A Family of Hobos We Have Been

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

This is one of my insanely long posts. Instead of just passing it off as tl;dr, make yourself a cuppa and stay a while… or just skim the headers. We can still be friends.

We are that crazy family… the one that others sometimes speak of as brave when they really mean insane.

In case you’re new ’round these parts and aren’t sure if I’m for real about the nutty bit, this post should convince you.

The Overview

Rewind with me to last autumn. We left our home in Freiburg at the beginning of October 2014, and ended up in Arizona just shy of New Year’s Eve. Seems simple, right? Ha – not so fast.

Hang on to your hats and follow along on our ride from Germany to Arizona via a dozen other destinations.. with all the madness and mayhem in between!

Please note that I am including some links to posts that have not been published yet. If you discover one of these, you can bookmark this post and come back later to read the linked posts, or you can just follow the blog via email (sign up on the right) or Facebook to be notified of all future posts.

By the way, if you’re reading these posts for the culture shock aspect, I’ll be honest and admit that recapping the events below is difficult for me. There are certain aspects of living in Freiburg that I miss somethin’ fierce, and I get a bit choked up when I dwell on certain memories for too long. So keep in mind that this adventure is two parts insane, one part pain.

Leaving Freiburg

Moving is never easy, and moving from one continent to another just multiplies the trouble. The ins and outs of our move is beyond the scope of this post, but I will briefly mention that we shipped most of our things to the US via DHL. Because of this, we did not have to schlep ten, fifty-pound checked suitcases and three children. Just the three kids, they’re non-negotiable.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Testing out the new headphone splitter and learning to share one small DVD player.

Instead, all five of us all had backpacks and carry-on suitcases. Additionally, we took two gigantic checked bags and a car seat bag. If my math is right, that’s 13 pieces of luggage.

Hey, I never said I’m a pro at moving light – just packing light.

We bid Freiburg farewell and boarded a train to Leipzig. When we changed trains in Frankfurt, and Alpha and I literally ran to Chipotle in the rain to fetch one last German burrito. While there, we bumped into old friends from the US I haven’t seen in over ten years, also getting their burrito fix. Super fun, and super random. It’s a small (Mexican food) world, indeed.

Leipzig and Dresden

In Leipzig, Doc Sci attended one last conference for his post-doc while I had a fun meet-up and playdate with a blog reader (hi, Rose!). I also took the boys to Dresden… by myself.

Gulp.

Istanbul

After three days in the City of Heroes (Stadt der Helden), we flew to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. Turkish offered the cheapest fare, and it actually turned out to be even less expensive to stay in Istanbul for 3 days on a stopover rather than going straight to the US.

We experienced three intense days in Istanbul, soaking up as much as we could of the local flavor and Turkish culture. Stay tuned for a budget-friendly “Istanbul with Kids” series!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Welcome to America

Our first stop in the US was Washington Dulles to visit family.

Of course (of course!), we landed on the day that the extra special screening for Ebola at passport control rolled out. Not exactly the best welcome to be stuck in customs/immigration for hours…

The boys enjoyed a weekend running crazy with the cousins. All five kids took advantage of a favorite autumn pastime – jumping in gigantic piles of leaves.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Orlando

We then flew to Orlando to reunited with friends, boxes shipped from Germany, and our car.

The last time we drove our car, Charlie was in an infant seat. Now, we have three lanky boys, all in forward-facing car seats. We shoved, pulled, squished, and prayed that three car seats would fit in the back row… of our Honda Civic.

In the end, we managed – but just barely. Good thing, too, because this car was to be our home for the next two months.

During our time in Orlando, Doc Sci started applying for jobs. We took turns hanging out with the kids and searching for open positions. At night, we both researched universities, cities, companies; we emailed out CVs and cover letters.

We dreamed, and we prayed.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

We celebrated the birthdays of Bravo and Alpha while on the road, one at the Lego store…

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

…and one at Legoland!

Nashville

Just before Thanksgiving, we road-tripped up to Nashville for a change of scenery. We set up camp at Grandma’s house, hung out with friends and family in Music City, and applied for more jobs.

It was during our stay in Tennessee that Doc Sci had a phone interview with the university that eventually hired him. But, we didn’t know that at the time, so after two weeks, we then set our sights on the Big D.

Dallas

One of our Freiburg friends is from the Dallas area (hi, Cheril!), and her parents were up for letting five dazed and confused ex-expat strangers take over half of their house. Generous souls!

We drove from Nashville to Dallas, and unpacked the car once again. More fabulous reunions with friends in the heart of Texas, employment meetings and emails, spelling tests, and math worksheets.

This is beginning to be a repetitive story, eh?

The News – and the Dilemma

Somewhere in the middle of the Metroplex, we got the call that a university in Arizona wanted to offer Doc Sci a visiting professor position for the spring semester.

Great news – except for one thing. The job started in less than one month.

Oh my.

Should we say accept the position? Should we move for a job that was not guaranteed for more than four months?

Beyond the philosophical, we also faced a physical dilemma. We stood, at that moment, halfway in between the Arizona job and our stored possessions in Florida.

