Embarking on a trip around Spain, Morocco and Portugal last year seemed like a fantastic way to spend a few weeks. It was May — not yet the height of the tourist season — and I was keen to make the most of my trip to Europe following a friend's wedding in Britain.
I've always been one of those people for whom half the fun of a holiday is the research before the trip. Trawling websites and devouring guidebooks for ideas about what to see and where to stay is a favourite pastime.
After looking at my ambitious three-and-a-half week schedule for this trip, it became obvious that planes, buses and trains weren't going to do the trick.
There are a number of options for New Zealanders wanting to rent or lease a car in Europe. All the major rental companies (Avis, Hertz, Budget etc) are represented, as well as some smaller, locally based companies. On his website about driving in Europe, travel writer Rick Steves recommends Auto Europe and Europe by Car as potentially cheaper rental options.
For those wanting a car for extended periods of time, leasing may prove to be a more cost-effective option. There are a number of companies which have taken advantage of the tax laws in France, where the purchase tax on slightly used cars is much less than it is for cars straight off the production line.
By leasing new cars to tourists at cheap rates, companies including Peugeot, Renault and Citroen create a supply of almost-new cars that can be sold to European citizens and rental firms at competitive prices.
As with rental companies, the lease firms offer airport pick-ups in a number of European cities and — a deciding factor in our case — the option to take the car with us to Morocco. (Rental companies do not allow this.)
Our three-week lease proved cost-effective and even the fuel was affordable — helped by the fact we'd ordered a diesel. I was impressed when our first tank lasted almost 900km.
Spain's smooth-riding autopista made for comfortable driving and issues such as sticking to the right-hand side of the road were far less problematic than envisioned.
For the most part we were on multi-lane highways with median barriers eliminating the option of driving the wrong way. When negotiating cities, the mantra "tight right, loose left" kept us on the straight and narrow.
In fact, the only real problem was one which crops up at home on a daily basis ... where to park. Contrary to the image our flash new lease car may have portrayed, we were essentially on a backpacker's budget.
Very few of our hostels had car parks available and while parking buildings were prolific and, in most cases, reasonably priced ($42 to $64 for 24 hours), finding them upon driving into an unknown city provided the most testing times of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable holiday.
Unfazed, we pushed on towards Africa — catching a car ferry from southern Spain to Morocco — and managed to pass customs with a minimum of hassle.
However the new continent did provide a whole new set of obstacles for the self-drive holidaymaker. Gone was the autopista and in its place were potholed — at times one-laned — roads through the picturesque Rif mountain range.
Donkeys, camels and trucks losing crates of oranges around blind corners were just three of the hazards we quickly identified.
But parking did not prove to be a problem in Morocco, where public attendants will happily watch your car around the clock for as little as 5 to 10 dirham per day ($1 to $2).
There were other advantages to having our own car, too.
We were able to stop at will to photograph the oases that pepper the Sahara's valley floors, and if any of us had become ill negotiating the hairpin turns which embody the treacherous road across the high passes of the Atlas Mountains, stopping for a breather wouldn't have been an issue.
Hiring or leasing a car may not be the most relaxing way to spend a holiday, but it allows for freedom you would otherwise seldom be afforded in a foreign country. And everyone knows there's nothing like a good road trip.