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

Luggage brands & bag styles I’m traveling with regularly in 2017

Here’s my recent luggage use pattern:

Rolo, when carried, ends up crammed inside Tom Bihn or Red Oxx, however. It has been used as a carry-on in conjunction with a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45, a Red Oxx Small Aviator Bag, and even a Tom Bihn Shop Bag.

I haven’t posted about the brand before, but my one set of wheeled luggage is Sherpani. We need to talk about them, too.

Yes, I’m on the record railing against wheeled rollaboard bags here and in real life, but my Sherpani wheels are on a larger, checked-luggage sized suitcase. I never lift them over my head, and I don’t try to carry them on. Large wheeled bags are the best for trips involving a lot of stuff.

It is possible that I bought my Sherpani wheeled suitcase primarily because it came in a really fetching brown and purple color scheme. Highly unusual for luggage carousel spotting! Coordinated with clothes I wore frequently for travel! The presence of cute little daisies in charming spots could also have been a factor.

The more similar your trips, and the more similar your needs during travel, the less likely it is that you need a variety of pieces of luggage. If, on the other hand, you sometimes fly carry on only in basic economy, but other times enjoy extended voyages with extensive wardrobe requirements, you might appreciate having a range of bags that can exactly suit the given style of travel.

If I didn’t have the budget or the storage space for all four types of luggage, I would rank their order of importance to me exactly as I introduced them above:

  1. Ultra-lightweight carry on,
  2. sturdy (check-able) duffle in a size that could be carried on,
  3. specialized bag (for organization),
  4. specialized bag (for extra long trips with more specific requirements.)

For someone who flies rarely or has the strength to find all carry on luggage of trivial weight, I would prioritize item #2 above all else in most cases. A sturdy rectangular bag is by far the most versatile option available.

Some people can make do with everyday items (shopping bags or school day packs) in lieu of travel gear; some people are willing to spend more on luggage than they do on the trip itself. Most of us fall somewhere in between.

A good brand will only produce bags of high quality, but that won’t matter if you buy the wrong bag for your needs.

Capsule wardrobe: quick, casual August escape

Here’s a capsule wardrobe for a short trip to a casual destination with a predictable summer climate. I can expect daytime temperatures around 80º F and cool nights (≈55º F.)

wardrobe-quick-august-escape-add-accessories.jpg

I’m visiting family so I can borrow a jacket in a pinch.

It’s almost killing me to stick to such a boring palette. I keep wanting to sneak in more bright pieces in peachy coral and acid green. I. Will. Resist. Temptation!

This is all that I need, however, and I haven’t been feeling very well. I need to keep my bag to a manageable weight to avoid exacerbating my arthritis pain. Ruthless curation is the best way I know of to do so.

As is often the case due to my foot problems (more arthritis, plus a broken sesamoid bone), I began by choosing a summery pair of my favorite Ahnu Sugarpine sneakers. These are the lightweight, cooler mesh version.

Wardrobe quick August escape shoes - 1

Teva bought Ahnu, and now I’m afraid for the future of my favorite footwear

The soft colors get dingy fast, and this is my newest pair. That set my color palette to “baby blue.”

For summer, I wear a lot of UV protective clothing. I’m sensitive to chemical sunscreen (painful red rash) and mineral sunscreen (breakouts from the carrier cream, I assume.) I protect my skin instead with high UPF clothing and broad-brimmed hats.

All of the bottoms for this capsule are made by Coolibar. They are equivalent to a topical SPF of 50+.

The matching powder blue hoodie is also Coolibar; the tank is a coordinate from the same set.

My go to white, v-neck, faux wrap, kimono style tunic was made by ExOfficio. I liked it so much after wearing it for a season, I bought four more when they went on clearance. May I never live without this summer staple.

The other white woven top is a simple rayon tank sold by Dharma Trading Co as a blank canvas for fiber artisans. Once again, I bought these in bulk. They are long enough to cover my bum as a tunic with lightweight summer trousers, and they double up as minimalist nightgowns. It’s rare for me to travel without at least one of these, regardless of the season.

To these summer specific basics, I’m adding four cotton/Lycra layering tanks. My favorites remain the Duluth Trading Co No Yank Tanks. They are opaque enough to wear alone, but, more often, I add one under another top to keep warm (dawn and dusk), for more modesty, or to extend wears between washings of the more fashionable tops.

I could easily skip accessories for a summer trip. The truth is, when the temperature climbs above about 75º F, I start to remove necklaces, scarves, and sometimes even earrings. I’m really sensitive to hot weather, and every extra item annoys me.

With so little color in this capsule, and for very little extra weight, I went ahead and added a polka dot skinny scarf, one gold necklace, and two pairs of earrings—gold hoops, and light blue dangles.

I’m also bringing my summer “sandal alternatives”—a pair of lightweight grey mesh Mary Janes by Propet.

Grey propet shoes

Two pairs of shoes is an extravagance, but these weigh very little, and I am sometimes undone by the immense weight of my own feet in tennis shoes when I’m feeling unwell, so I’m not willing to go without.

Add socks (7 pairs, mostly tiny anklets), undergarments, and one more rayon tank for nightwear, and I have plenty of options for a six day trip. Unless I spill on myself (not unlikely *ahem*), I won’t need to do laundry, either.

Packing it all in my Rolo bag weighs in at a whopping 5 lb 4 oz. I can manage that over my shoulder, and it will be easy to stow overhead.

