As promised, I will be writing an entry to share several tips on how to effectively plan for a road trip overseas. Although it has been 7 months overdue but.. better late than never 😉
Just to share, this self-drive Hokkaido trip is my first ever road trip with friends (been on one with the family in Perth when I was really young) and I was not the driver. Nevertheless, I guess it doesn’t matter since this post is about “planning” and not “driving”, which is kind of like my forte (I feel). Alright, here we go.
1. Share a Google Spreadsheet on Google Drive with your travel pals
If you’re traveling with other people, it is good to set up a google spreadsheet (Google Drive) for sharing. This will allow everyone to contribute ideas and ensure that everyone is agreeable on the final plan. We usually have multiple tabs in one single spreadsheet, allowing us to compile categories such as “Accommodation”, “Costs”, “Timetable”, “Attractions” etc. The best thing about putting your itinerary on google drive is that you can refer back to it anytime, anywhere in your trip – as long as you have internet access.
2. Start by filling up the list of Attractions to visit
This is the brainstorming stage. I usually start off with “Google” or travel guide books I borrow from the library. Photogenic places always come first and I like to get my travel information from recent blog posts (from people like myself). Compile this list and note down the important details too: Opening Hours/Days, Address or GPS code, your eagerness-level in visiting (I Like to use two categories “Must Go & Can don’t go/If there’s time/On the way”, and a short description of what this place is about. This short description will save your friends from googling as the names of less popular places won’t make sense (i.e. Potato Head in Bali or Unkai Terrace in Hokkaido). You can even add a column for website links..
|Tomamu||Unkai Terrace||Nakatomamu, Yufutsu-gun, Shimukappu-mura 079-2204, Hokkaido||0500-0800, 0900 (latest coming down)||1900Y||Sea of Clouds||http://www.snowtomamu.jp/unkai_terrace/|
3. Pin all attractions to Google My Maps.
This step will allow you to gauge the location of each attraction. By plotting out all the places of interest, you should be able to cross out the ones that are not along the way, unless that is a “Must-Go” for you.
The cool thing I like about MyMaps is that you are able to choose from various icons to represent different types of locations. I usually use the bed to represent accommodation, Camera for sightseeing and Utensils for Dining.
This was what I started of with..
Final pinned locations after eliminating the outliers and can don’t go attractions.
(Just a sidetrack to showcase my other travel maps that I have done..)
This map was the draft for my Hong Kong 2014 trip.
This is my work-in-progress plan for my yet-to-visit-since-2013 Korea. It will probably increase by 100% until my real visit n years time.
4. Use logic to decide start/end point
Deciding on the route of our travel was a very tough problem, especially in Hokkaido which has 12 Airports (1 international – New Chitose & 11 domestic airports all over Hokkaido). It is usually good to have more options but in this situation, it complicated the matter exponentially. There were different flight timings, different airline prices, some with cheaper bundle tickets and it was just so annoying as I always try to make sure that I’m getting the best deal. In the end, we decided to go on a loop trip; starting and ending at New Chitose Airport.
3 reasons for that decision:
(1) There are frequent flights flying between Tokyo and New Chitose; almost 1 every 30 minutes for each airlines.
Nothing is predictable on a road trip. In case of any unpredictable delays in our schedule and we miss our flight, we will not be stranded at the airport as we can always take the next flight out. However, if we choose a smaller airport with less than 4 daily flights, the probability of getting stranded is higher.
(2) Looking at the pinned locations, if we were to start and end at different points, there might be areas we had to make awkward detours so in the end, we stick to the loop method which was the best within all our constraints.
(3) When renting a car, it is easier to collect and return at the same location. Not all car rental companies allow you to drop at a different airport and some may allow you to do so, but charge an extra surcharge to it. Furthermore, the operating hours of the less crowded cities/town might be shorter. However please do a thorough check on this as I didn’t explore much into this option since we decided on New Chitose pretty early into planning.
5. Plotting the car route
Now that you have finalized the loop, you have to decide how much time you want to spend in each city. In our case, we stayed 1 night each except for our accommodation in Asahikawa, where we stayed 2 Nights as the drive from Shiretoko takes about 6 hours. The maximum time we spent on the roads was kept to 6 hours per day as we had 1 main driver who drove approximately 80% of the trip. Then again, it would have been a very boring day if you’re on the roads the whole day.
So this was our finalized plan:
Day 1 (2 hours driving):
New Chitose Airport – Hotel AreaOne Obihiro – dinner
Day 3 (6 hours driving):
Shiretoko Five Lakes Tour (guided tour reservations required during summer) – Sounkyo – Hotel Asahidake Deer Valley
Day 5 (4 hours driving):
Patchwork Road – Blue Pond – Farms Chiyoda (Beef Stew) – Rollercoaster/Panorama Road – Farm Tomita – Yuiga-Dokuson (Omu Curry) – Cross Hotel Sapporo – Susukino (Pachinko + Ramen Street)
Day 7 (1.5 hours driving):
The Lake View Toya Nonokaze Resort – New Chitose Airport
6. Driving with familiar GoogleMaps
Although most car companies provide a GPS (maybe even an english one), we still prefer using Google Maps.
