Roadtrips, GPS and rental cars

This has been an unusual year for travel patterns: I have been on three road-trips. When I travel, I usually depend on public transit, not driving. But for our (1) Hokkaido and (2) East Coast road trips, we rented cars. For the (3) Four Corners road trip, we drove from home.

Public transit involves planning around schedules and connections, but not routing. Driving involves routing, either by maps or by GPS. I’m usually a luddite, so I always get maps. In general, Joe drives and I navigate, using maps, or vice versa.

But for Hokkaido, we didn’t have detailed maps, and our rental car came with a GPS . . . that was all in Japanese. Fortunately, I could navigate the GPS interface with the little bit of kanji I knew. Better yet, Japanese GPS systems allow you to enter the telephone number of your destination, which makes it very easy for Nihongo-illiterates like us. (I don’t know how it works if you’re visiting a private residence, though). Bonus: I now know how to speak two phrases fluently in Japanese: “Momo naku higari hogo desu” and “Momo naku migi hogo desu“. Which of course mean “Turn right soon” and “Turn left soon”. Or something like that.

The East Coast trip was all about me driving my dad and step-mom around. Joe was only there for a couple of days. My dad can’t read maps anymore, since the font is too much of strain after his eye surgery. My step-mom doesn’t really know how to read maps, even though she drives back home (I think it’s a common phenomenon in Thailand: that people don’t really learn how to read maps). So I had to drive AND navigate, which was very hard to do. It was a lot of pull over to stop and read map, and get lost in circles occasionally. I got a bit frustrated, as I am not familiar with the East Coast at all. “If only I had borrowed my mom’s Magellan GPS” I told myself on tha trip.

Lo and behold, my mom brought her Magellan for our Four Corners trip. I brought maps as back up anyway. Using a GPS also has pitfalls. It’s slow to power-up and you have to remember to remove and hide it when parked, so that no one is tempted to break into your car to steal it. You doubt its accuracy (sometimes it turns out to be right after all, and sometimes it’s wrong.) Sometimes it goes mute and doesn’t verbally tell that you’re about to have to turn. It generally provides two options ‘shortest distance’ and ‘shortest’ travel time; and sometimes you pick the wrong option because you don’t have all the info to make a judgement call. For instance, shortest distance might take you on minor roads with slower speed limits which would take you longer. (Biker got taken on the longer-time way to my house when he visited, using the GPS for navigation for shorter distance!) The GPS does tell you the estimated travel time for each option, but I don’t know how accurate it is. I never compared it to actual driving time.

I still like maps better, because you can read the micro and macro level of detail more easily, and fold it/unfold it as you wish. Plus, I get irritated when it (a machine) tells me something that I already know. Well, I get irritated when human beings tell me something I already know. By the end of the trip, I kind of wished my mom hadn’t brought the GPS, because we would depend on it too much, and leading us to make mistakes.

Bottom line: Never go on another road trip without Joe (or someone who knows how to navigate/read maps competently.) And always bring paper maps. AAA rocks!

Driving in Japan was amusing. They drive on the left, just like in Thailand. I didn’t drive when I was growing up there, but I think being used to riding in cars in Bangkok helped. The funniest thing was where the stem to control the left/right turn indicator in cars in the US is the stem to control windshield wipers in cars in Japan. So how do you tell a foreign tourist is driving in Japan? When they are turning, and the windshield wipers go off, but it’s not raining!

For the East Coast trip, I rented a Prius, hedging my bets that the higher rental cost would be offset by the lower fuel cost. I don’t know if I came out ahead or behind. But it was my first time really driving a Prius, and it did take me a while to get used to how to switch the enginer on/off. I never fully got the hang of it, even after ten days of driving it. The interface is really odd, and it just reinforced our decision that buying a hybrid Civic was the right one, because we hated the weird interface of the Prius when we test drove it. Even though it does get better mileage.

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