Don’t Get Stung By Fuel Prices In Europe

I wrote earlier about the unexpected hassle of getting between Budapest and Zagreb. Renting a car is the easiest way to do it, but it’s certainly not cheap. Actually, the cost of the car rental is the cheapest part of the equation. If you’re coming from essentially anywhere else in the world, you’ll probably have to sit down when you find out how much the fuel is going to cost you. Fuel prices range from about $6 per gallon to over $9 per gallon in Europe.

Gas station in Hungary

When you do the conversion, the price might knock you off your chair.

Still, while fuel isn’t a bargain anywhere in Europe, there are still ways to save. Here are a few tips that I have learned from experience driving all over Europe:

A car can be a liability. Consider whether you really need a car. If you don’t, skip the rental counter. Public transportation is much better in European cities, parking is an expensive hassle, and traffic cameras lurk everywhere waiting to cite you for even the smallest transgressions. It’s really better not to have a car at all, if you can reasonably avoid it.

Think small. A smaller and lighter vehicle not only saves fuel, it’ll be a lot easier to navigate and park on narrow European streets. Keep in mind, though, that the smallest European vehicles are tiny–and they’re not particularly fun to drive. Also don’t trust rental agencies’ promises regarding the number of bags a car can accommodate. Subtract one from the published number, unless you travel extremely light and carry only small bags.

Choose a diesel vehicle if possible. Diesel fuel is usually cheaper than gasoline, and a gallon of diesel takes you farther than a gallon of gasoline. Even if it costs more to rent a diesel vehicle, you can more than make up the difference in fuel cost savings.

If you can drive stick, rent a manual transmission. Not only is it cheaper to rent a vehicle with a manual transmission, but it’s also more fuel efficient.

Don’t fill up along the motorway. Granted, it’s hard to beat the convenience of fueling along the motorway, where it’s a breeze to pull off and back on. This convenience will really cost you, though. Fuel costs an extra 10% or more versus filling up in town.

Buy fuel in major cities. Transportation costs more in Europe than it does in other places. Accordingly, the farther you are from a fuel transportation hub, the more you’ll pay. This is different than, for example, the US where fuel can cost much less in the countryside.

Run for the border. If you’re near Andorra, Luxembourg, Bosnia or Ukraine, it might be worth ducking across the border to fill up. These countries have some of the lowest fuel prices in Europe (Russia and Belarus have relatively low fuel prices, but also officious borders and visa hassles–they’re probably not worth it). However, you can still save money–even if you’re not in one of the cheapest countries–by paying attention to which side of the border you are on. Diesel is much less expensive in The Netherlands than it is in Germany. Gasoline is cheaper in France than in Belgium.

Pay with local currency, or use a no foreign transaction fee credit card. Traveling from Austria to Hungary? Cheaper Hungarian fuel prices might end up more expensive if you pay in Euros. The currency of Hungary is the Forint and you won’t get a good exchange rate at a gas station. Ditto in Bosnia. They use Bosnian Convertible Marks and most gas stations don’t take credit cards. However, they’ll gladly take your border currencies (euros or Croatian Kuna) at a horrible exchange rate. If you can pay with a credit card, you’ll get a semi-honest exchange rate by using a credit card with no foreign transaction fee. I use a Capital One Visa card which not only has no foreign fee, but also pays me 1.25% cash back. This card isn’t at the top of my wallet in the US, but it’s great for international use.

What was the bottom line? I rented the smallest car available from the rental agency, which was an Opel Corsa. My trip from Budapest Airport to Zagreb, round-trip, cost about $160 in gasoline. The 7-day car rental cost me a few dollars less on top of this, for an eye-popping grand total of $317 in transportation cost, not counting parking and tolls (which added roughly another $40 to the total). Granted, I did drive around Zagreb some, but it’s not a large city and I didn’t use a lot of fuel. I put about 500 miles on the car, total, for a cost of 32 cents per mile driven. Your mileage will vary, obviously, depending upon the number of people in the car and the speed you drive. I was alone in the car and drove strictly at the speed limit (the majority at 130KM/h), wary of speed cameras.

Was it worth it? Marginally. I was able to travel more or less exactly on my schedule, but it was a colossal hassle with the rental agency. An hour after renting the car, I discovered that the headlight had burned out, so I was unable to travel any farther than the outskirts of Budapest. It was an epic battle with the rental company to make things right. While they eventually did, having to battle over a maintenance issue was really the last thing I needed after 15 hours of travel from Los Angeles. It would have been a net loss versus arranging other forms of transportation, but having the use of the car in Zagreb with my team there (in my real life I am the founder of a mobile applications company) made up the difference. We had immediate and convenient transportation whenever we wanted to go somewhere. And I actually saved travel time versus flying in from Budapest, because the airport in Zagreb is neither close nor convenient to the city.

