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.

Choosing a Travel Camera

Having grown up the son of a Kodak engineer, photography has long been an important part of my life.    I received my first camera, a Kodak disk camera, in 1984 on a family vacation to Bar Harbor, Maine and when I was older I spent some time working as a newspaper photographer – mainly doing covers and sports.  So my choice of cameras is pretty important to me when traveling.

On my last trip to Europe (Germany, 2009) I had just purchased a Nikon D90 SLR with the GPS attachment.  I loved it and the pictures from that trip and having GPS data added automatically made the trip a lot more meaningful as later we were able to look back at the pictures and not just guess where I was at the time but could know exactly where I was.  Instead of just being pretty to look at, the pictures actually told a bit of the story.  My family back home could see my progress day by day simply by looking at my pictures being uploaded to Flickr.  I never wanted to travel without photo-GPS again.

That brings us to now.  The D90 is a stunning camera but it is huge and out of the question for this trip loaded down with our children and no car.  Any camera going with us has to be light, portable and resilient.

After doing a bit of research I came across the new Nikon AW100.  This camera is very portable fitting easily into a pocket, is water proof (important as it will be exposed to unknown weather), shock proof (from a few feet at least) and has built in GPS with compass, time sync and maps.  A pretty good combination.  Additionally the lens does not need to mechanically extend and retract between uses which can be quite a nuisance when traveling and needing to get pictures taken quickly.  It also takes beautiful 1080p video which is perfect for recording the action on your trip.  And for still pictures it is 16MP, not too shabby.  And, of course, it is a Nikon.

We decided to get the camera straight away and so far we are very happy.  It takes great pictures and great videos and is truly light and easy to use.  It’s not the D90, of course, but for everyday picture taking and vacation pictures on the go, it is perfect.

Decisions, Decisions

When we started preparing for our first big trip to Europe with our kids we discovered that there was a real lack of good travel material addressing our needs. So we set out to produce our own.  Traveling with kids presents many challenges but also opportunities. Our trips are necessarily less about fancy restaurants, romantic getaways and extravagant resorts but having our children forces us to focus on safety, practicality and ways in which to turn our fun travel into valuable educational situations.  We are both professional consultants and always intended to homeschool our two girls in order to give them the ability to live highly mobile and flexible lives.  Traveling with them gives us the ability to turn normal travel into lessons on sociology, history, geography, art, music, anthropology, archeology and more.

Being mobile workers with kids with backgrounds in technology, media, writing and venturing into home education we felt that sharing our adventures in traveling Europe with our children would potentially be of great value.  We hope that you think so.

One of the hardest choices that we had to make on our first trip to Europe was whether to do the bulk of our traveling by car or by rail.  Unlike the United States, Europe is extremely well connected by rail and traveling that way is possible with few limitations.  When I was in Germany in 2009 I arrived in Amsterdam with no plans and just trusted the rail system to get me to the right country and city.  And it did without a problem.

At first we were planning to use trains so that we would not have to deal with expensive care rentals and the headaches associated with driving in several foreign countries – many of which have very different driving cultures than we are used to, being from the US.

But then we discovered low cost car purchase options that lead us to think that the added flexibility of the car might make sense.  In the end, however, the sensibility of riding comfortably and safely in the train, not getting lost, having the kids able to move around won out.  We decided to get an all Europe access Europass and have the ability to see the entire continent if we so chose.

As Dominica hates driving, even in her home country, I was very relieved with the choice of train over car travel.  No one wants to see Europe more than me and having to “see” it al from the driver’s seat would mean that I would miss most of it and be very sad.  Train travel will be much more equitable and will keep me from becoming stressed worrying about maps, schedules, sleep, etc.

After months of planning we finally settled onto a plan for our trip that, at the very least, included our end points.  Contrary to every plan that we have had thus far, we are starting our trip by flying from Newark to London and we are returning from Lisbon.  If you were privy to all of the “we think that this is the final plan” moments that we had over the past several months you would never believe that these ended up being our starting and stopping cities.

