June 3, 2008

Connections to Krakow
Miami Beach, United States

I'm absolutely exhausted. My brain is fried, but my smile is wide. I've booked our flights out of the United States and into Eastern Europe.

The more I thought about where I wanted to touch down from our flights, the less I wanted it to be a capital city. I searched for a spot where the three of us could comfortably spend a week resetting our internal clocks, and getting switched on for some very new travel experiences.

That search finally found me focusing on a city in southern Poland: Kraków (pronounced krack-off)—also spelled Krakow and Cracow (and pronounced krack-ow) in English.

The city seems to have an abundance of accommodation options, temperate weather for July, and plenty of landmarks and history to keep our eyes wandering and our cameras snapping. An important one for me is that it's also within easy day-trip striking distance of Auchwitz.

Kraków has traditionally been one of the leading centers of Polish scientific, cultural and artistic life. As the former national capital with a history encompassing more than a thousand years, the city remains the spiritual heart of Poland. It is a major attraction for local and international tourists, attracting seven million visitors annually. Famous landmarks include the Main Market Square with St. Mary's Basilica and the Sukiennice Cloth Hall, the Wawel Castle, the National Art Museum, the Zygmunt Bell at the Wawel Cathedral, and the medieval St Florian's Gate with the Barbican along the Royal Coronation Route. In 1978, UNESCO added Kraków's historic centre, which includes the Old Town, Kazimierz and the Wawel Castle to the list of World Heritage Sites.

Flight Hunting

Searching vigorously for the best fare and flight path available—I do it every time I have to take flight, but take it to extreme levels when making an intercontinental jump.

Given the number of carriers, airport hubs, and routes that one can take, it's almost impossible not to spend hours researching. In addition to the eight hours spent with my face in my laptop screen at the library yesterday were another four this afternoon.

This was my first immersion into the realm of European/Eurasian low cost carriers (LCC), and I quickly discovered that you really have to pay attention to the fine print these airlines nonchalantly want you to agree to—even more so with European these carriers than most others.

Discount airlines like Ryan Air have figured out how to squeeze every euro they can outta folks by incorporating misleading Web site design, ridiculous policy, and sneaky fees (like a €6 surcharge per traveler—not per transaction—for all flights purchased with a credit card).

The fact that Ryan Air limits you to only 6 kilos of carry-on baggage and 15 kilos (33 pounds) of checked baggage per person, regardless the number of checked bags, with an €8 ($12) surcharge for every kilo above that meant taking flights with the popular airline were practically out of the question. Most of these LCCs were even charging $50+ for the privilege of letting our infant son sit in Tatiana's lap for the duration of flight.

I'm waist deep in hidden fees nowadays—even on domestic travel. Spirit Airlines was the first carrier I encounter where I had to pay to check any luggage at all, something carriers like American Airlines has adopted wholeheartedly—whom I also hear is now charging an extra fee to select a window seat for your flight.

It's hard enough just to get a free cup of water on many carriers (impossible on Cebu Pacific, even if you're pregnant), and with all the security regulations in place I'm forced to purchase it at wild prices in the airport or sometimes only on a flight (as the flight crew on my recent trip from Lima to Miami forced everyone to discard any liquids prior to boarding at the gate—carryon bag checked by hand and all).

Pretty soon airlines are going to start forcing me to pay an additional fee just to use the onboard lavatory—credit cards only, please.

As I searched, I discovered that I could get over to Europe from Miami pretty inexpensively. Several months ago I'd intended for Istanbul, Turkey to be our starting destination, but the Spring flight prices found as low as $550/person had apparently given way to tickets several hundred dollars on top of that for the summer.

I had a goal in mind: I wanted a flight for $600 or less. And I would absolutely not pay more than $700/person for our tickets.

The Process of Hunting

A good travel agent can help you establish routes for complex itineraries, but the results you get are really only as good as the effort they invest on your behalf. To keep you from wasting your time (and theirs), do your own research first, figure out your best price and path, and take it to them (asking them to beat it).

I didn't use a travel agent for planning this trip because 1) I knew that the LCCs in Europe would be so frequently used that their best prices would be found online; and 2) the travel agents here in Miami seem to be unmotivated to help me find a best price—seemingly happy to simply book a juiced-up cruises or flights to elderly couples.

I use Kayak.com for the majority of my high-level searches. Using their Buzz feature sometimes allows me to figure out where people are getting inexpensive (roundtrip) tickets to out of a particular city. Breaking down the details of their displayed flights also has the benefit of showing me where the popular hubs and jumps are located (an important thing to note).

I spent hours and hours searching through different flight path permutations. I discovered that I could get to Dublin very inexpensively—as low as $416/person with Continental Airlines—but that I couldn't make practical onward connections work. I could get us all the way over to Munch or Düsseldorf in the low-$500s, but again, couldn't get us onto a connecting flight to Krakow because scheduling or price.

