Category: europe

European Vacation: 2015 Edition

Ever since we were married, Denisa and I have tried to get over to Slovakia once every three years. That’s the goal. We’ve gone in 2012/2013 (for our European Christmas tour), 2011 (where we got over to London and Vienna), 2008 (where we got to see Dublin), 2005 (with a trip to Prague included), and 2002 (my first trip over). So doing a bit of math, we’ve gone 5 times so far, with the Christmas trip making it so we’d gotten a bit ahead of ourselves. (Twice in two years!) The hope was to go again this year, but when we had MC get added to the family, we realized trips to Europe might have to become less frequent.

Still, it never hurts to try, right?

And I’ve been trying everyday for months. Checking the prices, hoping that they might come down some. Kayak is my go-to source for price checking, though I’ll throw in other sites now and then to be thorough. But even with all my checking, the lowest I’d seen a flight this summer was $957 on Turkish Air, and that was with a long layover in Istanbul. (It also was a month ago. I didn’t pull the trigger then, because I thought the prices would come down. I hoped to get a ticket for $850 or so.)

These days? The best ticket I could find with reasonable layovers (meaning, no 6 hour monstrosities) was $1,210 on Aer Lingus, Boston to Vienna. With the bus ticket to Boston and all the other transportation costs included, that meant we were going to have to pay $6,100 just to get to Slovakia. That . . . is a lot of money. Enough that Denisa and I were seriously considering just skipping this year’s trip and saving for next year.

DC, however, had other plans. She really wanted to go to Slovakia, and she decided to pray and fast this past Sunday that I’d be able to find tickets we could afford. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’d been trying nonstop for months, and that God wasn’t going to bring the prices down just for us.

Note to self: don’t doubt the power of a 7 year old’s prayers.

Yesterday (two days after DC prayed and fasted for this), I saw a ticket on Kayak for $850 or so. The only problem? It involved two or three layovers and 40 hours of travel time. I’m willing to try to go beyond the call of duty for a deal, but even I have my limits. I’d seen this wacky deal before, and I’d always dismissed it out of hand. This time? I decided to look more carefully at it. I saw it was leaving from Toronto, so I checked prices leaving straight from Toronto. $750 or so.

A quick jaunt over to Google Maps told me Toronto was over 9 hours away from me. So . . . not that practical. But I had the scent of blood now. Give a librarian a toehold somewhere, and we’ll find out anything we want.

Long story short? I found tickets out of Montreal (4.5 hours away) for $720 roundtrip, including a 3 night stopover in Paris. Yes, Montreal is a bit of a drive, but so is Boston. (Boston is 3.5 hours away.) It’s a simple Montreal to Paris, Paris to Vienna flight, all on Air France.

Denisa and I bought the tickets last night. DC was overjoyed.

I don’t know why I never thought about Canada before. Say what you want about prayer, I personally feel like DC was a prime helper in this year’s trip planning. It took a while to convince myself that Montreal was doable. Can you just leave from Canada on a trip? Just like that? But yes, you can. The plan at the moment is to stay the night in Montreal before our flight leaves, thus allowing us to park the car there for free. We’ll be able to go to Slovakia and Paris for a total cost (including hotels, meals, and rental car) that will be less than what we would have paid for just airfare from Boston.


Anyway. If anyone’s looking to meet up with us, feel free to drop me a line. We’ll be over there in August. If you live within driving distance of major Canadian airport, I’ve got a few tips for you . . . :-)

(End note: It’s Wednesday, and that means I have to stick to my goal to report on the no-sugar thing. This week, I had a bit of maple syrup on pancakes yesterday, and some granola that Denisa made that has a bit of maple syrup in it. That’s it. Still feeling great. Weight loss was minimal, until this morning, when I was suddenly down two more pounds. Total loss is 6.8 pounds as of today, but I expect that to tick back up, most likely.)

