The longer the journey, and the more it differs from your routine driving, the more important it is to prepare carefully. If you are travelling with children or going in winter, there are special things to consider.
- Make sure that the car is in good condition. You should check the condition of the belts and fluids and make sure that the tires are inflated to the proper pressure.
- Be sure to have an idea of the conditions ahead (state of the road, weather).
- Plan ahead. Know where you are going to have to stop for fuel, refreshments and comfort breaks, how long it will take to get there and alternative routes in case of major traffic jams or accidents.
- Pack the car properly. Stow the luggage so it won't move around or go flying if you have to stop suddenly.
- Have things you will need, like, passports, drivers licence, money and change for parking and road tolls all within easy reach. Also keep your camera and binoculars close at hand.
- Check whether you have enough fuel in the tank - fill up if you can.
- Even if you have a GPS navigation system in your vehicle, download an off-line map to your smart phone, but do not rely on technology, have a paper map or road atlas too. Consider some guide books and wildlife identification books if appropriate for the trip.
- Pack some drinking water and snacks.
- Stay off alcoholic beverages the day before. Even though chemical intoxication can wear off overnight, the hangover affects driving ability.
- Try to get a good night's sleep. Driving while tired is almost as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.
- Obey the local traffic rules.
- Don't overdo. Stop every 150 miles/250 kilometers, or every 2 hours (depending on the road condition and your speed).
- Pull over if you start feeling drowsy. Stop and have a rest, even a nap, and let someone else share the driving too.
- Be patient, it is better to get there late than never.
- Follow the Two-Second rule. Allow two seconds between you and the car in front; make it four seconds if it is wet or the traffic is heavy. One second is more typical, but is not enough for avoiding accidents (one second is typical reaction time and gives no margins).
- If you are familiar with the metric system, three seconds translates into your speed (in km/h) in meters: if you are driving 80 km/h you should leave (at least) about 80 meters of distance to the car in front of you. At city driving speeds half of that may suffice (20 m at 40 km/h).
- A similar rule of thumb for non-metric use is two car-lengths of distance between vehicles for every 10 miles/hour of speed. This gives 1.5 seconds.
- If you are travelling slowly or towing a trailer, pull over and let following traffic pass, especially if a queue starts to form behind you.
- If it is the vehicles in front of you that are slow, and there are few opportunities for safely overtaking, stop for a rest – better for your nerves and for safety.
When you stop
- Stop in a safe place, clear of the traffic lanes, preferably in a lay-by or parking area.
- Before you lock your car, make sure you have a key in your hand, don't just push the lock buttons and shut the door. A second, spare key (either in your own pocket, or in the possession of a passenger travelling with you) is good protection against inadvertently locking a key in the vehicle.
- Before leaving your car, make sure it is safe and secure. Check that the headlights are off, valuable personal items are hidden from view or locked away from opportunist thieves, the car is safely parked and wheels turned to the curb if on a slope. Note where it is parked if in a parking lot or unfamiliar area, and check the parking time limits too.
If you break down
- Try to get to the hard shoulder or safety zone before the vehicle stops.
- If you have a flat tire, consider travelling very slowly to a lay-by or side road if there is no room to stop or the shoulder is not level.
- Turn on the hazard warning lights – if fitted.
- Turn off the engine and apply the hand brake.
- Warn other traffic that you have broken down. Check the local road rules for the acceptable ways to do this. Raising the engine hood is one way.
- Stay by your vehicle, but get out on the side away from the traffic.
- Call for help – use a cell phone to call the police or traffic authorities and a local automobile breakdown service if you cannot fix the problem yourself.
Many countries require you to have a warning triangle to use in case you break down. It is not always a requirement but definitely always a good idea. Leave it at least 50 meters (others say 35 yards) behind your car if you break down; on freeways double this. It will prevent your being rear-ended or causing collisions if you have to stop in an unsafe location. A tow-rope and jumper cables are also handy.
Various motor clubs or automobile associations provide roadside assistance to members:
- Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club (ADAC) in Germany
- The Automobile Association (AA) in the United Kingdom and AA in Ireland
- Royal Automobile Association or Royal Automobile Club (RAA, RAC) in individual Australian states, AA in New Zealand
- Canadian Automobile Association and American Automobile Association in North America
A membership card is issued for an annual fee. Many are not-for-profit service organisations, although companies which sell roadside assistance plans on a for-profit basis (such as RAC Motoring Services in the UK or the Dominion Automobile Association in Canada) do compete directly with the motor clubs.
