30 April 2009

Tom Bihn's new Tri-Star

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that I have toyed with the idea of designing my ideal travel bag. Its something I'd still like to do, but getting the quality products that I'd like to make it with is not particularly easy! Also, I have recently resumed writing my book, so things are a little busy in my brain to be thinking through designing a bag.

Today, Tom Bihn has released his much-awaited Tri-Star bag. I've been very interested in this one, because while I love the design of his Aeronaut, it is simply too large to be used on Australian airlines (particularly Virgin Blue) which have smaller size requirements than US airlines seem to. The Western Flyer, his other major travel bag, has always just seemed too small for my liking.

The new Tri-Star does fit the Virgin Blue size requirements - I know because I specifically checked! And it looks to be a very nice bag. The size seems to be a much more useful one than either the Aeronaut or the Western Flyer, as it sits nicely in between them.

It has backpack straps, which for me are an absolute must, and an optional waist band which is something I would appreciate. It has cinch straps in one of the compartments, something that as a bundle packer, I definitely prefer. I'm not used to packing with three separate compartments, but apart from very fat bulky things, I think I could get used to it. It would certainly stop a lot of things just tumbling around as I suspect that they might in the Aeronaut.

I really love the colour combo of the "indigo" outer and "solar" interior, though really I think that indigo is misnamed - it doesn't seem inky and dark enough to really be indigo!

At 1230 grams (thanks TB, for having metric measurements!), it is significantly lighter - actually less than half - than the wheelie bag that I currently use, which you can see my photos in a previous blog post. I've mentioned before that I'd love to ditch the wheels and have a bag without. It saves heaps of weight, leaving you more of the weight limit in which to actually pack the things you want.

The Tri-Star has handles just where you would want them - on the ends for using in the aeroplane overhead storage bins. There's a lovely padded handle on the side so that you can carry it like a suitcase, which while not my preferred method, is a useful feature for quick "pick it up and move it" occasions. It has backpack straps as I've already mentioned. You can also use it with a shoulder strap, but as I'd never use it in this manner, this doesn't particularly excite me.

The two outer compartments open out flat, though one side has an unzippable divider to divide the pocket further into two. The middle pocket doesn't open out flat, but is instead a slip in pocket. I imagine that this would be the perfect place to put your netbook, to keep it nicely sandwiched between your other things to protect it.

Of course it is made of the beautiful, high quality ballistic nylon fabric that we've come to expect from TB, and has their splashproof zips - something I'm not likely to need, but something I'd certainly want to use if I was making my own.

For me, I think this bag looks just fabbo for travelling lightweight with just one bag/only carry on luggage. I'm pretty sure that it would be large enough to take all my stuff for a several week vacation trip. It also would take all the things that I need for a domestic business trip.

My only beef (which Tom Bihn has no control over!) is the Australian dollar does not compare very well with the American dollar currently, and with the rather hefty shipping that gets added on, it would be extremely expensive to get one from there (Seattle USA) to here (Sydney Australia).

My very wise mother-in-law once said to me that "just because I like something doesn't mean I have to own it." And I think that is how this will have to stay for the time being. I'll have to wait until I can afford it (the dollar goes up?!) or somehow justify the large outlay... Or maybe Tom Bihn would stretch to sending one gratis to this lowly blog so that I can evaluate it fully... Yeah right. Dream on!

Photos swiped from the Tom Bihn website. As I am basically advertising for them, you sort of hope that they won't mind...

29 April 2009

Wondering about Kindles

I had a recommendation from Gina at Portable Parents about Kindles. They're an interesting idea. As someone who works as a book designer, they're somewhat anathema to me! The idea of doing away with real paper and real pages and real books is something that I don't want to even think about...

However, Gina said that they are great for travelling in countries where English is not the language, and therefore English language books are a difficult to come by. That's a really good point.

The other thing is though, that when I'm travelling, I generally don't have time to read. While I do LOVE to read (a friend once said of me that I don't read books, I devour them!), when travelling all my "spare" time is taken up with writing my travel diary, or beginning articles for publication in the various magazines that I contribute to. I often use my travel as the opportunity to find new ideas for stories, so like to start on them while the ideas are fresh. Also, our holidays tend to very much be see-it-all-and-cram-it-all-in holidays, and not the sort where we lie around on beaches or poolside in resorts.

Gina and her husband Sean are travelling through South America with their kids, educating them as they go, and doing the whole thing slowly and as a way of life - not as a vacation. In their case, I can see that Kindles would be great for that purpose. It would be heaps easier and lighter than taking a whole pile of books with you, or trying to buy new ones along the way. Gina said that they download their books from free websites, which makes the whole thing quite affordable.

The other thing that is a consideration for me, is that a Kindle is worth more money than a paperback book. When I travel I prefer to keep the expensive items to a minimum in case they get lost or stolen. I suppose they are quite small, so can easily be hidden, but in some ways, I wonder if they're worth the hassle.

If I was off on a long or leisurely holiday then they're probably worth considering, but for the time being, I think that's one more gadget I don't need to own right now.

28 April 2009

Ask the readers: Canberra with kids

We've been wanting to take the kids to Canberra for ages now. We really want to take the girls to Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre. I went there when I was little but I can't remember it at all. John hasn't been. Its a really interactive sciencey sort of discovery place, with lots to see and do. So that's definitely on the list.

We heard the other day that Canberra zoo is really good, even better than Sydney's Taronga Park Zoo. Not sure why, but perhaps we need to find out first hand!

Tidbinbilla Tracking Station is also on the list, as we're a family that is interested in space. Tidbinbilla is a complex of radio telescopes that are part of NASA's Deep Space Network.

Do any of you lovely readers have suggestions for things to do with kids in Canberra? Its likely that we will go some time in the next few months, during which time it will be particularly wintery in Canberra.

27 April 2009

Favourite places we've visited: Papeete, Tahiti

Tahiti is a stereotypical South Pacific island (part of a larger group, actually) and despite the cliches associated with such destinations it is truly beautiful. Of course, we stayed in a resort - there's not much else for families - and despite this being an uncommon experience (for us) we had a marvellous time. Still, we wouldn't do it everywhere, or every holiday - but a few days here and there are very welcome.

So what was it about Papeete that we really liked? Well, a couple of things. Firstly, for the kids (mostly) each afternoon our resort had fish feeding in the resort lagoon. One of the resort employees would bring down a bucket load of fish food to attract the amazing tropical fish close to the shore where everyone could easily see them. Anyone could take part - the guy in charge would hand out fish food and anyone could get into the lagoon or feed the fish from the shore. Seeing the fish was amazing, and watching the reaction of the kids was priceless.

The second highlight of Papeete was a mode of transport called locally, Le Truck. For the uninitiated, most Pacific nations are not well off, despite the luxury resorts literally strung along their coastlines. French Polynesia is no exception. Many visitors to these idyllic locations never actually leave the resort, except to go to the airport on their return journey. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to find that the towns where the locals live are not at all like the resorts themselves. Papeete is, well, lived in. A bit run down, very casual and makeshift in parts, but well loved by the locals.

