How modern technology has transformed expat life: travel

This is the third in my series on how modern technology has transformed life as we know it living overseas. In my first post I wrote about how our work life has been affected, and in the second I discussed communication.

Now in my third and (probably) final post on this topic I want to talk about travel.

Of course, it isn’t just expats who travel. But it is undeniably a huge part of our lives – not just travel to and from our countries but travel around them and to other countries in the region. After all, isn’t the ability to explore one of the best things about living abroad?

When I was young and lived in the Philippines, we were restricted to phone calls and travel agents when we wanted to book our holidays. No internet, no mobile phones, no apps – how on earth did we manage? It’s funny to look back now and think about being completely incommunicado for weeks on end; and can you imagine those long road trips without being able to plug the kids into their electronic devices?

Anyway of course things have improved quite a bit since then and if I am honest I can’t keep up with many of the latest innovations. So to help others out who, like me, are a little behind the curve in these matters, here are some of the better technical innovations to help us get around:

Getting there

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In order to travel somewhere you first have to get there and unless it’s within a reasonable distance this usually means flying. Here are a few suggestions to help ease this burden:

Kayak is a site which basically promises to scan all the available flights for your dates and come back with the cheapest suggestion. However, don’t forget to use filters otherwise you may be booking to go from A to B via about eight different places with a three day stopover on the way….

Skyscanner is similar to Kayak. Note: they now also do car hire, hotels etc

Flight Aware this brilliant little site keeps track of all the flights in the air at any one time – great for checking if your flight is likely to be delayed. Also helpful if you’re picking people up from the airport. Careful though, it can be addictive (am currently watching the Emirates flight that’s just left Jo’burg and the SAA from Durban that’s about to land….just for the heck of it).

Getting around

If anyone hasn’t downloaded the Uber app to their phones, I suggest you do so straight away. I can’t begin to explain the feeling of freedom it gives me to know that if I am stuck anywhere in Pretoria (or other South Africa cities) all I need is my phone to get me somewhere. The fact that it is cash free is genius.

The post that initially started my hunt for technology to help the modern expat was actually based on an idea about how useful I found my GPS. As above, I love the freedom it has given me not to worry about getting lost. I love it so much I even wrote this post about it.

PicMonkey Collage

Google Streetview and Google Earth have been revolutionary in how we can now view the world. We used Streetview to explore our neighbourhood before we even visited Pretoria, and who hasn’t checked out their hotel on Earth in advance of booking that holiday? But Google maps is the one that I now use the most often – either as a GPS when the one in my car is having a bad day or as a way to find out how long it will take me to get from A to B. If you haven’t watched the film Lion yet I thoroughly recommend it as a way to see the real power of Google maps!

Finding a place to stay

I rarely book anywhere these days without first checking reviews on Tripadvisor. I try and read as many reviews as possible because I realise how easy it is to post fakeness but generally I do think that as long as there are enough of them you can get a fair idea of what you are getting yourself into.

There are several ways to book private accommodation these days. Probably the best known is Airbnb, a brilliant way to find well-priced accommodation in exactly the location you are interested in (their use of maps for searching makes it so easier to pinpoint where the homes are). VRBO (which stands for Vacation Rental by Owners) is another one.

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If you are up for it, trying out a home exchange can be a great way to score cheap accommodation. It’s not something I have tried yet but with the way Sterling is dropping I suspect this is going to become more and more popular in years to come. This site claims to have 65,000 homes in 15 countries.

When you are there

Ok so you have arrived and checked in – what’s for dinner? Trip Advisor (see above) can be helpful here too but there are other ways to find local restaurants, bars, cafes etc as well as local attractions, shops and even services. Yelp is one such site. Zomato is another. But please, distract me quick before I spend the rest of the day browsing restaurant menus…..

