Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cruise Director's In-Transit Packet Inspection

The mosquito-inflected wounds on my legs barely healed before I was back at it again. Since last year, we'd been talking about taking a trip to Europe, but I sometimes doubted that it would be realistic for us to do that with all this IVF stuff going on with us.

The Background

Having accumulated some miles over the past few years with flights and purchases (more from the latter than the former), we started looking at some flights in September. Off-season, good weather, etc., it was looking good for a trip to sunny Barcelona and maybe a quick trip up to Berlin to visit Alexander. But then we came back to the subject and timelines of IVF, and we were kinda flip-flopping about when we would start IVF, would we want to go to Europe after Erika's inception and risk something happening, or would we wait until later in the year to kick it off?

On a whim, we decided to look into flights for the Spring. Amazingly, there were some flights available for mileage use in June! I was so excited, I could hardly contain myself. Was I really going to go to Europe on such a whim? That's when I put the hat "J. Riley: Cruise Director" on.

This title comes from "A Certain Italian" from trips of yore, mostly back in my traveling days in college. Stefan would sign up for one of my trips (begrudgingly on my part) and I would get to work. I would book the hotels, research the flights, read the books, research the routes, plan the events, book the pub crawls, and of course get in contact with our local contacts in each location. Stefan's sole responsibility was to book the flight I told him to book, and everything else would fall into place for him. This happened with Europe '97, Europe '01, South America '02, South America '05, World Cup '06, Slovakia '07, Peru '08, etc. (damn, I've traveled too much with him).

And thus, I sprang into action for Barcelona. Barcelona was an easy target for us due to it being geographically located in Spain (although culturally unique) and it being a place that neither Erika and I have been to. Though was also a small bit of me longing to make it to Germany, as this was a place that was instrumental to my development as a person and helped me discover a lot of the ideals that I now hold. Not to mention it was the place that kicked off my jet-setting lifestyle and, ultimately, led to my introduction of Erika in the first place. So I tossed an email out to my friend Leif who, as a pilot, I thought might be able to make it down to hang out with us for a few days in Barcelona with his girlfriend Melanie.

Leif through a spanner into my works by saying that not only was his girlfriend going to be in Barcelona just a few days before, but that Schuetzenfest in his hometown was going to be on the very weekend that we were going to be in Barcelona.

Ahhhh.....Schuetzenfest. You go to the semi-rural area of the Sauerland (Nordrhein-Westfallen) where they have local gun clubs. A wooden eagle is put in a box high up in a tree and the local gun club members each take a turn trying to hit the eagle and knock it off its perch that it is secured to in the tree. The person who knocks it down (after several hours) is declared the "King" of Schuetzenfest and leads a parade through town, eventually ending up in a huge tent that the whole town is at. There are carnival rides outside and a brass polka band inside. And beer. Lots of beer. Starting at about 9:00am and going through the night - the last time it was only interrupted by few hours of napping. I've been to a few of these in the past and, for me, it is clearly the cultural event to attend in Germany. It's not a watered down Oktoberfest and there are no other Americans (or Peruvians, for that matter) anywhere in town. It is quite epic.

The Flights

So now I'm trying to calculate the flights in and out of Barcelona, the possibility of getting to Germany by planes, trains, or automobiles, and, of course leaving enough time in each destination to actually enjoy it all while attempting to minimize the amount of days I'll be taking off. Erika and I mapped out a plan of days and then I get on the horn to see what other tickets were available for reward travelers in the month of June.

And I nailed it. Nailed it! We're now arriving in Barcelona, spending some (ample, I hope) time there, then flying (via a $100-for-two flight from sketchy RyanAir) up to Hamburg, Germany, where Leif lives (and, conveniently a place that we have a guidebook for as a wedding gift thanks to Alex's parents and sister, who also lives in Hamburg), and then traveling with Leif down to the Sauerland, then departing on the evening of the 14th from Frankfurt, where I hope that we can meet up with Alex's parents for a meal before our flight.

The Lodging

Of course, I am going to need a place to stay in Barcelona. I spent a significant amount of my downtime at work researching hotels and hostels, somewhere that wasn't going to bankrupt my undefined yet minimalistic budget. Erika and I can get by with just a bed, but most of the hostals were booked, except for the ones with like 25 beds in a room. And, even then, it was going to be around $70 a night (everything is times two!). Hotels were going to be even worse and just the thought of paying four-figures just for a room for this trip was keeping me awake at night.

I happened to mention my upcoming trip to my boss's boss (who travels for fun a lot, especially with his college-aged children) and he mentioned a website that people rent their free rooms out of. I told him to shoot it over, though I was confident that I had already checked out the website (since I'd been looking at apartments to rent). But alas! It was a new one: Air B-N-B (without the dashes; you'll know why in a minute). Like he said, people actually rent out fully furnished rooms (or whole apartments) to travelers. Many of them are centrally located, you can read reviews from other travelers about the place (but only after they've stayed there), you get a list of amenities, a Google map of the location, and anything the person wants to mention about themselves. Not to mention, all the booking takes place via the website (U.S. based, so no foreign-fees on the credit card; plus no VAT taxes on the room) and the website pays the person renting out the room - after I check in! I googled around about them and found some reputable stories in a variety of newspapers like the NY Times about it being quite legit.