I will also carry my Western Flyer in backpack mode loaded with everything else: handbag, Bluetooth keyboard, medication, toiletries, and a slew of comfort items. Fully packed, the Tom Bihn Western Flyer should top out around 10 lbs. I’ll keep that by my feet on the plane for easy access.

These are the moments when one is grateful to be only 5′ 3″ tall. Most of those moments seem to occur in cramped aircraft seats.

airplane feet - 1

Packing for summer camp so a messy boy can keep it together

Say you have a son of middle school age. He’s smart, funny, and fascinating, but keeping his things organized isn’t his strong suit. Let’s call it a struggle.

How do you help a kid like this enjoy his first week away from home, and ensure that his belongings make it back with him?

Two things made our summer camp packing successful: a carefully conceived plan, and straightforward access to what he needed when he needed it with hanging organizers that provided great visibility and a primary suitcase with strategic compartments.

Rolo in bathroom - 1

Rolo bag: one solid solution for summer camp organization

First, I checked in with my son. Did he have any thoughts on how he wanted his stuff to be packed? Did he want to do this job? Did he want or need help?

Response: mostly crickets. He was happy to let me plan, and he agreed to cooperate with whatever system I devised.

Using a packing list

I adapted the camp packing list by cross-checking it with my usual travel list for DS. I also reprinted it in a format that I thought my child could reference more easily when he re-packed to come home.

The major improvements I made to the generic camp list were specifying garment colors (e.g., he knew to look for dark blue fabric if he wanted pants) and item location within the bag‘s various pockets.

DS’s jobs included:

  • check that everything he wanted to bring was listed
  • select items from his wardrobe that reflected personal expression (graphic tees, mostly)
  • carry the clothing from his wardrobe to where I was packing
  • try on everything I asked him to (he just keeps growing!) without complaint so I could confirm fit and appropriateness of individual items
  • pay attention to the walk-through I gave him about where he could find each type of stuff (information I also added to the packing list)

One large suitcase with strategic compartments

My first decision was to try to get everything into one large rolling duffel bag. Arriving at camp is fairly chaotic. Having only one item to keep track of would be best.

I opted for a bag with a flat bottom compartment beneath the more voluminous main section. All of his sheets and blankets (three warm ones suggested for northern Minnesota) could be compressed into the base of the bag. I made sure DS understood that he could unzip this one compartment and make his bed completely.

The boy can live in the same stinky outfit for a week if he wants to, but his parents can’t bear the idea that he might lie awake shivering every night for that long.

Providing trivially easy access to his bedding, his bug spray, and his toothbrush was my top priority.

Don’t sweat the small stuff: organize it!

Toiletries were organized in a large hanging kit bag made by Eagle Creek.

Eagle Creek kit toiletries - 1In addition to hygiene items, I opted to pack his flashlight, extra batteries, and pencils in this case. I thought he was more likely to find them here than to rummage through the exterior pockets of his large bag. Also, a boy his age doesn’t need many toiletries.

Small items are much easier to find against the Eagle Creek kit’s neon green and grey interior than in the duffel’s black nylon depths.

After those basics of health and hygiene, my next mission was to ensure he changed at least his socks and underwear every day. It’s camp. He can (and should) get dirty. My parenting job here was to help him understand the limits of how dirty (within socially acceptable limits), and how to keep track of it for himself in the woods.

Visibility and easy access to key items of clothing

Solution: our Rolo bag.

I’ve written about the Rolo bag before, specifically, for use in the limited confines of an Amtrak train sleeper compartment.

Camp has a couple of similarities. Space is limited with kids filling bunk beds in small cabins. Stuff spilling out onto the floor can be easily lost, though it will be obscured by others’ possessions instead of mechanical equipment at camp.

Rolo rolled - 1

The Rolo bag isn’t large. Packed and rolled, it will fit within my usual carry on travel bag, a Tom Bihn Aeronaut 45.

I used the Rolo as an interior organizer within the big duffel. Trousers in my son’s size don’t fit efficiently, but it was ideal for separating socks and underwear (the two narrow bottom sections) from t-shirts (middle) and camp-appropriate insect repellent/UV blocking shirts (top section.)

Once his cabin was assigned and found, DS only needed to unzip the duffel, take out and unroll the Rolo bag, and hang it in the locker-sized cubby assigned to him. He could easily find fresh next-to-the-body clothes each day. Visible through the mesh fronts of the pockets, he also had a reminder of the most important items to change.

Packing cubes keep clean clothes at the ready

I used packing cubes for the rest of his things: trousers and shorts, warm layers, accessories. He never took out his swimwear or “dress up” outfit, but he did wear the rest of his clean pants. He found his rainwear when he needed it.

From a mother’s perspective, the way that we planned and packed worked very well.

After camp, I asked my son how this system worked for him.

Putting plans to the test in the field

It turned out that his bunk was reassigned an hour after I’d dropped him off. I had helped him make his bed and unpack in the first room, so he had to re-pack everything. He didn’t find it hard to get his things back into the duffel and moved across the campus on his own.

That was a great test of how well we packed, if annoying for my son.

My son felt the Rolo bag was the single most helpful item for keeping him organized. He would prefer to have all of his clothing packed using this (or similar) bags next time he’s on his own.

Since I also really like the way the Rolo bag packs, I’ve ordered a similar Red Oxx product to expand our hanging/rolling packing options in the future. The Red Oxx Big Bull Roll-up looks like it will excel at organizing smaller items, but I expect it to create a larger roll at a heavier weight due to the Red Oxx philosophy of seriously overbuilt products.

I’m looking forward to testing the Big Bull Roll-up, comparing it to the Rolo bag, and reviewing it here in the next few weeks.