For those, like us, whose resorts are on the outskirts of Papeete, Le Truck is the recommended public transport for getting into town and back again. With Le Truck, what you imagine is what you get - they haven't dressed it up with a misleading name. It is a truck, with an enclosed area behind the driver's cabin which has bench seats running down the length of the vehicle along either side, and down the middle. It costs the same no matter where you get on or off - I can't remember how much, but it wasn't much. There are no seatbelts. If you travel with an infant car seat, it would be useless to have it with you on Le Truck!

We managed to get on it alright - it was pointing in the right direction. You pay the driver through the window (or his friend in the passenger seat) and simply get on. There are no such niceties as tickets. You get off where you need to - but there are actual stops on the route. Coming back was a bit more interesting, though. I had to get some baguettes at a shop about half way into town (everything else was closed for Bastille Day), so I got off and Yvette took the kids back to the resort. The girls were worried that they might never see me again!

I bought the baguettes, and crossed back over the street to wait for the next Truck. I was joined by an older Tahitian woman, who asked me (our conversation was a mix of her halting English and my halting French) if I was waiting for Le Truck. I told her I was and we waited. She flagged it down as it approached, I paid the driver and got on. The woman didn't. She picked up her shopping and walked down the street.

I was amazed. She had actually waited to stop Le Truck so that I (clearly a stranger) could get on. Her hospitality was overwhelming and helpful! That's what I remember so vividly about Le Truck, and why, if I returned to Papeete some day I would prefer it as my transport and spurn the taxis every time.

Papeete was beautiful because the people were beautiful. The scenic marvels (coral reef fringed beaches, the spectacular sunset looking out across the water towards the island of Moorea etc.) were the icing on the cake. I think a lot of people get this the wrong way round and go for the natural wonders first. I guess it just depends on your holiday and the experiences that you have while there.

26 April 2009

Some of our kids' favourite travel memories

The other day we were talking about eating icecreams. Bendy piped up about visiting an icecream factory. We were surprised, as we visited the Ben and Jerry's icecream factory in Waterbury, Vermont in 2006, when Bendy was just 2 and a bit. Bendy still remembers it. The other strong memory that Bendy has from our America holiday is eating a SpongeBob icecream in Central Park in New York. Bendy actually has no idea who SpongeBob is, as we have no TV, and therefore the only thing she knows about SpongeBob is that he's an icecream character. However, she liked the goofy look of him and obviously its highly memorable for her.

The Bookworm remembers the same day, but not so much in the context of eating icecreams (although she does remember eating the rest of the SpongeBob, because even though it was obviously so exciting and memorable for Bendy, she didn't want to actually finish it!). For her, it was more about learning a bit about the Beatles and John Lennon, in the Strawberry Fields part of Central Park. When they were there, there was a jazz band busking, and the kids really enjoyed listening to it. It took them quite some to get up enough courage to go and put some money in their collection. The Bookworm really didn't want to, but eventually did.

Of course, their other favourite travel memories would have to be from our visit to Hong Kong Disneyland. That will be burned onto their brains and they will never forget it. Indeed, Bendy's new life quest is to visit ALL the Disneylands around the world. Aim high! Just what the Disney corporate executives would want...

When The Bookworm was 20 months old, we visited the UK, Ireland, and Singapore. For a long time afterwards (until the memories eventually faded) her strong memories of that holiday were of the Jacobite steam train on the West Highland Railway in Scotland (also famous as the Hogwarts Express), men on horses in London (the Horse Guards) and a piece of troublesome rubbish that was stuck to the play equipment in Singapore airport. At the time she found this piece of rubbish extremely distressing, and we think that is why the memory stuck with her for so long.

Interesting that all of these memories have strong emotions attached to them. Most were obviously of extreme happiness and even ecstasy, but the distressing ones were equally emotive.

Sometimes people wonder why we take our kids with us on holidays when they are so young. We know that not all the memories that our kids have of their holidays - especially from when they were extremely young - will stay with them forever, but each has a part in shaping who they are. Of course they won't remember things from when they are tiny, but that doesn't make the experiences any less important.

25 April 2009

Kids' recommendations for Paris

We have mentioned that we have some friends who are currently planning a trip to Europe. Last night we asked our kids what they would recommend that our friends' kids should see while they are there.

The Bookworm: the Mona Lisa.

Me: Why?

The Bookworm: Because it's famous. Also the big paintings in the Orangerie [the Monet waterlilies].

Bendy: The Eiffel Tower.

Me: Why?

Bendy: Because its fun.

John: And what advice do you have for them about the Eiffel Tower?

The Bookworm: Get there early and take hot croissants.

So there you have the hot kids' picks for Paris!

24 April 2009

Travel nannies

I'm sorry, but I'm probably not going to be positive towards this concept - and the associated parenting messages it sends - so consider yourself warned.

When Yvette first alerted me to the idea of travel nannies, I thought she was joking. Apparently not. For the uninitiated, they are employees of resorts and hotels assigned to guest families to look after the kids. To remove their inconvenient little presences from the mummies and daddies who brought them into this world. Yup.

Firstly, if you are going to employ the services of a travel nanny, why bother taking the kids in the first place? Why not prevail on the long-suffering grandparents to take the nasty little brutes off your hands? I could, of course, launch into a completely off-topic tirade about parents who have children as some sort of trophy of achievement, or as a fashion accessory (one step above mummy's little poochy in her D&G handbag), or simply as the living organism whose only raison d'etre is to inherit all the stuff you have accumulated in the quest to show off how successful you are... but I won't.

Secondly, since when is it a grand idea to leave your progeny with some unknown individual to take care of their every need? To be completely alarmist, are the employers of travel nannies obliged to undertake police checks etc. of applicants in order to weed out those who might have untoward intentions? Do you really know whether, while you are sipping Pina Coladas on some idyllic stretch of beach in the Bahamas, your little darling is being scarred for life in some way?

Thirdly, why not have some fun together? What a novel idea that might be for some parents, but you know... it CAN be done. Actually, it can be enjoyable. Sure, go to the resort, lie on the beach, do the things you want to do - but does that really require you to abrogate your responsibility as a parent? I think not. Indeed, take advantage of kids programs that might be on offer - events where loads of kids might be involved in something (usually in a very public space), but I really, really cannot see how anyone could need a travel nanny.

Here's the bottom line. My children are part of my family and looking after them is my responsibility. If we go on holidays as a family, we do it together. We enjoy it together. We'll even plan it together. If we want time away from the kids, we'll arrange it - but we're fooling ourselves if we call it a family holiday.

23 April 2009

Family Funday Sunday

Why did we not know about this? In our own city?

Family Funday Sunday came to us serendipitously. Today. Being Sunday, we took ourselves off to the city (Sydney) for a little day trip with the kids - to the Museum of Sydney and the State Library of NSW. We bought our rail tickets, and were charged the ridiculously low price of $10 for the family, return trip included.

