Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The trouble with planning ahead

I've been traveling overseas since 1986, though my trips only became relatively frequent in 2000. The first time I flew internationally (that was back when there was still a smoking section in the back of the plane!) I thought air travel was FABULOUS! The feeling of taking off, landing in a different country just nine hours later, soaring above the clouds... It was like magic. I've hated flying just a little bit more each time after that, aided by several airplane disaster movies and some article I read that explained that the two most dangerous times during a flight are...you guessed it - take off and landing. Now I hold my breath and squeeze my arm rests into squishy limpness during both phases, trying to convince myself of what everyone else says - that I have a better chance of surviving this flight than the drive from the airport to my parents' house.

Yep, I hate flying. It's not the crying babies (I'd cry too, if it wouldn't make me look like a dork), it's not the food (I've cooked and eaten worse at home than what I've been served in coach), it's not the incredibly annoying other passengers ("Can I put my Bloody Mary on your tray during this turbulence since my tray is filled up with my laptop?"), it's not the horrific ick in the bathrooms or the fact that I can't sleep on planes (not even in business class). It's mainly that I never took physics in school and can't wrap my brain around how this steel beast can actually defy logic and fly rather than plummeting to the earth or ocean floor because the wind shifted.

I unpried my fists from my armrests long enough to shoot a picture of clouds
during one of my favorite moves - the sharp turn.

But hey, when you're an expat, you gotta go back every now and then. This June while I was chatting with a friend in Wisconsin about the World Cup soccer game going on, I decided on a whim to consider booking a trip back to Wisconsin to see my friends and family. The last time I was there was August 2013. I got the green light from M - though believe it or not he is not the type who gets fired up about his wife being gone for a stretch of time (and it's not just about having to fold his own laundry) - and booked a two-week trip for November.
I chose November to avoid this.
(That's my daughter's car in my parents' driveway, Feb. 2013)
I always book trips months - even up to a year -  in advance because I like to get my plans in the calendar and I think prices are usually cheaper months in advance rather than last minute. I suck at spontaneity anyway. I always have.

In June there was not much talk about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and there were no major strikes going on in the train and plane world in Germany. Fast forward to today, and I'm starting to think that maybe I should embrace last-minute travel after all. My mom asked me yesterday if I'm going to wear a mask on the plane. I probably won't, since doing so won't keep the plane in flight anyway. And doesn't everyone have to remove the masks to eat? So...during those 20 minutes of dinner, do the spores or droplets just hang out in the bathrooms waiting for us all to put our masks back on?  We are exposed to all kinds of deadly filth on planes, and I have to say I'm not more worried about Ebola than other diseases people bring on board. As I understand it, this strain of Ebola is not yet airborne anyway, which makes masks useless.

And then there are the strikes in Germany. I haven't actually been keeping track, but I think the train engineers have striked (struck?) three times in the last 3 weeks and Lufthansa pilots have been on strike twice in two weeks, including right now. They started with the short-stretch flights, but I read last night that the long-haul pilots will walk out today. Of course each individual strike is short term and won't last until November, but since the engineers and pilots seem to be playing leap-frog with their strikes (Thursday pilots, Friday through Sunday engineers, Monday short-flight pilots, Tuesday long-flight pilots...), heaven knows whose turn it will be when it's my time to fly back or return. When I fly home, I'll be flying from Chicago to Frankfurt with my daughter and then we're taking the train from there to Stuttgart. So I'm already wondering whether hitch-hiking is a viable option.

If I could have foreseen what is going on these days I would not have booked a trip back to Wisconsin in November. But this trip is about spending time with friends and family without any other obligations, stocking up on affordable clothes (everything except for Nutella and Gummibärchen is cheaper in the U.S.), and getting my hair trimmed (for a "trim" I pay at least €40/$50 here, and that's just not ok). It will be nice to be in Wisconsin to visit my kids and family and have some girlfriend time, but I'm already dreading the actual travel. 

Here's hoping the flights will be tolerable, the pilots will be well-rested, and the unions will schedule their strikes around my travel plans.


  1. As I'm reading this I'm sitting in Copenhagen Airport! In was in Venice for work and had to extend my trip for two days. The place I work has a special deal through Lufthansa and Germanwings and I was originally booked to fly Lufthansa so I had a moment of Panic when I realized there were going to be pilot strikes today. Fortunately, I'm flying SAS and should be home in two hours.

    Last Christmas I booked a last minute flight back to the US, and it worked out really well. My husband was already in the states as his mother was scheduled for surgery, and I was facing spending Christmas alone. About two weeks before Christmas I booked a flight for Christmas eve. It was cheap because no German would fly then, I left Hamburg at 6am and the time difference meant I arrived at a reasonable time on the East coast.

    It also meant that I woke up at 4 am on Christmas morning. But that's traditional, right?

    1. The one last-minute trip I did make back to the States was when my grandfather died - it was a sad occasion, but it was much cheaper than I expected. Based on that and your experience maybe I _should_ start considering last-minute off-season trips. Safe travels home!

  2. And here's hoping that the pilot is healthy as well as well-rested!

  3. I could never book a trip a whole year in advance! Who knows what else might come up to stop me going! I usually book flights about 2-3 months in advance, but sometimes it ends up being more spontaneous than that because my boyfriend is hopeless at making a decision! I assume we're visiting his family at Christmas as we went to England last year, but when I ask about it I just get shrugs. We'll probably end up picking a train the day before like last time we visited his family at Christmas!

    I hope everybody's finished with their strikes by November!

    1. The trips where I planned a year or nearly a year in advance were when I brought groups of students to Germany with a travel company and when my family and I coordinated flights from the U.S. and flights from Germany to meet in Scotland. The place where we stay in Scotland fills up quickly, so we have to book a year in advance! For me, once a trip is in the books, everything else is planned around that, come what may. But I think I'll try planning less far ahead a few times and see how that works.

      Can you believe we're thinking about Christmas already (at least some of us!)??