I hope these tips help you save money on your next trip to Europe. Happy driving!

Avoiding Rental Contract Tricks Abroad

Renting a car outside the United States can be a lot different than renting one within it. There are plenty of pitfalls that can trip you up and cost you extra. I just rented a car from a small, local company in Budapest and there were even more traps than usual. So, although the last thing that you may want to do after a long international flight is sit down and read the tiny print of a rental contract, it pays to go through it.

First, when you rent a car abroad, all of the normal stuff that you need to watch out for in the US applies. Be sure that you inspect the car for damage before you get in and drive off. Don’t believe anything the rental agent says about the damage not mattering–be sure that it’s carefully noted on the rental form. Also don’t be afraid to take a quick photo of the agent with the car, especially if there is visible damage. This will go a long way towards ensuring there are not arguments later.

Other things to watch out for are insurance scams and additional driver charges. Unless you rent with a rate that includes multiple drivers, you will probably have to pay extra for each driver. And then there’s insurance. It works differently abroad. In the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, all rental cars include both comprehensive and liability insurance. However, there is typically a 10% deductible and also an “excess,” which is an amount that you have to pay before any coverage kicks in. Many credit cards include insurance that will entirely cover any damages to the rental car, so you don’t need this coverage. However, this doesn’t typically stop rental car companies from trying to insinuate that the insurance is required, or that you will have problems using credit card insurance. There definitely can be insurance problems if you use a credit card, but these can be avoided by reviewing the coverage in advance. Note that all bets are off in Israel, Jamaica, Ireland and Northern Ireland where no credit cards offer coverage for rental cars.

However, some charges are out of left field. Have you ever taken a rental car to a car wash? Make sure that the contract doesn’t require it, and that there isn’t a car wash fee. In the contract, there was a 15 euro car wash fee, unless I washed the car myself! Since the car wasn’t actually clean when I rented it, I got the rental company to waive it, but I doubt they would have done so if I hadn’t asked up front. Additionally, there can be a border crossing fee. I needed to cross into Croatia from Hungary, and paid an additional 19 euro charge to do it. However, the vehicle was monitored via GPS, and if I hadn’t paid this, the rental car company would have fined me 150 euro as a penalty–and that charge is per border I crossed. In Europe, countries can be roughly the size of postage stamps, so this can add up in a hurry. Finally, there was an administration fee. If I had run up any tolls, traffic fines, or parking fines, these would all be individually billed with a 50 euro surcharge per item.

Read the fine print when you rent, and avoid nasty surcharges! There are few nice surprises when it comes to renting cars.

How I Save Money Renting Cars In Europe

I’m off to start a round-the-world trip on Saturday. As you might remember, a few months ago I landed a phenomenal deal, and the trip is costing me under $219. One problem, though, is that it’s not taking me exactly where I want to go in Europe. I could only get the deal to Budapest, and I’m actually going to Zagreb. Now, you’d think that this would be a relatively small problem. After all, it’s only 343km between the two cities, and they’re two of the most major cities in the region. So, I figured I’d just buy a cheap ticket on a low cost airline and take the 55 minute connecting flight down.

Well, my brilliant idea that would have been perfectly rational in western Europe totally didn’t work between Budapest and Zagreb. There are lots of cheap flights to and from Budapest on low cost carriers, but none headed to Zagreb. Low cost flights tend to go to the Croatian holiday destination of Split, a few hours away from Zagreb. However, these flights are also seasonal. The Dalmatian coast is beautiful but it’s pretty cold in the winter, and there is essentially no demand for leisure flights. Sure, you can fly between Budapest and Zagreb, but it’ll cost you. The flight was actually pricing out at more than the rest of my entire round-the-world trip. Obviously, this was impractical.

“OK, fine then, I’ll take the train” I thought. Except that isn’t really an option either. There is only one train a day, which isn’t particularly reliable and it takes a circuitous route that takes nearly 11 hours to complete. It’s also a surprisingly expensive ticket. Ultimately, I couldn’t get the times to line up at all with when I needed to be in Zagreb, and I wouldn’t have wanted to pay the price anyway.

Picture of Croatian train

Trains in the Balkans are slow and infrequent.

I started looking for bus options, with some trepidation. In this part of Europe, bus travel makes riding Greyhound in the US seem fancy. Usually, people won’t get on the bus with a live chicken (which is pretty common in some parts of the world) but bus travel seems to attract elements of society you don’t really want to interact with if you can possibly avoid it. There is one bus company operating between the two cities, but the way that you buy a ticket–from all the research I was able to do–is to find the driver and buy a ticket directly from him. No way to buy the ticket online. And there is one bus approximately every other day. While this would have worked for me, these arrangements tend to work best when you know local area really well, and I don’t.

