Self-drive holidays are getting more popular, Australia and Japan among top destinations

The city of Cork in the south is part of the itinerary of a drive through Ireland.
The city of Cork in the south is part of the itinerary of a drive through Ireland.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Shigatse is home to the magnificent Tashilhunpo Monastery.
Shigatse is home to the magnificent Tashilhunpo Monastery.PHOTO: CHAN BROTHERS TRAVEL
Enjoy the tranquil landscapes of Tasmania on a leisurely drive.
Enjoy the tranquil landscapes of Tasmania on a leisurely drive.PHOTO: DYNASTY TRAVEL
Visit the famous Dogo Onsen in Shikoku or drive around the island of Jeju (above). -- PHOTO: CHAN BROTHERS TRAVEL
Visit the famous Dogo Onsen in Shikoku or drive around the island of Jeju (above). -- PHOTO: CHAN BROTHERS TRAVEL
Visit the famous Dogo Onsen in Shikoku (left) or drive around the island of Jeju (right).
Visit the famous Dogo Onsen in Shikoku (left) or drive around the island of Jeju (right).PHOTOS: FOLLOW ME JAPAN, CHAN BROTHERS TRAVEL
The Automobile Association of Singapore's convoy at a rest stop on its way from Lijiang to Lugu Lake, Yunnan, in 2012.
The Automobile Association of Singapore's convoy at a rest stop on its way from Lijiang to Lugu Lake, Yunnan, in 2012.PHOTO: AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION OF SINGAPORE
-- PHOTO: TOURISM NEW ZEALAND
-- PHOTO: TOURISM NEW ZEALANDPHOTO: TOURISM NEW ZEALAND

Self-drive vacations are getting more popular: Australia, New Zealand and Japan are top destinations

Not too long ago, intrepid travellers had to depend on wrinkled maps and the kindness of strangers when driving along foreign roads. But these days English- language global positioning systems, smartphones and travel apps have made road trips in foreign terrain a lot less of a guessing game.

Independent travel is easier than ever before and Singaporeans increasingly forego group tours abroad for more free-and-easy, self-drive packages, which allow them to move at their own pace and customise their itineraries, while still enjoying hassle-free bookings through travel agents.

The past two years in particular have seen double-digit growth in these packages, which typically include round trip airfare, accommodation, car rental and a suggested itinerary. Prices start at about $600 a person, but can cost more than $5,000 depending on the destination, accommodation and duration of the trip.

Self-drive packages are often 30 to 50 per cent more expensive than group tours because they lack economies of scale and customers have to arrange their own meals, pay for entrance fees at attractions, petrol, parking and tolls. These costs are typically included in the price of a group tour.

Despite this, Chan Brothers Travel and CTC Travel have seen a 30 per cent increase in self-drive trips since last year.

Dynasty Travel reports 15 per cent year-on-year growth of its self-drive packages, which the travel agency started in 2004. Only about 300 people opted for self-drive tours then, but 1,200 people have gone on self-drive tours so far this year.

Since 2010, property agent Peter Lee, 56, has taken self-drive packages through New Zealand and Australia with his wife and family friends.

"I can drive anywhere I want and take my own time, stop and take photographs, eat or go on optional tours. If I was on a group tour, I would be tied with them, herded from place to place to keep to their schedule," he says.

Certainly, self-drive packages are nothing new. Singaporean travel agents first started offering them to customers in the early 2000s, focusing mostly on New Zealand and Australia where the roads are well maintained, easily navigated and there is no language barrier.

But with increasing demand for these trips, travel agents have expanded their destinations and numbers of itineraries.

ASA Holidays started offering self-drive tours to Australia and New Zealand only last year and has already doubled its tours to include new destinations such as England and Ireland.

From a handful of self-drive trips in the early 2000s, Chan Brothers Travel now offers more than 30 self-drive itineraries, as well as 10 self-drive convoys a year.

Self-drive convoys are a hybrid of self-drive and group travel, where customers drive their own cars in a group of 10 to 15 cars which are led by a guide. Drivers can move at their own pace and meet at pre-set destinations along the way.

Travel agents here now offer self-drive packages for the West Coast of the United States, the United Kingdom, central Japan, China, South Korea and Tibet, and routes for New Zealand and Australia have expanded to include more off-the-beaten-track places such as Tasmania and Uluru.

Yet the majority of the Singaporeans looking for self-drive packages still opt to go Down Under. They are the most popular self-drive destinations and account for 60 to 90 per cent of self-drive tours from Singapore.

Travel agents who spoke with SundayLife! expect tours to the US, Canada and the United Kingdom to pick up in the coming years, as Singaporeans are still wary of self-drive tours in non-English speaking countries.

When secretary Agnes Ng, 50, was travelling in Italy with her husband and three teenage children in 2011, not being able to communicate with the locals proved too much for the family.

