Arriving in England

We arrived in England to an uncharacteristically sunny day. After the challenges involved with traveling all day and overnight with two small children, we decided to take the weather as a good omen for the rest of our trip, which was perhaps a bit overly optimistic. Our youngest, not quite 13 months old at the start of our trip, took great exception to being awakened after only about 4 hours of sleep. She normally sleeps for a 12 hour stretch at night, so we really couldn’t hold it against her. She cried off and on from the moment we woke her up on the plane, and by the time we got to passport control she had had it with the whole situation and dissolved into a full-blown meltdown. We moved her so that I was carrying her on my front in the ERGO baby, and I did my best to calm her by singing softly and rubbing her head, but she refused to be calmed. As we gazed out onto the sea of at least a thousand people stretched out in front of us, Scott and I exchanged a look of utter helplessness that only a fellow parent could fully understand.

After about 15 minutes in the queue, with our baby wailing louder than I’d ever heard her before, the voice of an angel came from behind me “Madame, would you like to come with me?”. I quickly realized that this was not the first time the angel had spoken to me, but between Luciana’s crying, my near panicked state, and sleep deprivation, it had taken me a little while to hear him. When I finally turned around, I saw an official looking man holding open the rope that formed the queue. “Would you like to come with me?” he repeated, while gesturing away from the queue with the hand not holding the rope. Ever swift with a comeback, Scott said “As long as we’re not being arrested for being too loud!”, which elicited a chuckle from the angel and those within ear shot. We followed our savior all the way to the front of what must have been at least a 3 hour line, and breezed through passport control in about 5 minutes. I do realize that skipping us to the front of the line benefited the other people in the queue almost as much as it did us, since they would no longer be subjected to the incessant and extremely loud wailing of a confused and angry baby, but I certainly never expected to be given special treatment, and I will never forget the kindness of our Heathrow angel.

After collecting our checked bags and breezing through customs, we purchased Underground tickets from a ticket agent, and began our journey through London to Saint Pancras station, where we would catch our train to Nottingham. I did a little bit of research ahead of time and determined that while the Heathrow Express would get us into London in half the time or less, the Underground would take us directly to our desired station (the Heathrow Express goes into Paddington) and was a fraction of the cost. We decided that with 2 kids plus all of our baggage, being direct and cheap far outweighed speed. Upon arrival at St. Pancras station, we made our way to the ticket counter and bought one-way tickets to Nottingham. When catching an East Midlands train, it is important to note that you will pay at least 20 pounds more if you don’t buy your ticket online ahead of time. We discovered this the hard way. I wasn’t sure what time we would be able to get to St.Pancras, and was concerned about choosing the correct any time ticket, and so didn’t buy them from home. In hindsight it would have saved us about 80 pounds if we had bought our tickets online, which I did do for our return trip from Nottingham to London, because we had to make a critical connection for our Eurostar train.

The ticket agent put us on the very next train to Nottingham, and as it as already at the platform. We had to practically run there. Not an easy thing to do while hauling 2 rolling suitcases, a duffel bag, 2 backpacks, a stroller with a toddler and a baby in a carrier. We were able to get 2 seats together, but it was a rather long ride with the children on our laps, since both of them were exhausted and thoroughly sick of sitting still. This was Sunday morning, and there were 4 blokes seated around the table next to us on the train that had obviously had a Saturday night out in London. One of the group fell asleep with his head on the table, and as the train approached their stop, the other 3 climbed over and around him as quietly as they could, with the obvious intention of leaving him there. They quietly giggled as they snuck away and as I was openly watching their antics, they each gave me the universal “shush!” sign, first finger to lips and smiled a boyish grin. At the very last moment, they took pity on their sleepy friend, woke him up, and he managed to get off the train in time.

Packing “Light”

We are traveling in Europe exclusively by rail, so we need to be able to easily manage both the children and our baggage.  In the early planning stages, we considered renting a car so that we could more easily haul our stuff around, but I don’t like to drive, so that would not have been a nice vacation for Scott who would have ended up driving most of the time.  Also, the scope of our trip would have had to be much smaller, because driving for thousands of miles around Europe is quite a different undertaking than riding the rails.  In the end, we decided that taking trains was the better option for us as a family, but for me, this decision added the challenge of packing for a family of four in such a way as to make us as agile as possible.

I first stumbled upon the packing light concept in 2004 while searching online for packing lists for Disney World.  The basic premise is that no matter how long your trip is, you should be able to fit everything you need within a carry-on sized suitcase.  You must be willing to do laundry, b0th in your hotel room sink, and for longer trips like ours, in laundromats.  It is essential to pack clothing that matches, for instance, all tops should match all bottoms, and 1 or 2 pairs of shoes should be all one needs to pack.  There are many of excellent websites devoted to packing light, so I’m not going to delve any deeper into the specifics of it here.

