American Marvel: First Thoughts on Reentry

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: A Series of Posts our Family's Repatriation ExperienceI wrote my first draft of this post on October 31, 2014. It’s… raw.

That post where I marvel at America and all the ways she has changed since we left, the one where I try desperately not to nit pick, and the one where I take an honest look in the mirror — it’s here.

After brief jaunts in Leipzig and Istanbul, we touched down at Dulles on the very day that US passport control rolled out a more meticulous ebola screening program. Nothing like waiting forty-five minutes with squirmy boys for your first, “welcome back.”

Well, okay, waiting is something we became accustomed to in Germany. But customer service? THAT was our first clue that we certainly weren’t in Kansas anymore.

At the rental car counter later that evening, I felt like an accidental tourist at La Tomatina. The agent’s words were flung at me in rapid fire sequence.

“HI! I’M CARRIE AND I’LL BE TAKING CARE OF YOU TODAY!! HOW ARE YOU DOING? HOW WAS YOUR FLIGHT?! CAN I GET YOU SOMETHING TO DRINK? WOULD YOU LIKE TO UPGRADE YOUR RENTAL CAR? NO? HOW ABOUT NOW? ARE YOU SURE YOU DON’T WANT TO UPGRADE? IT’S ONLY SEVENTY BUCKS! WHAT A GREAT DEAL! WHAT ABOUT NOW? STILL NO? OKAY! YOU HAVE A GREAT DAY NOW!! COME BACK AND SEE US AGAIN!”

And it really was just like that – her speech was all caps and her personality all pep. I could only blink, mouth agape. I flinched at every line. Her volume and intensity were just a bit much for me to handle straight out of the gate. I had become so accustomed to the quiet.

When our rental car rolled up, my jaw dropped even further. They must have confused our reservation. Surely, this double-decker bus was not in the minivan category. I must have scored some kind of free upgrade. The car we drove in Germany was a “van.” THIS, this was something for transporting elephants, rhinos, prehistoric mammals, cargo.

What would we do with all that extra space?! Even with our five carry-ons, five backpacks, and two checked bags, we still could still do “airplane arms” without smacking each other in the face.

All of this, and we hadn’t even left the airport.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Expats Move Home: Notes on Reverse Culture Shock

We’re like ducks out of water, electric hair and wide eyes.

The past weeks have been like this for us. Everything strange, different, absolutely gigantic. My goodness, I can’t even touch the back of the clothes dryer without crawling in there myself.

The houses, the cars, the ovens, the burgers, the boxes of breakfast cereal, the shopping centers.. they’re all incredibly super-sized. I’m thoroughly convinced that the entire downtown shopping district of Freiburg would fit within the confines of one Super Walmart.

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

This bag of Nearly Naked popcorn is nearly the size of my five year-old!

And the people… Oh, America, you make me sad. We are so sick, so unhealthy, so shockingly overweight. We are such a wealthy country and yet the bodies around me scream that even with all our excess, we are still looking for happiness in the newest flavor of Oreos or the hottest, newly-redesigned, expensive SUV.

What a crisis we are in with obesity! When I first arrived, I wondered how could this be so?

It didn’t take long to figure it out – (1) we don’t move our bodies other than from the couch to the car and (2) there are SO many delicious things to eat here. I know I said this before, but have you SEEN the Oreo aisle?!

Honestly, we as a nation need to sober up. We ought to be ashamed at how much food we consume – and throw away! – when there are so many in our world performing unmentionable acts and deeds just to eat once per day.

Yes, there are starving people in Africa, but Americans seem to forget there are starving people right here in our own community… and they are hidden in plain sight. They’re the kids stealing from that same Oreo aisle. Don’t believe me? Add Breaking Night to your reading list. You’ll never look at a tube of Chapstick the same way again.

 

Thrifty Travel Mama | Reverse Culture Shock: First Thoughts on Reentry

Spotted at a grocery store in the Netherlands…

This is my third weekend in America. On the first two weekends, I took walks in different neighborhoods in different cities. If I saw anyone outside, it was a lone adult. No kids, no families, no exercise, no games, no old-fashioned fun. I had forgotten that Americans don’t go for walks or play outside the way Germans do. If we exercise, we do it at home or at a gym. Why not outside in nature? Are we afraid? Bored? Uncomfortable? Inconvenienced?

