We debated on writing some generalizations on driving overseas, but we are going to get more specific. This is mainly because it was so different from place to place. It would be on par with not differentiating the driving between the cities of Los Angeles and Ventura county. Might as well be in different countries. We recommend always doing a little research before driving in a particular country. Whether it is the incredibly enforced speed limits in Morocco, the plethora of toll roads in Portugal, the lawless and wild roads of Vietnam, or the confusing roundabouts of Spain. They all have their own flavor, make sure you can handle it before venturing forth. First off, learn to drive a stick and make sure you are bloody comfortable with it. Jayme, bless her heart, learned while we were over there. On the freeway she could handle a stick shift like a champ. On the streets… it was another animal. She stalled out multiple times in a roundabout, which created a line of angry honking cars. She kept stalling, the line of cars kept building, the honking got louder, and Jayme ended up crawling across the center console to get into the passenger seat rather than to walk around the car and face the music. It was hilarious, for Ryan. He walked around the car and took the wheel, giving an apologetic wave to the confused line of cars as he got in. So, better yet, make sure at least one person is very comfortable driving a stick. On our trip, roads ranged from a difficulty of 4 to an expert level of 20, Ryan definitely took care of the level 20 zones.
Driving in Morocco might have been the easiest in the sense that there was parking in every town we went to. If there isn’t street parking, there are parking lots that require money to park in. Just like everything else in this country, and we mean EVERYTHING, you can haggle. Our rule became offering half of whatever they are asking, you could probably even ask for less. If they don’t say yes, start to drive away and see what happens. 50/50 they will accept the offer. If you don’t look like a local, they will hike their prices like crazy. People will ride their motorcycles up to your car window, ask where you are going, and try and “help” you find your destination. Know that everything is done with the expectation of being paid. EVERYTHING. Sometimes you will be legitimately lost and maybe you need to suck it up and pay someone, but if you don’t, just say no No NO. We were “helped” to our Riad (place we stayed) when we first arrived. Eventually they asked for money. Well… somewhere between asked and demanded. But, honestly, we may have never found our place if we hadn’t paid. In this case it was worth the cost.
Out on the freeways there are speed limit postings everywhere. They are shockingly low. There is hardly any traffic and typically not much on the side of the road to make sense of such low limits. FOLLOW THEM! There are police stops constantly, and they are being radioed from another officer that was up the road. If you are seen driving over the speed limit the cop at the road block will have you pull over. And you will have to pay them cash on the spot or they will take your license. You do get cars driving opposite of you that will flash their high beams to let you know when there are speed traps ahead. AH! We correct ourselves! For that little bit of helpful information, they do not try and charge you. By next year, they may find a way…
We were stopped and asked to pull over during out 6+ hour drive to Merzouga. The man said Ryan was driving 90Kmh in a 60. He required 400 Dirham for the offense. Cash. We did not have the money, legitimately. First, Ryan tried to haggle, thinking that that could be done with everything. Nope. Not the police. He quickly realized that this was not an option. We had 380 Dirham, and that was it. The cop demanded 400. Ryan tried to stress that that was not going to happen, because we could not manifest the extra 20 out of thin air. Ryan was asked to get out of the car and walk to the officer’s vehicle. His partner showed up and showed him the proof of our speeding, which still was not going to allow us to find an extra 20. The newly arrived officer told his partner to let Ryan go, but he was unwilling. He wanted to take his license. It took some pitiful pleading to finally be allowed to leave. Ryan followed the speed limit the rest of the trip.
Know this. Gas stations only take cash. For that matter the entire country only takes cash. Think we were able to use a card three times in Morocco. MAX. So if we had given up that cash we would have been screwed when it came time to fill up. Always carry cash, more than you would think, follow the speed limits, and haggle your ass off. ALWAYS COUNTER WITH HALF! Oh, lastly, you better have navigation. The signs there are all in Arabic, so unless you have an incredible gift with picking up a foreign written language, the street signs will not be helpful to you in the slightest. Oh, and people love jay-walking. And it might be more accurate to call it jay-crawling. People are all over the road, no joke. You have to have your head on a swivel and be very attentive, because there are people constantly walking out into traffic at a turtle’s pace. Adds a level of difficulty I suppose. Perhaps they love the game Frogger.
