Tuesday Travel Trouble: A night in Frankfurt

Sometimes frequent flyer miles are hard to use.

Sometimes it’s because you start planning your trip a bit too late.  Sometimes it’s just a busy route or a busy time of year.  Sometimes your frequent flyer miles are split across accounts and you need to take what you can get.  And sometimes it’s all of the above.

With these obstacles and plenty of others, you may find yourself in to less than optimal situations during your travels.  The good news?  It’s free travel—so let’s not forget that!

I suppose today’s Tuesday Travel Trouble column is a bit different than those we’ve featured in the past.  This week’s is something we knew we were getting into—right from the start.

When we planned our trip to December 2013 trip to Portugal, we were a bit late to the party.  We really didn’t start getting serious about it until September.  While 3-5 months is a perfectly appropriate time to buy tickets with dollars, when you use miles you’re really best off getting them as soon as your travel dates are firm, up to 11 months before your trip.

Seeing as it was Christmastime, with limited availability across all airlines, we pieced together an itinerary with two separate alliances (OneWorld on the way there, Star Alliance on the way home), all using miles.  We didn’t want too short of a trip—heck, we were going a LONG way, across a LOT of time zones—and we wanted it to fit nicely into school vacation with a buffer on either end.

While we did have an unplanned adventure getting to Lisbon, we were able to get from Austin to Lisbon with less than a day’s travel.  On the way home, we anticipated a bit more adventure.  In the absence of any Lisbon to Austin award (frequent flyer) seats on our desired dates, we got creative.  We got seats from Lisbon to Frankfurt for one night (New Year’s Eve) before flying non-stop from Frankfurt to Houston.  And since we couldn’t find any free seats from Houston back to Austin, we arranged for a college student to pick us up and make the 3-hour drive back home.

We had quite a journey to (red) and from (yellow) Lisbon

We had quite a journey to (red) and from (yellow) Lisbon

Yes, a bit of a trek for this family.  But considering it meant free flights to Europe with the whole family to visit Grandma and Grandpa, we’d make it work.

Not wanting to throw away a full day of vacation, and knowing that we may not make it back to Germany for several years, we added some Frankfurt research to our pre-Christmas planning efforts.  We found a delightful little two-bedroom cottage on airbnb in a quiet town not far from the airport.  We’d arrive in the early afternoon, get settled at the house, and then do some sightseeing.

When our first return-travel day arrived, everything went smoothly with the flight to Frankfurt.  Our host at the vacation rental was incredibly gracious.  She recognized that all of the stores would be closed by the time we got there (due to the holiday) and delivered a basket of snacks and breakfast foods for us to get by for the night.

We’d batted around the idea of heading into the Rhine Valley to see a castle or hilltop town, but the timing of our visit led us to just stick with the big city.  We enjoyed a drive around the city (with GPS, thankfully), along the river, past some of the main squares.  A playground along the Rhine caught our kids’ eyes, but they only lasted about 2 minutes (literally) before the cold got the best of them and they wanted to head back to the warmth of the rental car.  After adding Frankfurt stocking caps to our list of trip souvenirs, we found a quaint, stereotypically German restaurant on Romerplatz for dinner.

Then we headed back to our rental, wanting the kids to get a good night’s rest before the next day’s LONG flight back to Texas.  All seemed quiet…

Until midnight.  (Remember, this was New Year’s Eve.)

Let’s just say we’ve never heard ANYTHING like what we heard that midnight in Frankfurt.  It was a continuous ROAR of fireworks, punctuated by frequent, louder blasts, for almost an hour.  Seriously, it was unreal.  We’d been asleep since about 11, but we were very much awake for the first hour of the New Year.  The kids?  They slept through it, if you can believe it—we have no idea how.

The next day we made our way to the airport and boarded a new, amazingly beautiful, HUGE double-decker A380 plane back to Houston.  We celebrated the high-quality in-flight entertainment systems, which occupied our two oldest for the entire flight.  The two younger boys were troopers, even if the baby kind of fell apart for the last forty minutes.

Yes, we had another three hours of driving ahead of us, but it all worked out, and we were happy to be back in our own van, rather than another airplane or airport.

All in all, the trip to Portugal was wonderful.  We used miles for all of our flights.  We had a week with beloved grandparents.  And we saw some incredible sights.  The 20 hours in Frankfurt were just a bonus that helped the rest of the trip possible.

A few lessons learned:

  • Sometimes using frequent flyer miles can be tricky.  With some flexibility, you may be able to find an itinerary that works for you.  If you have frequent flyer miles saved up that span multiple alliances, take advantage of programs that allow one-way travel awards (currently United, American, and British Airways do, while US Airways and Delta do not).  This may help you find award seats on your desired dates.  You can also check flights to/from nearby airports for availability.
  • If you end up needing to spend the night in an additional city to make your itinerary work, make the best of it–try to find one or two sights that you can visit that will be meaningful and memorable for the family.  If you buy a souvenir (such as our boys’ stocking caps), they’ll think of it less as a stopover and more as a bonus leg of the family trip.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your vacation rental host/hostess for ideas on what to do or where to eat.  If you’re traveling on a day when stores or restaurants are closed, they may be able to help you find a solution that you might not otherwise be able to come up with on your own.
  • You may be surprised what kids can sleep through–we sure were!
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  1. […] parents for a week.  It was a wonderful trip, in spite of the challenge getting there and the added stop on the way home.  As we geared up for our trip, our train-loving son, Peter, was particularly excited to hear that […]

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