Ultimately, the best option was to rent a car. However, this is usually a very expensive proposition in Europe. You have probably heard that fuel is more expensive (costing as much as $11 per gallon, depending upon which country you’re in), but it’s also a lot more expensive to rent a car, particularly if you’re in eastern Europe and you intend to cross a border. If you plan to do this, your car needs to have a “green card” and it’s a virtual guarantee that the rental rate you’re quoted doesn’t include this. Add an extra 20-30 euro a day to the rate in some cases.

European green insurance card

You need a “green card” to go across borders with your European rental car. It specifies the countries in which you’re allowed to drive.

Unlimited mileage, also typical on car rentals in the US, also isn’t a typical option. Distances tend to be shorter and you won’t want to drive much inside city centers (where a car is more of a liability than an asset), but you can still get stung by overage charges if you’re not careful. And this is before you get into fines for missing vignettes in postage-stamp sized countries (I was fined $250 in Slovenia for this–it’s a complete and total scam) or questionable traffic violations. Overall, it’s enough to make you never want to drive in Europe, ever.

Still, there are occasions where this will be necessary and I recommend that you never pay retail if you can possibly avoid it. Two companies consistently offer very good “voucher deals” where you pay in advance and receive a voucher for the car rental. These are Economy Car Rentals (a Greek company not to be confused with the generally scammy rental agency using the same name in Latin America) and UK-based Travel Jigsaw. These companies technically operate as tour companies selling tour packages, so they can sell special rates on rental cars. With either of these agencies, be sure to read the fine print! You can cancel your reservation, but you won’t receive a refund if you cancel less than 48 hours in advance. Also, they email you a voucher and you actually do need to print it out and present it when you pick up the car. In exchange for prepaying, you can get some pretty good deals. You won’t always know the company you’re renting from in advance, but I have typically cars from Sixt and Enterprise. In Budapest, my car is coming from a smaller local company.

The upshot? I am paying 139 euro for a 1 week car rental from Budapest including the notoriously difficult and expensive to arrange “green card.” This is about half the price that I was able to find anywhere else. I also get unlimited mileage. I’ll enjoy the convenience of getting around Zagreb easily and my overall cost will be about half what I’d otherwise have paid for a flight. It’ll also take about the same amount of time, all things considered; the Zagreb airport isn’t particularly convenient to the city center and transportation connections are slow.

I’m almost fully packed for my second trip around the world this year. It’s going to be an interesting month of November!

Saving At Budget Motels In California

As I write this, I’m enjoying the spectacular weather in sunny southern California. Nothing beats 78 degrees and breezy at the end of October, but as you probably know, California isn’t a very budget-friendly destination. Even a campground will set you back as much as $35 per night! Most brand-name hotels in the downtown areas of cities start around $200 per night, which is strictly unaffordable for the average Seat 31B traveler.

Many travel blogs encourage you to play elaborate points games in order to stay in expensive hotels. Even if you do this, you’ll still end up spending as much as $100 per night. You have to consider the cost of credit card annual fees, the opportunity cost versus earning other types of points, and the taxes you have to pay (which are often billed based on the retail cost of the room). “Free” isn’t really free when it comes to this stuff.

Alternatively, you can look at lower cost options. California is the world’s seventh largest economy, and it’s well known for having unique local businesses. In addition to famous local fast food chains (such as In-N-Out Burger), there are three local motel chains offering clean, comfortable and decidedly budget-friendly rooms throughout California. I’d like to introduce you to Good Nite Inn, EZ-8 and Premier Inns.

Good Nite Inn has locations throughout California, and often advertises in coupon books that you can pick up at rest areas and Denny’s restaurant locations throughout the state. These coupons will almost always save you money. It’s worth picking up the book. They also occasionally have deals on their Web site. You’ll usually pay about the same price for two people as you would for a single room at Motel 6, and you’ll usually find a Good Nite Inn near a Motel 6 location (in Sylmar, there is a Motel 6 next door). Rooms typically look like they are from the mid-1990s, with a tube television and funky carpet. However, the beds tend to be comfortable, everything works, rooms are somewhat clean and there is air conditioning. Like Motel 6, Internet service isn’t available at all locations and it’s not free if it is available. Coin laundry facilities are typically available on site and there is an ice machine available as well. Motel 6 locations fill up fast (being some of the only reasonably priced accommodations in many parts of California), so Good Nite Inn is a good alternative.

Good Nite Inn room

A typical 1990s-inspired room at Good Nite Inn

EZ-8 Motels and Premier Inns are another good alternative. They don’t advertise at all, have no coupon specials, and they only offer a small AAA discount. Their Web page pretty much says as much. As well, these motels are typically located a little off the beaten path. In the Bay Area, you won’t be staying in the center of San Francisco. Instead, you’ll be staying in a bedroom community like Concord or Newark, but you can quickly and easily take the BART from there to San Francisco. When a room in San Francisco will easily cost you $200 or more per night, it’s worth staying a little out of town.

