Champagne Bucket trips, Finland, Latvia

A true first world issue (cross-posted)

Cross posted on my main blog. The featured photo was taken in 2019, when Bill and I went to Sweden to pick up our car and drove it on a Nordic adventure.

I’m in the midst of trying to plan a summer vacation/birthday trip for Bill and myself. Because of the whole COVID-19 odyssey, and the seemingly endless lockdowns that followed, we’ve decided that this year, we’d like to fly somewhere. And because there are a lot of places in Europe we still want to see, we decided to choose our destination using the “champagne bucket” method.

I’ve written about the champagne bucket method on this blog. Basically, I got the idea for it from “blind bookings” on Germanwings (now known as Eurowings). I’m not sure if Eurowings still does blind bookings, but Lufthansa does, and Lufthansa owns Eurowings. It basically involves booking a surprise flight, and usually paying a lower fare. You don’t know where you’re going until after you pay for the ticket(s). Bill and I have done it four times to great success. We visited Barcelona, London, Berlin, and Munich that way.

When we moved back to the States, I decided that it wouldn’t be hard to plan more of our vacations that way. Instead of relying on the airline, we just put our choices on slips of paper and put them in the champagne bucket. Then, Bill picks one of the slips out of the bucket.

I was really rooting for a trip to Armenia and possibly Georgia this summer. That was one of the choices, too. Bill was a bit reluctant, because of political and military issues going on in Armenia right now. We may still go there this year, but for a short trip to Yerevan, instead of an all out country tour. Then, I can show Bill where I lived, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and sign him up for a more extensive trip. 😉

Anyway, when we did our champagne bucket challenge, Bill ended up choosing Finland. Neither of us has ever been there before. We have been to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Estonia together. Bill has also been to Latvia a couple of times on business. Neither of us has seen Lithuania, but we’ve met people from there and Latvia on cruises.

Originally, I was planning for us to go to Helsinki and do a land based trip, then go by ferry to Tallinn, Estonia, stay a few days, and work our way south to Latvia and Lithuania, before flying back. Then I started researching and discovered, there’s no easy way to travel to Latvia and Lithuania that doesn’t involve riding a bus. We considered renting a car, but that seemed potentially risky.

So then I thought, maybe instead of trying to hit the Baltic capitals, I could go west. Visit Finland, do a day trip in Tallinn, then head west toward Norway, which we know we love. Then I thought, maybe it would be better to start in Norway, and head east to Finland, then go to Tallinn and spend a night or two…

Then I realized how expensive flights would be… plus the stress and inconvenience involving finding transportation, hauling bags, and booking hotels… and although I’d already looked for cruises and initially didn’t see any I liked, I kept getting ads for Regent Seven Seas on Facebook. And Regent is– or was– considered a luxury line, although it’s a much bigger ship than we usually go for when we cruise.

I noticed they had a cruise available during the time we plan to travel. It starts June 23 and ends June 30, and hits ports in Sweden, Helsinki, Estonia, Latvia, and Denmark. We could still go to Norway and do a land based trip, working our way to Stockholm, a city we’ve been to, but didn’t really get to explore at all in 2009. Best of all, the cruise in question is on sale. It’s still expensive, but doable for us. We wouldn’t even have to stay in the cheapest stateroom. I pitched the idea to Bill, who liked it.

I started making a booking request. It took about a half dozen times to finally get registered. I mismatched my email address, or added one too many dots in the address, or the passwords didn’t match. Finally, I had my account, and started to make the request.

But the stateroom I wanted was listed as twice as expensive than was advertised. While we technically could do it, I’d rather spend that much money on a new car or a down payment on a house. So I stopped making the request, and sent an inquiry to Regent, asking them to confirm that the cruise is on sale.

About an hour later, I got a phone call through my iPad, which I wasn’t prepared to answer, as I was reading something to Bill. I also got a message, written in German, indicating that the cruise is on sale, and inviting me to call between 11am and 8pm today. I sent a message back in English, asking if I have to call to get that rate, and clarifying that I’m American and can’t speak German worth a damn. 😉

Then I went on Cruise Critic and started reading reviews and comments on the messageboards. The consensus is, the ship I’m looking at booking is beautiful, although Regent has “gone downhill” in recent years. Bill and I have done cruises on Royal Caribbean, SeaDream, and Hebridean Island Cruises. SeaDream and Hebridean, like Regent, are considered luxury and are all inclusive. However, they are much smaller ships. So Regent would be a different cruise experience for us, and it would offer some convenience, as we’d be hitting places we want to visit– albeit for a shorter time than we would personally plan for ourselves.

I truly am attracted to the cruise because of the itinerary and the time the cruise is going. I don’t have particularly high expectations of great service or being treated like royalty. A cruise just offers a convenient way to cross some items off our bucket list.

