Driving Abroad for the First Time: Tips and Tricks

Heading off on holiday is always an exciting prospect—but it can also be stressful. This is certainly the case if you decide to take the wheel away while from home. There can be an almost dizzying array of rules to follow and precautions to take. Don’t let this put you off, though! Getting on the road can help make your trip even more rewarding, allowing you to discover places off the beaten path and fit more into your itinerary. All you need are a few tips to help you get to grips with driving abroad for the first time!

In this guide, we’ll take you through the process from initial prep to on-the-ground advice. We’ll even make things interactive with a quick quiz and throw in a handy checklist for you to follow. Let’s start!

Before you set off

Japanese International Driving Permit
Photo © Masaru Kamikura (cc-by/2.0)

Many of the most important steps to take happen before you arrive at your destination. This way, when you start driving abroad for the first time, you’ll be ready to hit the ground running and avoid some of the most common problems.

Hire a car or bring your own?

If you’re visiting a country that’s relatively close to home, then the prospect of bringing your own car is a tempting one. After all, it means you’ll save on car hire fees, and won’t be hemmed in by a rental agency’s rules. You will, however, need to sort our your own insurance and permits—and, of course, slap a UK sticker on.

Another big issue to note is that, if driving to continental Europe, most cars are left-hand drive. British models, meanwhile, are right-hand drive. In general, you’ll still be able to take to the road as normal. However, be aware of the following points:

  • Overtaking on a single-carriageway is difficult in an RHD, as you have a reduced view of the road ahead.
  • When paying at a tollbooth, you’ll be on the wrong side, so will need to stretch or lean over to reach.
  • Your headlights will generally throw out the majority of their light to the left, which risks dazzling other drivers. You may be able to change this configuration using the car’s controls; if not, you can buy adjuster stickers.

Hiring a car, meanwhile, means you’ll have the right model for the destination you’re driving in. It also ensures that you’ll have any necessary equipment required in that country (more on that later). You will, of course, still need to know the rules of the road, and it may take a short while for you to adjust to the car. You’ll also need to remember to obtain a check code so that the rental agency can view your driving record.

Get the right cover

Ah, insurance: every driver’s favourite topic. Dry as it may be, this is something you can’t go away without if driving your own car. Fortunately, there’s some good news: your UK policy provides the minimum third party cover for most of Europe. This includes all EU and EEA countries, together with Andorra, Serbia and Switzerland. You will, however, need to carry a green card from your insurer. They may either send this to you by post or tell you how to download a printable version.

Note that the above refers only to the legal minimum cover required to drive in Europe. Your insurer may only provide third party cover when driving abroad even if your UK policy is fully comp. Additionally, you may wish to add on European breakdown cover to make sure you’re not left stranded when travelling on the continent. Be sure to check what your policy includes before travelling.

If you’re hoping to extend your journey beyond the EU, the rules can get much more complex, and vary from country to country. Often, you’ll need to purchase mandatory insurance at the border, and may also need to pay a road tax. Check the rules for your chosen destination before you go.

Important documents

Bringing the proper documentation with you can help to avoid any hairy situations on the road. We’ve already discussed green cards; in addition to this, we highly advise taking a printed copy of your insurance policy (and breakdown cover, if applicable). This will enable you to prove that you have the required cover for your country of choice.

In certain cases, you must also bring an International Driving Permit. Though not currently a requirement in the EU, EEA or Switzerland, these are a must in many countries. Confusingly, there are three different types of IDP: 1926, 1949 and 1968. You can find out which is valid in your destination using this list.

Finally, there are just two more documents to check off your list, but both are vital: your passport and driving licence!

Pack the essentials

If you’re taking your car abroad, it’s likely that you’re facing some fairly long journey times. With this comes the risk of something going wrong—and the spectre of being stranded somewhere.

Thankfully, there are some helpful steps that you can take to prepare in case things go wrong. That’s why, before you head off, you should make sure to pack a few essentials. These include a map (yes, a physical one!), a first aid kit, food and water, and maintenance items. For a full list, be sure to check out our guide to essential items to keep in your car.

Left or right?

Sign at the border between Laos and Thailand indicating that traffic switches from right-hand to left-hand traffic
Image source: Mattes via Wikimedia Commons

There are times it feels like we Brits do things differently to virtually every other country. Anyone who’s ever forgotten to bring a plug adaptor will certainly know the feeling! At times, it can seem as though driving on the left falls into the same category. However, it turns out that there are plenty of destinations on the same side as us.

Let’s start with the bad news, though: for many of the most popular tourist destinations, you will have to get used to driving on the right. This includes all of mainland Europe, as well as the Middle East and North Africa. Similarly, almost all of the Americas drive on the right, such as the USA, Canada, Mexico and Brazil. The same is true for much of Asia, including China.

