For most people in Tokyo, the train (or subway, or automated driverless train, or monorail, or tram) is the absolutely easiest way of getting around. There are buses that interconnect the train lines where they are far apart, and there are taxis which can take you from place A to place B, if you can give them an address or a well-known landmark to navigate to. Most taxi drivers do not know the city all that well, which is not very strange since they usually only travel part of it. Taxi rides in Tokyo are normally quite short, ten minutes or so. Drivers are happy to pick you up in the street (if the light on the top of the cab is lit, they are free). And taxis in Japan are also exempt from the normal requirement to use car seats (or booster seats) if the child is below six years of age. If trains and buses were not free for children under the age of six, it would be an economical option for big families. While few taxis have more than three actual seats, you can usually squeeze in a fourth and maybe fifth person in the back seat, in particular since the taxis are also exempt from the requirement that all passengers wear seatbelts. The driver will usually ask you to wear it if you go into the front seat, though.
You may wonder why, as opposed to Bangkok for instance, people do not drive themselves. The roads of Tokyo are excellent, and Japan has an excellent highway system, even if the roads are toll roads so you have to pay for using them. It is not very expensive, about 650 yen for a family car a normal distance.
But you need a car. You can rent one, but it costs about 10000 to 12000 yen per day, and then there is the cost of gasoline. If you rent a hybrid, or even an all-electric car, the gasoline cost will be less. How much depends on where you are going.
Free Under Six
However as I mentioned, trains are free for children under six. Given that most trains, not just the famous bullet trains, drive considerably faster than 80 km unless they are local trains in central Tokyo, the train will almost always get you there faster than driving anyway. There are no traffic jams on the rails either.
This is why most people take the train when they want to go anywhere. Sometimes there are so many of them that they push themselves onto the trains, so if you are bringing your children, avoid rush hour. If you start your travels a little late, you might be alone on the train.
Automatics And Antiques
Tokyo is crisscrossed with trainlines - and below them, there is a network of subway lines which connect the train lines. Many of the train lines are private, connecting central Tokyo with commuter destinations and tourist attractions in what used to be the surrounding countryside. Tokyo also has a number of transport options you are unlikely to find in other cities. The monorail to Haneda Airport would probably be classified as an antique in other countries, as it was built for the Olympic Games - in 1964. And there is the driverless Yurikamome train in futuristic Odaiba, which is actually automatic.
Yamanote All Around
All this means you can usually get anywhere you want in Tokyo on a train. And where there are no trains, there are buses. There is simply no reason to use anything but public transport in Tokyo.
The trains run mostly in either north-south or east-west direction, much because in southeast the city borders on Tokyo Bay. The biggest exception is the mainstay of Tokyo transportation, the Yamanote line. It runs in a rough circle with the Imperial Palace in the lower right quadrant. Two trains run clockwise and counterclockwise on parallel tracks, literally inside and outside, meeting at almost every station.
The Yamanote line connects the centers of Tokyo. The Japanese capital does not have just one center, it has several where the train lines intersect and the corporate headquarters and shopping centers are distributed. Ikebukuro, Ueno, Akihabara, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Tokyo are all connected through the Yamanote line.
There are more stations on the Yamanote line, destinations in their own right, but maybe not places which you would go to as a tourist. But the Yamanote line is extremely convenient, something that is reflected in how many people use it. Especially early in the morning. From seven AM until 10 AM, do not even think about bringing your kids into the train. The Yamanote line is incredibly packed at rush hour, as I have written about before. Avoid taking trains in rush hour not just on the Yamanote line, but all trains in Tokyo.
Rush And After Hour Accidents
That is when accidents happen. Well, and late on Friday nights and in new years party season, when people are so drunk that they fall off the platform. The cleanup after accidents is not a pretty sight, especially if the person got under the train. But the Japanese station crews are amazing at cleaning up, starting with putting up blue sheets to hide whatever is going on from the sight of travelers. Which is a good thing since the sight of someone run over by a train is enough to turn anyones stomach.
