Shameless Repost: Free Things at Airports Around the World

Waiting in airports is often a bore for adults, but it can be downright painful with children.  Taking kids in the duty-free shops is a potentially expensive and guaranteed stressful experience.  Running around an empty gate area gets old or impossible if all gates around you end up being used.

So, what to do?

Homework, of course!  Research the airports you’ll be flying through, and find out what amenities they offer.  Since we’re thrifty around here, you won’t see any recommendations suggesting pricey day passes to airport lounges or expensive in-airport spa treatments.

Msnbc.com recently posted a great list of Free Things at Airports Around the World.  For the full msnbc.com article, click here.   Here’s a quick list of the airports included in the article:

  • Singapore Changi Airport
  • Washington Dulles International Airport
  •  Tallinn Airport, Estonia
  • Amsterdam Airport Schiphol 
  • JFK International Airport, Terminals 2-3
  • Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, Taipei

For more airport reviews, check out Skytrax.com.

Ticket Talk: Tips on Booking Multi-City Itineraries

Thrifty Travel Mama | Multi-City Itinerary TipsNow that the cat’s out of the bag and we have all four passports in hand after renewals and visas, I can focus on more important things.  Like traveling again!

Last week, I booked tickets for our annual trip to the US.  We had planned to go in August for at least a month (how we have become oh-so-European), but I’ll be barred from flying in August.  And, who wants to be stuck in the US having to pay retail for a hospital birth?  Not me!  I’ll take my all-expenses-paid excursion to the German hospital, thankyouverymuch.

We happen to be one of those couples that has immediate family spread over almost the entire US.  We couldn’t possibly see them all in one trip.  Nor do I have the desire to die trying.

Instead, we try to see a few each visit.  But, since they are far flung and we only have three weeks (the horror, I know), driving all over tarnation isn’t going to work either.  Plus, shocker of all shockers, I would like to actually relax and enjoy my time in the US.  Two thousand mile road trips just aren’t my idea of relaxing.

And, ultimately, we are thrifty around here which means forking over $300 times four people for airline tickets on top of the hundreds and hundreds of dollars we’ll already have to pay to get to the US also isn’t gonna cut it.

So, then, what to do?

Answer: a multi-city itinerary.

A multi-city itinerary is just that: an airline itinerary that stops at more than one destination.  For example, we will be flying from Frankfurt to Dulles, then Dulles to Orlando, and finally Orlando to Frankfurt.  (It’s also called a circle trip in travel agent speak.)

If you’re never put together a multi-city itinerary before, the task may be daunting.  Have no fear, though.  Read my how-to and tips below; then get to searching!

Tips on Booking Multi-City Itineraries

Be patient.  It takes a lot of work to search multiple combinations of dates and cities.  Don’t expect to get what you want by just typing in a few simple searches.

No lies here; it took me hours to find the right date combination.  Then, I had to double check the details with Doc Sci’s boss.  When I went back to book the tickets a few days later, I had to start from scratch as the itinerary I originally wanted had jumped more than $200.

Be flexible.  Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are generally the cheapest days to fly.  I say generally, because sometimes loads (the amount of passengers) are lower on other days on certain routes.  However, you won’t know this until you start searching (as I said, be patient!).

Try your itinerary a week before and a week after.  Pay attention to your calendar, noting any holidays.  Also, if it’s peak season at your destination(s), prices just may be high, period.  Your job is to find the lowest in the date range you are available to travel.

Be persistent.  Perhaps the most annoying factor concerning a multi-city itinerary is the inability to search using Flexible Dates.  You have to be flexible (see above), but your airline search engine refuses to be (again with the patience).  Therefore, if you’re going to win the cheapest, best itinerary, you’ll have to be the one to stick it out.

It’s a rarity (or perhaps even an impossibility) that your perfect itinerary will be the first date and city combination you search.  Keep looking.  Try alternate airports, alternate order of stops, etc.  (For more on this, see the How To below.)

