Driving Road less travelled: hiring a car overseas

Fall Foliage and the road in Vermont at Smugglers Notch.
Photo of Sam Jeremic

Catching trains may have a romantic appeal, but having your own vehicle can open up a new world of possibilities.

Sitting comfortably on a train as it sweeps through majestic mountain passes or traverses over vast foreign plains is one of the most alluring aspects of travelling abroad – especially for Australians, who often still see some novelty in travelling a country by means other than a car.

But don’t be so fast to write off the prospect of getting around in an automobile on your next overseas jaunt; there are many, many perks to having your own mode of transport at your disposal.

My girlfriend and I discovered the benefits first hand on our most recent overseas holiday. Visiting the north-east of the US for a month, we hired a car in Boston and spent the next week or so moseying our way through New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine en route to Montreal.

After a couple of weeks spent waiting for trains, subways, buses and cabs, the liberation we felt when we picked up our humble Chevrolet Impala was palpable; I hadn’t had a car elicit such a sense of freedom in me since I first slapped my new P-Plates on the windscreen and headed to the beach solo as a 17-year-old.

Suddenly there was no waiting around at train stations, no frantic running after the last bus of the night, no slow, indirect routes to places we wanted to get to in a hurry.

Having a car also opens up a whole array of experiences and sights. We were suddenly able to enjoy Vermont’s famed covered bridges from the inside, take in the breathtaking vistas along the Kancamagus Highway as we wound our way through the White Mountain National Forest, and even head into the ‘burbs searching for a Wal-Mart to buy some Halloween costumes (and take in some amazing people watching).

Most welcome, though, is the level of spontaneity having a car can add to your trip. Instead of wondering what the story is behind the strange building on top of a hill as your train trundles on past, you can head on up there and check it out firsthand.

That cute little town by the sea at the bottom of a mountain? Chuck a U-turn and drive on in for an impromptu coffee and a rummage through antique shops.

Flying by the seat of your pants really can create some great travel memories you would otherwise miss out on if public transport timetables dictate how you spend your time. An unscheduled spur-of-the-moment stop in Rocky Neck on the outskirts of Gloucester, Massachusetts, for example, saw our mugs suddenly appearing in a local artist’s latest piece.

Of course, many readers balk at the idea of hiring a car. Most are hesitant due to perceived high costs, or feeling uncomfortable at the thought of driving in big cities on the other side of the road. And they’re valid concerns.

In my job I’ve driven on the right hand side of the road many, many times – and truth be told, I’m still not totally adept at it. Roundabouts go in the opposite direction, you habitually look the wrong way first when at an intersection and your parking skills suddenly become deplorable.

But while you may never be as good as you are on the left, it does get easier and less intimidating quite quickly.

As for cost, hiring a car can be expensive. But depending on where you are it can be comparable – or, in some cases, cheaper – to hire a car as opposed to hopping in trains, buses and taxis everywhere.

Travel Club Editor Stephen Scourfield has stories of saving money by hiring multiple cars rather than merely opting for the available public transport.

But you do need to keep an eye out when booking. It’s best to do it online well in advance of your trip as you will likely save money (plus you won’t run the risk of there being no suitable cars available and having to fit a family of five plus luggage into a Nissan Micra or something similar).

There are a number of websites that look at the prices of multiple companies so you can get the lowest possible price.

However, don’t make a booking based only on the first number you see on the screen – there can be many a hidden clause and cost in the terms and conditions, as I’ve recently discovered planning an upcoming family holiday to Broome.

As we now needing a baby seat (the US trip seems so long ago…), this was a cost we needed to consider and the company we ended up booking with had a cheaper daily baby seat rate, which made it cheaper overall despite the initial car-only price being higher than some competitors.

It also allowed me to add my girlfriend as an extra driver for no extra cost, while others may charge for such a privilege.

Sometimes younger and older drivers can attract an additional fee, and there is often a minimum and maximum age for drivers.

Our Broome booking wasn’t totally free of hidden charges, though: it has a daily limit of 100km and carries an extra fee of 33 cents per every kilometre travelled over that.

As we’ll be spending most of our time milling about town and Cable Beach it wasn’t an issue, but it’s the type of thing you need to look for when booking for your holiday.

But the thought of being able to chuck all our gear into a car upon arrival and go wherever we want over the following week is about as enticing as the prospect of a few cocktails by the pool.

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