Author Archives: Steve

Japanese Summer – Culturally Rich. Physically Exhausting. Delightful.

Stroller saves the (hot) day in Ashiya

Stroller saves the (hot) day in Ashiya

Traveling with our two small children (Grace, 4 and Anna, 1) in Japan this summer was a mixed success.  There are lots of sights and sounds, free food, transport and accommodations for kids under 6, and always friendly people to stop to say hello and “kawaii!”. Overall our Japan experience was fabulous but we do have some cautions for others as well.

Getting around in train stations is becoming easier than we found on past (pre-kids) trips, as the country does a better job of making accommodations for the disabled with ramps and elevators. Almost every station, even the smallest, has at least one elevator.  Taking the Mia Moda Cielo Evolution Stroller was essential – we used it to let kids rest, pile on the bags and stuff little things in the basket.  A few smaller stations however had only stairs and this is likely even more frequently the case in rural areas. Lugging a stroller and kids up and down long staircases is exhausting but those stations were infrequent enough that the stroller was definitely worth it.  Anna, our 1-year old, spent a lot of time in the Ergo, joining just about every Japanese kid her age we saw. Even Grace at 4 enjoyed a few rides on daddy’s back in the Ergo when her little feet were especially tired of pounding the pavement.

Traveling in Japan in the summer is HOT, and it’s a humid kind of hot.  Our primary reason to travel there in July was for a good friend’s wedding. If we had a choice as to time of year we would definitely avoid the summer and go in spring or fall. We were sticky sweaty most of the time, and needed showers twice a day.  There is no central air conditioning in any apartment or home, and some of the individual room a/c machines are not up to the job.  In addition, after the earthquake and nuclear plant shutdowns, all businesses are required to cut their energy consumption, so many stores and restaurants are weakly cooled, so you may find yourself sweating through your meal of udon or ramen.  The trains on the other hand will rescue you with a blast of icy air.  In the context of all the Japanese have had to face since the disasters hit, this sounds trite, but it might be part of your calculation in choosing when to visit with family.

The other aspect of Japanese culture that affects traveling with kids is space.  We remember Japan having small rooms and tight quarters, but cramped living takes on a new dimension when you have a 4 year old and a 13 month old with you.  Kids have amazing wells of energy and a need to let it out by jumping and bouncing and singing.  When there’s no yard nearby, the park looks like a nice place to contract tetanus, and any other outdoor space is pushing 100 degrees, it makes for difficult indoor behavior issues.  Some Japanese homes also have beautifully decorated tatami rooms with doors made of thin paper.  (Note to parents: a four year old’s foot goes quite easily through said door, as we unfortunately discovered).

Not to say that traveling in Japan is impossible with kids, and the positives outweigh the downsides.  We discovered delightful places for kids, like the Osaka aquarium with a massive tank full of sharks and hundreds of fish.

Osaka Aquarium: Grace watches a ray

Osaka Aquarium: Grace watches a ray

Spa World

Spa World

We also discovered Spa World, an indoor swimming – sliding – onsen – super-fun -waterpark.

We swam on the rooftop of Tokyo’s National Children’s Castle and let Grace run free in the huge indoor play structure, followed by participating in the drawing and music rooms.  We found out that while Kyoto is known for its temples and shrines, it also has a decent zoo with a small amusement park. Kyoto also boasts an interesting Handicraft Center where Grace was able to design and paint her own fan.

And lest you think that Japanese food means a bunch of sushi that kids won’t eat… our kids discovered the wonders of Japanese noodles and many variations on rice.

Grace and Anna enjoy bento

Grace and Anna enjoy bento

Grace at 175 miles per hour

Grace at 175 miles per hour

And what kid wouldn’t be thrilled by zipping around at 175 miles an hour on the bullet train?

So, in addition to the wonderful experiences of reconnecting with old friends, we discovered many ways in which Japan is wonderful for kids, if you’re prepared for some unique speedbumps along the way.  We plan to share details from some of these experiences over the next few posts.