However, there are a few bright spots for UK tourists. First off, there are a (limited) number of European destinations that drive on the left: Ireland, Malta and Cyprus. These are all island nations, so this should be easy to remember! Further afield, you’ll also get to enjoy driving on the left in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, India, South Africa, and many Caribbean destinations.

What if I need to drive on the right?

Getting to grips with driving on the right can be confusing, especially if you’re driving abroad for the first time. Different problems may arise depending on whether you opted to bring your own car or to rent one locally. Bring your own, and, as discussed above, you’ll experience issues when overtaking, and will need to adjust your headlights. Hire, and you’ll need to figure out how to drive to an entirely new model—and one where some controls are reversed.

Either way, you’ll need to deal with doing certain routine tasks a little differently. Included in this are the following:

  • On roundabouts, you’ll need to drive anti-clockwise and give way to the left
  • When driving on motorways or dual carriageways, remember that the left hand lane is for overtaking
  • If you need to pull over to let vehicles pass, go to the right hand side of the road

Additionally, be sure to leave more room between yourself and other cars than usual. This is to give you more time to react—something that could be vital given your reduced familiarity with the rules of the road.

One extra (and possibly surprising) tip for the first-timer is to choose an automatic car. This is because you don’t need to worry about changing gears with the gearstick on the other side. There’s also one fewer pedal to worry about, leaving just the brake and accelerator. (Don’t worry: the pedals are the same way around in both RHD and LHD cars!)

Go metric

Speedometer (in kilometres per hour), tachometer and odometer
Image source: Jay R via Unsplash

Here in the UK, we still measure (some) distances in miles. This, in turn, means that we measure how fast we’re driving in miles per hour, and use mph speedometers. It may surprise you to learn, then, that very few other countries do likewise. In fact, the United States is the only other large country to do so. Joining them are Belize, Liberia, certain parts of the Caribbean and Pacific, and a few dependencies of the UK or US.

In every other country, meanwhile, you need to get in the habit of using kilometres and km/h instead. If you’re driving abroad for the first time, then you might panic about the prospect of having to do some mental maths on the fly. Fortunately, you needn’t worry. That’s because, by law, every UK speedometer includes both mph and km/h measurements. You just need to remember to look at the smaller, inner dial!

If you want to get a handle on things as you go, a good way to remember is that 5 miles roughly equals 8 kilometres. By the same token, 50 mph is about the same as 80 km/h. A full conversion table (rounded to the nearest figure in mph or km/h) is found below.

mph to km/h conversion km/h to mph conversion
20 mph 32 km/h 30 km/h 19 mph
40 km/h 25 mph
30 mph 48 km/h
50 km/h 31 mph
60 km/h 37 mph
40 mph 64 km/h
70 km/h 44 mph
50 mph 80 km/h 80 km/h 50 mph
90 km/h 56 mph
60 mph 97 km/h
100 km/h 62 mph
110 km/h 68 mph
70 mph 113 km/h
120 km/h 75 mph

Plan ahead

Map with pins sticking out
Image source: delfi de la Rua via Unsplash

If your holiday plans involve hiring or bringing a car, then you’ve probably got a few attractions in mind that you’d like to visit. It can be tempting to just get behind the wheel and see where the road takes you—but without proper planning, you could end up making some major mistakes.

Taking the correct route

Let’s start with the most obvious tip: plan out your route in advance! Using mapping software or apps such as Google Maps or Waze, you can get a good estimate of the amount of time your drive will take. In turn, you can then use this to decide on an appropriate schedule and avoid stretching yourself too far. If you’re planning a longer trip, this is also the point at which you can pinpoint potential rest stops along the way.

On the subject of sat navs, be sure that you use up to date maps wherever possible. There’s nothing more frustrating than finding that the road you intended to take isn’t there anymore—or that you’ve missed out on the chance to take a quicker route. If possible, download the latest maps to your device before going. Additionally, you can also save offline maps to your phone, enabling you to plan a route even without data. (Remember: you don’t need data switched on to use GPS!) As a backup, always bring a paper map just in case the tech fails you.

Prepare for hidden costs

The planning doesn’t stop at drawing a line from A to B, though. You’ll also want to research any potential tolls along your journey. These are much more common in certain European countries than in the UK, and can add considerable costs. For example, if you were to drive from England to the south of France via the quickest route, you’d need to pay around €91.80 in tolls! If you wanted to go toll-free, however, you’d add around six hours onto your journey.

When deciding on your route, you’ll therefore need to make some trade-offs. Are you willing to fork out for the convenience of a quicker ride? Or is it better for you to take the scenic route and spend more time behind the wheel? Only you can answer these questions, but be sure to ask them before you set off. If you do decide to drive on a toll road, check how to make payments. You may either need to pay by cash, card, prepaid card, or even online afterwards.

Last but not least, consider the destination. It’s all well and good to decide that you want to visit a particular city or attraction, but what happens if you can’t park there? At best, this can lead to a frustrating wait for a space; at worst, you could end up having to head straight back. Research parking spaces in advance, and remember that park and ride facilities or public transport could be more convenient in certain locations.

