31 March 2009

Types of kid-friendly accommodation

There are many different options for types of accommodation when travelling with kids.
  • hotels (boutique or chain)
  • B & Bs
  • motels
  • caravan parks
  • apartments (serviced or unserviced)
  • campervan or motorhome
  • hostels
  • tents
  • home- and farm-stays
  • house swaps
  • staying with relatives or friends
  • resorts
Wherever you stay, regardless of the type of accommodation, if you have very young kids (babies or toddlers) you will probably want to do a quick initial reconaissance of the room to move or remove anything that is likely to be either hazardous, breakable or hideable (thinking TV remotes here!) before you let your child loose in the room.

And its always worth remembering that wherever you stay, your kids need to be taught to respect the property of others and the needs of others (like keeping the noise down for the sake of other nearby guests). It is a fact of life that most kids are varying degrees of self-centred, and most need reminding.

Now, let's go through each list item separately to work out the good and bad points.

Hotels - boutique or chain
Hotels are often the most easy form of accommodation to find. They come in large and small, expensive and cheap and everything in between. For kid-friendliness, hotels can offer cots (usually at no extra cost or for only a small charge), high chairs in dining rooms, and sometimes extra facilities like pools. Sometimes hotels will offer child-minding facilities so that you can have a night out without them, but personally, this goes against all my feelings about *family* holidays.

Small family run, boutique hotels can offer excellent service as the family that runs them usually wants to retain their customer base! Larger chain hotels are often less personable, but you if you've stayed in that chain before you'll know the level of service, cleanliness and facilities that you're likely to get. Its like McDonalds food - you know what you're likely to get, even if you're on the other side of the world.

B & Bs - Bed and breakfasts
Bed and breakfasts are common in some countries. They offer you the chance to stay in a home and have a room and breakfast provided for you. It is a lovely way to feel like you are "mixing with the natives".

However, if you have touchy feely sorts of children who love to explore their surroundings primarily by touch, then some B & Bs won't be for you! I know that some of the B & Bs that we have stayed in would not be suitable for my child who is a toucher. I just wouldn't feel safe with her in that sort of environment with ornaments and personal belongings that could be broken. However, with our non-touch child, we have stayed at some lovely B & Bs that were extremely welcoming of children. One even gave her a soft toy to help her remember her stay there. And many cultures do value children very highly and love to have children staying in their homes.

There is no guarantee of the quality of the breakfast you are likely to get. One place we stayed, the only drink we got for breakfast was a single shot glass of orange juice each. On the other hand, at one place we were welcomed with freshly baked cake at 8pm on our arrival. In Belfast we stayed with a lovely couple who gave us excellent recommendations for a dinner eatery, and were so thrilled to be able to add Sydney (our home town) to their map of guest's origins. You can get really stingy at some of these places, but most people are just terribly welcoming and generous. You can tell the difference between the people who did it for a job, and those who do it because they love people...

Motels are unique to a few countries. Rather than a large block of rooms in a multistorey building, motels are more likely to be long, sprawling establishments with individual rooms all adjoining side by side. They usually offer a basic room with ensuite. Some have restaurants where meals are served. Family rooms will often have bunk beds for the kids, which some kids are not used to using (I'm thinking of toilet stops in the middle of the night) but find incredibly exciting ("I want the top bunk!!"). Motels are usually basic but serviceable.

Caravan parks
Caravan parks can offer a range of accommodation types: your own caravan or campervan (see below), your own tent, or onsite cabins or onsite caravans. If you have your own van or tent, caravan parks can be quite cheap. At most parks you share laundry, toilets and showering facilities. Onsite vans sometimes have ensuites, and cabins usually do. Your own van, onsite vans and cabins usually have kitchen facilities, meaning that you can easily self-cater. With tents you have to bring your own kitchen facilities, but some parks have barbeque facilities.

Caravan parks often have play areas for kids, which can be an excellent place to send them while you try to erect your tent, or get set up. And some also have pools. In some parks, with longer stays, the kids may have the chance to make friends with other children also staying there, which can be great for some cross cultural friendships, and just regular child to child interaction.

I do remember staying in an onsite van when I was little and the bedding was all covered in vinyl. It had been cleaned with some really over-smelly cleaning product, and I can remember it really stopped me from going to sleep! But most wouldn't be like that!

Another point to consider is that if it is raining and or cold, caravan parks can be miserable places...

Apartments - serviced or non-serviced
Apartments are basically like hotels except that they often have kitchenettes and maybe a suite of rooms rather than just the one room. Serviced apartments are more likely to be serviced less often than a hotel, but if you remember to hang up your towel (and that's not too much to ask, is it?) then there should be no problem with that. Apartments are usually available for longer stays than hotels (you'd probably find it hard to get one for just a night). The self-catering aspect is a definite plus, in my books, and the fact that with a few rooms you don't have to be living in each others' pockets all the time is a definite winner.

Campervans or motorhomes
For longer term travel, campervans and motorhomes are often regarded as the way to go. Some people buy their campervan at the beginning of a several month trip, planning to sell it at the end. They can also be hired. Campervans mean that you can take your accommodation with you. Some places you may be able to just stop by the side of the road, but most times you will be better off and safer finding a caravan park to stay in.

With a campervan, everything is with you all the time. This has its good points and bad points: good is that everything is with you, bad is that you have to take everything with you wherever you go, and let's face it, for a family size vehicle, they are usually large truck-ish size, and that adds to the petrol/gas bill when you have to lug it and all your belongings around in it all the time. It can be harder to park and to manoeuvre than a smaller vehicle. You also will be living in each others' pockets - you'll be eating, sleeping, and travelling in the same confined space all the time. But, it can be much cheaper and easier than hotelling it.

Youth hostels are a cheap and affordable option. Despite the name "youth" being attached to them, these establishments are more and more catering for families and people who don't actually fit into the young-adult type category that they have typically catered for. They often have family rooms available - its not just dormitory style accommodation anymore.

We have not actually tried this sort of accommodation yet, because the places we have stayed that have had hostels did not accept children as young as ours. I believe that that is not the case in all hostels though. They can be a great way to meet other travellers, and if your kids love being with people, what better could there be?

This is listed separately than caravan parks, as you can use tents in lots of other places. If you're a "get off the beaten track" type family, a tent will allow you to do this. You can go into national parks and out into nature. For many kids, going camping in a tent is a really, really exciting prospect. (Some parents don't seem to agree though...)

If you stay in a caravan park, powered or unpowered sites can be very economical, and if you're in a National Park, you may need a camping permit, and maybe pay a per night tariff, but its still a very very affordable way to travel. The bad points: rain, cold, snow etc.

And one incident that does spring to mind was camping with some friends on the NSW (Australia) Central Coast, just near a beach. In the morning we woke up to find a funnel web spider (highly highly poisonous, dangerous Australian spider) on the far side of the tent - meaning, further away from the door than we were... yes, it had to crawl past us or over us to get to where it was... It makes me shiver just thinking about it. But the moral of the story is that tenting is a great way to get close to nature! Maybe too close?

Home- and farm-stays
Homestays and farmstays can be a great way to experience a different way of life or culture. We once stayed on a farm in the south of England. The Bookworm had her first up close and personal encounter with a very loudly honking goose! We also stayed at a farm north of London that had THE best bacon we have ever eaten - it will go down in history for us!

Homestays can be an excellent way to experience everyday life in another culture. While it may be difficult to find homestays for a whole family (because of the number of extra beds needed), its great for seeing how other people live, and joining in with them. It can lead to trying new and authentic regional foods, and learning about other cultures.

House swaps
House swaps are where two homes are traded for a certain period of time. Families can stay at someone else's home, while the someone elses stay in the other family's home. Whatever the other family has in their home is usually yours to use for the time that you are there. That sometimes even includes a car.

If you're ok with someone that you don't know staying in your home (and remember you'll be staying in theirs, so the element of exchange usually tempers and wards off any antisocial behaviour) then this can be a great way to find accommodation. Usually the only cost involved is signing up for one of the many home-swapping websites or organisations. All manner of homes are swapped - so even if yours isn't the most flash or luxurious house, that won't be a problem.

If they don't have cots/high chairs etc and you need them for your youngsters, they may be able to borrow some for your stay or you could hire some from a local baby goods hire company.

Staying with relatives or friends
If you've got long-lost relatives or friends that you can possibly impinge on and obtain the offer of enough beds for the whole family, go for it! Its cheap, and can be a great way to see them for the first time in ages or for some, even for the very first time ever. Be good house guests though, and don't overstay your welcome or abuse the friendship! You may even score a free guided tour (with your hosts) of your destination. Again, if your hosts do not have the baby stuff that you need, it could be borrowed or hired.

