28 February 2009

make your own gear: finding clothing patterns

I often enjoy looking at other people's packing lists. On some of the Ultralight (UL) and super-ultralight (SUL) backpacking websites, you can read really interesting articles about people's efforts to cut the amount and weight of stuff down so that they can travel REALLY light. I look at these lists and think "Yes, but how much does all this cost?" Beside the weight column, I often wish they had another column: cost!

Because a lot of technology and experimentation goes into the high-tech fabrics and gear that people use for these sorts of exploits, the dollars add up pretty quickly! BUT if you make your own gear, this can considerably reduce the cost.

However, one of the most difficult aspects of making your own gear for travelling light is trying to find patterns to use. If you're like me and are incredibly jealous of those people who can draft their own clothing patterns, but are not able to do it yourself, you're going to have to find a suitable pattern from somewhere. Most of the regular clothing pattern companies don't really do patterns that are purpose-designed for outdoor gear, so you have to look further.

In my online travels, these are the ones I have found:
  • Jalie patterns. Jalie make contemporary ultra-multisize sewing patterns (from child to adult) for outdoor gear, sportswear (cycling, gymnastics, skating, swimming, and ballet), maternity and casual wear.

  • Green Pepper Patterns. Adult and children's outdoor clothing, and acccessories such as hats and bags.

  • Shelby Extreme Materials and Gear. Outdoor clothing tested by the Finnish Scouts! Both shareware and retail patterns.

  • Thru-Hiker.com. Kits for outdoor gear, including materials needed. Not available as patterns only. Forum community to help with construction and any questions.

  • Sew-Go patterns. Bags, tents, bike bags, sleeping bags, clothing, etc.

  • Controlled Exposure Patterns. Hat, gloves, gaiters, pants.

  • The Rainshed. Books and patterns for outdoor gear.
If you know of other patterns for outdoor gear, please let me know, and I will add them to the list.

27 February 2009

Why Tom Bihn's Aeronaut bag is a work of design genius

I think I've mentioned that in my everyday life I am a designer. I am trained as a graphic designer, and regularly employ my skills as a book designer in publishing my own books. However, I primarily work as an embroidery designer. Because of that I have pretty good sewing skills, and occasionally try my hand at drafting my own patterns. (Oh, how I would LOVE to do a pattern drafting course to really understand garment construction...!) I think I have also mentioned that I am currently working on designing my ideal bag for my personal requirements.

With all that out of the way, by way of background, I now come to my main point:
Tom Bihn's Aeronaut bag is a work of design genius.
Now let me tell you why.

Good bags are made to last. The ones that last are the ones that don't develop spots of particular wear, because that's where holes are most likely to develop.

The places that are most likely to wear are along the edges. Most bag manufacturers get around this problem by putting vinyl piping along the edges. This is pretty ugly, and also adds to the weight. It does counteract the wear in those places though.

A far more stylish solution is to build it into the bag so that there are no sharp corners.

Let's think about your regular suitcase. Its basically a rectangular prism. (fig a)

Its pretty easy to round off some of those corners by rounding the corners of the end panels. (fig b) However, that still leaves us with a sharp edge at the ends. (fig c)

So how can you round that off as well?

Ok, shift your mind to thinking about a tennis ball. (fig d) It is covered in that weird felty sort of fabric. Its a sphere, but its covered in only two pieces.

By creating two curved, interlocking pieces (fig e), you can cover the whole tennis ball in two almost flat pieces of fabric (not completely flat, because felt has a bit of give, and will stretch somewhat around the ball shape too).

This is what Tom Bihn has done with the ends of his Aeronaut bag. By curving the ends of the bag body into the end panels, he has managed to round off all the edges and corners of the bag. Pretty clever!

Seams add structure to a garment or in this case, a bag. You end up with a double thickness of fabric along the inside of the seam, in the form of a seam allowance. Along the length of the seam, this double thickness of seam allowance gives body. Tom has seams along (or near) most edges of the bag, which helps to give the bag structure, helping it to hold its shape.

However, seams are also naturally weak points across their joins. Its because they have only sewing thread to hold them together, which is not nearly as strong as the woven fabric itself. In looking at the Aeronaut, one of the things I noticed was that most of the seams are curved. I figured there had to be a reason for it. (You wouldn't do it just for fun, because it would actually make sewing the bag together considerably harder, and time is money...) However I realised that by curving the seams, Tom has cleverly moved them away from any absolute edges of the bag (which are rounded anyway) to reduce the impact of these weak points being on the edges.

In having the separate end compartments, he has created "baffles" (by use of the internal walls) which also add structure to the bag, making it stronger and less likely to bulge outwards. Bulging can be a concern for any soft-sided luggage, but the baffles cleverly help to minimise it.

I can see all of this just from analysing the pictures on the Tom Bihn website. I've never even seen one of these bags in the flesh, yet I can tell the guy is a genius. I take my hat off to him.

So the question you're probably asking is, "If you love it so much, why don't you just buy one?" The answer to that, my friend, is that unfortunately the genius Aeronaut is way too long for the maximum legal carry-on of the airline that I most regularly fly with. :-(

more on packing cubes

Have been reading up more about packing cubes. (Mesh packing cubes from Magellan's shown right.)

One really good case FOR them is that when your bags are searched by airport officials, they don't mess everything up so much, because they can simply take out the cubes and put them each through the scanner.

I reckon that even though we use Doug Dyment's wonderful clothes packing method, the whole bundle could still be put into a packing cube to keep them neatly bundled.

I DO like the idea of everything being nicely sectioned off, so that all the little things don't fall to the bottom of the luggage. I'm really getting close to wanting to try them.

Now, I wonder if they could help me organise my office and keep it nice and tidy...?! Maybe that's going a bit far...

26 February 2009

The Bookworm and Bendy

I'm sick of typing "our eldest daughter" and "our youngest daughter". It is too unwieldy, and doesn't read very personally. So we're creating mysterious avatars for them. 

Our eldest daughter is a voracious reader, so she's The Bookworm. 

Our youngest seems to be completely made of rubber, and can fold herself in half - so she's Bendy.

25 February 2009

Make your own gear: windshell

I have finished making my windshell out of the pertex fabric.

It looks a little crushed because I'd just taken it out of its stuff sac just before the photo. It squishes down to be wonderfully tiny, as you can see from it in its stuff sac.

The completed windshell jacket weighs just 93grams including its little sac. I was really pleased with the result.

The pattern I have used is a free pattern from Shelby Extreme Materials and Gear, called Vuokatti. I stumbled across the Shelby website, while looking for something else. I then noticed that they had some patterns for sale, and THEN noticed that they had some for free. I looked through them and decided that I would be able to adapt the Vuokatti pattern to make what I wanted.

Vuokatti is actually a pattern for a knit top, with no zip. Because I wanted to use woven fabric, instead of a knit, I first did a test from some similar fabric to see that the fit was ok. I needed to make a few adjustments to make the less "male" and more female in shape. I also needed to adapt it to put the full zip down the front.

Am really happy with the result, particularly that it compacts so well, and is so light. This afternoon we are supposed to be having some light showers, so I look forward to seeing how water-resistant it is. Pertex fabric is not waterproof, but is water-resistant. It will be interesting to see how it goes, but any water-resistance is basically a bonus, because that's not the point of this item of clothing.

The idea of a windshell is not that it is water-proof - that would be a different piece of clothing. A windshell is to cut the amount of wind that goes through one's clothing, the idea being that if you cut the windchill, you make yourself much warmer. My plan therefore is that I will be able to wear this over the top of my other clothing so that I cut the windchill.

Taking into account the amount of fabric I have used, the zip, the binding and the thread, my jacket has cost me the princely sum of $AU20 - a huge saving on what you might pay retail.

24 February 2009

Kids, toilets and other yukky bits...

A very important consideration for any parent with young children is toilets! Public toilets can be difficult or even impossible to find, so one often needs to think ahead.

Firstly, explain to your children that finding toilets is going to be difficult, and they are going to need to give you as much warning as they possibly can, when they need to go. Then, they might need to hang on for enough time for you to locate a suitable toilet. Also, if they need to sit down, they will have to wait long enough to put toilet paper on the seat. You just don’t know how clean these things are...

Secondly, before you leave anywhere where there are toilets, such as a hotel, museum, shopping centre, cafe, make the kids go - whether they need to or not. You are the parent - tell them to!

