While the pandemic hit pause on much of the travel industry in 2020 and the years that followed, there was one area of travel that saw an increase in interest: the humble road trip.
Long a part of American travel culture, domestic road trips had taken a backseat in the preceding decades as international flights became more attainable; quickly, easily and affordably connecting many American travelers to cultural hubs like Europe, where train travel and low-cost flights were then equally straightforward and economical.
As the pandemic lifts and interest in international travel begins to return to its pre-pandemic levels, many Americans are eager to take their newfound road trip wanderlust abroad.
So grab your car snacks, an audiobook and GPS and read on for tips on how to road trip abroad.
Pre-trip: Is a road trip abroad right for you?
Research the roads you’re thinking of driving
Driving on the long, wide roads in the French and German countryside is a much different experience than driving through the tight roads of the Irish countryside, or among the hairpin turns and aggressively impatient drivers of the Italian coast. The same is true of driving in places like Iceland’s Ring Road in the summer versus that same road in the winter, where blinding snow and wind-pushed drifts can render the roads unexpectedly impassable. And in some areas of places like Africa, Asia and South America where paved and lit roads are not a given, driving at night, during heavy rain or without a 4×4 vehicle is not possible.
Be sure to look into what the driving terrain and driving culture are like where you’re headed to avoid any unpleasant or dangerous surprises.
Know which side of the road they drive on in your destination
If you’re planning on renting a car in popular English-speaking destinations like the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa, be aware that they drive on the left side of the road and that the driving wheel is located on the right side of the car.
Take a trial run if you’re new to road trips
You may know how you travel when you’re navigating airports, hotels and subway systems, but if you’ve never taken a road trip, the first time to do so should not be when you’re in a new country. Plan a long day of scenic drives near home so you know how you are on a road trip: how often you want to eat and go to the bathroom; if you get bored after a certain number of hours of driving; if you’re traveling with others, whether you prefer to be the passenger or the driver; if you want to listen to an audiobook or a playlist.
Renting a car abroad
Know how to drive the car you rent
In many areas of the world, it is more affordable to rent a car with manual transmission than it is to rent an automatic. But if you don’t know how to drive a manual, you likely won’t be able to get out of the parking lot let alone on the road. Double-check your booking to make sure you can drive the car you’ve booked.
Know your car tech connection
The audio and device charging connections of your car will vary depending on the make, model and year of the car. Some newer models may be quick and easy to connect to via Bluetooth and USB ports, while older models may have auxiliary cord jacks, CD players, tape players and 12V ports. When you book your rental car, you should be able to find out the connection information available, or at least the make, model and year, which will let you search and find out these important specs. That in turn will help you bring all the right cords to make sure you can play your music and keep your phone charged while navigating.
Know your credit card car rental insurance
If you book your rental car with a credit card, your card will likely have a car rental insurance policy baked into its plan. If you opt for the car rental company’s insurance policy, you’ll forfeit your card company’s coverage while paying the rental company’s extra fee. Be sure to know what your credit card covers and which options offer the best coverage and the best rate.
Plan and prepare for your trip
Before you go: Get Your International Driving Permits (IDPs)
Most countries and car companies will require you to have an International Driving Permit to rent a car and drive on their roads. This permit is an official translation of your American driver’s license into multiple foreign languages, meaning one permit will have you covered for many countries. The only organization authorized by the U.S. State Department to issue International Drivers Permits is AAA. Getting one is a simple, straightforward process. You will need a valid U.S. driver’s license, a completed application and two original passport pictures. Bring these to your local AAA, pay the $20 fee, and you’ll walk out with your IDP. The looks a bit like a paper passport. Important note: Be sure to get your IDP before you go abroad. Other countries cannot issue IDPs to Americans, and while you are able to mail your information to AAA if you are applying from abroad, the process can take up to six weeks. More information is available at AAA’s International Driving Permit website.
Book your car and accommodation ahead of time
Road trips may be a fun, freeing, and seemingly spontaneous way of traveling, but nothing will put a damper on your vacation like expecting to get a car and a room or a campsite when you get to your destination only to find out there are none available, or that the options left don’t quite meet your need.
Do your research
You might be able to get away with not knowing a foreign language when you’re getting around an international city, but when you’re taking to the road, you’ll want to have some essential vocab in your back pocket. Look up keywords like “exit,” important traffic symbols like those for public restrooms, read through the rules of the road for the place you’re heading, and know emergency phone numbers in case you need them.
Have a plan for cell phone data
Whether you choose an international option with your at-home carrier, pick up a local SIM card while in your destination or already have an international-friendly phone plan, having a working phone is the key to a safe and happy road trip in the modern age. Having access to data with or without WiFi will help you get where you’re going, keep you entertained while you’re getting there and get emergency assistance if needed.
Download what you’ll need
Whether it’s Google Maps, Spotify playlists, Audible audiobooks or a podcast in your favorite player, be sure any media you might need while en route has been downloaded to your phone so you’ll still be able to access it if you find yourself in an area without service.
Know some car maintenance basics
If you never needed to learn how to change a flat tire, now might be a good time to learn. You’ll save yourself the hassle of having to navigate calling for help in a foreign country and a foreign language.
Once you get there
Take time to get settled before setting off
The biggest difference between road-tripping in your own backyard and road-tripping abroad is that you’ll first fly to a new destination before renting a car to head out on your trip. For this reason, it’s best to give yourself time to acclimate before hitting the road. If you’re dealing with jetlag, the last thing you want to do is get behind the wheel. And depending on where you are, there will likely be some errands and essential planning and packing you’ll want to take care of before you hit the road.
Avoid salty, sugary snacks
With all the planning and fussing it can take to find healthy snacks abroad, it can seem easier to opt for pre-packaged bags of snacks and candy. But these kinds of snacks can be packed with salt and sugar, which can make you dehydrated and thirsty, leading to more bathroom stops.
Take breaks to stretch
While the upside of road-tripping is the immersive landscape views and the amount of country you can see in a short time, the downside is that you won’t be spending all day on your feet in the way you would if you were walking city streets or hiking nature trails. Be sure to compensate with frequent scenic pitstops, giving yourself time to stretch your legs and the rest of your body.
Stay alert while driving
Sure, the whole idea behind a road trip is that you are surrounded by such beauty that you could never dream of getting tired while driving. But long stretches of time behind the wheel will lead to fatigue no matter how scenic the views. Don’t overcommit yourself to driving longer distances than you can stay alert and focused for, and if you have multiple drivers, be sure to take turns and take naps if needed.
Pull over for nice views
When you’re surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery, it can be hard to keep your eyes on the road in front of you. If you find yourself looking everywhere but the road ahead, find a safe place to pull over to admire the views before driving on. That way you will appreciate your trip and stay safe while driving.