Category Archives: Travel tips

Easy Safety Tip That Could Keep Your Child Safe

I lost Grace once in a Columbia Outlet store. She was lost all of 1 minute at most but still I panicked as I looked for her little legs under the rows and rows of crowded clothing racks.  I found her when she turned off the store’s lights. Some childless genius had installed the store’s lights right at toddler level and Grace had proudly switched them off. Bad for other shoppers, good for frantic mama.

That’s the only time she’s really, truly been lost but it happens to the best of us all the time. I know it will happen to us again, that’s for certain.  I came across a brilliant but easy tip today on the Tea Collection’s travel blog and I plan to start using it immediately. Ready? Here it is:

Take pictures of your kids on your cell phone. Every time you’re in a crowded place, at home or abroad, take pictures. That way if you lose your child you can immediately show people what she looks like that day – hairstyle, clothes, the candy smudges on her cheeks.  I had never thought of this but it’s a great idea that takes just a second and doubles as a fun memory of wherever you go together, even if it’s just Target.

What do you to keep track of your little ones in public places?


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, 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 and  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?

Thrive, Don’t Just Survive, Sightseeing With Your Toddler


IMG_0311_2Whether it’s the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Majal or the Hagia Sophia, these majestic landmarks are to a toddler what acapella hymns are to a rock star – Bo-Ring.  This doesn’t mean you have to put sightseeing on hold though. Sightseeing can be fun for both you and your toddler but you, not the Hagia Sophia, have to create the fun for your child.

Our latest trip to Turkey put our toddler Grace, and our creativity, to the test.  Here we were in a country rich in ancient culture and all she wanted to do, understandably, was play in the park.  While we never found the golden key to hours of leisurely exploration, we did come up with a few tricks that helped Grace enjoy each experience and, in turn, gave us the chance to absorb the wonders of Turkish antiquity.  The specifics here are related to Turkey but the tips apply anywhere we’ve traveled with Grace.

Tip #1: Have a place for your toddler to rest and relax when little legs get weary.

Most of the time in Turkey this “place” was the Ergo Baby Carrier. There were too many steps throughout Istanbul and other parts of Turkey to make the stroller very practical.  The vast (and mostly flat) Topkapi Palace was an exception, though the side rooms and narrow hallways make it a tossup as well.  Many historical sites with crowded spaces have no-stroller signs in any case.

Tip #2: Relax your family rules about candy and other treats.IMG_0216_2

A big bag of Yummy Earth organic lollipops went with us to Turkey and helped us grab a few extra minutes in the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and many a restaurant meal. They were our trick of last resort and, since Grace rarely gets candy otherwise, they were a huge treat.

Tip #3: Take lots of outside, freedom breaks.

As much as we can we keep stretches of sight-seeing, especially indoors, limited to 1-2 hours at a time. In between sights we intersperse meal and snack breaks as well as lots of time to run and play freely. Contrary to what the Lonely Planet guidebook says, there are playgrounds and parks all over Istanbul. There’s a great one located within Gulhane Park (next to Topkapi Palace).  There are walking trails and playgrounds every quarter mile or so along the Sea of Marmara.  In Beyoglu there are nice playgrounds at the Metro stops at Tophane and Fendikli. The Sultanahmet Park, between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, was also a favorite. Although it doesn’t have a playground, it has a huge fountain and lots of grass plus its central location made it a place we stopped several times to let Grace run free.

IMG_0136_2If the weather is bad or a park isn’t to be found, just about everywhere you go you can find a shopping mall. Shopping malls throughout the world seem to always have a food court, open areas where kids can run or walk (find a quieter corridor), and often times they have kids play areas with kiddie rides, bouncy houses, or even ice-skating rinks. When all else fails, ice cream breaks will always perk everyone up too.

Tip #4: Keep your toddler on her regular nap schedule.

As nice as it would be to stay out and about all day like we did in our childless days, hanging out with a cranky toddler just isn’t worth it. We kept a 2-3 hour window open every afternoon to go back to our apartment, have lunch, read books and play and then let Grace nap. She’d be well-rested enough for us to get out for a few more hours before dinner and even to push her bedtime back an hour or so.

Tip #5: Find something in each site that is special and interesting for your toddler.IMG_0332_2

In the Hagia Sophia an ancient step became a dancing stage and a long ramped tunnel was incredibly exciting. In the Grand Bazaar free apple tea from a shop owner was a special treat. In the Istanbul Archeological Museum a Trojan Horse kids could climb into was a fun discovery for Grace.  In the Spice Bazaar samples of Turkish Delight, dried figs and apricots made her day. We always have a small bag of special toys on hand as well. It’s stocked with finger puppets, stickers, small books, crayons and paper.

