Out the window over Scotland.
We have flown to Scotland several times with our kids over the past couple of years. Normally we fly United from Newark, New Jersey since they offer a direct flight to Edinburgh. This time we flew Norwegian from Hartford, Connecticut. This cost us about $1600 for a family of 4 and that could have been cheaper if we had planned earlier or if we hadn’t included all of the optional purchases. For comparison, the flight we have previously taken from Newark was over $3000 for the same dates. Norwegian is a low-cost carrier that has recently started flying between the United States and Europe. Iceland based WOW air has also been serving this market. I have not flown WOW but I suspect that Norwegian is superior for 2 reasons. Firstly, WOW’s flights all stop in Iceland. Reports on SKYTRAX indicate that the airport in Iceland is overwhelmed handling all of the increased traffic and that changing planes there is not the most pleasant experience. Also, in general when I am traveling with my kids I really try to avoid changing planes if at all possible. It just adds more hassle. The second thing that Norwegian has going for it, that WOW doesn’t, is that it has targeted smaller airports. While you can fly Norwegian from Boston or New York, you can also fly it from Hartford, Providence and Newburgh. So, if Norwegian is the better choice for a low-cost airline how does it compare to flying with a mainstream company? Here is what we found
- It is much nicer to fly out of a small airport. We have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old. The relatively compact size of Bradley Airport in Hartford meant that we didn’t have to walk so far from check in to security and then to the gate. Also, lines for security were shorter and seemed to move more quickly. In addition, for us, it was much less driving than going to Newark.
- Parking is cheaper at a small airport. We parked in Lot B at Bradley which was a short walk to the terminal and it cost us $48 for a week. Parking in the Economy Lot at Newark is $126 for a week and it is impossible to find because it is hidden down by the docks on the opposites side of the runways from the terminal. Then you have to wait for a shuttle bus to come pick you up. Getting, the kids and the luggage and the car seats off and on the shuttle bus always gave me a huge headache!
- Check-in was slow but bearable. Check-in for Norwegian is done in person and they only had a handful of gate agents. They were also really strict about the baggage. All of the baggage both checked and carry on had to be weighed and approved. I played with the kids by the window while my husband waited in line, so the wait wasn’t too bad. Our experience with United in the past really hasn’t been much better. They have a kiosk system for you to print out boarding passes but then you still have to wait in line to drop your bag, so it was never a whole lot quicker.
- You can probably skip the food, at least on the way there. We bought meals, but that was most likely a mistake. The United flight we usually take leaves around 7:30 pm so they serve dinner around 9:00 pm. The kids have always been awake and even if they weren’t particularly hungry were excited to eat on the plane. The Norwegian flight didn’t leave until 9:30. By the time food was served my kids were fast asleep and my husband and I weren’t really hungry either. It was getting close to midnight by that time and we had eaten dinner at the airport. Also, the food was pretty horrible. By the time they got to us (we were only in the middle of the plane) they had run out of chicken, so fish was the only option. It was smelly and pasty looking and accompanied by some soggy potato nuggets. In contrast, the food on the return from Europe was much tastier and served at a time when we actually wanted to eat something.
- You can buy snacks and drinks on the plane. If you don’t preorder the whole meal and you don’t want to carry snacks with you, you can buy snacks and drinks on the plane. Just remember, you don’t get anything without buying it, even water, and they only take credit cards. Don’t be like the people in front of us who didn’t bring anything to eat and didn’t have a credit card.
- There is no entertainment. My older son remembered the TVs in the seats from last time, so when we booked this flight the first thing he did was to start telling his little brother all about it but Norwegian doesn’t have them! Both of our kids have kindle tablets, so we just loaded them up with stuff before we left home and it worked out fine. As it turns out the lack of seat entertainment meant that there was more leg room under the seats whereas on United there is often a big box that has something to do with powering the entertainment system. They did have screens that came out of the ceiling and they played old sitcoms for a majority of the trip, but you had to read the subtitles if you wanted to know what was going on.
- You have to bring your own pillow and blanket. Normally, I just wouldn’t bring these things but for an overnight flight with kids, it seemed like I needed them. I was surprised what a hassle I found this to be. 2 toddler sized neck pillows and 2 baby blankets took up most of the space in my backpack. I am not sure what the solution might be but I just kept thinking of all the money we were saving and was able to overcome the worst of my irritation.
