23 July 2014, by Tan Yi Lin
As the saying goes, there’s a first for everything.
This July saw me experiencing two big firsts: my maiden trip to Japan and a never-before-attempted family self-drive vacation.
I had previously written about how one of the participants at a recent MaybeBaby dialogue on work-life matters asked whether travelling was still possible with baby in tow. It is – although, from experience, it’s easier to start simple and slowly build up your skill level when it comes to travelling with young children. Before Japan, our last family travel milestone reached was a beach holiday to Koh Samui last December, which marked Claire’s inaugural flight at 8 months and our first trip as a family of 4 (or rather, 7, as my parents and brother came along too – to our relief, I gladly add.)
This time, we wanted to take things one step further and attempt a self-drive holiday with the kids. I hurriedly scanned through travel guides and websites; put together a rough itinerary (because unlike before, between managing work and the kids, we didn’t have the luxury of time – and energy – to plan a detailed programme); booked flights, rental car and accommodation online; packed a tonne of luggage (mainly comprising way too many tiny outfits, diapers, milk powder, story books and a stroller) and off we went to Hokkaido.
Except for being, ahem, chased down and asked to pull over by the local traffic police (lalala….), the trip went smoothly (phew!) Nonetheless, these noob parents made many a mistake and learned many new things when it came to doing a self-drive with kids. We have reproduced them in the form of 10 Family Self-Drive Travel Tips, which we hope will be useful to you when planning a family self-drive holiday.
1. Go Free & Easy
I admit that, to a harried parent, the thought of simply booking places on an organised group tour can be highly attractive. However, coach tours may not be the most comfortable or fun option for little kids – nor the adults who are stuck with them. Going free and easy gave us the flexibility to plan our daily programme as we wished, which is a good thing as life with two toddlers can be highly unpredictable. There’s also the in-between option of free & easy group tours where you move around in your own rental car according to a fixed group itinerary. But it can be costlier than piecing together a trip from scratch – and we all know that travel budget is a key consideration when it comes to planning a family trip.
2. Go for Reliability
Normally, I would painstakingly scout around for the most value-for-money option. For example, my colleagues recommended a Japanese car rental website that I had never heard of before for its cheap rates. I decided, however, to go with Toyota Rent-A-Car for its good track record, clear rental policy, easy online booking procedure and presence of branches all over Hokkaido (you never know when you might need assistance along the way). Most of all, I was comfortable going with them. It probably cost us slightly more but when travelling with kids, I’d go for reliability over cost.
When booking your rental car, do check with the rental company for the latest possible time that you can return the car without incurring additional rental charges. As all parents know, the chances of you running late are HIGH.
3. Family-Friendly Accommodation
That goes without saying. While we would have loved to go with Bed & Breakfast options, I was fearful that the kids would end up wrecking the properties. Even if they didn’t, I would probably have had to trail them relentlessly ordering them not to touch this or touch that. No fun in that at all. We went for a mix of hotel rooms in large resorts and apartment-type accommodation. Oh, remember to ask for adjacent rooms when making bookings at hotels – beats trekking down the hall every time some kid insists on switching between rooms – which can be every 10 minutes. Seriously.
4. DIY Breakfasts
Knowing that our chances of sitting down to enjoy a daily breakfast buffet were slim, we didn’t opt for breakfast to be included in our room bookings. Turned out to be a good thing as it saved me from having to bark at everyone like an army commander to get to the breakfast hall on time. Plus, some resorts that catered to large tour groups had guests queuing for tables – not ideal with hungry, impatient children on hand. Instead, we had store-bought buns for breakfast and filled up on lunch outside of the hotel.
5. Make Plans to Refuel
This doesn’t just refer to filling up when the petrol runs low. It’s a good idea to plan to spend a few days in a good-sized town midway through the trip to top up on necessities like diapers, milk powder, wipes, groceries and to do some laundry. You’d be a happier traveller if you didn’t have to worry about running low on supplies and clean clothes. It would also allow you to avoid having to pack large quantities of diapers and milk – both which take up a considerable amount of space on the flight and in the car – to last the entire trip.
6. Keep Travel Distances Short
Young kids strapped in car seats for long periods of time? ‘Nuff said. We kept our driving times to 2.5 hours at the max, with most trips averaging 30 minutes to an hour. It may mean having to visit fewer places within the span of the trip but trust me, keeping your sanity intact ranks higher in priority.
7. Keep To a Minimum of 2 Nights
Rather than being on the go all the time, we found that spending a minimum of 2 nights at each destination worked well for us. In Furano, where there were more sights and activities, we extended it to 3 nights. Lugging kids and luggage, unpacking and packing again at a different hotel every night would have been craaaaaaaaaazy…
8. Pee / Poop / Puke / Mess Happens
Yes. It does. It will. It definitely will when you’re cramped in the tiny enclosed space of the car. Spillage happens too. Do not underestimate the quantity of wet wipes and plastic bags (to contain puke, soiled clothes and dirty diapers) that you will need in the car. Make sure that extra clothes and diapers are within easy reach – and not locked up in suitcases in the boot.
9. Useful Stuff
Other must-have items to be kept within easy reach include (lots of) snacks, water, milk, tissue, small toys, disposable utensils and pacifier (if needed).
10. Navigation Tips
Our rental car came with a GPS, which is a boon to distracted parents who need to shift their attention between operating a vehicle, navigating foreign roads, doling out tissue/ sweets/ water, answering a gazillion questions like “Are we there yet?” and breaking up fights. Ours was a Japanese GPS, so while we managed to get around by keying in the phone number or ‘map code’ for our destination, there were times when we got lost and understanding directions in Japanese from helpful locals was extremely challenging. We got around this by asking them to key in the addresses (in Japanese) into our GPS instead.
As mentioned above, we got stopped by traffic police for not stopping at the ‘Stop’ sign, which was a genuine mistake as the signs were in Japanese and looked nothing like the ones we have back home. No excuses for not knowing the local road signs and traffic rules, though. We were also lucky not to have been hauled to the police station for not carrying our driving licences with us – not too fun a detour with kids in tow. So do remember to have your licence on hand at all times.
May your first family road trip be better than ours!