Should we attempt to rent something furnished and run the risk of having to go back to Florida if the job turned out to be permanent? Or, should we go get our things in Florida now?

To complicate things further, Doc Sci had set up an in-person meeting in Atlanta for two days later.

Seriously?

Seriously.

What did we do? Why, we packed up the kids and drove to Atlanta, of course!Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Atlanta

One more interview and less than twenty four hours in Atlanta later, we were zooming down I-75 on the way to Orlando again. We were positively sick of being on the road, but we needed those four hundred and fifty miles to discuss whether or not we would move to Arizona.

Orlando.. Again

Ultimately, we said yes. And, we took our stuff.

Just shy of two weeks after that major decision, we emptied our storage unit, packed a truck, and said goodbye to Orlando.

Road Trip!

Over the next week, we logged a minimum of eight hours of solid driving each day – not including breaks – to make it to Arizona as soon as possible. We needed to have at least one week to move into a house and prepare for Doc Sci to teach (for the very first time, I might add).

I drove our car with the three boys in the backseat, and Doc Sci manhandled the moving truck. If there’s such thing as an ideal road trip, this was the exact opposite.

We encountered some of the most intense rain I have ever driven through, a hail storm while on the “stilts” of I-10 in Louisiana with no place to pull over, snow in Texas, and ice in New Mexico.

I had done my best before we left to buy new DVDs, arrange little goody bags, dollar store toys.. you know, all those cutesy things you see on Pinterest.

But, after a couple thousand miles and sitting ALL DAY LONG for days on end, things got pretty frazzled in the back seat (okay, in the front seat, too).

Hey, at least no one threw up.Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Dallas.. Again

The one bright spot was spending Christmas Eve and Day with our new friends in Dallas (remember those nice people that let perfect strangers take over half of their home?) and the rest of their family.

We’ll always remember 2014 as the Christmas where we literally could not uphold any traditions (no Adventskranz, Adventskalendar, cookie swaps, or gingerbread) and barely managed to fill the stockings. Instead, we received the fabulous gifts of generosity and hospitality from strangers turned friends. Humbling, indeed.

Arizona, Finally!

We rang in the new year at a hotel in Arizona, roasting marshmallows in the fake fire pit outside.

Hey, it could be worse. We had survived our road trip, and we were all healthy and alive!

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Happy New Year!

Unfortunately, the house we rented wasn’t ready for us to move in until after Doc Sci started working. In the meantime, I shopped with the kids in the mornings, looking for basic furniture for our new home. When we moved to Germany, we gave nearly everything away because it didn’t make financial sense to store it.

In the afternoons, the boys did school while Charlie napped. When Doc Sci came home from work, I left to do more shopping and research.

Home…?

On moving day, we pulled up to our new house and found that all the vendors (painters, cleaners, etc.) had packed down the snow in the driveway, leaving us a housewarming present of a two-inch thick slab of solid ice on which to unload our things.

A kind neighbor lent us a snow shovel; the boys chipped away at the ice while Doc Sci and I tried not to break any bones.

Insert snarky comment about how with America’s fabulous system of healthcare, we wouldn’t have had coverage for any ice-related injuries since Doc Sci had not started work yet…

Once we were moved in, Doc Sci had to turn his attention back to the paying customers – students – leaving me to assemble the furniture, unpack, and set up our home.

After sleeping in twenty different beds in a mere two months, we felt like guests in our new-ish house with brand new furniture. The scars of pro-hoboing must be deep because even after six months here, that feeling has just started to subside.

Since the job in Arizona was only temporary, I wasn’t exactly motivated to really move in – you know, hang pictures, decorate, make things “for real.” Plus, it was hard doing everything alone.

Doc Sci left early in the morning, worked all day, came home for dinner, and then worked again until nearly midnight almost every night in an effort to stay at least one class ahead of the students.

I know this is reality for many families, but it was new to me and just.one.more. adjustment coupled with all the other changes.

The Bright Spot

The bright spot in all of this was that the two of us did not grow apart, though that would have been rather easy to do. We both worked hard in different ways, and we respected each other’s efforts. We asked for help when we absolutely needed it, and gave as much as we could to each other in that time.

Looking back, I do not know how we made it through apart from the grace of God.

Thrifty Travel Mama | A Family of Hobos We Have Been: Indefinite Travel with Kids

Hiking in Arizona!

Our kids managed to overlook our flawed and stressful selves. Although they moaned and complained here and there about having to do school, I think they were just so relieved to not be hobos anymore.

I love to travel, but those months were an adventure I surely do not want to experience ever again.

Things are looking up for us now, maybe because it is summer break or because we have made some friends here and we don’t have any more boxes to unpack. I do still have more pictures to hang and projects I think would make this place more like home. But, we’re getting there. I can feel it. Inch by inch, centimeter by centimeter, minute by minute, day by day. We’re making it.

How about you? Have you ever had to move from place to place, looking for a job? Has a new location shifted your life in a big way?Signature Thrifty Travel Mama

Updated Review: Flying EasyJet with Your Family

Thrifty Travel Mama | Flying EasyJet - A Guide for Traveling with Babies, Children, and FamiliesIt’s nearly February which means I’m up to my eyeballs planning our family’s spring travel.  Are you doing the same?  Now is the time to search for deals for travel through April/May.  Depending on the carrier, summer fares may or may not be on sale yet.

