Does Jet Lag Impact Your Stress Level?

I’ve asked a lot of travelers this question, and consistently noted that about half of people say yes, and about half say no. Jet lag is one of those things international travelers inevitably have to manage, and something that we either learn to put up with, ignore, or (at the very least) use as a good explanation for our coworkers, family, and friends after we get back from a trip and feel like we’re stumbling through a fourth dimension for a week.

Interestingly, those who admit that jet lag causes them quite a bit of anxiety discover that it’s actually worrying about jet lag that causes them the most stress (how will it affect them physically?  Mentally?  Emotionally?) while those that say jet lag doesn’t bother them often say that while jet lag is irritating, it relaxes them in a certain way — unlike any other physiological phenomenon.   These are people who actually don’t mind having their natural body rhythms thrown off because it is a break from their daily rut of work-eat-sleep-worry-work-eat-sleep-rinse-and-repeat.   In other words, jet lag is just a feature of being on vacation, of doing something different.

Given the varying reactions and all the anecdotes and quick-fix recommendations that abound out there on how to deal with jet lag, it’s worth taking a closer look.

Jet lag results from alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms caused by trans-meridian (west–east, or east-west) air travel.  When traveling across a number of time zones, your body’s natural pattern is upset as the cycles that govern times for sleeping, eating, and body temperature regulation no longer correspond to your environment.  To the extent that your body cannot immediately realign these rhythms, you are “jet lagged.”  Symptoms can either aggravate anxiety, or be mistaken for intensified side effects of medications.  Some of the most common jet lag symptoms include:

  • Ÿ         Headache and irritability;
  • Ÿ         Balance and coordination problems;
  • Ÿ         Difficulty concentrating;
  • Ÿ         Early awakening (if flying west) or trouble falling asleep (if flying east); and
  • Ÿ         Interrupted sleep (to say the least).

Jet lag usually occurs with a change of three time zones or more, and the extent to which you’re affected depends on the number of time zones crossed.  If you’re unfamiliar with jet lag (or just want to explain it as painlessly as possible to your great-aunt), it’s worth noting that the maximum possible disruption is plus or minus twelve hours.  If the time difference between two locations is greater than twelve hours, subtract that number from 24 to understand the “adjusted” time zone difference.  New Zealand, for example, being nineteen hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time, would pose only a five-hour jet lag challenge to a traveler from California.

The recovery time for jet leg is generally one day per time zone crossed, although many people (particularly those who travel more) are able to recover faster.  Women are affected by jet lag more than men, since normal nighttime and daytime body rhythms are connected to estrogen levels.  Recovery will also depend on whether your flight(s) are overnight or scheduled during the day.  You’ll typically experience more jet lag if you begin a long flight mid-morning or early afternoon than if you take a “red eye” flight departing at eight p.m. or later (it helps, of course, if you can actually fall asleep on an airplane).

Unfortunately, there are no proven ways to avoid jet lag altogether.  You can talk to your general care practitioner about where specifically you’re going, and how to strategize flight times and sleep hours, to try to minimize the impacts.  Your doctor may suggest getting only a minimal amount of sleep the night before your flight (so that you’re naturally sleepy when you arrive at your destination) or taking a prescription-strength sleep medication for the first several nights of your trip.

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How will you feel after making this trip?!

Addressing Common Stress Triggers while Touring a City: Part 2

We’ve covered how to manage detours, crowds, and making eye contact with so many strangers.  What else can make you wig out on a vacation, and what can you do about it?

Accidents.  Seeing an accident while touring – whether it involves a slip, trip, fall, or a vehicle – can jar your confidence and make you feel like you’re next to have disaster descend upon you.  Depending on how much you can relate to the person who suffered the accident, and just how bad it was, you may put sudden limits on your physical activities or transportation that can rapidly develop into a phobia.  There are some things to understand about accidents before your healthy precautions build into a cage of fear.

I once saw a middle-aged tourist do a full somersault down the departures escalator at London’s Heathrow Airport.  He was distracted by writing on the luggage tag of his carry-on bag, and lost his balance as the escalator belt hit a bump followed by a small jerk.  The next thing the man knew he’d flipped upside down, and then lay dazed on his tailbone on the bottom step.

Interestingly, about half the people at the scene (the ones who hadn’t seen him writing up his luggage tag, completely oblivious to his surroundings) were shocked and horrified; the others (who’d seen what the man had been doing) had a look on their faces like, “Well, what did he expect?”

