Solving the Holiday Time-Cost-Vacation Puzzle
When your airfare is cheap, expect to make the difference with your time.
I spent most of the fall trying to decide if I could balance my vacation time, winter break, and travel costs to take a vacation with my husband Eric. The week before Thanksgiving, I sorted through all my tracked flights to make a final list of budget estimates. I hoped that once we had all our options written down in front of us we would be able to decide if we could go anywhere and if so, where. My estimates were not looking great. Getting to Mexico City after Christmas would cost us $1,600 in airfare alone. Cartagena would be the same. We could get to Hanoi for $1,240 total if we waited until February and took a shorter trip. By the time I got to the bottom of the barrel, options-wise, I was pretty discouraged.
As a wild card, I looked into flights to Europe and found out that several airlines were running major sales. I found $410 flights to Madrid, and then $435 flights to Paris. I sent Eric my notes, saying, “Could we really pull this off?”
At work the next day, the flights were still available. When we chatted during lunch, Eric thought we should go ahead and buy them. I checked with my friend who lives in Bordeaux to see if she wanted company for New Year’s Eve. Europe was different than the trips we’d been discussing, which were to warm places that we’d never been. But the Euro was almost at parity with the dollar! I had saved up enough vacation days! We could totally do this! I decided to wait until after work to buy the tickets so Eric and I could do it together. I’m nervous enough about impulse-buying dresses online, much less nonrefundable tickets to Europe.
As you may have guessed, the flights sold out by 4:00 PM. I was devastated. I walked home with a knot in the pit of my stomach, thinking, “Goddamnit Laura, this is why you don’t wait on things. This is why you make quick decisions and go for what you want.” Yes, I did start to spiral a bit, 0/10, do not recommend that feeling.
I kept searching on all the airfare sites I knew. I changed our final destination from Paris to Berlin, then to Amsterdam, and then finally to Bordeaux, which gave me a hit. SkyScanner found an itinerary for $450 each that would get us from Detroit to Bordeaux… with layovers in Amsterdam and Strasbourg over twenty hours, with a thirty-hour duration and overnight layover for our return itinerary.
Eric and I discussed it and decided to go for it. “We can see Strasbourg on the way home! It’ll be great!” Soon, our bank account was less $900 and we were going to France.
Our flight from Detroit to Amsterdam was a surprisingly pleasant experience. I finally watched the new Ghostbusters movie. I read for a while and dozed off after eating shrimp cocktail (In coach! They gave us shrimp in coach!) and sipping wine.
Landing in Amsterdam, we could barely see through the fog. The airport itself was packed with people whose flights had been delayed due to the weather. Hours-long lines formed at transfer stations while passengers tried to get on alternative flights. Our flight took off two hours late.
In Strasbourg, we learned that our connecting flight had also been delayed as both flights used the same plane. We re-boarded, taxied, waited, and then returned to our gate after the captain announced technical problems. I got to practice my French by listening to the other pissed off passengers. “Est-ce que c’est une blague?!” (Is this a joke?!)
Eric and I discussed our options with the Air France Hop clerk. There were direct flights to Bordeaux the next afternoon, but seats on those were reserved for Skyteam Alliance members with top-tier status. A flight with connections via Nice would get to Bordeaux early the next afternoon, but those seats were reserved for mid-tier Skyteam Alliance members. Instead, we got re-booked on flights via Marseilles that would arrive in Bordeaux at 8 PM, twenty-six hours after we were supposed to get in. Eric asked about other options, but the clerk advised us to book quickly before the other bumped passengers took the seats.
Air France Hop put us up in a hotel for the night on the edge of the city. Its restaurant had an American film theme. I sipped my comped 9 centiliters of wine while gazing at a six-foot black and white portrait of Michael Douglas. It wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t how I intended to spend my first vacation day.
Though fog had grounded a lot of flights, there were trains that would get us to Bordeaux in the early afternoon. We called Delta and Expedia to ask to be reimbursed for train tickets, but they both gave the phone equivalent of a shrug. “It’s weather, and they re-booked you,” they said. “Air France feels they have solved the issue.”
The next day, fog in Paris delayed us further in Marseilles by four hours. Air France Hop gave us vouchers for sandwiches and water at the airport. We left Detroit at 8 PM on December 28 and finally made it to our Airbnb in Bordeaux at 11:45 PM on December 30.
There are risks of delays at every leg of a trip. Each new step adds the possibility of disruption and there’s only so much you can plan around the possibility of fog. Sometimes things do work out: on our way back through Strasbourg and Amsterdam, all our flights left on time. But damn, that was too many delays and too much time in airports. Next time I’ll do my best to avoid multi-connection trips unless it’s absolutely necessary.
For this trip, I traded time for money to find a way to take a vacation. Nonstop flights from Detroit to Paris clock in at around eight hours. I spent more than double that (well, I planned to spend double and actually spent a lot more) to save a money on the flights. My desire to go on vacation within my budget outweighed the value of those travel hours to me. I spend a lot of time reading anyway and I figured I might as well read books on three separate flights if it got me to France.
Despite the extended challenge of getting to Bordeaux, our actual time in the city was wonderful. My friend Hope is an outstanding host and showed us her favorite places in Bordeaux while directing us towards delicious wines. We met her friends and celebrated New Year’s Eve with one of the best meals I can remember. It felt great to be there.
During the second week of our trip, Eric and I spent three days in Tours. We had nowhere we had to be as we wandered through the narrow streets of the old city. I hadn’t felt so calm in a long time. Eric and I hadn’t been on vacation together for almost two years and I had forgotten how it feels to be unreachable with no obligations.
Maybe I could have achieved that feeling to some degree closer to home. I could have driven to Toronto for a few days. I could have shut off my phone and ignored my email and laundry and dishes. The money and time let me recharge in a much-needed way, and I’ll remember that next time I question whether saving up for something big is worthwhile.
Laura Chanoux works in higher education and is formulating plans for her next big trip.