- They turn the seatbelt sign off! Our last few flights I have felt like the seatbelt sign was on almost the entire time. This is especially bad when you are traveling with a 2-year-old who is barely potty trained. Turns out this was more than just a feeling I had. Pilot Patrick Smith in his book Cockpit Confidential says that American airlines are more likely to turn the sign on to minimize the risk of anyone getting hurt and suing the airline. He says carriers based in other countries are more lenient. Now, I normally keep my seatbelt on anyway, but it was nice to be able to take it off when needed and stand up for a bit or go to the bathroom.
- Immigration is slightly better at smaller airports. I flew to London myself a few months ago and the passport control line at Heathrow was never-ending. I was sooo happy that the kids weren’t with me. Immigration wasn’t flawless in Edinburgh or Hartford, we still had to wait because even though there were fewer passengers there were also fewer agents. Still, it wasn’t the super long wait that bigger airports often have.
- Norwegian’s return flights give you an extra day in Europe. Most flights from Europe to the U.S. tend to leave fairly early in the morning. Many of Norwegian’s flights don’t leave until around 5:00 pm. This was a benefit for us since we are actually at quite a distance from the airport in Scotland so we didn’t have to pay for a dingy airport hotel the night before our flight like we have in the past when the flight was at 8:00 am. It also meant that the kids slept quite a lot on the return flight too which was nice. The down side was that it was pretty exhausting for mommy and daddy whose body clocks were telling us it was 3:00 am in the morning by the time we actually got home and got into bed.
I would fly Norwegian again in a heartbeat. We purchased LowFare+ tickets that for $70 more each way include a seat assignment, a meal, and a checked bag. Even if you think you might not need all of those things the a-la-carte pricing is $45 for a meal, $45 for a seat and around $100 to check a bag (depending on your destination) so the Low Fare+ tickets are a reasonable bargain. Even with the higher priced tickets, we saved over $1400 from what flying United would have cost and we avoided Newark Airport which can only be a win. Also, we got to fly in a brand new Boing 737 Max8 which if you are into planes like my husband is, was kind of exciting. Even if you don’t care about planes you at least feel safe in a fresh and sparklingly new one. A few years back I went to Ireland and when I was returning home, my U.S. Airways plane’s roof had no paint on it. It had all peeled off like the paint did on my 1991 Plymouth Sundance. Now I know that doesn’t impact the plane’s ability to fly, but it just doesn’t make you feel confident either! Anyhow, I give Norwegian my total endorsement. You should definitely fly them if you have the chance.
As we get ready to go to Scotland in a few days I can’t help but think about the last time we flew internationally. I am a planner and a list maker. I like to know everything is organized and ready to go. Imagine my surprise then when we were just 12 days from going to the UK for a month when I realized that my passport was going to expire while we were there! And just to make it interesting, the day I discovered this was December 20th. I swear my heart stopped for a minute. We had spent thousands of dollars on flights, hotels, and apartment rentals. My mind started racing through all of the possibilities. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell my husband, that maybe he would be flying alone with a 1 year old and a 3 year old to visit his parents. Not to mention that a huge part of the reason we were going was because I had received a grant to do research in London, which would be difficult to do if I couldn’t get there. I immediately got on the internet hoping for a miracle. Most of the so called expedited services couldn’t guarantee anything quicker than 2 weeks. The Department of State website offered a ray of hope. For expedited service you could go in person to a passport center, if you could get an appointment. I held my breath and called the number. First, I tried the office in New York City. After wading through a gigantic phone tree an automated voice gave me the option of making an appointment in a week, just 2 days before the trip. That didn’t seem like a viable choice to me so I hung up and started the call over. This time I picked Boston and luck was on my side. They had an appointment in 48 hours, but it was unclear if I would be walking out of it with a new passport. After I had the appointment booked I went and told my husband that he would be doing the daycare run on Tuesday, because I needed to drive six hours round trip to Boston to get a new passport. He wasn’t too pleased about the whole situation. Then I raced off to my local CVS to get the world’s worst passport pictures taken. When you unexpectedly get a picture taken at 8:30 pm after a long, stressful day it really is destined to be bad. Imagine half a step better than a mug shot and you will have the general idea.
