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top gear carsTrekking through the Amazon, embarking from Canada as the first to drive to the magnetic North Pole, road tripping through Botswana and even riding through Chernobyl; it may sound like the best travel show you’ve never heard of, and that’s because it’s not a travel show at all — it’s Top Gear, a British program about cars.

The hosts — Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond — are car MacGyvers and automobile enthusiasts who drive and review virtually anything with wheels, along with the show’s anonymous racecar driver known only as the Stig. Airing in its current format for more than 10 years, the BBC show primarily features cars you could never dream of owning placed along the winding roads of drool-worthy backdrops such as the Amalfi Coast or the dunes of Abu Dhabi.

Clarkson could be considered the Anthony Bourdain of car shows (with May and Hammond just as cheeky) for those unfamiliar with the Top Gear concept. Their clever devil-may-care personalities, impressive knowledge and adventurous spirit lend themselves well to British banter and thrilling test drives, but even better to their globe-trotting (er, driving) episodes.

Though there may be other challenges peppered throughout, most seasons culminate with a special that inevitably flings the trio across the globe on a daunting journey in seemingly preposterous conditions. They make eating bugs or snakes with some remote tribe look like a cake walk. Typically armed with a tight budget and a ridiculous set of conditions, they forge ahead to find the source of the Nile or retrace the pilgrimage of the three wise men. In Bolivia, the motoring threesome bought second-hand off-road vehicles and navigated them to their mechanical limits across jungles and hair-raising hairpin turns on what’s known affectionately as Death Road. They then attempted a risky ascent into Chile across Guallatiri, an active volcano. This was thwarted by altitude sickness, but the footage they took was spectacular.

Slideshow: The Eight Best U.S. Road Trips

This season’s two-part finale (which has just aired) takes place in Myanmar (Burma), and the Top Gear camera crew was granted access to remote areas of the country — a first for any television crew. The challenge: to build a bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand and then drive across it. Along the way they gave viewers a first-time glimpse into the world of the Shan — an area of Myanmar larger than England and Wales combined with just one road built 150 years ago, no electricity, no hospitals and no planes overhead. Still in the midst of a 60-year-long civil war (the longest-running in the world), the Shan is unveiled as a lush, untouched stretch of otherworldly earth, with a reclusivity that gives it a mystique rarely found in today’s hyper-connected universe. Here’s a preview:



I was initially worried about making it through an hour-long British TV show about cars, but I’ve walked away each time laughing and actually learning something — not just about the coupes, convertibles and caravans, but about the countries the hosts drive them through. I’ve discovered that you don’t have to tune in to the Travel Channel to find travel; you can find it in the most unexpected places. For me, that sweet spot is Top Gear. Think of it as armchair travel with an engine.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

seniors car driveEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog or signing up for our newsletter.

Age has its privileges — such as grandkids, retirement, a lifetime’s worth of passport stamps and, of course, those enticing senior discounts. But older travelers could find themselves facing a few unpleasant surprises as well. As we caution in International Car Rental Tips: “Be aware that many countries have a minimum and maximum age for renters. Drivers under the age of 25 or over the age of 70 may face surcharges or not be permitted to rent at all.”

Here in the U.S., the idea of a maximum rental age is nearly unheard of. But if you’re a senior traveler headed overseas, it’s important to check ahead.

For example, Auto Europe’s Web site states that renters in Ireland may not be over age 75, and that those over 70 may be subject to additional fees. (Editor’s Note: An Auto Europe spokesperson tells us that this maximum age does not necessarily apply to all of the company’s suppliers.) On Budget Rent a Car’s Web site, we found maximum ages of 75 in Aruba, 65 in Jamaica and just 60 in Morocco. Apollo Car Rental in Australia permits renters over the age of 75, but only with a doctor’s note.