IMG_0307_2Tip #6: Accept the reality that you may not see everything you want, or for as long as you want, but in exchange you get to experience someplace incredible in the company of your child.

These are some ways we’ve found to keep Grace content so we can all enjoy ourselves, wherever we are. Do you have a tip that’s made sightseeing more toddler-friendly?

Diapers and Laundry and Diapers, Oh My!

Question from my best friend, Lisa: What do you do about laundry and diapers when traveling overseas?

Answer: Always make sure we have easy access to both!

It’s actually somewhat amusing that Lisa asked me this question. Twelve years ago she and I spent a college summer in Germany where, for two months, our clothes did not once see a washing machine. We were too poor and cheap so, for the entire summer, we washed our clothes in the bathroom sink using dishsoap. I think the dishsoap was Lisa’s idea. We smelled lemony fresh and, for the most part, looked pretty clean.

Don’t think Steve and I are laboring over hotel sinks washing out Grace’s grubby t-shirts, at least not most days. Now that we can actually afford to do laundry the modern way, we do. We always first price out the cost of having someone else do our wash for us. In developing countries like Honduras laundry is a non-issue because it is so cheap to have someone local do the wash (a few dollars/ load).  In Buenos Aires this was the case as well, even though our apartment did have a washer. We preferred to spend our time sight-seeing than waiting for a load to finish so frequently utilized the low-cost lavanderia (wash-and-fold) around the corner where the price even included ironing Steve’s shirts!

In more developed countries like Turkey the cost to have someone else do the wash was outrageous. Istanbul surprisingly also didn’t seem to have a single public laundromat. Luckily for us we had rented an apartment from Manzara Apartments and they had a washing machine in their offices they let us use (one of the few good things about this company – more on them in a later post). The washer was tiny though (held about half of what our washer at home holds) and there was no dryer. We just washed the absolute necessities since we then had to trudge a quarter mile home with the wet laundry to line-dry it.

For the most part though, when we travel we are able to do our own laundry because we rent apartments/houses equipped with washers. On our recent escapades in Turkey we rented a house at the coast during our second week. It was equipped with a washing machine and a huge sunny deck for line-drying the clothes. We returned home with suitcases full of clean clothes rather than the usual post-vacation piles of dirty laundry.

One thing we never, ever use are hotel laundry services. Almost always these services are outrageously expensive no matter the country, up to $5/ item. If we’re that desperate we’d rather resort to me and Lisa’s “dishsoap laundry method” than shell out such exorbitant amounts.

As for diapers, we usually try to take enough with us for an entire trip because diapers overseas are almost always imported from the US and therefore very expensive. Diapers aren’t heavy so they don’t add a lot of extra weight to our luggage, and as we use them up they make room for whatever souvenirs we’re collecting along the way.

On our most recent trip to Turkey we found ourselves short on diapers the last day at the WOW Istanbul Airport Hotel. I called down to the front desk to find out where we could buy diapers in the area. I was pleasantly surprised when the kind man on the other end, in very broken English, said they’d send some up.  An hour later no diapers had arrived so I called again. This time no one on their staff knew anything about the phantom concierge’s promise to send up diapers nor did anyone even know what “diapers” were. I tried the British word “nappies.” I tried explaining “you know, the thing babies poop and pee in.” I was transferred to six staff members before the last guy asked me to spell “diapers.” I did and he said he’d call me back. Five minutes later, after what I imagine was a lot of frantic googling and then titters when the staff figured out what I wanted, he called me back triumphant: “We do not have any in the hotel.” OK, that would have been nice to know an hour ago when someone else was promising diaper room service. Sadly we found a local grocery store and bought an entire pack of 36 diapers of which we used one. We left the rest of the package behind in our room so if you happen to go to this hotel and need diapers, just tell them you know some crazy Americans left some behind and they’re probably languishing in the hotel’s lost-and-found.

We have yet to find a country that doesn’t have very easy access to diapers and wipes, despite any language barriers. Though often expensive, every corner pharmacy or drugstore around the world seems to carry Huggies and disposable wipes. Too bad for the landfills but good for traveling parents.

Discovering Modern Istanbul Along Istiklal Caddesi

Like many world cities, Istanbul is a complex mix of the new and the old. Everywhere we turn we are reminded by a cobblestone street, a crumbling mosque or an historic tower that we are walking in the steps of ancient history. But this is a vibrant, bustling metropolis, the economic and cultural center of a nation bidding to enter the EU.