Now, as you can imagine, we could easily shell out a fair amount of cash for five round-trip airline tickets.  In order to save money (and, therefore, travel more – duh!), we use budget carriers whenever possible.  The most convenient and affordable airline for our geographical location is easyJet.

I’ve written about flying easyJet with a baby before, but I wanted to update that older post with our recent experience.  All five of us flew easyJet to Edinburgh in November (more on that trip coming soon!).  I’ve added my thoughts from that trip as well as notes on new policies that easyJet has adopted.

You can read the updated review of our easyJet experience here.  We’ll be testing out Ryanair for the first time in April, so I’ll have a review on that airline later this spring.

Have you flown with easyJet before?  What did you think of your flight(s)?Signature-Marigold

Flying Lufthansa Internationally with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Flying Lufthansa Internationally With KidsOur trip to the US last month consisted of four flights: United Airlines from Frankfurt to Dulles, from Dulles to Orlando, from Orlando to Chicago O’Hare, and Lufthansa from Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt. To read my review of flying United Airlines internationally with kids, click here.

Also, for tips on booking a multi-city itinerary like ours, see my previous post here.

Now, it’s important to note that I spend a lot of time on SeatGuru when I research and book flights.  I painstakingly pick flights based on seating configuration and entertainment, two major factors for a good experience flying with children.  It’s not nice to have all that work go to waste.

Or be wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, I love European carriers.  Lufthansa is one of my main squeezes.  When United offered a Lufthansa flight on their website as an option (and a cheaper one at that), I jumped at the opportunity.  But not without checking SeatGuru first to make sure the flight had personal TV screens for all economy passengers.

I learned a lesson here I want to share with you: check and re-check.

If you care to follow along, here’s a link to the aircraft for Lufthansa Flight 431 from ORD to FRA.  It’s a 747 with four seats in the middle (good).  If you hover over the economy class seats, you’ll notice that it says “Video: Personal TV.”  Great – that’s what I want.

But…

If I had gone up to the In-Flight Amenities section and clicked on “Video,” I would have seen this message:

In Economy, some Lufthansa 747-400 have not yet been retrofitted and do not offer touch screen entertainment. In these cases, films and programming are shown via overhead projectors and monitors throughout the cabin.

The dreaded overhead monitor that actually showed nothing but soccer (football) news and clips for the first two hours.

Normally I check both places, but for some reason I didn’t this time.  And we got stuck with overhead monitors.  Showing three movies total for an eight-hour flight.  Two of which we had already seen on the previous United flight.  One of which was a documentary about animals.  Whoop-de-doo.

Boy am I glad this was an overnight flight.  And boy am I glad that again, my kids slept like pros.  All. Night. Long.

On the flip side, the Lufthansa food lived up to its reputation.  Excellent dark meat chicken with a flavorful soy sauce, sticky rice, and steamed vegetables for dinner.  Breakfast was not hot, but it contained a name-brand granola bar and a good fruit cup among other things.

Both of my boys received an age-appropriate toy from a Lufthansa flight attendant upon boarding. T-Rex really enjoyed this one and still plays it.

Both of my boys received an age-appropriate toy from a Lufthansa flight attendant upon boarding. T-Rex really enjoyed this one and still plays it.

Other Lufthansa perks I appreciate: small toys to entertain children during boarding and take-off, comfortable pillows and real blankets, hot towels before meals, and friendly flight attendants who don’t mind if you ask to have one of their two-liter bottles of water all to yourself.

So would I fly Lufthansa again?  You betcha.

Have you flown either Lufthansa internationally with children?  What was your experience?  Signature-Marigold

Ticket Talk: The Open Jaw

Hooray – it’s officially trip planning season for me!  Dark, dreary, cold, and wet outside, I’m keeping warm by burning through the euros in our bank account buying tickets.  I’m never so happy to see money go.

As with last year’s trip to the US, we are doing a multi-city itinerary.  I just can’t seem to go there and back again without at least one sideshow.

However, this year, the best deal for me was using something called an open jaw.  Say, what?  Simply put, if you were to draw your itinerary, it would be, uh, open, like a – you guessed it – jaw, instead of a basic straight line.

You know I wouldn’t do anything wonky without sharing how you could do the same.  A lot of the tips from my previous multi-city itinerary post are also applicable to open jaw itineraries.  I’ll jazz them up a smidge and throw them back’atcha below, but first, a few Q&A’s.

What in the world is an open jaw?  As I mentioned above, it’s one type of itinerary that does not go in a straight line.  The best way to explain it is to give you an example.  For me this means, I fly from Frankfurt (point A) to Salt Lake City (point B), and then from Orlando (point C) back to Frankfurt (point A).

Just so you’re in the know, another kind of open jaw itinerary exists.  Here’s an example.. fly from New York (point A) to San Francisco (point B) and then from San Francisco (point B) to Miami (point C) and terminate the trip there. 