The point is that most of the accidents you see or hear about – perhaps of a taxi driver backing into a tourist, or of someone twisting their ankle between cobblestones – are not true “accidents,” but mistakes.  An accident implies that nothing could be done to prevent the incident from happening, when really a lot could be done in most cases – if people were paying attention and taking the proper precautions.   Once you realize this, and understand that it takes two people, places, or things to have an “accident,” the less anxiety you will suffer.  Instead of blaming an elevator or a door or a moving vehicle, you recognize that by being vigilant you not only make up for hazards and for other people’s carelessness, but you give yourself a lot more control over your surroundings.

Perceived sounds of distress.   Anxious people have often experienced a significant trauma in their past.  Certain noises, particularly screaming and shrieking, can cause you great alarm and induce sweating, heart palpitations, and other physiological manifestations.  If you suffer from this phobia, screaming is not an expression of a good time, but a sign of an emergency.  Screaming children at play can make you think someone is hurt, and I know several women who are haunted by images of sexual assault when they hear teenage girls screaming.

To keep your reaction from escalating, take a quick look at what screaming children or teenagers are doing, and observe other people’s reactions to them.  If there was really something wrong, wouldn’t others notice and step in to help?

In general, someone else’s noise rarely has anything to do with you.  If it’s still a significant anxiety trigger, try to stay away from amusement parks, carnivals, and other places where you’re most likely to hear excitement bordering on terror.

Avoiding confrontation when taking photographs.  If you’re a visual person and want to relive many moments of your trip, then taking pictures will be one of the most rewarding and essential parts of your journey.  Unfortunately, it’s the one thing you do in the normal course of touring that can cause some provocation – usually because people are concerned that they’ve appeared in your photo (or video footage).  In general, the more elaborate your camera is, the more attention you’re going to attract using it.  Snapping shots with your cell phone is going to draw the least attention; setting up a tripod with a camera the size of your head will attract a lot more; and walking around with a videocamera constantly raised and pointing will attract the most.

You may be aware of all of this, and have reluctantly resolved to hold back your shutterbug impulses.  However, there’s no need to restrict yourself like this, and later regret what you didn’t get on film.  Here are some tips to avoid confrontation and ease anxiety when out and about with a camera.

Portray clear intentions.  If you want to photograph a famous landmark and there are people constantly milling around, look directly at what you’re shooting and don’t make eye contact with the people around it.  This will reassure others that you’re not interested in them or in invading their privacy.

If someone confronts you about whether you’ve taken a picture of them, or included them in your shot or video footage, offer to erase the photo.  In almost every case they won’t actually take you up on this; they just want some reassurance that you’re a tourist and not a voyeur.  If they do take you up on it, then wait until they’re out of the picture, so to speak, and re-shoot.  It’s a lot faster than arguing with someone and getting yourself significantly distressed.

Watch what others are doing.  If there are signs or graphics around a place indicating that photography isn’t allowed, take a look at whether others are shooting photos anyway.  I have been in museums or churches that officially ban photography (and state so right on the front door), yet people were taking pictures left and right and no one stopped them.  If you want the same picture everyone else is taking, then take it.  The worst that can happen is that a grounds person comes by and chastises the whole lot of you.

The opposite can hold true for military buildings and embassies.  Military buildings can be surprisingly difficult to recognize, and it’s usually understood that absolutely no pictures can be taken even if there are no signs indicating such.  Embassy districts are usually filled with attractive buildings and landscapes that make for great picture opportunities, but keep in mind that they often prohibit photography as well.

In poor areas where local or indigenous people depend heavily on tourists for economic survival, check to see if you’re expected to pay to take a photograph (of a person, place, or item).  Save yourself embarrassment and stress by abiding by the rules.

Don't get stressed out: these Moscow port-o-potties smell as nice as freshly carved matryoshka dolls

Imagine my embarrassment when I stopped to take a quick picture of these cool port-o-potties in Moscow, then thought in horror that the woman to the left forgot to close the door for herself (she was just the babuskha collecting the rubles)

Addressing Common Stress Triggers While Touring a City: Part 1

Part of the fun of traveling is getting to explore the unknown.  Unfortunately, the delight of discovering something new and different can sometimes come with significant distractions and aggravations.  Addressing and managing several of the most pervasive “travel anxiety triggers” is easily possible, and will help you get back to enjoying your trip.

Detours.  The more you travel, the more you’ll realize that the world is an unfinished work of art.  The average metropolis can have at least half a dozen construction projects shaking the ground at once, while a mega-city can have a dozen or more.  Popular tourist destinations become even more popular and congested when they win a bid to host a major sporting event, or cultural or political summit; new coliseums, arenas, hotels, and rail tracks suddenly spring from the dirt, outdating your map and giving you a new challenge in the form of blocks-long rows of pylons and yellow tape.  Although construction detours are the most common you will find, you might also encounter detours to accommodate marches, protests, security lockdowns for government officials, biking and marathon events, and others.

