Packing “Light”

Packed Luggage

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Travelling Laptop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.