Four Reasons To Be Late
Accidents is one of four things which can make trains in Japan late. Customers becoming sick on board is another. Japanese companies care a lot about the welfare of their customers - customer care in Japan means that companies care both for and about their customers, as long as they are customers. It is not a myth that the driver apologises when the train is late - I have heard them apologizing when the train was 10 seconds late. And you get a little printed card that you can give to your company to prove why you were late.
The other two things which can make trains late in Japan are weather and earthquakes. Both happen frequently in Tokyo. While earthquakes can not be reliably predicted and will happen every once in a while, there are a few times of year when weather can be a concern for train travelers.
The first is late January to early February, when temperatures can drop below zero degrees centigrades and there can be heavy snowfall. Think ten centimeters or more in a day. That is enough to slow down trains anywhere, and Tokyo is no exception. Heavy snowfall in Tokyo will slow down the trains, make the railroads cancel some of them, and cause chaos in the stations. It only happens every three years, and usually the snow melts in a day (although not this year).
Typhoon Winding Down
There is another type of weather event that can screw up the train system of Tokyo. Not rain, although Japan gets much more than its fair share in the rainy season (which happens during june). It is high winds, and specifically typhoons. Japan gets several typhoons every year during the season, which lasts from late July to early October. Typhoons are hurricanes in the Eastern hemisphere, and if you look at a satellite image you will see that it is a whirlpool of air. The eye is actually calm but then the winds start again. They are actually strongest a bit out, so if you sit right in the middle of the typhoon the winds are not as strong as a near miss. Usually they are accompanied by rain but the winds are dangerous enough. Even if they are not strong enough to blow the train off the rails, the danger that they could blow something else onto the train is enough to make the train companies stop operation. Japan is extremely safety-conscious, and that mentality is why you are so safe in Japan.
No Timetable Worry
For most trains, you never have to worry about the time tables. If there are no trains every five minutes, they will come every tenth. But in case you want to go to the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architecture Museum, on a Sunday you want to check when the express trains are running back to Tokyo, since they take less than 15 minutes. A regular train will take twice the time. There are specialized search engines like Hyperdia, but the Japanese edition of Google Maps also makes a good job of recommending different routes and trying to find the fastest way, and since the underlying information is the same, the result is usually the same (and if you type in an address it will recognize that, whereas Hyperdia only works with station names).
So if you want to plan a trip inside Tokyo, the tools you are used will be enough to help you. If you are planning a day trip, even to Kamakura where there are frequent trains, you will be better off asking a travel agent or using the train line website.
Hop-On Hop-Off Trains
But normally, trains in Tokyo are hop-on hop-off and you do not have to care overly much for timetables. There is no search engine that takes the extra time required with a stroller into account anyway. The only thing you can be sure of is that the time Google, or Yahoo, or Navitime or any other navigational search engine thinks it will take you to go through the station is almost certainly too short in reality. So do not worry. And do not rush, because that is the easiest way of making a mistake and either causing an accident or becoming one.
Cost, Route And Time
When you look up the time tables in your favorite navigational app they will also tell you the cost of each leg of the trip (not Google though). It gives you grounds for comparing the different ways of getting to your destination. But you may be less interested in saving 20 yen or 2 minutes, if you can figure out a way that lets you get there without changing trains. Toddlers may love to jump around on the seats and watch the surroundings rush by through the windows, but if your kid is still in a stroller she will quickly be fast asleep.
Complainers On Trains
If you are bringing toddlers onto the train, try to remember some basic Japanese train etiquette. Children in a stroller generally does not cause people to raise their eyebrows. As long as you do not try to squeeze onto a packed train, the child in the stroller will be out of the way. As long as they are not noisy.
Many Japanese people still have the idea that children should be cute and quiet. This is a country of old people, after all, with a quarter of the population over 75, and more dogs than children. They tend to give noisy children dirty looks, but they are too well-mannered to complain. Those who will complain are their children. And they may complain both loudly and rudely once your children pass their percieved threshold. Not that they can do anything more than their parents, and train rides rarely last long enough for people to get past dirty looks however noisy your children may be. Because in Japan, you are supposed to care about and be mindful of others. The basic tenent of the society is that you are dependent on others, and they are dependent of you. And since everyone is interdependent, you are expected to keep your children quiet. And take off their shoes when they climb up into the seat, so the people coming after them will not get their behinds dirty (and the cleaning staff will not have to vacuum the seats).