Prepping for the European Trip–In Which I Stress-Vent

(WARNING: Yes. I’m complaining about my trip to Europe. Yes, I realize that this is really ridiculous. I know it comes off as “Oh gee, the poor guy has to go to Europe for Christmas. Let’s all cry really hard for him. He’s got it so bad.” But you know what? This is my blog. I get to write about what I want to write about. And right now, this is what’s stressing me out. I’m excited for the trip, but still . . . )

Our trip to Europe is approaching. Rapidly. As in, lots faster than I thought it was. Which is all fine and good on one hand. I mean, who doesn’t want a three week vacation? But at the same time, I look at all the things that need to get done in the meantime, and . . . it all starts to get much more stressful.

A lot of this is due to how much different this trip is going to be compared to our other trips. Four countries, a rental car, 8 different cities we’re staying in . . . If I were less prone to overplanning, this might be okay. But I’m not. And it’s not like there’s not a ton of things to plan for. Like, for example, did you know that each country in Europe has its own freeway sticker you have to purchase to be able to drive on the freeways in that country? Neither did I, until I did my research. Drive on the freeway without the sticker, and you get fined if you get caught. Also, Germany and Austria have different laws over what kind of tires you need to have on your car after November. have the wrong tires, and you get fined if you get caught.

I’ve got the hotels booked, the car reserved, the flight tickets ready, but I also need to figure out how we’re getting in and out of some of the cities to sight-see (Drive in? Where do we park? Take public transportation in? How?) There are so many little details to making a trip like this work, and I’ve got this nagging feeling that something’s going to go wrong at some point, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.

Then again, I’ve also learned the best thing on vacations like these is to plan like a madman ahead of time, and then roll with the punches once you get there. No use worrying when it’s too late to worry–just enjoy it. We’ll see how that goes. :-)

And in the meantime, I’ve got a house to decorate for Christmas, Christmas presents to find and buy and wrap, my yearly Christmas newsletter to finish, work to finish up before I leave, and a book to start editing. (It’s almost been long enough now that I think I can approach GET CUPID from a fresh enough viewpoint to give it the good second draft it needs.) Each one of those things is complicated for a variety of reasons.

Deep breaths. It’ll all work out fine.

And that’s all the time I have to stress-vent today. Thanks for listening.

Planning a Vacation in Europe

LIFE The Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton (Life (Life Books))You all know we’re headed to Europe. Back when Denisa and I were still in the planning stages of this trip, we really only had two objectives: go to Slovakia and go to Germany (back to the area where I served my mission). In the flurry of plane ticket buying, those objectives changed: go to Slovakia, Vienna and London. Which is all very fun and exciting, but yesterday the travel guides came for Vienna and London, and I realized: *I need to plan out three trips, not just one*.

I’m sad we’re not making it to Germany. Again. I’ve really wanted to go back. From time to time I check out the cities I live in, using Google Maps. Leipzig, Schwarzenberg, Gotha, Weimar–I lived each of those places for a half year, and I’d love to show them off to Denisa and the kids. Then again, my kids aren’t old enough to remember going to them if we went, so I guess it’s a moot point. If I could only become a wildly popular German language author like my friend Dan, I’d get a trip to the Leipzig book fair, which would solve all my problems. :-) Guess I’d better keep writing.

But anyway. Life would be easier planning these things if money were no object. I could just rent a car, pick a hotel that has great reviews and be off and running. However, money definitely *is* an object. So we’re using public transportation from the airports and around the cities, which then makes finding a hotel difficult. Not only do we want one reasonably priced (in London–good luck!) but we’d like one that has good reviews. (Defeats the purpose to get there and stay in a hole the whole time.) And it has to be within walking distance of public transportation that both goes to the airport and downtown London. Oh–and we’d like to pay attention to room size, because if we get a postage stamp of a room, it’s doubtful we’ll get any sleep. TRC and DC don’t sleep well when we’re in the same room with them. They just want to play.

And I don’t just have to do that with London. I need to figure out Vienna (easier, since it’ll just be Denisa and me there) and Eastern Slovakia (Denisa’s department–she’s spearheading that operation).