Then, when you arrive anywhere where there are toilets, ask them if they need to go. When you are leaving, make them go again. When there are no likely locations, look for public libraries, museums, galleries, McDonalds, cafes, restaurants etc. Keep in mind that it is good manners to purchase at least something from any eatery whose toilets you may need to use. And if these options still do not present themselves, look for pay toilets (oh, I shudder to think of them) or find a quiet corner in a quiet street or garden (hey, the locals do it!). You might like to keep a small quantity of toilet paper with you in a ziplock bag for such eventualities. You’d be surprised how helpful people can be when you have a child who desperately needs to go.
After all, they don’t want the little surprise on their floor.

We haven’t yet encountered any squat toilets with our kids, and I can only imagine how “interesting” that will be.

As a dad with daughters, accompanying my kids to the toilet in different countries can be fraught with difficulty. As most dads will testify, men's public toilets are not a great place to take children - especially little girls. Our local shopping centre has "Parent's Rooms" specially set up with baby change facilities and kid-sized toilets, and Dads - as well as Mums - freely use them, this is not the cultural norm in many societies. While in transit in Dubai airport, I did wonder about asking the concierge where I could take my daughter when she needed her nappy changed just to see what the reaction would be (I was obviously bored...).

My best advice would be - if they are available - to use the disabled toilet facilities located separately from both the male and female toilets. 

And just to brag, we took our very young daughter to the Art Gallery of NSW. She needed to have her nappy changed, and the only baby change facilities available were in the female toilets. After enquiring politely where a dad might take their child (met by baffled looks, and stammered half-apologies that such a facility didn't exist), I made a written complaint in the gallery visitor's comment book. We recently visited again, and I was gratified to note that baby change facilities have since been installed in the men's room. One point for the dads!

If you are early on in the toilet training process while on holidays, keep the child in nappies (diapers). It will be less traumatic for them, and you won't have to deal with bedwetting. Make sure you take half a dozen or so, so that you have plenty of spares.

Vomit. Ah, yes, we can plan all we like, but we are helpless in the face of vomit. Tummy upsets are caused by all manner of things: badly cooked food, something in the water, overheating, car sickness (or seasickness, air sickness etc.), poor hygiene and any number of micro-organisms designed to wreck a good holiday. But once your kid has it, there are a few things you can do to help.

  • Be able to locate a pharmacy. Travel guides often tell you what the local version of a pharmacy looks like. You may not speak the language at all, but sign language can communicate a lot.
  • Boil your water, or buy water in fully sealed bottles. Make sure your kid doesn't get dehydrated. Use water purifying tablets if necessary.
  • Rest as much as possible. If car sickness is the issue, take breaks, wind down the window to let fresh air in, and don't let them put their head down (e.g. reading, drawing etc.).
  • Watch what they eat, and don't give them anything too rich, spicy or fibrous. Bland is best. We fed our unwell daughter orange juice and hot chips in Singapore and paid dearly for it. So did the hotel housekeeping staff, who had to change the cot sheets. Sorry...
  • Don't make them do too much. This might mean missing out on a particular sight, but your child's health is important. Our daughter had the opportunity to vomit at the Tower of London. As a result, Yvette didn't do the tour, but spent an hour or so sitting in the not unpleasant grounds inside watching the ravens and the Yeoman Warders. Find something "low impact" to do: sit by a river, in a town square, on a beach and watch the world go by.
Dealing with the yukky bits is part of being a parent - you've just got to take the necessary precautions so the yukkiness is minimised on holidays.

23 February 2009

Self-catering: How do we do it?

OK, so one of the best parts of the travel experience is surely the experience of food. In a previous post, we mentioned kids and restaurant behaviour. We love to take our kids to restaurants so they can experience dining out, as well as experience the local cuisine. But it can be expensive, and add to the general unsettledness that kids feel when away from home. We have found that self-catering in our hotel room is possible, though it calls for a LOT of creative thinking!

To prepare for the self-catering experience, here's what we take with us:
  • 4 x plastic plates
  • 4 x plastic bowls
  • 4 x plastic cups
  • 6 sets of disposable picnic cutlery
  • 1 x flexible cutting mat (ours is actually a Tupperware freebie giveaway cutting mat)
  • 1 x washing up brush
  • concentrated washing up liquid (less than 100ml, to comply with LAG regulations)
  • a universal sink plug
  • 1 x quick dry face washer to use as a teatowel
Naturally, we have weighed everything - and we never buy expensive items. We had two bowls cracked through careless baggage handlers when we used to do checked luggage, so it all has to be cheap. We went with disposable picnic cutlery because we really didn't know if it would be confiscated at customs: it wasn't (and we went through baggage screening in Sydney, Hong Kong, Paris, Lisbon and London).

Here's some things we have done. Firstly, find a supermarket, general store, or similar near to your hotel. For example, in Seville, we found a small shopping centre about 5 minutes walk from our hotel. In Paris, we used small stores such as boulangeries, greengrocers and cafes. Even in Tahiti, where we stayed at a very plush hotel, we walked about 20 minutes to the local Carrefour supermarket (where the cheese counter was breathtakingly huge, and stocked full of French cheeses. Mmmm...!).

These sorts of stores are the self-catering key to success. Secondly, scope out your hotel room for possible equipment bonuses. Sometimes they have fridges. OK, so these aren't always very cold, but they open up the possibilities. A few have had microwaves - but they are a rarity. Many have tea and coffee facilities, including either a kettle or a coffee machine. The equipment provided will dictate the limits of your catering options. 

One of the key appliances will be a kettle. There's a lot you can do with boiling water. For someone like me, the main thing is a decent cup of tea. If the hotel lacks tea-making facilities, I buy my own tea at the supermarket. In Portugal, we purchased a cheap kettle at a supermarket for the whole journey, then 'donated' it to our last hotel room. There are all sorts of substances in packages that you can turn into meals (or partial meals) simply by adding boiling water. These include soups, noodles and rice dishes.

When in America, we had to make do with the ubiquitous filter coffee machines. We had to run boiling water through them quite a few times to reduce the coffee taste! And I did wonder whether you could actually cook on the hotplate that sits underneath the coffee pot - though that's probably a safety hazard!

We boil fresh water each night and pour it into our 1 litre collapsible water bottles to cool down in preparation for use the next day. Boiling the water is a safety precaution against picking up some bugs or diseases, though obviously in some destinations you would need to do more than that to get safe drinking water.

In addition to a kettle, when we finally arrive at our longest land-based section of the holiday, we buy some cutting knives. We got a packet of two perfectly adequate vegetable/fruit knives in a Lisbon supermarket for only 0.50 eurocents. We use these for cutting fruit, vegetables, cheese, bread rolls - anything at all, really. Buy some knives - they are incredibly useful. Obviously we can't take them on planes any more...

We also usually buy the cheapest roll of plastic food wrap, so we can contain any partly used food - half tomatoes, cheese etc. An alternative to this is ziplock bags that can be washed out when used, ready for re-use.

Food ideas we have used successfully:
  • Barbeque chickens (either hot or cold)
  • Fresh bread rolls / baguettes / sliced bread
  • Salad vegetables, such as tomato, lettuce - things which may not need refrigeration for a day or two if we don't have a fridge
  • Some just-add-water rice or noodles
  • Fresh fruit
  • UHT milk, which doesn't need refrigeration. We spent two weeks in New England and Quebec surviving on powdered milk. By the time we got to our last week in New York we were positively craving fresh milk. Our walk to the supermarket each afternoon for a litre or two was a delicious treat.
  • fruit juice in resealable cartons or boxes
  • cheese (it doesn't always need refrigeration. The fromagerie we visited in Paris had hundreds of cheeses, NONE of which were refrigerated)
  • tinned beans (a cheap alternative source of protein, instead of meat) with ring-pull lid - or you will need to buy a tin opener
  • breakfast cereal
Sometimes we have purchased items such as yoghurt, fresh milk or ice-cream late in the afternoon - on the way back to the hotel - with the intention of eating it that night for dinner. In Paris, we were fortunate to have a cafe across the street from our hotel, where we were able to buy fresh croissants each morning for breakfast. Be sure to take advantage of opportunities like that!

Take note of the packaging that your food comes in. Sometimes it can be transformed into something very useful, such as a storage container. We bought some cherries which came in a plastic box with a flip-top lid: and the box became a perfect holiday food storage container after we washed it up.