Resorts most often offer hotel-style accommodation, with serviced rooms. They usually have excellent facilities with extra activities etc. Some are very kid-friendly with children's programs - but personally, if its a family holiday, I'd prefer to actually be spending time with my kids, not have them shipped off to some kiddie program! But, there can also be sporting activities, tours, pools, games etc that can be fun for the whole family.

I'm sure there are other types of accommodation that I haven't included, but that's a pretty good list of alternatives so that you can start to plan for your next trip away with the kids.

30 March 2009

Alternatives to money belts

Money belts are useful for carrying valuables that you don't need to access regularly, such as passports, larger stashes of cash, alternative credit cards etc. Some of the alternatives we have seen include:
  • extra internal pockets in clothing
  • wrist wallets
  • singlet vests with pockets
  • socks with hidden zip pockets
  • clothing belt with hidden zipper pockets
Not all of these, in our opinion, serve as useful a function as money belts/pouches - but they are certainly worth considering depending on what you need them for. The idea of putting a passport into a wrist wallet is just silly, but the idea of having additional internal pockets in clothing is a potential solution if you have sewing skills.

I found that for small, regularly used items (e.g. credit card, small change, transport tickets etc.), a discreet zippered pocket in my shirt was the best place to store things. One shirt had a pocket in the side seam at waist level which was invisible unless you knew to look for it. It was great for ease of access as well as for security of valuables.

Extra internal pockets in clothing
Yvette came across the Instructables website which contains instructions on how to add extra internal pockets into clothing. Personally, I think this is the best option out of all of these alternatives to money belts, however it only works if your clothing already has pockets! And you also need reasonable sewing skills. The advantages include being able to make internal pockets to suit your needs - whether you only need small ones for credit cards etc., or one large enough to stash a passport.
Wrist wallets
By "wrist wallet" I do not mean a wallet with a wrist strap. I mean a cuff-like object which has a zip pocket inside it. Here's a link to one variety so you can see what we mean. I like the idea of storing the car keys that way, though not having done it before, it might seem a bit weird at first - and maybe too lumpy. Looks like a great idea for going to the beach or other outdoor environments. If you have the right sort of contents, it wouldn't matter if the whole thing were immersed in water. Here in Australia, our banknotes are polymer so they won't disintegrate if you happen to go for a swim. Metal coins ditto. Credit cards ditto. Keys ditto - but you can't have the automatic battery-operated door opening devices: they'll be ruined. 

Obviously you can't fit your passport inside it, and it might look a little dorky in summer, but could easily be covered by a sleeve in winter. It may also be a bit too visible and hence attract muggers. You could also wear them around your ankle to minimise visibility - especially under trousers or socks.

Singlet vests with pockets
This means "undershirt" not singlet tops as outerwear. Envisage a singlet top (tank top / vest) with a velcro or zipper pocket. Here's a link to a ladies' version.

Socks with hidden zip pockets and Clothing belt with hidden zipper pockets are a couple of other possibilities. Here are a couple of examples of Ladies' and Men's Zip It Sox which have pockets sufficiently large to take even a passport. These would be obviously not much use if it were too hot to wear socks. Another possibility is the "ordinary" clothing belt with a cleverly hidden zipper pocket. Not great for travel documents or passports, I wouldn't think. You'd need a cummerbund for that - perhaps a bit overdressed for the beach?

Without having tested each of these options, my personal preference is for hidden pockets in clothing, maybe in conjunction with a wrist wallet. We'll have to give them a go sometime.

29 March 2009

Favourite travel items (not!): money belts

Money belts are a practical, possibly essential item when travelling. Yvette and I took different varieties of money belts on our most recent trip.

I had one of those that hang from your neck and tuck underneath your clothing. I chose this variety because I was doing all of the driving and did not want the discomfort of having a money belt wrapped around my waist all the time. The one I chose was spacious enough for 2 passports, tickets (e.g. train tickets), cash and a few other bits and pieces without being too bulky.

Yvette had a waist money belt, and she was able to fit much the same sorts of contents in it. We each had our own passport plus one of the kids' ones so that if something happened to one money belt we didn't lose all four at once!

Problems emerged within days of setting out. The cord on my money pouch had a toggle thingy with a small spring inside it so that the length of the cord could be adjusted. The spring snagged on the cord and almost shredded it completely through - before we'd even reached a destination. We had to take the toggle off and tied a knot in the cord at the required length to make do.

Yvette's developed a hole, caused by wear from the corners of the passports within a week of use. Luckily she can sew - because no matter how much she kept closing up the hole the passports would soon open a new one. Money fell out at one stage - luckily we probably only lost a few euro coins, but it was annoying all the same. The passports seemed to be putting too much pressure on the fabric seams and they kept separating.

While in Spain we encountered very hot weather. Yvette found that her money belt became irritating against her skin, making her itchy and sweaty. It was heavenly relief to take it off when we got back to our room! My money pouch wasn't so bad in terms of irritating skin, but it is more annoying to access when you need to, and it does hang like a lump around your neck. If you let it hang loose under your top layer it tended to swing back and forth, so I found that I had to tuck it into the waistband of my pants to keep it still.

Personally, both the money belt and the money pouch needed a better design. They are safer than having a more easily accessible wallet or handbag, and they are designed to carry slightly larger items like passports, but they were not a huge success. We will be investigating alternatives for the next trip.

28 March 2009

Favourite places we've visited: Western Plains Zoo

We had the opportunity to visit several towns in western New South Wales, Australia, two years ago and spent a couple of days in Dubbo - a large regional centre. The prime attraction (but by no means the only one!) is just out of town: Western Plains Zoo. Western Plains is a large, open range zoo in which it is possible to see the exhibited wildlife on foot, by car or by bicycle (which can be hired at the zoo).

This zoo is involved in a large number of animal conservation projects - from tigers, to rhinos, birds to primates. We discovered that the zoo is open very early in the morning for guided walks, hosted by volunteers from the Friends of Western Plains Zoo. These walks take you behind the scenes to some of the night enclosures, and also give you the chance to see things like feeding up close. The early morning walks cost extra on top of the daily admission ticket, but it is well worth it. It was difficult getting up at the crack of dawn to get out to the zoo (and have the kids organised!) but what a great time we had! Click here for the early morning walks website (it's really difficult to find just by browsing from the Zoo web page!)

Bendy went berserk over seeing the giraffes (her then-favourite animal). She nearly popped out of her skin with excitement - AND we got to see them being fed up close. She also nearly went mad over the camels (though we don't really know why - she'd never shown much interest in them before, or since...). The guide we had was excellent. She was fun, knowledgeable, and friendly - willing to answer questions, pick up the kids for a closer look etc. We had a look through the rhinoceros night yards, amazed to see so many of these critically endangered creatures in one place. The only animal we really couldn't see were the zebras - they were in quarantine due to an outbreak of equine influenza in Australia that brought any horse-related businesses to a standstill.

The tour went for a couple of hours, and was over just prior to the main zoo gates opening for general admission. While there were lots of people (in small groups) doing the early morning guided tours, it felt as if we had the place to ourselves. We spent most of the rest of the day exploring the zoo to its full extent (the tour doesn't cover everything!) and it was a great opportunity for our kids to see endangered species (both exotic and native) in a somewhat natural habitat. It was a beautiful sunny day, and we wandered at our leisure around the zoo, chatting about the animals, about conservation and appreciating the magnificent diversity of the natural world. We caught the hippopotamus talk and feed (a daily event, not part of the early morning tour) which was fantastic, and had the kids gripped throughout.

We highly recommend the early morning walks at Western Plains Zoo! Next time - which might be a while away - I'd consider staying at the Zoofari Lodge and have the whole wildlife-at-night experience as well.

27 March 2009

The things kids say!

One of the main points behind overseas travel is to experience places quite different from home. Travel to Europe (and other places) allows a brush with certain significant historical periods simply not available in real life in Australia. Take the Roman Empire, for instance. The largest and most powerful political entity in its heyday - but it completely bypassed Australia.

So when we go to Europe, we sometimes visit ruins (Roman or otherwise). This gives US a connection with a distant history (physically and temporally) and also brings it to life for the kids. On our last trip, we took the opportunity to visit the Roman ruins at Conimbriga, Portugal; the Iron Age settlement of Citania de Briteiros, Portugal; the Moorish city of Medina al-Zahara, Spain and the Roman city of Italica, Spain.

You do have to be careful what you say to your kids, and how you say it, because everywhere we went Bendy would walk around the sites loudly declaiming about just how much the Romans had ruined it (whether or not the Romans had ever been there!). "Roman Ruins" transformed into "The Romans Ruined It"!

26 March 2009

Waterproof versus water repellant

I've had a question from one of our readers about the difference between waterproof and water repellant fabrics, so that she could figure out what to use to make some travel clothing for her kids.

