To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology

To drive or not to drive on holiday

Now on my recent trip to Tunisia, we actually rented a car for a day and drove around the Cap Bon peninsular upon the recommendation of the manager from the Tunisian tourism office in London. The roads are of good quality, there are so many places to see in the Cap Bon area and public transport isn’t frequent – you can either rent a car if you are a good driver or hire a taxi driver for the day to do Cap Bon justice. It is definitely cheaper to drive and that is a popular option. So we decided to be brave and rented a car – yes we got lost a few times but the day fairly pleasant. We drove through a few crowded towns like Nabeul, Soliman and Grombalia where traffic was quite chaotic but otherwise, we drove in North Africa and lived to tell. We didn’t have an accident, there wasn’t even a scratch on the car.

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
With my rental car in Oman


Have you ever considered renting a car when on holiday abroad? Here are eight factors that you should consider when you are deciding if you want to rent a car or not.

1. How good is the public transport?

If public transport is reliable and reasonably priced, then you really don’t need to rent a car. A country where I was tempted to rent a car was Malaysia as it was reasonably cheap to do so however, the public transport network in Malaysia is pretty impressive: the rail network runs efficiently and there is a well-run public bus system linking all the major towns. The buses are air-conditioned, frequent and very cheap. I can climb onto a bus in KL, go to sleep and wake up a few hours later in another city – that is actually far more comfortable and less tiring than driving from one city to another. Likewise, there have been many cities where I found public transport very pleasant and affordable, thus ruling out the need to rent a car.

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
Limpeh using the ferry in Southern Sweden


However, if I had wanted to visit the more rural parts of Malaysia rather than the big cities, then renting a car would have made a lot more sense. When I was in Oman, I was interested in exploring the Wadis and the deserts – petrol was very cheap, car rental was reasonably priced, the roads were of excellent quality and public transport was limited. Buses run very infrequently, there is no train network and taxis are expensive – this is a very rich Middle Eastern country and only the poor use public transport. Middle class folks all have their own cars, so public transport in Oman suffers from chronic under-investment. So in Oman, I really didn’t have any alternative but to rent a car – but driving in Oman was a joy given the quality of the roads and just how well behaved the other Omani drivers are.

2. Which side of the road do they drive on?

I am always very nervous about driving outside the UK – especially if it is in a country where they drive on the other side of the road. I grew up in Singapore and spent most of my adult life in the UK, I am very used to driving on the left side of the road. Thus when I am in a country where they drive on the other side of the road, I get nervous even crossing the road because I cannot even trust my reflexes to look the right way. I nearly got into trouble in Greece recently when I was cycling: I was turning from a small country lane onto a big road when I looked the wrong way as I pulled out into the road. (I should have looked left, instead I looked right.) A car had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting me and I had a very angry Greek driver shout at me – it was entirely my fault, of course. I have no excuses, I should have known better – but my instincts failed me.

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
Limpeh in Corfu, Greece


For some people, they adapt surprisingly quickly and painlessly to driving on the other side of the road. For others like me, I do not even want to attempt it as I am not a very confident driver even on the side of the road that I am used to. Mind you, the majority of the world actually drive on the right side of the road: practically all of north and south America, all of Europe apart from the UK and Ireland, all of Africa apart from the former British colonies in the south and south-east of Africa, all of Asia apart from the former British colonies and for some strange reason: Indonesia, Nepal, Macau, Thailand and Japan also drive on the left despite not having been British colonies. Most countries that drive on the left (like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) are former British colonies.

3. Is it going to be a nightmare to find a parking space?

Again, this really depends on where you are visiting. Parking in downtown London is notoriously difficult – you may drive around for ages searching for a parking space and end up paying an obscene amount for parking when you finally do find a car park. However, when I was driving in rural Andalucia in Spain, you could basically park anywhere – just pull up by the side of the road and as long as you’re not blocking anyone (say the entrance to someone’s farm or home), then nobody really cares or mind where you park as there’s so much space. There are however, various apps you can use to help you find a parking space in some cities – so always make sure you do your research and get the relevant app for the city you are in, just to play it safe.