Beat the system and save some money

I love to find a good deal when traveling.  There’s something really satisfying about getting to somewhere for less than what the airline would like to charge, or staying at a hotel for a ridiculously low price.  Fortunately, priceline.com makes it possible to stay at a nice hotel for much less than you’d normally pay.  I used to avoid priceline because the whole bidding thing just didn’t make sense.  How are you supposed to know what to bid?  What do you do if they refuse your price?

Fortunately, the world of online travelers has made it much easier to know how much to bid, and what hotel you are probably going to get.  The two sites I’ve found to help make this possible are betterbidding.com and biddingfortravel.com.  Here you can find instructions on how to bid, lists of hotels in each city that are available on priceline or hotwire, and many posts from travelers who have won bids.  For example, we stayed at a 5 star hotel in Bangkok for $100 after reading the posts from other travelers, and we knew exactly which hotel we were going to get.

Some tips to keep in mind when using this method of booking:

1.  You can’t be guaranteed of a certain type of room.  You might get put in a room with 2 doubles, or an upper floor room with a king bed.
2.  Call ahead to make requests.  You can’t make requests during the booking on priceline, so after the reservation is accepted, call the hotel to ask for a non-smoking room or for a crib.
3.  Join the hotel’s frequent guest program, if available.  Usually these are free to join and they give you perks like free upgrades or room requests.  Recently, we stayed at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago through priceline for $67, so I joined the Hyatt Gold Passport program which allowed us to check in 2 hours earlier than normal and put us in a high floor room.

On another travel-saving note, rental cars can be a big sink of money or save you a ton.  My favorite combination for saving about 50% on rental costs: join the National Car Emerald Club (sometimes available for free) so you can get any car in the Emerald Aisle no matter what you paid.  Then find a contract ID and coupon ID from fatwallet or flyertalk, book a midsize or lower online and save a bunch when you pick up your full size car.  We’ve even been given an SUV for a compact price a couple of times.  Now if they would only give us a break on the ridiculous charges for a car seat.

Do you have some tips for saving big on hotels or other travel?

Istanbul Apartment Renting: Not Quite the Pits

We always try to find apartments to rent when we travel, for the value, space, and convenience compared to a hotel. Istanbul has a unfortunate dearth of apartments for rent for tourists, so our choices were limited.  We found an agency called Manzara Holiday Aparments, and despite our early legwork we only found one reasonably priced apartment open for the week we were there.

Kitchen sans microwave or toaster

Kitchen sans microwave or toaster

The St George apartment is downhill about 2 blocks from the Galata Tower, and is across the street from a hospital.  The building is very old with a lot of character including well worn and slick marble stairs and a faintly sewerish smell in the stairwell. The apartment is on the second floor (a treacherous proposition with luggage) and is simply furnished in a very small space. There are no bedside tables and only one wardrobe in one of the bedrooms. The curtains do not block out the streetlight just outside the window. There was no toaster or iron but the staff kindly brought these to us. The bathroom is nicely redecorated but the shower leaks and does not drain like anything resembling normal, there is no soap shelf in the shower, no countertop for bathroom items, and no hooks or towel racks.

To top it off, the apartment directly above us was being remodeled. No, that’s too kind. They were using jackhammers to rip out the drywall and concrete to the posts, for 10 hours a day. With a 2 year old child who needed naps, the construction workers were kind enough to stop for a mid day break, but would you rent this apartment at all in these circumstances?

Upstairs apartment gutting

Upstairs apartment gutting

The rental fee was reasonable relative to hotels, but other associated costs were quite high. The transport from the airport was twice the cost of a taxi. The staff kindly had arranged for a meal to be prepared for our arrival, but 3 little eggplants for 50 euros? The staff was generally helpful and attentive, but overall this experience was not ideal or a relaxing place of respite. With some more specific questions upfront, a different apartment and different plans for food and transportation, Manzara might be able to redeem itself in another experience. In retrospect, the advantages of having an apartment while traveling with a toddler far outweighs the risks of getting a dud like this.  There’s probably nothing we could have done to prevent the downsides, but we did our best to make the most of it and would still recommend renting rather than paying more and getting less in a hotel.

