Tips for Travelling Overseas with a Baby

We’ve just returned from 2 weeks on the west coast of the USA with our 7 month old daughter. :D It was a different travelling experience to how we usually roll but I’m so glad we did it because we had a great time and most of the things I was most worried about weren’t even a problem! Below is some advice based on our experience.

PDX airport carpet

Go before your bub is mobile

Ideally before 6-9 months. It’s just one less thing to think about if they stay where you put them down! There are different benefits at either end of the pre-crawling age range: when they’re really little they nap easily and frequently and they don’t need a lot of entertainment; at the 6-7 month mark they respond to distractions (toys, food) which can be useful and milk feeds are speedy. Also consider where you might be with solids: before solids involves less stuff/mess, but once they’re starting to get the hang of it they can join in meals with you (baby led weaning is very travel-friendly).

Bassinet allocations are not guaranteed

The general rule seems to be that you can’t be sure you definitely have bassinet seats until you arrive at the airport. Even checking in online doesn’t confirm them – your best bet is to get to the airport as soon as your flight opens and cross your fingers. You can get bumped out of your bassinet seat if a younger baby is travelling on the same flight, which is fair enough, but sometimes airlines give bassinet seats to frequent flyers or passengers they want to impress because of the extra legroom. If you can’t get a bassinet sometimes if you ask nicely at the counter they might be able to put you next to an empty seat if the flight isn’t full – the extra space is helpful and it and can offer a bit more privacy.

Also note that different airlines have different sized bassinets with their own age/height/weight restrictions – check their website for details. You might also want to look into Etihad’s “flying nanny” service which is probably particularly helpful if you’re travelling on your own with the little one.

Babies don’t travel light

Luckily a lot of airlines will let you take up to 3 baby items (eg portacot, car seat, stroller) for free in addition to your checked baggage. You’ve still got to lug it all around though! We took a large suitcase full of her stuff and a portacot, but hired an infant seat with our rental car and used a Manduca carrier instead of a pram.

We had 4 flights: 2 long haul with Qantas and 2 domestic in the US. Because we booked all the tickets through Qantas our baggage allocation was the same on all flights – if we’d booked the domestic flights directly we would have had to have paid extra for checked luggage.

Carry on essentials

Take more nappies than you think you’ll need, wipes, nappy rash cream (under 100g), a change of clothes (and remember it’s often quite chilly on planes because of the air con), zippy swaddle or sleeping bag, cloth nappy/small towel and a variety of toys. If you’ve started solids it’s also handy to have a sippy cup for water (fill it up after you go through security) and some convenient snacks (eg crackers, cheese, fruit – bearing in mind you might have to throw out whatever is left on arrival depending on customs). Snacks and toys can help pass the time on a long haul flight.

I also find it really handy to wear a wrap on plane flights with a baby. They’re easy to pull bub in and out of in a confined space and can be used for naps and/or keeping your hands free during meals. Interestingly, I found that while Australian airport security makes you remove the wrap (even if your baby has fallen asleep in it, argh) American security lets you keep it on. Also, Australian airlines will make you put your baby in an infant seatbelt for take off and landing, but American airlines don’t use them. Both of these things make American airlines very baby-wearing friendly compared to Australian airlines!

Night flights could be the way to go

I thought a day-time long haul flight would be easiest, my theory being that if we didn’t get a bassinet and/or she didn’t sleep all we had to do was keep her distracted the whole time. This didn’t really work out because they still dimmed the lights for people to sleep to help them adjust to the new timezone, but it was too early for her to want to sleep so she just got confused and frustrated then overtired. We got a handful of short naps out of her in the wrap but she wouldn’t sleep in the bassinet. We had a night flight on the way back and she slept much better – 8 hours (made up of 3 naps) in the bassinet and another hour or so on me, hooray!

It might also be better to fly on an older, noisier plane (eg a 747) than a new, quieter plane (eg A380). I suspect the noisier plane might have provided better white noise, and it did a better job of covering up grizzling/crying. ;)

Adjusting to the timezone

Baby jetlag was my biggest worry about the trip but we were incredibly lucky in this department. Even though she didn’t get any decent sleep for about a 24 hour period on the way over she fell into the -17hr timezone surprisingly quickly and adjusted just as easily on our return! I think it was probably mostly luck, but the most useful things I took from the articles I read were:

  • Don’t plan anything for your first day – you might have to write it off
  • Let them nap when they want to, but for no longer than 2-3 hours at a time
  • Make sure they get lots of sunlight and active play when they’re awake, especially for the first day or two
  • Keep the bedtime routine consistent

We didn’t bother attempting to adjust her schedule in the week before we left. You might decide not to fully change your bub over to the new timezone – eg it might be more convenient for them to go to bed a few hours later than usual so you can go out for dinner and get a little sleep in in the morning (although we found that regardless of what time we put her down she generally woke at around 7am).