The core of modern Istanbul life is Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian-only shopping zone full of people no matter the time of day.  Our apartment was located just a 10 minute walk from one end of Istiklal so we spent quite a bit of time on our trip meandering and discovering what it had to offer.img_0044

A “nostalgic tramway” reminiscent of San Francisco’s streetcars runs the length of Istiklal. Since the street is built on a slight slope, the most comfortable way to explore it with little ones is to ride the tram from the southern most point to the top end of the street (Taksim Square) and walk back down. That way it’s slightly downhill the whole way plus the tramway is a lot of fun for kids.  You can reach the start of the nostalgic tramway by taking the Tunel funicular from Kadikoy. When you exit Tunel at the top (end of the line – there’s only one stop) you’ll see the streetcar stop right outside. You buy your ticket from the driver for 1 Turkish lira (about 60 cents).

Istiklal Caddesi is jam-packed with fashionable boutiques, kitschy tourist shops, cafes, movie theaters, restaurants, and historical sights.  We most enjoyed just walking along and people-watching, stopping here and there for a bite to eat or for a cup of coffee.  After riding the nostalgic tram to the end, Grace and I started our first day of exploration of Istiklal after we dropped Steve off for his conference at the Hilton near Taksim Square. First we stopped to try a simit from a branch of the chain Simit Sarayi. A simit is a ring of baked dough dipped in sesame seeds, similar to a bagel. You see simit vendors selling their snacks from red carts all over the city. They’re cheap, fresh and very good.

img_0040Back out on the street Grace and I followed Rick Steve’s walking tour of Istiklal Caddesi in his Istanbul guidebook (highly recommended), which pointed out some of the historical sites along the way. There are some old movie theaters, churches, mosques, flower and fish markets, that kind of thing. We didn’t feel the need to stop long at any of the sites but following the tour at least I knew what I was seeing along the way.

We made a stop at the Ipek silk shop about halfway along the street, on the left if you’re headed towards Taksim.  It’s a high-end silk shop with very helpful staff and good quality scarves. I found a few nice cotton/wool blend scarves (the shop has more than silk). Grace was the princess of the shop with all five shop attendants doting on her, kissing her, and even tying a jaunty scarf around her neck which they gifted to her (and she proceeded to lose on the street shortly after we left!). We have quickly learned that Turks adore children and have no qualms about showering children they don’t know with affection. Grace slowly warmed up to the idea of such expressive strangers and started to return their love with shy waves and air kisses.

There’s a great English language bookstore, Robinson Crusoe (#389), along Istiklal. They have English speaking staff and a wide-range of books about Turkey and other English-language books. It’s a good stop if your kids need something new to read as well.

A fun culinary treat along Istiklal Caddesi, and throughout Istanbul, is ice cream. Turkish ice cream is thick and img_0426stretchy so the servers (found in cafe windows along the street – you’ll spot them by their red and gold hats and vests) do all kinds of tricks with their gooey concoctions. When we stopped for a cone after dinner one night the server shot a long metal rod out the window at Grace. Stuck to the end of it was the scoop of ice cream with a cone. When Grace grabbed the cone, the cone (and scoop) detached perfectly in her hand. But the server wasn’t going to let her get off so easily. He continued to grab the whole thing away from her but reaching out and slapping the end of the metal stick back on the ice cream, to which it stuck and he could pull it away. She was bewildered but amused by the whole endeavor but eventually he let her eat it in peace.

We ate a few meals along Istiklal Caddesi during our time in Istanbul too. Haci Abdullah  (Sakizagaci Cadessi 17, just off Istiklal (past the Aga Mosque) was rated one of the best restaurants in the city by Lonely img_0421Planet Turkey, so we had to give it a try.  The food was good and the service was fast, plus it’s a large fairly noisy restaurant, a good thing when dining out with a toddler. Still it was expensive for what we got and we found we enjoyed Hala (about halfway up Istiklal Caddesi, on the right side if you’re headed towards Taksim Square) so much more. Hala serves gozleme, a traditional thin crepe-type dough folded over various ingredients like cheese, spinach, ground meat and other vegetables. The crepes are made in the restaurant window where you can watch women roll out the dough and cook it over a griddle right in front of you, which is very fun for kids.  We also tried their stuffed grape leaves (dolma) and Turkish ravioli (manti), both fresh and tasty.

Overall Istiklal Cadessi is an entertaining place for families, worth at least a short outing during your stay in Istanbul.


Baby Lounge Envy In Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport

Every traveling parent faces the challenge of helping little ones sleep in strange, loud, bright places, including airports. What if there were a peaceful, serene place for you to take your baby during an airport layover? If your next international trip takes you through Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, you won’t believe the luxury that awaits you.