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
It was a joy exploring rural southern Spain in a rental car.


4. Is there a risk of a traffic jam causing huge delays to your journey?

There are some cities which are notorious for their very bad traffic jams: Bangkok, Jakarta, Mexico City, Istanbul, Manila, Cairo, Nairobi, Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai – and it is not just cities in the third world, even cities like Los Angeles, New York, Brussels (Belgium), Rome, Warsaw, Seoul, Milan, Paris, San Francisco all regularly suffer from chronic traffic jams. If you are on holiday, the last thing you want to do is spend hours stuck in a massive traffic jam. Always make sure you check if there are any alternatives to avoid the possibility of traffic jam such as taking a train, ferry or flight. Driving on holiday should be a pleasure, not a chore.

5. Is it going to be easy to navigate?

I was a little worried about this in Tunisia as my Arabic is very limited – but fortunately, the vast majority of street signs were bilingual in both Arabic and French, so I was alright. I was particularly impressed with Oman – where all street signs were bilingual in Arabic and English. Likewise in Greece, all road signs were in Greek and English. How convenient they made it for foreigners like me! The two countries where I imagine some people would struggle are Russia and China: in Russia, you would struggle to find any English, even in major cities. So unless you can read Russian which is written with the Cyrillic alphabet, you are going to be lost in translation. I am beginning to see more and more English on signs in big cities – but once you get out of the city center, the English disappears completely. However, in countries like Germany or France, you’re probably not going to encounter any English as they simply do not expect tourists to be driving; and if you’re confident (or foolhardy) enough to drive there, you probably can speak the local language.

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
Attention! Fart kontrol!


6. What are the driving conditions like?

Obviously, if the roads are of poor quality, then you need to be extra careful. Driving in third world countries can be a lot more challenging as you may encounter anything from massive potholes to farm animals to children playing on the roads – these are far less likely in a developed country where the roads are far better maintained and the general population is far more aware of road safety rules. Even if you are a great driver, you are sharing the road with others who may not be as careful as you. You should also be aware of the challenges of driving during sub-zero winter conditions – if you are not used to driving in snowy or icy conditions (and which involve using snow chains), then this is probably not something you want to try.

7. Is it economical?

There have been instances where I have been tempted to rent a car – but when I worked out just how much it was going to cost (factor in parking and petrol), I have decided against it and opted for public transport instead. You can get 4 or 5 people into a rental car – so obviously if you are traveling in a group of 5, then it makes perfect sense to rent a car and split the costs. But if you are traveling alone or with only one other person, then renting a car becomes considerably more expensive. Do the maths: would it be cheaper just to use taxis? Is it relatively easy to get hold of a taxi when you need one?

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
Would it be cheaper just to use taxis rather than rent a car?


8. Is it safe for a foreigner to drive in this country?

Oh I had such a nightmare of a time driving in Indonesia last year. I ticked all the boxes: public transport is chaotic and hard to navigate in Indonesia, they drive on our side of the road, it is fairly easy to find parking spaces in most places where I was visiting in Indonesia, the risk of traffic jams was fairly low where I was visiting (Jogjakarta and Bali), it was easy enough to navigate as I speak Malay and can understand Bahasa Indonesia fairly well, in most cases, driving conditions were pretty good and it was very cheap to rent a car in Indonesia: what could go wrong?

The locals were a nightmare to deal with – I was too naive about being able to deal with the locals just because I speak the language. Ooh boy. I was wrong. As I was traveling with a white person, the two of us stuck out like a sore thumb as we drove through small little Indonesian towns – it was so obvious that it was two foreigners in a rental car. Near Borobudur, a young lady on a scooter ran into the back of our car and she had the cheek to demand compensation from me. I got into a huge argument with her as it was entirely her fault that she didn’t break in time: she ran into me, I didn’t crash into her. But within minutes, a large mob of scary looking local men surrounded us and I thought, oh fuck, if I don’t pay her right now, they are going to kill me – the situation escalated quickly and my ability to converse in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia did not help me much. I ended up giving her 200,000 Rupiahs (£10.21, S20.90) even though there was absolutely nothing wrong with her or her scooter. But I felt at that stage if I didn’t pay her, my life would be in danger.