I tried writing about this and found myself wandering round and round in circles getting myself more and more confused. So instead I'll send to you someone whose knowledge I really respect: Roger Caffin, at www.bushwalking.org.au.

You can find really in depth, thoughtful information on the following page (with lots of links to more pages):

Sorry, I tried to do it myself, but why reinvent the wheel?

25 March 2009

Favourite places we've visited: San Gimignano

It is with some trepidation that I start a new series of posts about our favourite places to visit - they might just become too popular and lose some of their charm. However, here goes.

Top of our list is San Gimignano, Italy. What a beautiful place this is. We came upon it almost by accident - we were looking for a place in Tuscany when our travel agent suggested San Gimignano. Following that recommendation was one of the best things I have done, travel-wise.

For starters, it is World Heritage listed: and that generally means quality or significance. The whole town dates from the middle ages, and is picturesque in every way. The countryside around is filled with vineyards and fields of sunflowers, and the town is perched on the crest of a hill overlooking it all. All the stereotypical features are perfectly exhibited in San Gimignano: narrow, winding cobbled streets; rough, rustic stone buildings, NO CARS (must be kept parked in a hotel garage or outside the town walls), and a very slow, easy pace. There is a couple of tiny but exceptional museums, beautiful churches, town squares, discreet souvenir shops (restricted to one street, where most of the tourists on day-trip coaches congregate), and good restaurants.

We stayed in the Hotel Leon Bianco, and had a room overlooking the square. One morning, Yvette opened the shutters and watched the town wake up. The smell of freshly baked bread and brewing coffee mingled with the quietness in the air to create one of those indefinable but memorable moments. The day before, as we wandered across one of the squares, we became aware that the noise level had dropped, and that everyone seemed to be walking quietly. There was a harpist in the shade of the arcade at the side of the square playing exquisitely wonderful music, and anyone who could hear it seemed to show the utmost respect and gratitude for the intangible gift of music. We listened for a while, then crept off to our museum destination carrying with us something extra we hadn't brought with us.

Another time, we climbed to the top of the tallest tower (there used to be 72 of them!) to look out over the town and surrounding Tuscan countryside. Wherever we went in San Gimignano it seemed as if there were a thousand tiny treasures waiting to be revealed. Time stood still, but of course it raced by all too quickly.

Of course, the whole driving experience was accentuated in this hill town. I had never driven a car with a manual transmission until I got to Italy. I learned pretty quickly (though not very well) how to basically propel the care in a forwards direction. Once it was underway I was OK, but if I stopped for ANYTHING (toll gates, traffic lights etc.) then it could take me quite a while to get going again. I think the expression is "bunny-hopping"... Well, I did more than my fair share of that in San Gimignano! The 'no cars' rule is strictly adhered to. You can ONLY drive into town to drop of luggage at your hotel. You must then either leave your car in the hotel garage or take it back outside the walls. Our hotel had a garage - and quite frankly I didn't care how much they were charging me for using it, as driving that manual car was very frustrating.

There is one set of traffic lights in San Gimignano. Because the streets are so narrow, it allows a free flow of cars in both directions by alternating which direction has the right of way. I stopped at those lights. I finally got going again after SEVENTEEN changes of lights (surely a record!). It was a pleasure to use the garage! In the morning the hotel staff got the car out for me and I could go forwards again quite happily. On our last morning, however, they got me to reverse out. I'd never reversed at all until then, and wasn't sure I could do it. The garage was little wider than the car - so my room to manoeuvre was severely limited - but I did it (eventually).

San Gimingano had a great mix of culture, history, size, ambience and memories. It is one of the best places we've ever visited. I'll never forget that experience, and I'll never again hire a manual car.

24 March 2009

5 top items for travelling kids

These are our top 5 suggestions for what to take for your travelling kids. Some are for fun, some are for comfort, some are for safety.
  1. A hat. Protect your kid's precious skin from the sun by taking a hat for them to wear. This doesn't just apply to sunny places, as UV rays can make it through clouds.

  2. Sunscreen. Hats don't cover everything, so use sunscreen also.

  3. A special (small) toy. Travelling can be unsettling for kids. They don't have their usual routine, they don't have their usual surroundings, and sometimes apart from their family, they don't even have their usual language. By taking a small special toy, the child will be able to take with them something that is special and familiar. (You'll need to keep a good watch on it though, because it would be disastrous to lose their favourite toy.)

  4. A small bag for them to carry at least some of their own stuff. Even small kids can have a light backpack with a piece of warm clothing, a snack or a small drink. Kids love to be helpers, so why not encourage them to help with carrying a few small things. As they get older, they can carry a bit more. We're not trying to make them packhorses, just to share a little of the load. NB: This is for day tripping, not as their actual luggage.

  5. A surprise pack for the journey. This is a parcel of things that the parents put together as a surprise for the child. It could include a couple of reading or picture books that you'll know that they love, a sticker book, a colouring book, some coloured pencils, a small quiet game etc. The idea is to present it to your child at the beginning of the journey (plane, car, train etc) so that they can keep themselves occupied with new and exciting things as you travel. It does not need to be expensive to put together - you can pick up a lot of these sorts of things at discount shops. It could be parcelled up in a special cloth bag, or even just a paper bag with their name written on it in large happy letters!
If the kids are happy, it means that you can all be enjoying travel with kids!

23 March 2009

The cheese incident...

OK, so I mentioned a cheese incident in the last post. Let's just state from the outset that I love cheese. I am especially partial to Brie - and triple cream if at all possible, though any sort will be just fine. Our trip to Tahiti was the first time I'd set foot on (notionally) French soil since going to New Caledonia as a teenager. We got it into our heads that it would be nice to track down some real French cheese. So we took ourselves off for a walk and about 20 minutes later came across a little shopping centre with a handful of shops which included a supermarket-and-variety store all in one called Carrefour.

It was a teensy bit run down - a kind of slow, nonchalant carelessness about it. What it did have, however, was a HUGE cheese section which stretched for metres and metres down the centre of the store. Mmmmm! Cheese heaven. I had so much choice! And it was ALL imported from France! It was impossible to know where to start. Yvette left me to it - she couldn't cope with the overload! - and went in search of fresh fruit. I read labels, tried to do quick exchange rates in my head (didn't work, but it made me feel better) and bought a wedge of the creamiest, sloppiest authentic Brie.

We took it back to the hotel and relished the fantastic flavour as we sloooowly nibbled our little cheesy treasure. We wrapped the remainder for the next day, and popped it into the bar fridge. When it came to the next afternoon, we sought out our cheese and found that housekeeping had removed it from the fridge and disposed of it. QUELLE HORREUR!!! I had a fit there and then! How could they do that! Barbarians!

I most certainly went, with my pleasantest smile and determination, to the concierge and lodged a complaint - which needed resolving immediately as we were preparing to leave for the airport. The concierge was most understanding, and said he'd see what he could do. I went back to our room frustrated and despondent at being robbed of my little pleasure.

A while later, there was a knock on the door. Before us stood one of the hotel staff, bearing an apology and a plate from the kitchen with a HUGE quantity of Brie and several bread rolls. Would that suffice? Certainly it would - and it did! Thank you. It turned out to be a much finer cheese than the one we'd lost, so we enjoyed Brie rolls at the airport at midnight.

There was so much Brie we couldn't possibly eat it all without actually becoming ill, so we wrapped it up and took it onto the flight with us. We did eat more on the way to Sydney, but were still left with a sizeable wedge as we approached those friendly souls at Customs and Quarantine. Australia has some of the strictest quarantine laws in the world, but we thought we'd give it a go.

We declared it (of course - stupid not to! Getting caught was NOT something we wanted to do over a wedge of cheese, no matter how good!). The woman who served us was most apologetic about having to confiscate the cheese - but completely understood that we might want to keep it. Who knows? They might have let us keep it (delusional, aren't we?)... We were OK with letting it go - it was obvious we had to - we'd had rather a lot already.

When we finally did get to Paris, we sourced a fromagerie and stocked up on more Brie. You might have to do what the Romans do in Rome, but in France you HAVE to eat their cheese! And they go ever so nicely with fresh baguettes...

22 March 2009

The lost bag episode...

For our trip to the US, Yvette made a travel bag for each of the kids to take onto the plane. In it there was a selection of storybooks, activity books, pencils etc. The Bookworm's bag was hot pink, and Bendy's luminous lime green: deliberately done so that they were easily identifiable and not easily overlooked.

However... on our return trip from New York, we occupied the two seats adjacent to the window in the last 2 rows of the plane. I was with The Bookworm, and Yvette with Bendy. Our flight was delayed in New York due to a storm, and as it was underbooked, it was diverted to Los Angeles to collect more passengers instead of flying direct to Papeete in Tahiti. So the flight was several hours longer than expected, and we arrived in Papeete at about 2am. We were exhausted, and the kids were too - though both had slept on the journey.

