Road Trips For First-Timers

- First Time, How To, Other, Travel Advice

Are you thinking about making your first road trip? We have been driving in many countries worldwide for over a decade, so here are our tips to help you make your trip hassle-free – we learned the hard way, so you don’t have to!

We like to drive because we enjoy the freedom, flexibility and feeling of adventure. We can travel at our own pace, see and do what we want and visit many beautiful but secluded places.

Driving is also usually cheaper than joining an organised tour and is more convenient because you aren’t limited by how much you can bring with you – just put everything you need for the trip in the trunk.

Related Post: How To Travel When You Don’t Have Money

Start In Your Country

If you aren’t sure about how to handle your first trip, start in your own country so that you understand the logistics and find out if you enjoy it or not. Long hours spent in a car aren’t for everyone so, while it is a great adventure for us, you might find it boring – but you won’t know until you try…

If you travel in your own country, you can easily come back home if you aren’t happy or if anything goes wrong – and using your own car will not only save you money but will also help you to feel more confident on the road.

Driving Abroad

More stress factors are involved when driving abroad, especially if you have to drive on the opposite side to what you are used to. In every country, the local drivers are used to a certain way of driving and some traffic signs might be different. What is not acceptable in your country, might be fine somewhere else.

Be careful, particularly when driving close to major tourist attractions or international airports. On the road you will meet drivers from various countries, each of them used to different ways of driving. We almost had an accident once near the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland the other day – a tourist was driving on the right-hand side of the road by mistake and we didn’t see him coming behind the hill, but luckily we both managed to stop in time.

Unless you are an experienced driver, it is normal to find driving in an unfamiliar country stressful, especially during the first few hours. We come from the Czech Republic where we drive on the right-hand side, but for several years we lived in Ireland where we drove on the left. Even though we are used to driving on both sides of the road, we still need to be careful not to get confused.

Lake Taupo, New Zealand
Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Where Not To Drive

However, driving is not suitable in all destinations because in some places it can bring you more hassle than advantages. For example, it can be easier and cheaper to use public transportation in busy cities and towns in which the traffic is heavy and slow, while parking is usually limited and expensive. In such destinations it can be a good idea just to rent a car if and when you are heading out of the city.

The quality of roads in some countries can be poor and the traffic system might seem chaotic to visitors. In such cases you might consider renting a scooter or motorbike rather than a car, but be aware of scams and make sure you are fully covered by insurance. Alternatively, hire a local driver or join a tour.

Plan Your Itinerary (But Not Too Much!)

Have at least a rough idea of your route to work out how much time you will need. For planning we use mainly Google Maps or HERE WeGo which are usually accurate and they are also available as apps for iPhone and Android.

Many people tend to underestimate how long it will take to get from one place to another (we are guilty too!). You might need to go slower if the roads are narrow, winding or not in good condition, or if the weather gets bad. Always allow extra time for the unexpected so that you don’t need to rush.

Accommodation

Decide where you want to stay – in hotels, hostels, Airbnb, campsites, etc. If you are just starting, it is a good idea to pre-book your accommodation to have peace of mind. The more you travel, the more comfortable you will become with late arrangements.

We usually don’t reach a destination without being prepared and having something organised. Typically, we arrive late in the evening when it is risky and time consuming to start looking for a room. This has already happened to us: accommodation in the area was almost completely booked out and we ended up driving around in the dark and paying more than we intended.

We pre-book our accommodation for shorter trips because it is usually cheaper, while on longer trips we check the availability at least one day before arrival. If the availability is limited, we pre-book the room in advance or we change our plans. If the availability and rates look fine, we make the arrangements closer to the arrival.

We wanted to be flexible on our two-month road trip in Australia and New Zealand and that is why we pre-booked our accommodation just for the first few nights and also for the last night of the trip to be on the safe side. For the rest of the stay we booked our accommodation on the go.

Red Centre Way, Northern Territory, Australia
Red Centre Way, Northern Territory, Australia

There are many websites and apps that can be used for reservations while travelling. We use mainly Hotelscombined, Hotels.com, Booking.com and Airbnb (grab free 35 EUR / 39 USD credit for your first booking on Airbnb here). If you are travelling abroad for a longer period of time, consider getting a local SIM card including data to be able to access the Internet on the road.

Related Post: Airbnb For First-Timers

If you decide to go for camping, do your research to find out where you can stay. In most countries you can camp only at designated areas. Even if you rent a motorhome or campervan, you will still be required to stay only at dedicated campsites (and fees might apply).

Renting A Car

Familiarise yourself with the requirements of the car rental company before making any commitments (minimum age, required documents, payment conditions, etc.)