Seniors can often evade these restrictions by shopping around, as terms and conditions vary widely from company to company. An 80-year-old traveler looking to rent in Ireland can try booking with Hertz, which permits renters over 75 as long as they’re willing to jump through a few hoops. “Customers aged over 75 can rent with specific conditions,” says a pop-up on the Hertz Web site. “You must drive on a regular basis, you will need to provide to the counter a letter from your doctor to state you have been in good health for at least 12 months and a letter from your insurance company to state you have not had an accident within the last 5 years, that you hold a current policy of motor insurance with them and that you are currently driving.”

Tips for Senior Travelers

Never book a car without reading the fine print. If you’re traveling with a younger companion, you can save money and avoid hassle by naming that person as the driver on your rental contract. If all else fails, look into guided tours or local public transportation instead.

Older travelers, have you ever had trouble renting a car overseas?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

steering wheel speeding car blurWhen it comes to driving, are you a slow-lane sort of person, or do you immediately head to the left and make everyone else eat your dust?

Now comes word that Maine is about to become the only state east of the Mississippi River to legalize a 75-mile-an-hour speed limit. Starting Tuesday, October 4, locals and travelers heading to Canada can take advantage of the power boost on a lonely stretch of Interstate 95 in the far northern reaches of the state, from Old Town to Houlton.

According to a Reuters report, the 110-mile stretch of asphalt “could handle the increase from an engineering standpoint, and … studies showed most people were already driving comfortably at 74 to 75 miles per hour there.”

The 8 Best U.S. Road Trips

While Maine may be the first Eastern state to okay a 75 m.p.h. speed limit, it’s not a ground-breaker. A number of Western states also top out at 75 m.p.h., while Texas allows 85 m.p.h. on some segments.

The legislation, which flew through the Maine legislature, was introduced by Representative Alexander Willette, who said that his constituents had been nagging him about making the change. “Their main reasoning is, everyone is traveling 75 anyway and they are already not getting pulled over,” he told Reuters. “Why not make it official?”

I’ll tell you why not: If you can tell people they can go 75, then they’ll go 85. I’ve driven through that area a number of times, and I agree it’s a long, straight, boring haul. But if people weren’t routinely getting pulled over, why give them the (indirect) license to go faster? Does anyone really think that 85 or 90 m.p.h. won’t now be the norm?

Enter the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s Anne Fleming, who holds the same view. As she told the Associated Press: “People do pay attention to speed limits. Whatever they’re flying along at, whenever they raise the speed limit, they fly along faster.” Furthermore, she said higher speeds often lead to more (and worse) accidents.

So what do you think? Vote in our poll or speak up in the comments.



– written by John Deiner

convertible mountains scenic road trip Every Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

Road trippers, take heart: there’s still a month of summer left! Not to mention that fall, my favorite season for hitting the road, is right around the corner with all its leaf-peeping goodness.

As you plan your itinerary, spare some thought for your vehicle. Instead of putting hundreds of miles on your own clunker, consider renting some wheels instead — it could significantly enhance your trip, as we advise in Five Features of a Fantastic Road Trip:

“If you’re renting a car, consider your route when you book your rental. Sure, Highway 1 is gorgeous through the window — but just imagine it in a convertible. If your trip is taking you to the mountains, consider an SUV. Do your homework and you may only end up paying a little more for a specialty car than you would for a compact.”

While an economy car is almost always the cheapest type of vehicle to rent, car companies sometimes offer free upgrades or limited-time discounts on specialty vehicles. See our Car Rental Deals for a sampling of these discounts.