I use the words “we” and “us” because as much as this country is foreign to me now, it is my country, my home land. I used to work out in a gym, I used to drive everywhere, I never went for walks, I used to eat only packaged/prepared food.

As much as I feel like an outsider, my passport says I’m not. I know the way things work in this country, where to go if I need something, and how to ask if I don’t. I can’t comment from the sidelines anymore; I’m back in the game.

In our marveling at each re-discovery, Doc Sci and I have the best of intentions not to let our wonder devolve into negativity. I think it’s okay to walk through each emotion (shock, sadness, confusion, wonder) as long as you don’t stay there indefinitely.

Due to the fact that our family has needed to just survive the last eight months, I’ve resigned myself to striving to end the string of discouraging thoughts on a neutral note – it just is what it is. Ultimately, I hope my feelings toward this culture and repatriation can grow roots in the positive, asking myself how I can change, how I can encourage others to change.

Have you ever left the US for a while and returned to find things you once considered normal to be completely foreign? 

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35 Tips to Help Your Family Pack Lighter for Air Travel

Thrifty Travel Mama | 35 Tips to Help Your Family Pack Lighter for Air TravelOne of the main objections parents have to traveling with their kids is all the c.r.a.p. they feel they must bring along.  Four fifty-pound bags, three car seats, one double stroller, four backpacks, and two carry-on suitcases later, you’re exhausted… and you haven’t even left yet.

But, my friends, it really doesn’t have to be this way.

You can travel lighter and smarter, even with kids in tow.  Sure, you’ll have to make sacrifices (you can’t bring your snazzy cardigan collection, sorry), but I guarantee the tips below will lighten the load on your shoulders… and in your luggage.

Whether you’re a travel newb or a packing pro, read on to get your hot little hands on 35 tips for traveling with your family using only carry-on luggage.

What (Not) To Wear

1. Don’t pack options.  I love having multiple clothing options just like any other gal out there, but these are luxuries one can’t afford when packing light.  Allow two shirts per person.  Two long sleeve and two short sleeve for winter.  Two short sleeve and two tank tops for summer.  One long sleeve, two short sleeve, and one tank top for spring and fall.  You get the idea.

2. Babies can claim an exception.  If you’ve got an infant who is still in the poop-explosion phase (God bless you),  allow a double clothing allowance.  Those two extra onesies and baby legs won’t make much of a dent in your available space.

3. Pick a color scheme.  For our boys, I gravitate toward black, blue, or grey.  Choose items that can be mixed and matched.  Both short sleeve shirts should be able to go with both long sleeve shirts.  For the adults, this means sticking with brown or black depending on what shoes you plan to wear.  Select your belt, scarf, hat, gloves, accessories, and clothing to match a color scheme that includes brown or black and two or three other highlights.  But no matter what colors you choose, I highly suggest you…

4. Avoid extremes – no red or white items.  If you need to do laundry, you don’t want to waste your time with multiple loads.  Eliminating red and white means you can wash most of your clothes together in cold water without fear of turning your favorite white t-shirt a bright shade of bubblegum.

5. Think in layers.  For winter, this helps reduce the bulk of what you need to pack.  Items such as thermal underwear are typically thin, light, and extremely useful when you don’t know how cold it will be at your destination.  They can also double as pajamas in a pinch.  A nice sweater can be worn under a jacket for more insulation or dress up your jeans for dinner with friends.  For summer, layers add versatility to your traveling wardrobe.  For great examples of making multiple outifts out of only a few pieces, see here.

If fashion is not your forte and you’re having trouble coming up with multiple outfits out of so few pieces, check out this post by blogger Bridgette Raes or the One Suitcase series from Outfit Posts.

6. Pare down the pants.  Bring only one extra pair of jeans (wear the other on the flight).  Seriously, do this even for kids.  You can spot clean denim after the kids hit the hay or just let it go (as long as you’re not expected someplace fancy).

