Driving on Holiday: What You Need to Know

cartoon of person driving car surrounded by holiday items

There’s nothing quite like hitting the open road and exploring a new destination with the freedom and convenience of a trusty automobile. That’s probably why us Brits love a good road trip. With summer soon coming to an end, now is the perfect time to squeeze in a last minute jaunt abroad. Will you be winding through the quaint villages of southern France? Or cruising down Route 66 in a convertible? Both sound pretty good to us right now!

If you do fancy taking a car with you (or hopping in one as soon as you arrive) make sure you’re prepared for what motoring abroad entails. Trust us, it’s not just driving on the other side of the road that you might have to adjust to…

We’ve put together a handy rundown of everything you need to consider before putting the pedal to the metal in your favourite holiday spot. Bon voyage!

Plan ahead

Red car on map of South Asia

Yes, it’s a little boring and not exactly rock ‘n’ roll, but successful trips require plenty of preparation. Once you’ve selected your destination, it’s time to start swotting up on things like roads, requirements and regulations (more on these later). Scour maps of the area, establish at least a rough route and make note of useful stop-off points. The latter will be necessary for refueling yourself and the car, having a stretch and taking in your surroundings.

If you’re no stranger to driving on holiday, don’t let us stop you being spontaneous—you needn’t plan every detail of the trip. Sometimes it is fun to just see where the road takes you! Now, this attitude is perfectly fine if you’re whizzing around Europe, but not so wise in, say, the Australian Outback. Be smart and don’t play it too cool. You’ll thank us later, when you’re not stranded in the middle of nowhere or desperately trying to talk your way out of a foreign jail. Seriously.

What vehicle are you going to use?

Cartoon of a person driving with a parasol in the back and the sun shining above

You own car

With many European countries situated just a ferry ride away, many people find it cheap and straightforward to take their own car on holiday with them. If this is the plan, be sure to check that your current insurance policy covers trips abroad. While we’re still a part of the EU, it should at least cover the minimum requirements in Europe.

However, it’s well worth considering extending this to cover things like damage and theft. Funny things can happen when you’re in a different environment! That’s why European breakdown cover, in particular, is highly recommended. Trying to arrange repairs for your car in a foreign country can be both costly and confusing. Let the insurance companies do most of the leg work for you—that’s what they’re there for.

Shelling out a bit of extra cash now may be painful, but it’s much better than finding yourself lumped with a huge bill when you’re already in the midst of post-holiday blues.

Hire car

If you’re heading further afield or just don’t fancy sharing your bunk bed with a Volvo, a hire car is the best option. Again, not to be dull, but organising it well in advance is a great way to secure yourself a better deal. Have a bit of fun shopping around for a model and style you like. This ensures you won’t get ripped off by the car guy at the airport when you’re all giddy from that G&T you had on the plane.

You know what else you can sort online before your trip? Car hire excess insurance. Yep, organising your holiday isn’t all sun cream and flip-flops, you know. This extra bit of insurance can be a godsend. Many tourists discover only too late that many hire cars, if damaged or stolen, leave you liable to pay for the first part of the loss (known as the ‘excess’ charges). That’s even if you already have the basic insurance. This excess bill can sometimes end up costing more than you paid to hire the car in the first place.

Insider tip: You may need to provide a credit card (a debit is often not accepted) when picking up your hire vehicle. Companies use this as a security payment method in the case of any unforeseen problems.

Pack like a pro

What model sat nav will be used in the driving test?
Photo © James Cridland (cc-by/2.0)

When driving abroad there are certain things you should take with you to ensure the journey goes smoothly. Top of the list: a sat nav. Great for ensuring you don’t get lost (most of the time) and also give you the option of selecting different routes or taking a last minute detour without too much hassle. Be aware that in many European countries radar technology that allows users to detect speed cameras or trackers is illegal. If your sat nav is fitted with such features, you must turn this sensor off before entering the country.

Along with your sat nav, bring along some old school navigation help in the form of maps. In the event that your sat nav breaks or its battery unexpectedly dies, you’ll be thankful that you did.

Another thing that will save your butt in a crisis is a list of emergency contact numbers. Local car repair shops, your insurance company, the nearest UK embassy—note down the details of anyone that it might be useful to give a bell should things go a bit south…

Important documents

With so much to organise, it can sometimes be the most obvious things that people forget to pack. We recommend using one main folder or pouch to store all of your important documents. Once it’s packed, guard it with your life! Or, you know, pop it in the glove box while you’re driving.