Obviously, once in the hotel room it can be a bit tricky to prepare all this food. The little writing tables sometimes provided are not designed to be as spacious as your kitchen! If chairs are provided in the room, we usually insist that the kids sit at the table to eat. This helps to contain the mess. Having them eat from plates delicately poised on their laps, or sitting on one of the beds is, to us, just asking for trouble. And trouble is what we try to avoid.

Washing up is done in the bathroom sink. Some hotels provide huge benchtops in their bathrooms. Make the most of these. Some provide little more than the sink itself. Either way, if your kids are old enough, they might need to pitch in to help clean up because there probably won't be room to neatly stack the washing up. Taking a universal sink plug is a good idea. Once we had a hotel room with a plug that didn't seal the hole very well, and found washing up frustrating to say the least. We also use some of the boiling water from the kettle to ensure that the water is hot enough to remove greasy food residue and to prevent bacterial growth on the plates.

22 February 2009

Self-catering: Why do we do it?

There are five basic reasons why we self-cater when travelling with kids. 
  1. It is affordable. Restaurants are not usually cheap, and this is compounded when you have to rely on them for most meals. Breakfasts in hotels - even budget, chain hotels - can be quite expensive, though admittedly the convenience they offer is sometimes unbeatable.

  2. It gives your kids a sense of the "familiar", and it can keep fussy eaters happy. If you ever hear “But I don’t like any of this stuff”, you'll know what we mean. In a new country where the food is different, you’re bound to get this with most kids. Give them something they know, and they’ll be much easier to keep happy. That said, we do like to make the effort to eat the local cuisine wherever possible.

    Recently we kept the kids happy by choosing an Italian/Portuguese restaurant in Portugal. The kids enjoyed a pizza, and we got to try the delicious local Portuguese food. We also figure that when the kids are older (or when we are older and travelling without them), that will be a better time to sample local delicacies.

  3. It is great when the kids are tired. Dining out with tired, grumpy kids is not fun. In any way, or for anyone. Preparing your own food in you hotel room, at a time convenient to you, takes effort but is actually quite liberating. You can feed them and get them into bed quickly, and not share their little meltdown with the rest of the known world.

  4. It makes dining out less of a chore and more of a treat. We have had many wonderful experiences dining out with our kids. They have (almost) always been made to feel welcome in restaurants. Indeed, some have gone out of their way to make them welcome - provided activities, waiters playing silly games with them, modifying menu items etc. But this is partly because they are not having to endure that environment every night. They can't always be "on show" or "on their best behaviour". But sometimes they can be. We do eat out when travelling - about every third night, or maybe a big lunch.

    Almost every restaurant we have dined in has welcomed our kids - and we have to thank self-catering for that, because it becomes a treat, not a chore. I would like to (but won't) name-and-shame a certain restaurant along Brompton Road, South Kensington (between the V&A Museum and Harrod's) for the appalling way we were treated simply because we had a child in tow (and only one extremely well-behaved child, too, not both of them). But in the main, self-catering gives dining out a better chance of being a pleasure.

  5. Self-catering allows you to monitor your kids' diets a bit more. Before we took up self-catering, our eldest once lived off hot chips for three weeks. We shouldn't have let her. Self-catering means we don't give them that option every meal.
I don't know whether hotels really approve of self-catering, but I don't really care either. We make sure never to leave a mess, though there's usually a tell-tale food smell. We could just have easily brought a pizza back to our room, so how are they to know the difference - apart from the stuff that's in the bin... 

We do it to make life a bit easier all round: easier on the kids, on our sanity, and on our pockets.

21 February 2009

Make your own gear: travel clothes

Sewing is something of a lost art these days, but for those who like me do still sew, it can be frustrating to not be able to easily buy those special fabrics that you want.

When we took our last trip overseas, because we wanted to travel light, we took clothes with us that were specifically designed to dry quickly. (If you take less, you have to wash more often... or just stink.) Now pretty much any nylon or polyester of a light weight will dry quickly, but many will also be like living in a sauna in hot climates, because they often just don't breathe.

There are lots of high-tech new fabrics out there that have been carefully engineered to wick moisture away from the skin - making you feel drier and more comfortable - AND also dry quickly, and with a minimum of wrinkling. These are the holy grail of fabrics for travel clothes.

Of course, you can just go out and buy a purpose-made travel wardrobe, but these items of clothing tend to be expensive. And for kids, the clothing can be almost impossible to find! Sure, you can often get fleece clothing and maybe raingear for kids, but other clothing is a bit harder to come by.

So I solved this by making clothes out of these high-tech fabrics for my kids last time. Sounds simple, but finding the fabrics can be really difficult, especially in a country like Australia. While the manufacturers can easily enough obtain these fabrics, because they buy in bulk, buying these fabrics retail by the yard or metre can be quite hard!

Where to get wicking, quick dry, wrinkle-free fabrics:
  • Try looking on eBay. This can mean hours of trawling, and its quite difficult if you're not sure what you're looking for. Then once you find something that looks promising, it can be difficult to know exactly what you are getting. You just have to hope for the best sometimes, if you decide to go this route.

    I recently purchased some fabric on eBay that was said to be Pertex, which is a breathable DWR (durable water repellant) fabric that I intend to make into windshells. Now apparently Pertex cannot be purchased retail. So I'm not sure where this fabric came from, or even if it really IS Pertex. However, now that I've received it, I've tested it out - I can breathe through it easily enough, and water flicked onto it just balls up and runs off. So whether it is Pertex or not, it does what I want it to, so I'm happy. And it was a good price. :-) I'll get several windshells out of the 10 metres that I bought for less than $100, instead of paying hundreds for a shop-bought top.

  • For our last trip I bought a load of fabric from Rose City Textiles in Portland, Oregon, USA. They specialise in selling closeout fabrics from large domestically produced sportswear companies. They first sent me a small range of samples which I had chosen from their very large range. Then I evaluated them for what I wanted, and sent in my order. Rose City Textiles were a pleasure to deal with, and my order arrived quickly and in good condition.
There are many other fabric retailers catering mostly to the outdoor/adventure/backpacking type community, that you can also purchase from, though I haven't found any anywhere other than America and Canada. Maybe that's the subject for another post. Australia sorely needs a retailer like this.

If you have had some success purchasing high-tech fabrics for your travel clothing needs, please let me know who you dealt with, and what you liked about them. It would be great to put together a list of these sorts of companies as a resource for all of us.

Happy sewing!

20 February 2009

More happiness gained from experiences

I heard on the radio the other day that a study has been done that shows that more happiness is gained from experiences than from things.

Say you were to receive an unexpected windfall. Don't rush out and buy that new plasma screen TV (there's nothing to watch on TV anyway!) Apparently it will make you happier if you spend your money on experiences, such as a meal with friends or family, a holiday, or seeing a movie.

We have made the conscious decision not to send our kids to private schools (with all their associated fees) so that we can instead take big family holidays. For us, we would much prefer to enjoy travelling with our kids and utilising the education that living life provides. We don't have a TV, we don't have mobile/cell phones. We figure that we would prefer to spend our money on creating fun family memories with our kids.

If you think about it, it does seem to make sense. When we buy something new, like a new computer, a new car, a new item of clothing, it usually only holds our interest for a period of time before it becomes outdated or obsolete, or just doesn't "do" it for us anymore.

Shared experiences, on the other hand, provide special memories. Memories last a lifetime (except when we forget them...!)

Its nice to see that perhaps we are on the right track - indulging in experiences is likely to provide our family with much more happiness.

19 February 2009

make your own gear: luggage without wheels

On our last trip we adults took a wheelie bag each, that converted to a backpack. I find that having a backpack is essential when travelling and needing to hold children's hands. Sure its great for stairs and things like that, but my prime love is for how it helps me maintain my children's safety.

I have been thinking that I'd like to ditch the wheels.

I walk everywhere when at home, and I always carry a backpack on my back. This is a product of pushing a stroller for many years - a backpack just suited me best for carrying things.

So I've been thinking that if I want to reduce the weight of what I take on holidays with me (and I certainly do!), one big way to do that is to lose the wheels, because in so doing, you don't only lose wheels but the whole handle structure of the bag that goes with them. That certainly reduces the weight.