On the other hand, I was kind of looking forward to a deeper dive into the areas, and exploring more on our own. Also, there’s less chance of running into people with whom we don’t mesh when we do land based trips, or getting sick from any number of viruses on ships. I like to plan trips and look for interesting places to stay. I guess the pre cruise travel to Norway would offer that, but I was kind of wanting to get more of a feel for Finland.

Either way, this trip is going to be expensive. Good thing Bill got a generous raise this year. We do have the money, too… at least for the cruise. I’m just not used to having that, either… being somewhat well-heeled is kind of a new experience for us.

Sigh… a trip to Armenia would be a lot more economical. On the other hand, if I develop a bleeding stomach ulcer, I’d feel better about seeking treatment in a nordic country. 😉

This is truly a first world problem. I’m sure I should just go for it and see what happens. We’ve had some great times on cruises and made some friends. And a bonus is, since Regent ships are a lot bigger, there’s less chance I’ll get seasick this time.

We’ll see what happens. I may scrap the idea of the cruise. It is tempting, though… Regent is probably more comfortable than the Stockholm to Helsinki ferry.


The Eagles sure didn’t stink in Cologne… part 1

Last October, as Bill and I were preparing for our big move from Stuttgart to Wiesbaden, I found out that the Eagles, one of my favorite bands of all time, was going to be playing two dates in Germany in 2019.  2018 was our summer of concerts.  We saw The Rolling Stones in Stuttgart, Paul Simon, Bonnie Raitt, and James Taylor (all at one show) in Dublin, Roger Hodgson in Stuttgart, and the Irish Folk Festival in Stuttgart.  I also knew we were going to be seeing Elton John in Stuttgart in May 2019.

Given that we’d already spent so much money on shows and knowing that a move always requires more spending, I hesitated slightly before I bought the tickets.  When we go to concerts, they usually turn into major spending events.  I usually book us a nice hotel, so we don’t have to worry about driving far to get to the venue or trying to park (although we made the mistake of driving to the Elton John show).  I also don’t bother with “nosebleed” seats.  There was a time when those were the best seats I could afford, but now I want to sit closer, which always means more money.

I asked Bill what he thought about seeing the Eagles, even though the band’s legendary frontman, Glenn Frey, passed away in January 2016.  After some thought, Bill was okay with attending the show.  Now it was time to choose a city.  I had a choice between Cologne and Munich.

We had been in Cologne once before, back in May 2012, when we took our very first Space A military “hop”.  I remember we stayed at the Ibis in the train station, which was fine for a night when we were totally exhausted, but probably wouldn’t do now that I’m older and richer.  I also know Munich is expensive, since we did a blind booking out of Cologne on Germanwings (now known as Eurowings) during that same Space A hop and got Munich.  Don’t get me wrong– Munich is so much fun; but it’s super pricey.  Even average hotels down there cost a mint.  Munich is also further away from us, now that we’re in Wiesbaden.

Both of the shows were on work nights, but the Cologne show was the day after Memorial Day, so we decided it would be easiest to go to Cologne.  Bill would use up one less vacation day, and both the concert tickets and the lodging were less expensive than Munich.  Now that we’ve been back to Cologne, I can say that we’ll probably go there for more shows.  Not only was it super easy to get to the concert venue, it’s also super easy to get to Cologne from where we live.  And, as a bonus, we discovered an amazing hotel in the Excelsior Hotel Ernst!  As long as we can afford it, I think the Excelsior Hotel Ernst has effectively ended our Ibis days in Cologne.

This trip was also important, because it provided an excellent opportunity for our dogs to try out a new doggy pension.  When we lived in Stuttgart, we used Dog on Holiday, which I would absolutely recommend to anyone.  In fact, we’ve decided that anytime we need to go to or through Stuttgart with our dogs, we will try to have them stay with Max and Christine.  But it wasn’t practical to take the boys to Dog on Holiday from Wiesbaden, so we needed to find a place for them closer to our new town.  In February, we visited the Tierpension Birkenhof, and arranged for our boys to have their first stay during this quick trip to Cologne.


I got us fifth row seats!


With all of the arrangements made, we set off for the “city of pleasant smells” on Monday of this week– Memorial Day.  Since our hotel was super close to the train station and the train station had a stop near Cologne’s Lanxess Arena, which was where the Eagles would be “crying”, we decided to take the Inner City Express (ICE) train from the Frankfurt Airport.  The Tierpension Birkenhof is fairly convenient to the airport, although not as convenient as Max’s pension is to the Stuttgart airport.




The Tierpension Birkenhof was recommended to Bill by one of his co-workers.  It’s always interesting to see the differences in the “doggy hotels” in Germany.  When we were in Stuttgart the first time, we used to use Hunde Hotel Haase, which was a beautiful facility in Bad Niedernau, a very country hamlet south of Stuttgart.  Kiersten, the  lady who ran it back in those days, was absolutely awesome.  But, when we came back to Stuttgart in 2014, she’d left and took the hotel’s good reputation with her.  We used the Hunde Hotel Haase a couple more times, but kept hearing horror stories about dogs that were left there.  That’s when we switched to Dog on Holiday, which has been universally great, despite it’s somewhat urban location.


