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

8 Apps to Ease Life with a Newborn

I know we live in a world that is largely over-dependant on smart phones, but they do come in handy. I’ve played around with quite a few apps for various different things since our daughter was born and I thought I’d share the ones I’ve found most useful.

Baby tracker app

Baby Tracker (free or AU$6.49 | iPhone only)
For tracking feeds, nappy changes & sleeps. You can use it for free or you can pay a one off fee to keep using the graphs, which I really like because they’re a good visual summary and can help to identify patterns. I tried a lot of different tracking apps and I like this one best because it’s reliable, easy to use, and isn’t crowded with a lot of other features I don’t want to use.

23 Snaps (free | iPhone & Android)
A private way to share photos and videos with family and close friends, saving your Facebook feed from baby photo overload. The people you share with don’t need to have the app or even an account – all they need is an email address to receive updates, which is great if you have any non-tech-savvy family members! If they do sign up, they can post comments and likes like any other social network.

The Wonder Weeks (AU$1.99-2.28 | iPhone & Android)
Accompanies the book of the same name, which I’d also recommend. I’ve tried to avoid information overload from reading too many baby books but I like the Wonder Weeks because it explains why your baby might suddenly become clingy or start crying a lot and what big developments you can look forward to once s/he’s gotten through the fussy period. The app doesn’t replace the book but it gives you summaries from it and a little chart of when your baby’s wonder weeks will most likely happen.

My Baby Today (free | iPhone & Android)
Daily articles about what progress you could see in your baby. It’s from the Australian version of the Baby Center website but the info is not quite as good as the Raising Children Network, it’s just I don’t think RC has an app.

Sound Sleeper (free or AU$3.99 | iPhone only)
White noise app for helping babies sleep including noises like shhhh, a mother’s heartbeat, vacuum cleaner, rain, etc. You can even record your own noises. You can pay an upgrade for extra features such as longer play and a sleep tracking thing if you want to.

Spotify (free or AU$11.99/month | iPhone & Android)
I’ve used Spotify to play instrumental lullaby versions of pop songs, which Clem seems to like and it’s a bit more interesting for us than traditional lullabies. ;) Some of the artists I’ve found for this are Rockaby Baby!, Sweet Little Band, Nico Infante, Rockaby Lullaby and Twinkle Twinkle Little Rock Star. I ended up paying for a monthly subscription because I found the ads a bit jarring if she was drifting off to sleep.

Feed Safe (free | iPhone only)
A timer made by the Australian Breastfeeding Association that calculates when your breastmilk will be free from alcohol. It also contains a useful (and not too overbearing) FAQ about drinking and breastfeeding.

Mind the Bump (free | iPhone & Android)
Meditation/awareness app developed in association with Beyond Blue for use throughout pregnancy and after birth to promote bonding with your baby and partner and to help avoid baby-related depression.

As a general thing, I also found that while I was breastfeeding I tended to mindlessly go over and over my Facebook feed, refreshing it even when there was no new content, just as something to do. I’ve felt much better since I turned off all social media notifications and started using the Kindle or iBooks apps to read to pass the time instead. That way I feel like I’m nuturing my brain rather than letting it slowly rot! Podcasts are also good for passing the time when your hands are occupied with feeding a bub.

Antenatal Classes for Labour, Birth and Parenting

We ended up going to quite a few antenatal classes. We signed up for the hospital one early on because we didn’t have time to research alternatives before it got booked out but the other classes we went to in between booking and attending the hospital one were the most helpful. We were also very lucky that one of my aunts happens to be a midwife and she flew down from Brisbane to Melbourne specially to give us a private session of her own class!

We didn’t set out to do quite so many classes but I liked it because it gave us refreshers on things we’d forgotten, the opportunity to ask questions that hadn’t occurred to us earlier, and different perspectives on various aspects which enabled us to form a well rounded picture. I also preferred classes over reading books: I think hearing the information is more helpful than reading it because the tone with which it’s delivered makes a difference and it’s really great being able to discuss questions live.

Antenatal classes

birthwell birthright Lamaze: Weekend Intensive Course

This was our main labour & birthing class. Apparently Lamaze used to be a big thing in the US and was all about a particular type of breathing, but it’s moved on since then. I found it really helpful because it was the first time I’d really heard about the different stages of labour (especially reassuring to find out the worst part is the shortest!) and it gave us practical things to do when the time came, from taking our mind off it in the early stages to hands-on physical strategies for when things got serious. After the class I felt like I was much more mentally prepared for what was to come. It wasn’t heavy on any candles/music/visualisation stuff, which just didn’t appeal very much to me personally.

