To me, road trips are one of the most freeing and adventurous ways to get to know a place. With the freedom of breaking away from the crowds who have fixed itineraries to working in serendipity and basing stops on recommendations I get as I go, some of my best experiences have been on the road.
I’ve done road trips on every driveable continent now from North America, to Europe, to Africa. At this point I’ve been behind the wheel in over 40 countries. Out of all those experiences, these are some of the best road trips in the world:
The American Southwest
This is probably my favorite road trip ever. I rented a camper van and solo traveled from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, southern Utah, northern Arizona, and finished up in the last free place in America back in Southern California.
I quickly decided to camp on BLM land after a few parking lot camping experiences early on in the trip, finding that I much preferred being out in the wilderness without anyone else around. It opened me up to a whole new world of vanlifers (you can read all about how to do it on my friend Kristen’s blog).
Later I joined Kristen for an off the beaten path road trip around Utah, and we found some more off the beaten path places as well. What an amazing part of the world!
Read more about the American Southwest road trip itinerary.
Pacific Coast Highway
Growing up in California, I’ve done parts of this road trip several times and can confirm it’s truly stunning and there’s good reason why it’s so popular.
I’ve lived on the Pacific Coast Highway in Newport Beach and in Santa Barbara and just love this part of the world. You can almost always see dolphins in the water if you watch for long enough, can hike amongst the coastal redwood trees, and can see what I consider to be the most amazing state in the USA.
While most people opt for the Pacific Coast Highway, I’m a big fan of the California deserts, which make up 25% of the state. Many people stay away from deserts when they travel, but this is actually one of my favorite types of environments.
You get incredible land formations which can be colorful, enigmatic, and often provide you the kind of wide open spaces in solitude that you can’t get anywhere else. Although this is not something to do in the summer months, the California deserts are one of the best road trips in the USA.
I landed in South Africa a few years ago without a plan. It was my first time on the continent, and I knew I wanted to experience the best it had to offer. Through Facebook friends, I eventually linked up with Callum without ever having met, and we went on one of the most adventurous road trips I’ve ever been on.
South Africa is incredibly diverse, with tons of hiking, wild beaches, beautiful cities, and multiple cultures. You’ll be driving on the left side of the road, which can be a bit confusing at first, but it’s honestly not rocket science. Keep in mind that South Africa has a high crime rate and you should never leave anything, and I really mean nothing, visible in the car. Smaller towns are safer than big cities. Avoid driving at night not only because of crime, but also due to large animals on the road.
Read about the perfect South Africa road trip here.
Chile’s Atacama Desert
Back to my love of deserts, the Atacama in the north of Chile, is the driest in the world and also provides some of the absolute best stargazing, so go during a new moon.
This high altitude desert has a valley that looks like the moon (the Valle de la Luna), is home to colorful pink flamingos, and contains many hot springs as well. You’re unlikely to see many others at all while you go, and for me that’s much of the allure. You’ll need to drive a stick shift and be willing to camp off the grid for this one.
Chilean Patagonia’s Carretera Austral
This mostly gravel road in Chilean Patagonia offers an off the beaten path adventure that most visitors to Patagonia don’t experience.
I personally hitchhiked down this road, and you’ll find plenty of people biking it, but you can also rent a car and drive it. Read my guide for some of the best stops along the way. This is truly a beautiful adventure for hikers and backpackers.
Iceland’s Ring Road
There’s a reason why the Ring Road is so famous – it is honestly some of the most jaw-dropping scenery on planet Earth. At some point you’ll just stop pulling over to take photos because you’ll never get through it if you don’t just keep going. It’s that stunning.
The driving is pretty easy provided that you don’t have snowy weather. I rented a camper van and went in October, which was perfect for seeing the changing leaves and the northern lights.
Many people miss this region of Germany when they come to visit, opting for Bavaria or Berlin. While I certainly can’t argue with those two choices — I lived in Berlin for over 4 years and also enjoy road trips in Saxony — this part of Germany is stunning and feels like a fairytale.
You’ll find numerous castles here that are far less visited than their Bavarian counterparts, waterfalls, rolling green hills and vineyards, and the famous Black forest. I felt like I was in a Disney movie the whole time. Best of all, you can do this as day trips from Stuttgart.
New Zealand’s South Island
One of the greatest road trips in the world, the South Island of New Zealand has glaciers, mountains, rugged coastline, and a whole lot of friendly locals.
I might be the only person in the world who wished that New Zealand had more wild spaces, feeling that a lot of them have been overtaken by agriculture, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an amazing road trip. You’ll be driving on the left, but if you’re not familiar with it, New Zealand is a great place to learn since there’s not much traffic.
Aruba is a small island that most people visit just to stay at a resort. But if you are willing to be a bit adventurous and rent a jeep, you can see the rugged side of the island that most tourists never visit. Drive yourself to the Natural Pool and get it all to yourself instead of sharing it with other groups, see some of the arches, and experience a side of the island that you don’t see in most tourist brochures.
A friend of mine told me about his northern Thailand road trip with stars in his eyes, and I thought he was crazy for driving a car around the region. Then I thought about how I had driven a motorbike around northern Thailand plenty of times — even learning how in Pai for the first time — and wondered if it was really any different. There is a bit of a learning curve, especially if you are driving much in Chiang Mai, but once you get out to the countryside and start to learn a little bit about how Thais drive, you’ll probably find that it makes sense, given that it’s pretty laid-back. It wasn’t too stressful for me, and I actually came to enjoy the “Thai squeeze” as my friend called it – which basically means a disregard for lines painted on the road.
The reason why I took a car for my northern Thailand road trip rather than a motorbike was because we could travel much longer distances with more comfort and less worry about rain. I opted for a car rather than a bus because I went to mostly off the beaten path places where I only saw local tourists rather than other farang (foreigners) like me. It was such a treat!
The more you venture into East Africa, the more you can expect roads that have potholes, officers who pull you over for minor things (but cheap tickets), and a few unexpected surprises. But what makes this road trip so cool is that very few people actually self-drive it. I find I can have a lot more meaningful experiences with locals this way, and a lot more adventures, too.
The roads are getting better and better in East Africa due to all of the mining money coming in. For better or worse, it makes for slightly easier driving. If you do opt to self-drive, just know that Dar es Salaam is very difficult driving and can often be total gridlock. It isn’t for the faint of heart.
Ready for a challenge? Read about my Tanzania itinerary here.
If Tanzania sounds a bit too adventurous and you’d like something a bit safer than South Africa, opt for Namibia. It’s one of few places where you can see dunes, elephants, coastline, and incredible stars all in one place.
This desert country only has about 2.5 million residents, so if you have a major issue, you need to know how to change your own tire, be prepared for the desert heat with water, and maybe even rent a satellite phone. But for those who go for it, Namibia is truly stunning and offers beautiful adventure after beautiful adventure.
Tahiti is a pretty small island that you can drive around in a day. Check out waterfalls, grottoes, and one of the hardest hitting waves in the world.
Next time I explore, I definitely want to rent a 4 x 4 vehicle. Since they don’t come in automatic, this will only be an option if you know how to drive a manual vehicle, but if you do, then you can head into the waterfall valley and experience them on your own. I think that’s where the real magic is.
I can’t wait to experience more road trips in my lifetime. Australia, Canada’s British Columbia, Mongolia, and Japan are all still super high on my list. Best of all, most of these I found out about through word of mouth, and you never know who you might meet or what adventures they might tell you about.
Speaking of, what are your favorite road trips in the world?