Driving a car gives a traveller more independence and flexibility than scheduled transportation, such as air travel, rail travel, or bus travel, and may be more comfortable than cycling.
Driving is often the fastest mode of transportation at distances between 10 kilometres (6 mi) and 100 kilometres (60 mi), unless there are traffic jams or the roads are in bad condition. In countries with a high speed rail network, however, driving between big cities is usually slower than using the trains. Within cities, public transportation and cycling often beat cars in terms of speed, due to congestion and problems of finding parking. Over small distances even walking can be faster. You might want to find cheap parking for your car for the time you are in the city, or rent a car only when leaving for the countryside. In sparsely populated areas public transport may be infrequent or non-existent, and in difficult terrain there may be no railway.
Most countries require you to have a valid license before you will be allowed to drive. Although this may or may not actually be enforced in the country you are visiting, you are still strongly advised not to drive without a valid license, as you could be subject to fines and possible imprisonment if caught, and any insurance policies you may have purchased will not cover you in the event of an accident.
In addition to having your driver's licence, you may need to satisfy age requirements, such as 18 years for driving a regular car or 21 for heavier vehicles or heavy trailers; for heavy vehicles there may be additional requirements.
Most countries allow foreign licenses, especially from neighboring countries and licences that follow international standards; for example Canada and the USA accept each others' licenses, as do the EU countries. Exceptions include China, where a domestic driver's licence is required.
If your domestic driver's licence fulfils the requirements of the international standard, it will be valid at least in countries who have signed it. If not, it is valid if accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) as laid up in the convention. Some countries that have not signed the convention may nevertheless accept your licence accompanied by an IDP. There is also the ISO/IEC 18013, designed to replace the IDP, but it is not widely recognised.
The IDP is issued by an authorised body; usually it can be obtained from the automobile association in your country of residence. There are many resellers on the net, not all of them recognised, see a list of approved organisations. The IDP is valid for a stay of at most a year, and at most for three years from the issuing date. If your country is not part of the convention you may be out of luck.
If your stay in a country is much longer than a typical tourist's visit, you will often have to get a local license. This may involve simply exchanging your foreign license for a local one or going through the full courses and testing as a local who has no license would have to.
Signs and rules
About half of the world, including most of Europe and Central Asia, and parts of Africa, follows the 1968 Vienna conventions on road traffic and on signs and signals (developed by the UN, based on the European tradition). If you are used to driving in one such country, most signs and rules will be familiar. The signs in these countries are mostly pictograms, which require no knowledge of the language. The meaning of some symbols may still not be self-evident, and additional signs may be textual, such as a parking sign having an addition of "residents only". Those who are not concerned by the main sign should not need to understand the auxiliary signs.
Another important standard is the domestic US one (with state-specific variations), which has influenced much of the world. Australia, Canada and Mexico follow a system in this tradition, which for regulatory signs and warning signs relies more heavily on text in the respective national languages.
South America, South-East Asia, Ireland, Japan and New Zealand use different adaptions and mixtures of both the above traditions.
China has its own system.
- Main article: Car rental
Renting a car is often more practical than bringing your own, but there are many things to watch out for. Check the small print and make sure to note initial condition of the car, not to be told to pay for earlier damage.
You usually pay per day (although long rentals may be cheaper), so you might want to plan on having a car just certain days.
In many cases the requirements for driving a rental car are higher than for a driver's license in and of itself. For example, there may be a higher age limit or the rental company may require a certain number of years of experience driving. If you have renewed you license recently, it might be wise to keep the old one to prove that you have, in fact, been driving for a longer time.
Check your insurance; not all policies cover international travel and even those that do may not meet the requirements of a destination's regulations. You really do not want to find yourself having to appear in court because of an accident your insurance did not cover, especially when the court may be far from your home or may operate in a foreign language. Nor do you want bills your insurance does not cover, whether auto repair, legal or medical.
Some borders may be no problem to cross with your own car, but many rental contracts forbid driving to certain neighboring countries or even some regions and jurisdictions of the same country. You may also need more documentation than at home, e.g. proving ownership. Often you need a sign showing the nationality of your car. At some borders, you need to change the side of the road that you drive on.
Bringing a vehicle into some countries requires a Carnet de Passages; like the IDP this is usually obtained from the automobile association in your home country.