Road trip it

We love rail travel but driving might be a better way to get around with a little one. You won’t have to worry about disturbing other passengers, you can pull over for a break and feed/change in privacy whenever you like, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to nap and it carries all your stuff for you (no lugging all your items from accommodation to tram to platform to carriage etc). Try not to plan any more than 3-4 hours of driving a day – err on the side of less so you’re not rushing and break it into a morning and afternoon drive so bub can nap and you can stop somewhere for lunch.

Pay for convenience

It’s a little painful if you’re normally a budget traveller, but it’s worth it. Fly with a good airline at times that will work for your baby. Rent an airbnb apartment with a bath, living space and bedroom instead of staying in a single hotel room so you can give your bub a bath as part of their bedtime routine then put them down in the bedroom while you spend the evening in the living area. Find an airport transfer service that uses a mini bus or can offer an infant seat (taxis don’t) unless public transport will take you from your door to the airport (I recommend Simon Says in Portland!).

Have fun!

Most importantly, enjoy yourselves! The long haul flights were long and it was a more expensive trip than usual for us, but I think our little one enjoyed taking in new sights and sounds, charming people in queues and cafes, and spending extra time with the two of us. I’m not sure where our next trip will take us yet (possibly somewhere closer to home), but I’m looking forward to it already. :)

Lower Yosemite Falls

To rail pass or not to rail pass – Japan edition

As opposed to a European rail pass, it’s pretty easy to calculate whether a Japan rail pass is going to save you money:

  1. Decide whether you are more likely to spend 1, 2 or 3 weeks in Japan
  2. Plug the trips you plan to take into Hyperdia (make sure Nozomi, Private Railway and Airplane are not ticked under “Search Details”)
  3. Add up the total cost of these routes (note the total cost of each journey is made up of the fare + seat fee)
  4. Compare the grand total with the price of a rail pass for the duration of your stay

(Personally I don’t think it’s worth paying for Green (superior) class as the regular class on Japanese trains is already of a very high standard.)

If it’s a close call it’s probably still worth getting because it makes it easier to take extra day trips and some of the subway lines in major cities (e.g. the Yamanote Line in Tokyo or the Osaka Loop Line) are also covered so you’ll be able to travel on them for free.

(Note that private subway lines are not covered, but you get the bulk of your value from a JR pass by travelling on shinkansen (bullet trains) and local intercity trains.)

We bought JR passes for our recent 3 week visit to Japan and in our case it certainly saved us money:

  • Number of trips taken: 20
  • Average cost of short distance journey (e.g. day trip): ¥390
  • Average cost of long distance journey (e.g. shinkansen/intercity): ¥12,000
  • Total travel value used: ¥88,690
  • Cost of pass: ¥57,700
  • Money saved: ¥30,990 (approx AU$360 or £235)

This is a significant saving, but it’s still a pretty big outlay in the first place. If you want to travel on a tighter budget it might be worth looking into a long distance bus pass as a cheaper alternative. I’ve not travelled this way in Japan myself but we met a couple that were doing it and they said it was comfortable and convenient. They normally took night buses so by the time they woke up they were in their destination, killing the two birds of transport and accommodation with the same stone. (And I don’t know about you, but I certainly sleep more easily on a bus than I do on a plane.)

Tip 1: seat reservations

It’s free to make a seat reservation using a JR pass and you can do it up until minutes before you actually board the train. Sometimes the reserved cars are sold out but if this is the case you can more often than not get a seat in one of the the unreserved cars. However, sometimes the entire train is made up of reserved cars only. If you absolutely must take that train and all the seats are booked out you can try to book “standing only” tickets.

At the end of the day I do think it’s worth the extra effort to make a seat reservation as it just eliminates any uncertainty.

Tip 2: buying a pass while travelling

The biggest rule about a JR pass is that you cannot buy one in Japan. You have to buy a voucher for the pass before you arrive, then you exchange it for the actually pass at any major train station in Japan. This is all good and well if you’re travelling from your home country to Japan and back again, but what if you’ll be on the road for more than 3 months before you hit Japan? (After 3 months a voucher that hasn’t been converted into a pass expires.) We encountered this exact snag on our recent visit.

The good thing is, while you can’t buy a pass in Japan, you don’t have to purchase the voucher in your home country. The official website lists worldwide agencies that you can buy a voucher from, but if you’re having trouble tracking one of these down you could try what we did in South Korea. (This might be less effective for countries that are further away from Japan.)

We were able to request, purchase and collect JR pass vouchers from a desk at the Tourist Information Centre in Seoul (to the right of the main information desk). The only conditions were we had to do so on a week day during normal business hours (the rest of the centre is open longer) and it took 24 hours to turn around. (Also note that this particular desk may be on lunchbreak for an hour at any time between 12:00-14:00.) But apart from that the whole process was very easy, and those passes saw us travel all the way from Shimonoseki in the west up to Sapporo in the north.