Basic Child Rules
Keeping quiet, not drawing attention, taking off your shoes so as not to dirty someone elses clothes or effects, those are all basic rules for getting along with other people on the train. Like not running around the train cars and bumping into other passengers, or playing or singing in loud voices.
Be especially careful when you are getting on or off the train with a stroller or small kids. There is a huge gap between the train and the platform in some stations. Big enough for a child to fall through if you are not careful. And always let people get off before getting on.
Don’t Toe The Line
While you are waiting for the train, always stand behind the yellow line. Or sometimes white. Or occasionally dotted. Anyway, there will be a line for you to stand behind. Stand with your stroller at an angle pointing the face of your child in the opposite direction the train will be coming from, especially on rainy days. Even more important if there is snow. The reason is that if they are passing trains, especially express trains, they will push a wavefront of rain or snow ahead of them. While trains passing platforms usually do not run fast enough to cause damage, getting a wavefront full of stinging snow in your face is hardly pleasant. Better face away from the oncoming trains. And while you are at it, back off half a meter from the yellow line. At many stations, the train and subway companies are putting in platform doors which close when the train leaves and open when the train has stopped. The idea that a train should not stop exactly at the marks where the doors are supposed to be will sound strange to a Japanese. In Japan, trains stop exactly at the correct spot, at the exact time. Not a second early or late. Such precision is normal in Japan, and they regard trains in Europe and America who miss the platform with surprise and astonishment.
How To Pay
The navigation and mapping apps may be able to tell you how much you should pay for the trip, but not how. And unless you have a particular desire to fumble around with coins, there is only one option: The Suica card (also available from private railways, subways, and bus companies under the Pasmo brand).
Using the Suica or Pasmo card is very easy. To pay, just touch it to the plate. The Suica and Pasmo cards can be used interchangeably by the way, everywhere you use one you can use the other. The only difference is who issues them.
Touch The Plate
When you touch the card to the plate (actually, it is sufficient to hold it about a centimeter from the reading plate) the sum required is deducted from the card. If you do not have enough money on the card, you can pay with coins or bills. You need one card per person, since you can only charge one trip per card. But standing in the door of the bus and fumbling to find coins that cover the sum required is much less convenient than using the card at all.
You can get a Suica or Pasmo card in the card machines in the stations, or the manned ticket offices. While there are English instructions on the machine screens, they are machine translations and understandable if a bit clunky. The staff at the ticket offices have no requirement to speak any other language than Japanese, and are likely to be embarrassed by not being able to serve you. There is often an international information office where people can help you, but it may be at another entrance.
If you arrive at Narita airport and you plan to take the Narita Express train to Tokyo, you can get a combination ticket with a special tourist Suica card. Not only do yo get a discount on the ticket, JR (Japan Railways) also forego the 500 yen deposit fee.
Charging The Card
That the price of the ticket is charged to your card every time you pass through the the ticket gates also means you have to fill up the card when it starts to run low. The balance on the card is shown when you go through the ticketing gates. Check it and if it starts to run below 500 yen, fill it up. You can get the balance on the card and the 500 yen deposit you made when you got it back when you leave Japan.
To fill it up, you either use the machine inside the station, or the charging machine outside. The charging machines outside are slightly more convenient - you just activate the machine by pressing the screen, put your Suica card in the aperture to the lower right, press the key on the screen that shows the amount you want to put on the card, put in the bills in the money slot, and wait for indication on the screen that the card is charged. You can also use a credit card to charge the Suica card. It may not work with all cards, especially not foreign cards and probably not prepaid cards either.
In other parts of Japan the cards may have different names, but they work the same way. And the price for the train rides are about the same as well.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train). I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japan and buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more.
If you have followed the blog, you will know that we spent Christmas in Sweden. Just to give you a bit of intercultural background, Christmas is to Swedes what Thanksgiving is to Americans, New Year (or spring Festival) to Japanese or Chinese, or Diwali to Indians. Even though most people are no longer practicing religion actively, the holiday is a huge thing. It is actually much deeper ingrained into the Swedish psyche than Christianity, despite the country having been officially Christian for more than 1000 years. Christmas, as it is celebrated in Sweden, had been celebrated in much the same way for more than two thousand years before that.