We checked into our hotel and had a lovely relaxing two days thankyou very much, looking out over the coral-fringed lagoon towards Moorea. All the more enjoyable knowing that my work colleagues were at a boring conference and I was on a South Pacific Island.

Our departing flight left Papeete at about midnight. We had the kids take an early nap while we packed our stuff. I was out dealing with a frustrating cheese emergency (maybe a later blog post) when Yvette was overcome with a nasty sinking feeling. She searched everywhere for Bendy's green bag, but it was nowhere to be found. We scratched our heads to think of the last time we'd seen it, and Yvette came to the sick realisation that she had tucked it under the back seat of the aircraft prior to arrival and left it there.

Bendy hadn't missed it yet, and we couldn't tell her just yet with more than 8 hours travel to go. We rang the airline in Tahiti - nothing handed in or found - and also enquired at the airport when we were checking in. There was absolutely NOTHING identifying the bag as ours - no luggage tags, name etc. because we expected to always have it in our possession. That made it even more difficult to describe to airline staff. We were really, really hoping that the lime green colour would make all the difference. We were told to check the luggage claim in Sydney, as that was the destination of our original flight. No luck there either.

I went around to the lost luggage office and filled out the paperwork, not really holding out much hope for ever seeing the bag or the $150 worth of books it contained (some of which were gifts). 

About a week later, Yvette received a call from the lost luggage office at Sydney airport. The bag had been found, and would we like to come and collect it? It made Yvette's day! The following weekend we paid the exorbitant parking fee and went and collected it. We had to go to the storage area where the lost and severely damaged baggage is held, and it was a real eye-opener. We've had checked luggage damaged before, but some of the bags we saw were literally smashed to pieces. It was quite a shock - luggage is not cheap!

Well, the bag was safely returned to Bendy, who was overjoyed to see it, and we learned a few lessons ourselves: know where all your belongings are before you exit a plane; label ALL luggage, even if it is going to be with you all the time; and travel only with carry-on luggage if possible; make sure you luggage is distinctive - the lime green colour saved us; and to avoid being the owner of one of those smashed up bags.

21 March 2009

Favourite travel memories: Chaarming!

It was a warmish day at Conimbriga, which is one of the Roman ruins sites in Portugal. We arrived around lunchtime. We sat on a bench in the shade of a tree to eat our lunch.

Sitting there, quietly enjoying our lunch and the surroundings, Bendy (aged 4) suddenly turned to The Bookworm and said, with airs, graces and put-on posh accent, "Bookworm, its chaarming having you here with me!"

We fell about laughing. No idea what brought that on!

20 March 2009

shoes for travelling

IF you can get away with it, take only one pair of shoes, and wear them on your feet! This will reduce bulk and weight in your luggage. It may be though, that you have to take more than one pair. If this is the case, if at all possible, wear the larger and heavier pair on the plane so that you have to carry less in your luggage.

Tips for travel shoes:
  • Only take comfortable shoes. If they're not comfy at home, they won't be on holidays either.

  • If they are new shoes, wear them in so that you are used to them before you go. Blisters and travelling are not fun!

  • Choose shoes that are culturally appropriate. Even though joggers/trainers etc can be comfortable, in some places they are considered too casual.

  • Ladies, DON'T wear high heels for sightseeing. Surely that is common sense, but apparently not...

  • In some airports you have to take your shoes of for x-ray screening. Shoes that are easily removed and put back on again are advantageous in such circumstances
Any other decisions will likely be based on the weather you're likely to encounter. For hot weather, wear shoes that keep your feet cool, and allow any sweat to dry easily.

If you're going to need to dress up, say on a cruise, you'll need to consider which shoes will be dressy enough. If you can manage dressy, comfortable shoes that can do your whole trip, great! Otherwise, this is a case where you might need to pack an extra pair.

If you're going to a very cold climate, make sure your shoes are really warm, as well as taking warm socks. My sister is planning a several month trip to Germany around Christmas. They're planning to buy shoes there simply because you can't get warm enough shoes here in Australia. We just don't have that sort of climate.

If you're going somewhere REALLY wet, take shoes that are either waterproof or dry really quickly.

If you need to take more than one pair
If you've tried and tried to work out how you can only take one pair of shoes, and no single pair covers all your likely needs, then you may have to succumb to packing an extra pair. If this is the case, make sure both pairs are light. Wear the heaviest, bulkiest shoes on your flights as this will cut down bulk and the amount you have to carry.

Pack a plastic bag that you can store the extra shoes in, so that any dirt doesn't get spread around inside your luggage.

The MOST important thing, though is that ANY shoes you take are COMFORTABLE!

19 March 2009

Need another reason to carry-on only?

According to SITA's 2008 baggage report about airline luggage, more than 42 million bags were mishandled in 2007, with 1.2 million of them irretrievably lost. They estimate that if things continue in the same fashion, about 70 million can expect to be mishandled in 2019.

The most likely point in the bag's journey for something to go wrong is if they have to be changed from one plane to another.

The report points out that actually only 3% of bags never turn up, which they try to spin as being a positive thing. And I suppose that it is better than 10% going permanently missing. However, if you're the owner of one of those 3%, that's quite an inconvenience!

A far better way to travel, in my opinion, is with no checked luggage at all - travelling light with carry-on or cabin luggage only. That way, there's no chance that you'll lose your bag (unless its YOUR fault - and I have done that!) and it'll be much easier to enjoy your trip, knowing that your bag will arrive with you.

Of course, one wonders where the lost bags all go. Is it to the same place as socks, biros and coathangers?

18 March 2009

clothes for traveling light

If you're planning to travel light, you're going to need to choose your clothes wisely. Whether you're putting together a travel wardrobe for yourself or for your kids, there's a bit of planning involved.

We have talked about which items of clothing and how many are a good idea in older blog post, so I won't go into that again right now.

The idea of travelling light in terms of clothes is to limit what you take, and wash it more often. Some tips for choosing your clothes for travelling light:
  • All your clothes should mix and match. Everything should be able to be worn with everything else. One way of doing this is to keep to a completely neutral palette. If you like a bit of colour, maybe your hat could be brightly coloured, or maybe all your t-shirts/shirts could be the coloured items that you wear. Otherwise, if you don't mind looking like my daughter Bendy, just don't worry about putting odd colours and patterns together! (She is well known for putting patterns with as many patterns as she can. The more the merrier! And it suits her bright and happy personality.)

  • Choose clothes that don't wrinkle easily. Even though you'll be living out of a suitcase, you don't have to look like you are! To test this in a shop, grab a handful of the fabric and give it a good hard scrunch in your hand. Let it go, and if it looks completely crushed, leave it there on the hanger. You do not want to be ironing clothes on your holiday. That would mean either taking an iron with you (weight you do not need to carry!) or finding one at the place you are staying. Its better not to have to do either!

  • Choose clothes that dry quickly. Heavy cords and jeans do not dry quickly. Don't even think about taking them! Many synthetic (or synthetic blend) fabrics dry quickly. Cotton does not.

  • Choose fabrics that breathe well. In order to get quick drying clothing, we could wear nylon everything, however nylon does not breathe well. You don't want to feel like you're living in a sauna, so you need clothes that breathe.

  • Choose clothes that can be easily hand washed in a hotel sink. Don't choose dry-clean only clothes! The ability to wash all that you take in the hotel sink will mean that everything can be washed out at the end of each day, ready for the next.

  • Where possible, take items that can double up. Some people swear by taking sarongs, because they can be used in so many different ways. For the ladies they can be a skirt. They can cover shoulders in the churches you might want to visit where modesty is important. They can be wrapped around your head as a scarf for sun or dust protection. A sarong can also be used as a picnic blanket, a beach towel, a bag for dirty clothing... I haven't bothered with a sarong on my travels, except for the trip where I bought my sarong in Tahiti. I haven't missed it when I haven't had it with me, but others may find them useful.

    Some people absolutely loathe zip off pants. I have two pairs, and I must say that I like them. Sure, they look a bit dorky, and they do scream tourist, but I find them great for the days where the temperature starts cool, gets REALLY hot, and then cools off again. It also means that by taking them, I'm taking 4 pairs of pants instead of just two: two pairs of shorts, two pairs of long pants. I also wear them at home when I know that I'll have to be out walking in the rain a lot, because mine dry really quickly. If you don't like them, that's fine, but some people do.

  • Choose clothing that is culturally sensitive to the places that you are visiting. If you will be visiting places of worship such as mosques, churches, temples etc, dress modestly. In many places, short skirts, shorts, bare arms, bare shoulders, bare heads are not culturally appropriate. Do a bit of research before you travel to find out what will be appropriate, so that you do not offend your hosts or appear to be offering more of yourself than you had in mind...