Road conditions and driving habits vary from country to country and between regions. If you will drive in winter or in mountains, check implications of winter driving. If you may be using unpaved roads or roads in bad condition, check what to expect, and also the fine print of your insurance and rental contracts. In sparsely inhabited areas navigating may involve some challenges and breaking down or losing your way is worse than near people. Have and use a map, and get your GPS working.
Fuel prices vary considerably from one country to the next. While fuel is often cheap in oil-producing countries this is not so straightforward: Norway is a big oil producer with some of the world's highest prices for petrol, while in USA, which has to import much of its consumption, keeping gas prices down is politically important.
Because of different taxation across borders, filling up before crossing or getting over the border before filling up can save you money. Don't gamble with the last liters though.
When renting a car, you might want to know how thirsty your first choice is. In the USA this is measured as miles per gallon, while in most of Europe the measure is litres per 100 km. In the former case you want a big figure (such as 53), in the latter a small one (such as 4.5). Typical fuel efficiency varies between countries, as does what kind of driving is assumed for the measures, and the testing procedure itself (unified across the EU though).
Fuel quality also varies, and what different qualities are called. In some countries you can buy a type that suits your car where it is cheapest, while in others you may want to stick to the most reputable chains.
Diesel is commonly cheaper due to lower taxation in some European countries but it may be rare or unavailable in other countries. You can't drive a gasoline car with diesel or vice versa.
Parking can be a hassle, not least in cities. Parking rules differ between countries, and violation can give a hefty fine or having your vehicle towed away.
A parking disc is a clock-like ticket which indicates parking time. It is mandated in many European cities.
- Tips for road trips
- Animal collisions
- Automobile associations
- Automotive history
- Carnet de passage
- Car camping
- GPS navigation
- Offroad driving
- Renting a car
- Winter driving
Driving on the other side of the road
Driving in a country where traffic moves on the opposite side of the road takes a bit of getting used to, but lots of people manage it when they drive abroad, and you can too. If driving on the left (right), remember to make tight left (right) turns and wide right (left) turns, and to pass/overtake on the right (left).
Generally, countries that drive on the left use cars where the driver sits on the righthand side of the car, and vice versa. This puts the driver closer to the center of the road for better visibility. The windshield wiper controls and turn signals are typically on reversed sides depending on which side of the car the driver's seat is on. When you're still getting used to it, you'll probably turn the windshield wipers on by mistake a few times when you're trying to hit the turn signals. The brake and accelerator are not reversed; the brake is on the left and accelerator is on the right regardless. Likewise, the shift pattern stays the same regardless of the position of the driver, so in most manual transmission vehicles the first gear is to the left and forwards, the second gear is to the left and backwards, and so on.
Staying centered in your lane can be a challenge – drivers from right-side countries who are used to sitting on the left side of the vehicle will tend to instinctively veer to the left when sitting on the right side of a vehicle, and vice versa. Try looking through your side mirrors to get a sense of how close you are to the lines.
- Main article: Driving in Morocco
Comparatively easy to get to from Europe, by ferry from Spain. The mountains and deserts can be explored by car. Note temporary car import bureaucracy. The signs are similar to those in most of Europe; text is usually in French and Arabic.
- Main article: Driving in Réunion
Much of the natural attractions including its pitons, cirques and mountains only accessible by car. Public transport only operates in cities, and such, driving is needed to experience the most out of the island.
- Main article: Driving in South Africa
South Africa is quite a large country, and a lot of the attractions are in rural areas. Therefore, public transport isn't good everywhere, and driving is popular.
New road construction has not always kept up with growing traffic, congestion is a major problem, especially in urban centers. Still, a car is often a good and sometimes the only way to explore more remote areas. Bringing a car might necessitate a number of forms and permits; you will probably need an international driving permit and for some countries a Carnet de Passages for the vehicle. Mainland China requires their own driving licence.
All of Asia is part of Asian Highway Network, the Asian continent counterpart of the European network or the Interstate Highway System. While a number of countries in Central Asia, such as Uzbekistan, are part of European route network, road signs in many Asian countries do not identify E-routes. Some, such as North Korea and Turkey, do not identify AH-routes.
While East Asian countries have good public transport and rail services, densely-populated Southeast Asian countries, with the exception of Singapore, have a strong car culture.
- Main article: Driving in China
You must have a Chinese license to drive in China. Driving in China is also chaotic, so it is often wise to hire a driver or take taxis to get around. If you do want to drive in China, though, a lot of information about how others drive is very useful. China's major cities generally have good public transportation networks, so you are highly advised to make use of those instead when possible.