Tierpension Birkenhoff is a rather large facility that cares for dogs and cats.  It’s located in a somewhat suburban area, yet it’s near farmland.  The owner doesn’t accept VAT forms, and we haven’t yet met him.  We have met two of his employees, both of whom seemed very kind.  


I have noticed that each German dog facility has its quirks.  At the Birkenhoff, you’re not allowed to bring your own dog bed.  I’m not sure exactly why this is… I think it’s because the other doesn’t want to have to worry about the owners’ beds getting dirty.  Nevertheless, it does make things somewhat more convenient for us, since we’re about to trade in our RAV 4 SUV for a Volvo SUV and will probably have to bring the dogs in my Mini Cooper next time they stay.  Mini Coopers are small.  Dog beds take up a lot of space.


Frankfurt Airport train station to Cologne Messe


Once the dogs were dropped off, we made our way to the Frankfurt Airport.  Bill had reserved parking with ACS at the airport, which turned out to be very convenient, once we figured out where P4 was.  The reserved spots are reasonably priced and located near the terminal, so there’s no need to haul heavy bags long distances from far away lots.  Frankfurt Airport is a bit more confusing than Stuttgart Airport is.  It’s huge, and finding parking can be super confusing and annoying.  But now that we know where the ACS parking is, I’m sure we’ll use it all the time.  It really made parking super easy.


Frankfurt Airport also has a big train station, making it easy to access a lot of cities.  If we had left from Wiesbaden, it would have taken a lot more time, required us to park in the parking garage from Hell, and we would have needed to change trains at least once.  From Frankfurt Airport, it was a straight shot to Cologne.  


I like how, in Germany, “bullshit” isn’t a bad word.  You’ll even see it on billboards.


We had time for lunch, so we stopped at a restaurant called Little Italy, not to be confused with the Little Italy in Wiesbaden, which has become one of our favorite Sunday lunch stops.  The Little Italy at the airport is in the shopping area called The Squaire.  It’s not long on ambiance, but the food and service are good.

Mmm…  food!

Bill went vegetarian with spaghetti and fresh vegetables, tossed in a little olive oil and washed down with a tempranillo.


I had a very lovely tagliatelle salmone.  The salmon was cooked to perfection and melted in my mouth.  I love salmon that isn’t overcooked, and they did a really good job with this.  However, I probably would have preferred about half this much food.  


With lunch sorted, we headed down to the platform where we’d catch our train to Cologne.  But then, about ten minutes before we were to depart, our original train was cancelled due to some people on the tracks.  Don’t ask me what that means.  I have no idea.  Bill ran up to the Deutsche Bahn (DB) information kiosk, where he was advised that we should take another train. 


Instead of dropping us directly at the Cologne Hauptbahnhof, would go to the Cologne Messe stop.  That would require us to take a city train one stop over the Rhein River.  The nice thing about the train we took was that it went directly from Frankfurt to Cologne, with no stops.  It was also practically empty, which was a good thing, since changing trains also erased our seat reservations.  Within an hour, we were whisked to Cologne, having flown past beautiful scenery at about 280 kph.


I was surprised by how fast our trip from Frankfurt to Cologne was on the ICE train.  It was also very comfortable, since the train has clean toilets and a restaurant.  We did not use the restaurant during our trip to Cologne, but it was nice to have had the option.



Bill checks the schedule…


This is the life.  First class all the way.  Second class probably would have been fine, too.


We could have taken a more leisurely train to Cologne and probably saved some money, but this was a really nice way to get where we were going.  It’s been too long since our last train trip.  I think we need to take them more often.


It was a simple thing to take the S-bahn over the Rhein River to get to Cologne’s main station, home of the city’s majestic Dom and our hotel, the Excelsior Hotel Ernst.  



Blind booking #4: Berlin! Part 1

My husband’s mother, Parker, has been visiting us for the past ten days.  While she’s here, my husband, Bill, wanted to do something special.  The last time she visited us in Germany, we got trapped in Italy.  We decided that this time, we would do something different… something not involving a car or driving through the Alps.

At first, we considered taking the train to Paris.  It seemed like the perfect solution.  Parker has not been to Paris and it’s a really interesting city with plenty to do.  But then it occurred to us that we were just in France last month.  I’ve been kind of hankering to do something different.  So then I suggested a blind booking on Eurowings.

Blind booking is not a new concept for Bill and me.  When we were living in Germany last time, we did it twice.  Basically, it involves buying a cheap plane ticket for a secret destination.  The first two times we tried blind booking, we scored excellent and super cheap trips to London, England and Barcelona, Spain.  Both trips were in 2009, when Eurowings was still Germanwings.  Prices were significantly lower than they are today and more services were included.  For instance, I don’t remember paying for luggage or even the paltry snacks they give you.