The maps in the GPS may not be updated and you will need precise map codes or telephone number in order to search for the exact place. On the other hand, Google Maps (being user generated) is more reliable and updated. I’ve heard several stories on bad experiences with GPS and to be honest, I’ve never done GPS routing overseas before so I’ll still highly recommend using Google Maps.
The only setback of using Google Maps is that you will need to have an active internet connection (We used Ninja Wifi).
There’s one slight problem if you are an iOS user, you will have to re-mark all your pinned locations and save them as a favourite on google maps (with the google account for your phone).
You save the locations by pressing the star as seen in my example below. After favouriting a location, you will see it marked out in your google maps app.
So when you are finding your way to a location, open up your Google Maps app (which is linked to your gmail account) and pinch to find the location that you have already saved. Click on the Directions button and the fastest route will be routed out for you. If you are in a country with tolls (there were toll roads in Hokkaido), there may be a “This route has tolls” yellow button with an exclamation mark. Sometimes, if you swipe right, there may be alternative routes (usually longer distance/more drive time required) which does not have the yellow exclamation mark. If google maps can tell you the cost of the tolls, it would be perfect. *Wishful Dreaming* but I’m sure it will happen in time to come.
What we did in Japan was to always have at least 2 person (usually the driver and the one sitting in front) awake at all times. The non-driver will be in charge of staring at the google maps directions (on the iphone) and direct the driver verbally. Not to worry if you are alone, google maps will “speak” to you the directions and alert you when to turn or keep left or right at the fork. We are just putting the responsibility on the non-driver for the sake of having an extra pair of eyes on the road. It is quite tiring to drive long distances especially since we don’t do it often in Singapore.
Despite countless years of waiting and complaining, Google My Maps is still unable to integrate with Google Maps on the iOS. There’s an Android App but the reviews are so poor that I doubt it is possible. The only function that I require from them is to open up the locations tagged in My Maps later and click on them to route the directions between two marked point. I have no idea why they are taking so long to work out this function in today’s day and age but I’ll just continue to wait.
Alternatively, if you are willing to pay $3.99, you can check out this third party iOS app which seem to have better reviews.
UPDATE: Google has just launched an iOS Google My Maps on Mobile in Jan 2016. I will be testing this app out and review it when I’m back from my trip.
(Random incident on how not understanding road signs made life difficult)
On the first night in Hokkaido, we kind of saw an “expressway closure” sign at one of the rest stop along Doto Expressway. It was fully in Japanese and we made a guesstimate that it was a closure during the night and that it will only open at 6am. We didn’t think too much about it at that time. The following morning, we left our hotel at 4am, making our way to Unkai Terrace. At the entry of the expressway, my friend saw that one entrance was blocked and conveniently drove to the other entrance. We ended up traveling the opposite direction and the next expressway exit (at Ikeda) was like a 20 mins drive away (you could cover the entire CTE with that distance). Upon reaching Ikeda, the Doto expressway in the direction of Unkai was still closed and if we take the toll-free road, we would not be in time for the Unkai clouds. Furthermore, the prediction of unkai that morning was only 30%. We ended up driving back to our hotel to sleep.
Always remember that driving in a foreign country is different from Singapore so please be extra cautious and obey all traffic rules.
In Hokkaido, the roads in the outskirts (away from towns/cities) do not have street lights. When it is dark, you will have to depend on your headlights shining at the reflective poles/signboards for way-finding. If it was me, I wouldn’t have been confident enough to drive in the dark. Most of the roads are single lane but they open up to a double lane (once in a while) to allow vehicles to overtake. It’s a pretty friendly driving culture in Hokkaido as the obviously slower vehicles will automatically give way to you. I think there was only once in the whole trip where we got pissed with a slow driver who didn’t know how to give way. The roads leading to Shiretoko was one of the most curvy and slightly dangerous road this trip. We were driving there around the evening timing and there were clouds/fog blocking the view through the winding road uphill and downhill. You have to be really cautious and alert when you drive, especially in poor visibility.
Nevertheless, self-drive trips are very scenic and enjoyable (Maybe I’m saying this only because I was not the driver..). Along the way, you can stop at random photo spots (like the roller coaster/panorama road), visit random local hunts (like the Furniture Slope shop) or even stop to take photos of the roaming wildlife.
Looking forward to my next self-drive trip in Perth 🙂
Till Then ^^