Princess, frequent cruisers, driving on the left


Dear Reader, in my August ’06 column I replied to Daniel Crough, who had shared a letter he wrote to Princess Cruises suggesting that they change their frequent-cruiser program to recognize not only the number of cruises a person takes but each cruise’s length as well. For example, he felt that two 14-day cruises ought to be more valuable to Princess than three 7-day cruises.

I’m happy to say that, perhaps because of Dan’s letter, Princess has announced that their “Captain’s Circle loyalty program has broken new ground, becoming the only such program of a major cruise line to qualify members either by the number of cruises completed or the total number of days sailed.”

Jan Swartz, Princess’ senior vice-president of customer service and sales, said, “Many of our passengers prefer to sail on our longer exotic cruises. We listened to their feedback, and are now pleased to offer them a way to earn increased Circle benefits by virtue of the many days they cruise with us.”

Q:

Dear Steve, our favorite mode of travel is rental car, so we can stop and go as we like. We have so far avoided destinations where driving is on the left-hand side of the road, and we feel we have missed out. Can you tell us whether driving on the left is really as stressful as we are imagining it to be? — Nancy Tan, Fresno, CA

A:

Dear Nancy, I grew up near Fresno, so I know your town well. It was home to the famous writer William Saroyan, is known for raisins and is a gateway to Yosemite National Park. Your airport’s official 3-letter code is “FAT,” standing for Fresno Air Terminal. When first memorizing airport codes, I found this an easy one.

Sixty-four countries, nearly a third of the world’s total, require driving on the left-hand side, including the U.S. Virgin Islands. Among these are most of Britain’s former colonies, such notable countries as Australia, New Zealand, India, Ireland, Kenya and South Africa, plus others such as Thailand, Indonesia and Japan.

I once read how the scientist George Stratton tried an experiment in the 1890s in which he equipped himself with special glasses that made everything look upside-down. His brain eventually was able to adapt and correct his vision to where things appeared normal, but when the glasses were removed it took his brain some time to readapt. Trying it again and again, he found that his brain could adapt faster and faster each time the glasses were put on or taken off. However, he reported that, even when corrected, his inverted environment never really felt normal.

Similarly, I find it always takes me some time to adapt to left-hand-side driving, and then when I come home I’ve got to readapt. If I travel back and forth too quickly, my brain gets confused and I have to keep reminding myself where I am.

When I was 24, I rented a car in London with the intent of driving north to Chester. Despite having a map and trying to follow directions, I found it impossible to go in that direction and instead kept going south, whether I wanted to or not. I was like a person who had been spun around, then asked to run in a straight line. I kept veering left.

On my second day I managed to go west. On my third day I finally got my bearings and was able to head north so that I finally reached my destination in four days. I was fine after that. A few days later I was amazed to be able to drive back to London within hours.

Now that I’m much older, I tend to adapt faster but have different problems. Specifically, roads are more crowded than they were 40 years ago and a person’s driving skills tend to decline as they age, so I don’t like having to drive myself as much as I used to.

On my last trip in one of those left-handed countries, I was driving through a small town with narrow streets when I encountered a truck parked half in the roadway on my side. The cars in front of me simply went around it, but cars coming in my direction weren’t giving way, so I was forced to squeeze in between the truck and them, but when I passed I misjudged the width of my car (the driving wheel was on the right side) and clipped my rearview mirror against the truck. Wham! $1,000 worth of damage.

So to answer your question, yes, it is stressful, at least to me, but after the first few days it’s not too bad.

Here’s a tip to keep your stress down. When you rent a car in the U.S., you will automatically get a car with an automatic shift, but in Europe, where gas is more expensive, you usually get a stick shift. Ask for an automatic when booking. Automatics are more expensive, but in my mind they’re well worth the added cost of not having to also learn to shift with your left hand.