Traffic signs

Traffic sign for a complex intersection on an expressway in Tokyo
Photo © Katorisi (cc-by-sa/3.0)

Finding your way around an unfamiliar destination can be tricky enough. Then comes the sinking feeling as you realise that you can’t understand the signs that are meant to guide you. That’s why it’s a good idea to brush up on your destination’s traffic signs before you drive there.

Some signs are so important that their designs have been near-universally adopted. Examples include the stop sign, which is a red octagon in almost every country. Similarly, the give way or yield sign usually consists of a downwards-pointing triangle with a red border and white (or, more rarely, yellow) background.

However, each country has its own variations. Sometimes, this will come down to language. Other times, you may see a completely different design to those you’re used to—which may even represent a sign the UK doesn’t use! To illustrate how things can change, give our quiz below a quick spin and see how you do.

Local rules

A traffic sign in Hungary warning drivers that a camera will check if they have the appropriate vignette
Photo © Beroesz (cc-by-sa/4.0)

So far, we’ve covered plenty of general advice that can apply to virtually anyone driving abroad for the first time. However, every destination is different, and what’s fine in one country could cause serious trouble elsewhere. That’s why getting to know the local rules is so important.

An obvious place to start is with speed limits. Obviously, in places where there are specific limits signposted, you should follow these. However, elsewhere, the national speed limit of your chosen country may apply. Just as in the UK, this limit will vary depending on whether you’re driving in a built-up area, a rural area, or on a motorway. However, in certain countries, such as France, the limit will vary depending on weather conditions. Be sure to look up the appropriate limits for your destination before you set off.

Next, we’ll focus on your car. If driving your own car abroad, you’ll need to make sure it complies with all regulations. For example, in the Czech Republic, you must have winter tyres fitted between November and March when there is snow and ice on the road. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, you need to display a vignette when driving on a motorway or expressway to prove you’ve paid road tax.

Other common requirements concern what you carry in your car. By now, many drivers are aware of the infamous French regulations regarding breathalysers—even though this is no longer law. However, did you know that you need to carry a fire extinguisher in Romania? Or that vehicles over 3.5 tonnes need an electronic toll box in Poland? Don’t get caught out—check before you go! Take a look at the AA’s country-by-country advice for more details.

If things go wrong

Range Rover car stopped on the hard shoulder
Image source: Sauerlaender (via Pixabay)

It would be lovely if driving were always simple. Unfortunately, at home and abroad, things can (and do) go wrong. Whether your car breaks down, you’re involved in an accident, or you just end up totally lost, you need to know what to do when the worst happens.

Firstly, know your emergency service numbers. The most commonly used number is 112, which will work in every country in Europe. 112 is also the number to dial in Egypt, Israel, India and South Africa, as well as certain additional destinations. Meanwhile, in the US and Canada, the main number is 911; in Australia, it’s 000; and in New Zealand, it’s 111.

If your car breaks down, then you should follow the same procedure as in the UK. This includes finding a safe place to stop, making yourself visible, exiting the vehicle and contacting breakdown services. On this note, be sure that you have your breakdown provider’s number to hand—and remember that there may be a specific number for you to call from abroad. For full details, read our guide on what to do when your car breaks down.

In the event of an accident, you should exchange information with any other drivers involved. This may include names and dates, contact details, insurance details and an explanation of what happened. Report the incident to the police as soon as possible. Additionally, it’s a good idea to take photos of the scene to back up your story. You should then contact your insurer or car hire firm.

What if I get pulled over?

Getting pulled over can be a traumatic experience in the UK. In a foreign country, the stress can become even more extreme. In the event that this happens, do the following:

  • Stay in your vehicle with the window open.
  • If you’re not sure if the person who’s pulled you over is genuine, ask to see their badge and keep the door locked.
  • Have your documents at the ready—you may be liable for a fine if you cannot present them.
  • Don’t hand over your visa or passport.
  • In certain countries, you may be given on-the-spot fines, which may increase if you cannot pay there and then.
  • If someone tries to indicate that there’s an issue with your car, don’t pull over and check until you’re in a populated area.

Driving abroad for the first time: checklist

We’ve included plenty of helpful advice in this article on driving abroad for the first time. However, we understand that sometimes, it’s easiest to just have a simple list to follow. Don’t worry: we’re one step ahead of you!

To help you make sure that you’ve done all the prep you need, we’ve put together a handy PDF checklist for you to use. It includes specific advice for those driving their own car, plus rules all drivers need to follow, and handy hints to help you get to know the rules before you go. Print it out and fill it in—once you’ve checked off every item, you’re good to go!

By Andy Boardman

Andy has been part of the PassMeFast Blog team from the very beginning. He'll provide you with plenty of useful motoring advice, helping you to get the most out of every trip. When he's not writing here, you're most likely to find Andy on the way to his next destination.

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