The next time we tried blind booking was in May 2012.  We had taken a Space A hop from Baltimore to Ramstein.  I was still crazy about the mystique of blind booking, so we went to Cologne, visited the city, then did another blind booking from Cologne.  That time, we got Munich.  I was slightly disappointed, since I had been to Munich.  On the other hand, we had a great time!  On that trip, we bought train tickets that were good for all of Germany and certain border cities.  We ended up going to Trier, Salzburg, and Luxembourg City, in addition to Munich and Cologne.

Although blind booking is not as exciting to me as it used to be, it had been five years since our last one.  And when we pitched the idea to Parker, she was excited about it.  The decision was made.  About ten days ago, I went on the Eurowings Web site, selected Stuttgart as our airport, input the days we wanted to travel, and chose which group  of cities we wanted.  I know there are ways to “game” the system.  Checking to see what days certain cities are offered is one way to improve your odds of going somewhere “exotic”.  You can also pay a little extra to exclude certain cities, which we have done in the past.  This time,  I wanted to leave it up to fate.  Besides, there weren’t any cities in the “Culture” group that I wouldn’t mind visiting, even if I’d already been there.

We got Berlin.  I had kind of mixed feelings about it.  On one hand, neither Bill nor I had ever been to Berlin, despite having spent a lot of time in Europe.  On the other hand, I was kind of liking the idea of getting out of Germany for a few days.  But then I realized that I told myself I couldn’t leave Germany again until I saw its capital city.  Now that’s done, so we can focus on going to some truly different places… provided we can board our dogs.  😉

Parker was pretty happy about going to Berlin.  The three of us are old enough to remember when Berlin was much harder to visit than it is today.  When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a paper about Germany.  As I researched the topic, I learned about its history.  It was the first I’d ever heard of East and West Germany.  I remember being shocked that the country was divided; one side was a “free” part of western Europe.  The other side was “communist”, like the Soviet Union and the satellite countries.  I read about how the people in East Germany weren’t allowed to leave at will.  I learned about the huge wall that once separated Berlin.  One side was “free” and the other side was not.

A look at what life was like in Berlin, back in the 1970s…

As an eleven year old in the early 80s, I had no idea that one day I’d live in the former Soviet Union and get to visit a lot of those “forbidden” eastern European countries.  I didn’t know then that I’d eventually live in Germany twice and visit its eastern side with ease.  I didn’t know that one day, I’d stay in what used to be East Berlin.

I’m truly surprised it took me so long to finally see Berlin, although I did visit its airport once before when Bill and I took a Baltic cruise originating in Oslo, Norway.  We did have a great trip.  If I’ve piqued your interest with this first part, I hope you’ll read on as I lay out yet another exciting travel story.


Vienna, Austria Part 8… coming home!

Unfortunately, our last night in Vienna was a bit of a let down.  Bill picked up a cough of some sort while he was in Africa and he woke me up in the middle of the night.  I had indigestion, no doubt from all the good food and beer we enjoyed on Sunday.  I managed to grab a little more sleep, but was still kind of crabby in the morning as we packed up to get to the airport.

Bill ordered a cab online.  He says this is a good thing to do, especially if you are coming in to Vienna.  If you don’t pre-book a cab, you end up paying more.  Our trip to Vienna from the airport was over 40 euros, but coming back it was only 32 euros.  Bill rounded up to 40 because he’s a generous guy.  The cab was prompt and arrived at 6:30am, getting us on our way despite the heavy Vienna traffic.

We tried to pre-book my bag but for some reason weren’t able to, so once again we paid 30 euros to check my luggage.  Paying to check luggage is one of my many pet peeves, especially since it’s a rip off.

I must say, Vienna has a lovely airport with lots of nice amenities.  One thing I loved was the free wi-fi.  There are very nice stores in the airport as well as a beautiful food court/gourmet market.  If we’d had more time, I could have had a good time shopping for goodies.  Instead, we had a nice and huge breakfast that I couldn’t finish.  More eggs, sausage, and bacon.  My eyes were way bigger than my stomach, though Bill was able to finish his with ease.

Really good shopping!

One thing the Vienna airport doesn’t have in abundance is electric outlets.  They haven’t followed the trend of other airports that have installed outlets for people who need to charge their electronics.  I managed to find an outlet in the food court area, though the wi-fi didn’t work there.  I guess that’s to keep people from camping out there all day.

The flight back to Stuttgart was uneventful, yet annoying.  The guy in the seat in front of me insisted on reclining for a one hour flight.  The guy across the aisle from me kept farting or something… it wasn’t nice.  Fortunately, the flight was quick and turbulence free and we were soon on our way home… until we got on A8, which closely resembled a parking lot.  I mean it.  The cars were barely moving.  It took forever to get to the exit to A81.  I was feeling queasy from the flight and the smell of diesel fumes.

