Originally published 13 January 2018
Our first day skiing, Le Tour, Chamonix France
We arrived back in the states and I immediately caught a cold. It happened on the plane or I got back to work and acquired a case of the TTU cooties…..not real cooties…just a cold. I’m close to recovering, I’ve caught things up at work, and we’ve had time to reflect on our trip. I usually do a final post on a trip, and this is it.
I’ll address things as I have in the past. No rhyme or reason, just comments on things as they pop into my head. They’ll cover everything from where we went, how we went, what we saw, and who we met. Laurie also had some thoughts and I’ll post those as well. We had a great trip and this is what I thought of it.
Airfare to Europe
One of the big expenses traveling to Europe is airfare. This trip we traveled from Nashville to London, via Delta, for around 160 dollars. How did we do this for $160? Frequent flyer miles. Using “awards” tickets, all you have to pay are the taxes and fees associated with a ticket. The actual airfare is free. Do we fly that much???? No, we don’t. We had between 20 and 30 k frequent flyer miles each but that won’t get you to Europe. We earned most of the miles by using a Delta Skymiles Gold Amex card.
The credit card may or may not be a great a deal for a regular credit card depending on your circumstances and needs. It has a high interest rate so you don’t want to carry a balance. It has a fee of $95 a year, waived the first year. It is not without perks though. There are several reasons that this credit card may be worth considering.
When you start paying utilities and regular living expenses, hitting the numbers isn’t that hard. Then you just pay the balance. I actually paid for things and then paid the credit card bill as soon as it posted just so I could get the miles. Couple those 35-50,000 miles with the miles we already had, and we’re off to Europe! For this particular flight it took around 70,000 miles. If you have a flexible schedule you can do it for 60k….and every now and then they’ll have a “sale” for awards tickets and you can do even better.
We used the card extensively this past year, continuing to pay for anything possible with it then immediately paying it off. We’ve accrued a substantial number of additional frequent flyer miles. During our return layover in the Atlanta airport, a credit card rep talked us into upgrading to the Platinum Amex. This has a different set of perks, but the biggie is if you spend $1000 in the first three months, you get an additional 35,000 miles to add to your balance. This, coupled with the miles I already have, puts me where I need to be for another Europe ticket……and we just got back.
In addition to this, I noticed a great offer for an American Airlines Mastercard a few months ago. It was a very similar offer, but offered 60K miles. With American, 60k miles will get you round trip to London. We took a break from using the Delta card and used the American Airlines card, and now we have enough American Airlines miles for a round trip to London. Maybe further.
After I get the 35000 on the new Delta card we’ll have enough miles for two international tickets each. Our next TWO trips to Europe should be covered by our miles. We will continue to earn miles, using our cards to pay for anything we can think of. The key is to use the card to pay for things you already have the cash for, and then immediately pay the card off. My only fear is that we’ll run out of offers!
By the way….if you want to do this and I refer you, you’ll get the most current bonus and I’ll get 10000 miles for referring you! So email me….I’ll be glad to refer you, and I’ll do it quickly!
We flew Delta from Nashville to Atlanta, Atlanta to London Heathrow, and back. We were on time both ways and the trip was uneventful. Delta has seatback monitors on their international flights with hundreds of movies, tv shows, and games. We always bring our own earbuds as they’re more comfortable, and we like them better. They give freebies out on the flight if needed. The food wasn’t bad, and the flight attendants were nice. Delta did a good job.
We flew Easyjet, one of the biggest discount airlines in Europe. We flew London to Geneva, Geneva to Nice, Nice to Barcelona, and Barcelona back to London. The flights varied between 45 minutes and 1 hour 15 minutes. All were on time but one, and it was an hour late due to excess traffic at the airport. Not a bad track record, and for the price we were quite pleased.
We decided to make an overnight stop at London both coming and going. This made it easier as it gave us time to decompress and get things together. We flew into and out of Heathrow, which has subway service to central London and it’s a cheap trip. We had hotels near the tube (London for subway) both ways as well. It was just…..easy. And we had a nice time in London.
