Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

European Trip Looms: It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time

About eight months ago my wife and I thought it would be dandy to take our two young kids to Europe during the end-of-year school holidays. Our kids have not been to Germany yet, and since I used to live and work in Munich, we decided to make the Bavarian capital our target destination, with day trips planned to Austria and Switzerland.

Furthermore, we determined to avoid rental cars altogether and see if our family of four could, once on the ground, depend solely on rail, bus, the odd taxi, and our own bipedal locomotion. With that trip plan in mind, I started making preparations through the Internet. Had I known that the itinerary would eventually become as twisted as an Octoberfest pretzel and that the Euro would cost as much as a new Mercedes S Class by the day of our departure, I'd have kept my hands in my pockets and off the keyboard.

First, the air: I wanted to use American Airlines to move us from Raleigh to Munich, if possible. But AA inquiries reminded me that American still has no direct flights to Munich, and my special Executive Platinum upgrades to Business Class don't work on partner British Airways. So, instead, AA reservations were made to Frankfurt, and then from there we would use Germanrail passes, which we were buying anyway, to get to Munich.

This seemed to be a good working solution until AA could not get us any seats on their own flights directly back to a USA city from Frankfurt. The only alternative was British Airways FRA/LHR and then AA LHR/ORD and ORD/RDU. Reluctantly I acceded to this tortured itinerary, having exhausted the possibility of a similar BA connection option from Munich to Heathrow to avoid going back to Frankfurt.

Worse, the BA flight from Frankfurt to London was at 7:30 AM, meaning we'd have to spend the previous night lurking about the Frankfurt Flughafen in an airport hotel. This, in turn, meant leaving Munich essentially a day early to travel by train back to Frankfurt to prep for our early morning odyssey through London and Chicago en route home.

After probing every possible easier routing, I reluctantly agreed, and the AA tickets were issued. At least upgrades were assured on all AA segments for all four of us, but the BA flight would be in cattle class.

Next was the rail planning: The RailEurope website hosts a dizzying array of railpass options these days. Gone are the simple 3 passes of my youth, namely, First Class, Second Class, and Student (each in various time increments). In planning a Thanksgiving week in Provence, France a few years back, we had no trouble picking our railpass, but the current options and rules for German passes are subtle and elusive.

We eventually selected a weeklong First Class pass on Germanrail that included discounts for our family of four and allowed side trips to Basel in Switzerland and Salzburg in Austria. However, we were unable to book it online, even though the pass was presented and defined. My resourceful travel agent, Discount Travel, in Jacksonville, Florida had a similar problem, and I am sure their miniscule commission did not cover even the time required for multiple inquiries to RailEurope to clarify the offering and have the four passes issued.

Passes alone are no guarantee of seat availability on European trains these days, so I garnered and paid for four seat reservations on every train. This turned out to be quite expensive, as there were 8 trains involved: Frankfurt/Munich, Munich/Salzburg/Munich, Munich/Basel/Munich (4 trains due to a connection), Munich/Frankfurt. All in, rail costs (passes and seats) came to a staggering $1,232 for a seven day visit.

Finally accommodation: Using Hilton HHonors points for our residence in Munich was our plan. However, it cost me double the points I'd planned, since European hotels forbid occupancy of more than three in a standard room such as those available in the HHonors program. This necessitated booking two rooms for a week, which drained off the majority of my Hilton points. Adding insult to injury, I had to use 7-day awards even though the seventh night would be at a hotel near the Frankfurt airport. Thus I lost one-seventh of the value of the award at the Munich Hilton, times two rooms.

Lastly, the early morning BA flight departure from Frankfurt required a separate hotel booking near the Frankfurt airport. My travel agent did a better job than I did in locating the least expensive option, but it was no bargain: 180 Euros per room per night, and we once again were forced to book two rooms. Since I'll have to pay this by credit card, I anticipate a miserable exchange rate of $1.60-1.65, even though the current rate as of this writing is around $1.46 to the Euro. This is because of the onerous surcharges made by credit card companies these days on foreign exchange transactions. Thus the one night at a fleabag hotel near the Frankfurt Airport will set us back almost $600. This could have been avoided if we'd been able to get a better air itinerary.

The shrinking dollar hangs over the upcoming trip as well. An acquaintance recently returned from a week in Amsterdam where he was attending his daughter's graduation from an international school. He is quite at home in The Netherlands and in Europe generally. But he was shocked to find on this trip that most Dutch merchants refused to accept his Visa and MasterCard for transactions. They complained that the dollar/Euro rate fluctuations were impacting credit card receipts once processed into Euros, and they demanded either a Euro-based credit card or cash in Euros.