Keep in mind that a fancier class of car might also set you back a little extra in gas. Convertibles lose fuel efficiency when driven with the top down, and SUV’s and minivans guzzle a lot more gas than their compact counterparts. Be sure to budget accordingly and check out our tips for saving gas and money.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

high gas prices sign arm leg expensiveEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

With U.S. gas prices hovering around a budget-busting $4 a gallon, that summer road trip you’ve been anticipating may be looking pricier than you’d originally planned. While we can’t promise that gas prices will plunge just in time for you to hit the road, we can offer a few hints for cutting costs when traveling by car. For example, IndependentTraveler.com Ed Hewitt gives the following advice about where to stop and refuel:

“Choose an exit with several gas stations. You can usually tell these from the amenity signs on the highway leading up to the exit. If the sign lists two or more stations, you will often benefit from the simple fact that there is competition for your business. Upon exiting … choose the station that is farthest from the exit ramp. Typically [it] will have the lowest prices, simply due to the inability to gouge outsiders looking for a quick off-and-on fill-up (the locals often use this station).”

Hewitt goes on to point out that even if you have to pay a few cents more to drive to the farther station, your savings per gallon will easily help you make that back — especially if your tank was nearly empty before you stopped.

Got a smartphone? There are heaps of apps out there that will help you check for the best local gas prices: GasBag, Cheap Gas! and Local Gas Prices are just a few.

See more ways to save gas and money.

– written by Sarah Schlichter

holiday trafficOver the river and through the woods and . . . into a horrific travel nightmare?

Maybe. According to AAA, the number of Americans traveling over the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 24-28) is expected to increase more than 11 percent over last year. That translates into 42.2 million travelers driving at least 50 miles from home. Last year, 37.9 million Americans made the jaunt.

Tellingly, that’s significantly lower than the 2005 peak of 58.6 million travelers.

AAA says it all goes to show that distant family and friends still matter (that’s no surprise, is it?) and, more importantly, that wallets have a bit more cash in them this November. According to AAA President Robert L. Darbelnet, “While Americans remain cautious with household budgets and discretionary spending amidst high levels of unemployment, many are in a better financial position this Thanksgiving than a year ago.”

The automotive club explains that the increase “appears to be the result of modestly improved economic conditions since last year, including an increase in gross domestic product, real disposable personal income and household net worth combined with a decrease in consumer debt.”

Bottom line: When all is said and done, a little more traffic on the roads will be a good thing. Unless, that is, you’re stuck in traffic, in which case you’ll rue the day you decided to pack up the green-bean casserole and hit the road. I’ve been traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and New York City for years, often on busy holiday and summer weekends. Here are some things I always try to do to avoid the rush — or what I have on hand when I can’t.

Avoid peak times. Easier said than done, I know, but I hate traffic so much I’ll wake up at dawn or take a nap in the evening and head out at 5 a.m. or 10 p.m. if I have to. I’d rather move at my own pace than sit behind an oil tanker for 13 miles. Conversely, if you can’t change the time of travel, consider changing the day — returning home on Monday or leaving Tuesday night could make a big difference.

Pack a GPS, a smartphone or a good atlas. Seems obvious, but I’m always surprised when I’m in a car that has none of them. My wife and I have gone to the atlas countless times and plotted workarounds when traffic reports paint a dire picture. (Better yet, pore over the map beforehand so you have a Plan B or C before you walk out the door.) There are also numerous smartphone apps (e.g. Google Maps Navigation) that track traffic flow, and don’t forget about dialing 511 when you’re stuck in a jam for the latest info about what lies ahead.

Fill up and stock up. Sure, highway rest areas are convenient spots to fuel up, but the lines can be a real drag if you hit them at the wrong time. I always hop off the highway (even toll roads) and get gas that way. And be sure there are snacks, bottled water, car games, DVD’s, etc., in the vehicle — you never know when nuisance congestion will become an epic wait.

Pay tolls electronically. Many regions have programs that allow you to affix a device to your car and whiz through toll plazas. How come more people don’t use these? In my experience, the E-ZPass lanes in Delaware, New Jersey and New York are frequently car-free; even better, some toll areas establish E-ZPass-only lanes well in advance of the plaza itself, while others have overhead transponders allowing cars to drive through at full speed.

What are your tips for hassle-free holiday driving? (“Stay home” doesn’t count.)

Read More: Holiday Travel 2010: What You Need to Know

– written by John Deiner