Barcelona 2017: From Boston to Spain on SWISS… with a Business Class upgrade win

Attempting to wrangle every thought I’ve entertained about a week long trip to Europe would result in my posting about it after weeks if not months passed. Instead, I’ll try to focus rather narrowly on little slices of the journey. Knowing my propensity to go on and on and on, this might also keep my posts to a digestible length for the digital age.

Travel day 1: Transatlantic red eye

Anyone who’s flown within a decade or so is aware that conditions in Economy Class are cramped and uncomfortable, even for short, daytime flights. Getting to Europe from the USA means losing hours as you jump ahead six to nine time zones, and most flights depart at bedtime with a morning arrival.

Full disclosure: I had never successfully employed the “correct” procedure of sleeping on the plane, toughing it out upon arrival, and staying awake all of the first day in Europe. Before this trip, I had always tumbled into a desperate sleep upon reaching my hotel.

Even as a teen—my first visit to London was led by my high school theatre teacher between 11th and 12th grade—I found jet lag really difficult, and staying awake after a night flight really, really hard.

Barcelona Ramblas hotel bed - 1

Heaven is a big, soft bed after an overnight flight in Economy

I’ve never been particularly good at sleeping in a seat. Now that I have a chronic condition that includes regularly experiencing fairly significant pain, I was downright worried about the seven hour flight to Zurich (ZRH), where we would change planes for our ultimate destination: Barcelona (BCN), Spain.

First, I was afraid my hip arthritis would go into overdrive from all the sitting,* like it did on two domestic cross country flights this summer. Second, I feared I would sleep poorly, if at all, and thus experience increased pain triggered by fatigue. A double whammy, and one that tripled my anxiety in the weeks leading up to the journey.

You can’t fly direct from Boston to Barcelona. I had the freedom to select** our flights, and I opted for a transfer in Zurich with SWISS International Airlines.

I’d read excellent reports about conditions in Zurich airport on FlyerTalk. I always go looking for the opinions of frequent flyers in the FlyerTalk forums when I book airline tickets that include an unfamiliar layover location.

Transfers can be beastly in the world’s largest, busiest airports. I will pay extra to have a quicker, cleaner, or smoother trip through customs and passport control.

My husband did not appreciate the fact that we flew outbound on SWISS with a return on parent airline Lufthansa. They are code share partners, but not the same airline. This made reserving seats more complicated. He had a little angst about having to view his flights on two different websites/airline apps.

After all was said and done, however, DH was pretty happy with the flights I selected. He has even declared Munich (MUC) his favorite world airport. He’d rather stay home, but, if he must have a layover, he’d like to have it in München. He loves the relaxation area with its chaise longues.

Booking airline tickets

Every time my husband has an international business trip, I check airfares to see if I can tag along. Usually, it is prohibitively expensive for an extra ticket, and the second one must be paid for on our own dime.

Sometimes, he’s booking too close to the dates of travel for the best price. DH also tends to make the shortest possible trip (no Saturday night stays, typically flying on peak weekdays) and is unwilling to adjust his schedule or take a less convenient flight to lower the fare into “bring the family” territory.

That’s his right: he’s a busy man, and he doesn’t enjoy travel. He’s going to go where the conference or university is, give his brilliant talk, eat room service, and get back ASAP to our family home and the people that he loves. I wouldn’t want him to change!

Admittedly, though, I’m sometimes a bit jealous when he makes several international trips in a year, complains about them, and doesn’t even get out of his hotel room to tell me what the city of Such&such was like. Or try the famous insert food here. Or see the renowned site right across the street from his hotel. Sigh.

This time, however, all the stars aligned. DH was invited to a great conference in Barcelona, a world class destination by any standard.

The dates fell just after Thanksgiving, so I knew I’d have family in town to watch my kids if I wanted to join him on an adults only trip.

It was a four day conference, a little longer than some, making the transatlantic flight worthwhile even for a jet lag lightweight like myself.