That Tuesday I got up at the crack of dawn and drove to the Tip O’Neil Federal Building in Boston. I waited anxiously, in a room of other anxious people for my name to be called. When it was my turn I went up to the little glass window, like you generally find at convenience stores in the less savory parts of town. I pushed my pile of documents through the space in the glass and waited. I tried for a friendly smile, while also attempting to seem non-threatening but desperate, in the hopes that he would take pity on me. After looking through my papers and asking me a few questions, the guy almost seemed a bit apologetic when he said “you will have to come back at 4 o’clock to pick it up. Is that ok?” I wanted to scream “are you kidding, that’s fantastic” but I refrained and just said “great, thank you, so much for your help.” That meant that I had all afternoon to kill in Boston. I was quite close to Quincy Market, so I walked there. I went into Union Oyster House and had a lunch of oysters, champagne and clam chowder. It was delicious and no toddlers were there to have a fit because their grilled cheese came with cheese on it, or any other such nonsense. Then I walked around the market and bought some stocking stuffers. Then I got a coffee and found a chair on the second floor of the market to relax. It was beautifully decorated for Christmas and there was some delightful live music playing. After a bit I called my sister and had a nice chat with no interruptions to wipe butts or break up fights. Shortly before 4 I went back to the Federal Building and found a place in line. At 4 on the dot, a couple people came out of the office and each person in line went forward and got their passport. Easy peasy. When I had my passport in my hand a great wave of relief washed over me. We were going to be able to go on our trip after all. On top of that I had a great day that was totally unexpected. Of course it wasn’t all fantastic. Because I was leaving Boston at rush hour it added almost 2 hours onto my drive home. Still, I put a podcast on in the car and enjoyed the ride.
Union Oyster House
For some reason almost every time we have ordered sparkling water they have brought us San Pellegrino…which is fine but it is Italian. Perrier is bottled in the Languedoc so you would think they would give us that. Maybe that makes it too common. I don’t know.
We had a parking incident when we went to the coast. The parking lot is on a terraced slope and you had to start part way up the hill to get to the barrier where you stop and take the ticket. The sign at the bottom did not say “complet” but when we got to the barrier it wouldn’t give us a ticket or open up. Every time we pushed the button it said “complet”. To make matters more fun another car had come up behind us so we were stuck on the slope with the barrier in front and a car behind. We pushed the call button on the machine which worked and we got someone who said a few things very quickly in french and then hung up on us. I got out of the car to try to talk to the car behind us to see if they had any ideas and as soon as I got out of the car Andy hit the button again and it spit out a ticket and opened the barrier. I can’t help but feeling like it just didn’t like me.
All twelve of us went out to dinner in Carcassonne last night. I don’t know if you have ever tried to drive in a multi-car convoy in a medieval city but it is a bit of a challenge. Some members of the party are on a fairly strict budget so we picked a place that had a set menu of starter, main course and dessert for 15 euros. My starter was billed as tomato and mozzarella salad. It turned out to be mostly lettuce but it did have the two advertised items on it. The people that had ordered the vegetable soup were not so lucky, as the soup that came was fish soup instead! My main course was chicken. Hmm, while it was chicken and the flavor was adequate, it was really a large piece of chicken bone with a few bites of meat left on it. The dessert was a half a pear with some whipped cream and chocolate sauce on it. For the price I suppose it was acceptable but next time I am getting a meal in the under 20 Euro price range I will just go for a single course!
A group of us set of to see a castle, at Sarah’s prompting. I would love to tell you all about the Castle itself, but I’m not an approved historian. What I will say is, it was old, made of stone and at the top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.
As it turns out 30km on a “green road” refers to only the vertical change, it’s actually about 9million miles in terms of diesel consumption, along the narrowest switchback road imaginable, barely wide enough to maneuver my Volvo S80. On only one occasion did I drive us where there was no road, but nobody died. In my defense my eyes were closed, so it wasn’t my fault.
After clambering all over the damned thing we headed home and stopped in the spa town of Rennes-le-bain, where we could bathe in the thermal spring with a group of the nastiest looking hippies (and their dogs) in all of France.
