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Our Vacation of a Lifetime (up until now anyway)
December 03, 2014 18:22
As some of you know, and others may have noticed, Gertie and I took a 3 week trip last month. We spent a week in Paris, half a week in England, took a transatlantic cruise from Southhampton to New York, and spent a day in New York City before coming home. We had a great time. The only downside being that immediately upon returning, we both got really sick with a respiratory infection, probably caught on the ship, and as such it has taken a couple of weeks after getting back to properly get our lives back in order, and to organize the pictures and type up our trip reports. The pictures still require some work, mostly rotating the sideways pics and removing some of the pointless repeats. However, they are available for your perusal.
I'll start out talking about the long planning process for this trip and the numerous changes to the plans we made along the way. Everything ultimately boiled down to three basic goals. First, take Gertie to Paris. I've been promising I would take her there for years, but up until recently I couldn't justify the expense. Second, keeping the total trip expense to less than $7000. Third, spending as little time in a cramped economy airplane seat as possible. As luck would have it, the pursuit of these initial goals and later discoveries, made all of these things possible, and we ended up with a far more fulfilling trip than we otherwise might have.
After Kiko graduated from high school and started college, Gertie went back to work full time. Initially this was to cover the cost of tuition, but after Kiko got pregnant during her first semester, that resulted in us having some extra income, so now having a vacation budget with more than 3 digits meant that the trip to Paris was finally within reach. Therefore, in early 2013, I started looking into the possibilities of making the trip with two years worth of vacation budgets. Originally the idea was to fly over, spend a couple weeks, then fly back. I was not looking forward to the flights at all, especially after I had a bad experience on a flight a few years earlier, and I had pretty much decided that driving everywhere was a better option than flying. However, driving from the United States to France wasn't a reasonable option, so flying in a cramped metal can for the better part of a day seemed to be the only alternative.
Then one day I was watching deleted scenes from various movies, when I watched several from the movie Titanic. Granted, that particular historic voyage did not end successfully, but it did inspire me to look into transatlantic cruises. I discovered that the cost to take a ship would be less than the cost of hotel stays for the same period of time, AND the meals would be free, AND I would have a comfy stateroom and a whole ship to roam instead of being confined to an airline seat. Of course, it would take 7-8 days for the shortest of the trips, and there wouldn't be enough time to take a cruise in both directions, AND it would cut down the amount of time we could spend in Paris, but at least it would be a way to avoid at least one half of the flight time. I discussed the idea with Gertie and she was all for it, and so the hunt for the perfect cruise began.
This brought up the next issue. Do we cruise out or cruise back? My preferences were always on cruising back, as I would rather come back in comfort than go over, since I would have to go back to work as soon as I returned, and I figured an extremely long, uncomfortable flight back would not leave me in the shape or mood to return to work the next day. However, the decision became a more financial one. The cheapest direct flight I could find from DFW to Paris was about $1600. One way. That's half our budget. Considering the cruise would take up most of the other half, that wasn't going to leave any money to spend while we were in Paris, and at the very least we needed hotels and food. Through my research I discovered that while flights (even ones with multiple connections) originating in DFW were expensive, and flights to Paris were expensive, it was extremely cheap to fly from NYC to London, England. Like $400. The trip from DFW to NYC would only cost about $150. Now, that $400 ticket required a short layover in Iceland of all places, but at least I could get over to Europe for a little more than $1000 for the both of us, and it would be in 3 5 hour legs instead of one 12ish hour one. Maybe I could tolerate this. Of course, now we'll be in London, and we'd need a way to get to Paris from there, but the Eurostar is a thing, and not too horribly expensive. Gertie then decided that since we're in London ANYWAY, we might as well incorporate that into our trip, so we ended up deciding to stay in London for a couple days.
So, at this point, we've decided that we will fly to London, stay there for 2 days, train to Paris, stay there for 5 days, then train back to London, take a train to Southhampton, take a yet undecided cruise to New York, and then fly back home. Still extremely expensive, but if we squeeze the budget everywhere we can, we might have about $500 to spend while we're over there.