I booked his ticket, then checked prices for my own itinerary if I went with him. For myself, I looked at a return flight on the weekend instead of his preference, Thursday. It wasn’t pricing out in the thousands; the economy fare was under $500. I booked it immediately.

And then I started thinking… At this price, we can afford a family trip to Europe!

I’d paid for the kids’ passports to take them to Iceland years before, but we’ve hardly used them since. Apologies to Canada, but our passport cards are sufficient to visit you by land or sea.

Checking in with my teen, he shocked me by stating his preference to skip Spain. I nudged him a little, but, in the end, decided to respect his wish to stay at home. He’s kind of like his dad—a homebody—and he’s very much entered into the teen period of finding his own way by rejecting, sometimes reflexively, his parents’ priorities.

If he were studying Spanish, I might’ve insisted, but DS1 would remain with his grandparents post-Thanksgiving.

My little guy was a different story. When we travel, he is my most frequent social companion in the evening. On cruises, he’ll accompany me to formal dinners so his dad can enjoy room service in sweatpants. DS2 has danced in shipboard discos, and sipped virgin mocktails in swanky piano bars. He keeps a full wardrobe of bow ties for such occasions.

Son with mocktail in shipboard bar - 1

DS2 aboard our favorite ship, Crystal Serenity, at (rainy) sunset in Alaska.

When I described Spain’s culture of frequent socializing in bars and restaurants, with families dining together into what we consider the wee hours, he was all in. He didn’t object to missing a week of school, either, especially not in the land that introduced chocolate to Europe.

I had to call to book his ticket separately because DS2 is a minor. The website wouldn’t allow me to make the reservation as it looked like a case of a child traveling alone. We traveled with three different ticket locator numbers and e-tickets. This worked out to my advantage as our departure date neared.

SWISS Upgrade Bargain bid for Business Class

SWISS offers a program called “SWISS Upgrade Bargain” in which, if invited by the airline, one can place a bid in an amount of one’s choice within an airline-delimited range to be upgraded from Economy to Business Class. In my case, the price range allowed began at roughly CHF 780 up to an amount more than business class would’ve cost if purchased outright for my ticket. I always check the fare for a better seat, even when I doubt I can afford it!

This no doubt fills the Business Class cabin while providing some revenue for the airline as opposed to their offering those seats to frequent fliers as a courtesy.

In an interesting twist, of the three of us, only I received an email from SWISS offering me the option to bid for an upgrade. The program rules state that children under 18 aren’t eligible, so my son’s case makes sense, but I am less clear on why DH, with his more expensive ticket, didn’t get the offer. There’s some possibility, he admits, that an airline email went into his spam folder.

At any rate, we had to keep one parent in Economy with our minor child. I suggested we make a relatively low bid and see what happened. If we didn’t get it, we would fly in uncomfortable solidarity in Coach. If we won the bid, I would offer the seat to my husband if I boarded the plane feeling well, but take it myself if I already had pain before we left home.

I didn’t quite forget that I’d placed the bid—I think I offered CHF 810, or about 30 francs more than the minimum possible offer—but I considered it an extreme long shot. Theories online as to how the odds of acceptance are calculated include the notion that one’s initial fare added to the bid might be the determining factor, and my ticket was cheap.

Two or three days before our trip, I got the email: my bid was accepted. I couldn’t reserve a specific seat of my choice under this scheme, but had no qualms about taking whatever SWISS offered. I believed that any lie-flat, Business Class seat was going to be superior to my carefully researched thank you SeatGuru Economy Class window seat.

This should come as no surprise: it was wildly superior. Continue reading

Such a simple solution: cold feet cured with a double duty metal water bottle

A hot water bottle by one’s frigid feet is a classic winter comfort. If you suffer from ice cubes for toes and haven’t yet discovered the joy of this simple but effective warmer, do try one as the nights regain their chill.*

Here’s a so-simple-it’s-silly solution to the same problem in an overly air conditioned hotel room or when encountering unseasonably cold weather camping:

Use a refillable/reusable metal drink bottle full of hot water as a bed- and foot-warmer. Consider it a more petite cousin of the old-fashioned rubber hot water bottle you could pick up at a pharmacy.