    When we were in Rome and visiting St Peter's Basilica, there was a family who had obviously not read the guidebooks. At least one among their party was wearing shorts. Of course, they were not allowed in. They were completely indignant about this: "But that's cheating!" (why, I don't know!). Do your homework.

  • Make sure all your clothes fit you properly and are comfortable. If you wouldn't wear it at home, you won't wear it when you're on holidays. I made the mistake of assuming that a pair of pants that I put in for The Bookworm, fitted her. After a few days of our holiday, she told me that the waist was too large and they kept falling down. Now, I'm not sure if they had just never fit her (as our kids have a lot of hand-me-downs, and she has a very skinny waist) or whether the elastic had perished. But it meant a quick hand-sew fix in the hotel room, with one of my very precious needles that I had brought with me.

  • Choose clothing that can be layered. For warm weather, you'd wear the lightest layer. For colder temperatures you will add more layers. This way, you won't have to take twice as much if you are likely to encounter warm, cool or cold temperatures.
A lot of this sort of travel clothing can be purchased from travel or adventure stores, but keep in mind that not everything in these stores is going to fit the above criteria. And of course, some clothing in regular clothing stores might fit the bill perfectly, without the inflated "travel" pricetag! Read labels carefully, and do the scrunch test. You can't really test the quick-dry-ness of a piece of clothing unless you're sure you're going to keep it. I can't think of any shops that are happy for you to return clothing that has already been washed!

By shopping carefully and evaluating what you already own, you should be able to piece together a good travel wardrobe for yourself and the kids.

17 March 2009

not all fabrics are created equal

In my quest for my perfect travel bag - one which I think I'll have to make - I read the other day on the Tom Bihn forums about a fabric test that they had submitted their fabric and a competitor's fabric to.

It was interesting to see that the Tom Bihn 1050 denier fabric turned out to be more wear-resistant than a 1680 denier fabric. You can see the pictures and a blurb about it at the Tom Bihn website.

Doug Dyment, has a wonderful explanation about types of fabric at www.onebag.com. You'll need to scroll down to the heading: "Quality Luggage Components".

Doug explains the differences between different weights (denier is a measure of weight, not strength) and the difference between ballistic nylon and cordura nylon.

All this means the plot thickens in my local search for the perfect fabric. While I can find two places here in Sydney where I can get luggage-type fabric, without seeing the fabrics, its hard to know quite what they're like. I do like the shinyness of ballistic nylon, but the fabrics I have found are cordura, rather than ballistic.

In case you're interested, the two sources that I have found so far are Synergy Textiles (caution: very unattractive website!), and Ricky Richards. I'd love to know if there are any places in Australia selling ballistic nylon fabric by the metre. Anyone?

16 March 2009

more on traveling and food allergies

I found a really useful post on Delicious Baby about travelling with severe food allergies.

Even if you don't have children with food allergies, why not read it anyway, and educate yourself about how you can accomodate others who do, when you're travelling? I'm sure their parents would appreciate us making life easier for them!

15 March 2009

Enjoying your own city with the kids

Assuming you live in a city, of course - but you get the idea. One idea I am wanting to explore with our kids is to take some time during the school holidays and explore our own city as if we were tourists. Obviously I'm not going to the expense of staying in a city hotel - though there's some merit in doing that - but at least to explore the sights and sounds of home.

It is a curious thing that we often take our own city for granted. We go to enormous expense and time planning an overseas trip, while largely ignoring the things right under our noses. Sydney is a great city. It is beautiful, reasonably tidy and has much to offer overseas visitors: some of which we don't know anything about! 

So I have occasionally taken matters in my own hands. From time to time we visit the Art Gallery of NSW or the Powerhouse Museum, and we've been to Taronga Zoo. And obviously we've been to the Opera House (what must be one of the most photographed buildings in existence). I took The Bookworm on a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and my mum and I took the kids on a ferry ride to Watson's Bay for fish and chips by the harbour. We have explored Katoomba in the Blue Mountains with the kids - a freezing good time in winter.

But there's so much more than that. I'd actually like to do the hop-on hop-off bus tour around Sydney to see and hear about my own city. Also, we've never been to the Australian Museum (natural history) or Fort Denison (on an island in Sydney Harbour). It would also be nice to do some of the walks in the National Parks around the Harbour, or the beaches, or Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park (about 10 minutes from home...!).

The city is only the epicentre - the surrounding areas are also possible options as well. We're surrounded by magnificent National Parks, wineries about an hour away, and the national capital - Canberra - only 2.5 to 3 hours away.

If you can't do the large scale overseas trips - and you may not want to, particularly with kids - then there's still a lot to be gained from considering a holiday closer to home. You might be surprised at just what hidden treasures are right on your doorstep.

14 March 2009

Road atlases and navigating tips

I don't know if this will be really obvious to everyone else, but other places in the world (outside Australia) actually number the exits on their motorways. I mention this simply to make navigating in the car so much easier.

I have driven long distances across several countries and had Yvette navigating for me. We usually take with us the road atlases for the various regions we travel through. The brands we have used are:Each of these are quite different to use, and have various benefits and drawbacks. With respect to motorway exits we found them numbered in the road atlases. There seem to be two numbering systems. The first (as used in Europe) is that exits are simply numbered in order from 1 at one end to whatever at the other end. The second numbering system (as used in Quebec) is that each freeway exit number is derived from the distance the exit is from the beginning.

Both numbering systems work well. And once you've worked them out they are brilliant for navigating purposes. The numbers are usually displayed on the large signs beside the motorway prior to each exit. I only mention all of this because if  you, like me, are totally unaware of such systems, then you will find it absolutely invaluable for getting around. Indeed, even the Google Maps driving directions use the exit numbers.

Yvette's sister tells of her experience in Germany:
When we were in Germany, we bought a map book of Germany in Australia before we left. Very helpfully in Germany every single turnoff from a major road is numbered, so we spent the night before we drove anywhere writing out the sequence of numbers we needed to take. Although we got lost once (because turnoff 35 JUST WASN'T THERE!) we used the map to get us back to the right place and back into our sequence of numbers.
Our experience was similar. In Quebec, once we worked out what all the numbers on the map actually meant (and how they corresponded to the directions) it meant that driving itself was much easier to manage. It did take us a few hours to figure it out, though - enough to miss a major turnoff and enter a city from a completely different direction.

The good and the bad of the various brands of road atlas...
(And while we're here, I'll just point out that different editions to ours might be slightly different.)

AA Good points:
  • comprehensive coverage of each state of the USA and Canadian provinces
  • the markings for 'scenic routes' were actually scenic! We drove Route 100 through Vermont and were not disappointed.
AA Bad points:
  • huge format book - really much too large in size to take with you. If I could bear to rip a book (and I can't do it) I'd have taken out the relevant pages.
  • the city and town maps are very scanty - you'll need extra ones for them.
Michelin Good points:
  • manageable sized book
  • distances in both miles and kilometres
  • good city and town maps - much more useful than the AA ones
Michelin Bad points
  • very cluttered maps
  • sometimes it can be difficult to identify which distance measurements correspond to which roads - some of the numbers seem to 'float' ambiguously between a number of roads
Philip's Good points
  • manageable sized book
  • good introduction to each country in Europe
  • very clear maps - less cluttered than the Michelin ones
Philip's Bad points
  • city and town maps inadequate
  • some of the marked scenic routes were NOT scenic, and some that were scenic were not marked as scenic in the road atlas
All had good motorway routes with exits marked clearly. Obviously, if you choose to travel on back roads there is less detail available in road atlases for those routes, but most of the main ones are marked, and usually with the national road number for the country it is in.

With a decent road atlas, and an understanding of how the motorway and road numbering systems work you should have less chance of getting lost. Despite all of our planning in this regard, we have been lost - but not often. Once in Ireland, trying to get around some roadworks that created a huge traffic jam, once in Quebec when we took the wrong exit and I had the wrong street address for the hotel, and once in Seville on approaching the city.

Actually, come to think of it, I'm going to have a whinge here. The road atlases show the big scale routes around a country, and often have city maps. What bugs me are the city maps - they infrequently show enough of the outskirts of a city to show where and how the motorways actually connect with the local streets. Once you leave the motorway and head into a town or city you can easily get lost until you can reorient yourself on the city maps. That happened to us especially in Seville, but it has happened before that too.

13 March 2009

Make your own gear: satchel bag

Last Saturday I went to a local furnishing fabric wholesaler's special "direct to the public" sale. The wholesaler does really high quality fabrics, many of which were absolutely gorgeous.

I picked up an offcut of some animal print suede. Its normally about $70/m but I got my offcut for just $5. There was enough there for me to make a bag. So I set about designing a bag to use it with. I wanted to experiment with lots of pockets to see which ones ended up being useful.