We got home at about noon and I immediately slipped into my nightie because I knew I wasn’t going anywhere.  Bill went to the Hunde Hotel Haase to get the dogs.  When he got home, he made this for dinner…

One of our Hello Fresh meals…  Zucchini stuffed with basmati rice, zucchini, and gouda cheese.  The base is rice, cherry tomatoes, and peppers.

This was healthy, tasted good, and looked pretty.

It’s good to be home again, though I’m already planning our next trip.  The champagne bucket says we’re going to the Canary Islands.  I’m not sure when yet– maybe in June.  Should be a lot of fun!


Vienna, Austria Part 1

A couple of months ago, after Bill and I visited Regensburg, Germany, we took part in a fun ritual we have for choosing where we travel.  I got out our trusty champagne bucket with slips of paper bearing names of famous and exotic cities.  Bill drew, and Vienna, Austria was the big winner.  I was excited to visit Vienna.  I was last there in August 1997 on my way home from my Peace Corps assignment in Armenia.  At the time, I was unmarried and traveling with a couple of friends.  We were broke, so we stayed in a university dorm/hostel.  It was decidedly no frills traveling.  The night we left Vienna, we took an overnight train to Venice.  That was the night Princess Diana died.  I didn’t know about her death until the day after the world found out.  We were in Florence, Italy, and I saw her picture on a newspaper with the blazing headline that she’d been killed.  I was pretty shocked.

Anyway, this time I was happy Bill and I were going to stay in a hotel.  I had another reason to be excited about the trip.  My friend Herbert from wanted us to meet in person and do some karaoke together.  I am a sucker for karaoke.

I won’t lie.  I was a little apprehensive about flying Germanwings to Vienna.  Oh sure, I knew our chances of dying in a plane crash caused by a mentally ill pilot were slim to none.  Still, it was very soon after that tragic crash in the French Alps last month.  As it turned out, our flight to Vienna was smooth as silk.  Bill and I had a row to ourselves, even though we booked the cheapest fare and had to pay 30 euros to check my bag.  I’m not too wild about Germanwings’ new tiered fare program.  Because we booked via Expedia, we got the most basic fare.  Next time, we will book from their Web site for a fare that includes luggage and such.

The weather was absolutely beautiful all weekend and we stayed in a nice hotel, the Falkensteiner Wien Margareten, which isn’t all that close to downtown Vienna, but is handy to both a metro station on the U4 line and a tram stop.  The staff spoke English and the hotel had a bar, a restaurant, and a spa.

We were in a lowbrow “comfort” room, which had a city view and a shower…

There was a desk and free Internet…

A neat little makeup table for the ladies…

A TV where I watched CHiPs and Knight Rider in German…

And a nifty Nespresso machine…

The bed was comfortable.  There was a chocolate on the pillow and a weird “scent” towel that was supposed to provide “aromatherapy”.  Unfortunately, all it did for me was give me a headache.

That towel smelled good, but it was a bit strong.


I wasn’t totally wild about the housekeeper who insisted on removing the keycard from the switch while Bill and I were out.  On our last full day, she actually took the card from us, which pissed me off.  But overall, I thought the hotel was fine, especially for the price.  We got a good deal on Expedia– four nights and round trip on Germanwings cost about $1100.  As I mentioned before, next time I will book directly for the flight.  That way, I won’t get the cheapest fare and end up shelling out for luggage.

After settling in, Bill and I took our first walk into the city.  From the hotel, it was about three or four miles.  The weather started off nice when we set out, but within minutes, a chilly wind picked up.  I had no jacket with me and was wearing sandals.  We walked briskly and got hung up at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where Bill made the mistake of looking at a city map.  We were quickly spotted by a man named Adrian in a period costume.  He was there to hawk concert tickets.

I was in no mood for Adrian’s bullshit, but Bill is a lot nicer than I am.  I had my mind on getting to a bar called Babuder’s, where we would meet Herbert and I could do my karaoke.  I hoped we’d have time to score dinner, too.  But nothing doing…  Adrian was on the case and was intent on getting us to buy tickets to a classical show with dancers, opera singers, and a small orchestra.  Bill ended up buying us a pair of tickets to see the show– it was about 80 euros and included a free drink.  We went to Babuder’s where Herbert was already waiting for us.

anecdotes, rants

Why do people question my travel plans?

I usually save my rants for my main blog, but I’m going to put one here because I’m ranting about a travel issue today.  Bill and I are headed to Vienna this afternoon.  We will be flying on Germanwings.  This will be our fourth Germanwings round trip flight, but the other three were before the tragic crash that happened last month.  Although logically I know the chances of us crashing today are slim to none, I made a little crack on Facebook about how I hope the crew on our flight is feeling stable.  If not, it’s been nice knowing everyone.

Again, it was just a joke.  I am positive we’ll be fine and, later today, I’ll be enjoying a nice meal in a Viennese restaurant.