Converters

Finally, life can get complicated when you are on the move. Here are two ways to help you keep track – firstly, to make sure you know how much things cost are currency converters like this one (although to be honest these days if you just put the currency you need converting into Google it will tell you – sigh, is there anything google can’t do?). Secondly, do you ever wonder what time of the day it is back home (easy when you live somewhere, not so much when you are travelling)? Or in that other country where you want to book a flight but are not too sure what time you are going to arrive? Then you need a time zone converter.

So that’s just a quick run down of some of the sorts of sites and apps that are out there now to help us when we travel. I am quite sure there are many, many more (as a quick example, in London we used this app to tell us how long we had to wait for the next bus). In fact, this post really is just a “for starters” and I would love to hear if you have any more great travel apps that you would like to share. If so please post in the comments section below.

Otherwise, bon voyage!

Photo credits: BA plane – Nick Fewings, Crooked House by Don McCullough

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Memorable Journeys #7: First Journey of a Tiny Expat

Journeys can be memorable for many reasons. Previously I have written about a journey that was memorable because I spent 12 hours at Moscow airport – with a sulky brother who wouldn’t speak to me. And another journey that led to us spending the day in a hotel in Dubai – when we weren’t ever meant to be anywhere near that country! And guest poster Pheobe from Lou Messugo wrote about her very memorable journey in Mongolia – on a very dodgy airline. But they can also be memorable because it’s the first time you have ever done something, too. Here, in the latest in my Memorable Journey series, Yuliya of the Tiny Expats blog describes what it was like to take their eldest daughter on a plane for the first time.

For Clara’s Memorable Journey series, I decided to tell you about our older daughter’s first experience of relocation. We were moving from Hamburg, Germany, to Shanghai, China, and had to change flights in Dubai.

Hamburg-Shanghai

This was the first flight for our daughter and it was also the first flight for us, as parents, with a small child (she was 1 year and 4 months old), so we had absolutely no idea what to expect! Hamburg-Dubai flight lasts approximately 6 hours and we hoped that our daughter’s day nap could supply us with at least an hour or two of free time to sit back and relax a little. In my experience, plans that include small kids don’t usually work out the way you want them to. A trip to the airport, all the security checks and detailed investigation of all corners of a a waiting lounge proved to be quite exhausting, so our daughter fell asleep in my arms in the airport and decided to wake up, when we were invited to board our plane. “Would you like any newspapers or magazines for your entertainment during the flight?” asked the flight attendant. “We believe, we will have more than enough entertainment on our hands as it is..” came our gloomy answer.

One thing I can say for sure – I was very happy that I still breastfed at that time. You just can’t beat the benefits of breastfeeding during long journeys! I didn’t have to worry whether she would like the food we could get in the airports and on the flights – she could always top up with milk. And, of course, it’s the direct route to tranquility, albeit a temporary one.

The 6 hours went past surprisingly quickly. Although, our daughter already had a nap, there was so much to discover – buttons, screens, weird chairs, strange windows. Being in a business class didn’t hurt as well. When we landed in Dubai, we could exhale in relief – now just a few hours of wait in a lounge and a night flight to Shanghai.

Our wait in Dubai was not bad at all. There was a play room, where either my husband or I babysat our toddler. It got more difficult as it started to get closer to bed time. Our flight to Shanghai was scheduled to depart around midnight and we hoped to be able to entertain our kid until we boarded the plane, so she could fall asleep for the night. She was excited in the new surroundings and stayed up longer than usual in any case, but she still was a one and a half year old, who could switch off anywhere if she needed to.

Like a professional baby carrier that I was, I took her cuddled up in my arms all through the long walkways and check in. My husband went with a stroller and carry on. I would’ve preferred our daughter to be in the stroller, but she was too tired/stressed out and in a serious need of a cuddle, so the stroller was just an unacceptable option.

As soon as we sat down and I buckled her in together with me, she just switched off in an instant. In about 9 hours, I actually had to wake her up, as the plane was about to land in Shanghai. The night went by quickly, only interrupted by some milk top ups (I think, more for comfort than for food), but she didn’t even fully wake up for those.

It was a morning in Shanghai, as bright as it could get, with a yellowish disk in the sky trying to shine through the grey smog. That was going to be the next chapter in our expat lives, totally different to Hamburg.

