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May 27, 2008

Travel tips for those foolish enough to attempt spending a month in a foreign country with two 3 year olds.

Curious_bystander_cards_2 Lots of people have asked me to share some advice/tips about traveling to China with two small kids.   I've resisted because I don't consider us to be experts in this area at all but it was our third trip there so I guess we've probably learned a thing or two from these experiences,  So, here you go -- my short list of what made our trip easier.   No promises that it'll be 'short' though.

I guess the sight of a Chinese kid with non-Chinese parents is something most Chinese people just can't look away from.  Every time we've been to China with the kid(s), we were immediately aware of all of the curious attention we were getting.  And it was kinda nice!  Once we came home, we actually missed it. Around here there's so much ethnic diversity that nobody notices that someone looks different or that their kids don't match.

Anticipating the attention we'd draw in China, I created some small laminated cards that explained (in Chinese) why our children look Chinese but have non-Chinese looking parents.    We got lots of smiles and positive responses when we flashed the card -- and we flashed it a lot!  (click on the image to see a larger view)

Hanging_organizer_3

Since we were visiting ten Chinese cities in 24 days, we seemed to spend a huge amount of time checking into and out of hotels and packing and unpacking.  I think the hardest part of the whole trip was figuring out what to bring, not bringing too much to carry, and keeping it all organized so we didn't have to search through four suitcases for it.

This hanging organizer was really valuable!  It looks like a bit of a space hog but it squishes down surprisingly flat.  I loaded it up with everyone's underwear and socks and it was quick and easy to pull out and hang in the closet.   

If you've ever searched through a suitcase for the mate to a tiny toddler sock or a pair of Dora the Explorer size 2T p*anties, you know how frustrating that can be.  This solved that problem perfectly for us.

Want one?  We got it at Target for about $6. 
Hate pink?  It even comes in Navy Blue.  :)

Car_seats_and_lap_trays_3

This is our 2nd trip to China with these blue car seats and we've also nicely survived a half dozen US flights (and painful layovers!) with the same seats.  The sleeping kids you see in the pic to the left is precisely the reason why we struggle to haul these beasts through airports.  15 minutes of excruciating airport check-in agony usually buys us several hours of in-flight bliss as our darling babies snooze like angels on the longer flights.

Our only complaint is that they're HEAVY and difficult to carry and we constantly worry because one of our kids removed all of the stickers that once declared and the seats are suitable for airline use.  So far, we've not been nailed but we know our luck won't hold out for long so we're looking for something cheap and light and FAA certified for future trips. 

The other little goodie we purchased for this trip was the lap tray you see Gwen modeling (we got a pink one for Maddy).  It's got a magnetic/dry erase surface and we got it from Office Depot.  It also has an internal storage area that holds small books, notepads, and crayons/pencils/magnets, etc.  I made it even more useful by adding sticky magnetic tape to the back of some of the items inside (crayons packs, notepad, etc) to keep them from sliding off the top of the tray.    This was more handy that you can imagine and this tray was worth its weight in chocolate.  It even doubled as a personal room service tray in the hotel when we called for grilled cheese and french fries!    It fit nicely in the airline seat and our car seat and we have no regrets about bringing it!

Lost_kid_id_tag_2

Imagine being a lost Chinese-American child in China and being unable to speak or understand any of the 56 dialects of Chinese.  You would be so scared and you'd cry but nobody would understand you.  And when someone stopped to try to help, you wouldn't understand them either. 

This scenario haunted me from almost the first instant we considered a trip back to China.

I had these cards translated by dongmei_miller1029@hotmail.com for a very reasonable price (she also translated the curious bystander cards I mentioned above). 

I used luggage tags (thanks Michele!) and attached them to the belt loops of the girls pants using stretchy hair bands.  It was quick and easy and gave us incredible peace of mind!  The few times we forgot to attach this tag, we used an ink pen to write our tour guide's cell phone number on the arm of each child.