Unfortunately for us, our layover in Amsterdam earlier this week was less than two hours, so not enough time to take advantage of the incredible Schiphol Babycare Lounge.  I had to check it out though, so I hoofed it for about 15 minutes with Grace on my back in the Ergo just to change her diaper and have a quick peek. I discovered a tranquil dimly lit room filled with 7 individual pods, each containing a crib and two comfy seats for parents with individual lighting.  Each pod is enclosed in sheer drapery for privacy. The room is open free of charge to parents and children ages 0-3.  Besides the seven sleeping pods, the room also houses a microwave, large changing area and a bath large enough to bathe a baby in.

The Baby Lounge is in a central location in the airport and near a number of interesting attractions, making it a great spot for traveling families. One parent can stay behind with the sleeping baby and the other parent can go grab some food, pop into the free Rijksmuseum next door, or take older kids to the nearby play area or to see the Lego model of the airport.

When Grace and I popped in the Baby Lounge a few days ago, most of the pods were in use and I was so envious of those parents whose little ones were peacefully sleeping, in a real bed, during a layover. One pod was free and I so wanted to zip in and put Grace down for a rest before we boarded our plane to Istanbul. Time didn’t allow that but on our return trip I hope to make use of the lounge. Even if we don’t get to, just knowing it’s there somehow makes the flight through Amsterdam a little more peaceful.  Thanks Holland for caring so much about little ones and their tired parents.

Update: May 12, 2009 We had a two-hour morning layover in Amsterdam on our way home from Istanbul.  I had high hopes for the baby lounge since we’d woken Grace up at 4am but alas, the rambunctious toddlers in the pod next to ours made sure that no sleep happened for us. Still Grace was excited to lay for a few (very few) minutes in a crib with her blankie and Gerald the giraffe.

Even more exciting than the crib was our discovery of the kids’ playground next door to the nursery.  That room houses four climbing jungle gyms, playhouse types if you will.  Two are equipped with slides and so Grace was in heaven. I can’t think of a better way for a toddler to pass an hour just before boarding a 10-hour flight. To the mom sleeping soundly on the floor of the playground while her 5-year old boy played unsupervised, I would like to offer my sympathy (I understand utter travel exhaustion) but also my frustration. Her little boy was the one downside to the playground as he raced up and down on everything with no regard for the smaller kids (like mine!) underfoot. And really, what exactly is safe about letting a preschooler play unwatched in one of the world’s largest airports?

The Pleasure of To-Doing The To-Do List

to-do-listFew things are as sweet for this wife, mother and business owner as a completed to-do list.  One where every last task is crossed off and the list for tomorrow reads “To Turkey.”  I feel more relaxed now than I probably ever will during my vacation.

That’s where I find myself tonight, as we prepare to take off for Istanbul, Turkey in the morning.  I’ve never been a last minute person, running around frantically in the final hours before an exam, a big event, or a trip to get everything ready. Instead I run around frantically a day or two before and I wind up with this wonderful window of a few hours just before leaving where everything, yes, everything, is done. Anything that’s not done doesn’t matter at this point. If it was urgent, I did it already. Everything else can wait until I get back and I don’t have to feel guilty about not doing it right now.

I savor this sensation of done-ness in a life typically so planned, so frantic. Is it possible that I plan trips just so I can have those few satisfying hours before of having nothing to do? Perhaps so.

So what do I do? I won’t bore you with the details I took care of to prepare for my absence from my online business. I’ve provided below though my standard checklist of things-to-do-before-leaving, things which apply to just about every traveling family. I hope it helps you create your own quiet moment of done-ness.

Traveling Family’s Pre-Departure Checklist

One week before departure

  • Stop mail, newspaper, diaper delivery, garbage/recycling pick-up.
  • Notify neighbors of absence.
  • Make arrangements for pets including extra food, water, litter, etc.
  • Provide instructions to housesitter/ pet sitter.
  • Provide emergency phone #s to relatives/ close friends.
  • Notify debit/ credit card companies of travel plans, especially when traveling internationally.
  • Get sufficient cash from bank, especially important when traveling internationally.

Three days before departure

  • Laundry for everyone.

Two days before departure

  • Pack. I try to be mostly done with this 24 hours before departure, so I know what I may need to run to the store to pick-up.

Day before departure

  • Last minute trip to Target to buy anything I found we’re out of while packing.
  • Confirm/ check-in online for flights.
  • Print out relevant itineraries, boarding passes, hotel names and phone #s, transportation info, etc.

And now I’ll go cross the last item remaining on my to-do list: “Blog- To-do list.”

What do you make sure to do well in advance to ease your travel stress?