7. (Slightly) Over pack underwear.  For knickers and socks, I usually squish as many pairs as I can.  Find slivers of space in suitcase corners, next to lumpy toiletries, and inside shoes.  I’m not advocating a let-it-all-hang-out-and-bring-your-entire-sock-collection mentality, but it sure is nice not to be washing underwear every third day.  My rule – five socks and five undies, max.

8. Take advantage of laundry facilities.  If you’ll have access to a washing machine during your trip, plan to use it.  Don’t take six outfits for a seven day trip.  Take two of everything except undergarments and wash when necessary.

9. Go for low maintenance.  All clothing items should be easy to launder (no ironing or dry clean only pieces).

10. Earn extra points for double duty items.  Try to vary what you pack – for example, select one dressy pair of jeans that can be worn to restaurants and other photo-worthy occasions.  Choose a comfy pair to wear on the plane and everywhere else.  Or, instead of going with a sweater, opt for a cardigan that can dress up a tank top or be layered over long sleeves if you’re chilly.

11. Take the shoe challenge.  Evaluate your activities, events, and obligations during your travels.  Bring as few pairs of shoes as possible.  Do you have to pack boots AND flats?  Could you get away with only pair of shoes per child?  Pack first for comfort, then for style.  You don’t have room for a gazillion options (see #1) when you don’t check luggage.

Thrifty Travel Mama | 35 Tips to Help Your Family Pack Lighter for Air Travel

Does your bed ever look like this the day before you depart? No? Really?  Oh, okay, mine neither…

Powder Room Essentials

12. Clear things up in the bathroom.  I put all toiletries in clear plastic quart/liter zip-top plastic bags.  I’ll admit I do love a cute cosmetic case, but the bulky fabric, zippers, and handles take up precious space.  With this system, I’m able to make separate bags with liquids for security inspection, solid shower items (bar soap, razors, face cloths, shower cap), oral hygiene, makeup, prescriptions and vitamins, etc.

13. Simplify shower needs.  Instead of a separate brand of body wash for each person, consider using castile soap instead.  This amazing liquid can be used for washing bodies, clothes, and teeth (really!).  Bring one bar of solid shampoo that everyone can share and a small bottle of conditioner.  For facial cleansing, use disposable cloths that will free up some room on the return.

14. Streamline your make up.  Once you’ve chosen a color scheme (see clothing above), match your cosmetics to your outfits.  Do you really need a rainbow of eye shadow while traveling?  Several weeks before you leave, try using only a cream-to-powder foundation, concealer, dual duty cream blush & lip stain, one eyeshadow palette, a brown or black eyeliner, mascara, and one lip stick, gloss, or balm.

15. Shrink your hair styling needs.  Most hotels and even many vacation rentals offer complimentary hair dryers.  But, maybe you prefer to use a model that you can test drive before you travel or you have curly hair like me and need a diffuser.  What to do?  Shop for a miniature model.  Features to consider.. does the hair dryer fold in half?  Is it dual voltage for international travel?  Mini flat irons, curling irons, and hair brushes are also available.

Baby on Board

16. Use disposable diapers.  I cloth diaper part of the time, but never when I travel.  Why?  Because the paper nappies occupy space on the outbound journey that will be emptied and then subsequently used for supermarket souvenirs and other trinkets on the return.

Expert tip: Keep track of your child’s diaper usage for several weeks prior to the trip so you can make an accurate count of just how many diapers you’ll need.  Round up or add one extra per day (two for infants) in case of accidents and emergencies.

17. Rethink the diaper bag.  If you’re flying with carry-on luggage only, do you really need a fully-stocked diaper bag?  Instead, I prefer to use a diaper changing wallet with a small case of wipes, a few diapers, and a trial-size tube of diaper rash cream.  Need a change of clothes?  They’re right there in your suitcase.