Shinkansen

How to travel from China to South Korea by ferry

There are a couple of different options for travelling between China and South Korea by overnight ferry. We read up on them over at The Man in Seat 61 but until we took the crossing ourselves we had a lot of questions we couldn’t quite find definitive answers to online. Now that we have travelled one of the routes I thought I’d share the process we went through for anyone else that might be considering it. If you are, hopefully it will answer some of your questions. And save you from being screamed at in Mandarin by an irate cabin mate as a bonus.

Weidong Ferry

Route & schedule

We travelled from Qingdao in China to Incheon in South Korea with Weidong Ferry. This ferry only travels in this direction three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Your schedule for taking it would run something like this:

  • 06:00 – Depart Beijing accommodation and take the subway to Beijing South Station.
  • 07:10 – Train (category D) departs Beijing South Station.
  • 12:22 – Train arrives at Qingdao Station (terminus).
  • Transfer to Qingdao Port Passenger Station. It’s about 2.5km but there are no signs or directions. Your options are:
    1. Walk. We did this with the aid of preloaded Google Maps on our smart phones (GPS works even without a data connection). It takes 30 minutes if you don’t get lost on the way.
    2. Bus. According to Google Maps you can take the 8路 bus towards 康宁路 from the front of the train station. The bus itself takes about 11 minutes (3 stops) then it’s a 5 minute walk to the port.
    3. Taxi. You may want to have the address ready in Chinese if you take this option: 山东省青岛市北区新疆路6号.
  • 14:30 – You need check in before this time and be ready to board.
  • 16:00 – The ferry’s scheduled departure time. (Ours didn’t depart for another 2 hours.)
  • 11:00 (following day, Korean time) – The ferry’s scheduled arrival time at Incheon. (Ours was about 1 hour late.)
  • Transfer to Incheon Metro Station (a short walk or a very short taxi ride). Incheon is on the outskirts of the Seoul metro system and it takes about 1 hour to travel into the city centre.

Booking tickets

The train is more likely to sell out than the ferry so definitely book your ticket to Qingdao in advance. We used China Trip Advisor and had the tickets delivered to our accommodation in Beijing. (China Travel Guide was also recommended to us for this service.) This seems to be a pretty common procedure but you should give your hotel a heads up in advance as a courtesy. (Or you can have a go at buying the tickets yourself.)

Unless you’re travelling during Golden Week you most likely won’t need to book the ferry in advance. By the the few accounts we found online it’s fine just to turn up at the port and buy your tickets on the day. However, we booked ahead because I just didn’t want to risk it. To make a reservation (we did this 2 days before we wanted to depart):

  • Ring Weidong’s Qingdao office on +8653282803574 during business hours. It’s expensive to call from a Beijing number so we used Skype credit (using the app on a smart phone) and it cost 17p for an 8 minute call.
  • There’s at least one lady who speaks some English at this office but you may want to enlist the assistance of someone who speaks both Chinese and English (hotel staff, a friend, maybe information centre staff) to assist with pronunciation of passport names and numbers so everything is clear.
  • You will need to provide your passport number, name as shown on passport, date of birth, date of departure and desired cabin class (see note below).
  • Regarding payment: foreign credit cards are not accepted and the website talks about paying by wire transfer but we didn’t know how to go about doing that. We asked if we could pay in cash at the port and this was fine.

You won’t receive a reservation number but the booking is linked to your passport numbers so you don’t need one.

Cabin classes

You can read about the available classes and their prices at Weidong’s website but I think the prices might be out of date. Alex and I booked one way Business Class tickets and they cost 832 CNY each including Bunker Adjustment Factor (October 2012).

Note that Business and Economy Class are shared with other passengers and segregated by gender. If you want to stay with a travelling companion of the opposite sex you’ll need to book a Royal Class or Deluxe Royal cabin.

Business Class cabin

At the Qingdao Port Passenger Station

Weidong Ferry’s windows are on the left hand side inside the terminal. Show your passports at window 3 and the staff member will look up your reservation using your names and passport numbers, take your cash payment and print your tickets. (When we were there the girl that served us spoke a little bit of English.) If you get stuck you can go up the slightly dingy looking stairs in the corner and they’ll take you to the Qingdao Weidong Ferry office (that you phoned to make your reservation) and they should be able to help you.

After you buy your tickets you’ll need to pay a port tax of 30 CNY at a different window. (You’ll be pointed in the right direction.)

There are not many facilities at the port. You can buy a couple of snacks but if you want to bring your own food supplies on board it would be best to go shopping at a supermarket the day before you leave Beijing,

On the ferry

All prices are listed in Korean won. You can access boiling water from a coin machine but it only takes won. It was never very clear to us whether Chinese yuan were accepted at the shop or restaurants (they weren’t accepted at the cafe), but we later met someone who had been able to use yuan at the shop and received their change in won. If you want to be on the safe side, take some won with you or bring enough food supplies to last you for dinner and breakfast.

Important note! There is only one key per Business Class cabin. To avoid upsetting fellow cabin members (who may or may not scream at you in Mandarin like mine did), lock the door and return the key to reception whenever you’re not in the room. Normally the door is left unlocked while anyone is in the room.