Image of E-Z-8 motel room

E-Z-8 Motel room – basic but comfortable

How much could you save? A lot! A room for a single person this weekend will cost you just $35 per night in San Diego. The W, not far away, has rooms starting at $170 per night (for the most heavily restricted, prepaid, non-refundable rate) and doesn’t even include parking! If you cashed in points for your stay at the W, you’d pay nearly as much just for parking and taxes as you would for an entire room at the E-Z-8.

Budget motels don’t offer frequent guest programs, concierge service or fancy amenities. Some offer watery coffee in the lobby, served in a Styrofoam cup. However, how much of your California vacation do you really want to spend in your room? Get out and enjoy the sun! That’s why you came, isn’t it?

Emirates (Sort Of) Honors Low India Fares

On Tuesday night, there was an incredible deal to India on Emirates. How incredible? $450 roundtrip from Los Angeles to Mumbai. There were even better deals, including $258 roundtrip from Los Angeles to Hyderabad. Deals were available from most North American cities served by Emirates. However, they could only be booked on Vayama, who has a fairly unusual procedure for issuing tickets.This ultimately torpedoed my trip, along with everyone else who booked these low fares.

Last night, I received email from Vayama backing out of the deal:

Dear Customer,

 

We recently received your online booking request.  Quality control has determined that your booking could not be processed at the fare that was originally quoted.  Unfortunately, the airline was unable to accept the fare that was quoted earlier and as a result, the fare is increased now. This was an issue from Emirates Airline due to  fuel surcharge was not updated on the ticket price. Hence we would suggest you to either cancel this reservation or accept the below fare. We are doing this to avoid any kind of problem at the airport.

 

The total fare now  is $992.74 USD

 

please respond to the email or call us on 1.877.628.6452 at the earliest convenience if you agree to pay the new fare, so that we will go ahead and issue your ticket.  If you have any questions please feel free to respond to this email and we will get back to you generally within 24 hours.

 

***Please note: fares are not guaranteed until the final processing is complete***

 

We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused.

Sincerely,

 

Customer Care Team

What was the root cause here? You have to have both a reservation and a ticket number in order for the contract to be complete. Vayama, for whatever reason, makes a reservation immediately upon booking, but manually processes ticketing. They likely do this to avoid fraudulent credit card charges. If an airline decides that a low fare was a mistake, it’s very easy for them to back out of the deal in this scenario. No ticket was actually issued at the time of purchase, hence there was no Contract of Carriage. So, Emirates didn’t legally have to honor the deal–and they didn’t. I will have to visit India another time.

UPDATE: I just received a phone call from Vayama indicating that Emirates will honor the fare after all. However, the ticket that was issued was a very heavily restricted ticket which is the same category issued for frequent flier tickets. This means that it likely will not earn mileage with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. However, at a 50% discount from the usual lowest fare, it’s still a very good deal to visit India.

One Day Left Before LifeMiles Devalues!

Frequent flier miles are a depreciating currency. Don’t hang onto them and never trust that they will maintain their value. The latest program to devalue is Avianca LifeMiles. You have until midnight (Colombia time) tomorrow to book under the old rates. Pay attention to the time zone so you don’t miss out!

Avianca logoThe new award chart hasn’t been published (and won’t be until the devaluation has already happened) so it’s impossible to know precisely how much the program will be devalued. Accordingly, if you have Avianca LifeMiles, my recommendation is to redeem them now.

One of the most frustrating things about the LifeMiles program is that you can really only book what is offered online, and there are a lot of restrictions. It’s really best to use the program for simple point-to-point itineraries. You can book either one way or roundtrip itineraries. Unfortunately, the LifeMiles search engine is spectacularly stupid. A lot of itineraries fail to show up, even though they are available.

To search for flights, I recommend using the United search engine, which seems to work a lot better, to find an itinerary. Ideally, look for an itinerary involving only one airline. Once you find a workable itinerary on the United page (bearing in mind that only “United Saver” or “Partner” award space will be available when booking with LifeMiles), you can search for the same dates with LifeMiles. The LifeMiles search engine allows you to skip their “SmartSearch” option (which, in my opinion, is the opposite of smart) and select an individual airline. I have tested a few different itineraries and by using this method, have been able to make successful bookings that do not show up either with the “SmartSearch” or “StarAlliance” option.

Good luck, and burn LifeMiles now while you still can. At least Avianca gave advance notice of the devaluation this time. This doesn’t always happen.

Paying For Protection

You know that you need to pay the Mafia for protection or bad things will happen. Did you know that you need to pay your airline too? In airline industry parlance, “protection” means guaranteeing you transportation to your final destination. It seems like a fairly simple thing–after all, you paid for a ticket–but it’s remarkably easy to find yourself in a situation where you get stranded in a random airport somewhere along the way and nobody will do anything to help you.