It was really killing me to see all these inexpensive flights, only to not be able to make any use of them because of scheduling complications. And to make things even more difficult, some cities have multiple airports—I came to find out that Milan has two (impeding a Dublin–Milan–Krakow path), and London has a whopping five!

Paris, London, Lisbon, Berlin, Copenhagen, Rome, Madrid, Munich, Amsterdam, Dublin, Düsseldorf—the list of "foothold" airport hubs (as I like to call them) that I could use to catch an onward LCC flight into Poland was growing and growing. Searching for cheap flights out of the U.S. (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orland, New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Boston) and cross-referencing them with the European hub cities was all part of the process.

Thanks to Wikipedia, it was also possible for me to work backwards from Krakow to determine the major hub cities that carriers operating out of its airport are connected to. Note: Not all of these airlines participate in consolidation sites like Kayak and Travelocity—you must access their Web sites directly.

Purchase

By the end of yesterday evening I'd identified what I felt were the cheapest options for travel to Krakow. All three required travel through Dublin (flights out of JFK and Newark are as low as $330 with Delta and Continental), but varied in complexity, cost, departure date, and layover durations.

I was ready to buy the tickets, but wanted to run the numbers and details by Tatiana first—and, well, the library was closing by that point, too.

Of those three, the two best options were:

  • Miami/Ft. Lauderdale–New York–Dublin–Krakow: About $690/person, 11:30 arrival
  • Miami/Ft. Lauderdale–New York–Dublin–London–Krakow: About $600/person, 16:45 arrival

This afternoon I was all set to make the purchase, when I discovered the prices had changed. The cheapest option was now as expensive as the direct flight out of Dublin, and the direct flight was $100 more costly.

What was the result of this? Well, if I were searching for a domestic flight I would've suspected the demand-reactive U.S. carrier ticketing systems. Several years ago I noticed that when I searched for a specific flight on a specific day using multiple flight search engines at the same time, the cost of the flight would magically increase in price. The systems for some airlines would say, "Hey, this Phoenix to Portland flight is really popular all of a sudden, lets increase the price." And it would stay like that for 24 hours or so, and then return to normal.

This was not the case here, though.

Both these flight path options required flying the Irish airline Aer Lingus from New York to Dublin, not because of the price, but because it was the only flight that arrived early enough in the morning to make a connection with a direct once-daily Aer Lingus flight to Karkow, or to make it to London's Gatwick airport in time to make Easy Jet's once-daily flight to the city. All other airlines didn't make it into Dublin (or allow a connection into London) with enough time to deplane, claim baggage, find the check-in counter, check baggage, pass through security, and board.

The issue at hand here was an expiring summer sale special that had been running for at least a month—ending, as chance would have it, today. And as the final hours of the sale dwindled (Ireland-time), the flights were finally getting sold. Fewer available seats equates to higher prices.

The price of a weekday flight from New York to Dublin had risen considerably. Still locked into Aer Lingus to get us into Dublin early enough to have options, I had no choice but to consider a flight departing on a Sunday. But flights from Miami International were about $60/person higher on a Sunday, as were flights from Dublin to London—adding so much to the ticket that a direct flight from Dublin to Poland seemed more sensible given the diminutive savings. These prices were now encroaching on $800/person.

Taking a flight from Ft. Lauderdale would've brought that Florida–New York flight back down from $170 to about $110, but since the cheap flights were at 7:00 in the morning, we had no way of getting public transportation that could take us to the airport in time to make that Sunday morning flight work. Options then would've been a $100 taxi or possibly a $50 ride from the manager of this hotel.

Tuesday the 15th was the only other reasonably priced New York–Dublin option. The lower costs of flights from Miami–New York and Dublin–London offset the increased weekday price of the New York–Dublin leg. Flying direct to Karkow from Dublin was now completely off the table—easily more than $100 more than taking the London hop. Between the two of us, that $200 in savings could easily pay for our week's worth of accommodations in Krakow.

…So, Tuesday the 15th it is, and I'm pumped to finally have an exit date from Miami. Whee!

Buying airfare is tricky these days. I'm usually a big fan of waiting about two weeks before my international flight to purchase tickets, but the low cost carriers I needed to make connections with simply sell out too early, or seem penalize last-minute buyers. It's pretty safe to wait if you're just flying between hubs (L.A. to Manila, for example), but taking flights with these little carriers can really add some wacky variables. Possibly pay more and secure early, or possibly pay less (or more!) and face sold-out LCC flights.

What really turns my stomach after all this is that we're now paying the price of a direct Dublin–Karkow flight, but with the London jump, simply because I conferred with Tatiana and waited 16 hours to make the purchase. Lesson learned, I suppose.