Most all of my friends wished us a good trip.  Some said they looked forward to photos.  A few reminded us to see the famous Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School or learn to waltz.  And then it happened.  Two guys, both fairly opinionated, questioned our decision to fly to Vienna.

One guy, who has told me before that he is not as well traveled as I am, suggested that I take the train because it might be more convenient and fun.  Given what happened to a Germanwings flight last month, I did consider the possibility of taking a train.  However, we soon found out that it would be more expensive and take longer than flying.  Using the train involves going either to Munich or Nuremberg.  Having recently gone to Regensburg by train via Nuremberg, we know that there is no high speed ICE train that goes to Nuremberg, so we’d be on a slower train for a couple of hours.  There probably is an ICE train to Munich, but it would still take longer than flying.  And again, it’s not that inexpensive, though I do find train travel to be less irritating than plane travel is.

Another guy, who has lived in Germany and tends to be a do it yourself-er, suggested that we drive because “Vienna is only four or five hours away.”  I wanted to ask my friend to take a look at a map.  Vienna is on the extreme Eastern side of Austria.  If we encountered no traffic and didn’t need to stop anywhere, it would take about seven hours to drive there from Stuttgart.  And we don’t actually live in Stuttgart.  Stuttgart is nicknamed STAUgart for good reason.  Traffic around here is terrible.  So add another hour for that and perhaps one for lunch, vignette buying, gas, and what not.  Then you have to find a place to park.  Besides, Bill hasn’t yet gotten his international driver’s permit.  Chances are good that he’d never be stopped, but the one time you do get stopped and don’t have one, you get a big fine.  No thanks.

It just boggles the mind, though.  I mean, do people not think I’ve considered other ways of getting to Vienna other than flying on Germanwings?  I could have taken another airline, but that would have involved layovers and in most cases, more money.  I’m going to throw caution to the wind and fly today.  We have beautiful weather.  And God willing, I will live to tell about it!

In fact… I already have an invitation to karaoke tonight…  😀


A Germanwings aircraft crashes into the French Alps…

I debated where I should put this blog post.  My main blog gets a lot more traffic than my travel blog does, but I think the subject is a better fit for my travel blog.  After all, here in Germany, Germanwings is a well-known airline.  Bill and I have used it three times– twice out of Stuttgart and once out of Cologne.  All three of our flights on Germanwings were blind bookings.  One flight was from Stuttgart to Barcelona.

Since about noon local time, I have been listening to news about the doomed Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf.  Having been on Germanwings flights myself, I can only imagine that the people who boarded what was probably a fairly short flight were looking forward to uneventful travel to Germany.  Air travel, by and large, is very safe.  In fact, one lady in a Facebook group I’m in posted this today…

The chances of dying in a plane crash are slim…

And yet, the people who boarded that flight had a 100% chance of crashing today.  It just goes to show that you never know when something like this will happen.  You never know when you’ll be in a situation that puts you at a bad place that results in your death or injury.  I can’t even imagine how the people who were on the flight from Dusseldorf to Barcelona early this morning are feeling.  Talk about the potential for survivor’s guilt!

I found out about this crash right after it happened.  I see now CNN is giving it full coverage, but I initially found out about it on Yahoo! of all places.  At first, there was very little information.  All day, the story has evolved.  Now they are saying that there were two babies on the flight as well as a class of German high school students and a couple of teachers.  I can’t even fathom how devastated their family and friends are right now.  150 people presumably lost their lives today on what should have been a perfectly routine flight.

I have read that the area where this flight is believed to have crashed is stunningly beautiful, though very remote and hard to reach.  I’m sure the beauty of the crash site is of no comfort to anyone, least of all the people who are now tasked with looking for bodies.

I don’t think knowing what caused the crash will comfort the people left behind after this terrible tragedy.  And I realize that despite the big news about plane crashes, the fact that they are rare is precisely why they are big news when they happen.  It just doesn’t make me feel so good about flying.  You never know when you’re going to be unlucky.

Thoughts and prayers to the families and friends of the people on that flight today…


Repost of my Germanwings review…

I wrote this review on back in 2009, so some of the information is no longer accurate.  Still, I am going to repost it here for those who are thinking about a Germanwings flight, particularly if they wish to do a “blind booking“.  At this point, I have done three blind bookings– two since this review was posted.  I still think they are a blast, even if they aren’t as good of a deal as they once were.

ETA: Germanwings is now called Eurowings.

Europe beckons… German Wings delivers, even booking blind!

 Jan 19, 2009 (Updated May 29, 2012)

Review by   
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Clean planes, professional staff, very reasonable fares and plenty of cities.

Cons:Early flight time this morning… nothing is free or included. Flies into outlying airports.

The Bottom Line: We’re loving blind booking.  Can’t wait to try it again!