P.S. If I could give you an advice for taking small kids on a plane, it would pretty much come down to these points:
– continue breastfeeding at least until after the relocation – it’s just such a great help!
– night flights are the best
– if possible, don’t do it without your partner; you would, of course, survive, doing it alone, but at a greater cost

Thank you Yuliya for sharing your Memorable Journey with us, and some great tips there. I would particularly agree with the point about continuing to breastfeed if you possibly can – it is hugely reassuring to know you will always be able to feed your baby, whatever the circumstances. If anyone else suddenly remembers a journey they have taken that might make a good yarn, please do get in touch. It doesn’t have to be a flight or even a long journey – a train or bus ride, a walk, a horse or donkey ride……

Memorable Journeys #4: Flying Mongolian Airways to Khovd – via Moron…

The latest in my Memorable Journeys series comes from Phoebe an old school friend who blogs over at Lou Messugo. Coming from a similar background to me (Phoebe’s father was also a British diplomat), she is one of the few people who won’t bat an eyelid if I talk about some of the more remote places I have visited or how many countries I have lived in. Here she proves this point by describing a journey she and a friend made in Mongolia – one country I haven’t actually been to. Yet. I hope you will agree, it’s an excellent read – thank you for sharing it, Phoebe!

Inspired by Clara’s series about memorable journeys I’ve been thinking back on some of the crazy trips I’ve taken and there will always be one that stands out, despite being over 20 years ago. In 1994 I flew from Ulaan-Baatar (UB) to Khovd in Western Mongolia on a domestic flight with MИAT (MIAT – Mongolian Airways) known locally at the time as “Maybe It’ll Arrive Tomorrow”. Looking back I’m amazed I arrived at all!

Mongolia in 1994 was only just beginning to wake up to tourism, there were very few foreign travellers and not many expats but my friend Sally and I quite literally bumped into one of the few other Westerners on our first day in UB while looking for a place to stay. As luck would have it, Matt turned out to be working for the only foreign tour operator in town and was in the process of organising a recce for the summer season. He invited us along for the ride. We had no fixed plans and a visa for a month so we jumped at the chance to go with him to the Altai mountains to check out locations for tours. We would be riding horses and camels and sleeping in gers. It was perfect, and such luck. But first we had to get to Khovd.

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A few days later we got ourselves to the airport, passing a big billboard on the way announcing “Welcome to Mongolia”. It was definitely facing the direction of the leaving Mongolia traffic! We were travelling with Matt, Mandelhai (an interpreter) and 40 boxes of food and equipment, 4 kit bags and 2 suitcases. There were 2 flights leaving that morning for Khovd, one passenger flight and one cargo with a few passengers. It was pot luck which one you got on. The check-in process was a scrum. No queue, no formal procedure but somehow we scored seats. A friend of Matt’s ended up on the cargo (I was secretly jealous!) However, by the time we had checked in both flights to Khovd had gone off the departure board. Apparently this wasn’t anything to be concerned about. As well as our small party there were 5 other foreigners, 3 Germans and 2 Americans, on our flight. I remember being impressed by one of the Americans reading philosophical tome The Malaise of Modernity by Charles Taylor amongst the chaos at 8 in the morning! I was also impressed (alarmed?) by what seemed like thousands of other passengers waiting for our flight – many more than there were seats for on the plane.

Intrepid explorers

Intrepid explorers

Everything was a shove. There was no point standing back politely. It really was a scrum. Elbows were put to use as we only had 3 boarding passes for the 4 of us! Again apparently this wasn’t a problem. As long as we shoved and pushed nobody seemed to notice whether we actually had a boarding pass or not. Matt had to pay tax somewhere and disappeared and by the time he came back the bus to the plane had left. There were no airport ground staff around but other passengers were shouting “Khovd” and pointing to the plane furthest away on the tarmac so we all rushed in that direction after the bus. About ¾ of the way to the plane an official appeared from nowhere and put us all on an empty bus heading back to the terminal….which after a while turned around and took us to the plane after all.