When/why on earth would I use one?  If you want to visit two destinations instead of one, but it is cheaper to get yourself from point B to point C by a means other than the airline you are using for A to B and C to A, try an open jaw.  The missing point B to point C segment could be completed via ship, car, another airline, alien abduction, etc.  This is a popular ticket to use in conjunction with cruises that do not return to their port of origin.

Can I book an open jaw myself?  Yes!  Most major airline websites will allow you to book an open jaw itinerary online.  When you arrive at the airline’s main page, look for a small link near where you enter your city pair (departure and arrival cities) that says something along the lines of “Multi-City.”  Enter your point A to point B and the date and then your point C to point A and the date.

Can you give me an example?  Of course!  Let’s use the trip I just booked.  Our “home” airport is Frankfurt at the moment, so we always start and end there.   We have to go to Salt Lake City for one of Doc Sci’s conferences, and we need to go to Orlando once a year to take care of business and visit friends.

I priced itineraries with United, Delta, American Airlines, and Lufthansa.  Delta was the cheapest of the bunch, so I pressed on from there to find the bottom dollar deal.  The ticket prices were still higher than I wanted to pay, so I dropped the middle out of the itinerary (Salt Lake City to Orlando) which lowered the total cost down over 300 euros per person, a significant savings.  Ironically, the flights offered on the same dates but with an open jaw itinerary were also much, much better (note that this isn’t always the case – but it was a very nice surprise).

Most airlines are notorious for charging exorbitant one-way fares… but not Southwest.  A ticket on Southwest between my point B and point C only cost about 160 per person.  So, I will still flying all my segments (as opposed to driving between my point B and point C), but I will ultimately pay less by using two different airlines this time.  Southwest doesn’t fly between your points B & C?  Try AirTran, JetBlue, or Spirit.

How do I know if an open jaw would be cheaper for me than a multi-city itinerary, all with the same airline?  You’ll have to do your homework, of course!  Price the itinerary with and without the point B to point C segment.  Also, try reversing the order of the two stops you want to make (go to point C first and then point B) even if it’s only for comparison’s sake.

And, in case you missed my previous post with all my multi-city itinerary secrets, here they are again… remixed for the open jaw.

Tips on Booking Open Jaw Itineraries

Be patient.  It takes a lot of work to search multiple combinations of dates and cities, let alone just trying to figure out which airline is the cheapest for your particular route (for more on airlines, alliances, and hub cities check out the practical tips for booking multi-city itineraries in my previous post).

Don’t expect to get what you want by just typing in a few simple searches.  If you know it’s going to be a while before you get it the price and schedule just the way you want it, then you’re apt to be less frustrated.

And, unless you really know what you are doing and you’re totally sure of your plans, don’t book on a whim.  If you think you’ve found your perfect itinerary, have another pair of eyes look it over with you to double check all the details.

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. One advantage that open jaw itineraries have over multi-city itineraries is the ability to search using Flexible Dates with some airlines.  Still, 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.

Be discerning.  How will you get from point B to point C?  Yes, flying is convenient, but sometimes it’s not always the answer.  Weigh the drive time (but 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.  Consider all the costs of flying a separate airline from point B to point C.  What are the baggage fees?  Are there fees for choosing a seat?  Would you have less stress if your itinerary was all with one airline?

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 then make the best decision with what you’ve found for a happy vacation.

How about you?  Have you booked an open jaw itinerary before?  Any other tips I may have missed?  Questions?

Thrifty Travel Mama – 2012 – A Year in Review

Whew!  2012 has been a wild ride, full of experiences and surprises.  “Year in Review” posts are all the rage in the blogosphere, so despite my inclinations to do the opposite, I’m jumping on the bandwagon.

In January, I went fully frugal.  I shared my source for Free DIY Passport Photos.  I pointed you to the European Backpacker Index, a tool for researching expenses in European cities.  Oh, and I saved you from having to run to the store at the last minute by showing you how to make your own brown sugar.

February brought me a birthday, and Doc Sci took me to Milan (sans kids) to celebrate.  We ogled da Vinci’s Last Supper and the views from the roof of the Duomo.  We got caught in Carnival madness, and stuffed our faces with risotto, bread, pizza, and (of course) gelato.

I went crazy in March trying to make our awful concrete student housing apartment more homey on a very small budget.  I spiced up the kitchen, bathroom, and front entry.  I constructed a ginormous cork board wall in the living room and plastered it with photos.  I somehow also found the time to completely finish Rosetta Stone German and post a final review.

In April, our little family went home to the US for 3 weeks, stopping in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida.  We soaked up the sun, and made kid-friendly activities a priority.  Among the boys’ favorite was our trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

Back in Germany, May was part work and part play.  Doc Sci and I both took week-long intensive German courses.  We also managed a date night to the movies, complete with popcorn and assigned seats.

Doc Sci let us tag along with him to Berlin in June.  He attended a brainiac conference while the boys and I played at Legoland.   And speaking of brains, I got mine to work long enough to pass my German driver’s license exam.

In July, I switched to extreme nesting mode.  I stocked the freezer with a gazillion meals, and organized our life into one happy turquoise notebook.

I took a six-week break starting in August to bring our third and final little traveler into the world.  His birth story is the kind nightmares are made of.

