It was probably not a very smart plan. My itinerary for my first night in Malta:
- get to airport
- pickup rental car
- drive on the opposite side of the road (Malta drives on the left) across the island
- get on a ferry
- drive to a little seaside town
And it was dark. And I’d been on a transatlantic flight that had been preceded by an excruciating three-hour car ride with a friend who was
A. hung over and
B. smelled not great.
Oh, and I’m not a great driver (Deer: 2. Steph: 0).
But it turns out driving on the other side of the road is actually fun! It took a little while to get my brain to switch, and I had to check myself when parallel parking, but after a couple close calls everything started to click. And if I’d been too scared to try something new, I would have missed out on some of the best parts of my trip.
Here are some unexpected benefits of driving in foreign countries:
See things like a Local
Most locals don’t see their cities from the tops of double-decker tour buses. For many parts of the world, seeing things like a local means public transportation, walking, and biking. But there are lots of places where the main way locals get around is by car. In these places, driving makes the most sense.
It also means you can rent local apartments in small cities, and you aren’t stuck getting a condo or apartment somewhere without access to public transit. For great ideas on where to stay off-the-path, check more details here.
Not every location worth visiting is easily accessible by public transit. An isolated beach, a Roman amphitheater in the country, a beautiful midwest American overlook. Sometimes the best places are the ones no one else can get to.
Pro tip: Make sure you have GPS! I use my cell phone a lot, but sometimes connectivity is an issue. Having your own GPS unit on you can be a lifesaver.
(Check out this review for a Garmin GPS Navigator if you’re thinking of investing in your own unit).
Road Trip Perks
Salty snacks. Unexpected roadside attractions. Going back and forth between Rihanna songs and This American Life episodes. Once you’ve packed your road trip essentials and filled up with gas, they are awesome.
On a trip, a car can represent the same thing that it does to a teenager: freedom! No schedules. No rules. Go where you want. Stop where you want, for as long as you want. There’s no first bus–if you’re an early riser, you can go as early as you want. Want to catch the sunset? There’s no last bus to make you miss it. You can pull over and check out anything that catches your eye. For example, when I was in Slovenia, I was able to do my own day trip to an extra UNESCO site and see Lake Bled in the same day. I’m so thankful I decided to rent a car in Slovenia because no prepackaged tour or public transit combo would have allowed me to see so much in so little time.
Doing Something You Never thought You Could
The thought of driving in another country can be intimidating. You have to go through the rules of the road, get ahold of a rental car, learn local parking etiquette, and stay out of trouble. Navigating can be quirky even with GPS (hello mystery highway outside of Montreal). But after you’ve done all that, you feel kind of amazing. Some countries are easier than others (renting a car in Azerbaijan was on the difficult side), and there are absolutely places I would not attempt driving, but even the easiest places can be exhilarating.