So just like the US during Thanksgiving, Bangkok during Songkran, or Greece during Easter, the stores are closed, the hospitals are run by a bare-bones staff, restaurants open only after the holidays, and everything is centered about staying with the family and enjoying traditional activities. Before the country was Christian, this involved feasting by eating lots of pork and getting drunk.
The feast was actually preceded by starving and the reason the pig was slaughtered was that the male pig had done his job and the female pig was pregnant, so he was now a liability. And it is dark for at least 16 of the days 24 hours.
Well, that was a bit of a digression. The kids enjoyed the abundance. We all did, a little too much. I had to buy new trousers and they still did not fit. The kids are growing vertically, and I should not be growing horizontally. But that is what happens during Christmas.
I used to fly a lot, but this time it felt even more strange. We popped into a plane in Tokyo, suddenly had to go through security and passport control in Beijing, and then - boom - we landed in Sweden. Where my cousin met us with a big welcome sign. Going back was pretty much the same feeling. Travel has changed a lot since travel stopped equal walking.
When my great grandfather went to his twice-annual military exercise meets (he was a professional soldier), he first had to walk for 50 kilometers, and then take the steam boat for half a day. His father would have had to walk, because 200 years ago there was no regular steam boat traffic in that part of the world.
To him, and to everyone born before him, travel was linear. The difference between going somewhere and being somewhere was not that great. Many travelers, especially those with the wanderlust gene (if there is one), prefer that mode of travel. When you are voyaging slowly, the road is literally the journey. For us, the journey is the airplane.
Enough of digressions already. What have we learned about traveling in Sweden?
Lesson #1: Google Has No Concept Of Time
Huh? Well, when there are major holidays, the opening hours of many stores are different than usual. IKEA, the Swedish furniture superchain, closes its Swedish stores during two days every year: New Years Day and Midsummer Day. But while Google shows you a customized page with the opening times of the store you were looking at, they are not clever enough to figure out if there are exceptions to the normal opening times.
Lesson #2: There Is A Hamburger Chain With A Social Conscience (And Vegan Burgers)
When the Swedish McDonalds franchise started to establish itself in the north of the country, they expected people to eat with their hands. In that part of the country, people feel very strongly that you should eat food with a knife and fork. McDonalds did not provide knives and forks. Their local competitor did, and by also providing better hamburgers, they outcompeted the megachain.
They have morphed since then, but their hamburgers are still a lot better than at McDonalds. And they have both vegan and vegetarian alternatives. Actually, the vegan alternative is better than many other hamburgers. Their cheese fries is to die for. And if you buy a kids meal your child does not get a piece of plastic from China, they get a picture book. Quite fun at that.
And all energy they use is renewably produced, and all their stores are carbon neutral. Like, wow.
Lesson #3: People Do Not Ask If Stores Take Cards, They Ask If They Take Cash
Sweden is probably the country in the world that has done the most to get rid of coins and bills. You can use your credit (or debit) card for everything. And there are no fees. You do not even have to type your pin for transactions less than 50 SEK (approx 5 USD).
Lesson #4: The Winter Is Not Cold In A Fleece-Lined Overall
My kids loved playing outside. To the tune of four to five hours a day - basically as long as it was light. Sweden in winter is dark and cold, but unless it rains it is a dry cold which does not feel cold. Especially not if you have an overall with warm fleece lining. Swedish childrens overalls are impregnated to be water-resistant. The biggest disadvantage is that they are really expensive, because they are expected to be inherited between siblings as kids grow out of them. That is not very easy to do when you have triplets.
Lesson #5: Plan For Bad Weather
Swedish houses are very comfortable in winter. You might expect that houses in a country as dark and cold as Sweden would be miserably cold and dark; but they are well lit and heated. Cozy, even, which perhaps should not come as a surprise given that most people spend most of their time cooped up indoors.
Kids can go out and play and they do, but when the playground equipment is icey and so slippery they may fall off, and the ground is so muddy they get dirty all through those overalls with fleece lining, you want to find a different alternative. Sitting inside and watching TV may not be so bad, but your kids will want to play other ways too. That is when it is a great idea not to stay in a hotel, but actually have a house of your own.