We ventured out to Frankfurt in September to get the little guy his passport when he was only two weeks old.  And good thing, too.  Later that month, Big Foot found himself coasting through five countries on four planes, five trains, and two buses, in the span of three days.  No sweat for a seven week-old.

In October, I posted reviews of flying Delta Airlines and easyJet with a baby.  I should’ve shown you these fashionable Oktoberfest pull-ups, but I was too busy scoring freebies for babies and mamas in Germany.

November was an exciting month for us.  We bought a car!  Doc Sci wrote a fabulous guest post detailing the adventure.

We took our car on a little road trip to France in December.  It was all the travel we could muster in between the zillions of Pinterest projects that filled my days and nights before Christmas.

Every year has its highs and lows, surprises both good and bad, and 2012 was no different.  It’s just how life goes, and I’m thankful to live it with my awesome-amazing-how-could-I-describe-you-in-just-one-word husband and three blessed boys who make me laugh every day.  Here’s to 2013!

On Why I Can’t Call It Quits With Delta Air Lines (and a Trip Report!)

Thrifty Travel Mama - Flying Delta Airlines with KidsI said I would never do it.  But then I did it anyway.  And now I’ve done it again.

I just can’t seem to shake off my bad habit of flying Delta Air Lines.  I keep coming back, but it has nothing to do with customer satisfaction (because we all know there’s next to none of that).

Why, why, WHY do I do this to myself?

For one simple reason… when I’m in a bind, Delta is always the cheapest.

Last fall, I needed to be at a dear friend’s wedding.  I had no flexibility in my dates or airports.  Delta was the only airline that offered a ticket I could afford.

This fall, the boys’ Grandpa suddenly left us and went to live in heaven.  We needed to fly back to the US to say goodbye, and take care of business.  We hoped it would be possible for all five of us to go.  Again, I had no flexibility in dates or airports.   And, once more Delta was the only airline with four seats at a price we could afford two days before departure.

Darn, you Delta!  Are you trying to win me back?

If so, it (almost) worked…

Trip Report: FRA – BNA (and back)

When researching my options for flights from Frankfurt to Nashville, Delta consistently came up with the cheapest fare and the best schedule for our needs.  However, when flying with three kids I have learned that cheaper sometimes is not necessarily better.

Notably, being confined in a metal tube over the Atlantic for 9 hours is absolutely the pits if there’s nothing for the wee ones to do.  Not wanting to find myself in such a predicament again, I consulted SeatGuru and made absolutely positively sure that we would have AVOD devices for each seat on both Delta international flights.  I simply could not handle being stuck in 1983 jumbo jet hell again especially considering the stressful circumstances surrounding our trip and the fact that we would now be flying with THREE boys.

After booking tickets, I called Delta to let them know I’d be traveling with an infant.  This time I was prepared for the archaic practice of having a PAPER international ticket for Big Foot issued at the airport in Frankfurt.  So old skool you are, Delta.

Since we were flying with three children under the age of five, the Delta gate agents graciously granted us the row of bulkhead seats on both international flights.  This meant we could use the bassinet for Big Foot (and this time I didn’t break any rules).  Having a little bed he could nap in from time to time proved invaluable.  I could free up my hands to cut chicken, peel pasta off the floor, or sneak away for sixty seconds to the lav (by myself!).

Doc Sci was able to sit one row behind me in the aisle.  We took turns, alternating naps and movie time with meal and child minding duties.  The movie selection on the AVOD was impressive both for kids and adults.  The food tasted a gazillion times better than our last trip down the aisle with Delta.

The flight attendants on these trips seemed overly nice and surprisingly helpful.  Not quite on the caliber of Asiana Airlines, but getting up there nonetheless.  Perhaps executives have actually been listening to customer complaints and doing something about them?!  Nah, it can’t be.

Or could it?  I actually let myself think, well, maybe I was wrong.  Maybe Delta isn’t so bad after all.

But then they lost our car seats.  And I lost all warm fuzzies I might have had.

When arriving in the US on an international flight, passengers must collect their checked luggage.  After wheeling it through customs, bags must be re-checked.  If you’ve never done it, it’s quite simple.  Roll your suitcases (and, in our case, car seats) up to the nice baggage handlers, smile, say thank you, and watch as they put the items on the conveyer belt.  That’s all there is to it.

When we dropped off our car seats in Atlanta, little did we know we’d be kissing them goodbye for a while.  Said car seats did not go to Nashville with the rest of our belongings.  They stayed put in Atlanta for three days.

After traveling at least 20 hours with three boys, the last thing I want to do is deal with the Delta lost luggage guy.  I want to go eat at Chipotle.  But I couldn’t.  You can’t go anywhere in a car with kids – without car seats.

Unfortunately, this Delta agent just happened to be a single guy with no kids.  I could care less about the marital status of the man on the other side of the desk.  But if he has no children, that means he has no experience with car seats.  Or car seat laws.  Or car seat styles.  Or car seat weight limits.

What started out as a nice offer to loan us some Delta car seats turned into a nightmarish battle of trying to convince him first that my two and four year old were not going to fit in infant carriers.  Next, I had to try and explain how I had meticulously researched rental cars and prepaid for the exact one that would fit our three car seats, not any ol’ loaners.