We spent one night at an airport hotel in Geneva. We had stayed there on a previous trip and knew what to expect. Switzerland is expensive. It’s very nice, but not cheap. We had dinner there and caught our bus to Chamonix the next day. I loved the week we spent in Switzerland a few years ago and I just love the country. Just be aware that you’ll pay considerably more in Switzerland than in most other countries in Europe for nearly everything.
The French Alps were breathtaking. The scenery was incredible, the food was amazing, and we truly enjoyed our time there. Chamonix had excellent transportation and you can get anywhere in the valley without a car. Buses and trains are free if you’re staying overnight and run fairly often. You can walk to the nearest bus stop and go to the town center or any ski area. The bus stops right at the lift and you can get off, board the lift and ski.
Aiguille du Midi, as the moon rises over Chamonix.
Chamonix had many good restaurants. Every meal we had in town was superb. The breads were fantastic, and I love breads. I was tempted with every style and type of pastry known to man, all of which were like baked heroin. Food quality and choices in the grocery store were wonderful and we even cooked a few meals in our apartment.
Chamonix was incredibly convenient. It is within an hour of Geneva’s airport with multiple bus lines running directly from the airport to downtown Chamonix. It is not unrealistic to expect a bus every 20 to 30 minutes. A ride purchased in advance is around 25 dollars.
Chamonix has a lot of things going for it. Lots of places to eat and shop, great transportation and links, gorgeous scenery, fantastic skiing. It’s so easy to go there for a vacation. We have discussed how easy it was to visit Chamonix and while we like going new places, it would be a great place to come back and visit. Coming back to ski next year is definitely open for consideration. I loved Chamonix.
We skied last year in Germany for a day. I was thrilled to finally get to ski in the Alps. Most of the mountain wasn’t open, it was icy, and the snow was garbage. But it was my chance to ski the Alps and I was so pleased and thankful to have the chance. I figured I would never have the chance to ski in the Alps again. I was wrong….and I’m very happy that I was.
The skiing portion of our trip was my favorite and my most memorable. I loved sharing it with Laurie. I want to come back to Chamonix and ski again. I’ll remember it the rest of my life.
Nice, Italy, and the Riviera
I enjoyed Nice. I especially enjoyed more French cooking, and leisurely dinners with Laurie. The French make dining out an event. Sitting at an outdoor table, having drinks, appetizers, a wonderful meal, and dessert, in a slow and stretched out manner, with a steady flow of people to watch going by. Dinner is an event there and I could easily get used to it. It’s very social and relaxing. I really liked that part of Nice.
Laurie was thrilled and humbled to experience the Chagall Museum. This museum was a highpoint of our visit to Nice for her. She was able to see works of art she was familiar with, many where they were conceived. I was glad that Laurie was able to visit and experience something that meant that much to her. It makes me happy to know she’s happy when we travel. The Chagall Museum made her happy.
We also went up the coast and crossed into Italy and went to a great street market. We had great Italian food, and it was a lot more lively than France. It was cheaper too. Our short day trip spurred discussions about a possible trip to Italy and seeing more of that country. I ordered books and maps to study about Italy when we returned home. They arrived today. Maybe one of those frequent flyer tickets I talked about earlier…………
I’ve been involved with racing most of my life. I drove formula cars for 15 years. Monaco was a huge deal for me. It was sort of like going to some fantasy place that you read about or saw in a movie, a piece of movie magic that wasn’t real. It was like Oz. All my life I read about the Grand Prix there. I watched it on TV. Now, I’ve been there and I found out it wasn’t Oz, it was real. I touched it.
Laurie was incredibly excited about Barcelona. It came highly recommended by Dr. Stinson at the university. Laurie was not disappointed. Barcelona held many art and architectural treasures and Laurie was thrilled to experience them. Barcelona has much more to offer than we were able to cover in the five days we had. It’s a great city.
We also were able to experience New Years Eve in Barcelona. Huge crowds had assembled in one of the plazas to view a special fountain. This was combined with fireworks, a laser show, and music. While Berlin New Years is sort of crazy, Barcelona was quite civilized and a lot of fun. Berlin is of course much larger with over 1 million people in the Tiergarten. We were told that there were between 80 and 100k people on the square in Barcelona. We enjoyed it.