If you break down, call the number provided by the automobile association (such as *CAA or +1-800-AAA-HELP for CAA/AAA members); the motoring club usually has some existing arrangement with a local tow company at a station rate which is cheaper than what a tow company would charge if you (or worse, the police) call them directly while you are stranded at roadside.
Often, members of one automobile association can obtain roadside assistance from a partner organisation in another country if a vehicle breaks down while abroad; for instance, an ADAC member could obtain AA assistance in the UK or CAA/AAA assistance in North America. Where the coverage applies to the driver (and not a specific vehicle), the roadside assistance remains available when behind the wheel of a hire or rental car.
While services provided by individual motor clubs vary, most provide some level of roadside assistance (towing and recovery, battery boost, spare tyre installation or delivery of enough fuel to get to the next filling station). Some provide locksmith service to unlock a vehicle if keys are inadvertently locked inside. Most provide printed road maps and guidebooks to their members at no additional cost. Other common services include a travel agency and passport photos, travellers cheques and currency exchange, advocacy for safer roads and discounts at motor inns and lodges. Driver training and vehicle inspection may be provided, or membership may allow the motorist a discount on these services from approved vendors. Some sell luggage or clothing for travel, some sell insurance or financial services; in the United States of America the AAA may provide a bail bondsman for members charged with minor out-of-state traffic offences, while in Germany the ADAC provides medical evacuation (by aircraft, if necessary) to members in an emergency. An automobile association may also produce a list of inspected, approved repair facilities; this effort is usually independent of the motor club's inspection and rating of the hotels and restaurants in its guidebooks.
In some countries more than one automobile association exists. This is often due to the political efforts of automobile associations that have been construed as being "lobbying" for cars, roads and fossil dependency. Therefore motorist-clubs of this vein tend to market themselves as "green" and de-emphasize the word "car" in their name. One example would be the the Verkehrsclub Deutschland. Similarly named associations exist throughout Europe, as well as the Better World Club in the United States. While their services are often similar to those of "traditional" automobile associations, they may be cheaper if you drive less or have a more eco-friendly car. Furthermore they offer more resources geared towards alternatives to cars, e.g. maps for cycling trips. Some also offer assistance for cyclists, but if you are an avid cyclist becoming member in a cyclist association instead might be a better idea.
Obtaining roadside assistance for "motor caravan" or "recreational vehicle" (RV) campers may be awkward; while a small camping trailer is relatively easy to separate from its tow vehicle in the event of roadside breakdown, a truck-sized motorhome is a one-piece rig which requires specialised equipment to tow and recover. Not all caravan clubs or associations can provide roadside assistance, although a few (like the Motor Caravan Club of Ireland, Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia (CMCA) or the Caravan Club in the United Kingdom) resell commercial insurance from third-party underwriters; in the USA, the for-profit Good Sam Club provides roadside assistance for RV'ers. Even if your vehicle can be detached from a trailer-style camper, not all roadside assistance plans provide a tow vehicle for both the disabled vehicle and the trailer; if you don't have the extra coverage, your camper might be left behind at roadside until the main vehicle is driveable again.
Limits on exactly what is covered vary between roadside assistance plans; most include a limited number of tow calls at no charge over a limited distance at no extra cost. A higher (more expensive) level of coverage will usually relax these limits.
Check with the consulates of the countries you are crossing: there may be special requirements when crossing by car, for example driving from Hong Kong to mainland China requires a change of number plates at the border and a PRC issued driving license, In some cases, crossing borders will require you to change the side of the road you drive on (eg. Hong Kong/mainland China, Thailand/Laos, or UK/mainland Europe).
Some countries (including Mexico) impose specific requirements for customs documents (such as a Carnet de Passage) to prove that a temporarily-imported vehicle will be taken out of the country at the end of a trip. Insurance requirements also differ between countries; don't assume that cover which is valid at home will be honoured abroad (Canadian insurance policies usually are valid in the US, but US/Canada insurance is most likely worthless in Mexico). Even if the policy is valid in the country to which you intend to travel, there may be a higher minimum amount of liability coverage in another jurisdiction or a requirement to carry a specific document in-vehicle as proof of valid insurance. In some countries, the wealthy foreigner is at high risk of being found at fault in any collision.
A rental car firm may refuse to allow their vehicles to be driven to another country (with restrictions prohibiting operation of western European hire cars in eastern Europe or US hire cars in México being common; Argentina does not permit rental cars to leave the country at all).