Sigg water bottles - 1

Swiss made aluminum bottles by Sigg, well used for almost a decade; dented, but still leak-free

Fill your bottle from the coffee machine (run it without coffee in the basket), the hot tap in the bathroom, or even use water you’ve heated over a campfire. I’ve tapped all of these for fuel to fight freezing feet. Just pour carefully as your source water gets hotter.

Esbit stove hot water - 1

If you have to heat your water this way, allow lots of extra time before bed…

Make sure your bottle has a tight-fitting, secure lid that won’t come loose inadvertently and soak your bed! I like flip top lids for daily use, but I only travel with bottles that include sturdy screw caps. I also routinely carry a small but super absorbent PackTowl in the same pocket of my pack to catch small leaks and drips before they threaten my papers and electronics.

Sigg metal water bottle in PackTowl - 1

PackTowl Personal model in Face size 10×14″ 0.7oz (25×35 cm, 21g)

Consider slipping the warm bottle into a sock (or a spare pillowcase) for insulation. This is vital if you’ve used scalding hot water. You want to avoid burns. Also, as the bottle cools, it will become a less cozy object to encounter. Don’t startle yourself awake by kicking a hard metal tube in the middle of the night.

You could just carry a traditional rubber hot water bottle while globe trotting. From my perspective, though, they are too large to include in a carry on travel bag. At around 12 oz, they’re also fairly heavy.rubber hot water bottle - 1

A rubber hot water bottle is a single task item. Those of us who enjoy traveling with fewer encumbrances often seek out smaller, lighter, and multi-functional gear for trips. I take no small measure of pleasure in the coup of finding tremendous extra benefit from something I was already carrying.

I always bring my own drinking water bottle to fill post-security at the airport to avoid both disposable plastic bottles and the exorbitant prices at the gate area kiosks. At home and on road trips, we have a water bottle in the car for every family member. Now, I’m simply specifying a particular bottle that can serve an additional function, and I’m a lot more comfortable for the effort.

Gentle heat, thoughtfully applied, can also provide soothing pain relief for some conditions, like my joint pain. It’s hard to overstate the value of something like that to anyone with a chronic condition that’s exacerbated by travel.

There’s just one problem that I’ve discovered with this clever solution: my family has caught on to how I’m using my bottle to warm my bed. The kids give me sad eyed looks and tell me their feet are cold! If you’re traveling as a family, it might be best to upgrade everyone’s drink bottle to a sturdy stainless steel model with an excellent lid.

Your cold feet will thank you, even if the kids don’t.

 

 

*If you’re like me, your cold feet may recur regardless of season or outdoor temperature, which is what prompted me to begin writing this post in August!

Including a Kindle for ultralight carry on travel: when is the weight justified?

To travel with the Kindle, or without the Kindle? That is my question before each trip.

Much of my travel kit is so definitive, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I carried anything different.

For over a decade, I’ve had a silk sleeping bag liner or “sleep sack” (dubbed by our family as “the sleestak” because that’s funnier) with me on every flight. It doubles as a blanket, protects me from chemical-laden hotel bedding, and acts as a neck pillow or cushioned armrest while rolled up.

I could go on and on about other items in my carefully curated collection of travel gear. Most pieces serve multiple purposes. Many of them delight me because they remind me of adventures past. I know what I need, why I need it, and (usually) where to pack it with very little contemplation.

When it comes to my Kindle, however, I’m weighing its inclusion before every trip.

Kindle - 1The truth is, I never need to bring the Kindle. I have a smartphone and a tablet, both of which include the Kindle app. Unlike the dark ages of my youth, I never need to carry a stack of paperbacks (it took four for a cross country flight) these days to ensure having entertainment for hours of airline isolation.

I often do bring one codex in spite of the weight of paper and ink. I like to read a physical book. Books, however, don’t often work best for my physical limitations.

The reason I read on a Kindle is mundane. I have arthritis in my hands and wrists. There is no less taxing way to hold a library in my hands than my Kindle Voyage.* Continue reading