Be discerning.  Would it be cheaper to do a simple round-trip and rent a car?  Yes, flying is convenient, but sometimes it’s not always the answer.  Weigh the drive time (be realistic about how far you can go in one day with kids!) versus the money (four tickets at $250 is quite a chunk of change, but you will also have to pay for the car rental, gas, perhaps a hotel room or two).

Don’t forget your time is valuable as well, so consider how much time you’d spend in transit while flying vs. driving.

Be smart.  Do your homework (for homework hints, see the How To below).  Know which airlines fly frequently to which cities.  It was cheap for me to add a stop in Dulles because it is one of the main United hub cities.  We also need to visit Nashville on this trip, but once I threw that city into the mix the whole itinerary went bonkers (price and schedule-wise).  Instead, we’ll drive to Nashville.

Be realistic.  How much flying and driving can your kids handle?  How many different beds can you sleep in before you swear off traveling all together?  Are you better off paying an extra $25 per ticket to avoid taking toddlers on a red-eye flight?  Think about what’s important to you, your family, and make decisions for a happy vacation.

How To: Practical Steps to Booking a Multi-City Itinerary

Multiple approaches to the puzzle of a (CHEAP) multi-city itinerary exist.  This is just how I do it.

  1. Find the cheapest round-trip between the two cities where you must travel.  I absolutely had to fly from Frankfurt to Orlando.
  2. Pay attention to the airlines that provide the cheapest round-trip.  Often you will have several within $50 of each other.  For me, this was United, Continental, and USAir.
  3. Find out the partner airlines of each of the cheapest carriers.  The three worldwide alliances are Star Alliance, OneWorld, and SkyTeam.  You can find a list of all the members of the alliances here.
  4. Search the partner airlines’ websites, too.  I found that Lufthansa wanted to sell me United itineraries, and United wanted to sell me Continental itineraries.  Last year, I purchased a Delta itinerary from Air France at a fraction of the cost (and in the currency I wanted to use).
  5. Google the hub cities of each primary airline (“United Airlines hub cities”).  If the other destination you want to visit is not a hub, google your destination and find out which airlines fly there.  Cross check that list with the cheap airlines and their partners.
  6. Consider alternate destinations and make a list.  Are any of your alternate destinations hub cities for the cheapest airlines?  Though I am stopping off at Dulles, I am actually traveling to Pennsylvania.  But, it’s much cheaper for me to fly to Dulles, rent a car, and drive several hours than flying to the actual city in Pennsylvania I want to visit.
  7. Examine connections.  If your cheapest round-trip included a layover in Atlanta, could you rent a car and drive to your desired destination from Atlanta?
  8. Determine trip order.  Can you visit Orlando before Dulles, or do you have to go to Dulles first?  Only you can answer this one.  If you are flexible on the destination order, factor in the next tip to be doubly sure.
  9. Don’t forget baggage fees.  When flying to/from Europe, you still can usually get one checked bag free.  Know that even if your itinerary includes an international destination, you will be considered a domestic traveler for all flights inside of the US.  I know we can travel light going to the US, but we will take four full bags back to Europe.  Therefore, it’s cost-effective for me to go to Orlando last since I’ll be loading up on items from storage and taking them across the Atlantic.  I won’t be charged for those bags since I can check them all the way through to Frankfurt.
  10. Weigh the costs and make a decision.  For me, it cost $700 per person for a round-trip itinerary and $800 per person for a multi-city itinerary.  It’s almost impossible to fly anywhere these days for $100.  But, if you’re coming up with $300 for a round trip itinerary and $600 for a multi-city itinerary, perhaps two round-trip tickets is the answer for you this time.   Make the best decision for your resources and your family, and then enjoy your vacation no matter how you get there!
Have you booked a multi-city itinerary before?  Did I leave anything off the list you would’ve added?  

Signature-Marigold

Finding a Deal: European Backpacker Index

Lest you think that this is becoming a food blog that left its traveling roots behind, let me reassure you.  Just because I’m not going any place right this minute, doesn’t mean I’ve washed my hands of it.

January’s a lull month for me, especially when I find myself living somewhere cold.    I’m tired of freezing all my parts off which means I have zero desire to visit anywhere chillier than here.  Unfortunately, the cheap places in winter also happen to be the cold ones, so I stay put.

