There’s nothing quite like the wind blowing through your hair as you cruise down Route 66 in a Cadillac Eldorado convertible, tunes pumping out of the stereo and the open road ahead. Although road trips are never quite like the movies – nope, switch that Cadillac for a Fiat 500 and the tunes for swearwords as you argue over the map – they remain a classic mode of travel.
But things can easily go wrong when you hit the road, so to ensure you, the vehicle and your passengers come back in one piece (and don’t end up being cavity searched in a Russian jail), check out these five expert tips for planning a road trip.
1. Plan your itinerary like a pro
The single most important thing that can make or break a road trip is your itinerary. In my experience, passengers don’t take kindly to realising they’re going to be sat in the car for eight hours each day with nothing but a toilet stop to break up the monotony. Stave off the inevitable chorus of “are we there yet?” every ten minutes by chopping your trip into short, bite-sized pieces that focus on getting you to a beautiful place and somewhere to stay each night.
When planning, consider the seasons too: a road trip along the Carretera Austral in Chile or the Scottish Highlands isn’t quite as much fun in a howling winter blizzard and neither is realising you’ve cocked up by not booking accommodation on a summer road trip in Australia.
2. Technology is your best friend
It’s the 21st century, so it’s hardly a surprise that technology is your BFF when it comes to hitting the road. No one wants to find themselves taking a wrong turn in Finland and ending up being welcomed into the arms of a not-so-friendly Russian policeman over the border – as a friend of mine recently discovered – so a good map is essential. If you’re worried you’re stupid enough to follow your satnav directly into a river then err on the side of caution and opt for Maps.me. This free app lets you download maps and access them offline, wherever you are in the world.
No one wants to lose battery when they’re swearing their way around London’s labyrinthine one-way system, so an in-car phone charger or a battery pack are other road trip must haves. Finally, an AUX cable for playing music is the difference between maintaining your sanity or having it assaulted out of you by local music radio.
3. Tick all the right boxes before booking
Before reserving a vehicle for your road trip, there are a handful of things to check. One of the biggies is whether you need an international driving licence – for some countries, your home licence doesn’t suffice and without one, you may be stuck on foot.
Another is checking that your travel insurance actually covers you for driving a vehicle – you’d be surprised by how many policies contain a clause that specifically says you’re not, unless you ring up and part with more cash. While this might seem annoying, crashing and being lumped with a huge bill is probably more so.
And don’t forget to check your license is in date – or don’t, as I found to my delight. Turns out that an expired licence can be an excellent way of getting taxied around a country by new travel friends.
4. Make sure you’re not signing your soul away
Hiring a vehicle abroad can be a pain in the bum, particularly when you’re trying to rent in another language. It’s always recommendable to go through someone who shares a common tongue so that you can check you’re not signing a pact with the devil. Be aware of the following:
Is the mileage unlimited or do you need to pay if you go over? Extra miles can wind up being super expensive, so clarify this before you sign.
How much are you expected to pay if you crash the car? In some cases, the excess can hit thousands of dollars. Instead, taking out a car hire excess insurance policy – costing a few quid – can stop you shelling out a mind-boggling amount in the event of an accident.
As I’ve learned the hard way, being clear what happens if you break down is also imperative. Having our brakeless Land Rover towed in rural Patagonia by a local with Formula One aspirations still wakes me up in a cold sweat most nights.
5. Choose your companions carefully
Although road trips are definitely my favourite style of travel, they can actually be one of the most stressful. Why? Challenges pop up in the most unlikely situations: try deciphering whether that road sign depicts someone cooking a pizza, or actually relates to an important road, leaving you desperately trying to avoid sending your driver headlong into oncoming one-way traffic (sorry Dad).
Add into that a poorly-selected companion – i.e. someone who’ll leave you seriously contemplating abandoning them at the next petrol station – and it’s enough to make you wish you’d never rented that car in the first place.
From my experience of road trips around the world, the best company is someone who a) knows how to read a map, b) can change a tyre, c) has good taste in music and d) doesn’t display any backseat driver tendencies.
As a result you’ll stay sane, sure of your location, in a fog of excellent road trip tuneage and not screaming at your passenger to shut the fuck up or you’ll leave them on the side of the road. Magic.