- Main article: Driving in Hong Kong
Hong Kong has a very good public transport network. Driving is rare, parking expensive and hard to find and jams are frequent. A car is needed only for some areas, such as parts of the New Territories, and perhaps for crossing over to Mainland China.
Hong Kong allows most foreigners to drive with an International Driving Permit (IDP) for up to 12 months. The legal age for driving normal cars is 18. You need a Chinese licence when crossing over into Mainland China.
Rules and signs mostly follow the 1968 Vienna conventions and are similar to those of the United Kingdom. Traffic is on the left.
- Main article: Driving in Japan
In addition to the rail culture going strong in Japan, the country also has a strong car culture. With an efficient and very punctual rail network, driving in Japan is not necessary but doable, especially when going into rural destinations public transport doesn't cover well.
- Main article: Driving in the Philippines
Almost all foreign travellers can drive in the Philippines up to three months, where applying for a Philippine driving license is necessary for long-term stays. While cars are also popular there due to American influence (though only about 5% of Filipinos own cars), driving in the Philippines is also nerve-racking and best avoided unless you have a good reason. Major highways may be up to international standards, but roads can be narrow and congested, and take you to the middle of villages and towns.
- Main article: Driving in Russia
Russia is the largest country in the world, and many of the areas, including metropolitan areas, are poorly served by all means of transport, even by car. While viewing the countryside by driving is an interesting idea, it's best to know where you're going so you don't end up on the Kolyma Highway.
- Main article: Driving in Singapore
- Main article: Driving in Thailand
Thailand has a strong car culture, but beware that traffic jams can occur in Bangkok and other large cities! In those cities, it is strongly advised that you take public transport.
- Main article: Driving in Vietnam
In Vietnam, a car is essential to get around in smaller cities and the countryside. However, much of the country's road network is in poor condition (as a result, there is a lower speed limit), and any communication with police and emergency services may be difficult without knowing a bit of Vietnamese. Although the government prefers public transport to private alternatives due to being a communist country, a lot of towns and metropolitan areas of Vietnam (with a very few exceptions) are poorly served by public transport, and in some cases like Ho Chi Minh City, public transport is subjected to overcrowding.
Vietnam follows the 1968 Vienna conventions, like, for example, most of Europe and Central Asia, so most rules and signs will be familiar to those who have driven there.
- Main article: Driving in Europe
Europe generally has good road networks, although high population density means that there can be a lot of other cars on the road, making driving more difficult, and there are remote areas where roads are in bad condition. Driving in cities is often problematic and there is good public transportation, so a car is usually needed only for the countryside.
In most countries the signs and rules follow the 1968 Vienna conventions.
- Driving in Denmark
- Driving in Finland
- Driving in France
- Driving in Germany
- Driving in Iceland
- Driving in Italy
- Driving in Norway
- Driving in Poland
- Driving in Portugal
- Driving in Russia
- Driving in Spain
- Driving in Sweden
- Driving in Switzerland
- Driving in the United Kingdom
- Main article: Driving in Australia
Australia has a strong car culture, and most adult Australians drive to get around their respective cities. While public transportation is available in the larger cities, a car is essential to get around in smaller cities and the countryside.
Much of Australia's population lives in a relatively small area on the southeast coast, and travel between the southeastern coastal cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne is possible if you have a few days or longer. However, to get to Perth, you have to travel great distances across Australia's outback country.
The traffic signs are similar to the US MUTCD.
- Main article: Driving in New Caledonia
Much of the world's best scuba diving sites can only be reached by car, and a car is also necessary to explore the mountain ranges of Grande Terre.
- Main article: Driving in New Zealand
Cars are very popular in New Zealand, and a car is necessary if you want to see New Zealand's beautiful countryside.
New Zealand uses a mixture of the US standard and the Vienna conventions in its signage.
- Main article: Driving in Canada
Like its neighbour to the south, Canada has a strong car culture. As Canada is rather sparsely populated, cars are necessary to get around the countryside and small to medium-sized cities. Most of Canada's roads are in the south, due to the low population density and extremely cold weather in the north.
- Main article: Driving in Mexico
Mexico has a strong car culture like its neighbour to the north. Cars are necessary to get around the countryside and small to medium-sized cities.