18. Ditch the pack & play and high chair.  Unless you’re going to a remote location, you should be able to find accommodations with baby items.  It’s worth it not to schlep your Graco across country (or the ocean!), even if you have to pay a nominal fee.  If you really must have your own travel cot, test drive a pop-up tent like the Kidco Peapod or if you have a small baby, use the bassinet that goes with your stroller.  For high chairs, I like my Sack’n Seat.

19. Determine whether or not your destination is stroller-friendly.  Google it, ask a local mama blogger, or post questions on TripAdvisor.  Many cities overseas are NOT stroller-friendly (Prague, Seoul, Italy, and Bulgaria to name a few) because the curbs are steep, elevators are rare, and stairs abound.  If you won’t use it, don’t bring it.  Consider a backpack carrier instead.  If you prefer to have a stroller for use in the airport, go with a cheap umbrella model.

Read: Tips for Planning a Travel Itinerary with Kids

20. Shell out for a stroller and/or car seat bag.  We own an old school Phil & Teds double stroller that I bought second-hand on ebay.  A few months into love at first push, I invested in a pricey travel cover.  It killed me to pay so much for what seemed like an unnecessary item especially since the stroller was used.  But that concoction of black canvas and Velcro has earned its keep.  With careful packing, Doc Sci is able to fit the stroller, doubles seat, rain cover, and sleeping bag in there.  If you don’t need a rain cover or sleeping bag, you can sneak in a few bulky items like sweaters or scarves (shhh!).  The same goes for a car seat bag.  If you’re not using the car seat on the airplane, try squeezing a dozen or more diapers in the bum space.

21. Talk ’em down.  Look for rental car deals that include a car seat, or negotiate a deal with your preferred company’s customer service center over the phone so you don’t have to bring your own.  If your child doesn’t need to use a car seat in flight, you’ll save yourself a headache by borrowing or renting one at your destination (and if you do bring your own, it could be lost or delayed which means you’ll be stranded at the airport…).

Kiddos and Tots in Tow

22. Children carry their own weight.  As soon as your son or daughter is able (for my boys this was around the age of 2), invest in a small backpack so he or she can take their own toys.  If the toy doesn’t fit in the backpack or it’s too heavy, it stays home.

23. Allot each child a toy quota.  It also helps to have a round number so that favorite play items don’t get left in your hotel or vacation rental.  For instance, I usually allow the boys to take five small toys and two books each.  When it’s time to pack up to head home and I only see four Matchbox cars in their bag, I know we’re missing something.

24. Leave special stuff behind.  You might have to bring the teddy bear that accompanies your baby girl to bed every night, but insist on leaving collectable, valuable, expensive, and one-of-a-kind toys at home.

Read: Jet Lag Tips for Families

25. Keep them separated.  If your airline (hello, easyJet) won’t allow a personal item and a piece of hand luggage, you’ll need to get creative in dividing up the space.  Use large (gallon) zip-top plastic bags for kids’ toys.  Offer a pile of sharpie markers, and let them go to town decorating their bag. Then fill the bags with a few toys and books, the only rules being that the bag must lay flat and close easily.  These zip packs can be slipped into outer suitcase pockets for easy access during the flight.

Everything Electric

26. Consolidate gadgets.  Leave the laptop at home.  Instead, pack a tablet or netbook loaded with games and media.  Use it to watch movies, listen to music, read books, and check your email (be sure to confirm that you’ll have wifi at your destination).  Besides, unplugging from all those devices will help you focus on the experience instead of Facebook.

27. Power everything in one go.  Nothing puts a damper on your packing practices like a gigantic bag of chargers and adapters.  Consider investing in products that will recharge two or more of your electronic items.

28. Go paperless.  Use apps, websites, and online programs such as Google maps, Tripit, Evernote, and Dropbox to store your vacation notes, travel itineraries, photos, and copies of important documents such as your passport.  Take advantage of mobile boarding pass programs if they’re offered.

Supplies

29. Bring on the suds.  If you aren’t staying with friends or family and plan to do laundry, stash a few scoops of powdered detergent or a small bottle of castile soap (see #?).  Dryers are not standard in many parts of the world, so it’s a good idea to find room for a compact clothesline if you’re traveling internationally.