Bon voyage!

Tips and advice for Trans-Siberian train travel

If you’re planning a Trans-Siberian, Trans-Manchurian or Trans-Mongolian journey the first thing I’d recommend is to read The Man in Seat 61’s excellent article on the topic. His website is a must for any rail, bus or ferry travel research but this particularly in-depth piece will help you decide which route to take and how to go about doing it; from organising it all yourself to finding an agent to arrange it for you, and anywhere in between.

The following advice and general info is based on our experience and covers things you might want to know before getting on that first train. (Unless you want it all to be a complete surprise, which is okay too – stop reading now if that’s the case! :)

The trains

Personally I think second class (four bed compartment) is the best way to go. First class (two beds) is significantly more expensive and you’ll miss out on much of the social interaction which is half the point of taking this journey in the first place.

Third class (an open carriage with numerous bunks) is available on some trains, but while it’s cheap and sometimes recommended for single female travellers (safety in numbers) the complete lack of privacy is a bit much for me.

Speaking of safety, we found the whole experience to be very safe. Indeed I’ve read that the Trans-Siberian is sometimes considered safer than any Russian city. If you do have any problems report them immediately to the conductors on your carriage. There’s a decent chance of stolen items being recovered as the thief can’t escape the train while it’s moving, and if need be the conductors will involve the police at the next station.

Beds are allocated in advance and your place number is printed on your ticket. You can find your allocated bed by referring to the number either on the door of your compartment or on the wall near the window.

If you get a choice when booking your tickets I’d recommend a lower bed for solo travellers, or for couples/pairs to take one upper and one lower bed. The lower beds have the best storage (see below) but they’re also seats for all four compartment members during the day: if you take both of the lower beds you could be kicked out of bed if those on the top wake up early and want to sit down. (It’s unlikely because they’d probably be too polite to do that, but I wouldn’t want to feel like I was keeping them trapped up there if I wanted to sleep in.) If you share the cabin down the middle by taking one upper and one lower bed the storage space is evenly distributed and it’s easier to run on your own schedule.

As far as storage goes, most of the space in the compartment is underneath the two lower beds. Sometimes this area is even enclosed in a metal box that can’t be accessed unless the bed is lifted up. The only other storage space is above the compartment door but sometimes it’s only enough for one large travel backpack or a couple of small backpacks.

As a result of this, backpacks or small (carry on size) suitcases are the easiest to deal with. There isn’t any room in the four bed compartments for large suitcases (I’m not sure about first class) but it may be possible to store one in the conductor’s cabin (possibly for a fee).

You need to show your train ticket (and sometimes passport) before you board the train, then your ticket again shortly after the train departs. Sometimes the conductors will keep your ticket during the journey but they’ll give it back just before you disembark.

There are Russian, Mongolian and Chinese trains. The staff are from the same country as the train they work on.

The trains generally have a similar layout but there are slight differences. For example, the Rossiya (Moscow-Vladivostock) is newer and features a powerpoint in each compartment. Other trains may only have a couple of powerpoints in the corridor, if at all.

You could be mixed in with the locals or separated from them in a kind of “tourist only” carriage. We took four sleeper trains on our Trans-Mongolian route: two of them were mixed and two were segregated. You never know what you’ll get but both are great experiences in different ways!

Eastbound Trans-Mongolian trains run on Moscow time until they switch to Ulaanbaatar time in Mongolia, even though they pass through four other timezone changes before then.

The restaurant car is changed in each country to match, ie it will be a Russian restaurant car in Russia, Mongolian in Mongolia and Chinese in China.

Then there are some legs where there’s no restaurant car at all. For example, between leaving the Russian one behind and collecting the Mongolian one after crossing the border.

The restaurant car food is okay but there are cheaper ways to feed yourself (see below). Also, the restaurant does sometimes run out of food (or particular dishes, at least).

A samovar (boiling water dispenser) is available at the end of each carriage and it’s free to use. (I did see a price list which included plain boiling water on a Mongolian train but no one ever had to pay – we think maybe that was the fee if you asked the attendant to bring it to you.) It’s best to bring your own tea/coffee making supplies but if you don’t you can buy teabags from the conductors and they can also provide a glass.

There should be a timetable posted on the wall of each carriage that lists all the stops the train will make and how long they’ll last. (Note however that it might only be available in cyrillic.) Some stops are only a couple of minutes but others can be up to half an hour, enough time to hop off and stretch your legs on the platform.

There are opportunities to buy food at these extended stops: either from convenience booths on the platform or from women who sell homemade snacks such as cooked or dried fish, piroshki and dumplings for around 50-100 руб each.

Some conductors will herd you back onto the train before it moves on but others won’t so you’d better keep an eye on the time or you may find yourself watching your train (with all your luggage) chugging off into the distance without you!