I've been looking at bags. One website that I have been particularly taken with is Tom Bihn Bags. I love the look of their Aeronaut bag. It seems to me to be fabulously practical. It has a main central section and two separate end sections. It can be hand held like a normal suitcase, used with a shoulder strap (I cannot fathom why you would do this - it would be dreadful for your back!), and when the stowable backpack straps are whipped out, it can be carried like a backpack. This is what I would do. I like the way it has inbuilt sections. This would help to stop all the little "bits" falling around in a bag that is anything but completely full. I don't want to have to travel with my bag full, so this is a consideration for me.

However, it is TOO big for me. I often travel with Virgin Blue (an Australian airline) when I travel for business, and the Aeronaut is way too big for their maximum carry-on size. Of course, I would not be wanting to check my bag if at all possible, so this too is important to me.

There are a couple of other changes I would prefer to be made to the lovely Aeronaut, to suit my needs too. Like it would be good if the compartment sections could be zipped down to fold them out of the way if you did want to use the bag as a one or two compartment bag - if you had something long to carry, for example. And it would be interesting to see whether one of the end sections could be collapsible, for the sake of travelling on Virgin Blue with its very short maximum length.

But I really like the functionality of their design. And they look to be exceptionally well made.

I am quite handy with fabric and a sewing machine (in my work life I am an embroidery designer) so now I am considering designing and making my own bag just for me and my personal requirements. My brain has therefore been working overtime on this little design dilemma (a good dilemma though!)

I have looked and looked at all the bits I would need. Things like fabric, zips, buckles and attachmenty sorts of things. I can get everything locally except for water-resistant zippers - IF I decide to go for water-resistant zippers. And if I don't then I still want YKK zips because apparently they are the BEST, and I still need to find them locally.

And all for a lot less than it would cost me to import one of the gorgeous, luscious Tom Bihn bags. Of course their bags are designed and constructed by people who have been doing it for years. They have knowledge and expertise that I don't have. No doubt they have made and fixed lots of mistakes to come up with the designs that they now have. I don't have the luxury of all that, but still, I reckon I can make a sturdy, well constructed bag that suits my needs.

I'm certainly willing to give it a go.

18 February 2009

Driving and kids

So here in Australia we drive on the left. Sensibly, they do so in the UK and Ireland - so it isn't that challenging to make that transition. 

Much of the rest of the world drive on the right, with the car steering wheel on the left, and the gearstick on the right of the driver, and the windscreen wiper and indicator levers switched over. This takes some getting used to. Driving straight ahead is fine, but turning corners (at intersections) is a major intellectual challenge to prevent turning onto the wrong side of the road. Learning to drive a car in "mirror image" is enough of a challenge without having to deal with kids as well.

On our trip to the USA and Canada, I drove from Albany in New York State to Quebec City, Canada through Vermont - and back. I picked up the car at Albany airport and it was pouring with rain. We also pretty quickly faced the horrific "spaghetti" of the freeways on the fringe of the city. Not a great start for basically a jet-lagged learner driver with two kids in the back. So how do we manage it?

1. The driver makes the rules, and all the passengers follow. The first rule (for the first day at least) is: no talking until I say so. That way I can concentrate on reading signs, taking directions from the navigator (a person that is, not a piece of electronic equipment) and generally finding my way. If travelling through the countryside, I tend to relax this rule after a little while - once I'm a bit more relaxed. But even then, talking must be quiet - and definitely no bickering or whingeing!

2. Have something for them to do. We pack a small bag of activities for them to do for the aeroplane, and this doubles as in-car activities. Books to read (though be wary of car-sickness), colouring-in, puzzle books, soft toys for imagination games etc. all make great diversions.

3. Towns and cities need concentration, especially when searching for accommodation or trying not to get tangled in the maze of streets that make up every medieval walled city in Europe! Kids need to understand that they are being helpful if they are quiet at this time, and that things will go much more smoothly if they co-operate. Our kids were extremely helpful in this regard when I got entangled in the streets of Seville and took ages to find my way out. They knew I needed to concentrate, and were extremely helpful in keeping the noise down in the back seat so I could get out of the maze.

4. Take breaks. This is as good for you as it is for the kids. Driving is tiring - Australians know this because we are accustomed to driving long distances. Get out of the car. Get some food. Find some grass or a park and let the kids run around. Kids cope with long drives so much better if they can have time to run around, rather than being cooped up in a car for hours and hours. If you are getting at all frustrated (whether because of the kids or some other reason), you need to take a break for your own sanity and driving safety.

5. If they're old enough, have the kids follow the trip on a map. They might like to work out how far there is to go, and be able to identify the towns along the way. They might be able to work out where you need to turn off the freeway in order to enter a town. Have them look out for parking spaces too - these can sometimes be difficult to find.

6. Try to never drive in really horrendous cities. That's why we picked up the car in Albany, and not New York City. Nor did we drive in Paris. We've driven out of Rome once, and into London (to drop off the car) on another occasion and learned from both experiences: just don't do it. It is not worth the stress. If you do, try arriving on a weekend. We serendipitously found ourselves driving into London on a Saturday and found the traffic - though bad - was better than it would have been during the week.

7. Learn to drive before you go. I drive a car with an automatic transmission at home. In Rome, we hired one with a manual transmission (to save money). In retrospect, I should have spent the extra and saved myself a huge amount of angst. I bunny-hopped that car out of Rome (with the police behind me laughing at my driving), and took 17 changes of lights to get it moving through one set of traffic lights in Tuscany. And I got it stalled under the toll barrier on the autostrada. Memorable experiences, but highly stressful.

8. Hire the smallest car you can for the number of passengers and luggage you have. It will be easier to find parking spots for it, and will most likely be more fuel efficient. A big 4WD or SUV is completely inappropriate in Europe: you will get stuck in the towns.

And if you're still not game, book organised tours - or get yourself a chauffeur!

17 February 2009

Why take the kids: the expanded version

We choose to travel with our kids for all sorts of reasons. We've done three long-haul overseas trips from Australia since the eldest was 20 months old, and we're not about to give up now. So why do it?

1. To see the world. Yeah, I know the world is full of pretty grim news. There are major crises, wars, disease, social ills of every kind, but the world is also a beautiful place. The natural world is awesome, the cultural world rich beyond description, and people everywhere are worthy of appreciation and respect. We have been shown tremendous kindness as visitors to other places by complete strangers, and this inspires hope in us that the world is not yet ready to blow itself to bits. The world is inherently interesting: socially, culturally, artistically, naturally.

2. To build our family. Travelling with our kids forges strong shared memories, and shared memories are one of the building blocks of family stability. Even long after our return from overseas, one of us will come across a picture of a place we have visited, thus setting off the "We've been there..." and "Do you remember when..?" reminiscences.

3. To show our kids that not everyone is like us, nor is everywhere like Australia. We have to face the fact that our little corner of the world is pretty good. Socially, economically and politically stable, with more than its fair share of affluence. We want our kids to grow up knowing that it is a privilege, and not a right, to grow up in our society. We want them to understand that not everyone has what we have, nor do they think the way we think. In fact, they might hopefully learn that less economically fortunate places have advantages that our kids will never have at home.

4. To help them appreciate differences in culture. Language, food, customs, beliefs, artistic and musical traditions, history, geography, climate, ecology. You name it, it's going to be different despite the best efforts of a certain superpower to create a global monoculture.

5. To challenge ourselves. In the first instance, we wanted to see if we could do it and survive. Now we do it partly to challenge ourselves to make the next trip a little better than the previous one - for us and the kids.

6. To introduce our kids to the iconic places and milestones in our own cultural heritage. Western culture comes in for a bit of a hiding from the media, but whether we like it or not it is the cultural heritage tradition to which our family is connected. This gives a not-very-politically-correct Eurocentricity to our heritage, despite living across the globe from Europe. But the roots of our culture, our laws, religion, art, music, language and history come from thousands of miles away in places we have - mostly - never seen. We are newcomers to Australia - arriving here a little over 200 years ago. Being proudly Australian I still want our kids to know our roots since it is patently false to claim that our roots are "from here".

7. Because there is so much to learn - and experience is a great teacher. Sure, we could stay at home and pore over glossy art books to get a sense of art history, or go to Virtual Pompeii on the internet, but there's nothing like reality to inspire and teach. I own dozens of books, on all sorts of subjects, but there's nothing like standing in a place and thinking, "Now I know what this is really like". Books, TV and the internet are great tools, but real life experiences can't be beaten to teach a kid (or an adult!) something.

