Umbrian Back Road

Single lane backroad, Umbria Italy ©2018 Steve Smith

Friends often call me a NASA-TV nerd. I watch transfixed by late night filler video of an earth rotating below the orbiting International Space Station, and in the same way I’ m fascinated at how Google Earth maps depict the earth from space.

I’ve found it to be my best friend for any road trip.

My Road Trip 101

I remember my first road trip in Europe. I thought I was all set to tackle the drive, but then missed a stop sign entering the Venice car park. A motorcycle cop lurking nearby pulled me over, and in heavily accented English he posed this question — “[something not understandable] strangerous?”.

In a country with the legal system derived from 19th century Napoleonic Code and guilty until proven innocent thinking, I chose to assume the best and thought he asked me if I was a stranger on vacation. I hesitantly answered, “Yes”.

Wrong. Only later did I realize what he asked. It was not a question, but the statement — “That was dangerous!”.

He let me go with a warning, but I always chuckle over that memory as I begin planning my next road trip.

The Starting Line

In an age before the Internet and Google Maps there was the “Baja Book”. It’s printed pages were filled with road maps laid onto satellite images, and it quickly became the go-to book for my first road trip abroad. This was the pre-digital grandfather of the maps I now prepare for each story. More on that later.

Today there are enhanced, non-printed tools to use and many ask me how I plan my international road trips. It may seem obvious, but I begin at the start by choosing where to begin and where to end.

Then I plan my vehicle reservation. I always take into account that a vehicle can be rented “open jaws” — that is, from an airport different than where I drop it. Other times it makes more sense to do a return trip and bring the car back to where I began. Using the open-jaws approach does come with higher fees, but this approach gives me extra time for new territory and doing the unexpected (brings to mind the overused phrase “find the road less traveled”). However, it’s entirely up to you which choice is made.

The next step is again a bit obvious — I research the many choices of where to get my vehicle from the web. The options are numerous and range the gamut from international chains to local businesses. For example, my last trip I used a local outfit that came highly recommended on TripAdvisor, Cactus Cars. Their handy website put me in touch with Antonio who set me up with an SUV at a competitive price point. As a personal touch, he handed me his personal phone number to call if the need for any assistance came up.

Then I prepare. This means seeking out all I can find about driving in my destination. Since this last trip was through Baja Sur, many things were familiar to an American driver like using the right side of a two lane highway. However that’s not the case worldwide and some countries drive on the left. Some were not familiar though, such as speed limit signs in kilometers per hour. As a good number of rental cars have speedometers in miles per hour, even international hires, this fueled a constant mental exercise as I converted on the fly from MPH into KPH.

Also DON’T neglect auto insurance. The potential financial and often legal penalties make it a priority investment. I use a credit card when I rent and that includes liability insurance. The option pushed by many agencies is to purchase the comprehensive coverage they offer as an add-on to the coverage supplied by the credit card. This may be a good option to choose.

Caution Flag — Some Road Trip Essentials

One drive I took followed roads built over ancient Etruscan paths through the Italian countryside. While these were never dangerous roads, it was through areas sparsely populated and infrequently traveled. To do this kind of trip I follow the Boy Scout motto and come prepared.

Just as any hike starts with the “10 Essentials” to bring for survival, a properly prepared road trip has its own set of “survival” must haves:

  • Rent a gas-sipping front-wheel drive hatchback — FWD for better traction and hatchback for secure luggage storage. Or, if plans are for a more off-the-grid trip get a 4WD SUV. However be sure to check the contract for an OK to take it off-road.
  • When possible get a vehicle with a CD player and bring a handful of favorites. Or better yet, do a subset of the previous and bring a few from home but create memories by purchasing new favorites along the way.
  • Make sure the registration, insurance papers, spare tire/jack and a manual are there when the vehicle is driven off the lot. Also purchase a can of flat fix and some road flares to carry.
  • Bring an International Driving Permit – these are available before you leave at any Automobile Association of America office. They have the information written in several languages that help with the language barrier. Find out where they are required.
  • Carry a good map. For European driving, it’s hard to beat the Michelin Map series. These are omnipresent on the continent and updated frequently. For other destinations there many good choices such as ITN, which I often buy pre-trip through Some prefer an on-line map, and while that can be a good option, be sure it’s stored on your device so it can be accessed off-line in the countryside without a wi-fi connection.
  • Take along a charger that plugs into the vehicle’s cigarette lighter or USB port and then into your portable device(s).
  • Purchase a Styrofoam cooler — this allows me to stock up with local foodstuffs along the way, making an impromptu roadside picnic doable.

