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.
- Ensure that your license is valid wherever you are planning to drive. Some countries do not recognize foreign licenses, or only recognize licenses from specific countries. If your license is not in the official language of the country you are in, you should have an international driving permit (IDP) accompanying it. Driving without a valid license would generally void your insurance policy in the event of an accident.
- 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, driver's license, 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. Err on the side of caution. Packing too much won't do much harm, but running out late at night or in the middle of nowhere can be uncomfortable or worse.
- 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 it. Stop for a short break every 150 miles/250 km, or every 2 hours (depending on the road condition and your speed). Step out of the car and stretch your legs for some minutes. Stop more often when driving in the dark.
- 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 m of distance to the car in front of you. At city driving speeds half of that may suffice (20 m at 40 km/h). In Germany the general rule as recommended by traffic police is half the speed (in km/h) in meters. Of course this does not apply for very high speeds (130 km/h and above) where you should keep more distance.
- 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. It may also be better that you do overtake, or at least leave plenty distance to the vehicle in front, to make overtaking safer for those behind.
Traffic moves on different sides of the road in different countries. In most parts of the world, such as most of the continental Americas, continental Europe, China, the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, traffic moves on the right side of the road. However in others, most notably the United Kingdom and many former British colonies such as Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Malaysia, most smaller states and territories in the Caribbean as well as a few others such as Japan, Indonesia and Thailand, traffic moves on the left side of the road. Usually, cars in areas with right-hand traffic are left-hand drive (i.e. steering wheel on the left side), and cars in areas with left-hand traffic are right-hand drive, though there are exceptions. The arrangement of the pedals is standard worldwide.
Some countries have autonomous territories which occasionally adopt a different traffic direction from the parent country (e.g. Gibraltar (right) vs UK (left), Hong Kong (left) vs China (right), US Virgin Islands (left) vs USA (right)). When crossing borders you may sometimes have to change the side of the road you drive on (e.g. Thailand-Cambodia border, Hong Kong-China border, Brazil-Guyana border), and the confusion may be compounded by the fact that the steering wheel is on the "wrong" side of the car after crossing the border.
It may feel awkward at first trying to drive on the opposite side of the road, and with the steering wheel on the other side from what you are used to back home, but after giving yourself time to adapt, it usually does not pose any major issues. You may want to start driving slowly on side roads with light traffic while you adapt to driving on the other side for the first time and eventually, it will become more natural the more you drive. You may want to consider renting an automatic car, even if it is cheaper to rent a manual car, as having to adapt to operating the gearstick with the other hand could be an unwelcome extra burden.
Traffic congestion is one of the most common annoyances for motorists and on many road trips it is simply unavoidable. You could however avoid the daily rush hours, weekend rush hours, days when major holidays start and end etc., as you probably have different timetable needs from most locals.
In some cities driving is bound to be frustrating, as there is congestion most of the day. If there is decent public transport, finding a place to park the car and using the public transport during your stay may save your nerves and possibly also some time. When driving cross country, avoiding cities is usually a good idea. Traffic planners around the globe have built "ring roads" to deal with this kind of traffic and to try and steer it around the city proper. Unfortunately, those ring roads are often the worst congested roads of them all. Beijing is a particularly egregious example: it is building a seventh ring road outside the sixth ring road, which is already the longest in the world.
If you do get caught in congestion, try and keep your calm. Getting annoyed or frustrated won't help anybody. You can also take a break or get off the highway to explore the surrounding area - who knows, this might make for an interesting side trip or intermediate destination that you otherwise wouldn't even have considered.
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.
- Never leave your pet animal in the car when the weather is not suited for its comfort. In some countries it is permitted for strangers to open your car by force to release pet animals from torment.
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 m (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.
- See also: automobile associations
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. 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 organization 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. The auto clubs are also a good source for maps, guidebooks, information, travel agency service, passport photos, insurance and travellers' cheques; a few hotels offer discounts for card-carrying members.
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 (e.g. 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 honored 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 Mexico being common; Argentina does not permit rental cars to leave the country at all).