Unfortunately, pedestrian detours can lead to confusion, disorientation, and getting very, very lost if you don’t know how to handle them.  Your stress level is going to shoot sky-high if you “follow the orange signs” only to find yourself in an alley at dusk with no idea which direction to turn.  Here are some useful guidelines for managing detours.

  1. Trust the logic of the detour.  City planners and engineers have to get a number of high-level approvals to implement one, and while not all detours are intuitive, the basic goal is to get you as close as possible back to where you need to be, in the shortest amount of time.  You may have to let go of your initial assessment of where you should be, and go with the flow of a detour even if it feels like you’re going the wrong way.  As any construction worker would tell you, there’s a reason why two U-turns gets you headed in the right direction again.
  2. Before you go through the detour, clearly understand where you are by picking a landmark that you can identify from blocks away (i.e., at the end of the detour).   This is essential if you need to retrace your steps, but the detour only allows foot traffic one way (this usually occurs with detours from a train or metro station).
  3. If you have no idea where you’ve ended up at the end of the detour, see where the majority of other people (especially commuters) are going, and follow them.  Tourist areas in most cities back right up to central business districts.  If you still can’t find the tourist area or where you want to go, and it’s too stressful to ask a stranger, then head back to the detour exit and try another direction.  Improvising after you’ve followed a bunch of people two blocks down the road is not a good idea.
  4. Recognize that detours can take you up or down as well as north, west, east, or south.  You may have to take stairs, tunnels, or escalators to avoid a construction zone.  If you think only in terms of traveling across, you could find yourself staring at a dirty wall.

Crowds.  There’s nothing like a throng of humanity crammed into a small plaza or a narrow street to aggravate even the most extroverted people.  Anxiety triggers include noise, getting jostled around, fear of pickpockets and other thieves, and feelings of constant self-consciousness.

The key to dispelling anxiety about crowds is to understand that they’re made up of smaller units of people.  In social settings, people rarely interact in groups larger than six or seven, and are so tuned in to each other that they won’t even notice you.  Except at private functions, each group knows very little about anyone outside their group.  And each group can look cliquish simply because they’re a little uncomfortable about all the strangers around them.

As a tourist, managing a crowd (i.e., bunches of groups) is usually a matter of either getting around it, or through it.  Groups in dining halls, plazas, or other confined settings can be the most challenging given the potential to get “stuck” for space between one group and another.  You’ll find that walking the perimeter of a gathering area can be less stressful as you reduce the number of times you have to break “through” people, and are simply going around them.

Crowds in line are often less intimidating.  People will pay attention to you at the beginning, for long enough to see if you’re going to cut in front of them; otherwise, their attention will be diverted to how fast they’re moving forward.

A third type of crowd gathers to fill a theater, stadium, or other event venue; their focus is on what’s happening in front of them, not on you.  Take a look around the rows and you’ll see that people are too absorbed to watch you.  If you still feel considerable anxiety being part of an audience, then sit in the back (or towards the top) where you won’t feel so many pairs of eyes staring at the back of your head.

Eye contact.  One of the most unnerving things for those of us who are shy, sensitive, and/or anxious is to pass, see, or be passed by hundreds or even thousands of strangers every day – many of whom, for whatever reason, want you to look back at them.  Stressful emotions that arise from unwanted eye contact include feelings of intimidation from being stared down; intense self-consciousness from people who sneer for no good reason; uneasiness from sexually suggestive ogling or once-overs; and the glares or grimaces of angry or sad people.  People carry a tremendous amount of emotional energy in their gaze, and making eye contact with every single person you come near could be so draining that you’re distracted from sightseeing.

One of the reasons people think they need to make eye contact is to avoid bumping into others.  The truth is, you don’t have to make eye contact in order to navigate sidewalks, shops, squares, and tourist attractions; if you look in the direction you want to go, then people will not bump into you.  Even if you have sunglasses on people will generally be able to tell by your body language what direction you plan to steer, since both your body and attention tilt slightly (but perceptibly) depending on what you’re focusing on.  You can make a similar evaluation of others by doing a split-second assessment of their focus and movements.

Is avoiding eye contact a way of giving into (or developing) a phobia?  Given the number of cultures that discourage direct eye contact between people on the street – and particularly between the opposite sex – it would be difficult to say yes.  Save the emotional energy it takes to make eye contact for the people who matter more – hotel staff, store clerks, and others who are helping you have a pleasant journey.