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
Only in Indonesia…


When I was in Denpasar in Bali, the police found some “irregularity” with our drivers’ license and paperwork from the car rental agency – we could either pay a fine on the spot or spend the day with them at the police station. I opted to pay the fine as I was on a schedule and needed to get to Ubud that day – but as the policeman put the money directly into his pocket, I asked for a receipt – a rekening (loan word from Dutch), a penerimaan, a taman terima. The policeman told me that he didn’t have the paperwork with him, but I could follow him back to the police station at other side of the island. Clearly, there was no ‘fine’ – this was nothing short of extortion by the very corrupt local policemen: the money was going into his pocket and would never show up on any official record.

I spoke to some of my friends about the incidents and a reader on my blog – Nat, a Singaporean based in Jakarta – gave me the best explanation: Indonesia has a massively wide income gap. the rich can be filthy rich while the poor can be really poor – a normal worker earns about 200 sgd per mth. or less. Hence in the society, it’s a norm where the most people would expect the well-offs to tip them or compensate them for everything they do, regardless right or wrong. The poor are so poor where they have nothing to lose, while the rich could spare a few dollars to keep themselves physically safe from potential threats. Hence, this is why you feel that the locals are “predatory”. You may feel it’s unfair, but this is how Indonesia works. you may be as rich as you want, but practice humility or stomach the unfairness when u meet a regular local.  I salute your bravery to rent and drive a car in Indonesia. It’s not easy honestly. Engaging a driver would have made ur trip easier. Traffic in Jakarta is way worse than the one u had experienced in the sub-cities. Millions of motorcycles weaving through the cars illogically, dangerously, stupidly, putting the car drivers on the tenterhooks. The Chinese drivers will have to automatically shoulder the blame of accident if it happens. (Remember remember 98 Indonesia racial riots?)

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
Nat gave me some valuable insight into life in Indonesia


In general, Indonesia is not a place for tourist if they wish to explore it alone without the help of any local friend who has a private transport. The locals are not educated enough to make this place welcoming enough for tourists to explore this country by. The road infrastructure is really bad – don’t even think of taking public transport (buses/most taxis) in Indonesia. You might get robbed, kindapped or killed if you are unlucky. You can hardly see any Chinese locals taking public transport – they get ferried around in their private transport in fear of their safety. Even if they had to cross to the opposite building, they would rather drive over and get stuck in macet for 20mins instead of just walking across the road to the building in 2 minutes.

Well, if u had a local friend to bring you around, it would have been a different story. the locals wouldn’t be that predatory if they know you have a local friend. and your friend would be able to bring you around indonesia more conveniently. Massage here is really cheap 90mins for Rp 35000. You can go to the local markets to find your old school toys and stuff, it’s fun in a nostalgic way. You have been brave to explore iIndonesia without the companion of a local friend and it’s normal to feel that Indonesia isn’t that friendly. However try seeing from another point of view whereby the poor economic conditions and ineffective government have caused the locals to turn predatory, perhaps tt will make you feel slightly better when you get cheated. At least you’re helping one family to ease their financial situation!

To drive or not to drive on holiday - Alvinology
Limpeh in Bali


So there you go, those are eight factors for you to consider when you are wondering if you should rent a car whilst on holiday. Ironically, I was very nervous about driving in Tunisia after my bad experience in Indonesia – but it passed without incident, no accidents, no problems, no even a scratch on the car. When we got lost, the friendly locals were extremely helpful. What have your experiences been driving abroad? Do you enjoy renting a car or has it been a nightmare? Feel free to share your experiences, thanks for reading.


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