The nice thing about driving around Spain was that there were few, if any, toll roads. A little thing we found out while driving, DON’T STAY IN THE LEFT LANE! Well, do it if you want. But people will ride your ass if you stay in the lane. That is a passing lane, and that is it. Not a fast lane, a passing lane. People in Spain follow this to the tee, even if it is too an absurd level. Let’s say they are two lanes, and the right lane has large slow moving trucks that are spaced by a few car lengths, you are expected to stay in the right lane till you get to the truck, get in the left lane to pass, and get back in the right lane. Rinse and repeat all the way. It didn’t make sense to us. We knew we were going to pass all those slow cars, that we could stay in the left lane till we needed to move for a faster moving car. But everyone there would go from right lane to left lane and back over and over again. Guess if the whole country does it, it works. Then you get confused tourists from LA like us and it throws the whole system out of whack! We tried to stick to it, but we broke the socially policed rule a few times. More than a few.
The roundabouts will take some time to get used to. Most of us have become familiar with them since they started popping up here in SoCal, but they are much more complicated in Europe. They have up to 7 lanes within the roundabout, and sometimes as much as three staggered street lights. Each are directing different lanes or people entering from different sides of the roundabout. Ryan was definitely in charge of driving here after Jayme’s roundabout catastrophe; he got used to it, eventually. But he had his fair share of driving through red lights because he was looking at the wrong one. He may sound like a dufus, but you will see. Some advice: always drive slow in these things, it will give you time to realize you are in the wrong spot. Nice thing is you can just go around and around until you figure it out!
Lastly, try and stay out of the old parts of town. Basically, the places where you likely want to explore. The streets here are incredibly tight, we’re talking snare drum tight. We drove a small fiat and could touch the walls of the buildings. Incredibly tight blind turns, lots of foot traffic, and a zero percent chance of parking in this area. This is really only meant to be a street for the residents to get out and into the main streets. Ryan may have obliterated a few curbs and the tire in areas like this. Just know that you are going to have to walk to get to the sights. Do not try and drive as close as possible and hope to find a big ole parking lot. Not going to happen. Hell, it probably won’t happen in the regular roads that surround the old quarters. But there is a chance. Parking in the cities is very sparse. Our advice, if you find a spot, take it. Then enjoy a walk through the beautiful city.
Portugal might have been one of the most beautiful places to drive around. Mostly because there is a castle every thirty minutes that is perched atop a hill on the side of the road. Ryan was stoked beyond belief. The small villages, which were often his favorite places in Portugal, would not have been practical to visit had we not drove. We would both recommend it in a second. Just know that you are going to be paying out the ass in toll fees. It is what it is. Don’t know what percentage of their tax income are from tolls, but it has to be a lot. You cannot exit a freeway, enter a town, or leave any place without paying a toll. There are also frequent camera overhangs along the freeway that scan your license and charge your credit card. You don’t stop for those. When you enter the country, you will drive through a booth that takes your credit card and links it to your car, every time you drive through these you get charged the indicated fee. Entering major cities typically cost between 15-30 euros. If you want to get off the freeway to check out a town, you will stop and pay a toll. We paid over 100 euros in toll fees in the week that we were there. Just make sure to budget that in if you are going to drive. The gas is a little more expensive here than in the other countries, but not too much. That is probably the only downside of driving in Portugal. Same situation as Spain in terms of parking in the major cities. We ended up opting to pay the 30 euros a day to park in overnight parking structures vs trying to find parking in town, I’d budget for this as well.
Was it worth 200+ euros in fees and parking to drive around Portugal? Yes. For us it was. We were able to find the hidden villages that a public bus would never have taken us to and we were able to stop whenever we wanted to explore the countless castles. Just put a lot of extra money aside if you are planning on driving here.
Not for the faint of heart. That is all I can say. While the roads of morocco might seem a bit lawless, nothing compares to Vietnam. There is traffic, a lot of traffic. Everyone is constantly laying on their horns. You can’t be anywhere in this city without hearing the ambient noise of car horns echoing off the stone buildings. I don’t know what they were told the horns would accomplish when they purchased their cars. Perhaps they were told they function as stress relief devices. This is another country where people are constantly walking right out into traffic, crosswalks be damned. Road lanes… what are those? They are hardly a suggestion in Vietnam, that goes for street lights as well. Red lights are constantly ran and sidewalks magically become an extra lane for motorcycles during high traffic times. I would never drive a car here. No chance in hell. I rode a motor bike with a buddy, and it felt like something out of Fast and the Furious. Lane splitting was a God send. If we were to sit in traffic, I don’t think we would have ever made it anywhere. We rode on the wrong side of the road, we split lanes at high speed, we rode on sidewalks and launched off the curbs into the road like we were stunt performers. I don’t think I blinked at all. If I had, I might have hit a pedestrian or collided with a red-light running car. Oh, don’t bother calling an ambulance in Vietnam. They won’t make it in time. I can’t count the number of ambulances I saw that had their lights and sirens blaring just sitting in traffic. Nobody moves out of the way. I don’t even know if they could, but they certainly didn’t attempt to. Hectic is an understatement.