However, January is a GREAT month for trip planning, mapping out the year and discussing destinations.

And, today, I just happen to have a nifty little tool up my parka sleeve for you…  47 European cities by price: European Backpacker Index for 2012 !

But what exactly is this index, and how do you use it?

From their website… Price of Travel (the company behind the index) is a database of travel costs in every major destination around the world, started in early 2010. The site now features over 110 cities, with information for each listing accommodation, transportation, attraction, food, and drink prices.  The brain child of Roger Wade (Founder/Editor-in-Chief), it is the first website that allows anyone from a backpacker to 5-star luxury traveler make a daily budget at a glance for every major travel destination around the world.

Awesome.  I can totally get into this site.

Since I currently live in Europe, it makes sense for me to travel while in continent while I’m here.  Therefore, I’m going to focus on the European Backpacker Index, but keep in mind that Price of Travel also has indexes for Caribbean Islands, Asian cities, overwater bungalows, and more!

If you want to know how the Backpacker Index works, Price of Travel provides the following explanation…

Prices for most things (hostels, transportation, attractions) are fixed and certain, but prices for a “budget lunch” or a pint of beer can vary depending on where you go. Still, our estimates are based on a lot of research, and should be very close if not right on.

Costs for each city

  • One night in the cheapest bunk at the least expensive hostel with a good location and good reviews
  • Two public transportation rides per day
  • One paid/famous attraction per day (Every city is loaded with free things to do for budget-conscious travelers, but here we take the average cost of a major attraction in each city for each day.)
  • Three “budget” meals per day (We took our minimum meal price and added 20% to make it more realistic for a longer trip).
  • Three cheap, local beers (or wine) each day as an “entertainment fund.” Non-drinkers might have dessert and coffee or attend a local music performance instead, so this is a general benchmark that should be proportional for each city.

So while it’s not exactly feasible that I’ll be staying in a 12-bunk hostel dorm room with my two and four year-old boys, I like that the index gives me a general idea of accommodation prices in the cities I’m considering.

Don’t consider yourself at backpacker in the least?  Try the Europe 3-Star Traveler Index instead.  It works on the same principles, but the costs and criteria are slightly different.

As expected, many Eastern European destinations appear prominently on the list.   In fact, the top 10 are all in Eastern Europe.  But Berlin is 19 and London is 26, right behind Reykjavik at 25.

And that sunny destination in Spain I’m dreaming of to chase the January blues and blahs away?  I can weigh EasyJet airfares against the costs listed on the index and find out that Barcelona (31) is slightly more expensive than Madrid (23), but surprise, surprise, the Canary Islands – owned by Spain – are the cheapest destination in that country (16).

So break out your dreams, maps, and, well, budgets, and get to planning.  Twenty twelve travel is waiting!

In Search of Hanbok

Coordinating Family Hanbok

The ONE thing Doc Sci told me we absolutely had to do while in Korea was take a picture with all four of us in hanbok, traditional Korean dress.

Today, hanbok is usually only worn on special occasions like weddings, funerals, first birthdays, etc.  Some Koreans own it, but some do not.  A custom hanbok can be upwards of $700 for an adult since it’s often made of real silk.

To rent hanbok and have a picture taken by a photographer can cost more than $100 for a family of four.  No way was I going to pay that, especially knowing that we might not even get one shot with all four of us even looking at the camera.

I’m not sure why, but I found it extremely difficult to locate one resource online that listed all the places where a “hanbok experience” could be had.  So, I’m going to consolidate my research here for the next mama who visits Korea with a hanbok-crazed husband.  Ha!

  • Korean Tourism Organization (main office near Jonggak Station, Subway Line 1, Exit 5).  This hanbok experience only happens one week per month.  Unfortunately, no website I found stated that, and our visit did not coincide with the October dates.  Boo.  Cost: free.

    Even though we missed out on hanbok at the KTO office, we did get to see the Korean Wave gallery of k-pop and k-drama stars.