There are two western style toilets in each carriage and they are cleaned during the journey, but they can get a little smelly as toilet paper can’t be disposed of in the toilet bowl, it has to go in the bin – with everyone else’s used toilet paper. (But you’ll probably be used to this if you’ve spent any time in Russia, Mongolia or China.)

There are no showers in second class carriages, only the washbasins with the toilets. If you aren’t breaking up your journey with any overnight stays in towns along the way and are desperate for a shower there’s a lengthy (3 hour) stop at Наушки (Naushki, the last Russian stop before the Mongolian border where the first round of passport checks are done). Public showers are available on the platform for 90-100 руб per person.

People may come down the corridor offering goods for sale such as knitted shawls, fur hats or gold necklaces but you don’t have to buy anything. Near the borders you’ll also get people offering money exchange but the rate is very poor. (Either way, use up or get rid of your tugriks before you leave Mongolia as no one will touch them outside the country.)

I can’t speak for the Trans-Manchurian or the straight Trans-Siberian routes but as far as the Trans-Mongolian goes, the best views are between Irkutsk, Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. The view on the longest leg (Moscow-Irkutsk) is unfortunately flat and repetitive.

If you’re alighting from the train early in the morning it would be wise to set an alarm, but the conductors will most likely to wake you one hour before your stop (whether you think you need a whole hour or not).

What to bring:

  • Enough cash for the journey, ideally any rubles and yuan in small denominations (it doesn’t matter so much for tugriks). You won’t encounter any ATMs at the short stops along the way.
  • Some food. As mentioned above there are opportunities to buy food along the way but you should bring breakfast supplies and it’s worth having a back up stash of things such as cup noodles, easy open tinned tuna, crispbread, spreads that don’t require refrigeration, nuts, fruit.
  • Camping utensils or a good spork.
  • Light and sturdy cups and tea/coffee supplies.
  • Bottled water, although you can buy more at the longer stops.
  • Toilet paper. Sometimes it’s provided, sometimes it’s not – better to be safe than sorry!
  • Cleaning wipes.
  • Earplugs.
  • Eye mask.
  • Russian phrase book. You might not need it but we only had the bare essentials in a combined Eastern Europe phrase book and we wish we’d had something more detailed for the 80 hours we spent sharing a compartment with a chatty Russian babushka.
  • Lockable luggage cable to secure bags to handles and fixtures so no one will be able to walk off with them. (We did this and it actually felt a bit unnecessary, but again, better safe than sorry.)
  • A book to read – but don’t expect the journey to be extremely productive. Even though you’ll be spending days on a train after a while you do enter a kind of twilight zone where all you may be doing is chatting, eating and napping, but it somehow seems to consume a lot of time.

Regarding foodstuffs: you don’t have to bring these with you from your home country – if anything it’s more fun to stock up at a Russian supermarket!

Regarding alcohol: apparently you’re not supposed to take any (I’ve heard you can even get thrown off the train if you’re caught) but we were advised (by a Russian) to take one litre of vodka with us, “just in case”! In the end we took half a litre, but none of the Russians we met were interested in sharing it with us. (Plenty of travellers were though!) Note that the Russian way to drink vodka is to eat a bite of pickled gherkin after each sip, so if you do decided to take some vodka bring pickles too (or olives) for authenticity.

Packing tips:

  • Pack essentials into a smaller, easier to access bag – it can be quite difficult/annoying to get into your main pack once it’s stowed away.
  • Keep your food supplies together in one bag so it’s easy to access.
  • Have flipflops or slippers handy for walking around the train and on the platforms.

Advice for first time long term travellers

Pieces of advice proven useful during my first time backpacking.

Take several very large ziplock bags. Use them to pack your clothes in: eg, one for undies and socks, one for tshirts, etc. Seal each about 90% of the way then sit on them to squish out the excess air before closing them completely. It’s a cheap way to save lots of room in your pack and it means when you need to grab something it will slip out easily rather than dragging half your clothes out all over the place along with it.

Get one of those cables with a lock in case you need to secure your pack to something (a bunk bed, a train luggage rack, etc).

Even if you don’t use the cable the extra padlock will come in handy for lockers at hostels that don’t supply free locks.

Take a fine permanent marker with you so you can mark your name and check out date on food you want to keep in communal hostel fridges (usually a requirement).

Bring a one-size-fits-all sink plug. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bath (often showers are in baths anyway) or you might need it to shave or do light handwashing. There won’t always be a plug in the sink.

While a lot of hostels have laundry facilities and you can find laundromats almost everywhere, having that plug, a portable clothes line and a small bottle of handwashing laundry liquid do occasionally prove useful. (Note however that some hostels specifically don’t allow handwashing in sinks or drying wet clothes in rooms.)

If you have the energy for it, shower before you get dressed for bed. It keeps your pjs cleaner and it’s always nicer to sleep in something clean.

If your towel hasn’t dried completely by the time you need to move on keep it in a ziplock bag until you get to your new location and take it out to air as soon as you arrive.

