I have a habit of traveling to places not easily accessible by public transportation. It’s not that I’m trying to make things difficult, but when you prefer small towns and national parks to big cities, it’s a reality of traveling. Over time, my strategy when it comes to driving and navigating – especially when abroad – has evolved.
I think the first time I rented a car on vacation was in Fort Lauderdale. My sister and I had disembarked from a cruise and wanted to head into Miami for the zoo (her choice) and South Beach (mine). I was prepared with print-outs from Google Maps and thought that finding my way would be easy. What I had forgotten to account for is that not all passengers make good navigators and we drove in a few circles before making it to our chosen destinations.
Lesson learned: Assume you won’t have a good navigator. To compensate, I decided on the next trip I’d use a GPS. Then if something went wrong, I could take my frustrations out on a machine instead of someone I cared about.
Note: I use the term GPS throughout this post, but I realize many smartphones are adequate substitutes. If you’re planning on using your phone for that purpose, just double-check on your battery life and ability to get a tracking signal even if you’re outside of cell service. You may also want to come up with ways to safely hold the phone on the dash where you can see it.
Fast forward a few months to the first time I rented a car abroad, in the Riviera Maya. I knew that I wanted a GPS, and prices were reasonable to simply rent a unit along with the vehicle. It certainly seemed like the easiest way to handle things, since it meant I wouldn’t need to pack anything or install any maps to my own GPS ahead of time. The only problem? Arriving in Mexico exhausted in the pouring rain, and not being able to figure out how to program the GPS.
Lesson learned: Bring your own GPS and know how to use it before vacation starts. A GPS you can’t use is just as worthless as no GPS at all. We never did figure out how to use the GPS to locate points of interest (such as gas stations) or force alternate routings.
After more than a year of successfully navigating on vacation, Mike and I showed up in Germany ready for a roadtrip. True to my packing habits, I was getting everything ready the night before our flight when I realized we had a GPS packed but it didn’t have maps for Europe. We scrambled to find our USB connector and struggled through loading the maps onto the GPS’ internal memory, but it did end up working just fine if you ignore the hour of frustration at home.
Lesson learned: Plan ahead of time and buy the SD card (Amazon has a ton!). Then you can just pop the memory card into the unit and you’re good to go in sixty seconds or less. Better yet, I can usually re-sell my map cards for close to what I paid for them.
From that point forward, I thought I had navigating down to a science. Trip after trip, everything went off with a hitch, regardless of whether I was traveling solo or with someone else. Then this summer, my sister and I were driving to Croatia and ended up at a border crossing meant only for locals. Thankfully, we were able to turn around and get to the main immigration checkpoint, but if I had bothered to look at the map (which I even had with me!) ahead of time, I would’ve known to stick to a different route.
Lesson learned: Glance over the directions for your entire journey before setting out. Hey, sometimes technology doesn’t make life easier!
Sometimes a wrong turn can lead to interesting, spontaneous experiences, but there are always situations where you just want to get to your intended destination on time, whether that’s to catch a flight, make your meeting, or simply not end up in a bad neighborhood after dark. I’ll be following my two-pronged approach to navigating — electronic + paper maps — on my next journey, but I’m sure I’ll always be finding ways to further refine my strategy.
For those of you who frequently rent cars while traveling, what lessons can you share?