Planning your Self Drive Trip
Everyone is different in their approach to driving abroad– some travellers like to have everything planned with the route set in stone and all hotels booked before you depart. Others enjoy the total freedom afforded by self driving abroad and prefer to set off into the sunset in their rented vehicle with no real idea of where they’re heading.
My advice if you’ll be travelling in the developing world is to have at least a rough itinerary in mind before you set off. This will allow you to check out likely travel times, potential delays, whether there will be somewhere to stay each night etc. Its all too easy in countries with a poor transport infrastructure to find that journey times takes much longer than you anticipated , meaning you run out of time and don’t get to visit all the places you were aiming for.
On a number of occasions when planning to drive abroad ,I’ve had to radically change plans following pre-trip research which has revealed that it would be impossible to cover the distance I’d planned in the time available. Much better that this happens when you’re at home and can look at options such as one way rentals, rather than being in the middle of nowhere with a crowd of locals telling you that your itinerary is likely to take 2 months not 2 weeks to complete!
In countries with a better infrastructure, journey times are more predictable, hotels are readily available and in my view one of the joys of driving abroad is that you can just set off and stop whenever somewhere appeals to you. The USA and Australia are great countries to explore in this way – Just remember that half way into your trip you probably need to start considering whether you have time to get back to where you intend to finish up!
Its also worth investing in a good road map before you set off. (You can usually pick one up on Amazon for most countries). In my experience, the maps provided by rental companies are often next to useless and in some countries won’t be provided at all. If you’re travelling to a country which uses a different alphabet, its worth trying to get a map with town names written in both Roman alphabet and the local script. This will be a big help when navigating using road signs and asking directions from locals.
Researching the Country
If you’re going to be driving abroad in a potentially unstable part of the world, you need to be checking the news whilst planning your itinerary. Forums such as the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree are good places to monitor what’s happening on the ground in the country and the BBC website provides good regional news coverage.
Most Governments also have websites providing accurate, up to date information on whats happening around the world eg-
Also, some countries provide a service which allows their citizens to register the details of their trip so if a situation develops whilst you’re away, they can contact you with advice. The UK Foreign Office has a system called ‘Locate’ which is worth considering if you’ll be driving in an unstable part of the world.(Note- they plan to stop this service in Mid 2013 -mores the pity!)
Whilst you may not want to be contacted or bothered with work calls whilst you’re away, its worth checking that your mobile will work in the country you’re visiting before you set off – your network may need to set this up for you and this is easier to do whilst you’re still at home. If you have a mobile which receives email, don’t assume this will work abroad. Many countries the developing world don’t have a functioning data network yet, and some that do will only work in major cities. It may be you need to log onto check your email on some steam powered old PC in an internet café so make sure you know your password and how to access email away from your own computer.
Cash or Cards?
If you’ll be driving abroad in less developed countries you need to consider how you’ll pay for things on your travels. In parts of Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Central and South America you will be unable to pay for things like petrol, hotels and meals by credit card. Also don’t assume that ATM Cash dispensers will work. I usually make sure I carry enough local currency to cover neccessities for at least a couple of days. I then carry large denomination US dollars or Euros which can be changed in emergencies. It’s a delicate balance between carrying a small fortune in cash which represents a security risk, and running low on cash so you’re panicking that the only ATM machine in the next dusty town won’t be functioning.
You should spread out your foreign currency whilst driving abroad– keep some in a wallet, some in your bag in a non obvious place like your washbag or in a shoe, and the majority in a hiding place such as money belt with a zipped compartment. Carry some small denomination local currency notes separate to the bulk of your local cash. The most likely scenario causing you to be parted from some cash is a shake down by some corrupt traffic cops. If they ask for a ‘gift’ or impose a fine, you can then pull out some local notes without revealing your full wealth.
Although you may feel nervous carrying a lot of cash, you are far more likely to have problems relating to lack of ready cash than robbery or security concerns. I would therefore always err on the side of caution and make sure you always have enough cash to cover you until the next town where you’re sure there will be a bank and/ or a couple of ATMs.
Just before you go…
A couple of days before departing, if I’m dealing with a local car rental company I always confirm the car rental booking again. Drop an email to your contact and re-confirm the date and time they’ll be dropping the car off, the total price, the car rental insurance terms and how you’ll be paying them. Also ask if they can provide a contact number for you to call in case of any problem. The last thing you want is for the car to fail to appear at the appointed time so you have to spend valuable trip time chasing up the rental company or sourcing a replacement.