Travel tips for your next home leave

If you're an expat with a young family, taking them on long journeys back home is a part of life. In our case it's a 12-hour flight to the UK, then a 4-hour drive in a hire car to my hometown. Here are a couple of things that helped on this year's trip...

Entertainment for our three year-old daughter

On the plane we knew she'd be happily glued to the children's channel of the inflight TV, but we were nervous about the car ride. Her experience of sitting in a car was limited to the occasional short taxi ride, so how would we/she survive the 4-hours drive?

I wanted to take her favourite movies, but didn't want the extra luggage of taking a portable DVD player (plus I hoped she'd enjoy looking out of the car window at least some of the time.) We thought we'd try just taking the soundtracks for her to listen to, as she's watched them so often at home that the movie plays inside her head anyway!

The first step was to record the soundtracks into MP3 files, which I did using a copy of FREE Hi-Q Recorder. It meant I had to play the DVDs to record them - there's probably a quicker way to rip the sound files directly from the DVD, but the slow method worked fine.

Next I burned the MP3 files to a CD, in the hope that the car's CD player could play MP3s. There was room for 7 or 8 movies and TV shows on the one CD. As a backup I also copied the files onto MrsB's MP3 player, and bought a small FM transmitter for HK$140. That plugs into the MP3 player's headphone socket, and lets you listen to the recordings on the car's FM radio - or any FM radio for that matter.

The hire car's CD player had no trouble with the MP3 CD, and MissB was happy, so we considered it a success. The only downside was that I must have listened to the same 'Little Einsteins' episode around 30 times, and can't get that theme tune out of my head... 'We're going on a trip in our favourite rocket ship...'

Camera or Camcorder?

My digital camera takes good photos and reasonable videos, but a 1Gb card can only hold around 10 minutes of video before it fills up. I didn't want to run out of storage for new films / photos half way through the trip, and it's too expensive to buy lots of spare cards.

My camcorder uses tapes, so no problem of running out of storage. It takes great videos and reasonable photos, but is quite bulky to carry around. I haven't used it for a couple of years now.

How to get the best of both worlds?

I decided to leave the camcorder at home and borrowed a friend's DigiMateII to overcome the camera's limited storage. The basic Digimate costs less than HK$200, then you have to add on several hundred $$$ for the cost of a notebook hard drive. (Or borrow the whole thing from a friend!) The one I borrowed had a 40Gb hard drive inside - so I could fill my 1Gb SD card 40 times (400 minutes of video) before the Digimate would run out of room.

It's very compact:

In use it is very simple as there are just two buttons. You take the memory card from your camera and slide it into the Digimate. Press the 'On' button, press the 'copy' button, and wait until the LCD shows it has finished copying. Each time you do this it creates a new folder on it's hard drive, with a complete copy of the SD card. Then you put the card back in the camera, and delete the films and photos so there is room for more.

The Digimate also acts as a USB hard drive, so when you get back home you just hook it up to the computer, download the files, and import them into into your camera's photo software.

It even has a rechargeable battery, so is meant to be completely portable. In practice I found that I was getting odd errors, and copies that would fail half way through. I eventually worked out that these only happened when I ran it on battery power. As long as it was connected to external power, I never had any problems (it includes a universal 100-240V power adapter, or it can be powered via USB). Also recommended.

Leave the chargers at home

After using the Digimate for a while I realised that its power adapter just had a standard USB socket, giving out USB 5V power. It's easy to buy USB cables to charge mobile phones, so I could have taken one along and left our phone chargers at home.

I include this for the fancy-free who only use carry-on luggage, and delight in shaving a few grams off the load. Our days of travelling lightly are on hold for a while. (You can also buy the power supplies separately - they cost HKD20.)

Protecting your camera

Finally a plug for the da Protector products - odd name, but I recommend them to anyone with a digital camera.

I keep my digital camera in my trouser pocket, uncased. This was never a problem until I bought a newer camera (a Digital Ixus 40) with a much larger - and more fragile - LCD. After having to pay to replace the screen for a second time I went looking for a solution, and found da Protector.

It's definitely low-tech - a piece of thick perspex cut neatly, and supplied with adhesive strips to cover your camera's screen. But it does the job, cost just USD8 including shipping, and arrived in Hong Kong just three days after ordering.

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How about you? What ways have you found to lighten the luggage load, and minimise the stresses of long journeys with young children?



Airplane travel with babies

There's a good list of suggestions here, and the whole site will be of interest to parents of young children in Hong Kong.