Other options are Rhea Dempsey’s Embracing the Intensity workshop which I’ve heard a lot of good things about, Calmbirth and HypnoBirthing. I recommend finding out what is available in your area and reading up on their approach to see what appeals the most to you.

Parent Prep: Full Parenting Preparation Group Class (Intensive)

This is a fantastic class! It’s all very well going to classes to help you through the day or two of labour, but this class focuses on the first 3 months of you newborn’s life. We learnt lots of different settling techniques, practised swaddling and bathing, and discussed all different kinds of baby stuff. We got to try on different wraps and carriers and look at different brands of nappies and bottles, as well as all sorts of other things. Doing this class meant I never had that feeling of coming home from the hospital and wondering, “Ummm, so what happens now?” Highly recommended!

Royal Women’s Hospital: Fundamental Childbirth Education (Group Sessions)

The hospital class was split into two parts which kind of summarised the two areas above: labour/birth and early parenting. It was okay as a refresher of what we’d already covered in other classes but fairly rushed and it didn’t feel like they covered things in enough detail. If we’d only done the hospital classes I don’t think I would have been filled with the same level of confidence we got from the others. What was good was just casually chatting with the midwives that led our sessions about their experiences, finding out the hospital’s policy on things that we’d heard about during the other classes and taking a tour of the hospital’s birthing suites and maternity wards.

Disclaimer: I’m not any kind of birthing/parenting expert, these are just my opinions based on personal experience and research. It’s all Melbourne-centric too, since that’s where I live!

Baby Stuff: Clothing, Transport and Bedroom

Nearly one year since my last post and I now have a 3 month old bundle of joy in my life! In the spirit of my travel-related posts I wanted to share some of the things we’ve found useful just in case anyone else finds them helpful too. I’m certainly no kind of parenting expert at all, and goodness knows you get bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information and (often conflicting) advice when you’re about to or have just become a parent, but if you do find any of this useful, fantastic! If not, that’s totally fine too.

This post is about… STUFF.

Nursery bunting

Maternity Clothes

They are expensive. For the most part you can get away with buying larger sizes of normal clothes, but there are certain things – namely pants – that you will want to get a maternity version of for your own comfort.

Side note: maternity jeans are the comfiest jeans ever. You will wish all jeans could be like maternity jeans.*

You can get significantly cheaper maternity clothes at H&M and large Kmart stores, but I’d recommend getting bras from somewhere you can be professionally fitted (eg Myer). If you need some fancy maternity clothes for a special event (eg wedding) try the Pea In A Pod factory outlet in Collingwood. (Still more expensive than normal clothes, but they have a much bigger range than H&M or Kmart.)

*Top tip for post-baby pants: Katies denim! Probably the closest thing you can get to maternity pants that aren’t actually maternity pants.

Baby Clothes

Basically, don’t buy heaps of newborn (0000) and 0-3 month (000) sized clothes. They’re ridiculously cute and tempting but your bub will most likely grow out of them before each outfit gets even one wear. You will need some though – babies can go through several changes of clothes a day. Oh, and unless you’re due in winter, you’re unlikely to need any socks until they’re at least 3 months old. Target and Kmart have quite decent and very affordable babies clothes. Cotton On have some very cute stuff too.

In a similar vein, don’t stockpile too many newborn size nappies or you could end up with heaps of unusable leftovers.

Transport

Car seat/capsule, carrier and pram/stroller will probably be your biggest investments. Having said that, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get good ones. I recommend signing up for an online Choice membership, which you can always cancel after 3 months if you don’t need it any more. They have a detailed section on kids stuff and their tests often reveal that cheap models can be just as good as, if not better than, expensive ones.

Important considerations:

  • Car seat – They can take up a LOT of room. If you have a small car ask about models that won’t leave the front seat passenger with their knees folded up around their ears. You don’t need excessive padding either. It looks good, but in our experience it just leads to a screaming, overheated bub. If you’re the least bit unsure about how to install it get it professionally fitted. We got a Britax Safe-N-Sound Compaq AHR which suited our Toyota Corolla, but removed all the strap padding because it’s too hot and choke-y in summer.
  • Soft structured carrier – Not all babies like being in carriers but we’ve found ours very convenient for our life in the inner city and it gets more use than our stroller. Carriers that allow your bub’s legs to sit in a froggy “M” position are best for hip development. We were tossing up between an Ergo and a Manduca – we went for the Manduca in the end because it was cheaper and didn’t require an additional padded insert for the early months. We’ve also found a borrowed Hugabub wrap invaluable for surviving the witching hour in the early days.
  • Pram/stroller – Visit a physical store to do some test driving. Make sure it’s easy to manoeuvre, fold, lift and load into the boot of your car. Then you can buy the model you like online where it’s probably cheaper. We skipped the pram and went straight for a Maclaren Quest Elite stroller: it lies back so it’s suitable from birth, turns on a dime, folds up in seconds and is super light.

