Driving abroad… it’s not all ‘clouds and castles.’
(photo by the author)
Well, we finally picked up our rental steed at Seville airport in Spain this week. Driving and renting while traveling internationally has its pluses and minuses; it can give you the flexibility to really get out into the countryside on your own schedule… and you can carry much more in a car than on your back. Of course, a car brings with it its own unique stresses: where to park? Will my rental car company nickel-dime me with hidden fees? Is that scenic mountain highway on the map a wide, paved road, or a harrowing, narrow gravel path? We’ve successfully driven in 18 countries on four different continents, and thought we’d expand on some lessons learned.
1. Slow down: You’re doomed to fail internationally if you see driving as a competitive contact sport. Don’t be afraid to slow down, pace yourself and assess your situation. It’s better than the alternative of letting other impatient drivers around you push you into a bad situation.
2. Learn to drive a stick: This has bitten more than a few teams on The Amazing Race… a stick gives you more control driving on hills and in slippery conditions. Plus, outside of America, a vast majority of cars are stick-shift transmissions, and you’ll save hundreds of dollars on a rental versus an automatic transmission.
3. Using Google Maps: We’ve used our smartphone as our GPS in Spain both in the car and on foot, with great success. Still, a paper map is handy, as GPS will rapidly drain your smartphone’s battery, even if it’s plugged in.
4. There are no bad drivers: Everyone drives in their very own special way: watch what the locals do, as there is often a very good reason why they do it. Often, we find the most distressing places to drive in are those where a large number of foreign drivers congregate, each wanting to drive just like they did back home… Kuwait City and Miami Beach, Florida comes to mind.
5. Parallel parking: Learn it and keep proficient at this art mostly unknown to American drivers; it’ll open up a whole new world of parking spots. A good driver can insert themselves in a space about a meter longer than their car. The biggest mistake Americans make is trying to approach a spot nose first; pull up as close as you can next to the parked car forward of the coveted open spot (this is the ‘parallel’ part of parallel parking) and back in slowly around their bumper.
6. What can kill me next?: Take a page from Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s book and always be on watch for the next potential disaster, and think of what you can do to avoid it.
7. Use a spotter: Finding yourself as a passenger on an international road trip? You still have a very important set of jobs to do: namely navigation, serving as a secondary visual lookout for signs, donkeys, hazards etc., Environmental control (and perhaps, backseat crowd control, if you’re riding with kids and/or pets), and jumping out to spot and assist the driver with step 5.
8. Driving on the left side of the road: We rented a car in New Zealand and drove on the left side of the road for a month. Three rules served us well: Look right, give way to the right, and follow the flow. We also broke rule 2 and requested an automatic, so we didn’t have to learn to shift left-handed at the same time.
9. Drinking and driving: Um, just don’t. You’ll need all of your wits about you for rules 1 thru 8. Use the time-honored pilot’s rule of 8 hours, from bottle to throttle.