Following are the pictures of the resulting bag (numbered 1-5, left to right, top to bottom). Its a satchel/messenger style bag (1), with a top flap, that has a sort-of hidden zip pocket (2). It has another zip pocket in the bag body underneath the flap (3). Then there is the main section of the bag (3), and on the back is a magazine pocket (4). The straps attach on the sides (5).

I used a plain black polycotton poplin for the lining. The strap is made of black strap webbing.

I was really happy the result, and have used it a couple of times already. I wear it across my body, rather than just on one shoulder. Its comfortable, and very workable.

I like the back magazine pocket - as well as for books and magazines, its also just the right size for one of my books in its mailing envelope - really useful for ducking up to the shops to post them! (I sell the books that I have written via mail order, as well as them being available through craft shops). The front hidden pocket is good for a notebook and pen. The zip pocket under the flap is good for a lightweight cardigan or jacket and my keys. In the main section I can easily fit my 600ml drink bottle, my wallet, an umbrella, and various other bits, with lots of room to spare for if I need to pack more stuff into it.

What would I change? Well, I haven't yet figured out how to secure the top flap. I'd like some way to have it a bit more secure, rather than just having it flapping freely up and down. I wondered about a magnetic clasp or a plastic clip where you press the sides in for buckle release (if you know the sort I mean).

I'd also like to put a slider into the strap so that the length is adjustable, but I didn't have one when I was making it. Its ok the length it is, for ME, but if anyone else wanted to use the bag, it might not be just right for them.

I would also make the zip of front hidden pocket finish a little higher. At the moment it goes right to the bottom of the flap. If it finished even just 2cm higher, it would make things a little less likely to fall out - they don't fall out easily as it stands, but I think it could be an improvement - and it would mean that I could take some of the bulk from the zipper out of the seam at the bottom of the flap.

Of course, apart from the flap securing part, these are only minor things that can easily be fixed. I really think that I need some way to secure down the front flap for the sake of travelling. I just think that its a little too tempting for pickpockets the way it is. Its ok for my normal everyday life of taking the kids to school, and going up to the local shops.

And all of this is just practising and finding out how bag making and bag design works in preparation for designing and making my own luggage for travelling light. As I've mentioned in a previous post, I'd like to lose the wheels from my luggage because it will be lighter. I am used to carrying a backpack on my shoulders, so wouldn't have a problem with loading them up.

I think that a dedicated travel luggage backpack would be really suitable for travel with kids, because it will mean that I can hold hands and attend to them without worrying about holding onto my bag. And anything that makes my life easier when travelling is going to help me with enjoying travel with kids!

12 March 2009

Make your own gear: patterns

Just a quickie.

Found an excellent range of clothing, luggage etc patterns at Rockywoods.

Travel and anaphylaxis

Having recently had some dietary restrictions placed upon me, I got to wondering about what you would do if you were travelling and you or your child had severe allergic or anaphylactic reactions to food or environmental stimuli. I have a friend who has a child with life-threatening food allergies. I asked her how they do holidays.

She said that they generally go to her parents' place (out of town) or other relatives. They did consider a trip to New Zealand (only a few hours on a plane), but she quickly realised that they couldn't even do that. She pointed out that many airlines still serve peanuts, and there would be a very high chance of there being peanut residue in the seat upholstery. Let alone not knowing what ingredients are present in the airline food - even if they brought their own, because those around would still be consuming it, and that's not even thinking about the food or other allergens available in different holiday destinations.

I had never considered this before. I now have great sympathy for the difficulties that people dealing with such allergies have to overcome in order to do a simple thing like going on holidays. If you have succeeded in holidaying with an anaphylactic, please let us know how to do it!

11 March 2009

The great regrets

Travel is expensive - but great fun. You go to a lot of effort to plan and pay for what are probably once-in-a-lifetime experiences, and you know that you can't see everything. You have to choose. I know that some people are crippled when faced with such choices - and from time to time I am too: it can be really hard to leave something out of the itinerary that you just can't get in.

But sometimes you are faced with an opportunity to do something, and for whatever reason you choose not to. I don't mean that it comes down to time or cost: the opportunity is possible on both counts. But you just don't do it.

We've experienced this a couple of times, and those experiences have really made us aware of the need to take the opportunities that are presented. On our first trip together, Yvette and I spent a week in Vienna. We had the opportunity to take a day trip to Prague. We decided against it, and instead decided to go out to the Danube River and chill out. It was a decision we have forever regretted. The Danube, as it flows through Vienna, is not picturesque. Upstream, yes, but through the city - no. It is neither beautiful nor blue. We could have been in Prague, but we weren't.

In Scotland, we drove across the highlands from Stirling to Fort William. On our way we stopped for lunch at Blair Atholl - practically outside the gates to Blair Castle, which we decided not to visit. It was only years later that Yvette realised that we should have gone in, that the castle was the home of a magnificent collection of textiles that she would have loved to see. Obviously we didn't know this at the time, but we had the opportunity and failed to act.

In planning our trip last year we originally planned to do a side trip to Tangier, Morocco. We regret not doing that on one level, but on another the idea of taking two small, fair-haired children into a bustling, manic, culturally disorienting North African city just didn't feel right. We don't speak any version of Arabic, and felt that it would have been enough of a struggle to get about as adults without having to contend with the kids as well. We're still planning to include Morocco one day - but we're saving it for when the kids are older.

I guess we're fortunate that our real regrets have been so few, but the advice still stands: seize every opportunity you can while keeping in mind that you can't do everything.

10 March 2009

favourite travel items: collapsible bottles

On our last trip we took with us two collapsible water bottles. The ones we took were 1 litre Flexi-Bottles from Kathmandu (shown right), because that's our local outdoor gear shop. For people not in Australia, you'll probably find Platypus brand much easier to find.

We LOVED these bottles. Why? Oh, I'm so glad you asked!
  • they collapse and roll up really small when empty
  • they can be partially collapsed as the water is drunk, taking up less space in your pack
  • they weigh only 27g/1oz (Kathmandu ones)
  • they can be filled even with boiling water
  • even though they flatten when empty, the gusseted base means they can stand up when full
  • ours had a sports pop-top you can drink straight out of
  • they're made of strong, durable plastic.
How did we use them?
We used them to carry extra water around with us each day, as a backup for when our individual water bottles were empty. Because they're strong, we could just put them in the backpack with all our other stuff. We also left them in the car if we knew we'd be coming back to it through the day.

We boiled water each night and poured it straight in to let it cool down. On a previous trip, we didn't take bottles that we could pour boiling water into, which meant that we had to pour it into our bowls and let it cool down like that. Pouring it straight into the bottles meant that we didn't have to worry about it spilling (especially as it could easily scald). We could leave the bottles out overnight to cool, or if we had a fridge, we could put them in there so that we had chilled water.

The water tasted fine, and didn't have a plasticy flavour at all. We had no problem with leaks, and I've even heard of people filling them up with hot water, putting some fabric around them, and using them as makeshift hot water bottles to keep themselves warm! Not a bad idea!

I highly recommend collapsible water bottles (Platypus brand shown left) for travelling with kids. It just meant that we didn't have to worry about running out of water on our daily tripping about, and when we didn't need them, they could be rolled up so wonderfully small. We saved money because we didn't have to buy bottled water. There's nothing like saving money, worry and effort for enjoying travel with kids!

Of course, you don't have to only use them for travel - they can be used any time!

09 March 2009

Strollers / prams / pushers

We recently saw a family on holidays with their whacking great padded four-wheel-drive pram. Not surprisingly, they were having trouble getting it on and off a tram! We bought a $30 umbrella stroller and took it with us on two holidays (UK and US) and used it for two years between, and for a long time after before it finally fell apart. Thankfully for our most recent holiday, our children were old enough not to need one.

For very young children a stroller is a must. (Though some people may prefer backpack type carriers for babies and young toddlers.) If you take one, you can sometimes have it with you right up to the door of the aircraft, and then it will be stowed in the luggage area during the flight. By taking an umbrella stroller overseas, we discovered a host of great reasons to go with them rather than the hefty 4WD variety:
  • Umbrella strollers are lightweight. When you have luggage and kids in tow, light weight is seriously important. You would also be surprised how many stairs and escalators you'll have to negotiate - especially on public transport. On our trip to the UK we did not travel light with our luggage, and couldn't imagine how we'd have coped with a great big stroller as well as the super-sized check-in bags. Remember who will be pushing the stroller (you!), and that every gram it weighs will be more you will have to push. The world's great sights are not always found with lovely flat approaches, and I'm glad it wasn't me who pushed a shopping trolley sized monster-stroller up to, and inside, Edinburgh Castle.

