Interview: Everything you need to know about driving during your gap year

Student gap year trips are a wonderful, once in a lifetime experience that are not without headaches. They take a lot of planning, there’s a wealth of safety rules to consider from country to country, and of course there’s the little matter of being absolutely skint by the end.

Liftshare likes helping people save money and make new friends, so the globe-trotting gap year is something we are absolutely behind. However, we also realise that getting around the world safely and without landing yourself in ‘super-debt’ – a term we literally just coined, is a big cause for concern.

So we spoke with Cormac Scanlan – COO of travel community and advice site to get some great insight into how students can lift-share across countries to save cash, and to understand the vital rules they need to remember when hitting the road.

Established in 1998, the site offers an expert booking service for students planning their travels, and is full of like-minded people sharing stories, experience and tips.

“The road trip is an incredibly popular gap year experience,” Scanlan tells us, and adds that the varied landscapes and English-speaking nature of Australia and the US make them prime gap year locations, not to mention their sheer scale.

“Spending thousands of dollars on a vehicle to keep costs down may seem counterintuitive,” Scanlan continues, “but it’s actually less of a paradox than it seems. For months your car can act as your home, your taxi, and even a way of making your trip cost-neutral – should you manage to sell your car for more than what you paid for it.

“My main advice would be to buy something reliable, with a stable market value, and learn to haggle, particularly if you are dealing with another backpacker. And importantly, never invest more than you can afford to write off. For everything else, Carolyn Martin’s comprehensive guide to buying and driving a car in Australia is a great place to start.”

Actually planning your road trip itinerary can prove intimidating, but Scanlan urges students to be honest with themselves. Are you actually going to feel comfortable driving in a new, foreign country? If not, don’t force it.

“For example,” Scanlan explains, “much of Scandinavia is famously easy to drive in, but I’d guess there are veteran racing drivers who would think twice about crossing the Meskel Square intersection in Ethiopia’s capital. Of course each situation is different, but it’s always worth doing some background research before you make too many solid plans.

“Once you’ve done your research and you’re feeling happy with your decision, the first thing to check is whether your licence covers you to drive abroad. If you hold a UK license it should be valid in most EU countries, but further afield the laws vary considerably.”

This is important, as many countries require drivers to hold an International Driving Permit, although the length of time you can drive on these passes is different in each country. Checking local laws is a must, as you’d be surprised at how many laws apply that perhaps feel a bit odd – especially if you’re from the UK.

Scanlan offers us some wacky examples from his vast knowledge of driving laws, and says, “Did you know that a motorist who has ‘criminal intentions’ is breaking the law if he or she does not “stop at the city limits and telephone the chief of police” in Washington state?”

He adds, “That “women wearing housecoats” are forbidden from driving in Delaware, that it is against the law to have “a sheep in the cab of your truck without a chaperone” in Montana, and that driving around the town square “more than 100 times” will get you arrested in the state of Ohio.”

See, we told you. But in all seriousness there are some absolutely vital laws that can land you in a lot of trouble when broken, such as always using your indicators during every single overtake – at both the pull-out and pull-in stage – on Spanish motorways. Failure to do so will get you fined on the spot.

We asked Scanlan for some of his best examples of students lift-sharing during their gap year, and his reply certainly doesn’t disappoint, “Ants and Jo drove a pink tuk-tuk named Ting Tong from Bangkok to Brighton. The four month road trip took them almost half way round the world, requiring them to drive through Laos, China, Russia, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine, before crossing central Europe.

“In total the girls navigated their three-wheeled vehicle over 12,000 miles, and across 12 countries, raising a total of £25,000 for the mental health charity Mind – all-in-all a pretty incredible achievement.”

We’re only just scratching the surface of driving during your gap year abroad, but if you’re thinking about going away for a long spell, we urge you to check out the community boards and do your homework to ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Scanlan concludes, “There are no two ways around the fact that taking a gap year is a life-changing decision, but those steps into the unknown – those things that initially make it seem daunting, are the same things you’ll one day look back on as the things that made your trip amazing.

“Over the years, millions of travellers have come to the site to plan a gap year, and every one of them has felt those same nerves. In many ways our site is their shared legacy, and their experiences now act an invaluable resource to you.

“Independent travel is like nothing else and the benefits of a gap year are vast.”

Have you used Are you thinking about taking a trip? Let us know below.

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