Since 2011, I’ve gone somewhere for 10 days every June or July- Greece in 2011, Italy and Israel in 2012, Austria, Finland and Estonia in 2013, and Israel in 2014. Last winter, a friend of mine and I were discussing and he suggested we go to Mykonos and Germany this coming summer. An odd combo, but why not? How little I knew then…
In January, when US Airways and American were aligning their fare classes, there was a period where business class award tickets were available on every US Airways flight with seat availability. Using AA miles for transatlantic premium award tickets is typically very difficult, since AA releases very few seats, and while British Airways seats are plentiful, they have massive fuel surcharges. Finnair, Air Berlin, and Iberia offer some less expensive options, but they’re hardly widely available. So I jumped at the chance and booked a trip from DCA to Athens via Philly in US Airways Envoy Class, returning Munich to DCA, again via Philly.
My friend shortly after flaked out, but I decided to go through with it anyway. I had 9 days to divide between Greece and Germany, and settled on three nights in Mykonos (where I’ve been before), and three nights each in Cologne and Munich – two German cities I had never been to before.
Getting around Europe, I booked a Olympic Airways flight from Athens to Mykonos using cash, and then the once weekly nonstop flight from Mykonos to Cologne on Germanwings with cash as well. From Cologne to Munich is either a long train or a short flight. Though the flight is cheap, I had a stash of Airberlin miles, since, at the time of my Abu Dhabi trip on Etihad, AA wasn’t giving credit for Etihad flights to the US. The miles ended up only saving me $50 over a full-on cash booking, but the low mileage of the flight wasn’t going to make the difference for me earning miles.
In terms of hotels, I decided to return to the same hotel in Mykonos I stayed in 2011 – the Geranium, an all-gay, low-frills hotel just outside of Mykonos Town. The hotel was fine when I stayed at it then, with a convenient location, friendly staff, and nice pool, and it was affordable compared to other hotels in Mykonos.
For Cologne, I was initially looking at the Hyatt Regency, but Club Carlson announced a few changes in April that influenced my planning. Effective June 1, Club Carlson eliminated the best benefit of its Visa card: the last night free on a multi-night award stay – which I had taken advantage of Paris, Phuket, Helsinki, Panama City, Sydney, and Vienna. In addition, they also jacked up the award prices of many of their most desirable properties. So It was definitely time to burn some Club Carlson points, so I booked 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Cologne for a total of 44,000 points (in addition to 2 nights at the Radisson Martinique in New York for 50,000 points). Perhaps to make up for these devaluations, Club Carlson also commenced a number of bonus points promotions that made a paid stay worth a lot. In June, they announced a 30% sale in Europe, so I booked a prepaid rate at the art’otel Cologne for only 66 EUR, which actually seemed to be better located than the Radisson Blu.
Finally, for Munich, I was initially thinking about staying at the Hilton. But the bad experiences I had at the Hiltons in London, Abu Dhabi, and San Francisco during the Winter totally turned me off from Hilton, and convinced me that I shouldn’t spend a penny more to stay at a Hilton. I turned instead to Skyauction, an auction site with primarily boutique properties, which I had used in the past with mixed success (with great stays/deals in San Diego/Del Mar and Florence, and a disgusting stay in San Juan). It isn’t a blind auction site, so you know exactly what you’re bidding on. In Munich, the site had the Munchen Palace hotel available, which was well-reviewed, and though not super-centrally located, seemed convenient enough. My three nights ended up costing $227, which is a steal. The current rate per night at this 5-star hotel is $301 plus tax.
Of course, at the time of booking I had no idea that Greece and Germany would be essentially in an economic stalemate, with a close to frozen Greek economy. Although I have trip insurance, there’s no basis to cancel at this point. My biggest concern is cash. There are reports of merchants going cash only, the ATMs being empty, and a lack of small bills. If I were connecting in Germany or France or something this would have been no big deal, but of course I was on what had been the more appealing nonstop to Athens.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a brick and mortar bank in DC. So I decided to open account at TD Bank, which has convenient hours and many locations near my work and home in DC. Little did I know that TD Bank requires you to go into the bank to do anything, including get your account number and place an order for currency. On the phone I got shuffled from one branch to another, before being told to go to a third branch which would definitely have Euros without me ordering them. Of course, when I got there, the employee said they only had 500 Euro notes as there was a Greek man that had been coming by every day and clearing them out. He called another branch, which turns out had been cleared out by the same man, before getting to a third branch, which said they had plenty of Euros. So I walked a mile in the heat to branch number 5 and completed my order for 700 Euros, and was then asked if I wanted them in hundreds. My response was that I’d like it in the smallest bills possible, to which the response was that hundreds were the smallest they had because, again, the Greek man had cleared them out of all of their small bills. So I paid a $7.50 fee and ran around DC only to be stuck with 7 100-Euro notes, which will not be particularly helpful in buying coffee, drinks, and food. Sigh. The bank teller said I should try to go to Travelex on Monday and see if they can make change. Um, isn’t that why I have a bank?
I feel terrible for the people of Greece, who seem to have bought into a populist delusion as to their bargaining power, reminiscent of the Tea Party in irrational fervor. But for selfish reasons I also hope this gets resolved soon, as it has been stressing me out in a way that vacation should not. If anything, though, it makes the combination of countries I’m visiting on this trip a particularly interesting duo.