Like the old town in other cities we visited, Barcelona did not disappoint. The Barcelona old town had many shops, restaurants, and historic places. Similar to Nice, we found ourselves having leisurely dinners with no hurry to move along. It was nice to sit there and just enjoy the moment together, just take in what is going on around you.
Barcelona is famous for architectural treasures, and it did not disappoint. I have worked my entire life building things and I have worked with many designers. I am an engineer and I’ve always said that engineers were engineers. I’ve also said that architects were more like artists. Laurie must agree with this as she was very interested in the architecture in Barcelona.
Barcelona was an easy city to get around. Trains to and from the airport made getting into town very easy. Barcelona also has a good subway system that covers a large part of the city. We only took a bus once or twice, but the bus network seemed good as well.
While they have an unlimited transit pass, it’s not the best deal. It’s around 6 euros a day. They have a ten ride ticket called T-10 which is right around ten euros, or a euro a ride. You have to make at least 6 rides a day to make the pass pay for itself. The T-10 can be used for more than one person as well. Laurie would put it in the turnstile where it would register a ride, then I would use it again and follow her through the gate.
I used new gear this trip. Luckily I was able to shake it out on short domestic trips before we went. I originally planned on trying an Android tablet and bluetooth keyboard. This proved a bit cumbersome and when I picked up a Microsoft Surface for a bargain, I migrated to that. I used one at work and they're fantastic. It worked much better than the android platform and I'm very happy with it.
I also had a new camera. My old camera started having focusing issues about a month before we left. I replaced it with another Canon camera, a bit further up the food chain quality wise. I think it has made a difference as I have received a couple of comments saying that the quality of the photos this trip are better than previous trips. More colorful, more depth. I thought they may be better but it's hard to trust just your own opinion. What did you guys think of the photos this year? Better quality than last year? Let me know.
It seems that airport security in Europe has elevated. We had our passports checked between all EU countries this time. In the past it was hit or miss, and sometimes we were checked and sometimes not. In the past, we didn’t have to take our shoes off to go through security in Europe but now we do. We also noticed fully armed, uniformed 4 man military patrols in nearly all European airports. I can’t say all of them but I can’t recall one we didn’t. Security is obviously heightened from previous trips.
When you go through passport control, you are interviewed. It’s subtle, but it’s a real interview. The number of questions they ask has expanded and they’re asking a lot more. There are more agents handling passport control as the interviews are taking longer.
Global Entry and returning to the U.S. via Atlanta
We arrived in Atlanta, in no hurry to get through customs. We had a 5 hour layover so we weren’t pushed. We went to the Global Entry kiosk, Laurie scanned her passport, it took her photo, and scanned her fingerprints. The kiosk prints out a receipt and she’s basically done.
I don’t know why the kiosks don’t like me but the damn things don’t. I have rough skin on my hands and I think that it possibly doesn’t like my fingerprint scans. Either way, it spit my receipt out and it had an “X” on it. This means I have to go to an officer and they look at me and confirm it’s really me. In reality, it only adds about two minutes to the process, and is still much more efficient than standing in the regular customs/immigration lines.
Global entry also included TSA pre-check. When you go through airport security in the U.S., you go through a shorter line and have to take less stuff out, you can leave your shoes on, etc. It’s worth the 100 bucks for 5 years so we can skip line coming back into the country as well as having TSA pre-check so we undergo less scrutiny at U.S. airports. We are pleased we have it.
As for shoes and airport security, we don’t have to remove them at U.S. airports because of TSA pre-check. Except for me of course. I usually wear hiking boots and they have a bunch of metal eyelets. These set off the magnetometer at the airport (metal detector) so I have to take them off anyway. The only time I wasn’t pulled aside for “extra” screening was when I removed my boots.
I have a special travel belt that goes through security with no problem. It has a secret zipper compartment and I keep two $100 bills in it for emergencies. It also has a plastic buckle. I don’t have to take it off which makes it easier everywhere. I’ve never been tripped up by this belt when going through security.