As it turns out I can party like it’s 1999 if I pace myself. The wedding ceremony was Friday at 4:00 with the drinking and canapes starting immediately after. From then on it was non-stop until midnight Saturday night with a 6 hour sleep break thrown in. There was a formal dinner with free flowing wine and dancing under the stars in the vineyard. In the morning there was a little old French man with a collie slow roasting a whole pig in the front yard. Then Ashish’s mom brought out vats of Indian food that she had been cooking since the day before (It is possible that I ate enough of her awesome rice to soak up the majority of the wine that I was drinking!). Then there was more wine, more dancing and people being thrown into the pool! I did have to call it quits by midnight. I give kudos to the people that I could still here laughing at 2am!
Since the rental at the winery doesn’t start until tomorrow we are staying at a hotel tonight. I picked a place that is a 16th Century castle! It is really a castle too, not some trumped up manor house. The walls are 2 feet thick, there are no windows on the first floor and we had to carry our suitcases up three flights of turret staircase, worn to vast un-evenness by 500 years of use. Great fun.
We arrived here at about 1:30 and we asked the desk clerk if he could recommend somewhere for lunch. He gave us “the look” and said that we would not be able to find a decent lunch at that ridiculous time of day but their might be somewhere in the village that we could get a slice of pizza or something. With skillful intonation he managed to make the words “slice of pizza” sound like something akin to eating puppy poo.
We walked into the village and found the ubiquitous takeaway selling pizza and doner kebabs. Since I am with Andy we ordered kebabs of course and sat down to wait for them. There was a TV on behind my head and after a few minutes some music started coming from it. At first I couldn’t place it but it seemed very familiar, then I realized it made me think of my former baby sitter. It was the theme music for The Young & The Restless!! So I looked up and that is exactly what it was dubbed into French!! We are definitely off to an interesting start.
Once again we are getting ready to hit the road (well air). The cat has not yet been informed, but he knows something is going on.
Our last day and we couldn’t have asked for better weather – bright blue skies, sunshine and temperatures in the 60’s. We thought we would go to the famous Sunday flea market where we could fight off the gypsy pick pockets, but in the end we decided to sleep in for a change. You have to get to the market by 8:00am if you don’t want to be crushed by the crowds. We just couldn’t get going that early after days of walking and sightseeing. So we had a late breakfast, toured an art museum in the beautiful Palazzo Barberini and then wandered around shops etc. Ate a late lunch in the Piazza Navona, had a little gelato (of course) and now are deciding where to go for dinner. All in all a relaxing last day. Of course we went back to the Fountain of Trevi to toss in the traditional coin to bring us back to Rome someday.
Sarah is a fantastic tour guide. I don’t know how she seems to be able to figure out exactly how to get to wherever we are going down a million twisty turny little streets but she somehow always knows. And of course she can always provide the history lesson to go with it. I think she missed her calling. She should be a professional tour guide!
So that’s it for now. See you all back in the snowy cold U.S!
Amy here again – Okay yesterday I made you jealous with my dinner description. Today you can feel sorry for me. The elevator in our hotel has been broken for two days. We are on the fourth floor and each floor has 20 steps. You do the math! Plus there are a dozen steps just to get from the street to the lobby. By the time we get to our room I collapse gasping onto the bed. Let’s face it – I ain’t no spring chicken!! The double dilemma – if they get it fixed do we dare to take it?? I don’t want to be the one inside if it fails again!! Hmmm.
So to give ourselves a break we treated ourselves to a taxi ride to the Colosseum this morning. Then we spent hours hiking all around the ruins and the Roman Forum as well. We also walked all the way back to the hotel. So we just had to fortify ourselves with a yummy gelato before braving the steps to our room. I am currently resting my poor old legs while Sarah has gone to check out a pair of red heels she saw in a shop window. Ah to be young!
It’s Amy again – Okay, Sarah just posted about not spending money on designer originals – but what she didn’t say was that she is more than willing to spend money on good food. We just returned from our one specially planned dinner for this trip. Lots of little courses of heavenly food. I wish we had taken photos of each course! Each was as pleasing to the eye as it was to the palette. Easy way to drop a couple of hundred dollars (for 2 people!) but you have to splurge at least once!
(Elizabeth, do you think they would cater your wedding??)