Thursday, March 10, 2016

Things we have learned about European Travel

Without quite intending to, we have been traveling back and forth to Europe frequently (twice a year or more) in recent years, mostly for conferences or Susan’s teaching.  We certainly claim no great expertise, but on a day where I am adjusting to jet-lag from our recent time in Poland, I want to jot down some of the helpful things we have learned in the hope that it may benefit others.  Let me begin with the travel experience itself.

Flights from the US to Europe typically depart later in the day, so that you fly through the night and arrive in Western Europe early afternoon, Eastern Europe late in the afternoon, of the next day.

We have friends who go through elaborate rituals beforehand to reduce the effects of jet lag, adjusting diet, sleeping patterns, etc.  They find it effective, and I am glad for them.  We just Do It.  Likewise we have friends I particularly envy who can sleep on airplanes, which we no longer even try to do.  During the overseas flight, we enter into what we call Zombie Mode; read a bit, play games on the ipad, watch a movie, rest our eyes, drink a lot of water, make frequent visits to the (increasingly disgusting) rest room.  We find noise-canceling headphones essential.  Susan likes her neck pillow and blindfold, while I do not find them all that helpful. 

When we arrive, bone-weary, we try to stay awake and active until it is “normal bedtime” where we are.  We have a drink or two, eat a light meal, and try to walk for a few miles.  If schedule permits, we will sleep until we awake the next morning, and usually do pretty well from there (although jet lag is mysterious and variable; sometimes it hits hard a day or two later).  Coming home is almost always a more difficult adjustment for us, while friends claim just the opposite.  As with the stock market, past experience does not always predict future performance.

This is almost like talking about religion, but after a sequence of problems we now will schedule a longer route to Europe to be able to fly Delta rather than United.  Some of this is about the airlines, much of it about the airports.  O’Hare is where luggage goes to die and flights home to Appleton get canceled.  Delta has rarely failed us (last evening it seemed that every Delta employee in the Midwest was personally searching for the suitcase that did not make it onto our flight home from Detroit).  And Detroit has a Vino Volo (, an island of tranquility in the chaos of an airport, where the manager chooses our wine and food for us.  Last evening, when a large number of international flights arrived at the same time, customs officials scrambled to open more lines and move us through quickly.  Detroit Metro simply works well most of the time while O’Hare is, well O’Hare.

This last trip we indulged ourselves by paying extra for “Comfort Plus” seats for the overseas flights.  We would do it again.  An extra three or four inches of legroom and slightly more supportive seats may not sound significant, but in the course of seven-eight hours it made a difference.

If possible, we book our tickets with the airline itself.  If/when something goes awry while you are overseas, the airlines’ priority is to first help those who booked with them, then those who booked through a “real” travel agent, and good luck if you booked through an on-line “agent.” 

Years ago we were awarded TSA “pre-check,” apparently just because we are old and harmless.  We appreciate it.  But it is useless in Europe, of course, and if your flight home begins with a “partner airline” (and it will) pre-check disappears.  This is one reason why we allow at least two hours whenever we know we will need to clear customs and security in either direction.  Global Entry would be even more helpful, but so far we have been too cheap to join the program.

We have become fussy about the airport through which we enter the European Union.  We like Schiphol (Amsterdam), even though it is very large and you can easily walk a full mile to reach your connecting flight.  Charles De Gaulle is acceptable, but some of the terminals are so far away that they may be in Belgium.  We avoid Frankfort whenever possible; we have had nothing but unhappy experiences there.  Milan is also on our “good” list, and while you will rarely get a chance to fly through Vienna, it is a great airport, where employees solve problems rather than create them (see: Frankfort). 

Be prepared for challenges or frustrations flying home.  If you begin with a smaller airline (Malta, Slovenia), you may not be able to check in on-line, secure boarding passes for all of your flights, or check your luggage all the way home.  Mind the small things.  We originated yesterday’s flight from Warsaw with KLM, which emailed us boarding passes, but in a form we could not store in our phones.  We opted to print a hard copy. 

We always purchase travel insurance, even though we have never needed to use it.  We do this less out of concern with a canceled trip or other issue than to have medical coverage that would not require is to jump through hoops to receive medical care if needed.  One hopes never to need the “emergency evacuation” coverage.

We take a bit more luggage than we need, since two checked bags are free for international flights.  We have learned to “cross-pack” our clothing so that if one bag is lost we are each prepared for a few days.  And anything essential for the first 24-48 hours is in our carry-ons. 

This is what we have learned about getting to and from Europe.  The next post will speak of our experience of being in Europe.