Lesson #6: Swedish People Have A Different Concept Of Distance
You could comfortably fit all of Tokyo, including the surrounding cities, in the area occupied by greater Stockholm. But while Tokyo has more than 30 million inhabitants, there are only about 1.5 million people living in Stockholm. Everything is roomier.
But while people in Tokyo view it as a day trip - and maybe even would stay overnight - to go from one end of their megacity to another, people in Sweden do it to buy a kebab or pick up their laundry. Swedis people think in miles, but their miles are ten kilometers.
Lesson #7: Driving Is Different
Unless you plan to stay in the center of a big city and never go outside the city boundaries, you need a car. If you are used to driving on the right, the actual driving is not too difficult. With three exceptions: When it is dark, when the roads are slippery, and when there are other cars on the road. Or pedestrians.
Pedestrians in the Swedish countryside tend to wear reflective vests and are easily visible. In cities however, people walk around in black clothes and shoes, which makes them extremely hard to see when they cross the street between crosswalks at night. Makes them invisible but they still have absolute preference.
Meeting other cars even with the lights dipped also makes you feel like deer and makes it impossible to see anything for a little while. When you meet lots of cars and more cars are coming up behind you shining their lights in your rear mirror. Even more scary when they start changing lanes just as you were planning to. You learn new ways of using the side mirrors!
Lesson #8: Everything Is Expensive
When I lived in Sweden, many years ago, I had a decent salary. Not all that high, but decent. Well, I think that even with taxes lower now than they were then, we could not make a living on that salary. The price of a lunch has doubled, too. But to be fair, it seemed quality has gone up as well. The food I remember seem to be a thing of the past.
Quality has improved in stores too. There are a lot of things made locally in the stores (try apple juice from the Roslagen area, sold in the same boxes as box wine, and differentiated according to the type of apples used in making them). And the cheeses have improved, which means some are amazing. And, different from everything else in the stores, really cheap. Comparatively speaking.
This was the last, or at least the latest, in a series of blog posts about our trip. I have written before about beating jetlag with your toddlers, traveling with toddlers, traveling with infants, traveling with a child with fever, people who complain about your kids when flying, and our night flight experiences. And I will probably write more.
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So we are back home and my kids just woke up for breakfast. Two of them will have a fight with jetlag on their hands, although their little sister (by three minutes, since they are triplets) fell asleep before their regular bedtime and slept soundly through the night (as far as I could tell, sharing the same bed).
Her siblings fell asleep at 10 PM but woke up at 1 AM and asked whether it was morning yet. They did not fall asleep again until 0330. Or so, I had to get some sleep myself so I did not check the clock.
About besting jetlag, I realized something in Sweden. Winter days are short and not very fun there. Especially if they are gray and sleeting. It can even be dangerous if the playground is icy and the equipment slippery.
So how do you find a place where to tire out your kids physically? It is not healthy for an adult to sit still for more than ten hours. And kids, who need to move, will stay in one place that long only if they are sleeping. Actually, they may not do that anyway. My son was all over his seat during our entire flight. The only place he did not try to sleep was on top of the headrest, and the only reason was that I pulled him down. Most of the time he spent on the floor.
This despite tiring him out physically before the flight - even with the Swedish weather. And I did find the perfect solution: An indoor playground (slash jungle gym). We have them in Japan, and I have seen one in Bangkok, but now there is an entire chain of them in Sweden. And they serve a halfway decent lunch, too. You only pay for the kids, and you get a fairly good discount if you have more than one of them.
Keeping Your Children Quiet
I have written a couple of times about our trip before, about people who complain about your kids, how to entertain your toddlers in-flight, and flying with sick kids (and I also wrote before about flying with infants). And about how to beat jetlag with your toddlers.
As a parent, you try hard to keep your kids quiet and well-behaved. Apart from when they are eating, small chidren are only quiet when they are eating, sleeping, or deeply absorbed in some activity like watching a video or coloring pictures. Although my kids talk in their sleep, nobody even gave us a sour look on the way home. It may have had something to do with the unusually noisy kid two rows ahead.
it may sound old-fashioned to keep your kids quiet. Small children need to express themselves and play, even if that can be noisy. But it is useful social training for them, even if it happens in a stressful situation.
