The wheel's on the wrong side

Whether you are driving to your holiday destinations, or hiring a car when you get there, driving abroad can be a challenge – especially the first time! So here are our hints and tips to make the transition easier and safer

Every day thousands of British holidaymakers pick up the keys of a hire car at an overseas airport. They find the car, load in the luggage and set off down the road. They are in an unfamiliar car, with the steering wheel on the left, driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, in an area they don’t know, trying to follow directions or a map to holiday accommodation.

It’s hardly surprising that some of these excursions end in tears. If you’re lucky, it could be just a bent wing or a smashed headlight, but even that will take the gloss off a holiday by the time you’ve dealt with the hire company, sorted out the paperwork and maybe dealt with the police or an irate local motorist. And it could, of course, be a lot worse.

So it makes sense to be as prepared as possible. If you have never driven abroad before, or in a left hand drive car, you will face quite a steep learning curve. Let’s see if we can help. After all, no-one asks you when you book a hire car if you have driven a left hand drive car before, and no-one offers any advice when you pick it up. So you’re on your own...

1 Don’t rush it. The temptation is to get to the villa, the beach and the pool as quickly as possible. Resist it. Take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with the car. Get comfortable behind the wheel, adjust the mirrors and look around. Locate all the controls you might suddenly need: lights, front and rear wipers, window controls, washers, horn, hazard warning lights. You will probably want to adjust comfort features like air conditioning on the move which is not the right time to try and establish how it works!

2 Check the condition of the car, especially the tyres, wipers and lights. If you see any damage or clear faults, return to the hire desk and ask for a different car, or if it is cosmetic body damage, make a note of it on the hire form (their copy and yours) to make sure you don’t get charged for it.

3 Try to get used to the position of the gearlever and handbrake to your right. At first this can feel really strange, like being a learner again, and you will probably find yourself trying to change gear with the window winder at some point. You may find your steering wobbles a bit as you change gear, with only your left hand on the wheel as you shift the lever. At least the pedals are exactly the same, so after a while left hand drive shouldn’t be too difficult – after all, millions of foreigners manage it!

4 Ideally, try to drive in a quiet area before setting off into the maelstrom of airport approach roads, just to get the feel of the car and controls.

5 Once on the move, you will find a couple of other challenges. First, the view out of the car is different. You are sitting on the other side of the car and driving on the right of the road, so cars will be overtaking you to your left, not to your right. It sounds obvious, and it is, but somehow it is more difficult to be completely aware of what the other cars around you are up to. For instance, joining a motorway you need to look to your left, not your right. Take it easy and make a point of using the mirrors more than usual.