Tegucigalpa’s Offerings For Families

The last week of our trip to Honduras was spent in the capital, Tegucigalpa, or “Tegus” for short.  This was a return visit to Tegus for us, and it seems to have improved with time.  The airport is newly renovated and a much nicer experience.  The streets seem cleaner and better organized, even with political campaigns in full swing.  Truth be told, though, Tegus is probably not somewhere you’d seek out for a vacation as the culture and vibe is not quite the same as you might find in Antigua, Guatemala.  But, if you find yourself with kids in Tegus at some point, here’s our experience.

First, it’s hard to find a decent hotel with enough comfortable space for kids.  We’ve stayed at Leslie’s Place in the past before Grace, and it’s really nice but doesn’t have any suites available.  Fortunately, Humuya Inn is the top ranked hotel on TripAdvisor and deservedly so.  It’s in a quiet residential neighborhood, run by competent and attentive American expats, beautifully appointed and has huge 2 bedroom apartments for a reasonable price (and smaller hotel style rooms are available as well).  The kitchen is decent and flexible too.  Humuya staff also arranged a daily driver with van for us, which was a positive experience and well worth the moderate cost.

Humuya Inn
Humuya Inn

In Tegus itself, the highlights for us included El Mirador del Picacho, a park with huge Christ statue overlooking the city.  The overlook is next to a somewhat-maintained park commemorating the United Nations and some playground equipment.  There’s also a nearby zoo which apparently has seen better days (we gave it a miss).

Grace at the Mirador

Another worthwhile outing with kids is the Chiminike Children’s Museum, a fairly new site with a good variety of hands-on exhibits that appeal to a broad spectrum of ages.  Vacuum tubes, water games, karaoke, and a walk through the human body kept Grace entertained for several hours.

One of the most popular day trips from the city is Valle de Angeles, a small town about 40 minutes drive from Tegucigalpa.  While sometimes touristy, it’s still a pleasant colonial village with a profusion of leather shops, wood handicrafts, traditional pottery, a nice plaza and church, and cool breezes.  The bustling groups of people on the weekend provided an entertaining distraction for Grace.  We were pleasantly surprised to find a unique shop off the main street selling interesting ceramics, iron sculptures, and a plant nursery.  Called Hierro Barro y Verde, we found some beautiful ceramic Christmas tree ornaments, tiles, a cross, and iron hanging card holder to take home.  It’s a new shop, run by mother and daughter, is only open on weekends at this point, and is across the street from the Museo Santa Maria de los Angeles.

Valle shop

While in Valle, we made a return visit to a restaurant we discovered on a previous trip called El Turistico (not as bad as the name might suggest).  It’s on a hill overlooking the town, has great anafre (melted cheese appetizer) and well priced steak.  I would be remiss if I didn’t also put in a plug for the venerable chicken institution in Central America, Pollo Campero, which has several locations around Tegus.

Hopefully this brief overview of Tegus’ possibilities is helpful for your next visit there with kids!  Have you found other good spots for kids in Honduras?  Please share!

Be prepared: taking your mobile phone with you

Have you ever been traveling internationally and wished you could just make a phone call easily? Say you’re traveling as a family, and dad takes the kids to a park but wants to let mom know they’re going to play a while longer. Often this means finding a pay phone, but in some countries you need a phone card to make a call, and where are you supposed to find the phone card? So in the spirit of “be prepared when going global with kids” here are some tips on using mobile phones overseas.

The first thing to know is the difference between CDMA and GSM technologies. In most countries around the world, GSM is the standard for mobile telephony. Since more than 80% of the world uses GSM, if you have a GSM phone it is easy to use your own phone in many other countries.  Unfortunately, in the US only TMobile and AT&T have GSM service, so if you have a different provider you probably can’t use your phone overseas.  Another caveat is that GSM service operates on different frequencies in other countries, so if you’re taking your GSM phone overseas make sure it’s a “quad-band” phone.  To find out what companies provide GSM service on which frequency in the country you will be visiting, see the GSM World website.