Tiring Themselves Out
When we came home (and the kids had slept 12 hours), my son wanted to go to the playground in our nearby park (his sisters preferred going shopping with mom). This worked great for tiring him out, but we should have gone for a longer walk, I realized as he woke up at 1 AM and asked if it was not morning yet. He did not fall asleep again until three hours later. Their body clocks are not quite back to normal yet.
A long flight is not healthy for adults either (I am struggling myself, making stupid decisions at work and then deleting them). But it is much worse for kids than for adults. Perhaps they get bored more easily than me, or perhaps I am jaded by a lifetime of business travel. But at least I was prepared - with lots of healthy snacks and plenty of water (and diapers). I had to buy new bottles after security and passport control, since they make you throw away the water in security control. But it was OK to take yoghurt pouches, both through the security control in Sweden and China.
Did I Have Spoons?
I had a curious experience in China, by the way. The security control staff asked ”do you have spoon?” I said no, because I did not think you could try to hijack an airplane with a set of souvenir coffee spoons that my parents picked up during their honeymoon. But they had them x-rayed separately anyway. Sometimes security control is capricious rather than professional-seeming.
During large parts of the trip, when I did not try to make them sleep, the onboard entertainment system was a life-saver. I mentioned before that I wrote another blog post about in-flight entertainment for toddlers, but this time the kids entertained themselves most of the time. The entertainment system on Air China was unusually hard to navigate, by the way. But the kids managed, even though two episodes of Mickeys Playhouse is not nearly enough for a ten-hour trip. The selection overall was really B-list galore, by the way. Except for the Chinese programs, but those made no sense to us.
And there were a couple of games. I told my kids that they had to figure the games out themselves, by the way. I did not want to lean and stretch across the seats constantly. And besides, if they learn to press pictures of buttons on a screen they have learned a skill required in the modern workplace. And it can not be bad. Sure enough, the kids learned to figure it out for themselves. They proudly informed me when they had earned virtual coins. And they were nice and quiet about it. Perhaps time to dig out our old Nintendos for the next flight.
I had prepared really well for this trip, but I did not get to use any of it. I had my sister in law print out tons of coloring pictures. Those are great for keeping your kids entertained, but they require pens in at least two colors (unless you are an adult). So if you bring coloring books or pictures, also bring lots of pens or crayons (of a type that washes off the airline interior panelling easily).
Although this was not necessary this time. That is one of the fascinating things about traveling with kids. You never know what to expect.
One of the experiences from my recent trip with our kids (I have written about traveling with kids with a fever, people who complain about your kids, and what I did to entertain our kids in-flight) was - again - how lousy customer service is in China. Specifically, this time, on Air China.
It should not come as a surprise that when I call the call center of Air China, select the English-speaking operators, ask a simple question, and get transferred to a different agent. What did surprise me was that the first agent apologized that her English was not sufficient.
The second agent proceeded to ask me about the ticket number, and would not even let me ask the question. So it probably comes as no surprise that when she finally got the ticket number, it was useless to her. She could not open the trip details as we had booked through Expedia. Which was a surprise in itself.
we had now been talking for five minutes, and she finally let me ask my question: would our arriving and departing flights be from the same terminal? The answer, not unsurprisingly, was yes. It should also come as no syrprise that one of us felt his time was wasted.
What she did not tell me was that we had to pass through passport control and security to get to the gate. And that security was literally squeezed in under the staircase, had only two X-ray-machines, and an incredibly bad queue management. It took an incredible time until they had cleared us, especially since they insisted on checking our carry-on luggage several times.
Chinese have not learned managing queues after three thousand years, and there are always people trying to squeeze in front of you. But this did not decrease the time it took to get through. And the passport control did not help either. The line took about 20 minutes, eating up a large chunk of our time margin (the toilet took the rest). The kids were extremely cooperative and despite playing a bit in the passport control they came along quickly and did not even ask why there were a second passport control after the first one, before we were let into security. Even if daddy was strongly inclined to ask that question. If there had been someone to ask.
