Last week I embarked on my very first road trip, driving from London to Düsseldorf with two friends.
We covered five countries in five days, during the course of which we: got lost, stumbled across one of Europe’s biggest festivals, camped in a storm, got lost again and drove an hour out of our way to visit a German village called Titz.
All in all – it was brilliant.
But with any new experience, there are lessons to be learned – both good and bad. So here 15 things I learned on my first road trip, which I will hopefully be putting to good use on the road again soon.
- Distances are much bigger in real life than on maps
It sounds laughably simple, but the most important thing we learned on this trip was not to overstretch ourselves. It’s very tempting to assume a town is only an hour or so away without bothering to actually check.
In retrospect, we should have realised Amiens was just a bit too far off our original course. And while Amiens is lovely and staying there allowed us to drive through the Somme battlefields, we spent almost all of our first day driving, when we could have been hopping from town to town or beach to beach.
- Never underestimate the importance of a good playlist
We had an excellent playlist for our trip thanks to my good friend Dave, which made the perfect soundtrack to our trip.
- Have a plan…
Having a good, albeit non-strict plan meant we could maximise the short time we had on the road and fit in as much as possible. It would’ve been tempting to spend the whole weekend in Ghent, for example, but then we would’ve missed the beauty of Antwerp.
- …but be flexible
In the end, we decided at short-notice to camp for an extra night outside Maastricht to give us more time to explore, which turned out to be a really good decision.
- Nowhere sells cider
The amount of people on the continent who have never heard of cider is alarming.
- Know the rules of the road
My friends/chauffeurs researched the rules of the road in each country we were visiting well in advance, meaning we had a good knowledge of speed limits in urban and rural areas in each country, and a list of legal requirements. These are particularly stringent in France, but we also needed a sticker for Germany to declare the car’s emission levels.
- You will never pack enough socks
My rucksack felt like it was full of nothing but socks and underwear when I flew to London and yet somehow I still ran out. However, at least I packed more than one pair, which is more than I can say for some…
- You will inevitably start to smell
Spending a large amount of time in a very warm car will mean you will probably end up a bit whiffy at some point. Particularly as your first instinct when arriving in a new place is to jump in the shower and change your clothes, meaning everything has been worn once by day two.
It was also very hot for the vast majority of our trip. Thank God for the rain in Germany!
- You don’t need a Sat Nav
As it was £60-ish to upgrade our Sat Nav, we opted for a good ol’ fashioned road atlas – and we got by just fine…
10. Getting lost is fun
…but we did get lost a lot. A lot. But mostly in cities. We had to approach the same junction in Antwerp at least three times until we found the right entrance. But still, it was fun…
11. Camping in a thunderstorm is potentially dangerous. But not really.
On the night of day four, a thunderstorm began just as we wanted to sleep. There was a big debate as to how likely it was we would die in our tent. It was silly: yes, our campsite was on comparatively high ground in the Netherlands and yes, our tent was under a very tall tree, but the storm was very far away. We could see a lot of lightning but we weren’t even close enough to hear the thunder.
The debate went on for a long time, but the storm stopped so we slept in the tent and survived. Which we would’ve done anyway. Obviously.
12. There will always be surprises
As with any trip, there will always be surprises. The biggest one for us was Gentse Feesten, a 10-day music and arts festival in Ghent which was brilliant. As one of Europe’s biggest free music festivals, we probably should’ve heard of it, but we had no idea. Even my 60-year old mum text me about it. (Though of course her first thought was that I would be in immediate danger because of it).
I would love to go back to Ghent when the festival isn’t on to get a taste for the ‘real’ city, but the festival was fantastic. Highlights included an impromptu brass band and Black Elvis, a British-Indian Elvis impersonator.
13. Belgium is lovely
I think it’s totally unfair that Flanders has so many beautiful cities in such a small area, but I think it’s even more unfair that no-one told me.
Of course Bruges is lovely, but Ghent and Antwerp are fantastic, too. Our time in Belgium seemed to keep getting better and better (even a minor run in with the police in Antwerp didn’t put a dampener on it…)
14. Don’t trust the guidebooks
While it feels like blasphemy to say it, Lonely Planet doesn’t always have all the answers. By total chance, we stumbled upon a beautiful village in Limburg called Valkenburg which I had never come across in any guide book.
15. There will always be regrets
I would be lying if I said I had no regrets from our trip: Lille and Ypres/Ieper are just two of the places we didn’t have time for.
But I happily accept that no matter what, we would’ve had some regrets – part of the nature of a road trip is that you are visiting amazing cities so fleetingly, there’s always something that will be missed out. But on the plus side, I’ve now had a taste of some of Europe’s most interesting cities, and I look forward to going back for more.