Travel Preparations!

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Rambagh Palace, Jaipur

“The following are the thoughts of the author, but not necessarily the practices”

Without doubt the most enjoyable adventures that I have experienced are those where preparations were almost non-existent. This way of travelling means that you may miss many events, views, sites and even people, of interest, but the other side of the coin is that you discover just as many unexpected delights as well as people in their natural, cultural surroundings. I prefer not to know where I will be next week, or what I will eat, or what I will be doing. This type of adventure does require a total removal of time constraints however, no scheduled events, ferries, or flights to catch, and definitely no planned date by which you must be back at home.

Very few people are able to unshackle themselves from these obligations and so I have assembled the following thoughts on what preparations are necessary for those that are time constrained, but would still like to be more adventurous. I do not include any suggestions on general health, other than ensuring you have all advisable inoculations (see Government advice), or travel insurance (which I rarely bother with).

The items I have considered are broken down into the following categories: documentation, vehicle, accommodation, and finance.

Documentation

Within the borders of Europe there is little need for any additional documentation than you require in the UK. Even most standard insurance policies offer some cover for driving around Europe. Once you exit Europe you will need to purchase car insurance, usually available at border crossings. Most countries have a legal requirement for insurance and the border authorities will usually assist in acquiring the necessary. Occasionally none is apparently available and nobody apparently wants to know e.g. Pakistan and India. In a few instances I had to head for the nearest town and search out an insurance company. The USA was the most difficult location I have encountered. The age of my car was a problem and the insurers want a residential address in the country, which if you are travelling is difficult, but eventually I found a company that was prepared to issue a policy.

Many countries around the world are wary of cars entering their country and then being sold without the correct import papers and duty being paid. Sometimes this is done just to avoid paying duty sometimes because the car has been stolen. There are two ways to tackle this difficulty, firstly you can import the car at each new border, paying the required duty and then exporting the car again when leaving and possibly being able to re-claim some of the duty previously paid. This is both expensive and time consuming.

The alternative is to purchase a Carnet. This document is the result of international agreement and requires the carnet to be registered with the immigration officials on entry to any country and to be presented on exit from that country. The document will normally be stamped on entry and it is essential  that you have it stamped again on exit from the country. The agreement is that should the car owner fail to get an exit stamp in the carnet then a fine will be issued, payment of which is guaranteed by the issuer of the carnet document. The fine can be several times the value of the car i.e. if the car’s declared value is £2,000 the fine could be three times that £6,000. One country I visited the fine was eight times the value. Carnets are issued in the UK by the RAC and you will need to arrange an acceptable form of financial guarantee with them in case of your failure to comply with the terms of the carnet. This may all sound a little draconian, but it is quite simple in practice, relatively inexpensive, efficient and, as long as you remember to get it stamped when leaving a country, straight forward.

Clearly, if travelling abroad at all you will require a passport. Once again, if you are roaming outside of Europe you may well also require a visa. In most cases visa’s can be obtained at border crossings even though some countries say this can’t be done. If however the country you are entering does not normally issue them at the crossing it can take several days! Wherever a visa is issued, there will be a small charge. Occasionally, such as with Russia, they require as a condition of your visa, that you are invited to visit their country. This paperwork exercise is normally taken care of by travel agents for normal tourists. It has been my experience that many countries are prepared to accept the name and address of a hotel that you claim you are going to stay at. On more than one occasion I have looked one up on the internet purely for the purpose. If you know the countries you intend to drive through, check for visa requirements on the internet. The UK Government has advice on most countries. Incidently, they also issue advice on travelling in most countries, but it has been my experience that this advise is excessively negative with terms such as ‘Do not travel by road between cities unless essential’. I have always found advice from the authorities at border posts to be very sound.

Vehicle Preparation

Under no circumstances should you take any type of car on a long tour that has not been used regularly for at least three months. An RAC mechanic once told me that over 70% of the breakdowns at the kerbside that he attended were vehicles not in regular use.

Clearly, for any lengthy tour, no matter what the road conditions are likely to be, the car should receive a major service. Not just engine and gearbox fluid levels and tyre pressures, but also check for brake wear, clutch travel, and suspension.

If you intend to wander outside of Europe then you should check engine timing, carburation, signs of wear on the fan belt, cam belt, differential and universal joints. If the road conditions are likely to be poor then you need to consider strengthening the front and rear springs, replacing alloy wheels with steel ones and possibly raising the ride height. The late Phil Young, of The Endurance Rally Organisation, once told me the three most important things to do when motoring on some of the more difficult roads in the world is to increase your road clearance, increase your road clearance and increase your road clearance! For my ‘Round the World’ tour I kept the car as near factory standard as possible, but the one modification that I did was to add a sump guard.

If you intend motoring in any of the Asian countries, South or Central America, the Middle East or Africa, excluding South Africa, then you need to carry adequate spares. Be conversant with the items that are known to be weak on your make of car and take at least one of each. Courier services are available nowadays almost anywhere in the world but it can still take up to three weeks for items sent from the UK to arrive, often caused by delays through Customs procedures.

If you do not maintain your car yourself then you should give careful consideration to avoiding some of the remote areas in the world e.g. the Australian outback, the deserts of the Middle East and South America. Other than these areas there are normally good mechanics quite readily available. With regard to doing your own work on the car you will find many tyre fitting and oil change service stations quite prepared to let you use their facilities.

Finally, fuel. Do not assume that fuel is always readily available and carry an emergency can. For example, although Iran is one of the largest producers of crude oil in the world, there are so few filling stations, compared to the UK, that they are marked on their road maps. Long queues were not uncommon when I was there.

Accommodation

You should have gathered from my posts that I rarely book accommodation in advance. Only in exceptional circumstances did I experience any difficulty finding a hotel for the night and when it did occur the hotel that was full often phoned around and secured a room for me. This may not be the case for a group of people.

Outside of the UK, and the UK holiday tourist locations, almost all hotels work on a room rate, irrespective of the number of people. I have found, outside of Europe, that even the most exclusive hotels are prepared to assist in keeping within a budget. A room rate of £15 is better than an empty room!

On the exceptional occasions that I decided to pre-book a hotel I invariably use the internet to locate and book accommodation.

Finance

Personally I feel uncomfortable not having at least £50, or the currency equivalent, on my person wherever I travel. ATM machines are universally available, but beware, they may not necessarily be able to dispense cash to you. There are a small number of countries, Iran and the Sudan are two, where you must have cash to exchange for local currency. The cash can usually be US Dollars, Euros or Sterling. In these countries your credit or debit cards are totally useless to you, including at banks, hotels, restaurants, or any other place.

ATM machines in some countries will offer you cash in a number of different currencies e.g. local, Sterling or US Dollars. The exchange rates are usually set by the machine owner and may not therefore be the best available, however in many countries the rates are set by the government or central bank and cannot be varied.

At many border crossings there are multitudes of ‘money changers’. All I can say is beware as many will rip you off. This is not always the case, but it is worth looking for an official bank facility which is usually available at most borders. The rate may not be the most attractive, but at least you don’t get ‘turned over’.

I hope some of these observations are helpful and don’t put you off being more adventurous with your car or bike. Most of it is common sense and that which is not is fairly easy to sort out.