All travel is selfish, but I am still disappointed

Okay, I admit that all travel is selfish.

Nonetheless, I am shamelessly disappointed that I can’t find “reasonable” fares to Europe over Easter. Not even with five days of flexibility to work with. Why not?  Principally because my travel dates are siloed in Easter week, one of the most expensive holiday periods of the year, and so my search for a “reasonable” airfare to Europe came up with zilch.

Mine is an especially selfish admission, given that current airfares to Europe from major gateways like NYC, ORD, IAD, and BOS are reportedly the cheapest in decades, that is, as long as you have a lot of date flexibility, and as long as you live near one of those major gateway airports.

But with a high schooler still at home I remain a slave to the tyranny of the school calendar and have no such flexibility.  Our daughter has a Spring Break which coincides with Easter, and only within those beginning and ending dates can I plan family vacation travel.

Living in Raleigh, not a big gateway city, also narrows my chances of finding bargain fares, even with two direct flights RDU to Europe every day (to LHR and CDG).

Then there’s my “bad timing” problem:  We aimed to fly to Munich in order to get connecting trains to Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary, but Air Berlin is defunct as of this week, and that’s impacting fares to Europe, particularly to and from Deutschland. Lufthansa and other carriers serving Germany are ecstatic and have jacked up fares. Of course that may not last, but it is a present factor.

Oh, and while I am blabbering guilt, one more thing: My definition of what is a “reasonable” round trip fare from RDU to Munich is entirely subjective and therefore also selfish:  a thousand bucks, more or less, seems like a fair amount to visit the Old Country again.

I mean, who doesn’t love Europe?  I fell for the Continent’s uncountable charms way back in 1973 the first time I winged across the Atlantic. My journey began from JFK on a Sabena World Airways 747.  The flight landed in Brussels during the magnificent fury of a northern European storm.  I recall nervously taking note of the exits as we descended through the extremely low ceiling, tossing and turning wildly in the wind, mentally calculating how fast I could bound from my aisle seat to the door should the big plane smack down hard on the ground, as I thought likely.

The Sabena pilot masterfully landed the jumbo jet perfectly centered on the runway, if a bit hard, leaving me with an indelible memory of my welcome to the Continent.  I’ve been hooked on Europe ever since.  In later years I had the great good fortune to work in Western Europe and England over a series of years, and I have gone back frequently ever since to visit friends, family, and favorite places.  I’ve always been able to find fares from RDU that didn’t break the bank.

Until now. My definition of a reasonable fare—at or under $1,000 in coach, or frequent flyer awards at or under 60,000 miles—eludes me for a trip in late March to early April, 2018. Forty-three years after my first trip, airfares to Europe hover in the $1,400-1,700 round trip range during the Easter period when I selfishly want to go.

And that’s not even for premium economy. PE fares are kissing $2,000. Taking my wife and daughter would cost $4,500-6,000 just to fly 4,500 miles to Munich from Raleigh.  By comparison, we are flying 6,603 miles to Rarotonga (Cook Islands, in the far South Pacific) at Christmas for the same $2,000 per ticket in premium economy, and Qatar and Emirates have ongoing sales which include fares of only $1,100 in coach to fly 9,023 miles to Bangkok and even less for the 8,051 miles to Johannesburg.

As I said, we do have some date flexibility even during the busy Easter holiday period, and I searched every combination within five days either side of our optimal dates.  No joy.  Everything is $1,400-1,700 for itineraries of 12-15 hours.

Online searches sometimes yield slightly cheaper fares (to as low as $937-1,132), but those itineraries involve 22-36 hour travel durations with overnights between connections in both directions.  An example is using Turkish Air to Istanbul and then backtracking to Munich with overnight connections.

Even American Airlines shows long itineraries requiring overnight connections (e.g., through LHR going, and PHL returning) for its cheapest Easter fares. The overall times for such flight combinations require nearly two days in each direction, cutting almost four days off a seven-day trip.  Which is, of course, ridiculous.  Searches on failed to yield any better results.

The same disparities in trip times showed up in award travel searches on American and Delta.  AAdvantage requires a minimum of 30,000 miles one way—60,000 round trip—for award travel to most places in Europe in March and April.  I found plenty of options at the 30,000 mile one way level for three of us, but they all required overnight stays or long connections, making the itineraries 20-30 hours rather than the usual 12-14 hours.

However, checking for just one award ticket, the site would show a reasonable connection on some days over Easter with a total of about 15 hours travel time origin to destination.  Trying the same dates for two award tickets reverted to the very long trip times.  So I put one such single person award on hold, and then tried again on for an identical award travel itinerary.  I was successful in booking the second award ticket.  I infer from this experience that AA won’t allow more than one award ticket per reasonable itinerary, but I fail to comprehend the logic of such a prohibition.

Perhaps the airline wishes to discourage award travel by not making it easy for families to fly together on reasonably-timed itineraries.  But I suspect they would say the software logic that blocks more than one award seat on flights keeps award seats open to more would-be travelers.  If so, the unintended consequence is to encourage single travelers at the expense of couples and families.

I even phoned AA’s elite line and asked for help booking award seats in my flexible date range over Easter RDU/MUC.  I lucked out with a wonderful agent who was committed to find three seats for me, no matter what it took.  Loved her spirit!  However, after spending 40 minutes looking at every possible combination of partner airlines and possible connecting cities (e.g., Berlin, Madrid, London, Helsinki), the American agent couldn’t make anything work.

One insight gained from that long call was that AA’s best RDU/MUC connection was through Philadelphia in both directions, but the Airbus widebody used on the best PHL/MUC flights had zero award seats available, despite being nearly empty of bookings almost six months in advance.  I had wondered why that preferred connection showed up when I looked at paid tickets on, but never showed when looking online for AAdvantage award seats, not even for one person.

As a courtesy to me, my business travel agent (Steve Crandell, owner of Discount Travel in JAX) also spent a good deal of time looking for my definition of “reasonable” fares (about $1,000 each round trip RDU/MUC).  Nada during Easter.  Perhaps there will be a fare sale for travel in March-April, he said, but nothing announced so far, confirming that what I saw online is also what travel agents see.

Well, it is over a big holiday period; it is from a non-gateway city; and I am looking for flights to a German city just when a lot of capacity has vanished (Air Berlin).  After striking out entirely, our family gave up on Europe this time and decided instead to fly to Bangkok on Qatar Airways in March and April for a total of $3,300 round trip for three tickets.  We will have a grand time there and north up in Chiang Rai.

But of course I will never be finished with Europe. Stubbornly clinging to my selfish definition of a “reasonable” airfare limit to Europe, and with so many other headwinds, I simply chose a more cost-effective destination for this particular trip.

2 thoughts on “All travel is selfish, but I am still disappointed

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