I first learned about “protection” when, several years ago, Delta protected me through to Athens on an itinerary that they would have broken through a mechanical delay in New York. They also fixed my ticket on the return. What happened? I bought a Delta ticket to Frankfurt, and a separate ticket onward from Frankfurt to Athens. Delta’s delay would have resulted in me missing my flight in Athens. Since the delay was Delta’s fault, they did the right thing and instead transferred me onto their nonstop Athens flight. Additionally, since my onward ticket was invalidated by my failure to show up for the first leg, Delta also re-booked me on their nonstop flight for the return. I actually ended up with a much better itinerary as a result, and I was really happy that Delta didn’t dump me in Frankfurt hours late, and left to fend for myself.

Japanese guy being stranded by delta

Delta stranded this poor guy in LA. He won’t get home.

Fast foward to tonight. I’m waiting for a delayed Delta flight, and have been sitting near the ticket counter. So, I’ve been able to overhear all of the activity. Delta routinely rebooked a few people with connecting flights they’d miss, denied meal vouchers and a hotel to someone who wanted to extend his stay (reasonably so, it was only a 2 hour delay), more or less the usual. Except for the guy above. This guy booked his flight through a travel agency. It was booked as two round-trip flights with two separate ticket numbers:

  • Taipei-Los Angeles-Taipei
  • Los Angeles-Las Vegas-Los Angeles

The tickets were consolidated into a single itinerary and Delta has a baggage agreement with the connecting carrier (All Nippon Airways) so the guy probably had no idea that he had a completely unprotected itinerary. After all, when he checked in, his bags were tagged all the way to their final destination. The only thing he knew he would need to do was get boarding passes for his connecting flight from the connecting airline, but this isn’t even particularly unusual in Asia. Most airports there have a transfer desk for precisely this reason.

So, all of this works just fine… until it doesn’t. The flight I’m on is delayed 2 hours. What was plenty of time for a connecting flight has turned into just 15 minutes. There is no physical way to make the transfer from Terminal 5 in Los Angeles to the Tom Bradley Terminal, short of someone meeting the incoming flight at the gate in a Porsche. And even then, making the connection would be a race. “This is not our ticket to Taipei, there is nothing I can do,” the Delta agent kept repeating to the visitor (a Japanese man who apparently lives in Taiwan). “Your ticket with us is only to LA. I can only get you to LA. You will have to deal with the other airline when you get there.”

Obviously, being a no-show for an international flight, without even having a boarding pass issued, is disastrously expensive. And one might think it’s not entirely reasonable for Delta to completely wash its hands of the problem, given that the flight delay was totally their fault. The flight crew called in sick! They had to find another flight crew. Incredulous, the Japanese visitor–who had every right to expect Delta to solve the problem–politely asked again for Delta to help. He was again rebuffed. This happened a few more times, which is a really big deal in Japanese culture, and finally it became clear: Delta was, in fact, going to just dump him in Los Angeles with no solution, left to solve a problem that they alone created. He wasn’t getting home.

When I contrast this to my experience in Japan with a tight connection that was entirely my fault, and how JAL and ANA completely had my back and did everything possible to help me make my flight, it’s truly unbelievable. But that’s the current state of air travel. These days, at least with Delta, your itinerary is only protected if it’s all on a Delta ticket number. It’s not even entirely clear whether it’s possible if there are multiple Delta ticket numbers. If anything goes wrong along the way–even if it’s entirely their fault–you could be left stranded in a strange city and forced to fend for yourself.

How can you prevent this sort of problem from happening? For the average consumer, it’s almost hopeless, actually. Travel insurance is often suggested as the catch-all panacea, but most travel insurance won’t cover you in this situation. When you book online, some sites (such as Kayak) will automatically string together itineraries such as these in order to secure the lowest fare. The safest way to at least have a fighting chance is to buy your tickets directly from the airline (either by phone or on their Web site), and to buy simple roundtrip itineraries. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, particularly with complex international itineraries, but if you bought everything directly from the airline you’re flying, you’ll at least have a better chance of success.

I am fond of saying that the only thing an airline’s Contract of Carriage actually requires them to do is to eventually transport you to your final destination. However, the definition of “final destination” can now be fuzzy. You and the airline may not actually think it is the same thing. Buyer beware!

The Epic Transatlantic Armrest Battle

I just flew 13,588 miles from Los Angeles to Paris to Copenhagen to Amsterdam and back. The whole trip was flown in economy class and I only narrowly avoided Seat 31B. It truly was the worst seat in the plane on two separate legs of the journey, even though the aircraft types were different (Boeing 737 and Airbus A380). In fact, it’s so bad that KLM reserves the whole row 31 for crew use only. Instead, I was seated one row forward in Seat 30C for two legs of the journey. Somehow, I even scored an aisle seat.