Inside this very important case you should store: your passport, insurance documents, driving licence (all in date!) and any other paperwork that you deem to be vital for the trip.

Before leaving the UK, double check if your destination requires you to carry any extra documentation. For example, some countries stipulate that people need to possess an international driving permit. You should be able to order one of these at your local post office.

Different country means different driving laws

It might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how much driving laws vary from country to country. The differences between European driving tests are testament to this (not to mention driving tests in Africa)! Major regulations like speed limits and drink-driving allowances, moreover, tend to be different everywhere. Make sure you read up on each country’s policy before you cross the border. Then there are the more general driving rules that you may not be used to. In the US, for example, it is perfectly acceptable to undertake and you can even turn right on a red light—as long as the way is clear for you to do so. If you’re crossing a bridge or entering a motorway in France, be prepared to pay a toll. Quirks like these show up all over the place.

In Europe, there are a lot of regulations pertaining to what you must bring with you on a road trip. We’re not just talking top notch snacks and great summer jams. Rather, items like first aid kits, red warning triangles, reflective jackets, a UK sticker, headlight converters (stickers to place over your lights to prevent dazzling other drivers) and breathalyser kits. In many places you can face a fine for not storing a particular set of objects in your boot.

To make things easy, each country requires a slightly different combination of items. If you do plan on visiting more than one country on the continent, the best option to avoid being caught out is to invest in a full European driving kit. This may be starting to sound like a bit of a hassle, but while travelling it is really important that you respect the laws of the particular land you’re in.

Cultural differences

It’s also a good idea to prepare yourself for the local driving style. While certain customs may not be solidified in law, they can be just as ingrained and respected—so be vigilant! Someone visiting England, for example, may find it useful to know that men driving white vans can be a law unto themselves.

In the same way, let us save you the inconvenience of a minor heart attack by letting you know that some taxi drivers on Parisian motorways will drive like lanes don’t exist and they’re a character in Grand Theft Auto. Give them a wide berth and you’ll be fine.

Stay safe

Speeding car with blurred background

Holidays are for having fun and foreign road trips should be no different. To maximise the potential for great experiences and minimise the chances of anything going wrong, keep safety in the back of your mind. Most precautions are pretty obvious but still worth mentioning. Don’t leave the car parked in an area if it feels even slightly dodgy, keep your valuables on your person and don’t drive if you’re under the influence of any ‘fun-enhancers’, shall we say…

If there’s more than one licence-holder on the trip, divide the driving between you. This will reduce the chances of tiredness or stress affecting whoever’s driving. For those driving solo, we know parts of your trip might be perfect “for the ‘Gram”, but don’t take any snaps from behind the wheel. You’re just asking for trouble—be it injury or run-ins with the law.

Road conditions and companions

Another safety consideration is what the road quality is like and who (or what!) you’ll be sharing it with. Certain countries have famously bad road conditions, for which you may need a particular vehicle to traverse. In some cases you might just want to avoid them altogether.

Climate differences can also affect how you need to drive. In colder conditions visibility may be reduced and the roads could be icy. Alternatively, in hotter climates the roads may be cracked and you need to ensure your engine doesn’t overheat.

Once you’ve mastered the different roads you should also consider who you’ll be sharing them with. There may be herds of animals being shunted across the street, farm machinery slowing down traffic, or a high number of mopeds zipping in between cars. Research such conditions and, if possible, ask friends and family who have already been to the country for advice.

Driving on Holiday

cartoon of belongings on a beach

Road trips are one of the best ways to experience a new country. You’ll have ease of access to most places and the freedom to move around as much as you please. The general rule of driving on holiday is that the more you organise beforehand, the less you need to worry about once you’re there. After all, you don’t want to be worrying if you have the right insurance policy when you should be rolling down the window and feeling the breeze through your hair!

So, while your planning outfits and stocking up on bug repellent, set aside some time to research the roads at your chosen destination. You may find our article on the differences between driving in Europe and the UK useful, if you’re heading to that neck of the woods. Wherever you’re off to, remember everything you’ve learnt on your driving journey and, most importantly—have a great time!

By Isobel Robb

Isobel enjoys the freedom of the open road and loves driving to new places. She's here to offer helpful hints and tips to improve your motoring skills. When not keeping up to date with the latest driving info you can find her discovering new restaurants or exhausting her Netflix subscription.

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