Yesterday I was online for about four hours at home trying to find the perfect spot, and I came up empty. I’ll try again tonight. Unless, of course, one of you has an apartment in London you’re–you know–*not using*. And if you had a car conveniently parked at the airport, I’d take that, too. :-)

Once I find places to stay, I’ll move on to Things to Do, which should be more enjoyable.

How to Buy Tickets to Europe, Cheap: 2011 Edition

National Lampoon's European VacationIf you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, then you already know I bought my tickets to Slovakia yesterday evening. I’d been watching ticket prices for the past two months, and I finally found a deal worth snapping up. When you find these deals, you have to act quickly. Yesterday evening was a six hour marathon of planning departure dates, coordinating times, checking various airfares, and reading a bunch of fine print. But after all that, I got a wicked good deal on the flight. Read on to find out how.

Step one of getting a good airfare to Europe is to be able to realize what a good airfare is. You need to know how much the tickets cost for the time you want to fly, or else you’ll have no idea if you’re getting a steal or the airline’s stealing from you. So I start by looking at prices for the ideal airports: in this case, Portland to Bratislava. Right now, that prices is $1600 for the travel dates Denisa and I wanted.

Of course, I suppose it would help for you to know what search tool to use when looking for European flights. My old reliable these days is Kayak. It’s versatile, easy to use, and it searches a ton of sites, all at once. Of course, I don’t typically BUY the ticket through Kayak, but I’m not buying anything at this point–I’m just exploring price options. Kayak usually does a good job of including taxes and fees in with their listed price–that’s not always a given with many airfare search engines, and it makes accurately comparing prices a real beast. Nothing’s worse than feeling like you’ve found The Ticket, only to discover that there’s a $250 booking fee, gas fee, tax, airport security fee, etc. So stick to Kayak, and try to resist the siren’s song of other sites. They’re just trying to trick you.

Another important note is that if you’re going to fly to Europe, going in the summer is a Bad Choice. In fact, it’s pretty much the Worst Choice. Fall would be great. Late winter is also good. Spring is okay. Summer? Very bad. How bad? Try 2-3 times as much. If I were looking for this flight in fall, my expectations of a good fare would be dramatically different. Hence the need to know a ballpark figure for how much tickets at that time are going to cost. (Kayak also has a feature where it will show you what the ticket prices have been doing for the past few months–going up, going down–based on purchase date and travel dates. Very handy for historical research.)

Anyway. I’d done all that legwork ahead of time, and I knew that a few months ago, the tickets were around $1200. Now they were up to $1600. Unrest in Libya and the Middle East is a beast when it comes to plane tickets. Bottom line: ticket prices were going up. There’s always a chance they’ll come down up until about a month before you’re leaving, but it’s risky to wait too long. A month before your departure date, ticket prices spike up. So buying early is good. But not too early–I usually shoot for about 3-4 months out. I could probably wait for 2 months out, too–but I get too nervous, and I’ve usually found a good price by then, anyway.

$1600 for a family of four comes to $6400, and that was officially too much. So now that I have a baseline, the goal becomes getting that ticket for as cheap as possible. The first step is the easy one: find alternate airports. Not a whole lot of people fly in or out of Portland or Bratislava. Lots of people fly in and out of Boston and Vienna. Boston is an extra two hours from Portland. Vienna’s an extra hour or so. So it will mean longer travel times, more hassle, but potential big savings. In my case, it brought the price down to $1300/ticket. $5200 total. That’s a savings of $1200, just for a bit more hassle. If it were a short trip, maybe it’s not worth it. For a long trip, I think it’s a no-brainer.

But still: $5200? That’s expensive. And we can go lower. The trick with Europe is that they have really cheap airfares for flying from one European city to another. They nickel and dime you to death on baggage fees and other ticky tack stuff, but if you’re willing to fly spartan, then it can save you money. The trick is getting to Europe. Kayak has this excellent tool called Buzz. You put in your departure airport, the month you plan to travel, and the continent you’re flying to, and Kayak shows you the cheapest fares to cities in that area. You’re not guaranteed to get those cheap prices–but it gives you an idea of what deals there are to where. In my case, I discovered that Iceland Express was doing a sale to London right now for $650 and up per ticket. Searching for the specific dates, and I found tickets for $800/person.