Picture of Seat 31B

Seat 31B is the one in the middle. It doesn’t recline.

Exceptionally pleased with my good luck, I stored my carry-on luggage with an almost smug attitude on the final leg of my journey. It was a monster long leg, a nearly 12-hour flight from Paris to Los Angeles on the A380. Now, I was flying on an “attack fare,” and expected that something awful would likely happen. After all, apart from taxes, the seat was nearly free. I paid only $555 for a roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen on Air France, tacking on a cheap intra-Europe flight to Amsterdam with KLM so I could fly on a single itinerary (and avoid bag fees). It was the final leg of the journey, and I really couldn’t believe my good luck. A direct flight to the West Coast on an A380, and I didn’t even have to sit in the middle!

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

Seat 30C on the Air France A380

I took my seat, but a few minutes later I knew there would be a problem. A diminutive woman leaned over to me. “Would you like to sit by the window?” she said, a statement more than a question. “No, actually. I prefer the aisle, thanks,” I said. The woman started to crawl over me to her seat–clearly a novice flyer. “Please wait, I will get out, you can take your seat,” I said. “It’s OK, I can climb over,” she said, but I nimbly got out of the way and she was able to take her seat (she never really got the idea; it became a race the entire flight to get out of my seat before she tried to crawl over me). Just as I started to sit down, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was her son. He was nearly 7 feet tall, a pile of gangly limbs with a tall pile of dreadlocks atop his head.

Now, the ceiling in the A380 is tall, but between this guy’s height and his crazy hair, the reading light was actually blocked! The other issue was the fact that he didn’t fit in his seat. At all. His diminutive mother sat in her window seat unmolested while this guy tried to wedge himself into his seat. Finally, he lifted the armrest. “Let’s leave this up for the flight,” he said, literally half of his body occupying my seat. “Let’s not,” I said. “It doesn’t work very well to do this when I lean back to sleep, and by the way, not to be annoying, but there isn’t actually room for me to sit in my seat.”

He adjusted himself, contorting his body into perhaps the most painful stress position I’ve ever seen–rivaling those the CIA perfected at Guantanamo–and managed to clear most of my seat. Unfortunately, his body still protruded into my seat, right elbow and knee and shoulder, everything hard and sharp periodically bumping into me as he tried to remain squeezed in his seat, limbs occasionally popping out of their stress positions to jam into me. Young people being independent, he didn’t want to try to share his mother’s seat, so everything moved gradually in my direction.

lax-cdg-cph-ams

It was a *long* roundtrip in economy class

I lived for 3 years in Beijing. I am used to close quarters, and if you don’t learn to be tolerant of uncomfortable situations and inexplicable delays, you’ll just go crazy there. I learned to be more patient, and I’m still pretty patient–I haven’t been living in Western society long enough to lose patience, empathy and good humor. Still, this was an armrest battle on steroids. The battle in this case wasn’t over who had the armrest–trying to share it would have entirely been a lost cause–but whether the armrest stayed down and my seat-mate remained in only his seat. Every time I left my seat, I’d return to find the armrest up and half of my seat occupied. I mean, I didn’t blame the guy. I really sympathized. It isn’t his fault that airplane seats are designed to be a tight squeeze for Chinese people, let alone people who are nearly 7 feet tall. Still, leaving the armrest up just wasn’t going to work for me. I couldn’t exactly stand up for the whole flight.

In the end, I got almost no sleep. This was one of the longest and least comfortable flights I’ve ever taken. I honestly can’t even imagine what it was like for the guy next to me–a cruel, sadistic 12 hours of torture (gate to gate) no doubt. I think there really needs to be a better solution than this. The sizes of seats and people keep moving in opposite directions.

Do you have to fight for your whole airplane seat? Comment below!

The Vodka Dodge: How To Transit Russia Without A Visa

Yesterday, The Flight Deal posted an incredible deal from Los Angeles to Moscow. The fare actually dropped after they posted it and many people have been able to buy flights for as little as $600. “Yeah,” someone told me, “It’s a great deal, but then you need a Russian visa.” Well, maybe you need a visa, but what if you could turn a $600 sale fare into a sub-$800 trip to practically anywhere you want to go in Europe? It may be possible if you play your cards right.

