions ahead of time. In the U.S., we’re used to every gas station having a convenience store, but that isn’t always the case in the developing world. Don’t assume you can pick something up when you stop for fuel, especially when driving in remote areas.
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