Just the idea of bumping right into strangers in crowded areas can stress people out.  In Japan, the authorities don't want to see you embarrassed (or bruised); the question is, does the translation really mean "crash"?

Just the idea of bumping right into strangers in crowded areas can stress people out. In Japan, the authorities don’t want to see you embarrassed (or bruised), and post “warning” signs that you might not see elsewhere.

Travel Talk: Taking the Stress Out of Language Barriers

One of the first things someone might ask when you announce your trip to another country is, “Do you know the language?” Unless you’re visiting an ancestral homeland, are a language buff, or have learned foreign language(s) for your job or personal reasons, the answer will likely be no.  You may stress out over the thought of being unable to make your way around or communicate your needs during your trip.  The more this anxiety builds, the more pressure you could put on yourself to spend many hours learning a language – including nuances that you’re unlikely to need.
Unless you’re planning to spend an extended amount of time in a country, knowing the hundred or so “quick reference” words and phrases in a standard travel language book will usually be sufficient to get you around.  Focus on language concerning transportation, directions, obtaining assistance, and health and safety issues (such as the words for danger, caution, and hospital, as well as how to ask for an embassy or the police).  If this still doesn’t sound like enough, remember that there’s a reason that so many travel language books are sized to fit in your pocket.   You can look up phrases and words as you need them, without putting yourself through painful memorization exercises weeks before your trip.
Do You Speak English?     
This is an essential phrase to know in every language spoken in the places you’re visiting.  It manages your limited language skills while showing that you’re culturally sensitive enough to not just assume that someone speaks your language; it also helps break the ice.  If the person confirms that they speak English, then you’ve started off on the right foot; if they say no, then nod or apologize (think of how you feel when you dial the wrong phone number) and move on to someone else.  If you can’t move on to someone else, see how far you can get with numbers and gestures.  If you’re still struggling, then other employees or passersby are likely to notice, and chances are one of them will step in to help – if for no other reason than to show off their command of English.

A word of caution: if you have a rudimentary grasp of a foreign language and ask for directions or check into a hotel in that language, you need to be able to understand the person’s response.  The person might answer at a mile a minute, and you’ll either pretend to understand and move on, or ask for clarification in English – at which time the person will wonder (with some frustration) why you didn’t ask in English in the first place.  If you’re not proficient enough to go back and forth in conversation on a particular topic, then it’s usually best to ask Do you speak English? and go from there.

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Should I cross the street, or stay put and look out for the cute marshmallow doughboy? 

Most of us don’t get beyond learning a few written characters when touring places like Japan or China

Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know (Part 3 of 3)

Still hungry to take a road trip abroad this spring or summer?  If you’ve been following this series, you know there are a lot of things you need to understand before you jump into a vehicle with keys in one hand and your passport in the other.   Don’t get discouraged — you won’t encounter all of these “issues” on every drive.  But, since life on the road can be unpredictable to say the least, being aware of these pitfalls and potholes can keep you out of trouble almost as much as, well, wearing your seatbelt.  So buckle up and take one last ride down the path of precautions — and remember, there’s no yield sign for common sense.

14. Suicidal pedestrians who have the right of way

In many popular urban areas, there are (of course) a lot of pedestrians – and not a whole lot of stoplights. And where there are stoplights, pedestrian crossings and/or lights may be nonexistent. Many people on foot can be downright reckless once they’ve gotten used to this situation, and they decide to “take the power back into their hands.” You will see people wading into six-lane traffic a few feet at a time, with all the care and worry as if they’re playing a live-action video game.

It’s their fault if they get hit, right? Um, usually not. In many countries, if you hit a pedestrian, you’re deemed automatically guilty even if some guy leaped right out in the street in front of you (and you were driving like a saint to boot). You may face serious criminal charges or other legal liability. Understand the laws, avoid driving near malls, parades, markets, etc., and keep one foot perpetually ready to slam on the brake when venturing into pedestrianized areas.

 15. Speed Traps

Even where people drive like maniacs (no, no, I’m not thinking of Germany, or Saudi Arabia), speed limits exist not only in an attempt to control the chaos, but to, well, extort money out of distracted drivers. Speed traps are as ubiquitous as speed limits; many times they are synonymous. Speeding is one of the most enforced traffic laws of all, with both police units and cameras.  Crooked and/or lazy cops love to set speed traps in scenic areas because they know guest drivers are looking around, and are distracted from the speedometer.