  • They are relatively small, both when open and folded up. This means that they are good for getting into hire cars, onto buses, trains etc. and they can be tucked away underneath seats if required. If you use the hop-on hop-off bus services in many cities then you'll be carrying the thing up and down a lot. Their small size means you can more easily negotiate narrow passageways found in shops, markets and the like.

  • They are often cheap. If the stroller fell apart or was damaged by baggage handlers it wasn't a great loss. They can also suffer increased wear and tear from surfaces like 'cogglestones' (our youngest daughter's word for cobblestones).

  • It could be picked up easily. Sometimes I found myself hoisting the whole stroller with the child still into it to negotiate an obstacle (e.g. stairs). When folded up, umbrella strollers can be carried in one hand while the other hand has a firm grip on the child.
We try to practice walking before the holidays too, to get them used to walking long distances, and quickly. The stroller was a convenient backup for when they got tired. You could try walking your child to school, preschool or to the shops as practise. (This is good for your health too...!) We practised “walking to the Eiffel Tower before it opens” on our way to school, and “walking quickly to get to the Alhambra”. It gave the kids a sense of expectation of what was to come on our holiday too.

A stroller is a great convenience to have for young children. When considering which one to take, just bear in mind that it is you who will have to manage it, often in tandem with other luggage and definitely in unfamiliar surroundings. We're convinced that a cheap umbrella stroller is the way to go.

08 March 2009

How to be the best Dad in the world...

One word: Disneyland.

Ordinarily, I am not really fond of spending either my time or my money on things which are blatantly commercial and tastelessly trashy. However, I did it, and I don't regret it one little bit. Our kids have grown up sadly bereft of most forms of advertising that children are subjected to simply because we have chosen - quelle horreur! - to live without a television.

But you know, those crusty executives at the Disney conglomerate have their ways and means, so our two little girls were quite familiar with every Disney Princess in their repertoire.

On our most recent trip to Europe, we had the opportunity to stop over in Hong Kong on the way home. We usually do this to break up the ultra-marathon distances Australians have to travel to see much of the planet anyway, but Hong Kong afforded us the possibility of satisfying every little kids' dream (except Yvette's, apparently) of going to Disneyland. Yvette was a bit skeptical about the idea at first, but my repressed inner child was fully in favour of it. And to add icing to the cake, we eventually opted to stay in one of the full-on Disneyland hotels.

Well, it is hard to summarise what the kids' response was. We kept it a secret from them for a long time, and eventually we let on to this surprise. Their excitement was palpable. Watching them enjoy themselves was one of Yvette's and my lasting and most satisfying travel experiences (life experiences). Once we arrived they looked as if they were going to burst, such was the excitement they displayed. Bendy has, since then, found a new aim in life: to visit every Disneyland park on the planet.

A few good things about Hong Kong Disneyland, which we thoroughly recommend:
  • It is small. Or should I say, It's a small world. Unlike the behemoth versions in America, HK Disneyland is on a geographically manageable scale.
  • It is designed with small children in mind. This is not a park for teenagers, though some would undoubtedly still enjoy it. There is a distinct lack of adrenalin-pumping rides - but there are some. Bendy LOVED the thrill of Space Mountain. The Bookworm screamed in terror and thought her end had come.
  • It was crowded, but not oppressively. Sure, we waited in lines, but no more than 20 minutes for any ride. Most were only about 5-10 minute waits.
  • The photos with the Disney characters are a really fun way to capture the memories - and they even let you use your own camera. They'll even get a team member to use your camera to take your family photo so you can all be in the shot. I did feel for the team members in the character costumes in the ridiculous heat and humidity.
  • Disney's Hollywood Hotel (where we stayed) was a great place to stay. There were shuttle buses to the park, a breakfast spread that has to be seen to be believed (including Mickey Mouse-shaped waffles), and unbelievable decor.
  • There is a long waterfront promenade between the two Disney hotels from which you can see Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. It's a pleasant way to fill in some time.
  • HK Disneyland is very close to the airport. And if you have a long break between flights it would be possible to fit in a visit to the park. If you stay at the park, there's the added benefit of not having to struggle with the kids and your luggage through the streets of Hong Kong itself.
  • It is very well connected to the rest of Hong Kong by public transport. HK Disneyland has its own railway station on a spur line between the airport and Kowloon, so access is fast and easy. But taxis would suffice just as easily.
  • We were able to get a deal through our travel agent where we got a 2-day Disney pass for the price of one day. Part of the deal was that we had to stay in one of the Disneyland hotels. It was convenient, and added to the whole experience. And we could go in to the park twice - which we did.
So, do your kids a favour, and satisfy that inner urge to go to Disneyland which formed long ago while you were watching episodes of "The Mickey Mouse Club" on TV. I know we shouldn't do anything so crass as to "buy" the admiration of our children, but in retrospect I know it was a really, really positive experience the kids will never forget. And I came away with a smug inner glow knowing that - for a while, at least - I was the best Dad in the world.

07 March 2009

The joys of the Paris Pass

The time has come to sing the praises of that most wonderful of inventions, the Paris Pass. I know that many cities have similar passes, but it is the only one we've actually purchased. We looked into the Lisbon Pass, but quite frankly it is unnecessary. There are no queueing issues in any location in Lisbon - even the most popular sites.

But the Paris Pass is a different matter. We purchased the 4 day pass, which included 4 day public transport passes as well. We purchased 2 adult and 2 children's passes, though naturally the children's passes were much cheaper as they have free entry to all the museums. We got theirs for the transport pass.

Paris Pass is not cheap - initially. However, it provides you entry to dozens of places in and around Paris, and includes all of the most popular museums and places of interest EXCEPT the Eiffel Tower. Once you have visited a few of the sights you have made your money's worth back. If you are only going to visit one or two sights, you might not consider the Pass worthwhile, though there are 2-day passes as well. We used our Paris Pass to get into: the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, Versailles, the Musee du Moyen Age, the Sainte Chapelle, Musee de l'Orangerie, and took the free Seine River cruise that came included with the pass.

In terms of value for money, we definitely got our money's worth.

In terms of saving time, the Pass proved to be priceless.

Everywhere you visit in Paris has a queue. Some of them are long. Most of them are not popular with adults, and even less so with children. The longest we queued was about half an hour to go through the Palais de Justice security prior to entering the Sainte Chapelle. We could have queued for much longer. We simply walked in to the Musee d'Orsay, while the regular ticket line snaked out into the plaza in front of the museum. We got preferential entry into the Musee de l'Orangerie (where the queues were much shorter, but in the rain) - and they seem to limit the number of people in the gallery at any one time. And we didn't join any lines at the Louvre - again we simply walked in.

But the real benefit was seen at Versailles. The day we visited was very hot and sunny. Thousands of people visit Versailles. There is no limit to the number of people who can enter the Palace at any one time (unlike the Schonbrunn in Vienna, or the Alhambra in Granada). Our Paris Pass enabled us to join a very short queue - we were inside in about 10 minutes. The real ticket queue was tragically long. It wended its way up and down the forecourt and was at least 4 hours long. None of it was sheltered from the baking sun. I shudder to think what a waste of time that would have been, and what a ridiculous thing to do - either with or without children.

If only for that one experience, I would have still purchased the Paris Pass. We - all of us - had a fantastic time at Versailles. The Bookworm went nuts with her camera, photographing all the shiny, glittery things she could see (and there's a lot of that sort of thing!). Just to think... we could have spent all that time in a monotonous line with bored, whingey kids.

A word of caution about the transport tickets that come with the pass... Yvette was the custodian of the transport tickets in a pocket of her well designed travel pants. Unbeknownst to us - until it really mattered - the tiny magnetic pocket closures had demagnetised the tickets so they no longer worked at the Metro stations. We were stuck - several times - on railway platforms. And to prove that the Parisians are not as arrogant as their stereotype suggests, we got unsolicited instructions on how to get through the barricade without a functioning ticket from a very helpful woman. Owners of Scottevest with its myriad pockets, some with magnetic closures - beware - this applies to you too!

In short, the Paris Pass was one of the best investments we made for our holiday. We pre-purchased them via the internet from the comfort of our own home and they arrived not long afterwards in the mail. We simply took them with us, and they saved us both time and money wherever we went.

06 March 2009

Travel cup/mug comparison

When we travel we often eat in our room, for convenience when kids are tired at the end of the day, and would be too grumpy to eat out. Because of this we take a "picnic set" of sorts with us, consisting of 4 bowls, 4 plates, 4 mugs, disposable cutlery and a chopping mat.

While what we took last time worked ok, we are always interested to know if we can do better: either lighter or take up less space.

Whatever we consider, it has to be suitable for adults to eat off with it sitting on their laps, and unlikely to be easily knocked over by young children. You know how they get distracted, turn around, and - OOPS! - there goes the dinner/drink onto the floor!

