Tech for travelling families- what should you pack, prep and download?

The advance of technology has transformed our ability to pack for a long term trip, compared to our last big adventure, six years ago, when Daisy was two and a half and Clover a baby.

Where once we had bag fulls of books, computers so heavy and fragile that we packed them in our children’s Grobags and acres of paper, we can now travel lighter and access more thanks to more reliable wifi and better ways of making use of it. The downside is the yards of cableage we have to pack with us, falling out of our bags like snakes every time we pass Security. But if you’re wondering what to take for the kids for a long (or even a short) trip – here’s what we’d recommend (or not, in some cases).

And yes, you could be sanctimonious and say that travelling should be about leaving the screens behind – but we’re also realists. The world is big, and sometimes hard work whether you are little or big. Technology can make it seem both easier and smaller, which can be a very good thing.

Hardware

 Kindles – the plain vanilla type

Lots of people suggested we just took the girls a tablet (such as the Kindle Fire) which also works as an e-reader – but we resisted the temptation. Why? Because, Puritan that I am, I wanted some distinction between the books that they read and the tablets that they watch and play on. I also wanted to be able to police the time they spent playing games but not limit reading.

Cheap Kindles for the girls have been the answer – we considered the backlit ones which Paul and I have, but I’m afraid they got the cheap ones. I caught them using them to weight down a den wall yesterday, so I feel this decision was justified on purely economic grounds. Also, our backlit Paperwhites are great for Indian trains in the dark, but not so great when you are trying to stop the children reading til 10pm when they get to a particularly exciting bit.

The Kindle Family system allows us to download the same books onto both girls’ Kindles, and on to ours, and I can see what they’re reading. Since both of them devour books at speed, we’d never have been able to carry enough for them otherwise. And they tend to like to read the same books at the same time – so Kindles save arguments.

Guidebooks on Kindle are still a work in progress, I think (maps are too small) but I’d still rather have them than carry heavy paper versions around the world, useful as they have been in the past when we’ve run out of toilet paper in an emergency. Yes, I know…scratchy.

Tablets

The girls received a Hudl 2 each for their birthdays before we left home. They are neat little tablets, with excellent child safety settings and rubbish battery life. We can set the number of hours they are allowed a day (and change it on travelling days so they get more). The tablets allow their favourite apps (Android) as well as very limited internet access – they use them to play and to learn. Shame Hudls are being discontinued – they’ve done exactly what we need them to do, though they have odd glitches – the volume sometimes goes unacceptably high for no reason, leading to huge rows, and software updates lead to things not working until they are painstakingly reset.

Headphones

If everyone is not to be driven mad – headphones are a must. Small children can’t keep the ‘in the ear’ ones in – so the girls have over ear ones like this. They’ve worked in many buses and planes as well (though not all, as some still have those funny earphone sockets which require two prongs – that’s probably not the technical term). We also have a headphone splitter – like this, so both girls can listen to the same film at the same time.

iPad

Actually belongs to Paul and me – but excellent for Skype and Facetime playdates – girls frequently wander off into their room with cousins or friends online to play dollies for an hour. It’s a welcome link with home, when the wifi’s good. Frustrating when its not – everyone looks like they are part of a Minecraft game.

Macbook Air

Mine, actually, and technically for work. Somehow still popular with everyone, judging by the sticky stains on the keyboard. Standing up well to the travelling life, despite a dodgy trackpad supplemented by a £2 Guatemalan plastic mouse.

Acer laptop

Paul’s. Distinctly dodgy – we bought it in a Malaysian IT mall because I kept hogging the other laptop. It frequently crashes, and the Microsoft package, which we were assured was legit, is pretty obviously not. Oops.

USB charger

Chargers are a big deal when you’re travelling – so this neat little block, which I can’t find online but this gives you the general idea, takes four cords and little space and allows us to charge on the go. Many buses and trains now also have charging points, which helps.

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Mobile phones

Three of them. Two on our UK numbers, and an unlocked iPhone that’s had more Sims in it than a few – giving us 3g coverage everywhere from Myanmar to Mexico. Much cheaper than any roaming plan, and peace of mind when I’m working on the road.

The airport is usually a good place to pick up an unlocked Sim – this site is a great resource for most countries. It’s usually correct, but mobile phone coverage is a fast -moving game in most developing countries so also check on the ground.

Apps, sites and ‘software’

Communication

What’s App: free texts to friends and colleagues wherever you’ve got wifi. What’s not to like?

Skype: Despite sometimes dodgy connections, Skype is great for almost free work calls (though I don’t route them through a UK number so people sometimes think they’re being spammed when a ‘000’ number comes up). Paul’s Gran doesn’t use the internet so we can also call her for cheap – she can’t quite believe it only costs us pennies. Also great for video-calling non-Mac friends.

FacetTime: Free video (or audio) calling from iPhones/iPads/Macs. Usually seems to be clearer than Skype for some reason.

Touchnote: Because sometimes sending a physical card is important. We buy credits in bulk and use them to send the children’s drawings for birthday or Christmas cards, or picture postcards of us on our travels to friends and family. Because no-one prints an email out and puts it on the fridge. They usually arrive in the UK in two days.

Education

Duolingo: Free language learning app with some bizarre sentences (‘the penguin sleeps next to the cat’ anyone?) but great gamification that keeps the girls interested. They do 15 minutes a day to supplement the Spanish at school. It really helps. Wish we’d started it sooner.

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The School Run

They’ve done the homeschool work so we don’t have to. Probably unnecessary for anyone whose child is in a UK school – though pitched as a homework aid and adjunct to schooling, it provides worksheets for the entire curriculum as well as progress tests. Since the girls need to go back to UK school life next year, we use it to ensure we’re covering the right stuff – and use a USB stick to get worksheets printed out as we go. Not a replacement for teaching, but very handy. Paid for.

Squeebles (various)

Good games for times tables and fractions. Not tried the rest but the girls don’t resist these. Paid for.

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Getting around

Tripadvisor             

Of course. Not always perfect but useful when you’ve just arrived anywhere for restaurants, cafes, and opening hours – and saves you just going to the five places mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

TravelKhana

Specialist but brilliant – get curry delivered to any seat on an Indian train – like some kind of magic – preventing both starvation and food poisoning. Works about 50 per cent of the time- so also bring crisps…

Google Maps

Goes without saying. Geographer Paul’s favourite way of ensuring we don’t get cheated by a taxi driver going the long way round, and are ready to get off at our destination on a long-distance bus. Also more prosaically, for walking along the street.

Girls’ favourites

Monster High, Ever After High, Lego ArtMaker

Noisy, free, and with in-app purchases disabled. I am a financial journalist after all.

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Netflix

Everyone’s favourite. A great improvement from the grainy YouTube children’s cartoon videos Daisy used to get six years ago. And there’s nothing like rewatching Gavin & Stacey to make you feel closer to home when the kids have gone to bed.

What have we missed? All suggestions gratefully received!

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