We looked at the tickets, and marvelled at our good fortune. The ticket said "Family Funday. Valid Sunday by rail, bus, ferry."

Our interest being piqued, I couldn't help googling Funday and Cityrail when we got home and all was revealed at the Transport Planning Infoline website. We were amazed! How could we not know about this? Which public servant failed to notify us of this fantastic deal? And how long have other people been skulking around our city so cheaply without us ever realising it?

So, what's the deal? As the website says (and I quote): 
You don't have to spend a lot on a fun day out for the whole family. For $2.50 per person, your family can enjoy a fun day out with unlimited travel on Sydney's buses, trains and ferries every Sunday. The ticket will even take you to Newcastle and Wollongong!
There is a lot of other information at the website which we haven't yet explored, so further tips and deals may yet be unearthed.

Well, now that we know about this discounted travel deal, we are planning on becoming tourists to our own city (and surrounding areas) on Sunday afternoons. We will be using this service in the future for more exciting short adventures. For those in Sydney, or those planning to come - and you should be, it's beautiful - you'll need all the tips you can get on travelling about this city and the Transport Planning Infoline website is a great place to visit.

22 April 2009

Other people's travel photos

Ok. So you're invited by some friends to come over for dinner, and during the evening they whip out the photo album / laptop to show you the photos (all 9000 of them) from their latest trip. At this point, many of us would watch politely for five minutes, yawn, then feign illness requiring hospitalisation in order to effect a rapid exit.

I don't. A few years ago, some friends did a to-die-for trip around Europe with another couple (sans children). It included a few destinations we were familiar with, and much that was completely new to us. The account of their trip, regaled along with the photos was absolutely riveting. We were hooked! At one point, one of our friends did check that they weren't boring us, and we assured them - completely truthfully - that they weren't. At that point, the realisation dawned on all of us that viewing other people's photos and hearing their stories can be just as much a reliving of your own experiences as your own photos are. 

With this couple, we had shared destinations. For another couple, whose trip along the Inca Trail in South America (where we have not been) was fascinating, it was the contrast between our experience and theirs that brought back our memories.

We have thus lived through a wonderful holiday to Estonia, Czech Republic, France, Italy and Austria; a close relative's trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and around Moscow and St Petersburg; the Inca Trail trip; and another Europe trip done by other friends that included Pompeii (also where we have not been). There are probably many others - but that's just off the top of my head.

I once heard it said that you don't have to own something to enjoy it. I think I'll attribute that to my mother, as she has a small but useful supply of such advice - and it is probable that I did get it from her. By extension, you don't have to have had the holiday to enjoy it. It is possible to enjoy something belonging to someone else.

Far from being boring, I am fascinated by other people's holidays. I love the storytelling and the reminiscence of "crossed paths" where we have also been. I love the opportunity to hear first-hand about new and exotic places that we may not have even considered visiting. And I love the feeling you get when looking at the photos of "I have been there". Even more, I love the feeling of "I know what is just outside the frame of that photo, and where it leads to".

21 April 2009

Living vicariously through others' travel

We have some friends who are currently EXTREMELY excited about their first BIG overseas trip as a family. They did all go to a Pacific island last year, but somehow I think they are much more excited about a trip that they are planning to Europe.

They have lots of questions for us about how we do our travel with our kids. We'll be going on a picnic with them on Saturday, so we'll all get to get terribly excited about their proposed trip!

A family member is also currently planning a trip to Europe, and it has been fun seeing her decide what tour to take, and how and where she will spend her extra time in London.

Far from being terribly jealous of their travels, (well, maybe I am a little...) I'm so excited for them, and so pleased that they are able to go. It does help that we went on a big trip last year, so we don't feel particularly overdue for another one.

Our friend today commented that he just feels like everything is focused on the upcoming trip. I said that I was the same too, except that ours is about 2-3 years away! No, maybe that's not exactly true - I don't think about Greece and Turkey (our proposed destinations) most of the time, just travelling in general!

So we do enjoy helping them to plan, giving them tips on how to manage the long distances with kids, great places to go etc, without planning our own holiday for them! They do after all, probably have quite different ideas about what they imagine their holiday to be like. I'm sure they won't end up doing the same things as us, just because we're different people to them.

However, the opportunity is there for us to talk about what we did, what worked for us etc. And then they're very welcome to chose to do the same, or something completely different!

It just brings back all the wonderful memories...

20 April 2009

Why I don't think I'd enjoy travelling solo

I have always felt that life is so much more enjoyable when it can be shared. I therefore feel that travelling is so much more enjoyable when it can be shared.

Recently our family went to the Sydney Royal Easter Show for the day. I wasn't particularly well, so for some of the day I just sat and watched in the woodchopping arena, while my family went off and explored other things. I REALLY enjoyed watching the woodchopping (though as my SIL says, she really enjoys watching the woodchoppers!) but felt that I would have enjoyed it so much more if my family had been there to see it with me.

There was a tree felling heat which included the world champion in it. The first guy had a handicap of about 16 seconds, and along the line the handicaps got longer and longer until the world champion at the end, who had a handicap of 130 seconds. AND HE STILL WON! It was such a fabulous contest, seeing this fellow who is SO good at chopping down trees, and so highly skilled that he completely outshone all the other contestants. I wanted so much to share the experience with my family.

When I did comment (to myself or anyone else who happened to be listening) the girl sitting next to me probably just thought I was some sort of weirdo who likes talking to herself. But no, I just wanted to be able to enjoy it as part of a shared experience!

When we travel with our kids, part of our aim is to build family memories. That is really important to us, because its the stuff that strong family bonds are made of. Family memories are part of what binds families together, and what makes them distinct and separate from the outside world.

I can tell you all about my dad and his pigeon impersonations in Victor Harbour, South Australia, but it would never be as funny as if you were there, seeing it for yourself. Those memories are something that I share with my family only, because we were the only ones there.

I can't imagine being on the other side of the world in some breathtakingly beautiful place and having no-one to comment on it to. Or no-one to remember it with afterwards.

I guess that people who travel solo have to make the effort to connect with fellow travellers, but personally, I'd much rather have my family there on tap, to provide me with that companionship and shared memory building. I guess that's a luxury that I am extremely fortunate to have.

19 April 2009

Affording that dream holiday

I recently learned of a "vacation calculator" designed to help people see where they can make savings in their spending, so that they can save for their dream vacation. The Yaycations Calculator goes through a series of questions, asking how much you spend on various products and services over certain periods of time, then adds up the amount of money that you will save over a year if you opt to go without those things.

Seems like a great idea. I decided to give it a go. I went through all the questions, and I saved...

...precisely nothing.

Its not that I'm not willing to do without stuff. Its that I'm already doing without, and that's how we can afford our family holidays.

Last night I was looking at the monthly credit card bill that had arrived yesterday. Apart from one or two more unusual expenses, all our money was spent on groceries, petrol for the car, and medical expenses. It was quite amazing. I hadn't realised that we lived quite so simply.

