Whether you’re looking for a relaxed drive along the stunning US Route 66 or an adventurous cross-continental journey in Asia and Europe, a well-planned road trip will undoubtedly create a travel experience of a lifetime.
No matter your road trip style, you have the freedom to visit the places that interest you, move at your own pace, and reach remote destinations where tourists seldom go.
I love adventurous travel experiences, and many of them have involved road trips, including driving for 47 days from London to Mongolia during the insane Mongol Rally (crossing 1/3 of the distance of the world), a fun road trip hopping between waterfalls in Iceland, and a highlights-focused trip along the US west coast, among many others.
Through those experiences, I’ve learned a lot about road trip planning, including the car rental process and what you should look for for a smooth trip.
Here are my top tips that’ll help you plan a road trip of a lifetime.
1. Will the Car be Automatic or Manual (Stick-shift)?
Automatic cars are prevalent in the US, but they are rare in other countries and often more expensive to rent than manual ones.
First, make sure you are renting a car you can drive. If the website or clerk is not presenting that information clearly, ask them before committing to the rental.
Sites like DiscoverCars.com will show you this information clearly while comparing car rental deals from many companies, so that you can choose which rental is best for your trip.
Please don’t make my mistake of unknowingly renting a manual car when I didn’t know how to drive manual. In my case it turned out to be a funny learning experience, but you might not have the same patience or will to test your driving skill in a foreign country.
2. Plan Your Itinerary and Route by Mapping Points of Interest, but Stay Flexible
Start by planning your route based on the highlights you’re interested in seeing. Are there key dates you must take into account when planning? These could be festivals and holidays you’d like to see at your destination.
List and locate these points on a map, then take a macro look at it to start tracing logical routes that include all the important highlights.
But, plan to be flexible and open to deviating. Traveling is a dynamic experience, and sometimes, no matter how well you plan things, time is simply not enough to do everything. Additionally, you always learn of new things you’d like to see once you’re on the road.
My recommendation is to plan some downtime throughout your itinerary to either rest or use it as your flexible “extra” time.
3. Will you be driving on the right side or left side of the road?
Definitely search this online before renting. This is essential. In the US we drive on the right side of the road, but did you know that 55 countries worldwide drive on the left side?
Here’s a list of all the countries that drive on the right and left side of the road.
When driving on the left side of the road, your car rental will most likely have the steering wheel on the right side of the car. Everything is reversed (including turn signals and wipers), except for the pedals that stay in the same order.
4. Is your driver’s license accepted abroad?
When traveling to an English-speaking country, it is probable that your American driver’s license will be accepted.
For non-enlgish speaking countries, you might need an International Driving Permit (IDP), which is a paper conntaining your driver’s license information translated into ten languages. It is accepted in over 150 countries.
While this is the “right way” to rent a car in non-English speaking countries, I’ve rented cars in Indonesia, Iceland, Reunion, and Morocco without an IDP.
As long as the rental company understands English, you should be okay. But again, this could vary depending on the destination.
You must be at least 18 years old to get an IDP with one of the two IDP authorized agencies in the US: the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the National Automobile Club.
5. Stay on Top of Your Car’s Paperwork and Any Necessary Visas
Are you visiting more than one country? Do you have enough passport pages? Do you need visas? If so, how many?
Depending on your passport nationality and the countries to be visited, some visas will have to be arranged beforehand or on arrival. Some of these visas can take weeks or months to acquire, so make sure you do all the paperwork on time.
Travel visas give you a limited time in each country, so it’s essential you have an idea of how long you’ll stay in each country to not overstay or have your visa expire prematurely.
Make sure everyone in your group/car has the same valid dates on their visas to avoid getting stuck at the border. This Wikipedia page is a great place to check the visa requirements for US citizens.
Regarding your car, have your car ownership (or rental) documents and insurance up to date. Depending on which countries you’re visiting, you might be required to buy local car insurance at the border or pay a vignette (road tax) to be able to drive there.
Some car rentals allow you to cross between the US and Canada with no issue. The same applies to most Western European countries within the “free-movement” Schengen Zone.
On the other hand, most Eastern European countries will require you to go through a more rigorous border inspection and purchase their insurance at the border.
Google this information per country in your itinerary to be ready for each border crossing. Also, make sure your car rental company allows you to cross borders with their rented vehicle.
