- Idiots Abroad: Taking Small Kids on a Whirlwind Tour of Europe
- I Flew Ryanair and I loved it!
- Challenges of Vacationing With a Large Family in Europe, and More!
- German Castles, Ausfahrt Jokes and the Sound of Music
- Amalfi Coast, Pompeii and Pizza Galore
- The Long Way Home to Belarus… Literally
- Searching for Bono and Licking Donuts
One of recurring themes in my blog has been that flights and hotels are mostly just a tool, a means to an end, so to speak. At times in my outspokenness, I’ve even criticized (perhaps, unfairly) the amount of focus that is placed on seats and lodging reviews. But the truth is, not all airlines and seats are created equal. The reason those reviews exist is because people want to know the details and specifics. There are many reasons for that. Some are vain, some perfectly legitimate.
Ok, to be fair, “vain” is in the eye of the beholder. By all accounts, collecting miles and flying to far flung places is a vain activity. Sure, an argument can be made that travel makes an individual a better citizen of the world. But in the end, most of us are just pursuing a hobby, something that makes us happy. And let’s be honest, when we tell friends about our adventures, which one of us doesn’t feel as if we are the most talented, most interesting, and most extraordinary person in the universe? Yes, it’s a quote from a Lego Movie.
My husband likes to collect “vintage” (his term) Apple laptops. I don’t get it, but he is passionate about it. Some people have a thing about feet and I’m sure there are blogs dedicated to this obsession. OK, poor example… The “feet” thing is just weird, right? Don’t answer that, moving on.
Anyway, I’ll admit, I will never be interested in airline seat reviews or photos of Hyatt toilets. But I respect others’ right to be passionate about those things. No sarcasm, I promise. In fact, in this post I’ll attempt to do my own review of sorts.
I will briefly highlight our experience with several airlines. Sorry, I don’t have many pictures. I was busy taking care of two crazy kids. Let me save you the suspense, the arm rests on all the flights were intuitive! It’s OK if you don’t get the joke. First, for plane and airline seats reviews I recommend Seat Guru website. You will usually find all the specs and peculiarities that pertain to that specific airplane. What I’m hoping to do in this post is review flights from the perspective of traveling with small kids and one rather large husband.
To me, the biggest considerations when choosing a flight are:
1. Award availability (duh!). Getting 4 seats on the same flight ain’t easy. When not redeeming miles, obviously, I look at the price.
2. Convenient departure times and preferably non-stop.
3. Leg room. My husband is a big guy and he has a hard time in economy.
Air Berlin flight from Fort Myers to Dusseldorf
I used Avios program and paid 25,000 miles per person. Oh my! Was their economy seat designed for a midget? I think so. It was so tight, it bordered on ridiculous. The kids were fine, but my husband was absolutely miserable (he is 6 feet 4 inches tall). Of course, that’s the tradeoff when redeeming miles for economy seat. I tried to get him business class, but it simply wasn’t available. Maybe next time.
Hey, here is a photo of my kids’ feet! Man, we were like sardines in that middle section of the plane. Air Berlin transatlantic economy product is absolutely terrible. Something else I didn’t like is that they don’t have many restrooms (which are tiny BTW) on their planes. As a result, there were always 4 or 5 people waiting to use the lavatory. That could be problematic if your kid suddenly has to go. Their food was pretty good, though, and each seat had individual entertainment system.
In the end, it got us safely to where we needed to go, which is the most important thing. Oh, and the luggage made it in spite of 20 minute connection in Dusseldorf. A miracle of miracles! Ironically, their short-haul flights within Europe were on planes with decent leg room in economy. What gives? BTW we only paid 4,500 Avios (plus tax) per person for our flight from Munich to Naples, a terrific redemption. See this post for more on mileage options when it comes to intra-European flights.
Bottom line: I will absolutely fly Air Berlin again if I don’t have any other alternatives and if they have 4 award seats available. But if you have a choice of several carriers and are flexible on destinations, I recommend you look elsewhere.
Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Orlando
I used Avios program and once again, paid 25,000 miles per person for economy seat (plus tax and mild fuel surcharges, $100 total). Aer Lingus was far superior to Air Berlin, there really is no comparison. Of course, we are still talking economy seat, but legroom was much better. They also had more bathrooms on the plane, and you could actually swing a cat in it, if you are into this sort of thing.
Food was decent, as was entertainment. Also, flying out of Dublin comes with a huge perk: US pre-clearance. Even though you have to arrive at the airport earlier (I would allow at least 2.5 hours before flight), you don’t have to go through immigration upon arrival. This is huge when you are traveling with small kids. So basically, when you reach US soil, you just head on over to collect your luggage instead of filling out forms and standing in a long line with cranky tired kids.
I strongly recommend you consider flying out of (or into) Dublin on Aer Lingus if your plans match up. Just a reminder: You can still redeem 12,500 Avios for a one-way economy flight from Dublin to Boston. Aer Lingus was bought out by the same company that owns British Airways, so in all likelihood, this redemption will eventually come with hefty fuel surcharges. But for now, you can still take advantage of this bargain pricing and low award taxes. Also, availability is usually pretty good on this route, a huge plus for family.You can’t book your award ticket on BA website, but would need to call and speak to an agent. Ask them to waive the phone booking fee. You can spend a night in Boston after arrival or book positioning flights via Southwest.