Without trying or wanting to sound "holier than thou", here's how we do it.

We have a car, and a mortgage, but we manage to live without lots of the "added extras" that so many people have. We have no TV, so we don't need cable. Neither of us has a mobile (cell) phone. We make sandwiches to take to work and school. We don't buy a daily coffee when out. Instead of buying CDs, we mostly listen to the radio - and purchase music infrequently. We borrow books from libraries - only buying the rare 'must-haves'. We don't need DVDs because we don't have a TV to watch them on. We only purchase clothing when we absolutely need to, rather than just because we want to and minimise the purchase of "label" clothing. I even sew some of our own clothing sometimes. We don't go out to clubs or the local pub.

We still have hobbies, (I do lots of embroidery), we are in the process of renovating our house (we're very much DIYers so we save heaps there), we occasionally will have a meal out or takeaway (about once every one or two months), we have a lawn mower man (John is allergic to grass). We give money to carefully chosen causes on a regular basis. Our kids do extracurricular activities like music and sport.

But far from having a terribly boring and sad existence, we enjoy our lives. We enjoy each others' company, and we enjoy going on holidays together, as a family. We can usually manage a big overseas holiday about once every 2-3 years.

So if your wish list includes a vacation, and you don't think you can afford it, how about firstly trying the "Yaycations calculator" to see what you can save. Then why not take a careful look at your expenses to see what you can do without? As you'll see from the calculator, even small weekly expenses can add to a lot over a year.

For us, holidays with our kids are a priority. We learn heaps about the world around us from our travels. Our family vacations also create shared memories that help to bind our family together. So for us, putting aside money to pay for our family holidays is also a priority. It means that in some ways we "do without", but we can only see great big benefits from doing so.

18 April 2009

Favourite places we've visited: Sainte-Chapelle, Paris

I loved the Sainte-Chapelle for two reasons. The glorious stained glass windows are, of course, the paramount reason to visit. Few churches can rival the technicoloured splendour of the windows which seem to defy gravity and stretch away up to the vault of heaven itself. Even the lower chapel (for the royal servants etc.) was impressive!

I have a soft spot for stained glass, and this little chapel is a supremely fine repository of that art form. Architecturally it is a wonder: the spindle-thin columns of stone supporting the weight of the roof with over an acre of glass in-filling the spaces between, towering to a great height above the decorated floor. And the light. All that glorious coloured light streaming in from the outside. It is no wonder that the architects of Gothic cathedrals thought they were transmitting the immutable presence of God to the awestruck congregations of the middle ages. It still works in our high-tech information age. A telephoto camera lens helps to make out the detailed figures within the higher glass panels that are otherwise indistinguishable from the floor.

I'd love to have had the chance to experience a choral concert in the upper chapel - I suspect the acoustics are impeccable.

The other reason I loved the Sainte-Chapelle is more prosaic: I had my first actual conversation in French with a security guard, asking for and clarifying directions to a toilet other than the nearest one (inexplicably closed...) for Bendy. A great sense of accomplishment swept over me despite the ordinariness of the subject.

Our travel tip for the Sainte-Chapelle is this: there are TWO queues into the Palais de Justice. The one on the left is for visitors to the Palais de Justice (i.e. probably not you). The much longer line on the left is for the Sainte-Chapelle. We joined the wrong line at first, and then were sent on to the end of the other one right at the doorway. It stretched back to the corner of the building, so we thought we'd be there for ages, but it was really only about 20 minutes from there until we went through the security screening checks.

17 April 2009

Encouraging your kids to enjoy the travel moment

Often when reading blogs about traveling with kids, you see suggestions for using DVD players and such like to entertain your kids while your doing "boring" things like moving from one place to another.

I have a suggestion: how about encouraging your children to enjoy looking at what they see around them? How about encouraging them to actually engage in their surroundings, to observe, to comment, and to experience? What is the problem with looking out the car/train/etc. window at endless stretches of countryside?

Apparently children HAVE to be kept entertained for every moment of their waking lives. Why? Why must we cosset our kids by keeping them in an entertainment bubble that means they basically take their home environment with them? Why even take them on a vacation, when you could all happily stay at home and keep watching your TV? If you want a travel experience, watch a travel show...

Or, how about actually TALKING with your kids? How about talking about what it is that you are seeing? How about getting them to comment on their travel experiences?
  • What did you like best today?
  • What did you like least today?
  • Why did you like/dislike those things?
  • What was the most surprising thing today?
  • Do you have any questions about what we've seen so far today?
I know that kids can get grumpy and "bored" when you're travelling, and at those times its important just to maintain the peace. However, how about encouraging them to experience rather than just passively sit back and be entertained?

16 April 2009

Favourite places we've visited: Quebec City, Canada

Quebec City, Canada has two distinct parts. First, there's the yukky modern city. It seems about as lifeless and uninspiring as many modern cities can be.

Then there's the old walled city - and that's a different world. We were privileged to stay within the walls a few years ago at a charming hotel with an all-important adjoining parking garage (with a hefty fee...). What a pleasure it was to stay in this place! We could easily have lived there (except we didn't experience winter, and I suspect that it's a little colder than what we experience in Australia). So, what was so good about Quebec City?

Well, I guess the first thing is the people. Canadians are universally hospitable. We've never met an impolite, unfriendly Canadian and I wouldn't wonder if they didn't exist. And despite occasional English/French rivalry and attempts to secede from Canada, the Quebecois (French Canadians) were extremely courteous to us as their guests, even if they did assume we were British...!

Secondly, the architecture is fantastic. A European city in North America, replete with French architectural styles. The grand hotel Chateau Frontenac, with its commanding position above the city, certainly reinforces the French influences in the buildings.

Thirdly, the ambience and quaintness (and I don't mean that in a condescending way) of the city: cobblestones, steep winding streets, artists on the pavement, Christmas shops, the tangled driving maze, the wall encircling the town, the street decorations. The myriad of tiny details that conspire to create the feeling of a place, and not just the pretty view.

Fourth, the view. Commanding a high position above the St Lawrence Seaway, it is one magnificent view. And there's a long promenade to take advantage of it.

Fifth, the wonderful, wonderful eateries. OK, so we debased ourselves and went to McDonald's once, but we have repented of our error and won't do that again in a hurry. But the cafe across the street and up a bit was simply fantastic. Our lunch servings were so substantial we had to join several tables together just to fit the trays on them (there were 2 adults and 2 kids, ages 5 and 2)! And, the staff let me practice my very haltering French - we conversed bilingually until I got it right! The food was great and the coaching graciously endured. Also, the kid-friendly staff and food at the St James Resto-Bisto is worthy of special mention.

In planning this holiday, we had intended to see New York and the New England area - Vermont in particular. We stretched things and reorganised the itinerary to squeeze in several days in Quebec City, and we are so pleased that we did! It was well worth the visit.

