How to easily feel prepared for your first time driving on the other side

Prior preparation prevents panic, perspiration and parking perils.

Joy driving a left hand drive vehicle on the right side of a road. Prepare to drive on the other side. enjoylifeadventures.com

Do you recall the first time you hopped in the car and the steering wheel was missing?

It still happens to me occasionally. It makes me laugh at myself, then reflect on how lucky I am!

In fact, it happened at the service station yesterday, which prompted me to write this post today.

Why lucky?

Well, firstly, the steering wheel has not been stolen. It is just on the other side of the car.

The fact that it is on the other side means you are in another country, so you are on an adventure.

Third, you have your own wheels! This means you can go anywhere, do anything, anytime you like!

Who wouldn’t consider themselves lucky to have that freedom?

It is not an accident

​As a tourist, your opportunity to drive in a foreign country is unlikely to arise by accident.

It is likely that you have planned your trip well in advance and made a conscious decision about whether you intend to drive yourself around or not.

If you are planning a short road trip, you might decide to hire a car or an RV (recreational vehicle) for part or all of your adventure.

We recently rented an RV via Outdoorsy and drove around the southern end of Vancouver Island for a week. I think that was the absolute best way to explore that part of the world.

A Mercedes Sprinter recreational vehicle with a Sunseeker cabin, parked in a pine forest on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

RV on Vancouver Island. Captured by Joy Taylor

For longer trips, say a month or more, it may be more cost-effective to lease or buy a vehicle and sell it at the other end of your journey.

Many #vanlife enthusiasts take this option.

You can kit it out with all the things you need to be self-sufficient and even add some bunting and fairy lights for some fun and whimsy.

Of course, hiring a regular sedan or SUV is totally acceptable too.

Water colour painting of a #vanlife dream by Joy Taylor

#vandream sketch and water colour painting by Joy Taylor

As a digital nomad who travels full-time, I rarely plan to hire a vehicle.

I prefer to walk or take public transport.

However, sometimes the need arises to go somewhere public transportation does not exist.

With the rise of car-on-demand services, the option to grab a share-car in a big city is almost as easy as grabbing an Uber.

When we stay outside of a big city (which I personally prefer for most of the year), we are usually house-sitting.

Occasionally, the house sit includes the use of the family vehicle.

This is the cherry on top!

The rear of a dirty SUV parked on the side of a dirt road with snow on the side of the road and pine trees in the forest beside the road. A patch of blue sky in the top left corner with a couple of fluffy white clouds.

A perk of housesitting in a rural area is the loan of a vehicle and beautiful places to explore. Captured by Joy Taylor

Prepare well before you leave home

Either way, it is always a good idea to prepare for the experience of driving.

Depending on where you are going, that may mean sitting on the other side of the car and driving on the other side of the road.

If you are not sure which side of the road people drive on in the country you are going to, check out this comprehensive list

Obviously, we never look a gift horse in the mouth, so if the vehicle is free, it is always going to be the perfect option regardless of whether it is a beat-up Peugeot or a fancy Mercedes.

If you are paying for the vehicle, either buying or hiring, then I suggest you consider the following:

What type of driving will you be doing?

Are you planning to zip around in the city, go for a leisurely cruise along country roads or get muddy having action-packed off-road adventures?

Consider the vehicle’s features and attitude. Will they make you confident or stressed?

A 4WD vehicle that is rusty and damaged with surfboards on a roof rack.

We needed to get to a remote surf spot in Java with our surfboards. Surprisingly, it did the job! Captured by Joy Taylor

Where will you be driving?

Natural environments and road infrastructure can vary greatly. Considering your destination will give you a head start on feeling prepared.

Common destinations and things you may need to consider:

  • Europe – old city areas have narrow streets, small parking spaces, and some have energy-efficient vehicle zones which only allow certain vehicles to pass through without a special permit
  • Australia – outside of the big cities it can be a very long distance between towns, and it is not uncommon to end up on a dirt road
  • Asia – city traffic is total chaos, there are lots and lots of motorbikes and not many signs for traffic details or directions
  • Americas – varies from city to country, but generally, there are wide streets, large parking spaces and an equal mix of Teslas and trucks.

Do electric-vehicle recharging stations exist at regular intervals along your route?

Are petrol-powered vehicles allowed where you are going?

A yellow rental car plugged into an electric vehicle charging station in Bansko, Bulgaria

A rental car plugged in at an electric vehicle charging station in Bansko, Bulgaria. Captured by Joy Taylor

Change it up a gear

For the smoothest acceleration option when driving on the other side, I strongly recommend opting for an auto (automatic transmission).

This takes away the brain strain of having to override your muscle memory of pressing in the clutch and reaching your hand for the gear stick. It will be the same foot, but the opposite hand.