My husband Bill and I are temporarily living near Stuttgart, Germany and we want to see as much of Europe as we possibly can. While I tend to be kind of skeptical about the so-called discount airlines, my ears perked up last month when Bill introduced me to German Wings and their “blind booking” program. For 29.99 Euros per person, per direction, travelers can choose a theme and purchase flights from Stuttgart, Hannover, or Cologne, Germany. The catch? You don’t know where you’re going until you’ve paid. It sounded like a great deal to me, not to mention a blast. I was game for it.

Bill and I accessed German Wings’ Web site and decided we wanted to pick a flight from the grouping of cities called “Metropolis Westeurope”. That group included Barcelona, Berlin, Hamburg, Lisbon, London, Madrid, Rome, and Vienna. Any one of those cities would have been okay with us, but had we wanted to, we could have paid an extra 2.5 euros per person and per direction to exclude one of them from the list. German Wings allows up to three exclusions and each one results in an additional five euro charge. We knew Bill would have a long weekend for Martin Luther King Day, so we plugged those dates into the database, put in our preferences, and paid using Bill’s credit card. We ended up with a flight for two going to London! I must admit, it was pretty exciting to find out where we were going. Better yet, after taxes, our round trip flights cost us the equivalent of about $145.  That’s $145 for two people.  I doubt we will ever get an equivalent deal flying from the States!

Pack light!

As I mentioned before, German Wings is a discount airline. That means it’s strictly no frills and offers only “coach class” service. We were each allowed one bag at no more than 23 kilos. Carry on luggage is limited to 8 kilograms. Once you go over that limit, you’re charged five euros per kilogram. Purses, umbrellas, and coats may be carried without any penalty. Bill usually packs light anyway, but I made an effort to economize on my luggage so that we wouldn’t be charged.  I came in well under the limit.

Check in

We arrived at Stuttgart’s airport and easily found the German Wings booth. A pleasant lady checked our passports, weighed our luggage, and issued us boarding passes. I was glad to see that German Wings has assigned seating, so Bill and I were able to sit with each other. Online check in is also available. We were on our way.

The seats…

Our flight to and from London’s Stanstead Airport was on an Airbus 319 aircraft. The seats were pretty small and set up in a three by three configuration. Being quite a bit plumper than I’d like to be, I was relieved to find that I fit in the seat with no problem, although the seatbelt was fairly short. I was able to use it without an extender, but very large or tall people might find themselves quite cramped. Leg room is also in short supply.  Since Bill and I both have short legs, we weren’t too bothered by that except for when we had to get in and out of our seats. People with long legs might have a very different experience.

As it turned out, our flights to and from London were only about half full. We had a whole row to ourselves going both directions. I was glad to see that the plane was very clean on both flights.

The staff

All flight attendants on German Wings at least speak German (naturally) and English and all onboard announcements are done in German and English. The flight attendants on our flights were very professional and efficient. One even demonstrated a sense of humor… although she did so in German! In any case, we had no issues at all with any of the staff members we encountered.

No frills!

I can’t stress enough that German Wings is a budget airline. That means no free drinks, no peanuts or crackers, and no free earphones, pillows, or blankets. However, food and drink, as well as a bizarre array of other items, are for sale on the aircraft. German Wings sells Coke products, beer, wine, prosecco, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, and a variety of juices, as well as sandwiches, candy, and chips. They also sell model German Wings planes, earphones, jewelery, and cologne.  Because German Wings is a discount airline, that means that it often flies into smaller airports further away from city centers.  London’s Stanstead airport, for instance, is a 45 minute train ride on the Stanstead Express to and from London’s Liverpool Station.  Coaches take even longer.

The flight

Right off the bat, we were happy to find that we had plenty of room on our flights because they were only about half full. No wonder German Wings is offering such deals! The 75 minute flight itself was basically very smooth and quiet. Both left on time. We did have a slight delay getting back to Germany because the Stuttgart airport was closed briefly due to freezing rain. However, that passed quickly and we landed safely after just a few minutes of circling.

One drawback to “blind booking”

The one thing Bill and I didn’t like about our blind booking experience was that we ended up with a very early flight out of Stanstead. We flew out of England at 8:00am, and because Stanstead is located about 45 minutes by train from London, that meant we were up at an ungodly hour to make our flight. However, given how inexpensive and hassle free the experience was, we think having to rise early was a small price to pay. We liked the blind booking experience so much, we’re already planning to do it again. Perhaps next time, we’ll choose the Metropolis Easteurope grouping of cities, which would allow us to surprise book Belgrade, Bucharest, Budapest, Dresden, Katowice (near Krakow), Leipzig, Sarajevo, Warsaw, or Zagreb. Since we’ve already been to Dresden, we would just pay an extra 2.5 euros each per direction to exclude it from the list.

Other information

Although German Wings has hubs in Berlin, Stuttgart, Cologne, it flies to 67 cities throughout Europe. Not all cities are included in the “blind booking” fares and blind booking can only be accessed from Berlin, Cologne, or Stuttgart. Cologne seems to be German Wings’ biggest hub.