15 April 2009

Ladies travelling light packing list

A week or two ago I read an article on the Skyscanner website about travelling light. The author, Sam, wasn't sure that ladies would be able to manage a 3 day weekend with only carry-on luggage. I wrote to him to let him know that of course you can! I sent Sam my packing list, including weights and even some photos.

Sam was pretty impressed by the list, but later the same day I received an email from one of the female staff at Skyscanner, noting that I didn't include any make-up, and THAT was the real sticking point for so many of the ladies in the Skyscanner office. Well, personally I don't bother with make-up unless I have teaching engagements, which I don't when I travel internationally. I just think that the people I meet while travelling couldn't care less whether I wear make-up or not - and if they do, that's their problem, not mine!

The follow-up article has now been posted on the Skyscanner website, with a large slab of it devoted to my personal packing list.

The photos haven't been included, so I've got them here for you.

First up, we have the contents of my packing list, all laid out for you to see. For the details, see the article at Skyscanner.

Next, we have everything packed into the bag - very messily, I might say!

Lastly, we have the packed bag, ready to go.

Travelling light, with one bag is completely achievable for ladies. As for the make-up issue, if you're only travelling so that people will see you and appreciate how you look, maybe you've got things the wrong way round? On our last holiday I saw a T-shirt which said something like "Come to play, not to show off your clothes". Amen.

14 April 2009

Favourite places we've visited: The Alhambra, Granada, Spain.

There would be few places on earth which rival the overwhelming magnificence of the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra. Located on a hillside overlooking the Spanish city of Granada, it is a must-see destination for any travellers to Andalusia. The gardens of the palace, and the summer palace of the Generalife (next door) are magnificent - so it isn't just the interiors that are worth seeing.

We were there on a mostly sunny day - though it was raining as we left. We had driven from Seville for 3.5 hours to be there, and found the route - especially in and around Granada - to be really well signposted. This can often be a problem in unfamiliar territory, but not here. The directions were superb, and there was loads of carparking (pay parking).

We had pre-booked the entry to the Nasrid Palaces on the internet about 3 months in advance. This is because they only permit a certain number of people into the Palaces each day - so if you turn up on the day there is no guarantee you'd get in. And I wanted that guarantee. I don't think that pre-booking made any difference to the price - just to the certainty. You are allocated a half-hour timeslot within which you MUST enter the Palaces, or you miss out. I seem to recall, however, being able to nominate either morning, afternoon or evening tickets - but you can't specify the timeslot.

We turned up as early as we could and were helpfully assisted at the Servi-Caixa machines by an attendant to actually retrieve our tickets. These are scanned every time you enter the grounds - you can do this as much as you like - and on entry to the Palaces.

We got some takeaway lunch from a little store across the street - ham and cheese rolls or something as simple. There is not much to choose from, so bring your own if you need to. The adjoining restaurant was pricey and uninspiring. We entered the grounds and found ourselves a little seat in the shade of the trees at the approaches to the Generalife. Quite a few people were in the area, enjoying the sunshine, the gardens and their lunch.

Ahh yes. The lunch. Apparently you can't eat lunch in the grounds. At all. We were roundly told off for doing so (as were the other visitors) and were made to exit the grounds and eat outside. We could only conclude that it was some sort of effort to keep pigeons away - otherwise who would bother with such a rule? Obviously we wouldn't be able to eat inside the Palaces, but outside? It hardly made sense. Well, we sat outside the complex entry and ate, then re-entered without hassle.

After a very brief look at part of the Generalife gardens we headed for a longer-than-expected walk to the Nasrid Palaces. We made it with 10 minutes to spare. The queue for our timeslot was long, but once it got going it was quite a quick entry given the number of people.

Nothing can prepare you for the interiors. Of course, I'd seen lots of photos etc., and read Moorish Architecture of Andalusia by Marianne Barrucand as part of the lead-up to the holiday. I was still unprepared. As we have said a few times in previous posts, there is nothing like the reality of being there to bring something to life. One of the things that amazed me was that each room I entered was more magnificent than the previous one - if that were at all possible. I cannot begin to adequately describe the intricate details of the tiles, the plasterwork, stonework, timber ceilings and beams. Everything is covered in the most exquisite decoration. And the amazing thing is this: it should look overdone and tizzy, but it isn't. It is remarkably restrained and elegant.

The kids loved it too. They looked for patterns on the walls, they looked at ceilings - and they constantly reminded us that you must remember to look up - they looked at a thousand small things that adults might otherwise miss: everything from door handles to window shutters, ponds to floor tiles.

We went in search of Moorish Spain, and stayed in Seville as our base in order to minimise the travel, packing and unpacking and all the settling in that a new hotel requires. In addition to the Alhambra, we visited the Real Alcazar (Seville), Cordoba Cathedral (the Mezquita, Cordoba), and the very tourist-free ruined city of Medina Azahara (outside Cordoba). If Moorish Spain is ever on your itinerary, then the Alhambra must not be missed. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and it was worth the seven hour round trip to get there.

13 April 2009

DIY toiletries bottles

It is a fact of life that if you want to take liquids on board a plane in your cabin luggage, they now have to be a tiny size. Depending on where you are, they have to be either 100ml or less OR 3oz or less.

Its a bit silly really (well, completely) because those two amounts aren't even the same (100 millilitres = 3.38140227 US fluid ounces), so we people who use millilitres actually have a larger capacity allowed than those who use fluid ounces...

But anyway, you can either buy travel size products, and get to like them (!) or buy generic bottles and put your favourite products in them. We go for the latter. The problem with buying generic bottles is that the authorities in charge of these things like to SEE what the capacity of the bottle is. Its not good enough for the bottle to LOOK like it is 100ml/3oz or less, it has to SAY it is. And often the generic bottles don't have their capacity marked.

Now, on a good day, you'd probably get through. But if you just happened to get the security person who's had a bad hair day, you can say goodbye to your carefully re-packaged favourite toiletries!

For our last trip, I bought small empty bottles from the local pharmacy that had no size on them. I knew they were less than 100ml, so that was ok. Took them home, worked out that their capacity was about 75ml, and made up some pretend labels for each of the products I needed to take (with my own fake brand name and logo etc) and their capacity clearly labelled on each. Doesn't hurt that I'm a graphic designer so can make them look pretty respectable. :)

You can use plain coloured paper as I did, and put clear packaging tape over the top to stick them on, or use Avery type adhesive labels that are suitable for getting wet.

No-one questioned my bottles, and over the course of our trip, we went through many checks.

There are lots of rumours going round that the liquids rules might be relaxed some time this year, so we can all hope for the best! However, if you are travelling light, then its always a good idea to keep your liquids to a minimum, because they're quite heavy.

12 April 2009

Quick travel tip - keeping your bag shut

Today we went to the Sydney Royal Easter Show. It was a lot of fun, but it reminded me of a travel tip that I'd like to share. When in crowds its always good to keep your bag shut in such a way that others can't help themselves if they so desire. Crowds seem to me to be just the sorts of places light-fingered people might like to acquire new possessions by unscrupulous means...