One thing that varies by country is how much grace you are given above the speed limit before actual consequences kick in. In some countries or regions you can go 10 miles or kilometers over the speed limit and not raise a cop’s eyebrow; in others, one notch above the listed limit and a self-righteous policeman is ready to jump on his motorbike.  Your most reliable source of info regarding local speed traps is probably your hotel receptionist; tour books are probably not going to be that specific.

16. Fueling up

Unfortunately, some of the places in the world with the cheapest fuel also have the most frustrations when it comes to actually filling up your tank. First off, the consistent availability of gas stations isn’t a given; you may encounter five gas stations in the same two miles, and then none for a very long suburban stretch. It’s therefore recommended to fill your tank often, even if it means breaking your momentum when you’ve finally gotten out on the open road.

When you do get to a station, lines can leave you hanging precariously out into the street, and you may have to be aggressive to nab a spot next to the pump. It usually doesn’t take long to notice if a gas station is full- or self-service. If the latter, beware when actually handling the pump and hose, as many may be in poor shape and send a stream of gas across your feet.

Increasingly common – much to the chagrin of visiting tourists – are stations that only accept credit or debit cards issued by banks in that country. These are usually unmanned, so try to pick a gas station that at least has an attendant milling around to minimize getting stuck with your wad of cash and empty tank.

17. Getting stopped

In many countries, an officer may only stop a motorist for an actual violation. In others, they may stop you for no reason at all except to check your documents. Keep your cool if you’re pulled over and remember to keep your passport, the rental car registration, and your driver’s license ready to show. Finally, avoid getting out of the car unless the officer makes it clear that you’re expected to do so.

18. Driving across an international border

Most countries share land borders with at least a couple other countries, and in most cases, there are roads running from one country to the other. Generally, these borders can be crossed by anyone in a motor vehicle, and thankfully in many cases, you’re allowed to drive a rental car across an international border. This is the case for the United States and Canada, and in most of Europe.

In some countries, however, it’s difficult or impossible to drive across the border. In Israel, for example, you’re generally not allowed to drive into neighboring countries.  To know if you’re allowed to make an international border crossing, examine your vehicle’s rental contract. If you’re planning a trip across multiple countries, you may have to go with one of the big-name companies (Budget, Avis, etc.) with the more flexible policies.

Be aware that there are some bordering countries that don’t have any roads connecting them, even though they share a land border. There’s usually a good reason for this: natural terrain (such as a rough mountain pass); a rich country-poor country scenario in which the latter country can’t afford to lay road base; security reasons; or neighboring countries that just plain hate each other, or simply the lack of desire among one or both governments to build such a road. Examples of regions with a lack of road connectivity are South America, many parts of Africa, and Central Asia.

Where you can cross the border, be aware that it’s not uncommon for there to be a very long line at the crossing. Try to get information from your hotel or travel agent on how long you might spend at the border crossing and factor that into your travel time. While the distance itself may seem short, you may need to add several more hours to your travel time to factor in time spent at the border. In many places, it could be several hours, and this can make a day trip to the other country rather impractical.

Finally, keep in mind that some border crossings have limited hours of operation, such as during daylight hours only.   Plan ahead, or the hotel you booked on “just the other side” might be counting you for a no-show.

19. GPS

Many of us have grown addicted to GPS systems to help us navigate, and while it’s readily available in North America, Europe and East Asia, it may be altogether absent in the countries where you could use it the most. If you don’t want to throw back to the Stone Age and use a paper map, try using Mapquest or Google Maps on the road or shortly before your trip – but be aware that many mobile phone providers make it difficult to use your smartphone in a foreign country.

Finally, be aware that GPS units make very hot theft items in many foreign countries. Don’t under any circumstances leave one in your rental vehicle overnight, even if you’re parked at an upscale hotel.

20. Missing features on your rental car

We take for granted that cars come with the things that they should. I’m not talking about iPod docks, Bluetooth, or even automatic windows and air bags, but true necessities like hazard lights and head rests to save your neck in case you are in an accident. If you plan to drive in a developing country, you should check a rental car for the following before signing on the dotted line.

  • Ÿ  Turn signals
  • Ÿ  The parking/emergency brake
  • Ÿ  Windshield wipers
  • Ÿ  Lights and brights
  • Ÿ  Spare tire
  • Ÿ  Seat belts

Don’t count on your rental car having cruise control, but if it does, make sure you know how it turns on — and how to disengage it. Also, be sure you understand how to open the hood and the gas tank before you drive off. Remember, given the number and variety of auto manufacturers around the world, you may be renting a car that you have never seen or heard of – look closely to make sure it has what you expect to come on a “car”!