And it quickly became my obsession. Hour after hour, I was looking after different options, seeing what was available, reading the reviews, calculating cost-benefits of different locations of residences and having a personal bathroom and free internet, etc. etc. Like a man-possessed, I was waking up early on the weekend to troll the site some more and finally we decided to go with a room overlooking the marina in the old blue-collar sailor part of town (Barceloneta) next to some recently renovated public beaches with a washer and dryer, WiFi internet, and a very nice kitchen and bedroom for $80 per night. It was a little high, but we figured that for an extra $20 per night, we might as well stay somewhere that looked nice and had really good reviews. The website of course has a service charge, so I was looking at almost $530 for the place for six days. I googled around for rumored coupons on the website and found one for $150 off! But I plugged it in and apparently it was no good because it was only for a certain location. Oh well.

And then I got my receipt. It said that my credit card was charged for $380 ($530-$150). Shocker: the friggin' website has a bug in it and it actually gave me the discount from the coupon. That just totally made my day and I couldn't believe it! Hence why I won't put the full website or link in the blog - in case they're trolling blogger looking for customer reviews about experience rather than working on fixing the bugs in the website :o).

Because we fly out of an airport in the lovely town of Girona about an hour and a half north of Barcelona, we decided to spend the day up there and spend the night in a regular-old airport hotel that night (since our flight is in the morning). Although the price was the same on the hotel's website, the website does NOT encrypt their transaction page with SSL, so I booked it with Expedia.com. Additional benefit - no foreign-fee charges from the credit card.

In Hamburg, we will be staying at Leif's vacant apartment until he arrives back and takes us to the Sauerland, where we will be (hopefully!) staying at his parents' house.

Ground Transportation

RyanAir, one of the most sketchy, low-cost-no-frills airlines in Europe, saves money by flying into remote, random airports (like the one in Girona that we're leaving Barcelona from). Oftentimes, the only way to get to the actual city is to take a one-hour taxi ride from the airport, which quickly makes the savings on your flight disappear like an over-leveraged investment bank with no customer confidence. However, the remote, random airport that we fly into for Hamburg, Germany is actually quite a big city (Bremen). And they have a bus service that actually lines up with the RyanAir arrivals and takes you to Hamburg (and hour and a half away) for about $20. Much better, and cheaper, than a $100 taxi ride followed by an expensive train ride to our destination.

I had planned on taking a train from the Sauerland to Frankfurt to depart back to the United States, but one of Leif's friends coming to Schuetzenfest (they all come home for the event) will actually be driving back to Frankfurt on the same day that we would be going, so we'll avoid another long, expensive ride with that benefit!

The City Research

I've been using NYC's wonderful public library system lately to get books to read. Conveniently, they also have a few books on traveling as well (not to mention DVDs, language programs, CDs, etc. etc.). I went ahead and ordered the books that I could about Barcelona in order to do research. And of course I need to know more than just the tourist information - I want to learn all about Catalonia and the last thousand years of the city's history.

I got a few

By the way, after some extensive research, the National Geographic book is quite impressive. I also enjoy Rick Steves' book. Although a bit nerdy and very much tourist-oriented, I like how he presents his material very clearly and almost on a personal level. He also provides a lot of information on his web site and in his PBS shows, so that is the one book that I actually bought (for $9).

Potential Pitfalls and Perils 

Whenever my itinerary is over-engineered like this one, there's always plenty of room for a problem to slip into my plans, throwing everything into disarray. We have a nice little collection of problem points and no real contingency plans for any of them!

First of all, Erika needs a visa in order to travel to Europe. She can use the same visa for Spain as for Germany, but she does have to make an appointment at the Spanish embassy (they recommend three weeks before departure). Her appointment is a mere two weeks before our departure, but we're hoping that she can negotiate to get it expedited based on the itinerary that's required.

Assuming we are legally cleared to head to Spain, the air may not be. Eyjafjallajokul is rearing its ugly little (massive) head again and causing problems at airports all over Europe - including several in western part of Spain. Spain was affected a few weeks back and all German airspace was closed when the initial cloud of ash drifted over Old Europe last time around. If we get stuck in Spain, I can think of worse places to be.

Assuming we are legally cleared and the air is clear at 35,000 feet, British Airways (who operates the European legs of our round-trip flight) has conveniently scheduled cabin-crew strikes on three days in May and June. By fate, it happens to be two days after we arrive, so we should be in the clear here, but you never know. Is there any mystery as to why the airlines are all going bankrupt?

And the, of course, there is all the Internet booking going on and assuming that operators in Spain actually work on the posted schedule - which may or may not be the case in the siesta-laden land. However, I think we've scheduled enough time between our stops to make sure that this trip is going to be awesome!  

J. Riley, am I a nerd version of this horrible American in Vicky Christina Barcelona (order it on Netflix) ;o) ? BTW, the PGD test setup for the IVF got kicked off today