The backpack that I usually carry on such occasions has a zip with no cover over it, so the zipper pulls are on show for all to see. To discourage likely thieves, we put old split rings (ours are actually curtain rings) on the zipper pulls. Its not going to STOP anyone, but it is likely to slow them down. It does make life a little harder for someone wanting to help themselves, and sometimes that can make all the difference.

It does also slow you down when you try to open your own bag, but that's a small price to pay. You can either slip the ring off one of the zipper pulls, or pull the zipper apart between the pulls so that it sort of bulges open enough to get in to get what you want.

Its cheap, light and easy, and looks much less like overkill than putting a lock on your bag for such a day!

Our kids also used their bottle bags today - lovely to offload their water bottles and the weight they entail to them, rather than us having to carry them! Towards the end of the day The Bookworm said to me "I'd forgotten I was even wearing my bottle bag." Ah, the usefulness of good (though admittedly not very attractive) design!

11 April 2009

last minute accommodation type websites

Recently we wanted to book a weekend away in a NSW country town, staying at a motel, farmstay or something similar. We headed to Wotif to find what was available for our dates in the town we wanted. We read through the list and investigated a couple, and eventually decided on a farmstay. We were in the process of booking, but found that there was a $4.95 booking fee for using the Wotif site, which personally I'd rather not pay. (Call me cheap, but I like to save where I can!)

I suggested that we check the farmstay's own website to see if there was any difference in the rates. There was! In the end, by phoning and making the booking directly with the farmstay, we saved just under $40 for one night's accommodation. Yes, it cost us a phonecall, but we would have had to be on the phone for an awful long time for us to cancel out that $40 saving!

Also, instead of having to pay the full amount up front, we only had to pay a half-rate deposit upfront.

We did find the "last minute" website useful for browsing a good list of available properties, quickly and easily getting an overview of the ones that interested us, and seeing which were available on the dates we required.

However, it certainly pays to check the establishment's own website if they have one, or even just call them to see if they have cheaper rates than the "last minute accommodation" type websites.

10 April 2009

$1 kid fares with CountryLink trains

From 8th April until 27th April 2009, CountryLink (NSW country trains) are offering a wonderful promotional fare of $1 for children travelling with adult family members, to CountryLink destinations.

Train travel with kids is a lovely way to go somewhere. For kids that are used to going everywhere in cars, try a train for once! Its a very relaxing way to travel - especially for the usual drivers!

Check out the terms and conditions at CountryLink.

09 April 2009

Another travel cot option: the PeaPod by KidCo

I just learnt about a new travel cot option today: The PeaPod. I've not seen one of these in person because they aren't available here in Australia, but they look like an excellent idea.

They are a tent-style fold out cot, which is completely zip-up-able, so can keep out the little biting insects. They come with either a pump/blow up air mattress (and its pump), or a self inflating mattress, depending on the model you choose. I'd probably go with the self inflating one - it looks a little more sturdy. A cot-size fitted sheet would probably fit perfectly, and teamed with a cot sheet and blanket (if needed) your kid will be ready for some ZZZZs!

The PeaPod P102 model (which is the one that I think looks the best) weighs only 4.5lb/2kg, which is an excellent, light weight. The models with more features such as a sleeping bag are a bit heavier. They easily pack up into a disc shape, and have their own carry bag for storage and carrying. From the video sequences on the website, it looks like it is VERY quick and easy to both put up and down - definitely one for the dummies or even just the tired parents who have grumpy kids that need a sleep NOW!!

Open dimensions:
47"L x 30"W x 19"H / 121.92cm x 76.2cm x 45.72cm
Storage bag dimensions:
14"L x 5"W x 14"H / 35.56cm x 12.7cm x 35.56cm

Going by the length of the opened out cot, you could easily fit a child who is up to 2-3 years of age in there (as long as they are not exceptionally tall!) with room for them to move.

The side (door) zips down, so provides easy access for you to get to your crying baby, or for tucking your kid in, or for the older child to get out to go to the toilet by themself.

All the sides have mesh "windows" for good cross flow of air, but if you needed to close it up a bit (so the child can't see out so well and be distracted by the rest of the world) you could easily throw a sheet over it to block the view a bit. The fabric is also apparently good for UV protection - not sure if that is just the main fabric or the window mesh as well.

From the type of construction that it is, I cannot imagine that you would have any trouble getting this onto a plane as part of your carry-on luggage. (Of course I can't guarantee that - because who knows whether the powers-that-be would agree with me!) But to me it seems like there is nothing in its construction (such as chunky metal poles) that could be construed as a weapon, so you should be able to take it in cabin with you, if you are travelling the one-bag way with cabin luggage only. However, I don't recommend you try to use it during the flight itself...!

There are a few different models at different price points, so you can choose what suits your needs and budget.

All in all, this looks like a really good product, which would be perfect for road or plane trips. Just whip it out, put it up indoors or out, and its kiddie sleep time. Sweet dreams!

08 April 2009

Kids and cameras

When The Bookworm was six (almost seven) we got her a cheap digital camera and memory card for Christmas. This was in preparation for our last overseas trip - thinking that it would be nice for her to be involved in recording what she saw, from her perspective.

On our return from the trip, as I was sorting through the photos, it turns out that she'd taken about 900 photos in all - in just three weeks. We were amazed! Now, she's no brilliant photographer, and she definitely improved as the holiday progressed, but from time to time she took some amazing photographs. 

What also impressed us were the subjects of some of her pictures. She frequently took photos of things that we adults would never have thought of taking - goldfish in the ponds at the Real Alcazar, the tile patterns on the Alhambra walls, the chandeliers at Versailles - and it really demonstrated the point of view of children. They have not been taught "how to see" or "what to see" or "what to photograph". So they just take photos of things that are of interest to them. Sure, the composition isn't always fabulous, but sometimes the photos are really striking anyway.

She took a photo - accidentally, I think - of the white gravel approaches to the gates at Versailles. The top 10% of the photo is the Chateau and approaching tourists crammed in at an odd angle, and the rest of the picture is the gravel. But it is an amazing picture to look at because the perspective makes it look as if the Chateau is warped in shape.

She took a photo looking down from the Tower of Belem, Lisbon, at the pavement and people below. She set the angle diagonally across the picture and thereby created a very strong image using the white pavement edging as a dominant visual element. This photo is so good that it has been entered in the Photography competition at the upcoming Sydney Royal Easter Show. We're looking forward to seeing how she goes - even just being selected for exhibition would be great.

We wondered if she would be too young to manage looking after a camera - after all, kids don't always look after their belongings particularly vigilantly - but we thought it would be a good way to teach her to be responsible for something valuable (though not too valuable, in case she did lose or break it...). But we gave her lessons in how to hold it securely so you don't accidentally drop it, and showed her how to keep it stowed under her clothing when not using it to make it more inconspicuous. Naturally, we also showed her how to use the basic functions as well. 