We did not have time to go to the toilet in Beijing, but it did not matter since my kids were already in diapers at that point. We always put diapers on before long flights, even though the kids are toilet trained and usually can go a night without. But on the airplane things happen with pressure (the size of the bladder first inflates as the pressure decreases and then as the plane lands, the pressure makes the bladder contract). This is why we always put diapers on our kids during flights. But it would certainly help if Beijing airport tried to do something about their passport and security controls.
If you have children, you know how hard they can be to entertain. In particular without physical activity. Especially in a quiet way. For more than ten hours in flight. So what did I do during our recent trip that involved a ten-hour-plus flight from China to Sweden?
I have written before about flying with toddlers and flying with infants, about keeping infants entertained during the flight, about flying with sick kids, and about our experiences from this trip. It was more than ten kours in a very comfortable Airbus.
The Toddler Flying Difference
Flying with toddlers is very different from flying with infants. While most infants either are as snug as a bug in a rug and stay happy as long as they are strapped onto their mothers, some scream their hearts out from the discomfort associated with flying, whether stomach pain or ear pain or both.
Infants do not require much entertainment either. When they are old enough to start doing things by themselves, a biting ring or a pair of plastic keys can keep them entertained for hours.
But a toddler has higher requirements. They need something more advanced.
Passive vs Active Entertainment
Every toddler is different, but most will be hypnotized by television. Or rather childrens programmes. The problem with the infinite availability of shows on YouTube is that children watching it get spoiled by the amount of choice. They get used to being able to click to get something else when there is the slightest slow stretch.
There is no way an in-flight entertainment system can offer that variety. Nor can any tablet you could carry. It might make sense to habituate your kids to a series with a lot of shows you could download and that would last your kids for some time, if you have a tablet that can handle it. Or teach them to play games. Or find an alternative way of keeping them entertained.
in-Flight Boring System
On the flight from Beijing, the kids were quiet mostly thanks to the entertainment system. It was unusually hard to navigate, and the selection was a little less than standard. And heavy biased towards Chinese programming, which was to be expected since we flew Air China. And we got decent headphones. I actually had bought headphones for the kids, so I called ahead to Air China customer service and tried to ask what kind of connectors they had on their headphones (they were two-pronged, but the customer service representative had no idea about that). It did not say on their website either. But at least she was able to tell me that both flights were arriving and leaving from the same terminal. It took her more than three times the time it took me to give you that information, because she insisted that she needed our booking number (and when she got it, she could not open the booking because it was done through Expedia, not through their website).
When They Are Not Asleep
There was a second reason my kids were so quiet during the flight, and I am not talking about the in-flight meals (definitely not on Air China, anyway). That was low-tech enough: pen and paper.
I found the perfect activity for my children: Coloring books with letters. In Japan, everyone from schoolchildren to retirees use templates where you write the Chinese characters that Japanese use to write words (or actually concepts). You have to write the characters with the strokes in the right order and direction. Perfect for children trying to learn to read and write.
Any kind of coloring book will work, of course. Coloring is more difficult than free-hand drawing, and it will keep your kids occupied for longer. You can create your own themed coloring book that shows things from the trip you will be going on (or are returning from). It requires quite a bit of work, so if you want to buy one and let me make it, tell me in the form below.
We had to get up at 4AM to catch the plane. Actually, me and my wife got up at 0330, since my son started crying. We were afraid he was going to have ear pain on the plane, and of course that is what happened. Only it went away when I blew his nose and netted a ton of yellow snot. Yes, of course he had a nasty infection and we had already taken him to the doctor. You should always do that if your kid has a problem before traveling, no matter what it is. Stomach ache, ear-nose-throat, anything which can detract from the pleasure of travel should be treated. It is unlikely that it means you can not go on that vacation, except if your child has a high fever. In that case, you had better made sure you can cancel the ticket without cost, either due to the terms of the booking or because you have cancellation insurance. You do not want to toy with a fever, even if it is something which goes away after a day, since it can be life- threatening in a toddler.
Depending on where you come from, you will have different expectations on the cure. In some countries the kids get antibiotics only with a runny nose. In other countries the expectation is that a childs fever will heal itself, no matter that they have to stay in bed for several weeks.