Not convinced? Try brushing your teeth with your other hand. That will give you some insight into how clumsy and confusing your brain will find it, and that is in your quiet, safe bathroom!

Buddies and bags

How many people will be travelling with you, and how much room will all your gear need?

We once took a Renault Megane around Europe for six weeks with two teenagers and a trombone! Luckily, I had thought about it beforehand and knew it would all fit in the boot, just!

Playing Tetris with the suitcases before you jump in the driver’s seat is not too bad. Placing your backpack under the seat in front of you is not an option.

A man and a girl with several suitcases and backpacks standing at  the back of a vehicle with the boot open.

Everything fit in there yesterday, so it should fit again today. Captured by Joy Taylor

Papers, policies and permits

You could go for your whole trip and not have a single drama arise. I am sure that is technically possible, and I hope that is your experience. In case it is not, I suggest you do all of the following.

As with travel in general, if you cannot afford the insurance, you cannot afford to travel. You never know what awaits you around the next bend.

Some countries require you to carry your International Driver’s Permit with you in addition to your home country’s driver’s licence.

They are not very expensive and do not require anything more than submitting an online request with a photo and payment.

Be sure to allow enough time for it to be processed and posted back to you before your departure date.

Most countries require vehicles to be roadworthy and registered. If you are renting, this should be done already, but if you are buying, you will need to arrange that yourself.

Roadside assistance is nice to have if your vehicle breaks down. If you are a bit of a mechanic, that is great, but if the only tool in your bag is your mobile phone, that will not help you repair much.

Accidents do happen everywhere in the world. Be sure to add the phone numbers for emergency services (police, fire, ambulance) to your list to keep on hand.

Prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

Road sign in France showing the distance of 116km to Amiens.

The sign to confirm we were on the wrong road. Captured by Joy Taylor

Planning for the pick up

I could tell you a story about a family that flew from Brisbane to Paris via Singapore, picked up their rental car at Charles de Gaulle and drove off to Reims, only to find themselves on the highway to Amiens… let’s save that for another day!

I suggest that you do not collect the vehicle immediately after you step off a long-haul flight.

Enjoy the city for at least one night and get the vehicle after you have slept, sorted out your mobile data, started to recognise the written language and know which way east is.

Life on easy street

Where you first drive can set the tone for your experience. If possible, choose a location that is near a divided highway with two lanes of traffic in each direction. This removes the stress of oncoming traffic and the worry that you are delaying other driver’s following you.

Schedule the time to pick up your vehicle for a weekend or mid-morning if possible. You want to avoid peak hour traffic, school drop off or pick up times, and major holiday transit times.

Know the signs

I’m not going to suggest that you read the entire driver’s rule book of every country. I do suggest checking a few niche blog posts about the country you are going to and looking for stories about the unusual customs and practices of drivers in that country.

Find the picture version of the important signs, and the local script version of these words:

  • No Entry (Wrong way go back)
  • No Parking
  • Stop
  • Speed limits
  • Parking zones
  • Transit zones

Print these out and keep them handy in the glove compartment.

Road signs in Morocco, written in multiple languages with unusual icons.

Signs in three languages in Morocco. Captured by Joy Taylor

Menj balra, majd jobbra

The Tokaj region of north-eastern Hungary is a beautiful part of the world. While house-sitting just outside of Budapest, we were delighted to be offered the use of a vehicle so we could go and explore the area for a weekend.

In our modern world of Google Maps and Waze, we have learned to think that technology will guide us anywhere we want to go.

Handwritten directions on the back of a receipt slip using mainly icons and arrows.

These directions got us home in rural Hungary. Captured by Joy Taylor

Guess what?

Those apps do not work if your phone goes flat or you have no mobile signal.

As it turned out, there was no way to charge our phones in the car. 

By the time we were on our way home on Sunday afternoon, we were basically lost.

We eventually took a random exit and found a service station.

No one there spoke English, but we were able to communicate enough to be able to come away with a sketched map to get us home.

Learning common phrases in the local language will always make for a more enjoyable and interactive experience when travelling.

If you are going to have a vehicle, there are a few extra words to learn, in addition to the standard list, before you arrive.

  • May I park here?
  • Turn left/Turn right/Go straight
  • Stop/Wait/Go
  • How can I get to <a place>?
  • Mechanic
  • Ambulance
  • Petrol station/Fuel station

Google Translate is really helpful for this, but do not rely on it being available when you need it the most. Best to make a list and take it with you.

When you meet your new wheels

Take your time to get to know your new ride. Form a bond before you turn the key. You may even like to give your vehicle a name! Let’s go with Daisy (yep, I can see some blooming in the field outside my window…creative aren’t I!)