Everybody was carrying a ton of luggage which had to be dumped at the back of the plane (on the tarmac). Most packages and boxes didn’t get checked in. We had to wait at the bottom of the steps for 15 minutes while ground staff went in and out of the aircraft and others examined the wheels. Finally our ticket numbers were called out and we scrambled for our seats. There were several people too many who sat with the luggage at the back and up with the pilot in the cockpit. There were also several people turned away who didn’t seem to mind too much.

The inside of the plane – a 1950s propeller plane – was quite unique. It had absolutely no markings – no signs on the emergency exits let alone instructions, no seat numbers, no No Smoking signs, no logos, no seatback tables and very few seat belts. I had half of a belt. (On the return flight the luggage was stored in a section between the cockpit and passengers. The door to this section swung open when the plane pointed downwards, which was a handy indicator that we were landing.)

Northern Mongolia scenery

Northern Mongolia scenery

Once we were on our way an annoucement was made saying we’d be going via somewhere in the South Gobi. However, when we landed it was in a town disconcertingly called “Moron” in the far north, with a wrecked plane by the runway. Taxi-ing from the runway to the terminal building the pilot took the most direct route – across the grass where there were sheep grazing. No one seemed to bat an eyelid about any of this, not that it was not the town announced, nor the crashed plane beside us, nor the unusual cross-country route. We were allowed off to buy the only things available, snickers and fanta (needless to say there was no catering on the flight) and took the opportunity to pose for photos on the steps without the scrum. It turned out this was a necessary refuelling stop. Also slightly disconcerting as it was only just over a 3 hour flight altogether!

Moron airport...with wrecked plane in the background

Moron airport…with wrecked plane in the background

I don’t remember much about Khovd airport other than that it was as chaotic as UB and had no toilets (or food or drink but that’s a minor detail). But I do remember that we had to weigh our luggage on arrival before being allowed out of the airport (having not weighed it at check-in).

A suburb of gers in Khovd

A suburb of gers in Khovd

I don’t think I’ll ever forget this journey, it was alarming, challenging, exhilarating and possibly the most adventurous flight I’ve ever taken, but if my memory one day fails me, Sally and I wrote a communal diary of our travels which I’ve still got. I had a wonderful reread of parts of it to refresh myself of the finer details of this journey and honestly I haven’t made any of this up. I haven’t even exaggerated, in fact if anything, I’ve played it down compared to the descriptions in the diary. Travel on MIAT really was crazy! I’m glad I don’t travel like this any more but I’m so glad I have.

Thanks again Phoebe for such an interesting story! Don’t forget, let me know if you have any memorable journey’s you would like to share – and check out the earlier posts on this – Keeping it Sterile, A Step into the Unknown at Frankfurt Airport and London to Cameroon…via Moscow

Memorable Journey’s #3 – Keeping it Sterile

Another contribution to my Memorable Journey’s series – this time from Morag, who blogs over at Morag’s Place and who writes about a journey she made from London to Seatlle – via first Boston, then New York…..

He did go down for a second landing attempt but his heart really wasn’t in it, and we were diverted off to Boston. With all this bumpy travel, plus the fear factor of an aborted landing attempt, there were quite a few people making use of the sick bags on our plane. The cabin crew were doing a sterling job running up and down the aisles exchanging full ones for empty ones.

You can read the full story here – Keeping it Sterile. Thank you Morag for sharing this with me – sick bags and all!

And in the meantime if you haven’t already done so don’t forget to check out the other posts in this series – A Step into the Unknown at Frankfurt Airport and  Cameroon – via Moscow.

Finally, please don’t forget to let me know if you’ve got a partcularly memorable journey you would like to share. It doesn’t have to be a plane journey, it could be by train, car, boat….or even horse. And I do welcome positive tales as well as the horror stories!

Toys on a plane – seriously?