To be honest, the antibiotics that allow the children to get back to daycare or school are mostly prescribed for the convenience of the parents. Our son had a fever that would have merited him a generous dose of antibiotics in Japan, but in Sweden the philosophy that if the child does not have a life-threateningly high fever, it will heal itself after a few days. And it took a week until the fever broke and he was back to his old self. If we had lived in Sweden, we would have enjoyed the generous allowances for parents staying home with sick children. But now it just forced us to slow down and stay at home. Well, we were on vacation.
But if they do not have a fever, then a kids decongestant will make sure the finer passageways of the nose and ear do not get inflamed and swell up so much that they close pockets inside the tissue. When the pressure changes the air or fluid in these pockets (or inside the inner ear) expands since the air can not get out, and this hurts. You have to have had sinusitis to appreciate how much. The screaming can be awful.
i have written before about flying with toddlers as well as flying with infants, and started a series of posts about our experiences from our longest trip yet. And about beating jetlag with toddlers.
There are various tricks to relieve the pressure, which may help unless the child is actually sick - in that case, only decongestant helps. Making the child swallow is the easiest way to relieve ear pain (and sinus pain too). A small child can use a sippy cup, which is an exellent way of making them swallow which opens the inner ear, relieves the pressure, and unfortunately also makes them pee more and may not last that long.
With small kids you can also try the paper cup trick, where you place two paper cups with wadded up paper soaked in boiling water inside the cups. The idea is that this will decrease the pressure as the heated air cools, and this will make their ears pop.
When they grow a bit older you can give them candy, or better yet lollipops. Sugarfree will not be a danger to the teeth of your kids. But no less effective.
I must say I am proud of my kids. They cooperated fairly well at getting the volume down, and for the most part of the trip they did not really talk more loudly than normal speaking voices. On the long Beijing to Stockholm, Sweden leg (10 hours plus), they were actually more quiet than the passengers in the row in front, who where having a very interesting conversation about something, laughing much more loudly than my kids were speaking. I did not even have to give them all the treats I had prepared. Mental treats, because my kids love to draw letters and numbers. The onboard entertainment system helped too. And they slept really well for more than three hours.
The first leg of the trip was the worst. The plane was older and smaller, creating a totally different feel onboard from the long flight. Taking off at 0830, this was early morning, and my kids were not at their best for the beginning of the trip. Nobody else said anything. The gentleman in the end seat of our row was a real gentleman when my daughter snugged up to him and started sucking her thumb; he must have had children of his own. Or grandchildren, as the case may be. There have been reams of blog files written in blogs on the Internet about how to handle complaining fellow travelers. The tips vary from giving out little presents to people in the surrounding seats to ignoring them, or being rude back.
Why We Never Give Presents
There is a school of thought that says you should give presents to the people sitting around you, so they start thinking positively about your kids from the start of the flight. I do not subscribe to that school of thought. As a matter of fact, I am opposed to it. Kids should be accepted on their own terms. Not because they (or their parents) give you a cheap gift.
I do not think this guy would have been swayed even by expensive chocolates, and that was never in my budget. I prefer to ignore him, because I consider complains like his unreasonable. And the reason is precisely that the kids were reasonably quiet, and that it was a daytime flight.
we always chose daytime flights with the kds for precisely that reason. People are predisposed to be awake, and care less about noisy kids. On a nighttime flight, people have a reasonable expectation to be able to sleep. On a daytime flight, much less so.
Quiet Onboard? Get Headphones
shushed them down best I could and then they were quiet, speaking in lower than ordinary voices. They were really quiet. So quiet I wish they could be that quiet at home. But the person in front continued to complain. Even though this was a daytime flight. Eventually he became quiet. I noticed he had fallen asleep. When we had landed, he complained that we had been loud for five hours, but apart from the fact that the flight was only four and a half, he was asleep for at least two. And he continued to complain after we had landed. But then my patience wore thin. So I told him that we had landed, he had no reason to complain any more, and if he wanted his next flight to be quiet, he should get a pair of headphones.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Tokyo to Sendai, previously of Bangkong and Honolulu. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning seven - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on firstname.lastname@example.org, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.