Apparently cash isn't the answer in Europe nowadays, either. At least not when denominated in dollars. One of my siblings, just back from almost three weeks in France and Spain, reported that a colleague was unable to use or exchange dollars in hotels as she had routinely for decades. In refusing U.S. dollars, Hotel management cited the same concerns as the Dutch merchants over collapsing dollar/Euro exchange rates.

Worse, she could not find banks in those countries outside Paris and Madrid that would accept dollars in exchange for Euros. Her traveling companions, including my sibling, loaned her enough Euros to get by until she reached Paris again.

Though I think it ludicrous, and I've certainly never had to do such a thing on any previous European visit, I have accumulated several thousand dollars in cash for our one week trip to be ready for any contingency.

Bottom line is that I've often traveled to, and several times lived and worked in, Europe since 1973. I anticipated every journey across the Atlantic with excitement and enthusiasm. Our upcoming trip, however, looms before us like a dark cloud. My wife and I seriously considered canceling, but the considerable air and rail costs are nonrefundable and already sunk.

So we will go and discover for ourselves how horribly expensive things are and no doubt experience the indignity of the United States dollar as frail as the Zimbabwe dollar. In December I will report on our trip. I'm sure there will be some surprises.

Whatever happens, I eagerly look forward to my first morning's breakfast of Weisswurst with sweet Bavarian mustard and a tall, yeasty Weissbier sitting under the Glockenspiel in Munich's beautiful Marienplatz.

No report next week due to Thanksgiving. Best wishes to readers for a safe and happy holiday week.


Blogger Craig said...

Don't deal with hotels or bring wads of cash with you for currency issues. Just use your US debit/ATM card to get cash at a local ATM. Better exchange rate than a hotel, and you can take just what you need, eliminating the risks of carrying large amounts of cash around.

11/15/2007 11:09 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Thank you, Craig. I will try it.

11/15/2007 11:17 AM  
Blogger Bill said...

Mr. Allen, I am taking my wife to Europe at the end of the month, and I haven't been to Europe since 1991! I don't expect to use a credit card much just because of the surcharges they put on foreign exchange. As far as the ATM goes, if you deal with Bank of America, they are a member of the "Global ATM Alliance" which means surcharge free withdrawals at Deutche Bank, for example. I plan do to that to augment my cash that I'm bringing. I find the arguments of the Visa/Mastercard merchants rather strange. I was of the understanding that they would get whatever number of euros were on the sale slip and not deal with exchange rates at all. That's the entire foundation of Visa/Mastercard. It would be a bookeeping nightmare if things were how they allege, I just can't imagine that being the true case, even if that is how they perceive it.

11/16/2007 5:38 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

To Bill: Thank you for the info on the BofA credit card/ATM arrangement with Deutsche Bank. I have a Bank of America card and will use it.

As for the Dutch merchants' refusal to take Visa/MC cards, I concur with your logic & have no explanation for it. I thought the onus for fluctuating rates was always on the cardholder, not the merchant. But the fellow it happened to is an experienced overseas traveler, and he swears they wouldn't take his cards.

11/16/2007 8:10 AM  
Blogger Joshua Katt said...

I would "sneak" your 2nd younger child into the room and cut you lodging in half. That is a ridiculous "rule" and can't see it being enforced or detected unless you are flagrant about it.

I hear your comments about the credit card acceptence, which I can't fathom as being true but understand that a Captial One card is the best for foreign currency conversion fees (none or smallest).

I agree with your dark cloud optimism being the penny pincher I am but go and enjoy anyway.

11/16/2007 1:34 PM  
Blogger Bill said...

Mr. Allen,
I believe the ATM deal applies to debit cards/checking account withdrawals, and not necessarily credit cards. It says only ATM Card or Check Card. As for the Dutch merchants and Visa/Mastercard, sometimes thing don't work how we expect them to, or sometimes there are merchants that perhaps don't understand.

Years ago, I went to Europe and got an early renewal on my visa card. It turned out that they embossed the correct dates, but had the old ones on the stripe, so the woman in the German store wouldn't take it. I should have just found a big magnet!

I hope your trip goes well. I will be back from Europe in Mid December.

11/17/2007 7:51 PM  

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