But I guess I should just be happy that it's less than $700/person, though. And that's really not a terrible price, all things considered. I need only look at the Aer Lingus airfare prices for the same week as they'll stand tomorrow to feel better about catching that particular sale when I did.

And even better news for us is that when I called Aer Lingus to make seat reservation arrangements for our New York–Dublin leg of the journey (the system told me to do so since we were traveling with infant Aidric), the friendly woman on the phone let me know she'd seated us in an area in the middle of the fuselage (probably behind a bulkhead), where there wasn't a seat in front of us, but a bassinet to place Aidric in for our overnight flight (so that we didn't have to hold in him our arms for the duration). Neat.

Comments:

The United States

Matt

June 5th, 2008

Sweet - congrats on the booking. FWIW, when I flew on Aer Lingus like eighty years ago (it seems… it was really only 2002), they were fantastic.

The United States

ryan stowasser

June 5th, 2008

A little advice for flying with a little one.

Be ready to change everything in your seat. Kids that young know there is something different happening and they get stressed. My boy showed his stress in 2 ways.

The first and perferable is the immediate passout. He got irritable, we soothed him, and bam he was asleep before we hit cruising altitude. That happened on all of the flights he was on when he was under a year old. The passout lasted between 20 minutes and 90 minutes. Mostly closer to 20 minutes.

The second was creating big messes. He had a daiper blowout and we had to strip him naked, wipe him down, change everything and put the dirty stuff in a sealable plastic bag right there in our seats. We were on a smaller flight, but there aren't changing tables on the flights I've been on, and you wouldn't want to be waiting for the bathroom anyway.

Lastly, congrats on the new trip. It looks like a great travel plan.

The United States

Erik

June 5th, 2008

Aer Lingus is basically a LCC within Europe. You won't be stuck with the restrictions because you are traveling as part of a trans-Atlantic itinerary. At least I hope not - you booked JFK-DUB and DUB-LGW as separate tickets?

Also, what kind of layover do you have at LGW? EasyJet is strict on their check-in time for hold baggage. I assume you arrive on EI242 at 08:15. Aside from the UK airport standard of ridiculously long walks to immigration and customs upon arrival, that's more than enough time. After that, Gatwick is a great airport to transit through.

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

June 5th, 2008

Taking a transatlantic LCC flight wasn't what I had in mind, but it'll have to do. The JFK-Dublin-London trip was purchased under a single transaction (grouped). Hopefully they'll transfer our baggage over to our Dublin-London connection, which leaves a little over an hour after scheduled arrival.

We've got plenty of time at Gatwick, 08:15 arrival and 13:15 departure.

Keep yer fingers crossed. :)

The United States

Erik

June 5th, 2008

The JFK-DUB-LGW trip is a single ticket based on your description. Baggage will be checked through to London and since it's a trans-Atlantic journey you won't be stuck with the usual LCC restrictions of cheap Aer Lingus tickets for flights within Europe. And you'll get the usual lackluster meals included in most long-haul economy cabins. Nobody's gone completely free of complimentary food on those just yet. RyanAir's long-haul probably will though.

If should ever return to the US via a European city, try to make it Dublin or Shannon. It's nice to clear US immigration nonsense (and allegedly US customs is supposed to be added to Ireland) before boarding.

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

June 10th, 2008

Also funny: http://flyderrie-air.com/

…a fake pay-per-pound airline.

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

June 12th, 2008

United States domestic airline fee chart: http://rickseaney.com/domestic-airline-fee-chart/

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

July 12th, 2008

Interesting:

Europeans Wave Goodbye to the Illusion of 99-Cent Flights

The European Parliament has banned airlines from advertising dollar-menu flight “deals.” By the end of 2008, airlines will be obligated to advertise prices with taxes and service fees included. Yes, Ryanair and easyJet, that means you! So those £80 flights disguised as £2 steals will end their reign of deceit in European travel.

The United States

Erik

July 15th, 2008

OK, must add. I've taken a few of those €0.99 and £0.99 flights. Usually comes out to €9.99 or £19.99, roughly. If I have to check a bag (as RyanAir and EasyJet have highly restrictive carry-on requirements), I still end up paying only €10 or £15 more. But I've got my backpack through as carry-on plenty. I don't find them any more deceitful than US airfare aggregators that list the airfare first, then tack on the various taxes and fees on the following purchase pages. A one way flight from London to Budapest for 20 quid is still cheap as chips. Book in advance or in off peak season and life is grand.

In fact, last January I opted for a different flight time so I dumped my LHR-DUB flight and booked LGW-DUB on Aer Lingus for £25 inclusive of fees the day prior, no checked bag. My ORK-AMS flight was €18 inclusive. I paid more for the bloody train from Brussels back to London!

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