This year has without a doubt been the year of road trips for me. Almost every trip I’ve taken over the last few months has involved a lot of driving, but that’s a good thing. There’s nothing better in my opinion than experiencing a new, or even slightly familiar, destination on the open road. Not beholden to train or bus schedules, the freedom that only a car can provide transforms a simple trip into a journey of discovery. Ireland, Germany, Nevada, Iceland and still more destinations have been featured on my road trip playlist so far this year and after spending many, many hours in a variety of cars I’ve created some best practices that I want to share with you all today so that you can enjoy this fun way of exploration without sweating some of the annoyances.
I think that many of use tend to go with the cheapest option when looking at rental cars, and that can be a mistake. Many times, the cost difference between classes of cars is only a few dollars, but those differences in terms of personal comfort can be tremendous. I’m tall, so an economy vehicle is never going to work for me, standard-size or larger is always my preference. But it’s not just personal comfort that you have to keep in mind, it’s also the terrain of the places you plan to visit. Iceland, for example, has a great number of dirt or gravel roads and byways just off of the main Route 1 or Ring Road. While smaller cars can usually handle these roads, that’s not always the case and if you intend to visit some of the many remote destinations around the country, then a bigger car really is necessary. But big cars can also be a hindrance. When I was in Ireland, most of the roads I had to navigate were small, country roads and lanes. The bigger car I was in was a struggle to manage on these roads, especially given how much I dislike driving on the left side of the road. The result for me was a couple of close calls with fences and traffic cones, incidents that wouldn’t have happened in a smaller car. So, when booking you rental car look at price, but also consider comfort and the terrain of the destination itself.
Music and GPS
It’s amazing how much technology has changed even in the last couple of years. I am horrible, awful really, when it comes to directions and reading a map is akin to advanced trigonometry. So since their advent, I have always depended on GPS devices. Until recently, this meant renting one of those horrible dash-mounted devices from the rental car agencies, but luckily technology has advanced to the point where I no longer have to do that. Instead, I just use my phone to direct me wherever I have to go. Nearly all modern cars have a USB port, which means I can get the GPS directions through the car’s speakers AND keep the phone charged at the same time. What about data you ask? Two points to consider here. The first is to select a plan that allows for unlimited international and/or domestic data. I recently switched companies to one that offers free, international data in 120 or so countries so this is thankfully no longer a concern for me. But the second point to consider is that you don’t need data to use the GPS services. Before you leave the airport, use the airport WiFi to set your destination and then start the navigation, switching to airplane mode afterwards. As long as you don’t turn off the GPS or change destinations, you don’t need real-time connectivity to get around. Naturally, all of this depends on whatever plan you’re on. An added bonus to connecting my phone to the car via USB is that I don’t have to futz around with the local radio stations anymore; instead I just listen to MY music on MY phone. I set up a special Road Trip playlist and that’s what I listen to whenever I’m on a road trip. I love the system I’ve created and think it’s the best way to get around and enjoy the experience while doing so.
Stops both planned and unplanned
I’m a Type-A traveler, a personality quirk that has proven to be both helpful and restrictive when I travel. I’ve had to learn how to balance organization with spontaneity, and at no time is that more important than on a great road trip. I personally think it’s important to take the time to learn as much about your driving route as possible, identifying key stops and experiences along the way. I call them waypoints, major stops that I know I will take. However, I also plan in more much time than I need to get between these points. That’s because I know there will be many more interesting sights that I don’t discover before I leave home, that I’ll only find as I drive along. These can be anything, from impromptu day-hikes to a local restaurant that looks too good to just drive past, whatever they are, it’s these unplanned stops which have usually led to my most memorable travel experiences. So when you plan your own epic drive, definitely plan out your route, but be flexible enough to allow for those amazing stops you’ll only discover along the way. After all, that’s the real beauty of an amazing road trip.
Rules of the road
This should go without saying, but as my friends in New Zealand will tell you, most tourists don’t take the time to learn the rules of the road when driving internationally. The basics of driving are usually about the same wherever you go, no shock there. The differences are more in the slight nuances, quirky laws and rules that you may not know. Whether it’s the MANY speed cameras in Europe or the intricacies of navigating a multi-lane roundabout on the left-hand side, these are points that could very well lead to disaster. So, take a few minutes, learn about those differences and become an educated traveler.
Embrace the moment
Ultimately, the best part of any great road trip is the drive itself. Whether it’s navigating the stunning Icefields Parkway in Alberta or the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, these drives are about the driving experience itself. You’ll pass through beautiful natural landscapes and regions of the world you thought only existed in the annals of travel magazines. Sure, the stops are great, but ultimately you can’t stop at every amazing spot you see, so the drive itself becomes the experience. It’s a holistic way of experiencing a destination, of absorbing everything that makes it so great in the first place.
There’s nothing quite like a great road trip, whether it’s Route 66, the Causeway Coastal Route or one you’ve invented yourself. It’s a style of travel that’s about personal freedom, of unmitigated exploration and for recapturing, even if only briefly, everything that made us fall in love with the travel experience in the first place.