 

Keep your patience on those long roads, and you will eventually be rewarded with the stunning scenery you came for!

Keep your patience on those long, frustrating roads, and you will eventually be rewarded with the stunning scenery you came for!

 

Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know (Part 2 of 3)

Hungry to take a spring road trip someplace exotic?  Read up before you give Hertz or Avis a call, and remember, a drive around another continent can be a wonderful adventure as long as you’re prepared.  So, here’s this week’s run-down of things you need to understand before deciding to drive abroad.

7. Parking and driving in restricted areas (and beyond)

Having to actually park your rental car can take a lot of the joy and convenience out of having a car in the first place. This is particularly the case in Europe, where you can finish your nice leisurely drive through Tuscany or the Alps with a two-hour search for a spot within a mile of the restaurant you’ve RSVPd for dinner.

Many cities around Europe have restricted areas, or “forbidden zones,” where driving AND parking is restricted in a particular area – oftentimes, a good chunk of the city. Depending on the city, driving and parking may be open only to those who purchase a permit – a bureaucratic exercise that you probably didn’t have time for before you left home. Restricted areas are generally indicated by a sign of some sort, but this sign may be hard to spot and may not be in English.

Try asking your hotel about any restricted areas in the city you plan to visit, and make arrangements ahead of time or risk getting ticketed or towed. And if you are lucky enough to get a spot right in front of your restaurant, remember that irritated locals in some cities like to key cars that hamper their space on the sidewalk, so beware.

 8. Tolls

In most countries, tolls are collected for the privilege of driving on certain freeways, or across expensive bridges or tunnels. There are various ways in which this toll is collected. The traditional toll booth is of course most recognizable, and the most straightforward if you can pay cash. In some cases, most local drivers “pay” using a device that is placed on the windshield of their vehicle, leaving you to sit in the one manned lane where a booth operator is taking forever to collect the toll.

In some places, there are no booths. Tolls are collected by filming the number plate of the vehicle, and the bill is sent to the owner (this is always my favorite part of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco). In this type of setup, the car rental agency will pass this cost onto the tourist.

In some cases you can pay a toll by credit card, but be aware that if you pay in cash, your toll may be lower.

9. Line markings

Painted lines that appear on the roads in different countries have various meanings. For example, a broken white line in some countries may indicate two lanes of traffic flowing in the same direction; in other countries it could be used to divide traffic flowing in opposite directions.

Some countries don’t know what paint on asphalt even looks like. Absent any line markings, you may assume that a narrow road is a one-way road, when really it is a two-way road.

Fortunately, most countries have clear explanations of what their road markings mean (they are at least more straightforward than rules about parking, at least). Read up, and be sure to keep an eye out for dashed red lines (and crooked green ones too).

10. Roundabouts

Many people don’t like roundabouts, and they can be particularly perplexing abroad.  In some countries, traffic already in a roundabout has the right of way; in others, a car entering the roundabout has it, while vehicles already in the roundabout must yield.

If that isn’t confusing enough, realize that many local drivers forget these rules altogether and take the right-of-way whenever they want it. Roundabouts in many countries are a chance for aggressive drivers to flex their muscle and push you right out of the circle.  Know the local rules, hold your ground, and keep moving when you need to (just don’t get dizzy).

11. Roads from hell

Enough about driver hardships imposed by your fellow driver or crooked crops: this one’s about the path itself. In many countries, “roads” are made of gravel, sand(!), dirt, or rocky surfaces. Some are subject to landslides or mini-avalanches. Others are so winding that one distracted moment could send you slipping over a cliff. Many roads (even in Europe) have no shoulder, or the “shoulder” consists of a ditch. Some roads have been built dangerously so that visibility past a certain hill is difficult, if not impossible. Others are grossly uneven, too narrow, right in the path of the sunrise or sunset for what seems like hours per day, or are frequented by tractors, herds of wildlife, or thirteen-year-olds drag-racing in retrofitted lawn mowers (take my word for it).

In short, you should be aware of the quality of your road before you decide to drive and not fly. If you have one particular patch of bad road in the middle of your long-winded trip, there’s nothing to say you can’t check in your rental car at Point A, fly from Point A to Point B, and check out another rental car at Point B.

12. Reality

In many places, traffic laws are broken left and right. Some men (and women) the world over get their jollies and their power trips out of breaking speed limits, changing planes without signaling, passing on the wrong side of the road, running stop signs, running red lights, failing to yield, and even driving on the wrong side of the road (all while sober!). You, the cautious foreign driver, are following all the local driving laws to a T – and you may be at greater risk of an accident for doing so and not “going with the flow.”