As always, click the image for a larger view.

Backpack_and_stroller

We'd start the day wearing a T-shirt, our favorite REI fleece vest and a light weight jacket.  As the hours passed, we'd shed layers and eventually end up in short sleeves.

Since I didn't want to carry everyone's layers of shed clothing, we got these great little backpacks from REI.  They're incredibly good quality and very comfortable to carry.  Even little tiny Madeline was able to easily carry her own stuff all day in her backpack.  There was even room for a small toy, a bottle of water and a few snacks. 

The backpacks were usually used in lieu of a stroller but, If we knew the tour of the day was going to be exceptionally long or require lots of walking (but not too many stairs), we also brought our MacLaren stroller.    The girls could take turns using it and when it wasn't being used by a kid, it was really nice to pile all our backpacks on it.

The MacLaren stroller is probably the best lightweight umbrella style stroller on the market.  It holds a child weighing up to 55 pounds and is easy and comfortable to push (even with one hand).   Gwen is 44 pounds and she could sit with 28 pound Maddy on her lap and we could push both of them if necessary.  One drawback is that it easily flips over if you pile stuff on the handlebars and your child jumps up and runs off (like they always do).  But, overall, we were really happy that we brought this. 

Other things we found helpful:

  • We used a travel agency to set everything up.   Originally, we asked Lotus Tours for a price quote then we took the itinerary to a few other agencies and found one that was a bit cheaper (China Discovery Tours).   I'm happy with our trip but not totally happy with the service from CDT so I might reconsider using Lotus if we did this again.   
  • We got two adjoining hotel rooms in each and every city we visited.  Hotels are pretty cheap in China so this was a luxury that was easy to treat ourselves to.   I won't bore you with all the conveniences of doing this as I'm sure anyone with a kid already knows. 
  • Hotel Room Prep:  As soon we we got into the hotel room, I'd gather up all the stuff I didn't want the kids to screw around with.  All the brochures and flyers and books and expensive mini-bar treats and shoe horns and umbrellas and laundry bags and remote controls, etc.  Then I'd deposit the whole thing up on the top shelf of the closet.  I even unplugged the phone (in the kid's room) and put it away.  Once all those annoying temptations were out of site, we could all relax and settle in.
  • Suction hooks:  There's always a full length mirror somewhere in the hotel room so I stuck a few good strong suctions hooks up high (out of kid's reach) and used them to hang up my sunglasses, small purse, etc.  It's easy to put things down and lose them in unfamiliar spaces so those hooks really helped keep me organized.
  • We brought a small portable DVD player and a dozen favorite DVD's.  We also purchased some standard RCA style cables (the red/white/yellow ones) so we were able to connect the DVD player directly to the TV in the hotel room.  We never found a single TV that we couldn't connect our DVD player to.   All you need to do is make sure your DVD player is PAL/NTSC compatible and your power AC adapter is rated for 110-240 but that's it.  The DVD player was really nice to have and served as a "Nanny" to the kids while Daddy and Mommy tried to deal with packing/unpacking, showering, computer time, etc.
  • Pediasure:  Our kids drink a bunch of Pediasure.  Maddy gets two per day because she's underweight and Gwen gets two per day because she has food aversion issues that mean she doesn't get good nutrition.  We packed enough for each child to have one per day and we wish we could have managed more because Gwen wouldn't eat anything in China except toast.  Fortunately, Maddy wasn't as picky and ate pretty well so we were able to give Gwen some of Maddy's Pediasure.
  • Camera and laptop.  We never skimp when it comes to electronics.  We brought two laptop computers and two good quality cameras.  These things don't take up that much extra room and really help make the whole trip more memorable, comfortable and convenient.  We were able to connect to the internet in each of our hotel rooms and we were able to access our blog even if it was blocked by using a free proxy server site such has www.turbohide.com (thanks Lynne!)

I could probably add a bunch more.  If you have specific questions, please ask and I'll do my best to answer.  :)

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