Be aware that sometimes models go out of stock across the board and it can take a couple of months until they’re back in, so you might want to get big items sorted a couple of months before your due date. If you’ve only got enough brain power and energy to sort one thing, make the car seat since you need that to get home from the hospital.

Practise using all of these before the baby arrives. Especially the car seat!

Sleep

I always thought we’d put our bub straight into a cot, but we wanted to have her in our room for at least the first few months and a cot was not going to fit, so we used a moses basket and stand. She was wee when she was born and grew out of it in only 2 months, but for us it was better than a traditional bassinet because it was easy to transport up and down our stairs and we could even pop it in the car to take on visits to family and friends’ houses. We got our cot and change table from Ikea.

Practise your swaddling skills before your little one arrives. If you want to make things easier on yourself try to snag some second hand Love to Dream Swaddle Ups on eBay. They’re usually in good condition because they aren’t used for very long and they’re just too expensive new ($40!). They’re brilliant and as a fun added bonus they make your bub look like a starfish. Or a caterpillar. :)

How to reduce iPhone 5 battery and data leakage

**Note: always back up your iPhone before playing around with settings!**

I recently bought an iPhone 5. It was a huge jump up from my old 3GS and I love it: slim and light, super fast and responsive, excellent GPS response and accuracy, the camera is fantastic (the panorama function is fun), I love the retina display, and the extra screen space is great.

But there were two things I wasn’t so keen on. The battery seemed about on par with my 3 year old 3GS (ie, needed to be recharged every day) and my data allowance was leaking away at an alarming rate. (I rarely scratched the surface of my 500MB monthly allowance with the 3GS but my iPhone 5 was consuming 50-100MB a day.) Now, I understand that some of this was down to the fact that it was a new toy and I was probably using it more than usual, but after a bit of research I discovered these were pretty common complaints for both iOS6 and the iPhone 5. I became determined to find a solution.

I collected a long list of tips from a variety of forums, blogs and articles and tried every one. In the end I found…

The two things most likely to help:

FOR BATTERY LIFE: Reset all settings

Settings > General > Reset > Reset All Settings

“If you’re prompted, enter your Passcode. Wait for the reset to finish then use your phone until it gets down to 0% then shuts off. Then, plug in your iPhone 5 until it charges to 100%. This should help to solve any battery life issues you’ve been having.” [Source: gottabemobile.com]

I’m not sure why this helps but it seemed to do the trick for me. Combined with setting my phone to airplane mode at night I now only need to recharge once every 3-4 days. You may want to make a note of all your current settings before you reset so it’s quicker to set them back afterwards. Note that it will also wipe all your saved wifi passwords!

FOR DATA LEAKAGE: Delete iCloud account from the phone

Settings > iCloud > Delete Account

(Note that this just removes the iCloud account from your phone, it doesn’t close it altogether. You can always turn it on again in the future if you want to.) See this thread for an explanation and a demonstration of why this supposedly works. Apparently even if you turn off all the settings that could possibly connect to iCloud it will still chew data (sometimes even when you’re connected to wifi!), unless you remove the account from your phone.

The trick is that without iCloud you’ll need to connect your phone to your computer regularly to back up, and you won’t be able to use features like Find My iPhone. (That’s the only iCloud feature I found useful anyway – I use Gmail to sync all my email, contacts and calendar items, Any.DO for tasks and Evernotes for notes.)

If you’re not keen on doing this, or it helps but doesn’t completely resolve your data leak, the only sure-fire guarantee is to turn data off when you’re not using it. It’s a little bit inconvenient at first but you get used to it. Go to Settings > General > Cellular > set to OFF. (This also helps battery life.)

I’ve listed below all the other suggestions I found in case you find any of them helpful. (Some may appear on multiple websites but I’ve just listed the sources where I first came across them.)

click for more tips and advice »

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

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.