To successfully drive in foreign cities and countries, you’ll need to combine your understanding of the rules with your observations of how people are actually driving. When you finally see a cop by the side of the road you’ll know how you’re supposed to drive –but in the meantime, you’re getting from Point A to Point B without getting the “saintlike driver” halo knocked off your head (and a broken neck to go along with it).

13. Tuk-tuks, rickshaws, motorcycles, and other vehicles on the road

In many places around the world people have a broader idea of what constitutes traffic than in the West. In developing countries, scooters, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, horse-drawn carts, and bicycles may comprise the majority of “vehicles.” Not only are these other drivers in a bigger hurry than you are, but they know the roads better and they probably hate you on sight because you’re well-off enough to be driving an actual car.

All these different “vehicles” operate differently and at varying speeds, and can make sudden moves that someone  steering a car just can’t make.  You can expect these drivers to cut into any leeway space as you’re turning or to merge into your lane after veering off the sidewalk (and if you visit Bangkok or Jakarta enough times, you might even see one drive OVER the hood of your car). Try to stay patient, keep your sense of humor, and turn up your air conditioning – and oh, remember that you WILL eventually get where you need to go.

Don't worry -- the chances of a boulder falling on your car in Sydney, Australia are slim to none!

Don’t worry — the chances of a boulder falling on your car in Sydney, Australia are slim to none!

Driving in a Foreign Country: What You Need to Know (Part 1 of 3)

Getting from Point A to Point B in a foreign land is a fundamental part of traveling – and should be one of the more enjoyable aspects of exploring a new country. New and seasoned travelers alike take their choice of transportation – whether on vacation or a business or family trip – very seriously. The experiences you’ve had on prior trips with trains, buses, taxi drivers, and short-distance air travel may inspire your desire for independence and solitude, and for many of us, the sense of the familiar: a car. Rental car companies exist in almost every nation of the world. So what do you need to know before you get behind the wheel for the ultimate private tour?

There’s a lot you need to understand before you make the commitment of booking a car in another country and becoming a part of that country’s “driver culture.” With peak holiday season coming up, this is a good time to go over the ups, downs, and roundabouts of driving abroad. Yes, there are lots of potential headaches that can come with exotic road trips – but the allure never grows dull. So take a few minutes to start this three-part series on what you need to know about traffic, roads, laws, and plenty of smaller details that won’t quite fit in your glove compartment. If you keep yourself steering in the right direction, you’ll slowly leave behind the anxiety that comes with those pesky train timetables, obnoxious cabbies, overcrowded tour buses, and terminally late hotel shuttles.

1. International driving permit

Before you start dreaming of your foreign road trip, take a good hard look at the license in your own wallet, because you’ll need it. There are some misconceptions about international driving permits (IDPs). An IDP is a document that translates your license into different languages; it is not a laminated free-for-all to drive all over the globe. Since the permit is not a license to drive in itself, you will need to carry your own, domestic driver’s license wherever you go. Not all rental car companies will ask for your IDP, but you should never be caught on a foreign road without it since you in the event that something goes wrong, you will need to present it to police, others involved in an accident, or when filing an insurance claim.

Your driver’s license may not be valid in all other foreign countries. Since different countries make up different rules about this important issue and sometimes change rules without notice, check your country’s embassy webpage for up-to-date information. Whether you are allowed to drive with your own country’s driver’s license may also depend on your visa status. Certain countries may allow you to drive there for up to 30 days, but after that require you to apply for a local license.

2. Insurance coverage

Most countries have compulsory auto insurance laws of some type. There are generally three types of insurance:

  • That which covers your liability to the rental car company in the event their vehicle is damaged while in your possession
  • Insurance that covers injury to yourself and other occupants of your vehicle
  • Insurance that covers your liability toward other drivers if you are at fault in an accident (including damage to that party’s vehicle and injury to its occupants)

None of this will come as much of a surprise, but it can be difficult to assess whether your domestic auto insurance will actually cover you abroad. Many auto insurance companies in North America claim to “have you covered” overseas, but there are plenty of loopholes in the coverage policies. If possible, have a meeting with your insurance agent before going on your trip, and ask him or her to exchange emails with your rental car agency abroad regarding the type of coverage you’re expected to have in the foreign country.

If you don’t fully trust either your domestic auto insurer or your rental car agency, go to your embassy webpage as they may have useful and unbiased information on what is required to drive in a specific country.

