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?

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.

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?  

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