30. Beg and borrow (but please, don’t steal).  If you’re visiting a family, this is usually easy.  Take a look at your packing list and make a note of anything (really, anything!) you think your hosts would be willing to share or provide.  I get that you might feel a tad bit uncomfortable asking for face wash from the in-laws, consider phrasing your request like this… “We usually bring our own (toothpaste / iPad charger / kids Tylenol /etc), but we are trying to pack as light as possible in order to spend less time at the airport and more time with you.  Would you mind if we borrowed/used these items during our visit?”

31. Get specific with hotels or holiday apartments.  I’ve also used a similar conversational approach to the one above with vacation rental owners.  “I have a silly question for you… do you provide dish soap, a kitchen sponge, and dishwashing detergent in your flat?  Normally we bring a small amount of these items just in case.  But we have to pack very light for this trip, so I’d rather not put them in the luggage if you already have them available.”  Don’t be shy.  This email/phone call could save you a chunk of space.

Logistics

32. Fold clothes into small squares.  Make narrow, neat folds in your shirts (watch this video if you need a refresher) and then fold the final product in half and make a pile of very small, evenly sized squares or rectangles.  Jeans, pants and sweaters need special attention (click here for some suggestions regarding technique), but the idea is the same.  Make every item of clothing prim, proper, and as tiny as possible.  I know others prefer rolling their clothes, but I find that folding works best for me.

33. Wear your heaviest, bulkiest, biggest pieces.  Coats and boots travel on your person, never in your luggage.

Expert tip: No one will weigh or check your coat.  What you put in your pockets is up to you… I’ve stashed everything from books to chocolate bar souvenirs in my winter jacket. 

34. Don’t overlook petty cash.  Leave room in your budget to buy what you might need but can’t stuff in your suitcase.  Chances are you don’t need as much as you think you do; you might surprise yourself with how little you can live with for a few days!  But if the diaper supply runs dry or your son uses his shirt as a permanent marker canvas or you receive a surprise invitation to a fancy dinner while on holiday, ask a local for the best place to buy what you’re after and consider the shopping trip part of the whole travel experience.

Practice Makes Perfect

35. Take notes.  These tips come from years of traveling as a single person, then as a married couple, and finally as a family of five.  These things work for us.  In time, you’ll discover what hints are most helpful for you, what advice does or simply doesn’t work for your family, and what luggage sacrifices you are or aren’t willing to make.  Jot down observations in your travel journal, and remember that practice really does makes perfect.

Which of these tips will you try during your travels this holiday season?  What would you add to the list?

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Full disclosure… At this time, I do not use affiliate links.  If I’ve included a link, it’s because I’ve personally used and liked the product, or it’s on my wish list.  I have not been compensated in any way by any company for this post.

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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?

Booking German (Deutsche Bahn) Train Tickets Online

Thrifty Travel Mama | Booking German Train Tickets Online

Help for travelers and traveling families traveling by train in Germany

Are you planning a trip to Germany and need to get around by train?  Then this post is for you!

The German rail system is excellent, and most of the time it is the easiest and most efficient way to travel in country.  Follow along as I walk you through how to book tickets yourself – online at bahn.de.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Here’s the DB (Deutsche Bahn) home page.  Yes, it’s in German, but don’t let that scare you.  It’s rather easy to change the language.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

If you’re English-speaking, I recommend changing the country to Germany.  I’m sure I had a good reason for doing this a few years ago when I started booking tickets online, but I’ve forgotten it by now.  If you prefer to choose USA or UK/Ireland, go for it.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Enter your starting point and destination in the first two fields on the left-hand side of the page.  Select the dates of travel (select Return journey for round-trip), and the times you would like to depart or arrive.

Though it is possible to book a train ticket with more than one destination, I won’t be covering that in today’s post.  If you’d like to try your hand at it, click “Further Search Options,” and enter your stopover(s).

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Now, select the number of passengers in each age range.  It’s important to note that certain discounts can apply if two or more adults are traveling together and if one or more adults are traveling with children.