So you’ve got a GSM phone that works where you’re going.  Now you need to make sure your phone is “unlocked.”  In the US, most people get a phone at a discount by signing a multi-year contract with the service provider.  In order to prevent you from just switching to a different GSM provider, these phones are “locked” to only work on the contracted network.  However, phones can be unlocked with a code so that you can switch the SIM (subscriber identity module) card inside the phone and use a different network.  TMobile will do this for free if you’ve been a customer in good standing for 90 days, and AT&T might do the same.  Other methods for unlocking your phone are also available.

Once your phone is unlocked, you can buy a new SIM card for any network you choose.  SIM cards can be found readily at convenience stores or supermarkets in most countries, and usually cost between $10-20.  You will also need to buy prepaid minutes for your phone, which usually comes as a card with a scratch-off number that you enter into the phone to top-up the minutes.  Ask the store to help you put in the code the first time you do this, since following the voice prompts in another language can be difficult.  The good news is that minutes are usually very inexpensive, even for international calls, and many networks will not charge you for incoming calls.  Do a little searching on the web before you travel to find out which networks are available and where to buy the SIM cards.  There are other options, such as buying or renting a “world phone” or roaming on a partner network for your home provider, but these are usually much more expensive.

As you can see, taking your phone overseas requires some legwork, but being able to easily communicate while traveling adds a level of safety and convenience that we find very useful, especially with a child.  Have you used your phone overseas or have any specific tips for mobile phones in countries you’ve been to?

Keeping Kids Healthy: Preparation is Key

One caveat: I am an internist, not a pediatrician, so I know how to treat adults who are sick, but when it comes to sick kids I’m just a dad. That said, there are some basic health care tips we have found to be helpful traveling with a child. The bottom line can be summed up as preparation.

Before leaving home, make sure your child is up to date on immunizations. Common diseases are just that – common. You can prevent many common diseases with simple vaccinations. Remember that influenza season is winter, so if you will be in the Southern Hemisphere your child will need the flu shot in July. Take a copy of your child’s vaccination record with you. If your pediatrician isn’t sure what your child needs, or just says “don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” find a travel clinic for some expert advice. My pet peeve is hearing anecdotes of people who decided not to take malaria prophylaxis and didn’t get malaria. Do you really want to play the odds game with serious and preventable diseases?

Simple medications are usually the best. Tylenol is a safe, effective treatment for pain and fever. Benadryl will help with allergies and, when sleep is the best medicine, can help your child get some rest. It will also sometimes help with nausea. Don’t forget oral rehydration solution – when your child gets diarrhea or is vomiting, rehydration is the most important thing you can do. Hyland’s teething tablets have a loyal following and are a harmless way to deal with troublesome fussiness. Upset tummies do well with gripe water, but keeping it cold might be a challenge. If you don’t have anything else with you, grate some fresh ginger into hot water to settle an upset stomach. Whatever you choose to bring, make sure you pack it in your carry-on luggage. From experience, there’s nothing worse than being sick during the flight while your medicine is securely locked in your checked bags.

It’s unlikely you’ll need it, but having an idea of where you might go for medical care if you need it can provide peace of mind. Most large cities have clinics or hospitals with English speaking physicians. A good place to start is by joining the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers for free, and look for their directory of approved providers in 125 countries. For less common illnesses, you can find providers with a specialty in travel medicine through the International Society of Travel Medicine. The ISTM is also a good place to find a travel clinic for advice and immunizations prior to your travel. If you are traveling to Southeast Asia, you can find some useful information here.

Your home medical insurance may not cover any medical expenses overseas, so you can get temporary travel insurance for any large expenses you encounter. It is extremely unlikely that you will need this insurance, as many countries with social health systems will treat you for free, and those that don’t will often charge a pittance (my experience in a Chinese hospital cost me less than $100). Travel medical insurance is useful in those rare cases when you need to fly out of the country. We have taken this type of insurance when traveling to places where we weren’t confident of finding high-quality care if needed. You can compare insurance quotes here.

In the end, don’t let worries about potential illnesses keep you from traveling. Kids get sick at home, and we treat them with some TLC and allow their amazingly resilient bodies to heal themselves. If you are prepared with some basics and some good information before you leave, you and your child will be able to enjoy more of this fascinating world together.