Typically, the driver will need to present his/her credit card so that the car rental company can charge or block the security deposit. The amount depends on the insurance excess (the deductible) and the value of the car. It can be up to a few thousand euros/dollars so make sure you have enough money on your credit card. After you return the car in good condition, you will get the money back (although it might take a while to see it back on your card statement).

Be aware of different fuel policies. The best value is usually dropping off the vehicle with the tank full. If you agree on returning the tank empty, you will have to pay the rental company for filling it up and in our experience this is more expensive than filling the tank yourself at the petrol station.

Try to work out the total costs before making any decisions. Car rental companies are notorious for hidden fees. The cheapest quote doesn’t mean that you are getting the best possible value. You might end up paying much more because of some hidden charges. Always read the small print when booking car rental!

Nevada, USA
Nevada, USA

Choose The Right Car

A two-wheel drive car (2WD) is enough for most road trips unless you are planning to explore less accessible places.

Find out which type of transmission is common in the area you are travelling to. Most cars in the United States, Australia and New Zealand are automatic, whereas manual cars are widely spread in Europe. If you prefer any specific transmission, request it in advance (different pricing might apply).

Every car type has its pros and cons. Consider not only the number of people travelling but also the amount of luggage. A bigger car means more comfort and space but higher petrol consumption. A convertible car looks cool but the trunk can be small and not big enough for suitcases or bigger backpacks – and the trunks are small in some jeeps too. Motorhomes or campervans are convenient but your journey will take longer because you will have to drive slower. We usually book medium-sized cars because they are good value for money.

Insurance

If you are renting a car, we highly recommend getting insurance to be covered in case anything happens. Make sure that roadside assistance is included and have the telephone number handy.

Check if there is any excess (the deductible) in the policy and what is not covered. You can eliminate the excess by purchasing full insurance from the car rental company (which can be very expensive) or by getting car hire excess insurance from another provider before your trip.  

Additional Drivers

It is handy to have more dedicated drivers, especially if you are planning to do a lot of driving, but be aware that some companies charge for this. If possible, book the rate allowing more drivers, because adding them at the desk is more expensive.

We drove almost 10,000 km (6,214 miles) on our road trip in Australia and we took turns behind the wheel. We swapped every few hours so that we could have a rest while the other was driving. It worked well – we didn’t have to stop that often and we weren’t tired.

Carrickfinn Beach, County Donegal, Ireland
Carrickfinn Beach, County Donegal, Ireland

Collecting The Car

Do not leave the car rental desk without the paperwork and without confirming which type of fuel the car needs, what the speed limits in the country are and if there are any tolled roads (and which way you can pay for the tolls).

When collecting the vehicle, check both the exterior and the interior and make sure you know how everything works. Verify that there is a spare tyre or at least a puncture repair kit. If you have any doubts or queries, contact the staff of the car rental company.

Petrol Stations

Don’t assume that there are petrol stations everywhere. In some countries the distances between them are bigger than in others. When driving long distances, check how far it is to the next service station and that you have enough fuel to get there. Be aware that some, especially in secluded areas, might not be open 24 hours a day and that credit cards can be the only way of payment.

Navigation

Typically, we use GPS to navigate but also have a map as a backup – we ask for the map at the car rental desk or at a tourist information office.

We don’t hire GPS devices from car rental companies because they are expensive. We use the maps on our iPhones instead and download them before our trip to make sure that they can be used offline. Here WeGo maps are our favourites (the app is available for iPhone and Android for free). In Europe we also use Navigon (the paid version available for iPhone and Android).

Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Have Enough Food And Drinks

Some drives might take longer than expected because you may need more breaks, spend more time at some place, or just get stuck in traffic. In some areas it can take hours to get to a shop, so always have enough supplies with you. We have overestimated the local facilities a few times and have had to survive just on crisps and sweets, which wasn’t much fun.

Entertainment On The Road

We like to download the Lonely Planet guidebooks onto our Kindle and familiarise ourselves with the upcoming destination on the way. You can also record some music or podcasts onto your mobile phone or MP3 player. Otherwise, just observe what is behind the windows, stop wherever you want, and look forward to the next adventure – this is what a good road trip is all about.

Extra Tip

Take a USB car charger with you so that you can charge multiple devices while on the road. This charger is an essential travel accessory and can be used for phones, tablets, Kindles, laptops, etc. Ours has saved us many times, for example when we forgot to bring a travel adaptor and were unable to charge our devices at the hotel. We have been using the cheap dual USB charger from AmazonBasics and we are happy with it.

We love road trips and we encourage people to give them a try too. A road trip is like life – it is as much about the journey, as the destination…

Have you done a road trip yet? If so, please let us know about your experiences!

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