Overseas Road Trip: What You Need To Know Before You Take Off

A couple is driving a car
Janelle Gonzalez

Nov 07, 2016

Road trips in Australia take planning… driving when you’re overseas is a whole different ball game.

Border crossings, varying road rules, no speed limits, signs in different languages (or no signs at all!), no lane markings, and sharing the road with hawkers, cows and tractors are just a few.

Freaked out? Don’t be. Heading overseas for a road trip is one of the best ways to get off the beaten track and see some incredible sites. They key is simply to be prepared. Here’s what you need to know before you embark on an international road trip…

1. Get an International Driver’s Permit

Loads of countries require an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) and if they do, driving overseas without one could be a criminal offence, voiding any travel and vehicle insurance and being unable to rent a car – ouch! You can obtain one at your state Motoring Club (such as the NRMA, RACV or RACQ). On top of this always remember to also carry your Australian driver’s licence.

2. The right insurance cover

Your travel insurance needs to cover driving, damage to vehicles and other property/people as a result of your driving. If it doesn’t, make sure you take this out through your car hire company (however this will generally cost you more).

3. Different and dangerous (even shocking) driving conditions

Ineffective law enforcement, dangerous driving, no obeyance of lane markings, unroadworthy vehicles, motorbikes EVERYWHERE, driving on the right (wrong) side of the road, unconventional transport (things like camels hauling wooden carts), and human and animal traffic, all moving at different paces. That’s just some of what you’ll be up against and it can be a real shock.

Amongst this chaos there are actually road rules and you need to be aware of them. A great place to find out the local road rules and driving conditions is The Association for Safe International Road Travel. You can download a guide for any of 150 countries at asirt.org.

4. Plan the road trip in advance

Talk to the locals, get a guide, and ask the hotel staff to plan your route in advance. Knowing road conditions, any special sights along the way and things to be wary of upfront can make a big difference to your safety and enjoyment of your trip. Some things to consider include:

  • Things could have changed since the guidebook was written. Locals can tell you if conditions have changed, and they usually have a different view of the best things to see and do.
  • If you’re travelling to a non-English-speaking country and don’t speak the native language, the number of English-speaking locals is likely to reduce the farther you venture out from the major cities. So consider whether you will be able to appropriately ask for directions and interpret road signs.
  • Will there be plenty of places to buy food, water and petrol?

woman planning a trip

5. Get yourself a GPS

These are worth their weight in gold when you don’t know where you are — especially if you can get one in English. Most car rental companies will have them as an optional extra (ask if they have an English version). You can also use your phone, but you’ll need to make sure you have a local SIM card, as international data roaming charges will apply.

6. Have some local cash

Have local cash on hand when driving overseas, and if you plan to cross a border, ensure you have some cash for your next destination as well. Not everyone takes credit cards. You may have to pay tolls, get petrol, or simply buy some munchies along the way.

7. Keep your papers on you

If you get stopped by the police or have to cross a border while you’re driving overseas, the first thing they’ll ask a foreigner is to see your passport. If you are crossing a border you’re likely to have to show your plan to leave and that you have enough cash to survive. So make sure you have your itinerary (including name and address of where you’re staying), flight home, and credit cards and cash in your wallet. Also ensure that you meet any visa requirements and have evidence of this.

Even if you don’t plan to cross borders, you don’t want to have to explain your lack of documentation to a policeman in a foreign language, so it’s best to be over-prepared.

8. Border crossings

Always be prepared with your papers and be polite to staff at the border. Cheeky doesn’t go down too well with some, and different cultures have different senses of humour. Stay calm, polite and patient — just because you’re a foreigner doesn’t mean you’ll get special treatment.

9. Have a mobile phone that can make international calls

Forget about roaming costs — if you’re stranded, it doesn’t matter how much it costs. Mobiles on any overseas road trip are a must. Just make sure you have international roaming ability and know which numbers to dial, including country and regional codes. You might also want to consider purchasing a local SIM card. This will not only save on call costs, but will make it easier to figure out how to dial local numbers.

girl calling on a bridge

10. Know thy emergency numbers

Your car rental company, hotel or guidebook should be able to give you the numbers to call in an emergency, including police, ambulance, breakdown services or highway patrol (if available) and towing companies.

11. Find a roadworthy car

Drive through Europe and you may be lucky enough to drive a brand new European car. Drive through Cuba and you’ll get a 40-year-old has-been. Particularly in developing countries, keep an eye on how your car is running. Is the car blowing smoke, making strange noises, or just rough to drive? If you’re unsure, ask if there’s an alternative. If you’re really unsure, check out other local car rental companies, and always get a phone number you can contact in an emergency.

12. Get down with the local lingo

Learn important travel phrases and pleasantries and take a phrasebook with you. Some basic phrases such as ‘which way to’, ‘gas station’, ‘left’ and ‘right’ will come in handy if you’re lost and need to ask directions from a local.

13. Take your own toiletries!

Australian outback toilets can be bad. Toilets (or holes in the ground) in Southeast Asia are much worse. Take what you need to be prepared for a rest stop. And be cautious of stopping by the side of the road for a quick pee — it’s illegal in some countries, or at the very least seen as poor taste. So be careful not to get caught in the wrong place with your pants down.

14. Enjoy the adventure

A great road trip will be stored in your memory bank as some of the best times of your life. It’s one of the best ways to get to know this planet, without the interruption of guides, tour buses and other foreign tourists. A little bit of planning and you’ll have the time of your life driving overseas.

For more road trip tips check out the Blue Toro Blog.


By Janelle Gonzalez

Corporate escapee and mechanic’s wife Janelle Gonzalez has spent the last 24 years in garages, pit lanes and on road trips. Living a double life - corporate by weekday, trackside on the weekends - she shares her husband’s passion for cars. She has now turned her skills to building Australia’s first national mobile mechanic franchise. Her mission is to help Australians trust mechanics by educating car owners and returning to good old fashioned service values, while changing the lives of mechanics and their families.


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