Today I'm going to do a cup/mug comparison. Our criteria are as follows:
  • can take hot liquids, for John's cups of tea and my hot chocolates
  • are stable enough not to be easily knocked over
  • are as light as possible
  • are as compact as possible
  • can be successfully picked up by the kids
  • can be moved across the room from where the food is served to where it will be consumed, without squashing and spilling
Last time we took a set of 4 plastic mugs from Kathmandu with us (see below). Having taken our scales with us all around our local shops, these were the lightest that we could find. They weighed only 31g each but don't stack very compactly, measuring 15 x 8 x 10cm when stacked. They came in a plastic carry case, but we did not take them in it - unnecessary extra weight! We just put them in a long tube plastic bag (one that the newspaper was delivered in, actually!) to keep them together.
The stats: weight: 31g/1.1oz | dimensions: 10 x 8 x 6cm/4 x 3 x 2.5" | capacity: 150ml/5 fl oz | plastic

Since then, in my online travels, I have found the following options:
  • Fold a cup: These cups are apparently standard issue to the Swedish and Norwegian armies. They are sturdy, solid looking and unbreakable. Reviews from people who have had them for years and years say that they last and last really well. They look to be extremely stable.
    The stats: weight: 28g/1oz | dimensions: (closed) 2.5 x 9cm/1 x 3.5" | capacity: 200ml/7 fl oz | crush-proof plastic

  • Flatterware collapsible cup: I'm sorry, but I've never though that these sound like a very successful idea. I just think surely they must leak? They look reasonably stable, because of their base, but I'd be almost sure that kiddie fingers would experiment with collapsing them with their drink still in it... Too much of a temptation, I'd say! However, if you were just using them to take your daily medication with, they'd probably be fine - because you're not likely to keep it full for very long, so they wouldn't have much time to leak.
    The stats: weight: 85g/3oz | dimensions: (closed) 3 x 9cm/1.25 x 3.5" | capacity: 350ml/12 fl oz | material: plastic

  • Light My Fire spill-free cup: These cups have a lid that you can use to make the cup spill proof. The lid, which has a sip spout, is attached by a cord, so you won't lose it. It has lines marking 100, 200 and 300ml. Because they are quite squat, they look very stable. They are microwave safe - a plus if you happen to encounter a microwave when you are travelling! I do wonder about the usefulness of the "handle" for holding it, though I suppose big hands could hold it around its body - little hands might not be able to.
    The stats: weight: 65g/2.4oz | dimensions: 15 x 11 x 5cm/5.75 x 4.5 x 1.9" | capacity: 300ml/10 fl oz | material: polypropylene

  • Guyot Designs squishy bowl & cup set: These come in a set with bowl and cup - you can't buy them separately. They're squishy, so they're obviously not going to break, and you can fit them in the spaces in your luggage. They look like they'd be reasonably stable on the table. As for little hands picking them up, I would hope that they are not too squishy - hopefully the kids wouldn't just pick them up and accidentally squeeze everything out all over themselves! They're made from silicone, so they're heat resistant. (Picture from www.guyotdesigns.com)
    The stats (cup only): weight: 48g/1.7oz | dimensions: 6 x 9cm/2.45 x 3.45" | capacity: 200ml/6 fl oz | material: food grade silicone

  • Orikaso mug: These are just the most amazing idea! A piece of plastic that folds up into a mug. Wow - that's origami for you! They are very lightweight, and when unconstructed can be completely flat (though I'd say the plastic would have a bit of memory along the folds). I'd be concerned about a couple of things: that they would conduct heat too well, making them difficult to hold comfortably despite the handle, and that they're so lightweight that they'd be easy to knock off the table if only partly full.
    The stats: weight: 85g/1.9oz | dimensions: 11.5 x 10.5 x 9.5cm/4.5 x 4.25 x 3.75" (constructed), 25 x 24.5cm/10 x 9.75" (flat)| capacity: 200ml/6 fl oz | material: polypropylene

  • Sea to Summit X mug: These mugs are made of silicone and collapse concertina-style to form a flattish disc. The mug has a hard plastic ring so that it maintains its shape, especially when you pick it up. The ring is the part you hold if it contains hot drinks, though being silicone it would be pretty heat resistant anyway. The base is reasonably wide, so should be fairly stable. It would be interesting to see if these have too large a diameter for the kids to pick up easily. These cups could possibly double as a breakfast bowl, having by far the largest capacity of all the cups compared here.
    The stats: weight: 60g/2.1oz | dimensions: 11 x 11 x 7.5cm/4.5 x 4.5 x 3" (expanded), 11 x 11 x 1.5cm/4.5 x 4.5 x 0.6" (flat)| capacity: 480ml/0.5 quarts | material: silicone
Well, that's my list. Please feel free to add your suggestions for other cup/mugs and any reviews of any of these products in the comments section.

I'm still really undecided about which is our best option. I think perhaps my ideal solution doesn't exist yet. All of the above cups and mugs have their good points and bad points. I think I'll have to get back to you.

05 March 2009

More about museums and kids: small is beautiful

So we've visited a fair number of the really monolithic cultural institutions in our travels. Our kids have been to the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). All fantastic institutions, and all overwhelmingly huge. Taking kids there is a major undertaking (see Kids and the Louvre: a survival guide).

Something interesting we have discovered along the way is that small institutions can be wonderful - sometimes appreciably better than the gigantic ones. Not only can the exhibits themselves be first rate, they are frequently less crowded and much more manageable for taking kids around.

Any decent travel guide will mention smaller places, but I'm going to list a few we've visited that were outstanding. None of these are "children's museums". They are all fully-fledged museums for adults. However, our kids have each found many things to enjoy in all of them during their visit. This is only a selection of the places we've visited - there are many, many similar ones, of excellent quality and equally welcoming to kids.
  • The Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Primarily a museum focussing on the medieval period, it is conveniently set in parklands where the kids could run around for a while.

  • The Cloisters, New York. Another medieval collection, this time at the tip of Manhattan island. It is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and well worth a visit.

  • Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts. A living museum made up of farms, homes, and a school preserving the unique Shaker way of life. Those who work the farms and keep the village running are not Shakers themselves, but keep everything running in an authentic manner. Our kids adored this place (so did we - we could have spent a whole day there easily - but we ran out of time).

  • The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Home to a huge collection of books and manuscripts, including important early New Testament fragments, and a magnificent selection of historic Qu'rans.

  • The Morgan Library, New York. Another collection of manuscripts, this time mostly European up to the early days of printing. It also includes a collection of original (i.e. autograph) music scores.

  • Trinity College Library, Dublin. For one thing only: the Book of Kells. Words alone cannot capture the magnificence of this book. Just go there. Actually, there are a couple of lesser-known treasures there also which are worth seeing.

  • Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris. Rightly famous for the huge waterlily paintings by Monet. A wonderfully intimate gallery where kids will not feel out of place.

  • The Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, Seville. A really fascinating place where a series of different rooms have been set up as 'working' exhibits showcasing various local crafts and industries. Examples include gilding, olive pressing, pottery and tile painting, and leatherwork. 

  • The British Library. It has a single exhibition space with all sorts of iconic and amazing items from their collection, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, hand-writted Beatles lyrics, Beethoven manuscripts, the original of Alice in Wonderland. Manageable and amazing.

  • The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. A little larger than some of the others, but very kid friendly and usually not crowded. It showcases Australian social, design and engineering history and has some hands-on areas for kids. The two steam locomotives are always a hit.

  • The Nicholson Museum of Antiquities, Sydney. Part of the University of Sydney, best of all it is free. The exhibits displays draw from ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome and Cyprus. The kids usually like the Egyptian mummies.

  • Any museum in Portugal. At the time of writing, Portugal was - even at the height of the European summer - uncrowded, though we didn't dare enter the over-developed Algarve coast. We didn't queue for anything, everything was reasonably priced, and nothing was too big for kids to manage. And the kids struck up a wonderfully funny relationship with the museum attendants at the Museu de Artes Decorativas in Lisbon.

  • The Tower of London. The crown jewels are a must for any little girl who fancies herself a princess, or who just loves shiny, sparkly things.
We should also mention Hong Kong Disneyland as a sanity-sparing alternative to the larger versions in Los Angeles, Florida, Tokyo and Paris. It covers a physically smaller area, is far less crowded than the others, and therefore waiting times in queues are much reduced. It is, however, more suitable for younger children as it has one really gut-wrenching rollercoaster - Space Mountain (which 4-year-old Bendy loved, and 7-year-old Bookworm detested).

The giant museums and galleries are unmissable - usually because they are the custodians of a particularly iconic work, but don't overlook the less frantic pace of smaller institutions. You can often see artworks or historic pieces whose quality is on par with the major institutions.