That’s a pretty darn good price. But it’s far from a lock. See, getting to London won’t do me much good if I can’t get a flight from London to my ultimate destination (Vienna). And not just from London: from the right airport in London. (If you really want to save money, you can try to switch airports, but do you really want to do that to yourself? It’s a personal call. If you’re single, maybe. If you have small children . . . not so much.) So I moved on to the next phase: searching for fares from London to Vienna.

At this point, BE VERY CAUTIOUS. Your safety net is gone. You need to make sure your layover will be enough to give you wiggle room. You don’t want to have a flight delay make it so you miss your connection. Since you’re not booking through all the way on the same airline, the airlines don’t need to feel sorry for you and change tickets to ensure you make your destination. So be careful.

In this case, I found a budget airline that flew from the right airport at the right time (4 hour layover in London) for $200/person (including their baggage fees and other fee garbage). So now I’m down to $1000/ticket, $4000 total. Overall savings of $2400. Things are looking up. But when you’re deep in the throes of cheap airfare searching, you don’t just stop there, my friends.

You keep pressing forward.

At this point, $1000 a ticket was an okay price. I could live with it, but it’s a huge hassle, and I wasn’t sure there wouldn’t be something better coming along in the next few weeks. But this is where I busted out my ace in the hole: children airfares. Some (not all) European airlines will give you a discount on international fares if you’re a child (3-11). They’ll give an even better discount if you’re an infant (0-2). I have no infants in my house anymore, but I do have the kidlets. Kayak won’t show you these discounts: you have to leave and start poking around the individual airline sites to find them.

Iceland Express does the discounts. To a tune of $500/child, including taxes and fees. A bit of quick calculation later, and I found myself looking at the total cost of $3400. Divide that by four, and it averages out to $850/person. Total savings: $3000.

We have a winner. Since we were flying through London, I gave us a five day layover on the way back, because hey–free trip to London. And since we’re flying into Vienna, why not have a short stay there on the way out? I’ll be getting all of that, and still be paying less than I would for a Portland to Bratislava flight. Much less. Oh–and Denisa’s $3600 dental bill? It’ll be more like $850 tops in Slovakia. So yes, we’ll be paying a fair bit this summer for vacations and dentists, but we’ll be paying much less than I thought we would.

I am very pleased. Six hours of search time, $3000 saved. That means my search effort earned me about $500/hour. #winning

Anyway–there you have it. If you have any questions, ask away. I’m happy to give advice.

Ireland Pictures and More

And just so I don’t get any complaints that my blog’s gettin’ too churchy for all y’all, here are some pictures of the family trip to Dublin on the way home from Slovakia. This was a fun trip, although everyone living in a small hotel room for four nights wasn’t necessarily the easiest thing we’ve done. Our days there consisted of waking up in the morning, feeding the baby, letting her get a good nap in and then heading out around 11. We tried to be back around 6 for her to get another good nap in before she ate one last time and went to sleep. Where did we put her to bed? In one of the suitcases which we stuck in the bathroom. Yeah. It was well padded, no worries–and she fit it fine and was very happy, thank you very much. World traveling with small children can be challenging, but we made it work. In the evening, we all watched some movies and then went to bed for another day.

What did we see? The Book of Kells, Malahide Castle, Dublin Castle, The National Archaeological Museum, The Hundred Guilder Print (one of my favorite Rembrandt etchings, and the one used as the CD cover for my grandfather’s oratorio The Redeemer), Christ Church Cathedral, Trinity College, Temple Bar, Stephen’s Green, Iveagh Gardens and more, not to mention a huge playground, hordes of double decker buses, tourists galore and circus performers and other stuff I’m sure I’m forgetting. Good times. Check out the pictures, plus a few of where we were staying in Slovakia.

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