Anyone with Cheerios plastered to the car upholstery knows that car seats have varying widths.  We own a Sunshine Kids Radian which boasts the ability to fit three across the back seat of a regular car due to the skinny bum width.  We also own a slimline booster.  Both of these were somewhere in the Atlanta airport instead of carrying our kids to a delicious burrito dinner.

Round and round I went with this guy trying to explain to him that the Graco car seats he was offering were not going to cut it.  For starters, T-Rex was over the weight limit for the one available.  But even more than that, those two Graco seats with their cup holders, arm rests, and sun roofs just plain old weren’t going to fit in the car.  And seeing as Delta wasn’t going to pay for a bigger rental car, we were at an impasse.

After getting a supervisor involved who also did not have any experience with kids, we took the car seats to the actual rental car and demonstrated that no, we were not trying to make a quick buck off Delta.  These seats do not fit!

In the end, we had to pay to add a smaller seat to our rental car agreement.  The Delta supervisor would then reimburse us for the extra cost of renting the seat.  When we left the Nashville airport several days later, we’d be issued a check equal to that amount.  Oh yes, and you better believe they were going to throw a travel voucher in there, too.  That was the least they could do for THREE hours of utter nonsense.

On the third day of our five day trip, we received our car seats.  Delta delivered the long lost seats to our hotel, picked up the loaners, and took responsibility for returning them.

When we checked in for our flights home, we requested to talk to a supervisor about our situation and receive reimbursement.  By the way, Delta calls their supervisors “red coats,” so use the lingo if you need access to someone higher up.

This time, I got a super nice guy (albeit again a dude who lacked experience with kids) who had heard about our story.  Apparently, mamas with kids who insist their children ride in car seats that are suitable for their age, weight, and the vehicle in which they’re riding are BIG NEWS.

Before issuing the check to cover the cost of the rental car seat (which, by the way, I would not have had any way to deposit), Mr. Nice Red Coat asked me if I would like to have four, $100 vouchers instead of one, $100 voucher and a check for $40.  Well, duh – of course I would like more money for travel… although of course it means having to fly Delta again.

But now that the car seat fiasco was behind us, we could focus on getting home to Germany.  Fortunately, it was much like the trip to the US.  Again, we had the bulkhead row.  Again, the kids went nuts pushing the buttons on the AVOD devices.  Again, the food was better.  Again, Big Foot napped here and there in the bassinet.  Again, I thought the flight attendants were more helpful than I remembered.  Again, I wondered if Delta was really that bad.

Will I break up with Delta for good, or will I keep coming back for more?

Only time – and travel – will tell.

Flying easyJet with a Baby

Thrifty Travel Mama | Flying EasyJet - A Guide for Traveling with Babies, Children, and FamiliesUpdate, 26 November 2013: Our little family of five flew easyJet to Edinburgh, Scotland earlier this month… and luckily that trip lasted more than just a few hours.  I’m happy to report we had another positive experience with this European low-cost carrier.  I’ve updated my original post from October 2012 with changes we experienced during the November 2013 Edinburgh trip.  All new notes are in italics.

Almost three weeks ago, the babe known as Big Foot and I took a little trip to London.  And I do mean a little trip.  To the Queen’s land and back in just one day!

While the purpose of the trip is outside the scope of this post, my thoughts and opinions on flying easyJet with an infant are not.  Read on for a rundown of my experience flying one of Europe’s most famous budget airlines, easyJet.

I’ve heard many opinions about low cost carriers, mostly negative.  As such, I was a little nervous to fly with them.  However, I discovered that if you take easyJet for what it is – a dirt cheap alternative to big names like Lufthansa – and play by their (strict) rules, you just might be pleasantly surprised.

 

Shopping for EasyJet Flights

Using easyJet’s website seemed rather hassle-free.  I was impressed with the ability to search with flexibility ranging from a few days to a few weeks.  The price shown is the price you pay… plus extras of course, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

With any budget carrier, one should expect that the worst flights (think 5am or 1030pm departure) are the cheapest.  EasyJet was no different.  In this case, I didn’t mind since I needed as many hours on the ground in London as I could possibly get.  But I would not have wanted to arrive with three kids at 5am for a 7am departure.

Update: Our outbound flight to Edinburgh left at a reasonable time (around 11:00am), but the return flight departed at 7am.  Leaving so early wasn’t as bad as I had imagined because we only had carry on luggage, and the Edinburgh airport is relatively small.

 

Infant Ticketing

In the US, infants traveling on a parent’s lap fly free.  Such is not the case on international flights.  I had to pay a fee of about 26 euros each way for Big Foot.  Considering that adult fares on easyJet can start at around 20 euros, that’s a hefty chunk of change.  Better to buy baby a seat if the fares are cheap enough (in my case, they were not).

Update: Do you pay the infant fee or simply buy the baby an adult ticket?  If the adult ticket prices are about the same price as the infant fee, I would buy the seat.  This entitles the infant to one piece of carry-on (hand) luggage as well as their own seat.  Keep in mind that easyJet stipulates children under the age of two in their own seat should be fastened in an aircraft approved car seat. 