8. Because our kids are part of our family, and are therefore our responsibility. Just because we're going overseas doesn't give us the right to abrogate our responsibilities for looking after them completely or farm them out to relatives. We have an obligation to include them in our family experiences, and that includes the big travelling trips. They are not our "optional extras" or "accessories".

9. Because sometimes they are useful to take! Everything from skipping queues in customs because of a screaming child to the fact that our then 7-year-old read important information on a sign in Hong Kong airport about baggage security that neither of us adults saw!

So, if you can manage it take your kids with you. Travelling with them IS different to travelling just with adults, but there is a lot to be gained by doing so.

16 February 2009

Kids and the Louvre: a survival guide

The Louvre, or any other major museum (the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the British Museum etc.) need special thought when taking the kids.

These places are packed. Packed with people, and packed with things to see. The crowd in front of the Mona Lisa is ridiculously large all the time, and overwhelming for adults let alone the children.

Before you travel, visit the website for any of these museums, and identify all of the exhibits that you really want to see. The websites usually have floorplans, so use them to map out the location of these exhibits. There are often online "collection highlights" guides so you can see what the best exhibits are - particularly useful if you know nothing about the museum before you go.

Aim to see the exhibits on your list, but keep an eye on the ones you pass on the way. These will be bonuses you can add to your experience. We had a very small 'hit list' for the Louvre, despite being art-aware: the Mona Lisa (a bit cliche, I know, but it was our first visit), the two Slaves by Michelangelo, and the Nike of Samothrace were the top three. Connecting them, however, we discovered the Coptic Gallery, the Greek red- and black-figure vases, ancient sculptures, and European painting from the Renaissance. 

The Louvre contains many other glorious exhibits worthy of further exploration, but we saw those things most important to us, got in a few bonuses, and got out with no complaining from the kids.

A similar technique worked well at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but we failed to use it at the Natural History Museum and boy did I pay for it with the whingeing...

Wandering aimlessly, especially with kids, is a certain path to mental instability. It might start out as fun, but it won't end that way.

15 February 2009

Normal is what you make it

When we travel, we expect to do a lot of things that we don't do at home. Otherwise there is little point in going. And we expect our kids to join in as well. This applies to eating "foreign" food, visiting museums/galleries/historic buildings, walking lengthy distances, travelling quietly on aeroplanes and in cars (so as to not distract the driver in the car) etc.

Many people say that you can't expect to take your kids to a whole heap of museums or they'll be bored. 


If you've always done it, it will be normal for them. Whenever you do it, they learn how to behave in such environments (e.g. not touching displays) and it is amazing at just how engaged even very young children can be in galleries and museums.

You generally just have to find something that they can relate to. Read the guidebooks or websites of the attractions and anticipate some things you are likely to see. I once created a treasure hunt booklet for our eldest daughter (then aged 5) so she could find particular things in various New York galleries. She loved it.

The same goes for eating out. If your kids do it from a young age, they will know what is expected and behave accordingly. Encourage, but don't force, your kids to eat the local cuisine if they really don't want to. Giving them a bit of your dinner might suffice to broaden their culinary experience - but don't just give in to fast food. We have forever regretted having dinner in McDonald's in Quebec City, despite there being several more-than-adequate kid-friendly eateries across the street. And when in the UK, our eldest daughter survived on a diet almost completely consisting of fries - we shouldn't have allowed that either.

Don't forget that the kids are still kids. Try to find some special treats just for them - a park, a visit to the ice-cream factory, Disneyland, the beach or whatever you find.

Don't expect too much. It's one thing to extend their cultural experiences, but quite another to expect things which are way beyond them.

14 February 2009

The pleasure is in the planning...

Travelling takes planning. Travelling with kids takes even more planning. I know some people will just cringe at the thought of meticulous planning - it does lack the sort of spontaneity that many travellers enjoy. But with kids, planning can avoid wasting huge amounts of time in queues, travelling between sights and other frustrations.

I love planning the holidays, almost as much as taking the holiday itself.

Here's (roughly) what I do.

1. We decide on a destination. Our current thinking is Greece and Turkey - whittled down from an epic journey through most of Eastern Europe.

2. Then we make a list of all the most worthwhile places to visit. As a guide, I use the UNESCO World Heritage List, and a couple of excellent books: 1001 Historic Sites You Must See Before You Die and 1001 Natural Wonders: You Must See Before You Die. We add to this anything of personal interest - for example, I have made a point of trying to see as many of Michelangelo's works as I can. I think I've only got four to go. We try to get a mix of natural and cultural places so that there's a good balance. We add to that any places that look interesting or unusual from our travel guides. The DK guides are great for this as they are pictorial as well as textual.

3. Get a map, and locate them all on the map.

4. To minimise travel, we find a centrally located cities and towns to form as a base. Sometimes, you just have to drive each day to get around the places you want to see. For example, we stayed in Seville as a base and travelled to Granada and Cordoba as day trips. It just saves repacking the luggage and hauling it around every day, and locating the new accommodation every day.

5. Join the dots. Link sights to their closest base town and estimate how many days will be required in each location, and how much time will be needed to travel between base towns.

6. We often do a lot of tweaking at this stage: trying to re-order the sequence in which we visit sights, or changing the route or direction of travel so that we spend the maximum time seeing the sights and less time on the road (or train / plane etc.)

7. Be prepared to leave something out if you just can't get it in. You will need to prioritise which sights are the "must see" ones, and which are a bonus.

8. Plan "vacant" days. You'll never know what you stumble across once actually travelling. In Quebec, we took an unplanned trip out to Parc Nationale de la Jacques Cartier and had a wonderfully relaxing day walking some of the trails and picnicking by the river.

9. Sometimes you're just going to have to drive (travel by train, etc.) to see those things you want to see. In our planning, we seem to have the uncanny knack of having "must see" sights which are located at the furthest extremities of our destination!

10. Map out the whole trip, including timing for travelling and every sight you want to see.

11. Check the opening hours, times and days for every sight. This is REALLY important so that you know you can actually get into a particular place on the day you are there. Sundays in Europe can be a bit tricky, and watch out for museums closed on Mondays (though some have different closed days).

12. Take into account what your children can cope with: jet lag at the beginning, general "down" time, sleeping, rest times and their walking limit.

13. Book ahead where possible. This limits time in queues - thus minimising fuss from the kids, and you get more time actually enjoying the sights. Where you cannot book ahead (such as the Eiffel Tower), plan to arrive before opening time. We had breakfast at the base of the Eiffel Tower and were first out of the lifts at the top. No fuss for us or the kids. Some useful "book ahead" ideas:
  • City Passes (e.g. Paris Pass - www.paris-pass.com) if you're wanting to visit a lot of museums etc.
  • Individual sights (we prebooked the Alhambra Palaces in Granada)
  • Ferries, especially car ferries (we prebooked the Stranraer - Belfast and Wexford - Fishguard ferries)
  • Tours which take in a number of places of interest to you
  • Hotels / B&Bs / Accommodation if you have special requirements, such as cots, family rooms etc.
  • Any shows you might want to see
  • Trains which require reservations. We have no experience using Eurail, so I can't comment on that, but we took the New York to Albany Amtrak service and we needed to travel at a specific time so prebooked tickets reduced stress and hassle
14. Map your driving meticulously. I have successfully used Google Maps for driving in Spain and Portugal, and MapQuest for the UK, USA and Quebec. Google Maps was very reliable for driving directions, though it does take a bit of time to figure out the street numbers, names, and scale of distances on the ground. Have a print copy for ease of navigation, and use a tiny font size to keep the whole document as small as possible.

Our last trip to Paris, Spain and Portugal was planned in great detail before we left. Some people wouldn't be comfortable with this, but we found that it worked brilliantly. It reduced our stress over unexpected inconveniences, and made travelling with kids inherently enjoyable. The kids appreciate the element of predictability that planning gives. We felt confident in what we were doing because we didn't have to do any planning on the run.

13 February 2009

more on bottle bags

I have been corresponding with the nice people at Sea to Summit about bottle bags (see earlier post) that hang from your shoulder on a strap rather than clipping onto your (in many cases non-existent) belt. They were so very kind to point out to me that Nalgene has a range of bottle bags already in existence.