Now, packing light for an adult is fairly simple.  Adults don’t really need much stuff: clothes, toiletries and electronics, that’s pretty much it.  Children, on the other hand, require all kinds of peripherals: bottles, diapers, formula, blankies, toys… the list really can go on and on.  Children are less adaptable.  Our 3-year-old daughter cannot sleep without her special pink polka dot blanket and her Dora the Explorer pillow.  Our 1-year-old daughter likes her stuffed giraffe and her purple polka dot blanket.  I am confident that I will not be able to find replacements for these beloved items in Europe, so they not only must come with us, but also must be closely guarded against loss.

Here is a photo of the luggage we are taking to Europe:

2 Ikea rolling backpacks with zip-off dayppacks padded and suitable for carrying laptops, iPads and other delicate electronics, 1 umbrella stroller (Combi Flare), 1 ERGO baby carrier with matching backpack, 1 Skiphop bumblebee backpack for our 3-year-old to carry, and not pictured here an Ikea reusable shopping bag with a zippered top to use to carry snacks onto the plane, since we have a 6 hour layover between our flight to NY and our flight to London, and I have a picky eater.

I keep unpacking the luggage and looking for things to leave behind.  For example, I dumped the separate bottles of laundry detergent, dish washing liquid, body wash and shampoo in favor of a couple of 2 ounce bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Miracle Soap.  This stuff gets great reviews among light packers, so hopefully it will work out for all of the uses named above, but if it doesn’t it’s not like we’re going to be in a 3rd world country!  We can buy anything we need over there, which is important to remember.  This afternoon we watched Rick Steves’ Europe travel skills episodes, and in one of them he said “Pack for the best case scenario.”  I’ve been pondering that advice all evening, and am seriously considering removing half the amount of diapers I currently have packed.  Europeans do have babies after all, so it’s not likely I will encounter shortage on size 4 diapers!  I do plan on posting the complete list of our luggage contents, but I’m going to wait until I know for sure what will make the cut.  Stay tuned!

A New Travelling Laptop

As we prepared for this trip it was apparent that my existing laptop, a sturdy three year old workhorse, was going to be too large and too bulky for this trip.  Having a laptop is absolutely essential for us as I have to work part of the time while we are traveling and we need the ability to store and upload pictures and videos and to write our blog posts.  The laptop is going to be heavily used on this trip, as it always is when we travel.

So at the last minute we made the decision to get a new laptop, one of the “ultrabooks” – that family of very small but fully functional laptops that are beginning to become popular.  We own a few netbooks but they are too small and lack too much functionality for how we need to be able to work.  So the more expensive ultrabook option is the best one for us.

I have been looking at the HP Folio 13, widely regarded as one of the best small laptops on the market today, for a few months but knew that if I was going to get one that it would have to be just before we leave on our trip.  And at the last minute, it worked out.

We are both really excited.  The old laptop was much larger and a little heavier than this laptop and fitting it into the luggage was going to be hard.  We have no space to spare and every ounce matters.  This laptop is more rigid too so it will stand up to the travels better.

There are several factors, other than the materials and form factor, that lead me to the HP Folio 13.  It is a full power Intel i5 dual core processor for desktop-like performance.  It has 4GB of ram so that I can easily run all of my applications without any problems.  The screen is 13.3″ which is way smaller than I would like but when you want a 13″ ultrabook there is no way to get a screen bigger than that in there.  The screen is sharp and brilliant, though, so very easy to use even though it is small.

There are two really stand out features for the. First there is the 128GB solid state hard drive which means longer battery life, less heat and faster performance along with far better protection from getting knocked around during our travels.  Solid state drives can take a lot of physical abuse without losing data.  Nothing like a traditional hard drive.   Second the keyboard is backlit.  That seems trivial but when traveling with kids and needing to be able to work from a dark hotel room or a dark train or even on the plane without turning on extra lights, the backlit keyboard will be a life saver.

The battery life on the Folio 13 is excellent too.  I have not had time to run it through its paces to really test it heavily but I am seeing battery life in the four to six hour range already.  The led lighting on the screen and keyboard help to keep the heat and power down.

The entire bottom of the Folio 13 is a sleek rubber which is nice to hold and easy to keep on your lap or other surface.  Perfect for traveling.  If we need the laptop has USB, Ethernet and HDMI connectors.  Very flexible.  It is unlikely that we will need to use those but we are prepared just in case.  When traveling it is good to have some sort of support for Ethernet because, while rare, some hotels offer Ethernet only and not WiFi.  That is a major problem for iPad users.

The laptop also has an SD card reader which is critical since one of its primary purposes will be to upload our pictures and videos “as they happen” while we are in Europe.

Now that I have been using the laptop for several days one unforeseen advantage of it has come to light.  The boot up time is seconds.  From power on to usable is maybe as little as five seconds.  I’ve never had a computer able to do that since the days of the Commodore 64!  That means less battery wasted on reboots and more time able to be spent on the vacation rather than on waiting for the laptop to turn on and turn off.  My old laptop easily takes a minute or two and my desktop even more.

So far we feel that the Folio 13 was an excellent traveler’s choice.  We will be field testing it, to be sure, but already we are very much relieved that we have a rock solid and very portable computing choice for our travels.