And she succeeded admirably! Since coming home, she hasn't really used it - so I don't think she's yet hooked on photography (that's OK, she doesn't have to be) - but she does have the skills to use it confidently should she ever want to.

07 April 2009

Favourite places we've visited: Scenic World, Katoomba.

For all the non-Aussies out there, Katoomba is situated in the Blue Mountains, a gorgeous World Heritage Listed region to the west of Sydney, Australia. Favoured in bygone days as a health resort, it is a centre of tourism in our region - and with good reason. The natural beauty of the area is outstanding, and there are many ways of enjoying a day or a week in the area.

Unfortunately, most tourist buses only visit Echo Point, to view the Three Sisters rock formation, and iconic view known from thousands of postcards, and then force you to spend all your money at horrible souvenir shops. Pity - there is so much more in the mountains.

Scenic World, from my childhood, was one such tourist trap. A few years ago we stayed in Katoomba when the opportunity arose for Yvette to do some teaching in Katoomba. The girls and I spent a day at Scenic World, and I was genuinely pleased at the transformation that has been effected in the intervening years. Sure, it's still a tourist trap, but it has certainly improved. There are three elements to a visit. 

Firstly, there's the cable car suspended high above the valley, overlooking the National Park. On a good-weather day the view is incredible. I remember the old tin-pot cable car which has thankfully been relegated to the carpark, and we marvelled that this new version, with its glass floor for viewing directly below (and somewhat creepy to stand on).

Secondly, there is the Scenic Railway. Once built to haul miners up from and down to the valley floor, it is a very steep rack rail that is more like a tame rollercoaster. It still sets your stomach a-flutter as it appears to plunge over the cliff in an almost vertical position.

Thirdly, at the bottom of the Scenic Railway there is a wonderful new boardwalk through the temperate rainforest in the valley. This is absolutely fantastic. There are little boards describing the ecology of the rainforest, particular plant species, and a very cool, green ambience that can consume many lazy hours of wandering and sitting.

So, while Scenic World is very touristy, it is not as bad as you might think. The addition of the rainforest walk is certainly a plus. If you can manage a bushwalk as well, you'd end up with a really great day out with the kids in a natural environment. At the end, of course, there are always the rewards on offer at Blue Mountains Chocolate - all hand made, and only a few streets from Echo Point. Mmmmmm!

06 April 2009

Favourite travel items: CD Audio books for car travel

A couple of years ago we did a week-long trip to the central west of New South Wales which involved long stretches of driving between Sydney, Narrabri, Coonabarabran and Dubbo. To entertain the kids (and ourselves!) we purchased the CD Audio book set of most of the stories by Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG, Danny the Champion of the World, The Witches etc.

What a great investment they were! They helped pass the time really well, and the narrations were fantastic, including many different voices for the characters.

If you can get hold of decent audio book CDs then I would thoroughly recommend them for long car trips.

05 April 2009

The process of learning to travel with one bag

Our journey from too much luggage to one bag each has taken a long time, not the least because we only heard about the idea of one-bagging before our last trip. We immediately fell in love with the challenge!

But we expect that with each big trip we take, and with the changing needs as our children grow older and larger, that we will change and improve our packing list a little each time. With each trip we have taken, we have learnt something new. With each destination and season we will adjust our packing to suit.

From our first big trip, I learnt that you shouldn't allow your mother and sister ANY access to your suitcase beforehand. As it was for our honeymoon, they thought it would be fun to put confetti in everything. Thanks SO much!

From our second trip, we learned from one of our travelling companions, that a bag weighing 28 kilos is just TOO heavy! Try lugging that up and down steep, narrow stairs... or any stairs for that matter.

From our next trip, we learned that things can easily get crushed in checked luggage. We had a number of plastic items in the bags that got broken or cracked, and therefore were rendered useless. Fortunately this happened on the homeward journey, so we weren't without those things while we travelled.

On our most recent trip we learned that one bag/carry-on/cabin luggage only is the way to go!! I also decided that I would prefer not to have a bag with wheels, though my husband still prefers wheels on his.

So for our next trip, we will certainly take some things off our packing list - at least one of the car seats, for example - and add new things on. We learn a little more each time, and I'm constantly searching forums, blogs etc for new ideas.

So if you've never tried one-bagging before, don't expect that the first time you do it, your packing list will be perfect. We'll be trying to shave off a little more weight and a little more bulk each time.

But you have to start somewhere!

04 April 2009

Sleeping with a washing machine

We've mentioned before that sometimes it is unfortunately unavoidable that you have to share a bed with your children. I know that some people do this out of personal preference, but we are not included among that number.

Wherever possible we try to arrange it so that we can have a double/queen bed for the adults and the children have either a double to share or a single bed each. When the kids have to share a bed, we have topped and tailed them so that they are each using a different part of the bed (and get in each other's way less). This seems to work better than having them both with their heads up one end, because one of our children is a washing machine when it comes to sleeping...

Once, in Portugal it happened that we could only get two separate non-connecting rooms, with a double/queen size bed in each. That meant that we had to have a parent and a child sharing each bed (we didn't feel safe leaving our kids in a room without us). One of us therefore had to draw a short straw and share with The Washing Machine.

It wasn't me...

[...and here John butts in for a minute: I had just driven for six hours and was extremely tired so I didn't need what was coming next...]

John was woken in the middle of the night by Bendy who was sitting up, trying to pull the pillow out from under his head. She said she wanted her pillow back. John pointed out to her that it was his pillow, and hers was where she had left it. She doesn't always bother with sleeping parallel to the sides of the bed, with her head helpfully resting on the pillow. On this occasion as for many others, she was actually sleeping across the bed, and had therefore lost track of her pillow. John had been pushed, kicked and pummelled for much of the night by her feet, as she lay across the bed. Needless to say, he didn't get a really satisfying night's sleep.

So, sure, if your children are a little more passive than ours are in bed, by all means co-sleep with them if you are that way inclined. However don't be surprised if we choose not to.

03 April 2009

kiddie leashes

Look, some people love them, others hate them. I think most people fall into one of the two camps. Child leashes seem to polarise people. I think its because the people that hate them can't understand why you would want to treat your child like a dog, but the people that love them realise how valuable they can be at keeping ultra-adventurous kids from running off.

Personally I don't much like the look of a child on a leash, however, when we were first thinking of taking Bendy on her first overseas trip, we wondered whether it would be a good idea to have one. The Bookworm is a very compliant child, and if you tell her not to do something, she will comply. Bendy, however, likes to see what she can get away with. For her, we wondered whether a leash might be really useful in busy places like airports and on New York sidewalks.

At the time, I only knew of the sort of leash that is just a harness. I don't like the look of them, and I can't imagine a kid does either. So I thought about how I could make a leash a little more inviting and even desirable to a child. I decided to make a harness with a built in tulle skirt with sparkly sequins sewn onto it. For a little girl I hoped that this might make it more desirable. It did. We tried it out at the shops with Bendy before we went on our trip. She did like it (a bit). However, by the time our trip came, we realised that she really didn't need it, so I don't think we even ended up taking it with us.