The other day I read an article about the best ways to occupy children on a plane trip. Top of the list was loom bands, followed by Play-Doh. Play-Doh?! Had these people ever actually travelled by air with kids? It got worse, another toy on the list was Lego!

I could already imagine the small balls of coloured dough sticking to the floor, seats, child’s clothes, your neighbour’s coat….then adding to that the small bricks of razor-sharp Lego causing screams from anyone unfortunate enough to be padding by in their specially provided airplane socks….And not to mention the wretched loom bands – which, as anyone with a child under ten knows, seem to breed the longer you have them around. At least losing a few on the plane wouldn’t be that bad an idea.

loom bands

It was clear that the authors of this report had never, in fact, been anywhere near a plane with children. They’d obviously made the whole thing up.

So what is the best way to keep your children quiet on long air journeys? In my day (back in the 70’s), it was staring out the windows at clouds for 7 hours flat. Followed, if you were lucky, by the communal watching of an age-inappropriate movie on a tiny box either too far away to be able to see properly or so close you had to crane your head backwards to see what was happening. And forget being able to hear anything, the “headphones” had all lost their foam surrounds before you even took possession of them.

Of course these days almost all long-haul flights come complete with seat-front tv’s and up-to-date movies. Airlines have finally worked out that the best way to get people to book with them again isn’t to offer free champagne, foot massages or stewardesses in low-cut blouses. It’s to make sure all the children on the flight are kept as quiet and still as possible – hence why they always include a number of the most recent and popular kid’s movies in the package. I don’t want to think how many times M watched Frozen on our flight to Florida last year.

But apart from that, for us with the age our children are, the best thing to bring on the plane with us is a tablet. After that, it’s a book. According to the report, I-pads (and the report actually said I-pads and not tablets – does Apple now control the media?) are most definitely NOT the best thing to keep children occupied on the plane. Oh no, that’s small, fiddly toys and adult interaction. As if! The last thing I am going to do on an eight-hour flight, when there’s movies to be watched, books and magazines to be read, food to be eaten and free wine to be drunk, is to spend the entire time playing with bloody Play-Doh or loom bands!

Of course we are lucky in that our children are now old enough – 7 and 9 – to occupy themselves pretty much for the entire flight. With Minecraft, e-books and wall-to-wall movies, I could actually pretty well forget they are there were it not for the fact I still have to walk the youngest to the toilet every hour or so. And come in with her because she’s terrified – understandably – of the horrendous sucking noise it makes when you flush it.

Never turning right again!

Never turning right again!

But our children haven’t always been this easy on flights and given that we have been flying with them since we took the oldest to Jamaica when she was five months old, we’ve certainly had plenty of experience with the best ways to keep them occupied.

And was it Lego, loom bands and play-doh? Was it heck! Luckily the list does have a few more sensible options on it – sticker-books (which would be my number one for younger children – you can peel the stickers off and hand them over with one hand. While holding your wine glass with the other) and Top Trumps, for example. But it doesn’t include simple pens and paper, which keeps most small children occupied for oooooh, a whole five minutes or so, and another favourite of mine: food. Specifically small food that takes quite a long time to eat, like cereal hoops and raisins.

I have often heard people talking about how they have wrapped little presents for their children and brought out a new one every hour or so. This sounds like a good idea but a bit too high maintenance for me. Plus, I am not sure that unwrapping a present actually keeps them amused for more than thirty seconds. Although I suppose you could always use lots of sellotape.

The only other suggestion I have is to get others to occupy them – if you can find a friendly old-granny or a broody stewardess (or steward) to take them off your hands for an hour or two, then you are really doing well. However, these days you’d be lucky to get more than a smile out of most cabin crew – I assume that cutbacks mean they are waaaaay to busy to help out with childcare. But you never know, maybe there is an airline somewhere that does this?

And if all else fails? Well, there’s always drugs…

***DISCLAIMER NOTICE**** The author of this article is not suggesting you give drugs to your child. She is just suggesting that keeping some Calpol or similar drowsiness-inducing drug with you on long-distance flights is never a bad idea.