Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Trials and Tribulations of Cheap Travel

I know I have mentioned it before, but the biggest selling point in moving to Lux was the fact that by living in Central Europe, our opportunities to travel would be numerous - especially compared to living in Dallas. Growing up in Texas, you quickly learn that it can easily take 8-10 hours of driving just to leave the state. (Just visiting another major city from Corpus Christi would take 3-4 hours.) So, after years of moving around the U.S. and learning the benefits of living in smaller states (you could travel to 5 or 6 different states from Richmond, VA in less than half a day), I knew that a small country in the center of Europe held many more possibilities! Up to this point our trips to Europe had been the once-every-five-years-or-so event, generally meant to celebrate an anniversary.

To add to this logistical opportunity is the fact that the kids have several week and two week holidays spread throughout the year. Although their summer vacation is only two months long, this shortened season allows for breaks in the fall (one week), winter (two weeks), carnival (one week) and spring (two weeks). Though many folks take these opportunities to travel back to their native countries, others take the time to explore. For larger families, the expense of travel can hinder these aspirations. Between airfare, hotel costs and miscellaneous expenses such as food and gifts, the cost of a simple one week trip can be quite costly. However, if you plan your trip carefully and take advantage of a few key budget opportunities, a quick trip within Europe can be somewhat comparable to a trip to the beach or mountains in the U.S.

Ryanair is the Southwest Airlines of Europe - minus the peanuts (or pretzels, or whatever it is they serve these days.) They certainly lure you in with dazzling ads for 50 or 75 Euro flights, but as always, consumer beware.  You absolutely HAVE to read the details. If you get the chance, just check out the website. It is actually quite humorous. Every imaginable circumstance a traveller can experience on a simple EU flight can lead to quite a lot of un-anticipated fees. These include fees for printing out your boarding passes (a must), mis-spelling or mis-entering the traveler's name as it appears on his/her passport, number of bags checked-in, weight of the bags checked-in, using a credit card to book your flight (is there really any other option?) The list goes on.

I learned about Ryanair through a friend of ours here in Lux. They have two small children and have used Ryanair quite a bit. They had just booked a trip to Madrid for a long weekend for a ridiculously low fare. So, I had to check it out for myself. I knew our fall break was coming up and we had no definitive plans, so I figured it would be a great opportunity to attack that travel bucket list of mine. Top on the list - Spain. Okay, I couldn't very well do the copycat thing and do Madrid (not that my friends would have cared the least). But honestly, I have always wanted to go to Barcelona. I had heard some fantastic things about the architecture and had seen a few pictures online, but hadn't really researched it much since most of our past vacations had fallen in August.  August is NOT the time of year for a trip to Spain. It is crazy hot and most Europeans take their vacations during this time, so many shops are closed for the month and the crowds are huge. But, fall break falls in November, so that opened up the opportunity.  I did flip through the various flight options available during our holiday week (Italy, Germany, England, etc.), and sure enough - Barcelona was one of the most reasonable destinations and the one that promised the best chance for decent weather. So, for 75 euros per person, we booked our trip for four to Barcelona.

So, that left accommodations to book. Well, the same friends had also been to Barcelona about a year ago and had stayed at an apartment that they highly recommended. With two older boys who are now too big to share beds with us in a small hotel room, we are now at the point of either two rooms in a hotel, or looking for that ideal VRBO (vacation rental by owner). We have done both, and honestly, you do have many more cost savings opportunities with the VRBO options, not to mention you have the chance of customizing your needs a bit. This apartment was centrally located to all of the great sites in Barcelona (blocks away from the Sagrada Familia church and a short metro trip away from La Rambla) and had 3 bedrooms and 3 baths. For brothers that consistently argue over shared space, the place sounded perfect! Plus, it had a kitchen for cooking meals in and laundry facilities that would allow us to minimize what we packed. So, a few more clicks and another deposit, and our apartment was booked.

Finally, Barcelona is primarily a walking city, so the need to rent a car is pretty minimal. There are tour buses that provide a great overview of the city so that you can determine where you want to spend the rest of your vacation time. Also, there are some great tour companies that can take you on day trips that the trains or buses don't reach (Costa Brava, Girona, Wine Country, Montserrat). We opted to hold off on renting a car for this trip, though we did eventually book a day trip.

As we got closer to our departure date, my husband began his normal preparations of printing out boarding passes and reading that fine print we were so often reminded of. Sure enough, the luggage limitations and potential fees for Ryanair are quite notorious. There are numerous websites that will advise you as to what potential fees you must try to avoid. However, luggage fees are the highest and most stringent ones I have ever seen. When booking our flight, I had purchased the ability to bring two checked-in bags that could weigh up to 15 kg. Each traveler is limited to one 10kg. carry on, but Ryanair posts the EXACT dimensions they allow and you are not allowed any additional packages. Therefore, if you are used to traveling with a purse and a laptop and/or camera (like me), you better make sure they all fit in ONE bag.

After packing our family of four, we quickly determined that there was no way (despite the fact that we could do laundry in the apartment) we would manage with just 2 checked in bags - especially if we planned to bring back more than what we came there with (i.e., souvenirs). So, in order to avoid the absurdly high fees imposed at the airport, we went online and added a third bag that could weigh up to 20 kilos (both ways, this added an additional 50 euros to the 100 or so euros I had already paid for the first two bags). Other tricks we used included using duffle bags (which weigh practically nothing) and minimizing the pairs of shoes we packed. I know that seems silly, but women do generally pack several pairs (at least this one does), so that did prove to be a test! (BTW, sneakers weigh the least, but I happen to be partial to Dansko clogs, which unfortunately weighed the most.) Finally, I packed my purse, used my laptop bag as my carry on and made sure that my camera, laptop, wallet and passports could fit. Whew!

So, was the effort worth it? Well, let's just say that we did witness a traveler on the way back from Barcelona who did not read the luggage requirements quite so earnestly. Stopped at the gate, she was forced to put her bag in one of those metal dimension testers that are so rarely used by most airlines. Though her bag fit, she was forced to rearrange her belongings when the airline employee threatened her with the large luggage fee when her bag got stuck.  It took her 5 minutes to free it from the metal cage in which it had been imprisoned! With some effort on our part, we managed to bring back quite a few souvenirs (including some fragile ceramic pieces strategically packed amongst our clothes) without exceeding the weight limits and no damage! Woot!

So, was our trip the ultimate cost savings vacation? Simply said - no. Although we did a great job on the luggage, we weren't so great at researching our destination. Our biggest surprise? The 200 euro round trip cab fair between Girona (our destination airport) and our apartment in Barcelona. C'est la vie! Our trip was wonderful, the weather was perfect, and don't get me started on the food. That's for another blog post :)

1 comment:

  1. I can relate to the August in Spain being hot as that is the month we arrived there for a 2 year assignment

    As for Ryanair...we used them once. Luckily we read the info before hand and i did not turn up with a handbag. Many did and they had to either fit them into the one bag and then put it in the little cage to make sure it was the right size or pay extra to take it on.

    I hear they are thinking of cutting down the amount of toilets on board and then charging you to use them!