My nephew though, has a backpack type leash that he loves. The backpack is in the shape of a dog, and he calls it Scrufty (I think this is the name of Bob the Builder's dog) and he loved it. He no longer needs it as he has matured. But it was really useful when he was younger.

Its in the same style as the one pictured at the top of the post. I had a look on Amazon, and there's actually a large range of different animals that you can have: a lion, a horse, a panda, a pink poodle, a cow, a giraffe, a monkey, a koala, a lamb, a frog, and even a unicorn. And then there's a range of Disney characters including Piglet, Eeyore, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Pluto (who looks like his neck is broken - nice touch!), Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. Pretty much something for all tastes... So they are quite a bit more palatable (for the adults) and desirable (for the kids) than the plain harness type (which are also still available) I used to see when I was younger.

For travelling with kids, they can give peace of mind. Though you'll have to ignore the dirty looks that people who find them offensive might give you! For me, I don't think I'd care what other people thought if I felt it was going to keep my child safer than without.

02 April 2009

another reason to travel with one bag

Earlier this week Qantas workers went on strike for about 4 hours at various domestic and international airports across Australia. This meant that no baggage was loaded until the strike was over. It held up flights and got many people extremely annoyed.

Apparently people eventually got moving by leaving without their luggage. The luggage was to follow on later flights. What an absolute pain! You'd really be wondering if it would actually turn up.

Hmm... I can't help but think that if you only have one bag that doesn't need to be checked, there wouldn't be that problem. You'd still have the inconvenience of delayed flights, but at least you'd know where your stuff was.

01 April 2009

Choosing a hotel with kids in mind

When we travel with our kids, we want to make sure that the place we are staying will add to our experience, not detract from it. That said, however, we don't really spend much time in our hotel room because we are out sightseeing, so we don't feel that the accommodation has to be particularly fabulous. But there have been a few places we have stayed that thinking back, they make my skin crawl...

So how do you choose a hotel, particularly with kids in mind?

First we consider what we are after:
  • We like budget hotels, that have rooms large enough to hold all four members of our family. On occasions we have had to settle for two separate rooms with no adjoining doors, with one adult and a kid in each room sharing a bed (less than desirable for us, because for one adult, its like sleeping in a washing machine). Where you can have adjoining doors, this is so much better, as it becomes more like a two room apartment - adults in one, kids in the other.

  • We don't need all the mod cons, just a clean, reasonably quiet room, with a functioning and clean bathroom with hot water.

  • On previous trips when our kids were younger, we needed a cot supplied. We don't anymore, and you can always take your small size portacot with you if you prefer (we've done that too!).

  • We like to stay fairly centrally located in a city, so that we can easily walk (or catch trains etc) to a good number of the places that we want to visit. You may choose to stay further out of town for a cheaper price, and travel in each day to see the sights, but we prefer to pay more and travel less.

  • If there's an old town, then often we like to stay there for the atmosphere that it gives. Don't expect the small hotels in these places to have large or interconnecting rooms. The buildings may have been there a very long time, and not be purpose-built as hotels. However, for the ambience of the old towns, we put up with such inconveniences when necessary.

  • Sometimes we like breakfast included, but sometimes that's just a big rip-off! You can usually self-cater breakfast for much cheaper, but when you've just arrived in a town and haven't had time to check out the lay of the land to find somewhere that you'll be able to source some breakfast, there are times when it is easier to just cough up for the in-house breakfast.
We have found hotels in the following ways:
  • through brochures at our travel agents

  • online through sites such as Hotels Combined

  • through our travel agent's online contacts

  • chain hotel websites
Choosing a hotel through online sites can be a bit dicey sometimes. There have been times when there's just been this niggling doubt in my head that perhaps the website is just a front, and the hotel doesn't exist at all? Maybe that's just being paranoid, but it is a thought that has entered my head on occasion. I mean, what could be worse than turning up in a foreign city where you don't speak the language, with kids and luggage in tow, and finding that your accommodation doesn't even exist? Thankfully, that's not been something we've ever needed to deal with!

We did turn up once outside the vacant lot that was supposed to contain our hotel. It turned out though, that someone had gotten the address wrong. On finding the correct address, there was a sizeable hotel there, to our relief!

We have chosen our accommodation solely over the internet, and (gulp!) even prepaid, and arrived to find that the hotel was certainly there, the room was just lovely, it was clean, quiet and functional, and the hotel was well located. A good experience all round, and it was much cheaper than anything that we saw in that city in the travel agent brochures. I found our hotel in Paris, using this method, and it (the search and then also the stay!) was great!

However, when you choose your hotel, don't choose it solely on the basis of the photo in the brochure or on the website. Chances are, the room that they are showing you is one of their best rooms, and you may not be getting one that has been so recently redecorated or even cleaned!

After fruitlessly online searching for a place to stay in the countryside in Portugal, we went grovelling to our travel agent. We had tried online searching using town names from the region, and "accommodation" or "hotel" type terms; we had tried using some of the conglomerate hotel search websites; and had tried chain hotel websites for anything in the region, each with no success. Our travel agent eventually found us a homestay type place (Quinta Princesa do Pinhal), using some of her online contacts (she made no commission on the booking, so it was very good of her to do this for us, but then we had spent a lot of other money with her!). It was a self-catering apartment within a house, and the owner was thrilled to have her first Australian visitors!

When we are looking for a hotel, we generally go for 2 to 3 star establishments. For us, these usually offer us good enough facilities for the money we are paying. In the past we have also looked at hostel accommodation, but for the locations we were looking at, none of the hostels would accept children as young as ours. We would look at this again for future trips, as our children are getting older all the time (aren't we all?).

Before travelling for the first time with our young kids, we did wonder what we would do at night, when they had gone to bed, but we didn't yet want to also be asleep. When you only have one room, lights on for the adults can be a bit distracting for little kids.

We have found a number of ways around this: we once rearranged the room to put some lounge chairs and a lamp in the luggage alcove, so that we could sit and read and write in our diaries after they'd gone to bed. We have also put on only a pale bed lamp so as not to be too distracting. And then, if worst comes to worst, you can always sit in the bathroom - we haven't had to resort to this yet. I seem to remember my brother in law and sister in law once put their young baby in the wardrobe (with door slightly ajar for breathing) at night so that she could sleep in darkness, without them bothering her. There ARE ways around these things - you just have to be creative!

Of course, our most kids-in-mind hotel that we have ever stayed at, would have to be Disneyland's Hollywood Hotel in Hong Kong. It was like one big 24 hour Disney-fest! The rooms were decorated with Disney paraphernalia, and it overlooked the Disneyland Park. The dining room where we had breakfast was completely Mickey and Minnie themed, even down to the waffles, which were Mickey Mouse shaped. The kids had an absolute ball, and were so excited to be staying there. Yes, it cost an arm and a leg, but it was definitely chosen with the kids in mind, as their very own special part of the holiday.