You want to explore a country that you have never visited before, but you don’t want to join a group tour?
In that case, you have several options.
- Wing it.
You arrive at your destination and book tours locally, maybe at the tour desk of your hotel.
Drawback: The hotel desk tends to partner with one tour provider only, who may or may not offer the kinds of excursions you are interested in.
You may also want to visit places that are a bit further afield. How are you going to get there? There may be public transport available. You can try and find out from the hotel staff, or go to the local train station or bus station to find out schedule and costs. Or you could hire a driver unless the place is too far from your base.
Bus or train schedules may not always be convenient and even then you may still need to take a taxi in order to get you right to the site you want to visit. Besides, during busy periods they may be pretty crowded and/or fully booked.
2. Rent a car
The alternative is to rent a car and hit the road. The advantages are obvious: you can come and go as you please, stay as long as you like, and follow whichever route you fancy.
But how should you go about planning such a trip?
Familiarize yourself with the territory:
There is no way around it, if you want to plan everything yourself, you will need to do some research. Each and every country is different. Don’t expect conditions to be the same as those at home. Roads may be in bad repair, you may have to drive on the opposite side of the road, and the default for rental vehicles may be a manual shift rather than automatic, road signs are unfamiliar and the highway code may also be different from the one you know.
Some will accept your regular driver’s license, but others may demand that you carry an international driver’s license. Although no-one may ever check this, if anything goes wrong, your rental car insurance may not cover any damage if you didn’t fully comply with all the license requirements.
Once you have a clear idea of the technicalities, you need to familiarize yourself with the territory of your chosen destination. Naturally, you will want to see everything. But most countries are too big to see in just a couple of short weeks. That means you have to narrow down your selection to the places and areas that interest you most. This is the most difficult part of planning. Don’t make the mistake of cramming in far too much. After all, you want to experience the country and not just see it from the highway, right?
Ideally, aim to drive no more than 300-400km per driving day, and give yourself at least one full day to explore each stopover point. Maybe more, if time allows and there is a lot to see and do in one area.
Although a point-to-point route may seem epic, one-way rental drop-off fees can also be of epic proportion, depending on the distance between point A and point B. Dropping your car off at the same location where you picked it up will definitely, always be less expensive.
What kind of car?
Rental car companies offer all kinds of cars, from small little city cars to full-blown 4×4 trucks. Whether you need four-wheel drive, 2 wheel drive or whether a standard car will do depends very much on your itinerary. In urban areas, a regular car will be all you need, but you may run into trouble if you want to visit a National Park with dirt road access only.
The regular insurance cover for rental cars will not cover a standard city car on dirt roads (or the highlands of Iceland or Patagonia), quite apart from the fact that such cars are just not designed to cope with off-road conditions. So, if you are planning to go off-road or into adventurous territory, spend the extra money on a 4×4 – it will be worth it. Additionally, you can take out an extra insurance package (often called something like ‘care-free’) that will give you roadside assistance and cover extras, such as tires or shattered windshields. (Read the precise conditions in advance!)
Arrival – picking up your car
Depending on your arrival time you may not necessarily want to pick up your car at the airport and drive off straight from there. Most international flights arrive in the capital, or another large, interesting city. It might be a lot more relaxing to set your itinerary so that you can spend the first and last day either in the arrival city or near the airport.
If you decide to stay in town, you can take a shuttle bus, or taxi from the airport to your hotel. That way you can avoid having to deal with city traffic in a foreign country as soon as you step off the plane. The taxi or shuttle bus driver will know their way around. Less stress.
The rental car company can deliver your car to the hotel. Some rental car companies charge for this service, but it is less than you would end up paying in airport pick-up fees (Chile!) You can finalize all the formalities at the hotel, or the representative may take you back to their downtown office to deal with the paperwork there.
No matter how eager you are to get going, take your time to inspect the car thoroughly, noting every scratch and make sure the representative takes note of them, too. That way, everything will be on the record and they can’t try to blame you for scratches that were already there when you took possession of the car.
Finding your way around
In the age of google maps you may think – ah, that’s easy! But beware – google still does not cover every corner of the planet, and besides, in some areas, the signal may be very bad, to non-existent. So, don’t rely too much on google, although it is a great help during the planning stage. Being able to read a map certainly still comes in handy.
Rental car companies will provide GPS systems, at an additional fee. These can be helpful, but sometimes they are not. Bringing your own, with the extra country package preloaded, is a better option.
Crossing international borders
Taking a rental car from one country to another usually involves formalities. For example, if you are traveling in Chile and you want to drive part of the way on the Argentinean side of the Andes, there are additional things you need to pay attention to:
- Check the Visa requirements
- Tell the rental car company in advance if you are planning to take the car outside its country of registration. There is paperwork that needs to be completed before you arrive at the border and this special permit also incurs an extra fee.
- Make sure the insurance policy covers you in the other country, too
If you are traveling during holiday periods, book all your hotels in advance. Don’t rely on finding something as you go along. During the main season, the best places often sell out well in advance. Bring your reservation numbers and correspondences. Double bookings are not uncommon.
Research the sites you want to visit in advance so as to avoid disappointment. It would be a shame to drive a long way just to find out that on that particular day that particular place is closed. In order to control visitor numbers, very popular sights may insist that you book in advance.
Departure – drop off your car
If you want to drop off your rental car at the airport (usually there is no drop off fee), give yourself at least one additional hour for the procedure of returning the car. Go over every detail with the representative. Also, make sure the tank is full. Rental car companies charge an arm and a leg to refuel it for you.
3. Get help
Sounds complicated? Well, yes, it can be, a bit. That’s why we are here to help. We have more than 20 years of experience in arranging and customizing self-drive itineraries, and we love working with you to tailor your trip to your personal needs.
Currently, we offer Self-Drives in Iceland, Chile, and Costa Rica.
Don’t hesitate to contact us if you need a hand.