Awesome news for families – there’s no charge for children five and under!  Children aged 6 to 14 also travel free provided they are accompanied by their parent(s) or guardian(s).  Only enter the number of children five and under if you’d like a seat reservation for them.  I’ll get to seat reservations in a minute, but in case you are wondering at this stage of the game, I always enter my three children in my search whether or I actually reserve a seat or not.

Discounts are only given for those carrying a German BahnCard, Austrian VORTEILScard, Swiss HalbtaxAbo, or a Voordeelurenabo card from the Netherlands.  More on BahnCards below… It’s worth noting that discount cards will be checked on board, so don’t claim to have one if you don’t.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Next, you’re going to see a page with several train options based on the criteria entered on the homepage.  Here are some things to pay attention to!

First, double check the exact name of the station.  Big cities (such as Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, etc.) have multiple Bahnhofs (train stations).  Tief means underground, and refers to a particular part of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.  Frankfurt Flughafen (Airport) and Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof are not the same!  However, at the Frankfurt Airport, Fernbahnhof (long distance trains) and Regionalbahnhof (regional trains such as those going to the city of Frankfurt) are two areas of the same station.

Triple check your dates and remember that Europeans use the DD.MM.YY format.

When determining which train to select, the number of changes should be considered.  Ideally, nonstop trains are everyone’s first choice.  But, they may be more expensive or unavailable between the two cities you selected.  From personal experience, if you are making your way to/from an airport with luggage, it is worth it to pay extra for a nonstop train if that is an option.

Total travel time can also be used to narrow down your options.  The main factor in travel time is the type of train used on the route.  Here’s a crash course on a few types of trains you might see:

  • ICE (Inter City Express) trains are the fastest but often the most expensive.
  • IC (Inter City) trains are a little slower than ICE and not as luxurious.
  • RE (Regional Express) and RB (Regional Bahn) are much slower because they make multiple stops along the route.
  • S (S-bahn or Schnell-bahn) are often only used in a regions, not usually between big cities.  They are commuter trains and may have limited seating and facilities.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Another deciding factor for me personally is the amount of transfer time between trains.  Five minutes or less is generally not enough time to shuffle two preschoolers, a baby, a pram, four suitcases, and two frazzled adults from one train to another.  I find ten to fifteen minutes to be ideal.  Any more time than that and the boys start going stir crazy trying to entertain themselves on a very boring train platform.

It’s also worth noting the platform numbers.  If the numbers are, say, 4 and 5, you probably do not have far to go, and a tighter connection may be doable.

Of course, if the train is late, then all bets are off and even your ten to fifteen minute cushion may disappear into thin air.  Not that a German train would ever be late…

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Once you’ve chosen your train, it’s time to take a look at price (or did you start with price and then narrow down from there?).  All routes have standard fares that usually only change once per year.  But, a certain number of tickets on each route are offered at the Savings Fare (also called Sparpreis).

Savings Fares can be up to 50% off and a super deal if you nab them in time.  The best time to secure a Savings Fare is when the route opens, 90 days prior to departure.  After that, it’s anyone’s guess how long they’ll be available.  Savings Fares are not available within 3 days of departure.

Lest you find yourself in shock, I should let you know that the price displayed on the first leg of your itinerary is NOT the full price for the journey.  The full price for both legs will be calculated once both train routes have been selected.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

So since we’re thrifty around here, it seems only right that we’d always choose the Savings Fare if available, right?  Wrong.

Savings Fares come with very specific conditions.  If you book the 9am train from Mannheim to Frankfurt (Main) Hbf and pay the Savings Fare, you MUST take that train, or you lose your ticket.  If you book the 9am train from Mannheim to Frankfurt (Main) Hbf and pay the Standard Fare, then you may take ANY train on that day provided the departure and arrival points are the same (even if the route is slightly different).

When would a Standard Fare be worth the extra money?  In my experience, the only time I have considered coughing up full price is to and from the airport.  Let’s say you arrive on a 12pm flight.  You estimate two hours to clear customs, collect luggage, find the train station, and get yourself to the platform.  But, what if your flight is delayed and you arrive at 1pm instead of 12pm?  Despite your best efforts, you may not make the connection, and Deutsche Bahn is not interested in excuses, only in correct tickets.  Consider the best and worst case scenarios, and choose wisely!