Edward Snowden’s dramatic flight from Hong Kong to Moscow, and the limbo he was caught in at the Sheremetyevo Airport transit zone, became worldwide news last year. Still, most people don’t know that it’s possible to transit through Russia without a visa by using the Russian Transit Without Visa (TWOV) program. There are some rules that you need to follow but it works well, and I have done it nearly a dozen times through both major Moscow airports.

sheremetyevo airport photo

Aeroflot makes its hub at Sheremetyevo Airport

Why would you want to either fly through Russia or transit without a visa if you’re not running from the NSA? It’s simple: to save time and money. Russian visas are notoriously complicated and expensive to arrange. However, Russia is an excellent low-cost transit point between Europe and Asia. Aeroflot, for example, consistently offers low fares to Europe from Tokyo and Beijing. This is particularly true in the winter, where Aeroflot practically gives tickets to Moscow away. If you play your cards right, you can save hundreds of dollars by flying through Russia and transiting without a visa. Ignore all of the bad advice to “be safe and get a visa.” You don’t legally need one if you meet the requirements of the TWOV program so doing this doesn’t really give you any “safety” at all, it just gives you added cost and hassle.

The easiest way to transit without a visa is to buy a complete itinerary on a Russian airline. This minimizes the possibility of anything going wrong and Russian airlines are effective at dealing with local authorities (for example, Aeroflot has a special wing of the local Novotel for transit passengers stranded due to operational delays). However, it’s not strictly necessary to do this. You could buy a cheap ticket to Moscow, for example, and then a cheap onward ticket from Moscow to another destination. Your bags must be checked through to their final destination, because you will be unable to claim them in a Russian airport and re-check them. So, be sure you buy on carriers which cooperate with ticketing and baggage agreements so you can check in for your entire itinerary (and receive boarding passes and through bags) at your originating airport. These agreements roughly follow the lines of the airline alliances (Skyteam, Oneworld and StarAlliance).

You can also be denied boarding if you don’t meet the requirements for the TWOV program, so make sure your trip qualifies! Fortunately, most trips do. Note that even if you do manage to talk your way onto the plane, if your trip doesn’t qualify for TWOV, the infamously humorless Russian immigration authorities will promptly deport you if you arrive without the proper visa (unless your name is Edward Snowden).

Here is a quick checklist to ensure your trip qualifies for TWOV:

You’re not a Russian citizen. Russian citizens (or anyone Russia considers a citizen) are required to enter and leave Russia on a Russian passport. So, if you were born in Russia, left as a child, have never returned since, you don’t have a Russian passport, and you’re a naturalized US citizen, you may still considered by Russia to be a Russian citizen. So, you could be warmly welcomed home to Mother Russia and required to apply for a Russian passport before you are allowed to leave. This can take 6 months or more. Also, if Russia considers you a citizen and you didn’t complete your mandatory military service, you could be conscripted immediately into the army. It’s probably best to avoid Russia entirely if any of these scenarios could apply to you.

You’re flying into and out of the same airport. TWOV is only valid if you do not leave the sterile transit zone of the airport. You can’t fly into one airport (such as Sheremetyevo) and out of another (such as Domodedovo) without a Russian visa.

Your bags are checked through to their final destination. TWOV doesn’t work if you need to claim and re-check your bags. It’s always best to have only carry-on luggage, but there is no problem if you have checked luggage and it is tagged through to your final destination.

Your originating and departing flights are both international. It’s totally OK to fly an itinerary such as Amsterdam-Moscow-Beijing, as long as you’re not changing airports in Moscow. However, you can’t fly an itinerary like Amsterdam-St. Petersburg-Moscow-Beijing. This is because a domestic Russian flight is included, so you’d need to clear immigration (which requires a visa).

You’re not going to Belarus. Russia and Belarus share a customs and immigration union, and flights to and from Belarus are treated as domestic flights in Russia. So, you’ll need to have a Russian visa, because you’re entering the Russian domestic customs zone.

The airport you’re using has an international transit zone. It’s very unusual to TWOV in any Russian airport besides the two international airports in Moscow. However, this is permitted in a few other airports with international transit zones. If you’re using a complicated itinerary such as a flag stop, make sure that TWOV is permitted in the airport you plan to use before you book it. Otherwise, you might have a nasty surprise.

Your transit period is less than 24 hours. Ideally, you will want it to be far less than this. Russian airports are neither cheap nor comfortable places to wait for a long period of time. Note that you can exceed the 24 hour transit period in the event of flight delays or cancellations, but you cannot leave the transit zone of the international airport. It could be a miserable wait!

If you can follow the above guidelines, don’t hesitate to fly through Russia without a visa. It’s definitely not for the novice traveler, and you do need to pay attention to the details. However, if you follow the rules, it works just fine. You don’t need a visa. Save the money and time, and enjoy both on your trip instead!

Off The Beaten Path In The Netherlands

I spent nearly a year living and studying in The Netherlands, and am often asked for advice on what to see and do there. The Netherlands (often incorrectly called Holland) has a lot to see for such a small country, and it’s easy to navigate. It’s also a terrific gateway to Europe, because there are a large number of flights (including on low-cost carriers) into Schiphol airport. Although Dutch people speak their own language, they’re very linguistically versatile. Nearly everyone speaks excellent English (younger people especially so), and they usually also speak German. So, The Netherlands is a great first country to visit in Europe–or a great first country to visit in general.

