It's been over two weeks since our return from Spain and the fact that I won't be moving there immediately is starting to settle in so, for now, I will do my best to share our experience in hopes of inspiring others to visit and eventually become my ex-pat neighbors.
This post will be followed with a second blog listing budget, detailed itinerary and more tips on how to save and make this a realistic trip rather than one tagged "that of a life time".
Since my first visit to Spain in 2004 I remember thinking, "this is something I hope to share with my girls one day but when I do, it won't be in a hurry". I've never been a fan of zipping though cities for an hour or two just to check the place off my list, I like to get a bit immersed. Granted there are many places where there are only a few things to see and do before you feel like you've done all you can do or places so similar to each other that in choosing one to stay in and the other to visit in passing you still get a pretty authentic experience. Anyways, when I thought of sharing this experience with my girls I always thought it would be a summer long.
Unfortunately, co-parenting is a little bit tricky, especially when it comes to international travels, my dreams of teaching aboard for a summer and enrolling my girls in the same school where I'd be teaching, having them strengthen their Spanish, were crushed with a simply but hard NO and then the clock was set and we continue to wait for the magical number 18 to be free of those obstacles. But I digress. We had 17 days to travel during our winter break & I was ecstatic (even though I will forever wonder if I should've figured out how to make it 21 but this was not my once in a lifetime so there is time).
I spent many sleepless nights overwhelmed by the vast amount of options from cities to visit, landmarks to see and places to stay. Pinterest, Travel & Leisure.com, chef sites and tv shows suggestions, I ate it all up. But, two days before our departure (thanks to the holiday mayhem) I had 5 plane tickets to and from Miami to Madrid and nothing but a vague idea of where we were headed. I did know one thing for sure, we would need a car.
European travel TIP #1-learn how to drive a manual vehicle. It will save you over half of the rental fees and lead to various vehicle options. If you only drive automatic (like us) it can get tricky even trying to find a car to rent.
For many years, Ernie and I have discussed taking the kids to Europe as Mia's high school graduation gift and, in turn, making that a tradition. As it is, we typically celebrate special occasions with travel but this would be a "big" trip so we were "saving" it. It didn't quite work out that way for many reasons (i.e. summer flight fares are known to be astronomical) so Mia and I did a mother/daughter trip to the Northwest Pacific Coast instead (and boy, what a trip!). But Europe kept calling to me and so I did what I always do (and for months and months) I scanned airfares. The night I found flights to Madrid from Miami for only $425 (tax and fees included!) I was beside myself. Needless to say, we booked them right away with the only dilemma being how much time we wanted the kids to miss school and how soon after Christmas day we would be ready to leave (Oh! and the whole co-parenting schedule rearranging and notice thing. I can't tell you how much that part SUCKS!!! You are in the midst of a joyous occasion and then you realize, "I need permission from my ex.....and then I need to figure out how to give him "makeup" days for those lost during travel" and so much other mental stuff its not worth mentioning).
After a brief co-parenting delay, we booked our tickets and decided to keep it as a surprise for the younger kids. The drawback here was that for that reason I didn't write it into my agenda. My teen Thespian often writes her schedule in my agenda and I didn't want her seeing it. That is how we missed our flight. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I don't commit things to memory unless I write them down and read it again and again. I had had a few conversations with family and, for whatever reason, kept saying we were leaving on a Tuesday at 9pm. Naturally, I went to check-in to our flight 24hrs before departure (Monday 9pm on my mental calendar) only to immediately realize, as I sat at my laptop with our bags packed and the pressure of throwing together an itinerary in less than 24hrs, that our flight was boarding. My blood ran cold and I went white in the face. I had to hold the table to keep from passing out. I have never missed a flight. I didn't even loose bobby pins. Ernie looked at me and knew immediately that something was wrong. When I voiced it everyone went into emergency mode, calling the airport, credit cards, the third party booking site, but nothing. We were told there was nothing we could do but accept that we had lost over $2000 on a flight we had just missed. It's safe to say none of us sleep that night (well Ari did because he was already sleeping when the shit hit the roof). I remember someone mentioned that we could just go to North Carolina....this was not the thing to say to me at that moment. I was beside myself with guilt and disappointment. How did I mess this up?
The next morning, Mia, our eldest, wasn't feeling well so as I took her to urgent care Ernie and my mother (the master negotiators) head out to the British Airways counter at Miami International Airport to plead our case. After 5 plus grueling hours, they were able to talk their way through the mayhem and were offered the option to pay a transfer fee of $225 per person to reschedule the flight to that same night. We would be boarding the flight I thought we were supposed to be on at a price but nonetheless, it was lose over $2000 or spend another $1000plus to go. I had a bit of a difficult time conceding to this being the bargain hunter that I am but quickly realized that $650pp during the holidays for a European flight was still quite a steal.
As the attendant and manager and director and hell I think maybe the VP of British Airways prepared our course and starting checking us in a red beacon alerted everyone to one more "little" problem.....mine and Ernie's passports would expire within three months of our return date from Spain so we were not being granted passage. At this point I thought my head would explode! There hadn't been an issue in booking our flight because we were flying into London and then connecting to Madrid; the UK doesn't have that law so we were not previously notified of the issue.
European Travel TIP #2: Check the particular laws of each country to plan to visit and do not assume that your booking agent or airlines will notify you of an issue. During the course of this issue we learned from several people (airline employees, passport office agents, avid travelers) that this is a common and costly occurrence. Had we not missed our original flight, boarded the plane and made it to UK we would've been told at our connection flight to Spain that we were not allowed to move forward in our travels. We would've been stuck in the UK without a flight back home because our return flight was direct from Madrid. I can only imagine what a return flight from the UK would have cost me at that point, my guess is way more than the $1250 we paid for the transfers.
We rebooked the flight for Wednesday 9pm, two days behind schedule, with the hope that we would arrive to the passport agency and have our passports expedited. A 5am wakeup call, a leisurely lunch in Downtown Miami (and not even at our own café because we had it scheduled to close for the week between holidays) and $320 later, we were back on track. Only issue now was Mia's kidney infection....the doctors cleared here and she was immediately put on antibiotics and insisted she was good to go so we went.
December 28, 2016 MIA-MAD 9pm-7am (overnight arriving on the 29th)
3.5hr layover in London Heathrow where we slept in airport chairs and then pumped ourselves up with overpriced airport coffee concoctions for another brief 3hr flight to Madrid.
Arrived in Madrid, Spain on Thursday December 29th 5pm and from there our journey continued after having to sort out some car rental issues (like the fact that we didn't have one reserved yet for another 4 days).
Day 1-3:El Escorial, Madrid, Spain
Day 4-5: Madrid
Day 5-6: Segovia (Vallaloid)
Day 7-9: San Sebastian
Day 9: Hondarribia
Day 9-11: Ascain, Saint Jean De Luz & Biarritz
Day 11-15: Madrid (by way of Burgos)
15 days, 14 nights just about $8000.00 for a family of 5 people. Included car rental & gas, accommodations, food, entertainment, souvenirs and airfares (with added cost of transfers for missing the first flight, subtract that and this trip would've only cost me around $6500 which is what made me even more upset when I missed it).
How did I do it even with the added cost of paying for airline transfers to make the trip actually happen? Subscribe and get a notification for my post detailing all my tips and tricks. Btw, airfare to Madrid is about $425 again right now but you gotta know where to look. ;)
Multi-tasking over-thinker that is, as you can imagine, often running late.