- Main article: Driving in the United States
The United States is the country where cars dominate the most, and must be used if you want to get the best idea of the American countryside, its history, and important destinations throughout. Since the United States is large, especially when compared to its population, there are opportunities to "hit the road" and be far from busy highways, or opportunities to get off the road altogether. With very few exceptions, even major cities like Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami and Houston tend to be poorly served by public transport, and having a car is generally the best way to get around. The contiguous United States has good and well-maintained network of Interstate Highways, making it a breeze to drive between nearby major cities.
For traffic rules and signs, most countries in South America have adopted some mixture of the US standards and the UN ones (the 1968 Vienna conventions). To what degree they follow each varies.
- Main article: Driving in Brazil
In Brazil, there is a strong car culture, due to the poor quality of public transport in most major cities. A car is preferred to get around Brazil outside of major cities.
Brazilian signs are strongly based on the US MUTCD standard, but it has also signed the 1968 Vienna conventions.
- Main article: Driving in Chile
Road safety differs much between countries. In some, roads may be of very bad quality, with potholes or damaged sections with no warnings, in some the climate poses a challenge, in some reckless driving is common. With proper preparation, some of the dangers can be mitigated or minimised, and in some countries, it may be better to leave the driving to the locals. Avoid unsealed roads if possible, particularly of those close to the equator.
Fatigue can be fatal. If you are driving for many hours in a row, take a break to get some fresh air, stretch your legs and most importantly switch off from driving for a bit. If you drive into the night or early morning, not only is it more dangerous due to it being dark but there is every chance you can start to nod off. If you leave early in the morning or don't have a lot of sleep before heading out, you should be aware that you may not be at your sharpest. Caffeine can only help so much: the only real cure for fatigue is sleep.
Most people use their phones to navigate. Do not let your phone distract you. A dashboard-mounted phone holder will help minimize hazards arising from navigating or talking on the phone. Talking over the phone, taking a look at the map or changing a setting still distracts you; pull over for anything that requires looking away from the road for more than half a second, and if you use those half-seconds often, you'd better take a break or find a human navigator.
Sometimes talking helps with fatigue or is otherwise necessary. Make sure you can ignore the phone at any moment to concentrate on driving – if your talking companion doesn't understand that need, don't talk to them while driving. Likewise, small talk keeps you awake, while anything that upsets you or requires serious thinking is away from your concentration.
In some areas, automotive vandalism or theft can be quite common. To mitigate risk, keep your doors locked when you are away from the car or when the car is in motion, and the windows up when possible. Keep valuables on your person, or out of view in the trunk or glovebox if that is not practical. In some areas, criminals may try to siphon off gas from your car, install credit card skimmers at gas station pumps, or offer to "protect" your parked car for a fee (and damage your car if you park there without paying them). Some more modern cars are equipped with anti theft systems that can send an alert to your phone if it detects unusual activity.
If you are going to drive in the Arctic, in winter in temperate climates or in mountains (including mountain passes), you should acquaint yourself with advice for winter driving. The roads will be slippery, sight may be reduced (snow can cause "whiteouts" where you hardly see ten metres) and getting stuck will make you have to cope with cold weather.
Dense fog may actually be the deadliest weather phenomenon you encounter, as it drastically reduces visibility and thus causes traffic accidents. Sometimes there is fog only in valleys or by bodies of water; when driving downhill visibility can be abruptly reduced unless you are alert.
Flooding can trap you. Driving on a road covered with water is dangerous as judging the depth and the condition of the road (which may have been damaged) is difficult. Water can destroy the engine by abruptly cooling parts of it, and if deep enough (about 60 cm, two feet) even sweep away the car.
Mountains and remote areas
- Check-up. Before driving through mountainous terrain, especially after the cold winter months, your car may need extra attention. Make sure that the vehicle's brake and transmission fluids are filled.
- Warn friends or relatives where and for long you are leaving. Tell a hard deadline when they should initiate a search. Take into account that you may not have phone coverage in some areas. Also tell people that could get nervous if they cannot reach you.
- Maps and route. In remote areas small roads may not be mapped completely or accurately. Or the opposite: an unpassable road in a bad condition might be mapped as good quality asphalt tertiary road. To avoid a wrong turn, plot out your trip on an old-fashioned paper map before you depart.
- Fuel. Many people don't realize that climbing steep grades requires much more fuel than a typical drive. Also, fuel stations and cell coverage can be sparse.
- Use brakes sparingly.
- Downshift before extreme downgrades, to use the engine for braking.
- Watch your temperature gauge.
- Stay alert and on your side of the road.