 

Checking In Online

After entering passport details on easyJet’s website, I could print my boarding pass even though my departure was still several weeks away.  The print-at-home option actually isn’t an option; it’s required.  EasyJet passengers must check in online prior to arriving at the airport.

Since easyJet makes a lot of their profit from fees, services, and products, I was encouraged to peruse these items during the check-in process.

Speaking of fees, be prepared to pay out the nose for checked luggage.  I was warned in advance that easyJet is always very strict concerning their hand baggage policy.  If the gate agent even suspects your bag is too big, you must test it right then and there.  If the suitcase/backpack/whatever does not easily fit in the space provided, you will be charged an exorbitant fee on the spot to check it.  Should you require checked luggage when flying with easyJet, I highly recommend paying the fee at the time of booking as it is absolutely the cheapest option.  More on allowances and requirements for hold luggage here.

I took tiny Big Foot to London on easyJet in this bassinet.

I took tiny Big Foot to London on easyJet in this bassinet.

Bringing Baby Gear

Good news for parents traveling with infants, though!  I was allowed two baby gear items free of charge (see a list here).  For me this meant a stroller and a collapsible bassinet.  Car seats are also included in the free allowance, but it’s important to note that diaper bags are not!  If the baby does not have his/her own ticket, he/she is not entitled to any carry on luggage.

Update: According to their website, easyJet allows two free pieces of gear for each traveling baby or “young child” (oh so vague!).  That means that whether you purchase a seat for your under-two or not, you can still bring a stroller, car seat, backpack carrier, etc. 

 

The Boarding Process

Another fee that easyJet heavily promotes is Speedy Boarding.  Passengers coughing up extra dough get to skip to the front of the madhouse that Brits refer to as queuing.  The rest of the poor souls line up on a first come, first served basis.  However!  Families with small children 5 and under are allowed to board directly after the Speedy Boarding passengers.  I wagered that few budget travelers would pay for this service and as such I’d have an easy time selecting a favorable seat for me and the bub.  Luckily, I was spot on.

Update: Now that easyJet allocates seats on every flight (see below), Speedy Boarding has become obsolete.  Instead, easyJet  Plus! cardholders, passengers with a Flexi booking, and travelers who have purchased extra legroom or up front seats will board first.  Families with small children under the age of five still board before the remaining passengers.  More on the boarding process here.

If you’ve ever flown Southwest Airlines, you’ll be familiar with easyJet’s open seating.  You can sit anywhere in the plane with the exception that you must meet the standard safety criteria if seated in an exit row.

Update: EasyJet no longer herds passengers via the open seating cattle call.  All seats are assigned at check-in.  If you are traveling with children, be sure to indicate this on your booking (Miss for girls and Mstr for boys).  Both to and from Edinburgh, we were seated together in the middle of the aircraft.  If you’d like to select exactly where you’ll sit on the aircraft, there’s (surprise, surprise) a fee for that.

 

EasyJet’s Attitude Toward Families with Children

On both the outbound and return journeys, the flight attendants greeted me with a smile and an infant safety seat belt.  They didn’t seem the least bit annoyed that I brought a baby on board.  In fact, I was very impressed with offers to warm up any bottles or food if need be as well as announcements of where to find the changing table in the lavatory and how to use the baby seat belt.

Update: I’m pleased to report that we were again treated with kindness by all easyJet flight attendants. 

 

In-Flight Refreshments & Entertainment

As for food and drink, either bring your own or enough money to pay for any refreshments you might want or need including water.  Prices are steep, but apparently not as bad as what Ryanair customers experience.  I carried my own breakfast and dinner, so I can’t comment on the quality of the items available.

Update: Though I could not find it anywhere on easyJet.com, it seems that passengers are allowed one small “shopping” bag (presumably from purchasing items at the airport’s duty-free shops or take-away restaurants).  We brought one such bag on flights both to and from Edinburgh with no problems whatsoever.  We used this to hold our in-flight meal and snacks. 

In addition to edible offerings, flight attendants also sold duty-free items, souvenirs, and even train tickets for the Gatwick Express.  As mentioned earlier, it’s obvious that extras are a large part of the airline’s profit structure.

It’s also good to know that easyJet offers absolutely no free in-flight entertainment.  Flight attendants sell toys and activity boxes, but parents will notice the absence of video screens and AVOD devices.  To state the obvious, flying with easyJet is a BYOE (bring your own entertainment) kind of party.

 

My One Complaint

If I had anything negative to say about my experience flying easyJet with an infant, it would be the extreme inconvenience of not receiving gate-checked items immediately upon leaving the aircraft. 

Generally, if I take a stroller with me through security and all the way up to the boarding gate, I also receive it at the gate after the flight.  Not so with easyJet.  ALL checked items, regardless of if they are checked in at the desk or at the gate, end up at baggage claim.  This is a total pain if you have a heavy, sleeping child you’d like to transfer to a stroller ASAP for the long walk to customs and the luggage carousels.

Update: It’s still the case that all gate-checked items end up at baggage claim.  Yes, it’s annoying but not enough to make us swear off flying easyJet forever.  Just plan accordingly as the walk from the airplane to customs and then finally to the luggage carousel can be verrrrry long.