German Wings is not a luxury airline by any stretch, but we had a perfectly nice flight that was extremely cheap. This morning, a cabbie offered to drive us from our hotel to Stanstead Airport. The fare for that 45 minute trip would have likely been more expensive than the plane tickets! We left our flight today thinking that we’d have no problem using German Wings for as many short, European based flights as possible before we get sent back to America. If you need an inexpensive Europe based flight, I think you’d do well to check out German Wings… and if you just want to try blind booking, I’d recommend that too! It may be a gimmick, but it’s definitely a fun gimmick!

German Wings’ Web site:


Tentative travel plans…

So Bill and I are seriously planning to take a trip somewhere… anywhere the military takes us, really.  We have a date on Saturday to take the dogs to a local “doggie camp”, where they will be “interviewed” and will hopefully pass the test so we’ll have a place to put them when we leave town sometime around the 10th.

We’ll either get a “hop” from Lackland Air Force base somewhere or we’ll take a commercial flight to Baltimore or Charleston, South Carolina and pick up a hop in one of those cities.  My money is on going to BWI, which has a dedicated terminal for military folks.  Last time we did this was in May 2012 and we ended up having a blast.  Taking a military hop is a crap shoot, though, because you never know if they’ll go off according to plan.  But then that’s part of the fun of the whole thing.  Last time we “hopped”, it cost about $40 round trip for transportation to and from Germany.

I have a feeling we’ll go to Germany again, even though we could also go to The Azores.  If we go to Germany, we may do another Blind Booking with Germanwings, which is a cheap airline in Germany.  We have done three blind bookings thus far and they have landed us in Barcelona, London, and Munich respectively.  Basically, you pay a cheap fare and end up going wherever they have tickets.  It’s a fun way to see Europe.  Last night, I was researching Manchester, England and trying to determine what we’d do on the off chance we ended up there.  That’s just one of many cities, though… We could go to Milan, Vienna, Salzburg, Lisbon, Zurich… the list goes on and on.

Or we could just go to Germany and stay there… or go to France by train.  It’s truly travel by the seat of your pants.

I worry that the weather will really suck during our trip, but I’m also really eager to get out of Texas for awhile.  And I know that soon we will not have as much liberal travel ability as we have right now.  We could wait and do this travel in a few months, when Bill is on “terminal leave”, but I think we will be more focused on getting Bill employed at that point and making sure we can pay our bills in the interim.

There’s a great military hop forum that recently switched to a new place.  It’s also gone from being a free site to a pay site.  I paid $39.95 for a “premium” membership last night.  I think it’s worth it.  The flight schedules are posted there as are trip reports and other handy tips.

My parents did a lot of military hops when they were younger and more mobile.  I’m guessing those days are over now for them… but Bill and I will enjoy them for as long as we can.


The champagne bucket…

The champagne bucket…


The champagne bucket pictured above was a wedding present from one of my husband’s relatives.  In the past, we’ve used it for chilling wine.  Last year, it became useful for another purpose.  We now use it to help us decide where we’ll travel next.

Bill and I have many places on our bucket list.  It can be difficult to make a firm decision about where to go next.  Last year, when we decided to go to Italy and Greece, we did so with the help of the champagne bucket.  Since we had a pre-booking for SeaDream that we needed to use, I wrote down the names and dates of four cruises that were in our price range and occurred at a time during which Bill could more likely get off work.  I cut the names into small pieces and folded up the papers, then put them in the champagne bucket.  I shuffled them around and got Bill to choose.  The May 11th Rome to Athens cruise won!

We’ve taken to doing this whenever we’re too overwhelmed with choices and can’t decide what to do next.  It’s sort of exciting to pick vacations this way, since it’s kind of reminiscent of Germanwings’ blind booking deal.  We’ve done “blind bookings” with Germanwings three times.  Basically, what it means is you pick a group of cities you wouldn’t mind traveling to.  You pay extra to eliminate any cities you don’t want to see.  Pay your fare.  Then you find out where your next vacation is!  It’s a lot of fun to travel this way, especially since most European cities are a treat to visit.  We saw Barcelona, London, and Munich by doing blind bookings.

The champagne bucket is somewhat different in that it’s not really binding when we make our choices.  But it’s still exciting to find out where we’re going next instead of trying to pick one place over another.

I broke out the champagne bucket the other day because we were talking about where our next trip might be.  Bill chose “river cruise”, which means that if Hebridean Island Cruises offers river cruises on Royal Crown in 2014, we may be aboard.  On the other hand, a lot depends on what happens next year as Bill makes his transition out of the Army and into the civilian sector.  We may decide to just stay home next year or go somewhere stateside.

Of course, we’re also very attracted to the concept of barging in Europe.  We were leaning toward Ireland, but after watching some intriguing videos of barging in France, we may opt to go there.  Bill loves France, even if he is very Irish.

I think it would be a dream come true if Bill got another job in Europe…  I can dream, can’t I?