Green Flag — Where the Rubber Meets the Road (dirt or asphalt)

Naturally I was concerned about driving in foreign lands. After all, these are places where even minor fender benders can mean court visits and testifying in my non-native tongue. As an American I’m in luck though, because most countries have adopted the same road regulations as the US.

However be prepared for exceptions. For example, a road trip through some countries requires the headlights to be on at all times, 24 hours a day. I got my first international ticket in a land of midnight sun during mid-day at the height of summer for just this.

One of the stranger ones concerns a highway in Saudi Arabia for Muslims only. When driving into Mecca, a driver who is non-Muslim or travelling with a non-Muslim, is required to use an alternative road that bypasses the restricted holy city.

Also realize there are major differences between city and country driving. I’ve always felt that city driving was like being surrounded by a swarm of angry bees, always ready to sting. Many times I’ll take a train from the airport I land at into a smaller town nearby to pick up my car. The additional ticket price is worth it to avoid the anxiety of city driving, and often times balanced by the lower price when renting from a non-airport agency.

Pit Stops "“ Plan Your Breaks

Part of the joy of roadtrippin’ is it gives a traveler the ability to merge into the destination’s culture. Whenever possible I seek out accommodations to give me a chance to slow down — and many times that’s a week or longer at a vacation home rental. One such example is Casa Oasis in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur.

Patricia and Charles, owners of this vacation rental, tell me Todos Santos retains elements of the Spanish culture from yesteryear’s Baja. From their location 10 minutes outside town, complete with a view of the Pacific coast and overlooking the oasis that attracted the Spanish missionaries, I found exactly that.

The Checkered Flag

Everything comes to an end, some how, in some way. Road trips are no different.

When I return my car, I give it a once over with the attendant to be sure there are no problems. Some take pictures of the vehicle at pick-up, and then if there’s a dispute about damages there is visual confirmation they previously existed. Regardless of the outcome to these negotiations, ask for a copy of the inspection report and keep it until you’ve seen the credit-card statement.

My Road Trip Evolution

Now that the car has been returned, I breeze past the duty free shops and line up to board my plane. This adventure is over, and the excitement I felt on the open road is now only a memory in the rear view mirror.

What now?

Begin planning my next one. As with everything in life, evolution is the key to successful advancement. Here are a few post-trip random thoughts I’d like you to ponder:

  • Remember to approach each road trip as an endurance rally racer does. Think Le Mans Gran Prix — Tortoise, not Hare.
  • I’ve been lost in cities, large and small, and the countryside as well. Often in cities I’ve found driving in concentric circles of decreasing circumference gets me to my destination eventually. Again, think endurance.
  • Although many times my command of the local language is limited at best, I’m prepared to ask directions at gas stations, markets, parks — wherever I see an opportunity.
  • Realize vehicle traffic is regulated in many towns to create pedestrian-only zones, and tourist driving is restricted to dropping luggage at a hotel (in and immediately out only).
  • The ’round-about’ is something that might confuse many American drivers. It’s a different system of yielding — instead of a 4 way stop-sign. I just take the circle three or more times while choosing my departure street.
  • The first time you pull into a gas station be prepared for sticker shock. Gasoline in Europe and many foreign countries is more expensive than in America. Diesel is commonly a bit cheaper, but car rental prices are typically higher.
  • Parking can be a problem, especially during summer peak months in cities. Parking garages are plentiful, but tend to be expensive. When researching a hotel and two or more equal choices are available, choose the one offering parking.

Written by: Steve Smith

steve smith pic Steve inherited the wanderlust and has always needed to see what’s around the next corner. In his college years he enjoyed many memorable (and cheap) forays into Mexico sleeping under the stars, but today that’s all changed. Since 2006 he’s contributed stories and photographs to In The Know Traveler, and in 2014 he assumed an editor role with the same. Published both in digital and print formats, his international assignments have taken him to the Middle East, Asia, North/Latin/South America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Follow his Facebook page Steve’s Roadtrippin’

Baja California Sur map programmed by Steve Smith

Cactus Car Rental:
Casa Oasis Todos Santos Vacation Home:

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