  • Namsangol Hanok Village (Chungmuro Station, Subway Line 3 or 4 Exit 4).  Though the Village opens at 9am, the hanbok experience doesn’t start until 11am (also nowhere to be found online).  You need to pay for each person who wants to wear hanbok, and then show your receipt to the attendant.  We got a very grumpy lady who was NOT keen on letting all four of us try out hanbok at the same time.  After a lot of arguing and pressuring, she finally brought out a second boy’s outfit.  The hanboks are in good condition and you can take pictures in several places in the small hanok (house) or on the porch.  Be advised that you’ll have to compete with others to try on the hanbok you want and for space to take pictures.  No photographer so make friends with other hanbok wearers.  Cost: 3,000W per adult and 1,000W per child up to age 7.

    The boys getting their hanbok on.

    Price list for Hanbok experience and other traditional Korean experiences at the Hanok Village.

  • Lotte World Folk Museum (Jamsil Station, Subway Line 2 or 8).  Though it was on the itinerary, we didn’t make it here.  Since we had success at the Hanok Village (and our Korean friend borrowed hanbok for all four of us as well), it wasn’t worth the long subway ride (over 1 hour).  I didn’t mind the admission fee since I think the rest of the folk museum would have been interesting for us and the boys.  Cost: 5,000W per adult and 2,000W per child plus 10,000W admission fee for adults (our boys would have been free).
  • Gyeongbokgung Palace (Gyeongbokgung Station, Subway Line 3).  We had no time to test out the information I found regarding a hanbok experience at the palace.  If you do have time, visit the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion from 9:30am to 5:00pm.  Apparently, you can also pose here in hanbok with a palace guard.  I did read of one or two other palaces offering hanbok, but the comments revealed that the hanbok were tattered and in poor condition.  Cost: free.
  • Incheon Airport.  If you’ve got some time to kill before your flight, head over to the Traditional Korean Cultural Experience Zone.  There’s a space on the main drag where you can make Korean crafts for free (or buy expensive ones if you don’t want to make them).  But, if you go a little further up the west side of the concourse (we flew out of gate 40 and saw it on the way, but I believe the shop is close to gate 31), you’ll find a place where travelers can try on hanbok.  Unfortunately, we didn’t know about this and didn’t leave enough time.  Otherwise, we definitely would’ve squeezed in one more hanbok experience.  Cost: free.

If you’ve tried on hanbok, leave a link to your picture!

Korea: Know Before You Go

Well, 572 pictures later, here we are back in Germany!  South Korea proved to be one of our greatest vacation destinations yet.  No plans to live there, though.  We think the pace of German life suits us much better.

Before I hammer you with posts about our trip, I’d like to mention a few things I wish I had known before I visited Korea.

Recycle your guidebook.  I hunted around reviews online to find the best travel guidebook for South Korea.  The few products that do exist had very mixed reviews, most of which were negative.  I searched half.com and found the cheapest.  I paid 75 cents plus shipping and got great advice like, “The area behind the Kyobo Building is full of restaurants.”  Which restaurants?  What kind of food?  What price range?  Not listed.  Much better information can be had on websites like iTour Seoul and in the TripAdvisor forums.

Pick a good GREAT airline if you can afford it.  Luckily, I didn’t screw this decision up.  When choosing an airline for our trip, I decided to spring for the nonstop option even though it was more expensive.  The cheapest of the nonstop carriers was Asiana.  After doing my homework at skytrax.com, I discovered Asiana is a five-star airline.  As I will outline in my review of Asiana in a few days, a few small amenities made all the difference in traveling such a long way with two little boys.

Seoul is a ridiculously humongous city.  We really lucked out in connecting with old friends who graciously allowed us to stay at their flat during our vacation.  However, I had no idea it would take 45 minutes to get to the center of town from their place.  And even if I would have known, it would have been hard for me to imagine.  I can get from my house to the center of my city in 10 minutes or less, depending on how fast I furiously pedal.

Sprawling Seoul.

Because of the sheer size of the city (uh, even the subway system is one of the largest in the world), we had to cross off things from our itinerary because getting there and back would have taken almost a half day.

