You’ve booked your precious leave. You’ve serviced the car. You are looking forward to life becoming one long roadside picnic.
But don’t leave it all to fate and the satnav to get you from A to B. Some basic research, a little planning and a smart choice of route can help you swerve calmly around some of the more obvious obstacles and potholes.
Read on for tips for a stress-free road trip that contains no nasty surprises, stays on budget and keeps everyone engaged.
Research protects against unwelcome (and expensive) surprises
Routes that look cheap on paper might suddenly become expensive when you have a petrol pump in your hand or you’re in the queue for yet another border crossing. If you want to avoid being out of pocket en route, work out what you need to buy up front and what expenses might be incurred on the way.
One of the joys of travelling in parts of the European Union is passing through deserted borders from another age – we have great photos of tollbooth tumbleweed! But elsewhere, the border crossing fee is alive and kicking. Look into it before you go to avoid surprise excursions into your wallet.
Don’t assume your car insurance covers you for driving abroad. Some countries require extra cover. You can usually buy it at borders if you don’t have time to sort it in advance. We scoured Balkan borders looking for the tiny hut with the golden ticket to onward travel.
International Driving Permit
If you are planning to drive abroad it is important to research legalities beforehand. For certain countries, depending on where you are from, an International Driving Permit (IDP) is required. This is in addition to a valid driving licence. Your local insurer should be able to advise you of the requirements relevant to you.
Brits should also note that the paper portions of UK driving licences are being abolished from 8 June 2015, and you may be required to register for an online code in order to hire vehicles abroad. Check the DVLA website (gov.uk/government/organisations/driver-and-vehicle-licensing-agency) for more information.
In some European cities parking meters are insatiable so keep a bucket of change handy. In Japan, overnight parking was a big expenditure for us – on-street parking is not permitted and hotels charge extra for their whizzy car parks. Hosted apartments often come with free parking – ask before you book. Being a foreigner is no barrier to traffic penalties; in Barcelona we experienced the glamour of the car pound while others saw the gothic Sagrada Familia.
Petrol and tolls
While we felt like millionaires at Dubai gas stations, we’ve also been petrol pump paupers. Research fuel prices before you commit. And also factor in motorway costs; choosing some of the charge-free German highways over French and Austrian roads can save you a fortune on toll stickers.
Plan your route with care
The world should be your oyster, but sometimes it can feel like you’re stuck in an aquarium. Do your homework in advance and you’ll be able to tackle any obstacle.
A border may look crossable on a map, but it is always worth double-checking. Political history between Serbia and Kosovo meant an unplanned drive for us to Macedonia. Check out which borders are busy at weekends and peak times before booking beds for the night.
Look for warnings of political conflict or urban unrest. Take extra precautions in countries notorious for car crime. But don’t take all local scare stories at face value. In the USA I became so paranoid about bears breaking into the car I was afraid to carry toothpaste, and if we’d believed all the Ecuadorian tales of ‘bandits in them there hills’ we’d never have left Quito.
Government websites often provide up-to-date travel alerts and relevant health and safety information. Visit the UK's Foreign Office website (gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice), the US State Department website (travel.state.gov/content/passports/english/alertswarnings.html) or your local government’s site for more information.
If you can’t get your head around the satnav at home, think carefully about driving in the Far East, where a foreign language is compounded by a foreign alphabet.
In France you should carry a breathalyser kit. In winter conditions consider snow tyres. Remember a car seat or booster seat for younger children. If hiring a car this may need to be arranged at the point of booking.
Choose a drive to fit your experience and interests
Are you up for a popular route or do you prefer to explore the road less travelled? Some roads and options may suit you more than others.
Do you have the experience and skills you need? The road to Skye is a different proposition from the coastal road into Venice where fast cars and show-offs rule. Personally, I was never afraid of other drivers until I hit Poland. But then some roads can surprise. Terrifying-looking highways in the UAE can be fine once you work out how to get off them.
Research the season and its impact on your holiday costs. Icelandic roads in winter come with a risk of getting stuck and for insurance reasons two-wheel drive cars are not allowed on F roads. School holidays vary in different countries so check dates to see which might offer quieter driving and cheaper hotels. In Sweden we had the place to ourselves from mid-August.
A route for everyone
Make sure your choice of route interests everyone. If you have little fidgeters in the back you may want your landscape to be more Gotham City than goat herd county.