 3. Automatic vs. standard transmission

Automatic transmission is something that many in North America (and increasingly, beyond) take for granted. In many countries around the world, though, renting a vehicle with automatic transmission is difficult, or sometimes impossible – and if you can find it, it can be much more expensive.

In North America, it’s estimated that only about 20% of all drivers know how to drive manual transmission (“stick shift”). If you want or need to drive somewhere that only offers rental cars with stick shift, try calling your AAA or department of motor vehicles for classes you can take on driving stick shift. If you’re going to be driving stick shift in a country that drives on the other side of the road, you may opt for a simulator since any practice you get with right-hand stick-shift will be “backwards” when you step into your rental vehicle.

4. Cultural influence on driving habits

Cultural values, such as attitudes about gender, value for human life, and value for animal life can impact how people drive around the world. In some countries, women rarely get behind the wheel; if you’re a woman renting a car in one of these countries (particularly in the Middle East) expect to be stared at, honked at, and have your right of way repeatedly robbed by aggressive macho men and other gents that are just plain outraged that you’re exercising your freedom to roll down the street on your own.

In places where overpopulation and endless crowds have left a negative impact on individual psyche, drivers may regard others with all the respect and patience of ants littering their path. Well, no, it’s not quite that bad, but you can generally expect less courteous driving in places where personal space is at a minimum.

You, the sensitive Western driver, may swerve to avoid hitting small animals such as rats, squirrels, and even cats skittering across the road, while other drivers make no such adjustment and could care less about what poor four-legged creature they hit. Your swerving and braking may take them by surprise and lead to prolonged horn-blasting, shouting, etc.

Drivers in more materialistic countries may be more careful on the road – i.e., make a little more effort not to ram right into you and cost thousands of dollars of damage. In places where the average car looks like it’s older than you are, expect others to take less care in coming within a few inches of your polished, rented fenders.

5. Right-side vs. left-side driving

I have great respect and admiration for Aussie, Kiwi, British, and Irish drivers who come to North America and handily take to the wheel on the opposite side that they’re used to. I don’t have that kind of dexterity, and I don’t think I’m alone in acknowledging that I’d probably crash into a tree if all of a sudden I had to drive on the left.

It’s one thing to get used to driving on the other side of the road; it’s another to have to suddenly change from one side to the other. Several bordering countries around the world drive on opposite sides, requiring you, the driver, to switch sides once you cross the border. For example, Hong Kong drives on the left while mainland China drives on the right. Thailand drives on the left while all of its neighbors drive on the right. The southern countries of Africa drive on the left, while the remainder of Africa drives on the right. And of course, as we know, Britain drives on the left, while just a short ferry ride away, Belgium and The Netherlands drive, you know, on the wrong side (I mean, on the right side).

If you’re on a multi-country trip in any of these regions, ask yourself how quickly you can adjust to driving on the opposite of the road. It may be wise to make your border crossing when you’re most refreshed (i.e., after a nice relaxing stay at a border hotel) and muscle memory doesn’t steer you to the wrong side of the road.

6. Traffic citations

As most of us know, traffic laws are generally enforced by either live police officers who have the authority to stop vehicles and issue citations, or by cameras (or videocameras) that film violations, followed by a citation and fine being mailed to the vehicle’s owner. The latter is becoming increasingly common, even in developing countries.

A traffic ticket isn’t something you can “hide” from once you leave a country. Many nations have different laws regarding the handling of traffic violations committed by foreigners. Some countries will demand payment of an on-the-spot fine; others won’t allow you to depart until the matter is settled (and this can be quite an embarrassing thing to learn when you’re in the customs line at the airport). If your vehicle is cited by camera, your car rental company will be billed, and the company will in turn tack the charge onto your bill. If for some reason the rental car company can’t do this, they may pursue civil action (think a collection agency, or even a lawsuit). And if the agency operates in your own country, they may be able to take this action in your country’s court system – and they’ll probably charge interest on your fine.

Try to address any traffic citation as quickly and proactively as possible.   You might be cited for something that is unfair or nitpicky, but chalk it up to a lesson learned and get on with your trip. Opt for paying an on-the-spot fine where possible, since in some countries, even the smallest amount of debt is regarded as a criminal matter, allowing such debt to be pursued in the criminal justice system if the powers-that-be so wish. This may lead to your arrest if you ever step foot (or drive) in that country in the future.

Fortunately, most road signs around the world are decipherable to the average English speaker (but, it helps to know some Arabic if you happen to be cruising around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)

Fortunately, most road signs around the world are decipherable to the average English speaker (but, it helps to know some Arabic if you happen to be cruising around Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei)