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Why Self Drive Trips Are a Good Idea for Family Holidays

As parents, the idea of traveling with your infant or toddler can feel like an overwhelming proposition. You don’t want to put your life on hold while you raise your little one, but, at the same time, you don’t want to take a trip that will be more of a headache than an enjoyable experience.

Introducing your children to the world is an extremely rewarding experience. You will always cherish your time together and enjoy sharing your passion for travel and adventure with them. But it’s not always easy. In fact, sometimes traveling with your children can be quite challenging. I think that’s part of what makes it so satisfying. Like a mountain trekker reaching the summit after hours of painful climbing, the reward is not just about the view at the top or the ability to say “I did it.” The reward is the preparation and the journey, the unexpected moments in between.

That’s what is more interesting about road trips in East Africa. They make the journey the adventure, the destination secondary. For parents where Road trips were a big part of their childhood and some of their fondest memories. They are a wonderful way to spend time together as a family, travel on a budget, and see a lot of the countryside. Here are reasons why you should consider a road trip for your next family vacation and ways to make it possibly a success.

Choose your own adventure

Whether your drive takes you 100 km or 1,000km, you’re in full control over where you go and how you get there. Being in a safari vehicle allows you freedom to see the countryside and visit places you would not ordinarily visit. Adventure lies in the most unexpected places.

While on a road trip to Uganda’s largest reserve park, Murchison falls national park this summer, we had the freedom to visit whatever attraction we desired. As we drove down our 6 hour journey from Kampala (arguably one of the beautiful drive in the Africa), we constantly found ourselves pulling off along the way to view monkeys, Olive baboons, pull off at Ostrich Point, Rhino Sanctuary at Ziwa, scenic views through Budongo Forest, Top of a thunderous waterfalls. We would never have been able to stop at this incredible Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary if we were traveling by bus.

The great thing about road trips is that every day is different. Tomorrow brings new landscapes, new towns, new attractions, and new hotel rooms. This is exciting for little ones and parents, because every day becomes a new adventure. It also means that you can change your itinerary at a moment’s notice if you find something better to do. 

Schedules are not important

One of the most stressful parts of family travel is making your departure time. No matter how well you plan, you always feel rushed on travel days. Packing, feeding, cleaning, dressing — there’s never a shortage of things to do (and that’s before you start getting yourself ready). Planes and trains don’t wait for unpunctual families, so we often start “the process” several hours before departure time.

Road trips allow you to go at your own pace, removing the unnecessary stress that comes with strict departure times. On our summer road trip in Uganda, we had a set itinerary with planned activities for each day. But, as the trip evolved, our itinerary changed. We added stops, we removed stops. We decided to do a nature walk after breakfast instead of hitting the road.

What I love about road trips is that if your children (or you) are moving a little slower, you can push back your departure time and let things happen naturally. If you want to spend more time at a tourist attraction, no problem, take your time. This is your trip, so you get to call the shots.

Save money on flights

Now that we travel with children, your flight expenses will literally double. Although you may travel with a youngest under two years, at that stage he may be a curious little guy that can’t sit still for more than a few minutes. Because of this, you may need to purchase four seats when you fly so that he can have some space (and to give you a break from holding him for hours).

Purchasing flights for a family of four is not cheap. In fact, finding the money to pay for flights is often the biggest constraint that prevents young families from traveling. Domestic flights may be slightly cheaper. By removing this expense, you are able to stretch your travel budget further, allowing us to travel longer and deeper. Most road trips you take total less than $2,000, which means we can travel more often.

Starting a road trip from home or lodge allows you to use your personal vehicle or a self-drive 4×4 rental, so we eliminate the costs of a driver. Renting a vehicle can cost $80 per day, so taking advantage of using your personal vehicle saves you a lot of money.

Having a vehicle also allows us the freedom to stay at hotels or apartment rentals that are located outside of the city centre, which tends to save us considerable money on the price of accommodations and overnight parking (don’t overlook the cost of parking in the downtown core of a major city — it can be high per night!).

Travel more often

Building on the above point, by saving money on expensive airfare, we are able to have more travel experiences. Road trips don’t always have to be epic cross-country adventures that take weeks to complete; sometimes a weekend getaway a few hours from home is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Big trips to exotic destinations or remote tropical islands can sometimes feel unattainable when you’re caught up in the daily routine of raising your children, but that doesn’t mean travel has to stop. I’m sure you think of a few destinations within a 3-5–hour drive from your home that “you’ve always wanted to visit” but have never found the time. Why not make that city/beach/national park your next adventure?

The road trip mind-set allows us (and you) the ability to travel more, because it can be a last-minute decision that isn’t very expensive, especially if you plan to camp or stay with friends and family.

Pack what you want, not what you need

I love the amount of space we have when we take road trips. Traveling with young kids means you no longer travel lightly, so packing can be quite a stressful ordeal. Do we bring the playpen and/or portable high chair?

Packing for a flight forces us to make tough decisions on what is essential and what needs to be left behind. Young children are unpredictable, so having more clothes and “comfort toys” is ideal. Having a vehicle allows you to bring the questionable items “just in case.”

One of the questions asked most often is whether or not you travel with baby car seats. They are big, heavy, and awkward, so many parents struggle with the decision to rent a car seat at the destination or bring their own (to answer the question, we always bring car seats with us). A road trip with our personal vehicle eliminates this headache because the car seats are already set up.

Take breaks on your terms

Do you recall your first long flight? Did you have a “get me off this freaking plane” moment? I did. I felt suffocated and trapped. All I wanted to do was walk around and get some fresh air (not a good idea at 35,000 feet).

Children are no different. They need a break off the chair, they need to stretch their legs, and take a deep breath of fresh air. The problem is that young kids have a tough time understanding why they can’t get up and walk around or get off the plane (not an easy thing to explain to a two-year-old). Road trips allow you the ability to slow down and take as many breaks as possible, making the trip much more enjoyable to everyone.

Routine is important, so you try your best to drive long stretches during typical napping hours. When they fall asleep, we step on the gas and try to cover as much ground as you can. Children don’t like to be in the car for long stretches (who does?), so you try to plan breaks around the day’s activity or attraction.

Bring your own food — and save money!

Some children have severe food allergy, so it can be difficult finding restaurants that cater to his her diet. It’s a challenge even in country towns where we’re very familiar with the available options. Traveling with a vehicle allows us to stop at a grocery store or supermarket and purchase food items that have ingredient labels. This is very important too.

You bring a small cooler with you and load it up with food so you don’t have to rely on restaurants. Eating at a restaurant as a family of four typically costs us $20 – $30 in food store (without alcohol). If you eat out 2-3 times a day, that number adds up quickly. By purchasing groceries in bulk we save time and money, and it allows us to pull over and have picnics at random parks, which is always fun.

Spend quality time together

This is my favourite moments of road trips. Life is busy. You’re always plugged in and focused on what’s “out there” or you’re too busy working through your daily routines. Spending long periods of time together gives you the opportunity to unplug and connect with each other on a completely different level. We blast songs on the radio, play games like “I Spy,” and actually talk to each other. We love listening to their stories and learning how they process the world. Kids have a way of simplifying even the most complex situations.

I’ve often heard parents say that travel is too difficult and expensive with young children. While they may have perfectly valid reasons for this line of thinking, if travel is important then a fantastic solution is to load up the car and take a road trip. If you’ve recently said to yourself, “I need a vacation but the timing just isn’t right,” do yourself a favor and take a road. Open up a map, pick a destination including Africa where you’ve always wanted to visit, and go.

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