Dutch boat and canal

If you visit The Netherlands, you’ll probably end up on a boat at some point.

Unfortunately, none of this is really a secret. The Netherlands is one of the most-visited countries in Europe, and for good reason: it’s home to some of its most famous museums and attractions. During the tourist season, The Netherlands is besieged by visitors, not only from North America and Europe but also from Asia. For a small country with only 14 million residents, the top attractions can become very crowded indeed. And for some reason, even though there is no shortage of places to visit in The Netherlands, everyone seems to flock to the same ones.

As I sit in Weesp, having enjoyed an idyllic and beautiful fall Sunday in a picture postcard Dutch town with nary another visitor to be seen, I am amazed that more people don’t make it off the beaten path in The Netherlands. Haarlem, a very similar city, is besieged by throngs of tourists, the restaurants and shops charging inflated tourist prices. Meanwhile, I enjoyed a Belgian beer in a sunny sidewalk cafe for a mere €4.50 this afternoon, while watching the locals enjoy the day in their boats.

Weesp sidewalk cafe

Sidewalk cafes in Weesp are every bit as nice, but just half the price of Haarlem

It’s not just idyllic country towns that are great to visit when you go off the beaten path. Every weekend, planeloads of visitors descend on Schiphol and head straight for the Red Light district in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a party, this is one place to go, but not the best place. Despite the marijuana and prostitution, it’s a pretty relaxed, organized and tame place. It’s really crowded though, with the high prices you would expect in a really popular area. Personally, I skip the Red Light District. As a guy with a fairly serious DJ hobby, I’m into electronic music, and the best music and parties are in the young, vibrant city of Utrecht. For half the price of an evening out in Amsterdam, you can see much better DJs and have a lot better time at an Utrecht dance party. It’s also a beautiful city, known as the “city of lights” in The Netherlands and famous for the elaborate light displays along its canals.

Utrecht City Of Lights

The party is at the end of this tunnel.

How about art? Everyone knows about the famous Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, did you know that there’s an astonishingly large Van Gogh collection at a museum you have probably never heard of? I think the seldom-visited Kröller-Müller Museum in Gelderland is a lot better than the Van Gogh Museum, even though it’s less well-known. It also has an incredible sculpture garden. It’s best if you rent a car to get there, but if you do, you might just have the place to yourself.

One reason that many people don’t venture far from the beaten path is the perceived complexity of public transportation. However, in reality, Dutch public transportation is one of the easiest systems to use in the world. It’s really only complicated if you’re trying to pay cash or use a non-European bank card. The Netherlands has a unified transportation payment system called the OV-Chipkaart. It works in literally every bus, train, subway and tram in the country. All of them, everywhere. You can buy one at the NS train ticket sales counter at Schiphol, and it will make your life incredibly easier. Public transportation is relatively expensive in The Netherlands, so 50 euro goes fast! Reloading is easy with cash or a credit card at any train station with a ticket counter. You can also reload your OV-Chipkaart at ticket machines, but this only works reliably with a European credit card with chip and PIN.

OV-Chipkaart reader

Scan your OV-Chipkaart on the reader

Using the OV-Chipkaart is remarkably simple. Just scan it before (or as) you get into the bus, train, train or subway. When you leave, scan it again. You’re charged by distance, and the fares add up quickly. Transportation in The Netherlands is expensive! That’s why you see everyone riding a bicycle; you will pay to be lazy. Your account will need a minimum balance of 20 euro to board a NS Railways train (which is why it’s best to start with 50 euro on your card), but you usually don’t need any minimum balance to board a subway, tram or bus.

It actually gets even better than this. You only need one way to plan travel in The Netherlands: either the Web site or smartphone app 9292. You can easily plan a trip between any two locations in the country and all methods of public transportation are covered. You can even find out the cost in advance. Content is all available in both English and Dutch. Yes, it really is this easy. The best way to search is by postal code, if you have it. Note that every single address in The Netherlands has its own unique postal code.

Dutch weather

The weather can change suddenly, even if it’s nice where you just were. Bring an umbrella!

Are there more hidden gems in The Netherlands? Of course! Some of my other favorite cities are Groningen, Maastricht and Den Haag (The Hague). Each has a very different personality. Groningen is famous for squatter dwellings, warehouse parties and graffiti art. Maastricht has winding cobblestone streets where you can find an absolutely perfect cup of fine Dutch Espresso, sipping slowly and watching the world go by. And Den Haag is a rabbit’s warren of serendipitous discoveries, with some of the most interesting and unique shops in the country.

But I have really only scratched the surface. For such a small country, there is a lot to enjoy in The Netherlands. Take the train to a place you’ve never heard of, rent a bicycle (possible for a few euro at most train stations) and go explore! You might be amazed at what you find.