The only time ear plugs have come in handy for me was on an overnight train when the wheels made terribly loud screeching noises in the middle of the night. I’ve never had any problem with noisy dorms or streets, but I’m a fairly heavy sleeper.

I used to pack a rain poncho but was always too embarrassed to use it. Just buy a cheap fold up umbrella if the weather start to turn rainy – and keep it in easy reach.

If you have a fringe take a small pair of sharp hair scissors and trim it yourself. As long as you don’t have a really precise style  you should be able to get the hang of doing it yourself relatively easily. Enough to get by at any rate. You’re backpacking, not entering a fashion show!

Make sure you bring essentials such as prescription medication, but you can buy and replace just about everything else you need (toothpaste, soap, clothes, etc) along the way. It’s half the fun of travelling and they’ll be the most useful souvenirs you’ll pick up! (I still use a cheapie beach towel I got from a stand by the beach in Barcelona 2 years later.)

In the same vein, don’t take one dressy outfit “just in case”. If you end up needing one you can buy it.

Having said all that, sometimes it’s nice to take a little piece of home with you. It’s a cliché, but next time I go backpacking I’m taking a small jar of Vegemite.

Take as few books as possible. Cut down on guidebooks by making good use of free or paid smartphone apps, saving websites for offline use with apps like Read It Later, take scans or PDF guidebooks you can also access on your phone, tear out or photocopy the only pages you’ll need, swap guidebooks along the way with travellers going in the other direction so you only need to carry one at a time…

In general, and anyone that’s ever been backpacking will tell you this: just pack as light as you possibly can! Buy the smallest pack you can get away with and aim to start off with it no more than half full.

Cache iPhone maps to avoid the need for cellular data and therefore avoid huge phone bills:

  • Go to Settings > General > Network, then make sure “Data Roaming” is set to OFF
  • Open the Maps app while you’re connected to your accommodation’s wifi
  • Find the city you’re currently based in. Move the map around, zoom in and out a few levels.
  • This info will now be temporarily stored on your iPhone for the next couple of days (or until you search another area in detail, thus overwriting the cache)
  • Now when you open Maps you’ll be able to view the bits you’ve cached without any kind of internet connection – and the GPS locator will still work (it doesn’t need cellular data)
  • You can also create bookmarks for particular locations on a wifi connection and access them offline along with your cached maps

Sometimes, your accommodation’s wifi just won’t work on your iPhone/Mac laptop/PC laptop no matter how much troubleshooting you do. Try not to rely on having it at your next destination until you’re sure.

If you’ve become heavily reliant on Google Maps but you end up needing to use a paper map, it’s not as bad as you might think! They can you mark you out as a bit of a tourist though: I like to refold mine so only the immediately relevant area is visible at about A5 size. (Messy folds and holes will start to form but it’s quicker to refer to.)

You can often get free paper maps from your accommodation (marked up with recommendations if you’re lucky!).

Take cycling or walking tours on arrival in a new city to get your bearings and see the highlights so you can decide what to go back and see in more detail later on. You’ll often pick up lots of great food tips too. The best kind of walking tours are the “free” ones (for example) – the guides work harder to make sure they’re interesting and you have a good time because they’re working for tips.

You’ll meet a lot of people you’ll want to stay in touch with. If you don’t want to go the whole hog and print up basic little business cards with your contact details on that you can hand out, always have some scrap paper and a pen handy.

Use whatever you can of the local language, even when they use English with you. I think it’s nice.

At the very least, try to learn how to say “thank you” – even if you have to ask the locals how to pronounce it!

Don’t assume a rail pass will be value for money, it depends on your travelling style. Even if you have a pass you often have to pay for surcharges or seat reservations on top.

If you need to buy train tickets and there’s a difficult language barrier, write down what you need with the help of a phrase book.

Take snacks on long train/bus journeys so you don’t have to rely on potentially expensive (or non-existent) restaurant cars.

Take local water transport instead of cruises, eg: Thames Clipper in London, waterbuses in Venice, local ferries in Istanbul. You’ll get the same views for a much cheaper price and I’ve personally never found touristy river cruises that informative (you usually can’t hear the bored guide over the loud speaker system).

Turn around after you’ve walked past a major monument – sometimes that will be the better angle for a snapshot.

Likewise, look up from time to time. You might see something interesting you would otherwise have missed by keeping your eyes at street level.

Coins are very useful! For public transport, laundry, vending machines, tipping, etc. Try to have small notes and big coins.

A money belt is not a bum bag. If you feel the need to use one, only put things that you don’t need to regularly access in it or you’ll just be advertising yourself to thieves. If you do need to access it in public, go into a restroom and do it privately.

Buy some Skype credit so you can make cheap calls to friends and family back home (if they don’t already use Skype enabling you to call them for free) and if you need to make any enquiries or bookings by the phone.

More packing and language tips.