 

The Verdict

Despite the one flaw, I still maintain I was delightfully surprised by my adventure on easyJet with a baby on board.  I will definitely consider using them again should my future travel plans happen to line up with the airline’s (somewhat restrictive) schedule.  Thanks, easyJet for a great flight!

Have questions about my experience with easyJet I didn’t cover in this post?  Ask them below in the comments, and I’ll be happy to answer!  Also, if you’ve flown easyJet with children, I’d love to hear about your experience, too!Signature-MarigoldPhoto credit

Flying United Airlines Internationally with Kids

Thrifty Travel Mama - Flying United Airlines Internationally with KidsI hesitate to write these reviews because United Airlines and Lufthansa are not as exotic as, say, Asiana Airlines.  But, I can find so little information on flying specific airlines internationally and with children, that I think it’s worth it to put my experience out there in the hopes that others will do the same.

Our trip to the US last month consisted of four flights: United Airlines from Frankfurt to Dulles, from Dulles to Orlando, from Orlando to Chicago O’Hare, and Lufthansa from Chicago O’Hare to Frankfurt.  For tips on booking a multi-city itinerary like ours, see my previous post here.

I find almost all American legacy carriers (Delta, United, American, etc.) to be about the same domestically.  The difference is usually in the flight attendants.  Since there are thousands of them for each airline, it doesn’t seem practical to write reviews for flights within the US that are three hours or less.

Therefore, in this post, I’ll specifically focus on the United international flight (United from Frankfurt to Dulles).

If I haven’t said so before, I’ll say so now.  I LOVE European airlines.

Why?

Simply put, everything’s better.  The service, the food, the entertainment, all of it is almost always top notch, even in economy class.

American carriers, on the other hand, are nothing to write home about.  That is, unless you had an extremely atrocious experience.  Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with us this time.

But, if I could sum up my international United flight in one word, I’d choose forgettable.  Nothing set them apart or gave me a reason to choose United over another carrier in the future.

My travel nerd is showing when I tell you that one of my favorite parts of flying internationally is the “dinner and a movie” in the sky.  Unfortunately, dinner (actually, lunch) on United Airlines from Frankfurt to Dulles was a straight-from-the-freezer-aisle TV dinner: chicken, mashed potatoes, and frozen vegetables.  My boys ate the alternative, lasagna with tomato puree (one could hardly classify it as “sauce”) and three diced mushrooms.  Wow.  Thrilling.

Why didn’t I order kids meals for the boys?

For the simple reason that my kids never eat them.  In my experience, kids meals are usually soggy chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes or limp french fries, and previously frozen peas and diced carrots.  The meal tray usually has a full-size candy bar and a sweetened drink on it as well.  Doc Sci and I have to swipe the sugar as fast as possible, and leave the kids to pick at the rest.  Unless I know exactly what the kids meal is going to be, I don’t order it anymore.

As for the movie part of the “dinner and a movie,” this particular United flight had small screens in each seat.  And when I say small, I mean about four inches.  Teeny weeny would be more like it.  One could choose from about 7 channels, only one of which was for children.  This channel showed The Muppets over and over.  Not a great selection for the under-five crowd who has no idea who the Muppets are and only want to know why on EARTH there is no Thomas the Train or Bob the Builder!

The one remarkable aspect about this flight to Dulles was the fact that both of my boys slept like pros.  I’m getting even more into travel dork territory here… I was SO proud, especially of Screech.  My two year-old went potty in the lavatory, took his shoes off, leaned back in his car seat, put his pacifier in his mouth and his eye mask on his face, and went to sleep.  For hours.

My littlest pro-traveler-in-training.

I love my kids.

(Okay, Screech had a little help with some of those tasks, but the sleeping part he did all on his own!)

On the flip side, the one beef I did have with United Airlines is that they changed aircraft on the international flight (which affected where we sat), and they changed our seats on at least one of our domestic flights.  Without telling us.  Luckily, I caught the international flight and was able to make it work to our advantage.  But, I was rather annoyed to have our seats separated on both domestic flights with no options to remedy the situation.  Not cool, United.

So would I fly United again?  Eh, only if it’s the cheapest.

Have you flown United Airlines internationally with children?  What was your experience?  Signature-Marigold

 

Shameless Repost: Alternative Airports for Flying Around Europe on the Cheap

Today Travel (msnbc.com) has an excellent article by Gabrielle Zunde of Budget Travel with an organized and informative list of alternative airports for flying around Europe on the cheap.

I realize my last post was also pointing you to an outside article, but know that I wouldn’t send you anywhere that wasn’t worth my (and therefore your) time.

And speaking of time, these days mine seems to be lavished on thrilling things like expat taxes (more on that to come!), German government forms, visa paperwork, and the like.  This makes me dirt poor when it comes to minutes and hours for fun things like blog posts and Pinterest.

Anyway, back to the article!  Head here for a list of alternative airports for destinations like London, Paris, Munich, Milan, etc.  For each city,  Zunde lists the distance from the alternative airport to the main destination, the best way to get there, the cost, and the names of the budget airlines.

What a great research time saver!

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