6. What type of insurance is included with your rental?
When renting online, in person, or over the phone, always ask which insurance is included in your rental quote. Most of the time, only the mandatory insurance is included – the one that will only cover basic damage after a high deductible.
Check which other insurance options are available, including their respective price, and decide how much coverage you should get depending on the type of trip you’re doing.
For example, will you be crossing rivers with your rental? If not, then you definitely do not need river-crossing insurance.
If you don’t know how much you should get, try comparing your trip’s risk with how much you are willing to pay in deductible (should something happen), and how much is the total cost of insurance for the rental duration.
7. Your Vehicle and Travel Companions are Influential on the Level of Adventure
Different people have different travel styles, so if you’re doing a road trip with friends, make sure they have a similar travel style as you and that drive and crave for adventure.
On a similar note, do you intend to stay on main roads most of the time? Maybe a regular car or RV will be enough. Are you planning on doing river crossings and going off-road? Then a 4×4 is recommended.
Want to drive those rough roads with a smaller car? Sure! A small engine car might not be able to cross a river, need to be pushed uphill, or get stuck in the desert, but isn’t that the fun and adventurous part of the journey?
Those are the greatest stories we share and cherish after the stress of the moment has passed.
On occasions, I’ve done most of the road trip on a small car for budget reasons and only rented a 4×4 during the days I needed it.
8. Be Open to Sleeping in the Car
Traffic jams, getting lost, tiredness, and deviations sometimes happen, delaying you from reaching your destination for the night on time.
Instead of risking your life by falling asleep while driving, park at a rest stop, parking lot, or anywhere safe to grab a few hours of sleep.
9. Check the Current Gas Price
As expected, the cost of gas is an essential thing to budget while planning a road trip.
If you’re planning on doing a multi-country road trip, you’ll notice that gas prices can vary drastically from country to country.
For example, the average gas price in Iceland is more than twice the average price in the US, while in Central Asia and the Middle East, it is about half of the US’ price.
Try to plan it so that you fill up your tank in cheaper countries before crossing the border to more expensive countries.
Use Google Maps to calculate your distances. If you know the average gas price in each country and the gas consumption of your car, you could do some basic math to establish a gas budget.
This page is excellent for getting up-to-date gas prices across the world.
10. Check the Distance Between Gas Stations along the way Before Leaving
If you’re off-roading or way off the beaten path, you may find that gas stations will be far and few. The last thing you want is to get stranded in the middle of nowhere with no gas.
To avoid this, use Google Maps to check the gas stations along the way. Make sure your tank is full enough to make it to the nearest one.
In some cases, like when crossing uninhabited areas, you might need a “Jerry can” (extra can of gas) that you’ll fill as your backup.
11. Stay Connected
Whether it’s with your SIM card or by getting an international SIM card or Wi-Fi/hotspot provider, do your best to have a form of communication in case of emergency.
Also, research and have handy the local emergency numbers. For example, in the US, it is 911, but every country has its own code.
Also, having internet helps you navigate, find local information online, and stay up to date with the weather.
12. Have Some Basic Mechanical Tools and Knowledge
A flat tire, dead battery, or running out of gas are some of the mishaps that could happen along the way. Having the right tools and basic knowledge will help you deal with them appropriately, or at least until you can get to the nearest garage.
Learn how to change a tire, check the oil levels, how to jump-start a car, and so on. Have a towrope, hammer, wrench, screwdrivers, and even duct tape, among other tools.
It’s always good to have a tire patch kit and a spare tire. Even two spare tires are recommended if you’re going way off-road, like driving in the desert.
For example, while crossing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia during the Mongol Rally, we had at least a flat tire each day. Sometimes up to three.
13. Consider the Space your Travel Gear and Bags will Occupy in the Vehicle
Normally, the more adventurous the road trip, the more gear you’ll carry with you, like tents, cooking stove, sleeping bags, food, cooler, and more.
Be mindful of the trunk space required by all this equipment, as it is often substantial. Don’t figure this out at the last minute to find out that not everything (or everyone’s bag) fits in the car. Extra Tip: A roof box might help!
14. Last but not Least, Enjoy the Moment!
You’re doing this trip to live the moment, have new experiences, and discover new places. If you get stuck somewhere or get lost, don’t fuss about it, and keep a high spirit! Figuring these things out is also part of the adventure!
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