My favourite travel links:

Wikitravel
The Man in Seat Sixty-One
Matador Network
Round the World Travel FAQ

6 ways to boost your language skills for travel

You don’t need to be fluent in a foreign language to get by while travelling. A few words in the local language can go a long way and often greatly enhance your experience. It doesn’t even have to be the local language: in Bruges we stayed in a B&B run by a lovely lady who spent much of her life in Italy. Since her Italian was better than her English, and our Italian was better than our Dutch, that’s what we used!

Here are some tips and resources to help you improve your language skills for travel.

1. Know the alphabet

Languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet can be particularly intimidating for people whose first language is English. The good news is that these languages often use a lot of English words which are revealed if you understand the alphabet. Two particularly good examples of this are Japanese katakana (used specifically for non-Japanese words) and Russian Cyrillic.

2. Use phrase books

As far as phrase books go, I’m personally a big fan of Lonely Planet. The multi-language ones are handy on long trips where you don’t want to carry a lot of books, and I find the dedicated single language ones feature an impressive vocabulary compared to the other options available. I also think the pronunciation guides are pretty good. Even if you just can’t get your tongue around pronunciation phrase books have other uses. You can use them to write up complicated requests (eg complicated train ticket requests) or even just to point at phrases (eg when you’re lost and too flustered to attempt speech).

On this POINT (hoho), you can also get phrase books which contain pictures instead of words, where you can point at a universally recognisable image of what you’re trying to find or ask about.

In this age of smart phones you can also download both paid and free phrase book apps which are useful because you can listen to the correct pronunciation, although I find even the paid Lonely Planet phrase book apps don’t have as good a vocab as the printed books. And you don’t always have to pay for a printed guide!

3. Write your own phrase book

I credit this brilliant idea to Tim Patterson at Matador. Buy a little notebook and use it to record the words and phrases you find most useful on your travels, whether you copy them from a dictionary/phrasebook or write down your own phonetic representations of something someone has taught you.

The words I consistently find to be most useful are (not necessarily in order of importance):

Hello
Goodbye
Yes
No
Please
Thank you
Sorry
It’s/that’s okay
Do you speak English?
I do/don’t speak …
Only a bit/little
I don’t understand
Excuse me (for attention)
I’d like …
That/this one
(It’s) delicious!
The bill
Do you have …?
How much is it?
That’s too much
Can you write down the price?
Good
Bad
Where?
The number of people in your group (eg “2” – so you can order the right number of tickets, drinks, etc!)

4. Learn by listening

There are oodles of different audio programs to help you learn or develop your language skills. Two that I’ve found helpful have been Penton Overseas’ Learn In Your Car and McGraw-Hill’s Language on the Move. I particularly like Learn In Your Car because it cuts to the chase and helps you build up your vocabulary.

If you want to save money the Radio Lingua Network offers a fantastic free series of “One Minute” language podcasts designed to teach you the essentials of a language in 10x 1 minute lessons. You can download them from their website or via the iTunes store. They also offer several “Coffee Break” and “My Daily Phrase” series which will teach you more, also for free.

5. Get addicted

What if you want more than a few key words and phrases? Here are two options which, as cheesy as it sounds, can be so fun you end up learning without even realising it!

Rosetta Stone: A very natural way of learning by pictures with no English translations. They offer a very impressive range of languages but it’s a bit of an expensive option – worthwhile investing if you’re dedicated to the cause. You can test the software on their website to see if you like it.

Babbel: A website-based system which focuses on repetition. If you choose the written (rather than spoken option which requires a microphone) you become very conscious of the words by having to remember how to spell them. Cheaper than Rosetta stone but fewer language options. This link gives you a free week to try it out. You can download iPhone apps which offer free vocab as well as access to the paid lessons.

6. The part you don’t want to hear

It doesn’t matter how hard you study, if you can’t bring yourself to speak out loud you’ll be missing out on the most beneficial, practical lessons of all.

It does take courage: what if I say the wrong thing? What if I sound stupid? What if I get laughed at? The first time I went to Italy I wanted to make use of all those school years I spent learning Italian but I was so petrified of making a mistake (because I felt should have known enough not to make mistakes) that I barely said a word. On that trip we went to Florence, Pisa and Venice where everyone we met spoke English anyway, but I didn’t want to use English because I was supposed to know how to speak Italian!

The thing is, you just have to have a go. You might be corrected, you might get things wrong, but most of the time your effort will really be appreciated. (Except perhaps in Denmark?) This is particularly important if you do want to become fluent, because no matter how much you learn on your own you will have to put it into practice at some point. Of course there are uses for languages where you don’t need to speak them (eg watching a foreign language film, reading a book in another language) but most languages are meant to be spoken.

When I went back to Italy a couple of years later I forced myself to use as much Italian as I could. Even when the reply came in English it showed I’d been understood and I forged ahead, rewarded with a feeling of triumphant success.

To rail pass or not to rail pass?

Is a European rail pass worth it? Always wanting to get the most value for my money, this is a question I agonised over in the months leading up to our 4 month journey in 2010.

