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Getting Your Own Wheels-- International Travel Advice with Sheri Beam Thumbnail

Getting Your Own Wheels-- International Travel Advice with Sheri Beam

Travel:  Getting Your Own Wheels

by Sheri Beam
Renting a car and driving it in another country can seem daunting. You think about why, how, when, where, and “Can I do it?” If you already live in a first-world country and are going to another first-world country, it’s easier than you think.
Although I haven’t driven in every country I’ve visited, I have rented and driven cars in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Mexico. And, that first time you get behind the wheel is exhilarating. At times, I was solo and at others, with a friend. There have been wonderful adventures and some misadventures. All have made my travels better! By having your own car, you have the luxury of your own agenda. Going when you want, where you want, and stopping on a whim. It changes the way you travel and may not be for everyone, but keep reading and see if it’s for you.
My First Rental
It was a solo trip to Mérida, Spain. I’d reserved the car on-line through Avis in the states. When I arrive at the local Avis office, the car isn’t ready. The agent tells me that she will come to the hotel and pick me up when it is. Since this is my first experience, I’m a bit worried. But, she follows through, and soon I have a car. The last time I’d driven a stick shift was years ago, but I manage to leave the hotel without any mishaps. As I get onto the highway, I push the accelerator and begin to pick up speed. I ‘m now smiling and shout, “Ha! I’m driving in Spain!” Soon, I look at the speedometer. 120! “Holy Crap!” Shaking and waiting to hear a siren, I immediately slow down. Then, I realize that I’m really driving 75 MPH. I’d forgotten that I now had to think in KPH (kilometers per hour). At 120, I’m actually going the legal limit.
New Roads, New Rules
Roundabouts, or traffic circles, are more popular in other countries than in the states, and you have to get used to entering and exiting them. The good news is that people in other countries are better at knowing when to go and when to stop. My first experience is easy, because it happens in small village. The roundabout is not much more than a loop around a small fountain in front of a monastery. Yet, a policeman is directing traffic, even there is none. While sightseeing in Zamora, we park the car and go to lunch. When we return, no car! Although we thought we’d checked all parking signs, we missed the one that indicated no parking after 4:00 p.m. I’m still thinking someone has stolen the car but looking down at the curb, I spot a sticky note. It has a phone number for the police, who I call and learn how much we owe and where the car is. A quick taxi ride takes us to the impound lot.
Tip: Remember to look everywhere for signs—poles, fences, doorways, curbs, even on the road itself. In yet another small town, I get a parking ticket, which I decide not to pay. Three months later, AVIS tracks me down. You can run, but you still have to pay.
At the airport in Granada, Spain, I rent a car to drive to Ronda--about two hours away. Except that it takes me almost four hours, because I hadn’t checked the weather. Otherwise, I would’ve known that the mountains I had to cross were covered in fog and drizzle. With a death grip on the steering wheel and in low gear, I drive through pea soup-like fog and inch the car forward the last 20 or 30 miles to Ronda. Eventually, I arrive sweating and panting but safe and sound. What’s more, I feel exhilarated because of the experience. I did it! On a different trip, I’m heading for a town in La Rioja. It’s a beautiful morning. Cool, clear, sunny. The two-lane highway stretches out in front of me, and snow-covered mountains are in the distance. I keep admiring them, so it takes me awhile to realize that I’m approaching those mountains. I’m heading north, and that’s where they are. Now, I’m not thinking just about the snow on the mountains, but also the snow on the road! When I‘m just about at the base, I see how the road switchbacks up to the top. It’s a bit unnerving. But, instead of looking ahead, I decide to just take one hairpin turn at a time and keep moving forward. Luckily, it’s now mid-morning, and the ice on the road is mostly slushy. I get through the pass at the top and head down into the green valley below on the other side.
Getting Lost
Maybe if I’d been driving slower, I would’ve read all the information on the signs. Because now, the road I’m on simply ends with a big barrier blocking it! I think, “No way; it’s a joke. They just haven’t removed the barrier.” Then, I look farther ahead and see only dirt and where a road will eventually be. I back up and turn around. Except for a few houses, I’m in the middle of nowhere. A few hundred yards ahead I see a farmer on the side of the road. As I pull over and lower the window, he’s smiling at me. He’d probably watched me drive up to the barrier.
“Perdóname, por favor,” I call to him. “The road ended, and I need to go to La Guardia.”   “Si’,” he responds, almost laughing. “It stops here, but there are two other ways to go to La Guardia.” Although my Spanish is good, his northern dialect is different, so I miss some of what he is saying. But, I figure I’ll get close and then stop again!
Becoming One with My Car
Trujillo, Spain is my introduction to the ancient, narrow, medieval streets of so many Spanish towns. I do fine. I’m becoming one with my little car. In fact, I’m amused and pleased with myself for being able to maneuver the Renault without running into something or someone. Tip: Don’t get smug. On another trip, my inn is on a very, narrow side street, and I have to find a place to park. By now I’ve navigated numerous narrow, winding streets in other towns, but these are like walkways. I pull in the side-view mirrors on the car and slowly drive forward, intending to squeeze through two buildings and then hear, “screeeee. . .” I stop, back up. Small scratch on the one side of the car. But, I don’t panic.
From a rental car experience many years ago, I learned that small scratches, especially on a dirty car, are typically forgiven or overlooked. (That’s a funny story for another time.)
The Joyful Unexpected
I’m staying in a village at an inn along the Camino de Santiago. Most guests stop here for a night or two before walking up a very steep road for the next part of their journey. One morning, a group of travelers is leaving, but one woman stays behind. When I ask why, she says, “I can’t make the hill because of my heart. I’m calling a taxi.”
“No worries, I’m taking you.” Although she objects, I insist. Then, I get to spend a wonderful day at the hilltop with her group. The very next day at the inn, I overhear a young American couple asking for a room, but the inn is full. Because of a physical disease, the wife can’t walk any farther. So, they plan to call a taxi. You know what happens next. And, the experience fills me with joy and gratitude. Another time, a friend and I are traveling in southern Italy. One day, we decide to go to the end of the “boot” to look across the sea at Albania. A beautiful day, driving south along the coast through the countryside. A sign on the side of the road reads “fresh cheese.” On a whim, we turn onto a dirt road, leading to a farm. At the end of it, we meet the farmer who treats us to a minitour and samples of cheese from his cows. We are thrilled! Cheese in the “boot” of Italy!” Just because we had a car.
Renting Your Car
Nowadays, I use the internet to search for the best deals from recommended companies. To date, I’ve been very happy with Avis and Europcar in Europe. I no longer take cumbersome maps. I’ve gotten lost many times, especially in old city centers. Google maps have made traveling much easier. I plug my phone into the sound system of the rental car and use the map application to get to destinations. Now and then, I’ve encountered errors. But, typically after a few minutes, the map application figures out where you are and where you want to go. And, you can always stop, ask for directions, and have a wonderful adventure!
Some Other Tips:
• Always make sure you have insurance. Each country has its own laws about accidents and responsibility. You don’t want to end up in court, or worse, jail.Instead of renting at a major airport, I often take a train to my first destination and rent a car there. This is ideal for avoiding stress with airport traffic.
• Often there is no drop off fee for returning to a different location.
• Go with the compact size. If you’re visiting historical, medieval cities, smaller cars are better. Gas is expensive, so you’ll save there, too.
• If you can’t drive a stick, make sure that you rent an automatic.
• Check the weather.
• Have many adventures!