Never having seen them in any Australian store that stocks Nalgene products, I headed over to Amazon to check them out, and see if there were any reviews. There are 4 different Nalgene styles with straps that you can see on the Nalgene website.

A look on Amazon showed that of the four that I could see on the Nalgene website, only one, the Nalgene 32oz Bottle Carrier with Big Pocket, is listed. Of the two reviews, one said it was no good for jogging - well I wouldn't have expected that as it would bounce around terribly. And the other said that it was bulky and not easy to use.

They are a little more substantial than mine, which has good and bad points. I do particularly like how lightweight mine are, and kids do like to carry as little as possible generally! However, theirs are more likely to be able to take a beating! One thing I do notice about them is that the strap attaches to only one side. That seems to me like it would make the thing hang a little funny, with weight going to one side. One thing about my design was because the straps went to both sides, it hung evenly.

Then I found another bottle bag - not Nalgene brand: Mesh 22 oz. Water Bottle Holder And there were once again two reviews, one of which found it terrible for jogging (well, yeah!) and the other which loved it. This one looks like it has the straps going from the top of each side, which will make it hang more evenly. It looks as though it would be much lighter than the Nalgene one too (Amazon says 1 oz as compared to about 6 oz for the Nalgene carrier). The shoulder strap isn't padded, which is a minus.

Then, there was another one that looked pretty good too, the Klean Kanteen Stainless Steel Water Bottle Shoulder Sling (27-Ounce Bottles). You're supposed to use it with a Klean Kanteen bottle (forgive me for never having heard of them...) but as one of the 31 reviewers for this product said, they'd been using other bottles in it quite successfully. Its a little heavier than the mesh one above (at 1.6 oz), and again doesn't have padding on the shoulder strap. The Amazon reviews are quite mixed, and actually a lot of people seemed to be reviewing the bottle, not the sling itself. Many found it very difficult to insert the prescribed bottle in the sling.

So, for all you people who don't have the skills to make your own, there are some shoulder bag style bottle bags already on the market. However, it seems they still may have a way to go before they are as good as we might hope.

Of the three reviewed above, my personal recommendation would be for the Mesh 22 oz. Water Bottle Holder.

12 February 2009

kids travelling with a (small) friend

Particularly for small children, travelling to unknown places can be rather disconcerting and unsettling. Despite the fact that we espouse the idea of travelling light, we believe that favourite soft toys and blankies are really important.

If your child is going to be in new surroundings their best soft toy friend or blankie from home can be a real comfort. It provides familiarity when all around seems alien.

We have a few rules:
  • the child may take only one “friend” and it must be small.
  • the owner is responsible for that friend at all times.
  • when leaving a plane, car, train, hotel or other accommodation, the child MUST be able to tell you where Bunny/Blankie/Dolly is at that moment, and preferably be able to SHOW you that it is in the luggage.
  • if we are heading out on a day trip, Bunny must stay at the hotel, to look after the bags. Bags can get very lonely... If it is a long drive in a hire car, Bunny may come, but has to stay in the car.
So far Bunny (below, aged 3 - still slightly pink - now nearly 8, and no longer pink) has been to 11 countries apart from Australia and is still with us.

11 February 2009

learning (at least some of) another language

On our most recent trip we travelled through three different languages: French, Portuguese and Spanish. In Australia, none of these languages are routinely taught in schools. In high school you might do one semester each of a few languages compulsorily, but other than that, languages are electives. Some primary schools offer a language as a pull-out subject. However most Australian schools do not have compulsory long-term learning of any language (other than English!).

What this means is that many Australians who are not immigrants and whose parents are not immigrants, do not speak any other languages other than English. Some will have a smattering of high school French or German or Japanese.

However, it is common courtesy to learn at least a little of the languages you will encounter on your holiday. My husband took several terms of French lessons at our local community college to revive his (actually excellent) high school French. Because of his efforts in French we were treated with great courtesy in Paris - even though Parisians are notorious for being rude and aloof.

We and our kids learned "please", "thank you", "hello" and "goodbye" for each language we encountered. We encouraged our children to use these words in the local language at every opportunity.The locals really appreciate people making an effort to speak some of their language.

In parts of Europe you can often find someone who will speak some English, but you can't count on it! Why should they speak English when it isn't their local language? They certainly don't have to! I can't really imagine what it would be like to come to Sydney from a French-speaking country and hope that you'll be able to converse in French. Its just not likely to happen.

It does also say a lot about language teaching/learning in Australia that it is such a low priority for us to learn other languages...

So, before you go, or even as you travel (if you have lots of different languages that you will encounter along the way) learn the basics and teach your children. The best way to learn another language is through immersion, and the best place to do that is a country where it is the local language.

10 February 2009

Getting your kids to choose what they want to see

I found a fabulous article on getting your kids to choose what they want to see.

The $ signs keep flashing in my head, but I REALLY like the idea of getting your kids involved even in the planning stages.

09 February 2009

Our top ten reasons to travel with kids

'Sisters' Batalha, Portugal.

I think that we could probably say that our kids are our very favourite travel items! There are many reasons why we choose to travel with our kids rather than leaving them at home with carers. 
  1. They are part of our family and we love to be with them.
  2. We love to create shared memories to make our family strong.
  3. They are cheaper to take when they are little, and in some places such as some hotels and museums, they are free!
  4. They are such sponges for information, and what better way to learn about the world than by experiencing some of it?
  5. While they may not remember everything they saw or did, all the experiences will add to their knowledge base and be something to build other information on.
  6. They see the world differently to us, which can add to the richness of our experience.
  7. In many parts of the world, kids are more highly valued than in our culture, adding to the richness their of experience.
  8. Its always great to have your most special people with you when you experience amazing things.
  9. They can get you through customs quicker - customs officials often like to get families through quickly.
  10. Its great to be able to show your kids that the world is bigger than your own backyard - it broadens their horizons.

08 February 2009

wish list: digital travel guides

Our favourite travel guides are the Eyewitness Travel Guide series by Dorling Kindersley, probably because they're very visual, and so are we. The problem with these (and all other brands) is that they're so heavy. Who wants to lug around a whole heap (depending on how many countries you're going to) of heavy travel guides with them?

With the amazing uptake of netbooks over the past year or so (apparently about 1 in 10 laptop sales in Australia are now netbooks) when are DK going to release digital versions of their books so that they can be used on the computers or PDAs that people are taking travelling with them?

If they did release digital travel guides, it’s highly likely that we would end up buying both the paper version and the digital version. We'd use the paper one at home to browse through and use for armchair travel, and the digital one we would use on location.

On our last holiday we had just entered a new country with a different language and needed to find somewhere to buy some lunch. It was a Saturday afternoon in the country and it seemed like nowhere was open. We went to the tourist attraction that we planned to visit that afternoon, hoping that they might have a cafe (they didn't). Try as we might, we just didn't have enough of the language to communicate to the staff that we wanted to know where we could buy some lunch. We raced back to the car and started up the computer. We pulled up the file containing a scan of the phrasebook pages of one of our guidebooks. We were able to piece together enough words to communicate successfully what we were after.

Our computer saved the day, and it confirmed for us how useful digital guidebooks would be.

Other times, it would have been great to pull up detailed maps of where we were, or information about the place that we were visiting at that moment. Internet access isn't available everywhere, so having it all on tap would be great.

So DK, how about it? Eyewitness E-Travel?

07 February 2009

3 great travel games for kids

When you're travelling, the best games to take along with you are ones that you don't have to take anything for! The following three great games only involve your eyes, your brain and your surroundings. One assumes that you'll take your eyes and your brain with you anyway, and your surroundings are automatically provided...

One of the easiest games for travelling kids is I-Spy. The usual form of this game involves the words "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with [letter of the alphabet]". This is fine, as long as your kids are old enough to know their alphabet! So when our kids were little, we used to go with colours - instead of "something beginning with [letter]" we'd say "something that is [name of colour]". This way, as long as your child knows their colours, or even just some of them, this game can be played by younger and older children alike.

Counting things
When I was little my family went on lots of long road trips for our holidays. We used to look for windmills - not the Dutch kind - the Southern Cross kind. We'd count them all day long. Depending on where you are, you could count cows, red barns, houses (if you're a long way from anywhere!), billboards etc.

