Well, it’s February 2014! I meant to write this post long ago, but discovered it was just too painful. Ha! So here goes. Read on if you like a little drama…
Our family has wanted to visit Europe for a very long time. So, we planned and saved for many years for our Summer 2013 Europe trip. We wanted to go when the kids were old enough to enjoy it and get something out of it. So, last summer our oldest was almost 17, and the next one 15, and our youngest almost 13. I planned the whole trip from start to finish, including airfare, hotel reservations, Eurail passes… You name it, I did it. I even put together a booklet with all the information we needed, including maps, ideas of what to see, etc. Yes, perhaps that was a bit excessive, but that information proved invaluable again and again throughout the trip. We needed every scrap of information.
As mentioned elsewhere, the trip didn’t start out like we’d expected. We left on my birthday, and for a while it was touch and go on the backed up LA freeway, and we wondered if we’d get to LAX in plenty of time for the plane. It turned out we did have plenty of time. Check one off the list! Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. Frankly, it’s my fault the disaster happened, because when I booked the flights I didn’t know enough about booking airfare to realize I should have booked ‘through tickets’ to our destination (Paris). This is vital, in case flights get delayed (or cancelled) and a traveler misses a connecting flight.
Can you guess what happened next? That’s right. Our flight was delayed. First one hour. Then two. Then three. Our almost four hour cushion to get to New York to connect to our Paris flight dwindled to nothing. We asked United for help, or to get on another flight, but nothing was available. I found out later that this particular flight plan (LAX to JFK, at various time slots) had been delayed repeatedly for hours on multiple of the previous days. This wasn’t a one-time mechanical difficulty with our plane. The delay was due to scheduled maintenance that went longer than expected. (We discovered this after I filed a formal complaint with the Department of Transportation, and United reluctantly explained the reason for the delay. However, the only compensation they would offer was 3,000 free miles, or $75 off our next flight. Basically worthless. Better yet, I also discovered the standard air travel contract basically reads that the airline doesn’t have any responsibility to get a traveler anywhere on time. A word to the wise–read it yourself to see. So we had no recourse, besides bringing them to court, which would cost us even more money, and we probably wouldn’t win.)
Okay, so now you can see the painful part of the experience. However, on the plane hope was revived! I realized we still might get to JFK in time to connect with our Paris flight! (The pilot must have put on extra speed, for we got there much sooner than expected–we actually arrived 50 minutes before our scheduled Paris departure from JFK at 11:55 p.m.)
Knowing this possibility, we again asked for help from United: 1) on the flight (a nice flight attendant tried to help, but was unable to do much except offer advice), and 2) at the arrival gate. We just needed help getting our bags from one plane to another, and getting us all from Terminal 7 to Terminal 4. No help was provided. And the Air Train was out of commission that night. Ha! After finally getting our bags at 11:20 p.m. (they have to be re-checked in for an international flight) we struggled onto a Port Authority bus, (one child was still struggling to get onto the crowded bus with her suitcase–with throngs of people pressing to get on the bus, too (we learned then and there to always have an adult get on LAST)–but a wonderful New Yorker grabbed up her suitcase and helped her on, while he stayed behind. I have nothing but good to say about New Yorkers! They are the most helpful, friendly people I have ever met!). Unfortunately, the Port Authority driver didn’t know about the out-of-service Air Train, and told us wrong information about where to get off for Terminal 4. Getting to Terminal 4 turned into a circus. Needless to say, we tried our best to get there in time. We arrived at 12:10 a.m. Our Paris flight had left fifteen minutes earlier.
So there we were, on the second level of Terminal 4. Let me say, it was crickets up there. Huge, and totally deserted, with lines and lines of empty check-in counters. I was despairing. We’d come all that way, and we had all our travel arrangements made for a month in Europe! So, my husband and I decided to make new air reservations. I did it on my old iPad, using crazy airport WiFi, and made reservations for the next night on LOT Polish Air. It set us back a Lot of money that we had never budgeted for. Then my husband called around to try to get all five of us a place to sleep that night. No one had anything. Finally, finally, one place took pity on us, and allowed five of us to illegally stay in a room meant for only four. I was so grateful to find a place to lay my head that night.
Okay, I finally got that drama written out. Whew! It was a trauma, that is for sure, and really upset me. I’m happy to report, however, that the rest of our trip went considerably better. LOT Polish Air was awesome, and serves fantastic food, and we got to visit Warsaw, Poland, which hadn’t been on our original itinerary. The airport still has a feel of the Soviet bloc. Very utilitarian (glass everywhere, but it was gray outside, which made it gray inside) with accents of green. I liked it, though; it was nice.
We have so many stories, and we each wrote in journals almost every day. I took thousands of pictures on my little camera, and a few are in the slideshow. My husband took the one of the Eiffel Tower at night.
Very little of our trip went smoothly, but we became very adaptable to changing circumstances. New country, new forms of transit, new money, new language–all of this happened about every four or five days, as we moved from country to country. We made our own meals and stayed in a few hotels, a few apartments, and one hostel (in Prague–it was awesome). Like my son says, it wasn’t a vacation–it was an exploration. An adventure, to be sure. And a life-changing experience in many ways for all of us. The trip wasn’t easy, but it was wonderful. Highs (seeing Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, and Michelangelo’s David, and the Ponte Vecchio, Cinque Terra, Barcelona and the Magic Fountain, Prague, Paris, Switzerland) all mixed with kids getting sick (I was afraid my oldest daughter had appendicitis, but she didn’t), my son became unbelievably allergic to mosquito bites in Florence, etc. In short, it was like life at home, only amplified about tenfold. It was a wonderful trip. But I probably wouldn’t do it again–at least, not like that, anyway. Maybe, someday, if we ever have enough money again (Ha! with three kids headed to college soon) I’d like to visit one country at a time. I’d love to visit London. Maybe next time. . .
By the way, Everyone in Europe speaks English. it’s the unifying language. For example, in Venice an Asian man spoke English to an Italian attendant, and the Italian spoke English back. Really, English is the language to know in Europe. Luckily that is the one (and only) language in which I’m proficient.
Oh, and the crazy hat? My husband likes beer (although he doesn’t drink much, he likes an occasional good beer now and then), so we went on a beer tour in Prague. (The kids stayed at the hostel and cooked their own dinner.) I don’t drink at all (well, I did have a couple of sips at each of the first two stops). The hat was given to the slowest drinker. Guess who that was? Yes, that’s right. Me. It was a ton of fun. We met people from Norway and other countries, and spent hours that evening over cheap (and delicious!) pub fare talking to a couple of young guys from Sweden and Finland. It was fascinating to hear about their countries and how they view each other and the world. There is so much that goes on that we never hear about on the news. Not ever. The world is such a big place, with so many viewpoints, and different ways of living. It’s opened up my mind, and the minds of my kids, and we are the better for having visited.