If you are renting Daisy through a major chain or a credible online site, chances are they will give you a pre-departure checklist. These are handy, but generally do not highlight everything that is different from what you are used to.

I have put together a comprehensive checklist that lists out all the parts that are likely to be different from what you are familiar with. You can download a copy (see the form near the top of this post). It also has room to write on some of the common words, emergency numbers and key feature details for easy reference. 

David standing beside a slightly damaged Peugeot.

It was like that when we got it! Captured by Joy Taylor

Start by walking around Daisy and noticing everything on the outside.

Pay particular attention to which side the fuel tank is on and also her height. This will be good to know when entering underground car parks!

Then it is time to get to know Daisy on the inside. You don’t want to get distracted trying to find the temperature controls or how to skip to the next song once you are moving.

Fortunately, some things are easy, like the pedals are on the same side, but it is likely you will have a very clean windscreen before you get the hang of using the indicators.

It is possible that the dashboard will display the speed in miles rather than kilometres (or vice versa) and a built in navigation system might be set to the local language. Best to work out how to change that one before you drive out the gate!

Vehicle dashboard showing speed in kilometres and built in navigation device.

A modern dashboard includes a digital speed display and a built-in navigation system. Captured by Joy Taylor

Almost ready to drive away, but wait

It might seem like common sense and you think you do not need to consciously think about the following. You are going to have a lot going through your head in these final moments, so I am going to spell out the obvious. 

Where are you going?

Review at least the first few turns of your route. Will you need to turn left or right as you exit the car park? Which side of the road do you need to turn on to (are you driving on the right or the left)?

Having the route mapped out by landmarks can be much easier than distance and direction instructions. For example, “turn left at the church” is easier to comprehend than “turn south in 600 yards”.

Beware the backseat driver

If you are not on your own, make sure the others know not to shout commands at you. A soft and calm reminder to not drift out of your lane is much safer than a loud ‘watch out’ if there is no imminent danger.

They can be very helpful when it comes to checking every direction before pulling out of a car park or turning onto a new road. A simple ‘all clear’ or ‘not yet’ is enough.

Fasten your seatbelt and stow your tray table

Okay, not every vehicle has tray tables, but they hopefully all have seat belts. Ensure everyone is buckled up and luggage is not blocking your view out the window or mirrors.

You do not need to turn off all electronic devices, but turning the music off for a while to give your senses the best chance of working with you can help a lot in the beginning.

Take a few slow breaths to settle yourself. Box breathing is a great technique to use. If you do not know it, add ‘learn box breathing’ to your list of things to do before leaving home.

The road ahead lies on the other side

There is nothing I can say that will make you feel instantly at ease with driving on the other side of the road. And, the truth is, I do not want you to feel at ease from the beginning.

I want you to feel alert and hyperaware of what is happening around you and confident that you have done all you can to prepare yourself for this moment.

Focus on the signs (literally, the ones all along your route), your speed and your position on the road. Don’t ever be in a rush.

Roundabouts and intersections will be the most challenging, followed by parking (avoid having to reverse parallel park at all costs unless your vehicle does it automatically).

Take it steady, and if you make a mistake, try not to overreact. Course correct and breathe. If you feel your mind is too distracted by what just happened, look for a safe place to pull over and regroup.

If you have the good fortune to be travelling with your partner or friends who are also competent and confident drivers, then taking turns to drive will also allow you to let your brain relax and enjoy the scenery.

Just remember to be a kind and considerate backseat driver yourself!

Enjoy the adventure

Well done on making it this far. I am already proud of you for taking a step towards a new level of freedom and adventure.

All good things take time.

Be patient with yourself.

Do the preparation work…really, do not skimp on it or think that you’ll be okay to just dive in the deep end.

It is not only your life that is at risk if you get distracted and revert to your instinctive behaviour.

You may be surprised by how quickly you will feel comfortable being on the other side.

It is a nice feeling…but one final piece of advice…

Be prepared for that moment when you feel so comfortable that you panic, thinking you must be on the wrong side, but you are not.

You now feel at home, on the other side!

The view from the front seat of a car, looking at a castle on the hill, with a chicken salad on my lap.

The view that comes with the freedom to choose to turn down that little lane that led to the end of a paddock, where I had a lovely view of the castle on the hill and was able to take my lunch out of the cooler bag on the back seat. Captured by Joy Taylor

 Don’t forget to download the comprehensive checklist of steps to prepare for driving on the other side. It is free!

I look forward to hearing how your first experience goes. Share your story with #enjoylifeadventures

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Joy Taylor

Joy Taylor

Joy has been working her way around the world with her kids, solo and with her partner for over 20 years. Her motto is ‘travel cheap, travel deep’. She built a green house and tries to live a green life. 36/196

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