Many business travelers long to stay home over holiday periods to rest up from the road and to regain sanity and sense of self.  Now that I am not traveling for business as much, though, I relish getting away with my family.

But exactly when we get away is a challenge to plan because it’s always over holiday periods.  With a ninth grader and a fifth grader, we are shackled to the school calendar.  Over Christmas, for example, schools here don’t let out until December 20 this year, just as holiday travel is peaking.  Which makes finding airfares at any price, let alone reasonable, a struggle.

I yearn for the days of yore when I could phone up my business travel agency and ask them to book the whole thing: air, rail, rental car, accommodation.  All they required were out-and-back dates and a general budget.

Nowadays, I have to do it all myself, and as I said in my last post, it’s tedious work hunched over a laptop searching for each piece of the travel puzzle.  I am not proud to admit to the many hours this week alone I invested–some would say, squandered–surfing the ‘net to yield a few, not always satisfying, results.

But I did finally come up with a plan.  Since we have friends and family in Milan, Florence, and Venice, and since the kids want to see those famous cities plus Rome, I knew we would visit all four. Thus I looked for open jaw airfares from Raleigh to each city and return from another, straight round trips to each of those cities, including fares and schedules to Pisa, not far from Florence.

I used kayak.com to help me, plus the specific airline websites, principally AA and Delta because I have elite status with those carriers. I also checked the deals to Milan on Emirates recommended by Joe Brancatelli at joesentme.biz.

Many hours and several days later I concluded that the best deal I was going to get was American Airlines to MXP (Milan) and back for about $1250 per person via JFK, several hundred dollars more per ticket than I thought reasonable.  Thanks to my Gold status at AA I was able to secure seats on the JFK/MXP flights in the Main Cabin Extra section of the plane with 4-6 inches of extra legroom, better recline, and other advantages.  This was very lucky, since I had discovered by looking at scores of flights on many different days that Main Cabin Extra seats were mostly gone over Christmas on AA’s flights to Europe.

It’s also my last gasp flying in Main Cabin Extra seating at no extra charge.  Our return flights are on December 31, the last day of the year.  Starting the very next day (in 2014), American Airlines is charging Gold members for access to Main Cabin Extra seating.  Getting all four of us into the more comfortable coach cabin under my Gold status umbrella was a coup.

Just nailing down the air reservations took several days of nonstop research.  I admitted in my post last week that I had waited too long (early September) to make Christmas plans, but still, it shouldn’t have been this hard.  Now the slog begins to research and book hotels in Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome.

And what about getting around from place to place while we are there?  There are four of us, and maybe it makes sense to rent a car.

Well, no, at least not for me.  We are going to take the train and avoid driving.

Why?  Well, sure, I look look forward to being in Italy again.  I do love the country and its people and miss it.  But I had a bad experience driving there that lingers.

Some years ago my wife and I took a similar trip to Italy, also in December, and I did rent a car.  We also flew into MXP that time, too, and I picked up and returned a Hertz car at Malpensa.

It proved to be a nightmare from start to finish.  I’d driven in Italy many times before, starting in 1973 on my first visit there, so I felt very comfortable on Italian roads.  The driving problems were really bad traffic congestion everywhere (I won’t even complain about the exorbitant tolls) and the impossibility of parking (I won’t even mention the expense).

There was a third problem, too, which was a fluke:  It snowed.  A lot.  And it didn’t melt for five days.  We got caught in it on the Rome bypass, and it got worse and worse as we inched our way north to Tuscany.  It was a freak heavy snowfall for December all the way down to Naples, which made driving very dangerous, something I don’t expect to happen again.  The terrific traffic congestion, however, made my life miserable before the snowflakes fell and after they melted.

About parking:  I remember the frustration late one evening in Rome trying to find a parking place or parking garage near our hotel and finally having to park where I thought it was illegal overnight, then getting up early to move the car before it was ticketed or towed.  Ditto for every little village:  All those quaint walled towns with narrow winding streets have zero places to park.  You have to park well outside the towns and either hoof it a good distance or take a city bus to and from the remote parking areas.  It’s a big time killer, and inconvenient.

In Florence there are many downtown streets where you aren’t even allowed to drive now, let alone to park.  Even residents have trouble getting permits (my cousins among them).  I was amazed when I was in Florence three years ago at the absolute restrictions on traffic in the city core areas, including the streets paralleling the south side of the Arno where my cousins have an apartment building.  Native Florentines with whom I spent time complained they were always getting hugely expensive citations for driving on their own streets and then couldn’t find any place to park.  They’d laugh about the duality of the fines for illegal parking on streets where it’s illegal to drive. How could one get a ticket for parking on a street where you weren’t supposed to drive in the first place? they would ask.

About traffic congestion:  At one point on the autostrada north of Rome, one truck too many cut me off, and I lost it.  I gesticulated angrily to the driver.  Big mistake.  Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace, but at least it was moving.  The truck driver violently stopped his truck ahead of me, got out of the cab, walked back to me, screamed curses at me, and then punched me through the open window.  While I sat stunned in the rental car, he calmly walked back to his truck and drove off.  This was in the center lane of the autostrada with tens of thousands of frustrated, angry motorists now wildly gesticulating at me to get moving, their horns blaring.  It was a mortifying, and humbling, moment.

I have other unpleasant memories of driving on that trip which made me vow never to do it again.  I might rent a car for a day or two in Florence to drive around the Tuscan countryside, perhaps even as far as Volterra, Pisa, and the coast, but we’ll stick with the train most of the time.

So about train tickets, I was advised by friends who visit Italy often to buy them now because of the heavy Christmas passenger traffic.  Buying early also ensures much cheaper rail fares.

Thus I dutifully tried this week to purchase rail tickets for December 21-30, but every Italian rail website refused my requests.  Seems there is a Catch-22 at work:  European train schedules change in early December, but train tickets and train reservations for the period then and after cannot be obtained until the Euro rail Grand Poobahs release the new schedules.  That won’t happen until some time in mid-October, after which, of course, there will be a mad rush of Internet traffic vying to buy holiday tickets, all hoping to snag a discounted rail fare.  All I can do is sit and wait until that indeterminate date to compete for tickets on the trains we prefer.

Meantime, I am getting smart on hotel options in Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, thanks to advice from friends and sites like Quikbook.com and Venere.com.  And burning up ever more hours on the web doing it.

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