Once in a while, I have seen First Class fares that rivaled (or beat) Second Class Fares.  What is First Class and why would you want to pay more for it?  Here’s an honest review.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

After selecting the fare, you may or may not be given the recommendation to purchase a BahnCard and save immediately.  A BahnCard 25 gives the user 25 percent of all fares, Standard and Savings.  A BahnCard 50 gives the user a 50 percent savings on Standard fares only. 

Should you get a BahnCard?  Well, it depends on if you are a resident (definitely yes) or a visitor (maybe).  The temporary BahnCard (ready to print and use immediately) is normally valid for only 30 days.  The actual BahnCard is then shipped to you (as far as I understand, it’s fine to ship a BahnCard to a foreign address).  If you’re a visitor, you’ll either need to order it in advance so that the card arrives before you depart for Germany, or you’ll need to time the purchase just right so that you will only ever need the temporary card.

I’ve had a BahnCard 25 every year I’ve lived here.  It pays for itself with two roundtrips to Frankfurt Airport.  And for those who are residents with a partner and children, the BahnCard 25 is a sweet deal.  The partner card costs only 10 euros for the year!  You’ll need to visit a DB office in person to apply for a partner card.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Then, choose how to proceed with the booking.  If you don’t plan on booking with DB again, just select “Book without registering.”  Otherwise, subsequent bookings are much faster if you register.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

The most convenient (and cheapest) way to ticket the journey is online via .pdf.  (I have yet to try the Mobile Phone Ticket – this is a new feature since I last used DB in September 2012.)

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

Now, it’s time to think about seat reservations.  On the one hand, seat reservations are quite convenient and a blessing when trains are SRO (yes, this frequently happens during peak travel times and holidays).  On the other hand, they cost money, and if the train is empty you may feel like you wasted your cash.

My general rule is to pay for seat reservations on any journey over 2 or 2 1/2 hours, with two exceptions:  traveling alone or during children’s sleep times.  We often have to take the 5am train from our city to the Frankfurt Airport.  I find it best to reserve a compartment, keep the children in pj’s, and then have them lie down across two seats for an hour-long nap.  We have also had the boys nap successfully going to/from Berlin and Hamburg.

What are the different types of seats available?

  • Open Saloon – main compartment.  Seats are similar to airline seats: two across, foot rests, tray tables.  Seats may or may not be facing direction of travel.
  • Open Saloon with table – four seats around a table in the main compartment.
  • Compartment – six seats in a closed cabin.  The four seats closest to the window are around a small table.  The two seats closest to the compartment door have a small side table.  I always chose this type of seat reservation when possible.
  • Parent-and-child Compartment – similar to a Compartment, but slightly larger.  I’ve only ever seen these on ICE trains.  Since there’s only one per train, they book fast.  If you risk having no reservation and want to try to sit here (please do not try this if you do not have children!), the compartment is usually located between the dining car and the first class coaches.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

The next page will show whether or not DB was able to accommodate the seat reservation request.  In this case, the parent-and-child compartment was not available, so alternative seats were assigned.  If you don’t like the seating arrangements provided, go back and select another type.  If no suitable arrangements can be made, it’s up to you whether or not to pay for the reservation.

Thrifty Travel Mama's Guide to Booking German Rail Tickets Online

DB is as strict as the airlines when it comes to matching tickets with identification cards.  Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance to select a means of ID that you will no doubt be carrying on your person at the time of travel.  Input the name(s) correctly, and double check.  Take note that if you’re using a government-issued ID card, you may not use a credit card to pay for the ticket(s).

The rest is rather simple.  Just enter your personal data, payment method, confirm the details, and purchase.  If you chose online ticketing, the ticket will pop up after payment is processed.  A copy is also sent to the email address you provide on the personal data screen.  Print out the ticket(s), bag your selected form of ID, and show up 10-15 minutes prior to the train’s departure.

Enjoy your trip!

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.