Just like my advice to be very confident in your ability to drive a stick shift when driving a car overseas (200+ more euros for an automatic), you better be a bloody sure of yourself if you are going to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam. This is not a place you can learn to ride and then practice your new green skill out. No. For the love of God no. You must be hyper aggressive and very confident. Once out of the city you don’t have anything to worry about, the villages surrounding the main city are easy peasy. But that is the same everywhere you go. The real test goes on in the city.
This may sound like I had a poor time, that it was so hectic that I’d never attempt to ride it again. On the contrary. It was an epic adventure. All those factors allowed for an expereince of lawless wild riding like I’ve experienced, and likely never will anywhere else. This isn’t going to be for everyone, of course. But it certainly was for me. My adrenaline was rushing the entire time, it was like nothing I’d ever done. My buddy also lived there and knew where the hell we were going, that helped. I would have been lost in two seconds and never found my way home. Having him as a guide made it a perfect adventure. So, for those who have a taste for the wild and crazy, who lean toward the dangerous, this could be your game. If you are a timid driver/rider, don’t.
· Depending on the country, you will need to have a driver that knows how to drive a stick! Now, sticks aren’t exactly the con, but again, it cost A LOT more money if you rent an automatic. So you’re not totally out of luck if you do not know how, But, again, costs money.
· Which brings us to #2! It can be expensive. Refilling gas and tolls add up.
· If you do not do your research, you will be VERY confused by the standards of another country’s driving style or commitment to the speed.
(Overall: the cons of driving are more technical than anything)
· You are on absolutely no one’s schedule but your own! Leave as late/early as you like. You’ll definitely have more say and flexibility on planning.
· A unique expereince! You’re driving in an entirely new country, how cool is that!? Very. Check it off the list that you were able to navigate through a foreign country with completely unique driving etiquette.
· Driving in another country allows you to see some of the things you’d miss otherwise. Whether it is little hidden villages in the mountains or driving through valleys filled with hundreds of sheep (& some monkeys!), you would not get the experience otherwise.
Quick story for that last bullet point! In Morocco, we must have seen thousands of sheep, accompanied by their shepherd, walking along the side of the road. Granted, it was a 6+ hour drive. But they were everywhere. Jayme said she wanted to get a picture with the sheep, so it had to be done. So, Ryan pulled over when no cars were around and Jayme crossed the street posing with the many sheep in the background. Little did she know that with many sheep, come their many guard dogs. At least 6 dogs started barking and charged towards Jayme as her fight or flight (in this case flight) system kicked in. She ran to the car, the dogs closing in on her heels. She was able to jump inside and slam the passenger door shut just as the dogs jumped against the car. Our car was surrounded by barking dogs, behind and in front. We slowly started to creep forward, not wanting to run over the dog in front. It eventually moved, but as we began to pick up speed the dogs were chasing our car and biting at its tires as we yelled out the windows at them. We had a good laugh as we pulled away from the sheep protectors. We crack up every time we look at this picture of Jayme posing with the sheep, and seconds later, running for her dear life. Without it being a road trip, we’d miss moments like this.
In closing, driving/riding in other countries is so different than here in the states. Parking struggles may be similar in places like NY and LA, but that is about it. The road layouts, the roundabouts, and the pedestrians who feel like they have a death wish, all make the expereince unique. It won’t be for everyone, be honest about your driving comfortability and emotional stability in chaos. But the freedom that comes with riding in another country is incredible. It will cost more, a lot more, than public transportation. But there are undeniable perks as well. You get to experience the places at your own pace, you get to feel a bit like a local. So, research where you are going and really see if is even necessary to rent a vehicle and what kind of complications you may encounter. One more thing, if you want to rent a motorbike or scooter in Europe you will need a European license. Or some sort of short-term license that you get before going. They could care less in Vietnam and Thailand, but in Europe you won’t be able to get one. So if this is something on your list, look into it.
Off you go now! Plan your trip!