Rechecking bags after international flights
When you clear immigration, you have to claim your bags and immediately re-check them. I do not remember having to go through security again however. We did once flying into JFK, but we had to leave the sterile area and take a city bus to anther terminal and check in for another flight. It wasn’t a “sterile” connection. Going through security again didn’t surprise me in that situation.
In Atlanta, if you have a connecting flight, you have to be screened again after re-checking your bags, even though you haven’t left a “sterile” area. And no, there isn’t a TSA pre-check for it. I just couldn’t figure out why they would want to run us through security when we had already been through security. No one there seemed to have a reason why. We weren’t angry about it or anything, it just didn’t make sense.
The drive home and return to work
We arrived home around 2 a.m. local time. As we started out on Saturday morning in London at 8 a.m. (2 a.m. Tennessee time) we had been awake for 24 hours. Granted, with the exception of 40 minutes of sleep between Atlanta and Nashville when I slept. It was not difficult getting to sleep when we were finally home. I wasn’t able to sleep on the London/Atlanta leg….it was the wrong time of day for sleep. We made it fine.
I returned to work the next day and fell right into the swing of things. The project managers I work with try to take care of each other’s projects when someone isn’t there. We don’t play the “not my problem” game….we take care of things. We all do a good job of it. Consequently, things were pretty much in hand when I returned. It took about half a day to wade through all the emails, set up a few things, and solve a few issues, but other than that things went smoothly. I work with great people, the best I’ve ever worked with. Working with people like this, and doing things how we do it makes taking a vacation like this possible.
I love traveling with my wife. It’s “my thing”. I used to race, I used to play a lot of high stakes poker. Now, I travel the globe……and it’s amazing. I see and do things I never expected in my lifetime, and I share the experiences with the best travel companion on the planet. She spurred this interest in me. She’s wonderful and I adore her. She had a few things to say about this trip and I’m posting them below. Take a look at them for Laurie’s take on things she remembers and noticed.
My original intent in sharing that first blog was to share the trip with friends and family. While I still want to do this, I have people who tell me they took the plunge and started to travel because they read about our experiences. While not the original intent, it is a wonderful by-product. Sharing our stories has led people to travel, and make stories of their own.
I’ve said in the past that life is a collection of stories. Encouraging people to go out and make stories of their own gives this process more value to me. I hope I can encourage you to go out, and find your own stories. Thanks for following along.
==Laurie's thoughts on things!==
It is always interesting to me to see how societies evolve given the environment that they live in. Chamonix and the adjoining towns spread along the valley floor nestled between the alps. They have evolved a whole society around winter sports, mostly skiing, and have done an excellent job of meeting the needs of travelers to the area. The transportation system between the towns, up the mountains and between the mountains was easy to access, all included in one price and ran frequently enough.
Although Garmish was cheaper in the long run, Chamonix was the easiest place we have visited for mountain access so far. One of the areas, Les Houches, had a lot of little restaurants scattered around and that was my favorite area. The intermediate slopes were easy to find, nice long runs between lifts and restroom breaks with great food – what more could you ask for.
Skiing there was by far the best skiing I have ever done. We were really lucky with the weather and it only snowed the last day making visibility very difficult. Fog can lay in the lower elevations all day but it was only foggy in the evening while we were there. All the snow they got before we arrived was groomed and softened up as the day warmed making it easier to maneuver. Ski equipment has evolved over the past 20 years, especially the boots. My feet never hurt and were never cold. The shorter, broader skis give great control and less stress the knees.
Renting equipment was the way to go, and the rental guys were always cheerful and helpful. We didn’t bring googles and next time I will definitely have them. I have good sunglasses but they only worked for the part of the day that was sunny. Physically we didn’t push it. Given my age, and lack of recent ski experience, the fact that I made it through in one piece AND had fun made it a success. I think with skiing in particular, the conditions can make or break the experience, and we had nearly perfect conditions.
I’m glad we found the Monkey Bar for drinks and eats and making new friends. Mostly Brits or variations thereof. Although I like being where a foreign language is spoken, sometimes its nice to be able to hear English as the common language.