They had arranged a three-day self-drive package around Milan but cut it short when navigation became too troublesome.

"We had a language problem. We couldn't understand the signs, could not find out from people where to park, where to go. And we gave up," she says.

Because of such concerns, travel agents are wary of developing self-drive packages for non-English speaking countries, even though European countries such as Greece, Sweden and Spain are top group-tour destinations for Singaporeans next year.

"Europe is so big and the self-drive market for Singaporean tourists is just starting there, so it is hard to pinpoint which areas will be popular and there is not enough demand to provide a prototype itinerary for those destinations," says Ms Alicia Seah, Dynasty Travel's director of communications.

Instead tour agencies will offer customised self-drive packages on an ad-hoc basis, depending on the destination and needs of the customer.

But Japan bucks this trend and is currently the third most popular self-drive destination for Singaporeans who make return trips to the country.

Mr Daniel Yong, 40, a secondary school humanities teacher, has visited Japan almost 10 times. He took a self-drive tour of central Japan in December 2012.

"Most of the time, the roads are good, the GPS is so easy to use, and if you do get stuck, the Japanese are so helpful that it is really not a problem to get around. Even if they do not speak English, they will call their friends to help them translate," he says.

Both his driving skills and Japanese courtesy were put to the test in 2012 when he and his friends got stuck in a blizzard while driving to Shirakawa-go, a village in Gifu prefecture.

Their car was stuck in the snow and had to be pushed out with the help of other people on the road. And while descending into a valley, a Japanese man had to take over the wheel and steer the car safely down icy slopes to their resort. He then took public transportation back to his town.

Despite the risks, Mr Yong does not regret his snow-saturated tour. "Self-drive trips are worthwhile if you want to explore various destinations off the beaten track, such as national parks, temples, little tranquil villages and rural areas where transportation is not so accessible," he says.

He has also taken self-drive trips to Australia and Bali. But even this adventurous traveller has his limits.

"I won't do self-drive in places like India and China because the roads are hazardous and GPS is not reliable. I would rather plan my own itinerary and hire a taxi to take me to those places instead," he admits.

vlydia@sph.com.sg


YUNNAN, CHINA

The Automobile Association of Singapore organises at least one self-drive tour a month to destinations such as Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and Japan.

One of its newest itineraries is a 15-day, 14-night self-drive convoy through Yunnan, China, which will take place from March 3 to 17 next year.

The trip starts in Kunming, Yunnan's capital city, where travellers will learn about Chinese road rules, get their licences approved and pick up their rental cars before starting their drive through one of China's most culturally and geographically diverse provinces.

Sharing borders with Tibet, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, Yunnan is home to 25 of China's 55 ethnic minority groups, many of whom speak dialects from Chinese, Tibetan and Thai language families.

The province's terrain is no less diverse and ranges from terraced rice paddies to tea plantations, pine forests to rainforests, mountains to plains, all of which can be seen on the tour, as well as Fuxian Lake, one of the deepest and cleanest lakes of China.

The cost of the tour includes round-trip flights on SilkAir, 12-day car rental, most meals and accommodation in mostly four- and five-star hotels.

Registration closes on Jan 16.

Length of trip: 15 days

Cost: Starts at $3,850 a person

Booking: Go to the Events & Activities page at www.aas.com.sg or e-mail aa-events@aas.com.sg


SHIKOKU, JAPAN

Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of Japan's main islands, but there is still plenty to see.

Stops on this self-drive tour of the island include Cape Ashizuri, where you can see Japan's largest lighthouse. Also visit Uwajima Pearl Factory, Japan's biggest pearl producer which, thanks to the clean waters of Uwajima Bay and the island's mild climate, produces some of the highest-grade pearls in the world.

The route continues past picturesque fishing villages to Matsuyama Castle, built in 1603 on Mount Katsuyama, from which you will see spectacular views of the island and the sea below.

Then head to Dogo Onsen, one of Japan's oldest and most famous hot springs for two days, and finish the trip with visits to two islands in the Seto Inland Sea, famous for their old-fashioned fishing villages.

The tour organisers, Follow Me Japan, will have a tour guide driving along the itinerary route to help travellers who need assistance.

Length of trip: Nine days, seven nights

Cost: Starts at $5,580

Booking: Go to www.followmejapan.jp


JEJU, SOUTH KOREA

South Korea's most popular honeymoon destination, Jeju Island, is an unexpected alternative to the high-tech hubs and shopping districts the nation is known for.

About an hour's flight south of Seoul, Jeju Island has some of Korea's most eclectic museums, such as the Jeju Teddy Bear Museum, Museum of African Art and Jeju Loveland, an outdoor sculpture park with more than 140 erotic sculptures for adult eyes only.

It is also home to the 1,950m Mount Halla, South Korea's highest peak, as well as beautiful sandy beaches.