Southern Cross windmill.
Image courtesy of Matt Bridger, http://gallery.hd.org

My children like to count yellow cars. They've been doing this for about 18 months now, and in all that time, they've counted well over a thousand. Every time they see one, one or both of them yells "Ack!" (it has become lost in the mists of time why they yell this, but they do...) and then the older one adds it to the tally.

Licence plate games
You can also play number plate (licence plate) games. Depending on the combination of letters you can see on passing cars or on the car in front, you have to come up with a phrase using the letters of the plate, as the initial letters of each word in the phrase. e.g. IWP could be "I wear pyjamas", "I want pesos" or "it will pour". You could try to come up with the funniest or most unusual phrase.

Another option is to use the letters of the number plate in a single word, in the order in which they appear. For example: "EJY" could be "enjoying". "TRV" could be "travel".

All of these games can be used in the car, waiting at airports, waiting in queues, and when watching the world go by. Don't fall for the mistake of getting just the kids to play them. Grown-ups can join in too!

06 February 2009

packing cubes - are they any good?

I've been wondering about packing cubes. We've never used them.

Sometimes I think, "but they'll just add more weight to what we have to carry", but other times I think, "if we're carrying so little in order to fit under the weight limit, we're either going to need smaller bags, or some way of stopping everything from just tumbling around in the bag."

Just to be clear here, I'm not talking about vacuum type bags that squeeze everything down and take up less space. I'm talking about bags that help to organise the space in your bag. The ones shown left are eBags Packing Cubes from Amazon.

Last trip, our bags were mostly filled up with large emptiness i.e. the car booster seats (which were mostly air) took up a lot of space, and very little of the weight limit. If we'd filled the same space with clothes, the bags would have been much heavier.

Therefore, next time, without the booster seats, the bags are going to be much more empty, because we still can't go over the weight limit.

Because we use Doug Dyment's wonderful clothes packing method we have a nicely shaped bundle of clothes all together. But then there's just lots of little things that can float around the bag. When the bag gets stood upright, I figure that without the car seats, all the little things will fall to the bottom in a chunky mess.

This is where I wonder if packing cubes can help me. On many of the travel packing websites people rave about packing cubes. There are lots of different brands including Rick Steves, eBags and Eagle Creek.

I'm thinking that if I can convince John (my husband), we might try them on our next trip. Personally, I think that they would help to keep all the little things in order and in place. Would that be right, in your opinion?

05 February 2009

more about our packing list

Yesterday's post on our packing list showed you all the things that we took last holiday. So what did we find useless and what do we wish we had been able to take?

What we didn't need
As it turned out, we didn't go swimming anywhere, so the swimming costumes, the flotation device and the goggles were not needed. However, they're things that I would still take with us "just in case" next time, on a summer holiday. There would be nothing worse than wanting to have a swim and not being able to for lack of the right things! Next time though, we won't need the flotation device as their swimming lessons have brought their skills on quite a bit.

Travel Cluedo and Uno - we just didn't have time for these! Because we were out most of the time, if we were in our room, any spare time was taken up with writing in our diaries. Maybe if we'd been stuck in transit anywhere for a long time they would have been worthwhile, but they didn't even get opened!

Next time we may not need the booster seats - for us these are about our kids being short and not being able to see out of the car windows. We'll have to see how much they have grown by the time we next head off on a trip!

We didn't use the packaging tape, but I'd rather have it just in case. Because we're travelling light, you never know when it might be useful to be able to post something home. Packaging tape would be really useful for that. Of course, if push came to shove and something had to go, packaging tape would be top of the list!

What I would have liked to take
I've mentioned before that I'd love to have some small enough (less than 100ml to comply with Liquids-Aerosols-Gels restrictions) ice bricks to keep things cool when we are travelling. I still haven't been able to find any, but this morning on the Kathmandu website, I found a product that is worth searching out: ice mat coolers. It says that they are not available at all stores - yes, well I've certainly never seen them at our local store. They may not end up being the right size, but from the picture it looks like you could cut them down if you needed to. They'd have to be well labelled too, or the airport security people might not know what they are, and therefore prohibit them.

Next time we may take a Birko food and drink heater. We would use this for "cooking" in our room. Before going, I will need to work on and try out some Birko "recipes" to make sure that it will be useful enough to justify. Its not really heavy, but its not really light either, so I will need to weigh up (ha ha!) whether the weight is worth it for its usefulness. However, my aunt and uncle took theirs on several overseas trips and found it incredibly useful.

04 February 2009

favourite travel items: bottle bags

We've been on hot summer holidays before where we need to drink a lot of water. It felt like the whole time we were being nagged by kids for a drink, and it also was a pain having to lug around about 4 bottles of water. This time we decided it would be different: the kids could carry their own drink bottles.

I decided to make a little bottle bag pouch for each of them that they could carry over their shoulders and across their bodies. That way, they could have a drink when they wanted to, and we would only have to carry our own water. I used the same quick dry fabric as I made them each a pair of pants from. That way, if the water spilled it would dry pretty quickly.

I made a fabric tube a little bigger than the size of the bottle, and put a bottom on it. I then added a thin shoulder strap made from some fabric tape. Bottle bags, Mark I.

On their first use, it became apparent that the strap was a terrible design. It was the right length, but because it was so thin, it cut into their necks and was terribly uncomfortable. Hmm, a redesign was needed - and quickly!

Not having much to work with in our hotel room in Paris, I decided to use a pair of the airline socks that we'd been given on the plane. I wrapped them around the strap, and with some string I'd brought with me, I tied them on sausage-like, to create a little padding on the strap. Bottle bags, Mark II.

Next day this was evaluated as being better, but the strap kept making its way out of the sock wrapping. Further redesign was needed...

I pulled out my extremely valuable needle (valuable because I had managed to get it through airport checks!). I undid the ties, and re-wrapped the socks lengthways along the strap. I then stitched along the length of the sock to make it into a long tube. This was Mark III (see photo). It worked well for the rest of the holiday, and the bags turned out to be some of the best things we took with us.

Next holidays, I will revise the design to make it less make-shift and more professional looking, while still having a well-padded shoulder strap.

We have since used the bottle bags for day trips to the art gallery, and even just up to the shops. Not just useful for holidays!

Wish list: For the sake of those who don't have sewing skills, if anyone knows of somewhere you can purchase these sort of bottle bags, please let us all know in the comments section! And if you manufacture them yourself, I'd be pleased to evaluate such a product. I *have* seen ones that clip onto belts, but most kids I know don't wear a belt to clip one onto. I think a shoulder bag style bottle bag is much more preferable for kids.

Travelling light with kids: packing list

When you travel with kids you can take a ridiculous amount of STUFF with you. BUT, you don't have to! We find that travelling light with kids is completely liberating. There's less stuff to lug around, and there's less stuff to lose. We think it is the best way to travel!

It definitely makes it easier if you have a packing list to work from, as you can check that the things you need are in, and everything else is optional and probably could/should be left at home. Take your packing list with you, and use it to check that you've still got everything with you along the way... nothing left behind in hotel rooms or cars or on planes or trains!

Whenever we looked for something to include in our luggage, our rule was that it had to be small and light. Everything was weighed before its approval to be included.

Following is the list of stuff that we took with us on our recent 3 week Europe summer holiday, which was to both reasonably temperate and HOT locations.

  • 2 x 40L rolling bags/backpacks
  • 1 cabin luggage size rolling bag (a gift, not our choice really...)
  • 2 foldaway daypacks - one used as carryon luggage, the other packed in luggage
  • 1 small handbag with shoulder straps
  • one money pouch
  • one money belt
Each person took the following items. Wherever possible, these were quick-dry, breathable wash and wear fabrics. We decided regular washing was better than taking heaps of clothes. It only took about 15 minutes each night to wash everything in the hotel ensuite hand basin, and squeeze and hang it all out.