Eventually we decided on the cruise we wanted to take. Royal Carribean was building a new ship, the Quantum of the Seas, and the maiden voyage was going to be a transatlantic cruise from Southhampon to New Jersey on November 2, 2014. It was a couple hundred dollars more expensive than some of the ships we were looking at, but the staterooms were bigger, and it seemed like it would be a fun voyage, so we decided on that one and booked the trip. That became the anchor that the rest of our plans had to work around. This was early July, 2013. We couldn't even book any flights or reserve hotels for several months yet, so we still had time to put off those decisions and hope for something reasonable.
In the meantime, I managed to pay off all of my credit cards and did some credit report investigating and managed to get the single negative on all 3 of my reports removed. That's when the interesting junk mail started to arrive. Now, getting credit card applications in the mail is nothing new. I'd get several a week, and I'd look at most of them, but most of them didn't have much appeal. Then in December the AAdvantage Citibank application arrived, offering 50,000 American Airlines miles if you get the card and meet the minimum spending requirements. On a lark, I decided to check to see just how far that many miles would get me. As it turned out, 50,000 miles is exactly the required amount to get a one way business class saver fare ticket from DFW to anywhere in Europe, subject to availability. I poked around a bit and while there didn't appear to be any flights to Paris, there were plenty going to London, and the seats in business class on the British Airways jet that it typically scheduled us on were lie flat sleepers, so I figured that not only could we get a very comfortable flight over for effectively free, we'd be well rested and wouldn't have to waste a day recovering from jet lag.
Of course, 50,000 miles only got us one ticket over there. We needed two. I had two possibilities. I could either buy economy tickets with those miles, which cost half the amount of business class, or I could find another credit card that also gave AAdvantage miles, get that one as well, and then have enough for both of us. Whatever we ended up doing, I went ahead and got that card, was instantly approved, and since I got it just in time to pay both the house taxes and car insurance, there wasn't any trouble meeting the spending requirement by the due date. I also discovered that my credit score had gone up considerably since the last time I checked it. I was now in the high 700's.
Then, the unexpected happened. Gertie got the same AAdvantage credit card junk mail that I did, addressed to her. This was a bit confusing, because while I had plenty of established credit history, as far as we knew, Gertie had none, although she's married to me. However, we figured that since she got the application, she might as well try for it, since that would solve our dilemma of getting the second ticket. She applied and was also approved instantly. Turns out, despite having no credit in her name, she has a slightly higher score than I do. Apparently, since she's an authorized user on all of the cards that I carry, she gets the credit benefit from all of those, but since she didn't have several recent applications on her record, her score was higher. Isnt' that lovely. Better yet, it meant that for the purposes of this game, we could BOTH apply for cards and split the recent application score hits over both of us. However, once she got the card, and we started spending on it, I checked the flights again. This is mid February, and it seemed like all of the flights to London had dried up. Well, crap. However, before despair set in, I checked the flights to Paris and despite the earlier lack of them, now there were plenty. Of course, now we're on a different flight, and different planes, but the OpenSkies Jet that we'd be taking from Newark to Paris looked even nicer than the British Airways jets we were originally planning to take. So now we've changed our itenerary and flight plans for the second time and plan to fly to Paris on Friday, arrive Saturday, take a train to London on thursday, and spend 2 days there, before going to Southhampon on Saturday, and jumping on the boat on Sunday.
Anyway, it was another month before we had all the points we needed to book the flights. By then, there were only a single award seat available on all of the flights over to Paris. We could still both go on Friday, but we would be on different planes. Not acceptable. However, the day before we were able to book both of us on the same flight. Yay. One more schedule change. So we moved everything up a day and spent 3 days in London instead of just 2. Now our flights are scheduled. The cruise is scheduled. The total cost for each ticked ended up being $459. Now, that's considerably less free than I was hoping, even though it's still considerably cheaper than the economy route we were previously considering, and now we're flying fist class the whole way (since the business class rate got us first class seats on all the planes we flew on). So it was still well worth the effort and the money. Had I planned this further in advance, there are less expensive options, but that's a discussion for another day.
I shall continue this trip report tomorrow.