Chase British Airways Visa Signature card (pays me referral) currently comes with 50,000 miles sign-up offer and waived first year fee. You can potentially redeem the bonus for 4 one-way award tickets from Dublin to Boston. As I’ve mentioned in my earlier post, co-branded Chase cards are currently not subject to strict rules, though it could change, of course.
Ryanair flight from Kaunas to Dublin
Of course, when talking about Dublin, how can I not mention that it’s the hub of Ryanair, the Irish cousin of Spirit airlines. This was my first experience with this company. My verdict? It’s “awesome sauce”! No, seriously. I admit, I was a bit nervous because internet is full of horrid tales of stuff that went wrong when flying Ryanair. I experienced none of those things. Of course, we are talking only one flight, but I will absolutely not hesitate to fly them again.
Yes, there are fees (20 euros per checked suitcase when paid ahead) and you have to listen to the sales pitch on designer perfumes during your flight. You don’t get free drinks or snacks, but guess what, they aren’t free on other airlines either. You are paying for them via higher ticket prices. Ryanair and its counterparts get unfairly criticized for not forcing customers to pay for services that they may not want or need. Why?
As long as you read terms and conditions, Ryanair is a great deal. You can check-in and print boarding passes 30 days ahead (I did before leaving US), pre-pay your bags or just take a carry-on for free, and buy a drink and snack at the airport. BTW food prices on the plane were not bad at all, but the taste was mediocre. Nothing new there.
I also paid more for front seats so my husband could have decent leg room. It was 10 euros extra per person for a 3 hour flight, and was worth every penny. All in all, the flight was $100 per person including checked bags, extra seat fee etc. A great deal from an obscure airport in Lithuania! By comparison, all flights from Minsk involved a connection and cost 3 times as much.
What’s not to love about Ryanair? OK, there are a few things: The seat was a bit narrow. It was fine for me, but my husband was uncomfortable. If you are bigger than average size, it could present a problem. Also, the constant hawking of food and perfumes was annoying. Still, the flight left on time, the luggage arrived to its destination and we are still alive. #Winning
Look closely at the above photo. Notice Thomas toy train? We were waiting to board our Ryanair flight when my son spotted it. Some poor kid must have dropped it. My boy went absolutely nuts! First, he tried to climb over to get it. When he couldn’t, he started yelling loudly: “Someone please get me a ladder!” We had to drag him on the plane. Ahh, the joys of flying with small children…
Wizzair flight from Naples to Katowice, Poland
I remember when Wizzair company was first formed. I was thinking there is no way it would take off, pun intended. I mean with the name “Wizzair” and the color scheme, what chance would it have in the overcrowded low-fare European market? Well, it proved everyone wrong and is currently number one discount carrier in Eastern Europe.
When my daughter saw our sky chariot, she happily exclaimed “It’s a girl plane!” My son nodded in disgust and concurred “It’s a girl plane.” It’s quite clear that Wizzair is Ryanair wannabe. Not that there is anything wrong with that! You can’t argue with their prices, that’s for sure. We bought one-way tickets from Naples to Katowice for 49 euros each. Take a look at the map:
Map provided courtesy of gcmap.com
This route is as obscure as it gets. BTW the arrow points to my home city. As you can see, it’s quite a trek from Katowice. Oh my! That journey probably deserves its own post. My other option was to fly to Minsk via Istanbul. In the end, it would have been cheaper and more convenient. I wish I was kidding..
Anyway, back to Wizzair. If you can make their network work for you, I totally recommend it. They charge extra for everything just like Ryanair, but hey, who can argue with 49 euro ticket from Italy to Poland? Be aware, they only allow a small carry-on free of charge. I had to pay extra for our backpacks. Also, I didn’t realize it, but they allow an online check-in 30 days before the flight. I paid 40 euros extra to check in at the airport and didn’t really need to. I also paid for priority boarding and as it turned out, families with small kids go first. All in all, out tickets were $100 each once all the extra charges were added on, which is still a bargain.
I absolutely recommend you at least consider low-cost carriers in Europe. While train travel in the Old World is efficient and networks are well developed, this option can be quite expensive. It also eats up more of your valuable time, especially when you plan to cover long distances. Each option has its pros and cons, of course, so I suggest you investigate all of them and pick the one that suits you best. For more on various transportation choices within Europe, see this section of Rick Steves Europe website. My reader Hilde H suggested Skyscanner as a good place to search routes on low-cost European airlines.
For me, the rule of thumb is this: When it comes to small kids, train is fine as long as distance is short and no luggage is involved. We took a train from Pompeii to Sorrento and it was cheap and fast. It worked well for our needs, but it was a day trip, so we didn’t have to haul all of our paraphernalia with us. When going to the airport, we took a taxi.
For me, the price and schedule are the most important factors when choosing an airline. I would rather fly non-stop and be miserable in coach than have a connection and be upfront. When you take small kids to Europe, flying is really mostly a means to an end. There are occasional bright spots, of course. When going from Munich to Naples, we got to fly over Venice. Wow, what a view! Make the best of whatever means of transportation you choose. It’s about journey as much as it is about destination. And yes, the seat matters, just ask my husband.
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.