STORY JIM MATHERS | PHOTOS JIM MATHERS & GETTY IMAGES
Planning an overseas holiday is exciting but, for some, it can also generate anxiety. There’s a lot to think about, especially if you’re considering driving.
I’ve driven quite a lot overseas, in cars and even a giant Griswald family-style RV. While at times a little nerve-wracking, for the most part it’s been a low-stress, rewarding experience.
The beauty of driving overseas is that you can go wherever you want, whenever you want.
The key to a happy and safe driving holiday is good preparation. If you’re sensible and plan ahead, you’ll have little trouble driving in most foreign countries. Here are some tips:
Many countries require IDPs (International Driving Permits). They are often needed for car hire and RACQ recommends you get one (you’ll also need to carry your current licence). Selected RACQ branches issue IDPs for $39. Visit racq.com/idp for details.
Driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road takes some getting used to. It’s more difficult, and dangerous, at intersections and roundabouts. You have to concentrate, especially during your first few days behind the wheel. Keep reminding yourself where the car needs to be on the road. Be extra careful when turning left (like turning right in Australia).
It’s important to understand local road rules. Key things such as not driving while using handheld phones or when under the influence of alcohol are universal.
But speed limits vary and most countries have distinctive rules. For example:
• In many parts of the USA, it’s illegal to pass a school bus that’s stopped with its lights flashing, regardless of the direction you’re travelling in.
• If you wear prescription glasses, in some countries you must carry a spare pair.
• In Sweden, you have to drive with headlights on day and night.
On-the-spot fines are common and penalties can be significant. Check local road authority and travel websites for details of road rules. The rac.co.uk website has good information about Europe.
Research local road conditions before you travel. Remember, a bit of driver courtesy can go a long way. Pay attention to road signs.
Most countries have errant wildlife. Keep your eyes peeled.
Watch weather reports. Conditions can change quickly, especially where snow and ice are involved. Drive to suit the conditions. If they’re bad, don’t drive.
Road infrastructure can vary markedly. Even in the USA, where roads are good, you can be caught out. I recall one white-knuckle, mountain drive in a large RV in Colorado, where the road had no Armco barriers and a small verge. There’s nothing like an unprotected drop of several hundred metres to refocus your concentration.
You’d be surprised what road information you can find on the internet, including videos.
At some stage, you’re likely to miss an exit or take a wrong turn. Don’t panic. Pull over where it’s safe, re-evaluate and plan how to get back to where you need to be. It’s not worth worrying about losing a bit of time.
You can get maps from local auto clubs. Better still, use a satellite navigation device. They can usually be hired with your car. We take our own sat nav and buy a micro SD card from Australia with directions for the country we’re going to. There can be no denying the benefits of a good, English-language sat nav when driving in a country like France. We’ve done the same for the US, Canada and the UK.
Google is useful too. In the US, we had to pick up a hire car in San Francisco city. We planned our ‘escape’ from the city using Google Maps and Google Earth.
Talk to RACQ Travel about booking a hire car before you go. It will take some stress out of the experience. Be clear about restrictions regarding where you can take your vehicle, what the insurance covers and what excess applies (sometimes excess can be reimbursed under a travel insurance policy, but check in advance). Upgrade your insurance on pick-up if needed. When you collect your car, inspect it and ensure all damage is noted on your agreement before you drive away. Do the same on drop-off.
Try to keep your fuel tank at least half full, so you’re less likely to run out. Carry a credit card to pay for fuel. In some countries (like the USA), you have to pay before you fill.
Tolls are common. It’s better to have an electronic tolling device, which usually can be arranged with your hire car. Otherwise, make sure you understand the hire company’s charging arrangement. Admin fees usually apply on top of tolls.
Parking options vary markedly. In places like the USA and Canada, it’s not too bad, especially outside large cities. In Europe, street parking can be diabolical. Pre-plan if you want to park in a city area. In most cases, it’s a lot less stressful if you catch public transport into the city centre.
Use your RACQ card overseas to access auto club assistance and discounts (see aaa.asn.au for details of affiliated clubs). See smartraveller.gov.au for up-to-date travel advice. Visit racq.com for travel and hire car bookings, and IDPs.
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst.
Travel Insurance: RACQ Travel Insurance has a range options to keep every traveller protected, with a 20 percent discount for RACQ members.
Driving Permits: If you’re planning to drive while abroad, we recommend you get an international driving permit. RACQ can even help with the process visit RACQ for more details.