For the last several months we were sure that we were going to be flying through Dusseldorf.  Originally we had been starting in Ireland.  Now Ireland is not even making our agenda.  After Ireland we were flying directly to Warsaw, Poland thinking that I would be working there but that was changed to London.  Our flights alone have been an extremely fluid topic.

At the end we both felt that we were more upset not getting to see Iberia than not getting to see farther east.  So we dropped Prague and Berlin in the hopes of seeing Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon.  Our trip is going to be focused very heavily on very western Europe with Nottingham, England as our starting point, western Switzerland and Piedmont, Italy as our main foci and short trips down the Rhine, into France, into eastern Italy and maybe Austria and then crossing Spain and Portugal before returning home.

One of the most important aspects of our trip to us is getting enough time in each place for us to settle in and get a feel for the area.  No matter what we do the trip is going to prove to be a whirlwind and we want to make is as relaxed as possible.  We don’t want to exhaust ourselves or the kids.  We have a lot to see but we want to be a little less tourists and a little more a piece of the places that we visit.

Even with our starting and stopping cities selected there is a tremendous amount of unknown lying between them.  We know that we are flying into London and heading straight up for a several day stay in quiet Nottingham where we will acclimate to European life and the cold weather (I am writing in early march from Texas where it is already warmer than summer in England) before heading to Belgium where we will also be staying for several days.

Writing a Travel Blog

One would not expect getting temporarily laid off from work would kick off a surprise European adventure, but that is exactly where the story starts.  I got laid off for three weeks and with the free time we decided to pack up the kids and head to Europe for a much needed, long term vacation.

Dominica and I have been to Europe before.  In 2007 we spent some time in England and Northern Ireland.  We loved our time there.  I returned again, on my own, in 2009 to Germany.  We had just had our first child and it seemed like dragging her, only eleven months old, on a short trip to Germany would be problematic.

This time we were going to go for much longer and with me having been to the continent and dealing with being in a country where we did not speak the language made Dominica much more comfortable about doing it with kids this time.  This time, though, there are two kids: Liesl who is three and Luciana who is one.

In preparation for our trip we did a lot of research.  And I do mean a lot.  We acquired and read many travel guides, we watched every episode of Rick Steve’s Europe multiple times, we watched House Hunters International, we read blogs, talked to friends in Europe and joined online forums.  We weren’t just setting out to explore Europe, we were going to do it with kids.

Our trip to Europe was bounded by two very solid events – the wedding of my one cousin in New York in May and the wedding of my other cousin in June, also in New York.  We were traveling from Texas to New York for the weddings and the European vacation had to fit in between them to justify the time away from the office.  The juxtaposition of events made it make sense to actually extend the time in Europe and to work from there, rather than from New York, for several weeks.  So we made our plan to be in Europe for five weeks.

Five weeks, in Europe, with kids.  Other than my honeymoon, this would be my first honest to goodness vacation for twenty years.  Needless to say, I was a little excited.

Given the amount of time that we were going to be overseas the range of possibilities for us was nearly endless and we found the planning process to be, to say the least, overwhelming.  We started planning the trip in September but were not traveling until May.  That is a long time during which to make and change plans, which we did.

Europe is a big place full of endless options.  We decided that we had to limit our travels or we would easily talk ourselves into attempting to see absolutely everything and would exhaust ourselves and ruin the opportunity.  But on the other hand with Dominica having never seen mainland Europe and I having only seen a small corner of Germany and a bit of The Netherlands by train we really wanted to take the chance to do a “survey of Europe” and get an overall view and feel of the place.  This might be our one big chance.

Decisions, decisions.  At the beginning we thought that we were going to be starting in Warsaw and heading south spending most of our time in Switzerland and France.  It seemed like every few days we would come up with a completely different plan that involved different routes, different modes of travel and, most dramatic, different countries.  The trip was so open ended that we were having a really hard time gaining perspective.