Walk through the Manjanggul Lava tube, a 23m-high cave-like channel caused by a lava flow that left behind hardened lava stalactites and stalagmites, bridges and shelves as well as the world's largest known lava column which stands at 7.6m.

Another highlight is Seongsan Ilchubong, also known as Sunrise Peak. It takes only 25 minutes to walk to the 180m peak of the almost perfectly round tuff volcano, a popular spot to watch the sunrise.

These sights and more can be viewed during a free and easy tour of the island, organised by Chan Brothers Travel.

Length of trip: Four days, three nights

Cost: Starts at $598 a person for three nights' accommodation, three-day car rental and one-day tour. Price excludes flights to Jeju.

Booking: Call 6212-9679 or visit Chan Brothers Travel Asia Flexi Holidays at 150 South Bridge Road, 01-12 Fook Hai Building


TASMANIA

Some of Australia's most outstanding and pristine natural scenery, freshest produce and finest wine can be found in Tasmania.

Almost 45 per cent of the island state is protected within natural reserves, parks and World Heritage Sites, and one of the best ways to get around is by car.

Dynasty Travel has a 10-day self-drive package, with a suggested itinerary that starts in Tasmania's capital, Hobart, in the south. The journey ends in northerly Launceston, the second-largest city in the state.

In between, travellers can enjoy arts and craft fairs, a visit to the Cadbury Chocolate Factory and a tour of Barilla Bay Oyster Farm.

Also, stop to pick apricots, peaches, apples and pears when in season at Sorell Fruit Farm, stay overnight at Curringa Farm for a farmstead experience and learn to make beer at J Boag & Son Brewery.

There is plenty for nature lovers too. At the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, you can observe Tasmanian devils, or look for seahorses and platypus at Beauty Point. Hike around Cradle Mountain National Park and enjoy outdoor activities such as horse riding and canyoning. The package is available till March 31 next year, except from Dec 18 to Jan 20. Airfare, accommodation and car rental are covered in the package but it does not include rental of the car's GPS, which costs an additional A$15.40 (S$17.10) a day, or airport taxes.

Cost: Starts at $1,888 a person

Length of trip: 10 days

Booking: Go to www.dynastytravel.com.sg or call 6532-5455


TIBET

With the help of global positioning systems and a new self-drive route, the remote plateaus of Tibet are now more navigable for even timid travellers.

Chan Brothers Travel agency has arranged a hybrid self-drive and group tour package that lets tourists drive their rented cars in a convoy from the capital Lhasa to Mount Everest Base Camp and back.

The eight-day tour will start and end with days in Chengdu, in China's Sichuan province, and Lhasa. Travellers will take in cultural highlights such as the Wuhou Temple and Jinli ancient street in Chengdu and the famous Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Once they have acclimatised to the Tibetan altitude, travellers start the driving tour, which will cover 1,330km over four days.

The scenic drive will include stops in Gyantse to visit the famed Kumbum, mandala-shaped chapels at the Palcho Monastery; Shigatse prefecture, home to the magnificent Tashilhunpo Monastery founded in 1447 by Gendun Drup, the First Dalai Lama; Yamdrok Lake, the highest freshwater lake in the world; and the Karuola glacier before stopping at the Everest base camp where travellers may see the Tibetan antelope and the snow leopard if they are lucky.

Length of trip: Eight days

Cost: $3,333 including taxes, surcharges and round-trip flights on Air China

Booking: Call 6212-9686 or visit Chan Brothers Travel China Flexi Holidays at 150 South Bridge Road, 01-09 Fook Hai Building


IRELAND

With over a thousand years of history, Dublin has more than just pubs where you can get "craic", the Irish word for fun or news.

Explore Dublin's museums and art galleries before picking up your rental car and heading out into the verdant countryside.

Just a half-hour's drive out of the city and you will find rolling hills, quiet beaches, castles and fishing villages.

The suburbs of Dublin were home to beloved figures of English literature - including James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and W.B. Yeats - and a tour of the Emerald Isle might inspire you to write some poetry of your own.

A seven-day self-drive itinerary planned by ASA Holidays will take you through some of Ireland's prettiest countryside and villages.

See purple glens and domed granite mountains in Wicklow, the Garden of Ireland, then on to Kilkenny, Ireland's most authentic mediaeval town.

Kiss the Blarney stone at Blarney Castle outside Cork (according to legend, the kisser will become eloquent) and continue on to Adare on the River Maigue, a town which dates back to 1200 with original thatched cottages hundreds of years old.

The drive will also take you along a 175km stretch of road on the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry to Ireland's south-west with some of the country's most dramatic coastlines. It offers beautiful views of the Skellig, Deenish and Scarriff Islands and fiery sunsets.

The well-crafted trip includes stays in Dublin and Killarney and Galway.

Length of tour: Seven days, six nights

Cost: Upon request

Booking info: Go to asaholiday.com or call 6303-5303