It was difficult to find quick-dry clothes for kids, so I purchased specialty fabric and made my own.
  • 1 pair of long pants
  • 3 t-shirts or blouses
  • 2 shorts/skirts (3 for the kids)
  • 3 undies (the youngest member of the family is still prone to the occasional accident, so took 6 pairs)
  • 1 swimming costume and rash vest/swimming t-shirt
  • 1 hat
  • 1 pair socks
  • 1 nightdress/night shirt
  • 1 pair of sandals
  • 1 jumper/sweater
  • 1 long sleeved thermal top
  • 1 bra (for the adult female only!)
  • 6 nappies (for the youngest member of the family only, just in case)
We kept these to an absolute minimum. We test drove our shampoos, conditioners and moisturisers beforehand to work out how much we would use over a week, multiplied it by three and added a little extra for good measure.
Between all of us, we took:
  • a small pot of moisturiser
  • 2 x 75ml bottles of shampoo
  • 2 x 75ml bottles of conditioner
  • a travel-size bar of soap
  • 2 x 100ml tubes of sunscreen
  • 2 travel-size tubes of toothpaste (one adult formulation, one child formulation)
  • a solid deodorant stick
  • 1 x 75ml bottle of dish-washing liquid
  • one electric shaver
  • one safety razor
  • 4 toothbrushes
  • one comb
  • one small hairbrush
  • one pack of paracetamol tablets
  • personal prescribed medications (and copies of the prescriptions)
  • tampons
  • hankies
Kitchen items
Because we did a lot of self catering, we needed to take some kitchen items with us so that we could have picnics and eat in our hotel room.
  • 4 plates
  • 4 bowls
  • 4 cups
  • plastic cutlery: 6 spoons, 6 knives, 6 forks
  • 2 very small plastic containers with tight-fitting lids
  • bendable thin plastic cutting mat
  • universal sink plug (you never know when you might not get one in your room!)
  • 4 empty water bottles
  • 2 drink bottle bags (purpose made to fit the water bottles - our kids carried their own water in their own bags that had a long string to sling over their shoulders)
  • washing up brush
  • 2 collapsible water bottles
  • microfibre face washer to use as a dish drying towel
Often people suggest that you should take a thin nylon bag  for dirty laundry etc. We don't bother - usually we end up buying something along the way that comes with a plastic bag. We just use the plastic bag to collect the dirty laundry for a day or two, until we wash them in the ensuite sink. This will be more of a problem as plastic bags are phased out around the world.
  • we packed a small drinkbottle with washing powder, that also doubled as a stain remover as when heaped on stains it removes them. Unfortunately it was confiscated at our departure airport because it was detergent. Next time we'll try again in bottles less than 100ml. We used handbasin soap for our washing in the end - not great, but better than nothing...
  • pegless clothesline
Car travel
We decided to take our children's car seats with us - just less hassle.
  • 2 base-only booster seats (these were packed IN the luggage)
Miscellaneous stuff
  • plug adaptors
  • 2 door stopper wedges
  • 4 postpaks (padded mailers) - for use as mailers if necessary, and our clothes packing cores
  • 4 luggage locks (all keyed alike)
  • USB stick
  • 2 umbrellas
  • thank you gifts
  • small sewing kit (no scissors!!)
  • battery charger
  • digital SLR camera, extra lens, batteries
  • tripod
  • small digital camera, batteries
  • netbook computer
  • 4 neck pillows
  • 5 sets earplugs
  • 4 eyemasks
  • packaging tape (end of a roll, so not much on it - deliberately)
  • swimming flotation device
  • swimming goggles x 1
  • ziplock bags
  • 2 small microfibre Sea to Summit Tek Towels
  • travel documents
  • photocopies of all documentation
  • 2 colouring/activities books
  • 2 childrens stories
  • 2 small soft toys
  • coloured pencils
  • crosswords (saved from the daily paper for a week or two)
  • Uno card game
  • Travel Cluedo
  • 2 child "blankies"
  • 4 lined/blank books for travel diaries
  • 4 pens

03 February 2009

favourite travel items: Asus Eee PC netbook

Oh how we love our tiny netbook computer! We love it because:
  • it weighs very little (especially compared to my usual laptop) - at 1.2kg it doesn't take up too much of our weight limit
  • the physical size (with a 7 inch screen) means it doesn't take up loads of valuable bag space. 
  • it can be put into a daypack and taken on excursions rather than being left in hotel rooms or cars.
  • it even fits into hotel room safes
  • it can be recharged quickly, and with different power strengths (240 volt, 220 volt, 110 volt) without a power adaptor, though you may need a different plug for the socket
  • it has an SD card slot so we could download the photos taken each day onto it, thus keeping the camera card relatively empty
  • you can take advantage of free wi-fi zones as you travel. Some airports (e.g. Hong Kong) have it, as do some parks, hotels, cafes etc. You can use this to check your email, search the web for directions, opening times for sights etc.
  • you can write your travel diary straight into it without carrying a relatively heavy book
  • you can download and store travel guides, phrase books and other useful information to access directly instead of lugging a whole heap of paper (and I adore my paper travel guides)
  • it came with free gaming software for the kids - useful if stuck somewhere boring
More recent models have been released onto the market with larger memory and larger screens, and therefore larger keyboards (better for fingers and typing!), but one assumes they are also heavier. We are very happy with ours.

02 February 2009

Items I wish someone would manufacture...

With the introduction of LAG (liquids, aerosols, gels) regulations, travelling light has become somewhat more complicated. A number of companies manufacture travel-friendly empty bottles for toiletries (hooray!). Some even make travel sized products - like tiny toothpaste tubes (more hooray!). But I wish someone would manufacture...
  • 100ml ice bricks. The smallest we've seen so far are 150ml. When you travel without refrigeration throughout the day, an ice brick can be extremely useful to keep food cold for longer.
  • quick-dry breathable kids clothes (at reasonable prices). You can get all manner of quick-dry clothes for adults, but nothing for kids. There's only so much beachwear you can have your kids in before it looks really out of place. For dining out, rash vests don't really cut it. Similarly, some sights such as historic churches require long pants and covered shoulders - items lacking in kids quick-dry clothing ranges. You would also think that manufacturers would be making quick-dry underwear for kids - but they don't. 
  • 100ml concentrate washing powder (or liquid) and stain remover. Getting a huge chocolate stain off a t-shirt in a hotel sink can be a struggle without it. Yes, I know that supermarkets are everywhere, but we don't need to buy (let alone lug around the countryside) a huge quantity of it. We tried to take a small bottle of washing powder on our last trip, but it was confiscated at customs because it was detergent, and therefore not permissible in the aircraft cabin.
Many toiletries are irritatingly just over the 100ml limit. We found toothpaste, sunscreen, moisturiser, shampoo, conditioner etc. at about 120ml. So close, yet so far. We did find the toothpaste and the sunscreen at or under 100ml, but all the rest we packed ourselves into individual empty bottles.

01 February 2009

Travels with your kitchen scales

Travelling around the shops before you go, that is - don't take them on holidays with you!

In our quest to travel to France, Spain and Portugal with cabin luggage only (and 2 children in tow) we needed to plan ahead. The first rule is to know the weight limit set by your airline. These vary enormously, but are usually around 7 kilograms, which includes the weight of the bag itself.

To maximise our 7kg limit, we travelled around to various stores with our kitchen scales in hand, and we weighed EVERYTHING. We set up a spreadsheet listing the 4 bags, their contents, and the individual weight of every item in every bag to ensure we complied (yes, it's a bit obsessive but it worked for us).

One of the criteria we used to choose our luggage was weight (along with size, practicality etc.). Once we had our bags, we knew how much weight remained for us to fill with our belongings.

In taking our kitchen scales everywhere from adventure stores to supermarkets we encountered many quizzical looks from staff and other customers. We just smiled and ignored them - sometimes explaining if they actually asked what we were up to. We found out that the cups in K-Mart weigh at least 2 grams more than those from the adventure store, for example. Eight grams (total from 4 cups) counts when you need to travel light! But K-Mart had the lightest weight umbrellas for the size of the canopy.

When we did eventually check in at the airport, we found that the bags were pretty much exactly the weight we had calculated. One was slightly overweight, but one was under. Both were allowed, probably because we had no checked in luggage.

So what can be packed into 4 x 7kg bags? A surprising amount, actually! Apart from clothing, toiletries and camera, a few of the surprising items included:
  • two car booster seats for the kids
  • a laptop computer (one of the tiny netbooks with a 7 inch screen)
  • plates, cups and plastic cutlery (cheap enough to be confiscated at customs if they had a problem with it)
  • nappies (diapers)
  • a swimming bubble flotation device
  • battery charger (for camera batteries)
  • books and games to occupy the kids
It is amazing what can be achieved with a lot of forethought and planning - and a reliable set of kitchen scales!