We knew we wanted to travel by land wherever possible and mapped out a rough circuit which ended up taking this shape:

Map of Europe

At the time I was researching it, a 15 day pass (for use over 2 months) was going to cost AU$1,100 per person.

Cons:

  • We wanted to travel for 4 months so we would have required two passes. But…
  • The first 2 months were going to be interrupted by Morocco (where the EU rail pass doesn’t apply) and we didn’t plan on making 15 trips before Morocco.
  • The second 2 months were going to include Italy (cheap rail anyway) and the Balkans (better to travel by bus) so we wouldn’t have gotten our money’s worth there either.

In other words, our plans didn’t include 2 solid months of travel in countries covered by the pass.

I briefly considered a French-and-Spain-only pass but again, we weren’t planning on making enough trips in those countries for that to be worthwhile.

In the end I decided we’d be better off just buying point-to-point tickets and I budgeted AU$3000 per person for 4 months. We ended up making 41 trips (mostly by rail, but some by bus and a couple by ferry or plane) which cost a total of AU$2440 each. This works out to be an average of AU$59.50 per trip – the rail pass would have averaged at AU$73. (And 13 of the trips we took wouldn’t have been covered by a rail pass anyway.)

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So for us, buying individual tickets worked out to be cheaper – and more convenient – than a rail pass.

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Some points worth bearing in mind:

  • It really depends on where you’re going, how long you’re travelling for, and how quickly you plan to move on from each place. There are other rail passes available, such as the 15 or 21 continuous day passes (you can travel as much as you like within 15 or 21 days), which if you were planning a 2 or 3 week blitz of Europe would be great value… although the pace might not suit your plans.
  • Different countries offer different rail pass options. Since I was coming from Australia I was only looking at the options (and prices) available to Australians.
  • Obviously, all my prices are 1.5 years out of date (I should have written this earlier :P). Rail pass prices have since dropped, but this is probably the result of today’s better AU-EU exchange rate. I think point-to-point travel still would have worked out cheaper for us given our chosen itinerary.
  • Rail travel was most expensive in France, Spain and Germany. If you were only planning on travelling in these countries a select pass (or individual country pass) would probably be worth it.
  • If you’re not pressed for time, it’s significantly cheaper to travel by bus in Spain than by train. This is great for shorter distances (eg Seville-Granada) but probably not worth it for long journeys such as Barcelona-Madrid.
  • Rail travel was cheapest in The Netherlands, Belgium and Italy. A rail pass is probably not worth it for travel in these countries unless you plan on making a LOT of trips.
  • Even if you have a rail pass some countries (such as Spain and Italy) require mandatory seat reservations which reportedly can cost more than buying a single one-off ticket.
  • Also, in Italy you can often save a lot by taking slightly slower trains – from memory you could save something like 50% by taking a 30 min longer journey. (I noticed this particularly for trips between Rome and Naples.)
  • Rail links are not brilliant in the Balkans (eg Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia) but the buses are convenient, efficient, cheap, comfortable, and I think sometimes even faster than the trains!
  • It’s not relevant to the EU rail passes, but as a side note: train travel in Morocco is extremely cheap. (But very slow.)
  • We bought all our tickets at the relevant station a few days before or on the day of departure and never had any problem with getting seats (although we had to sit in separate carriages from Lisbon-Porto).
  • We tended to find the ticket prices were pretty standard and didn’t seem to fluctuate like UK train tickets or airline prices.
  • However, if you’re prepared to book in advance you can save significant money on German trains by buying online. (You can even do it while on the road, you’ll just need to find access to a printer to print your tickets.)
  • Often you can buy tickets from machines (which always had an English menu option), otherwise we usually found the people behind the ticket counters very helpful. We were usually able to use English (except in Toulouse, but we got by in limited French), and when we had a slightly complicated request for the ticket office in Barcelona we wrote all the details down on a piece of paper with the help of a phrase book and handed that over. (The guy that served us was amused and somewhat chuffed we went to the effort.)
  • The only tickets we bought online in advance were our bus trips in Spain, which I think was worth doing because from memory those buses were pretty full. (It would also be worth buying any high-speed train, eg Eurostar, tickets in advance because those prices do get more expensive the closer you buy to your date of travel.)
  • We always travelled second class. Personally I always found this perfectly comfortable and the times I have ridden first class there wasn’t enough of a difference to justify paying extra. (The exception to this would be overnight trains where I do think it’s worth paying more for a private cabin.)
  • If you’re planning on doing a lot of rail travel in Europe I highly recommend buying a copy of the latest Thomas Cook European Rail Timetable before you set out – ours was invaluable for planning ahead. (In the case of buses in the Balkans, your best bet is just to visit the station and look at the timetable posted on the wall as any info you find online might not be accurate.)

For any more info about rail passes or rail/bus/ferry travel in general I can’t recommend The Man in Seat 61 more highly.

If you’re curious how much each of our point-to-point tickets cost click the link below!

travel costs table »