10 tips for a kickass first road trip

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Shawn and I are romantics for the idea of being on the open road, to have the absolute freedom to drive wherever you want to. We've made impromptu stops in South African wine country, driven through olive fields in Andalusia, found wandering sheep in a lonely valley in Lake District in the UK. I get madly excited when I start planning a road trip, I just love it so much. There will always be a few instances when your plans don't work out. We've had to make impromptu stops into random towns for the night seeking accommodation. Chalk it down to bad weather, most of the time. We're lucky we've never had a tire blow. Never get frantic (I tell myself, over and over again) when your plans don't work out. That's part of the adventure.

Ready? Here are 10 things I've learnt that will help you on your first road trip.

Lake District, UK

Lake District, UK

1. Be prepared for weather conditions

Know where your car's defrost buttons are when you drive through winter! This comes in handy if you're driving through fog in the UK or when a change of altitude will frost your windows. Shawn and I have never experienced frosting before New Zealand and it freaked us out to have to fiddle with the buttons in our car while we were driving. Before we drove through the mountains in South New Zealand there was a chance of snow through Lindis Pass, so our rental car guy gave us snow chains just in case we'd have to wrap it around our tires for friction. Thankfully we never had to use it but always ask for a demonstration before you head off.

2. Be mentally prepared to drive through the dark

I really hate driving in the dark. I start driving slower, I try to be more careful, but that tires me out faster. The trickiest route in the dark we experienced was in New Zealand when the road curved around a mountain. We never plan to drive through the night but there will be times you're on the road past midnight or when the sun sets by 4pm during winter. Buy a coffee before, put on a rocking soundtrack, be prepared to stare at your headlights surrounded by darkness for awhile.

It isn't always avoidable to drive in the dark, but always be extra careful. We've felt very safe driving in South Africa, Europe, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia. There have always been horror stories about carjacking on the highway in the night. Don't let this put you off but stay vigilant about safety. Anything that is out of the ordinary should drive up your red flag.

Johannesburg to Cape Town

Johannesburg to Cape Town

3. Know the local 'road language'

We heard a horror story about carjacking involving drivers flashing their lights at you in South Africa that gets you to pull over. Conversely, when you're in New Zealand, drivers on the opposite side of the road flashing their lights at you are trying to warn you that there are traffic cops up ahead. In Singapore a honk is a 'what are you doing?!' while in Indonesia and Sri Lanka honking are friendly ways to say thank you for you giving way. In most countries after you overtake someone on the road, putting on your hazard lights for a short bit says 'thank you'. This was very common in Africa, New Zealand and Malaysia. Always chat with your car pick up guy about what the road customs are. They may not always have the answers but it's always a good thing to check when you can.

4. When you're in the planning stages, use google maps to find out driving times between destinations, then add about 2 hours to that

The map might say your destination is 4 hours away, but we've never made it exactly to our destinations on time. On our first road trip I planned it exactly and gave myself a 1-2 hour buffer, but we stopped by so many things on the road that we arrived so much later than expected and in the wee hours of the morning. For long journeys don't try and squeeze an early start and then make dinner reservations you can't cancel.

Knowing this and the driving distance between each stop makes or breaks the decision of what to see and where to stop before the day ends. We like to book accommodation ahead of time so we try to include as many sights as possible without having to give up anything simply because we have to be in a specific town on a specific night.

Yup, this horror-show like setting beckoned to us

Yup, this horror-show like setting beckoned to us

5. Don't plan to squeeze everything into a day

You might find one place so interesting that it takes up more time than you expected. Or you might end up with a bit of a random delay like we had in Toledo when our car went missing, together with our luggage and passports (it got towed). Not stuffing your daily itinerary means you're less likely to drive in the dark on a lonely highway at 2am, when you're exhausted from the day and it's still 300KM away to your next stop for a warm bed.

Maximise your itinerary by looking at where you can be based that'll give you a great opportunity to do day trips from instead of trying to hit smaller towns en route. We skipped Granada in Spain to be based in Malaga instead so we could visit Antequerra and Ronda before heading to Seville.

6. Don't say no to random road attractions

One treasure we found spontaneously while on our drive through South Africa was a WOLF sanctuary. Had to stop, of course! You're going to find wonderful things out of the blue, so give yourself the chance to explore it.

As a general rule if you're not speeding, it takes about an hour to drive every 100KM on the highway. Signboards with distances are good markers for how much time you'll have to spend on the road between your stops.

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7. Pick a car you can manage

Most European cities have terrible parking options. In Spain, drivers prefer small vehicles to larger ones so that parking on the street bumper to bumper can be maximised. Instead of getting an experience with a car you love that you wouldn't buy back home like a BMW or a Mercedes, go for something that's comfortable, great value, and easy to drive in the city you're in. We've driven tiny Ford hatchbacks in Europe, and Holden or Toyota sedans in Australia. Always book ahead because you might not always have options you want when you arrive. Booking ahead might also give you the best deals as daily rates in every city are different and can get quite expensive.

8. Use a GPS

For someone who has used both old school maps and a GPS, as a navigator and a driver, I can't stress this enough. Sure, you can read maps. But once you're off the highway cities have a myriad of small alleys and tiny side streets you'll be cursing at because you can't find them on your tiny map. And if you're diverting from the highway to visit something spontaneously, a GPS can recalibrate your location much faster than you can and get you back on the road to your destination quickly.

We prefer the more reliable GPS over a mobile since we use our mobiles to play music or take pictures on the road and we don't want to run into connectivity issues. Recently though Hertz offers a mobile wifi package in the car for up to 5 devices so this is an option.

Bonus: when you're lost you and your partner can team up to yell at the GPS instead of each other.

New Zealand

New Zealand

9. Checklist of essential items

You might scoff at some items on this list but they're curated from very painful experiences. Have you ever driven with non-stop German commentary you don't understand?  Have you ever gone through 5 hours with Adele's Someone Like You on repeat because it's the number 1 hit of the year and EVERY single station is playing it? It's very depressing. So, first up:

  • SPOTIFY PLAYLIST. And just in case you don't have connection, we've used Spotify's download function to keep some playlists running and us sane.
  • Snacks. Lots and lots of this. Candy, chocolate, chips, baby carrots with hummus, anything to munch on because you will just want to.
  • Wet wipes! These are a godsend. Nothing more gross than having sticky fingers on your steering wheel after snacking. You'll be grateful for wet wipes too when you spill that first cup of coffee all over your seat / gearbox.
  • Water. 1L.
  • Garbage bag. We always carry spare bags in our luggage, just in case we need it for laundry, post-rafting wet clothes, muddy shoes. It doubles up as a garbage bag for anything we can't recycle.
  • Lose cash for fuel. You don't want to get stuck at a local petrol station where the credit card machine is out of order.
  • Toilet paper. We take ours from the hotel for the road. You never know, you know.
  • Charcoal pills. For when you run out of toilet paper. Just kidding. These are a must have on ANY trip, not just a road trip, but I doubly make sure to have them on road trips because there's nothing great about having a stomachache on a long drive in the middle of nowhere.

10. Chat with the person you're picking up your car from

The best person to speak to about tips, directions, best stops along your route, is the person you're picking up your rental car from. And when they recommend full insurance, go with it if you can rather than save the extra cash. Even if you're a careful driver you don't want to put yourself at the hands of unruly ones on the road. They'll also tell you to bring the car back with the tank full else you'll incur additional charges for them to fill it which is more expensive. This we do everywhere we go.

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