Crossing the Han River… one day we ventured south of the Han and it took almost 2 hours total to get home. Yikes!

Seoul is NOT stroller friendly.  While I would consider South Korea kid-friendly, Seoul is definitely not a stroller-friendly city.  In fact, I don’t think I saw more than 5 or 6 strollers (besides my own) in the two weeks we were there.  Mamas in Seoul use baby carriers or baby backpacks.  Fortunately, many attractions have strollers to lend or rent.  If you can, leave poor Phil & Ted behind.

Bathrooms accommodating children and families were more frequently found than elevators in subway stations.

Get a T-Money card.  T-Money is a prepaid card system for public transportation.  In addition to the sheer convenience of just swiping your card instead of fumbling with change for fares, users get small discounts such as 700W if paying cash versus 600W if paying with T-Money.  Reloading the card in subway stations is very simple, and there is an English language option on the machine.

The airport limousine bus was the only place I found that did not take T-Money.

Clothing, shoes, and accessories are expensive.  Okay, granted, we all have different ideas about what’s cheap and what’s not.  But even in my vacation mode when I’m willing to spend more on items just because they’ll have a memory attached, I was very reluctant to buy any clothing in stores.  I found a few bargains in the Myeongdong and Namdemun markets.  But even here, bargains can be found in the streets, not in the stores.

Myeongdong market – look for bargains in the streets and be ready to haggle.

Be prepared for your kids to become celebrities.  If you are toting fair-haired, blue-eyed kids, get used to the idea that you’re now the center of attention.  Western-looking foreigners are definitely a minority in South Korea, so I guess it’s only natural that we were stared at all the time.  What I didn’t expect, however, were the schoolgirl (and sometimes schoolboy!) screams at the sight of my two boys or the gawkers shoving all sorts of sweets in my boys’ hands and pockets.  T-Rex and Screech collected an arm full of candy, money, and marriage proposals during our visit.

Free postcards.  If you arrive in Korea via Incheon Airport (which, hello, who doesn’t), stop by the tourist information booth in the arrivals hall.  Pick up their FREE postcards.  Fill out the postcards during your trip.  Then, take the completed postcards back to the tourist information booth where you picked up the blank ones.  Stuff the mailbox full (I mailed at least 10), and the Korean Tourism Organization will mail the cards for free!  My family in the US received theirs in a little over one week.  Score!

Visiting South Korea?  See my trip report on Seoul Part 1 and Part 2 and read about our experience at The Blue House and flying to Jeju Island with Kids as well as how to have your own hanbok experience.Signature-Marigold

Where in the World Will Thrifty Travel Mama Go Next?

Fun graphic art from Studio MPLS.

I wish I was as cool as Carmen Sandiego.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to travel the world in a bright red trench coat?

Alas, I cannot be Carmen Sandiego… because Carmen Sandiego + kids would just be too darn easy to find.

And, just where will you find my not-so-secret-agent self and my crazy, loud, hilarious kids next?

South Korea!

By the time you read this, we will be jetting our way to a new continent, seven time zones away.  Have we gone totally bonkers?  Quite possibly.

Did I mention the flight there is 10 1/2 hours and the flight back is 11 1/2 hours?  Bring your eye masks and earplugs folks.  It’s about to get real.  Nutty.

This will be our biggest, zaniest, most expensive, most nerve-wracking trip to date.  And I am totally excited.

Well, about everything except the actual longer-than-the-average-work-day flight time with two under four… and the food.  I am NOT an adventurous eater by any means and I have read that such things as silk worm larvae, live octopus, calf lung, and eel await me.

You can rest assured I won’t be trying anything so ridiculous, BUT I have to admit I’m terrified of accidentally ordering something so gag-worthy because I don’t read Korean.

And the only things I can say in Korean are hello, thank you, sorry, I’m hungry, and are you crazy!?.  Maybe I should brush up on that.. “nothing alive and still moving, please.”

Hang on to your hats folks and ready yourselves for trip reports and posts featuring marvels, miracles, and mishaps from our first trip to Asia!