Nice was a much bigger city than I had thought. I always pictured it as a smallish place. While it wasn’t really anything remarkable to me in winter, I can imagine summer being a different ball game. The highlight was the Chagall museum. Entering the museum the first room is huge canvases of his Biblical series. Monochromatic and vibrant, they elicited a visceral response much like entering the Sagrada, of awe and humility. It was an honor to be able to see so much of his work in one place. I did get the audio tour which I recommend. It had interesting information but wasn’t tedious, explaining the symbolism that pervades his work.
Another favorite in Nice, the lady on the bus there who decided it was her job to make sure nobody sat in the seats for the handicapped. I could make up a whole short story about her life, and what led her to be the self-appointed bus monitor. Nice is a late night city. Dinner food was hard to find until after 7pm and then places got crowded. While I was glad to have seen the French Riviera, I am not itching to go back.
The other end of that spectrum was Ventimiglia. A smaller, unpretentious town with an amazing weekly street market. The market was interesting because it had things that attracted tourists and one time shoppers, as well as items and food that were clearly bought by local people on their weekly shopping trip. I really wish we had access to the foods markets they have.
As we travel, the old parts of these European cities begin to resemble each other. Narrow streets, alleyways, apartments above the commercial establishment at street level. Venice, Nice, Barcelona – all that area has been inhabited for centuries. As history goes, ours in this country is so short compared to there. Running across building ruins from the Roman times, churches, synagogues and other places from 300AD and on – pretty amazing. And that sense of antiquity is something I felt wandering all these places, particularly when we got away from the crowds and it was quiet.
Barcelona is a great city. Easy to get around on the metro (buses were another story) and walkable as well. I really miss being somewhere that has public transportation. It makes life so much easier. I love the outdoor seating throughout the winter in all these places. They put up heaters and carry on. It makes the city alive and vibrant even in the winter. Winter here everyone scurries inside. It’s another late night society, although it wasn’t hard to find good food (especially tapas) most any time. So much to see – Gaudi sites, the old city, Montjuic, museums. We didn’t see all of it and I would go back but at a different time of year just to see the difference.
The Joan Miro Foundation is much more extensive a collection and museum than I anticipated. Inside is Calder’s mercury fountain that he donated to the foundation since he and Miro were friends. It really is mercury (behind a glass barrier) and a tribute to the mercury miners of Spain. Miro is completely different than Chagall. Miro’s work takes time to digest.
His was a more intellectual approach and each work makes its own statement as he defied the established art norms. For example, one large tryptic of white cavasses contained a single black line because ‘every form begins with a single line’. I didn’t get the audio tour this time since there were very good explanations by each piece in English.
London on each side of the trip was a good stop over. I love London and we will go back and spend some real time there.
A few asides about European travel. There are no washcloths in Europe. An oddity I found a way around by using a hand towel to wash my face. Many of the bathrooms are single unisex toilets in restaurants. However, many also don’t have toilet seats so be prepared to squat if you’re female. Outside of restaurants there are public toilets but generally cost between .50 and 1 Euro.
European internet in hotels can be slow, so be patient. While our phones did work over there, again, they were slow and if you are relying on them for navigation, the maps can be very slow to load. Paper maps were our go to. Public transit systems usually have a multi-day pass which is worth it and made it so we hopped on and off without worrying about cost. Handy because in Barcelona I developed blisters on one foot (never had that happen before) and made walking more difficult.
Over the counter drugs for common cold, etc are available but generally only in pharmacies. These are easily located and the pharmacists are helpful but don’t generally speak much English. They are big on homeopathic medicines and I found them to be very effective.
Doing laundry can be a bit expensive so taking clothes that are easily washed and dry quickly helps. I have clothes that I don’t put in dryers so had to plan to do laundry when we could hang stuff at least over night to dry. Having enough clothes for 6 days meant only having to do laundry twice. I like staying in a place for at least 3 full days. Arrival day is usually orientation to the new location and departure day if flying can take a good part of the day getting to the airport, etc.
I hope you enjoyed joining us as much as we enjoyed our trip!
Final slide show of the trip