Back from Europe: a Crazy/Amazing Rollercoaster of a Trip

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My family just got back from a two-week European adventure, visiting Montenegro, Paris and Iceland. I’m still processing everything that happened (which was a lot!), but hoping that writing this post will help me with that. This wasn’t just a regular vacation, but a long-awaited family reunion with my Belarusian relatives.

I can honestly say that this was the most intense trip of my life, so far. Up until the first flight, we were not sure if it would even happen at all. I’ve written about my rigamarole with changing my family’s tickets from Belarus to Montenegro. At the time I didn’t realize this was only one of the many obstacles we would have to overcome…

What went wrong

Let me list just some of the challenges that were thrown my way:

1. My husband got a pinched nerve and my daughter got strep throat just days before our flight to Europe

My husband still doesn’t know how he acquired this injury. Perhaps he lifted something at work. The bottom line: he was in a horrific pain, and he is normally not a complainer. We had maybe two weeks before the trip was set to start, and he was hoping the pain would get resolved on its own. It didn’t. He could barely sleep, it was that bad. There was no way he would be able to endure a cramped economy seat for 12 hours. It would be torture. We discussed me taking the kids to Europe by myself, not an ideal situation, to say the least.

I decided to make an emergency appointment with a chiropractor, and after a few sessions, my husband’s back pain has subsided. Best money we’ve ever spent. He would be able to fly. Then, just a few days before the flight, my daughter got a sore throat. Ugh. I dreaded testing her for Covid, but knew it needed to be done. Negative, phew. She had strep throat, so we put her on antibiotics. The day before the flight, she was super congested and felt awful. Fortunately, the next morning she seemed much better.

We had to fly from Orlando to Chicago, then Frankfurt, then Tivat in Montenegro without breaking up the trip. That’s just how our award tickets worked out. Needless to say, it would be a grueling 20 hours. I was very concerned that the rest of the family would get sick just in time for the departure. Miraculously, it didn’t happen.

2. Lounge-less in Chicago and dealing with a flight delay 

The morning of our flight, I got a notification that our flight from Chicago to Frankfurt was delayed by almost an hour. This was the domino that I was really hoping wouldn’t fall. You see, our connection time for Tivat flight was already only 1.5 hours, and Frankfurt is a giant airport. Now we would only have  30 minutes.

Oh, and did I mention that Lufthansa only flies to Tivat once a week? As crazy as it sounds, I was very calm when I got the text message. I figured it was just another challenge we would need to deal with, and we would. It was important to get to Europe, and we would figure it out from there. We would drive to Montenegro, if that’s what it takes.

Since we now had four hours in Chicago airport, my son and I wanted to go to downtown area to see the “Bean”. But since my daughter wasn’t feeling great, she asked us to stay put. So we did. Instead, we decided to check out Swissport lounge, courtesy of our Priority Pass memberships.

This was a super dumb idea, since it was located in a different terminal. That meant going through security twice, in order to get back to our departure gate. But we had the time, so why not? Well, when we finally got there, there was a notice that the lounge would not be accepting new guests until closing time. So, we did all of that hoop jumping for nothing. Not a good way to start a trip.

Dejected, we made our way back to the gate and found a little corner to hang out for a few hours.

We don’t need no stinkin’ lounge

3. Missing our flight to Tivat by one minute 

We had about forty minutes to connect in Frankfurt, and Lufthansa crew member has assured me that they would wait for us. Still, I’ve told my husband I would run ahead of the rest of the family, so they knew we made it. Of course, we had to take a train to another terminal and go through security…again.

But we were making progress, and I could see my family right behind me. I ran to the desk and a friendly agent told me they would hold the plane until my husband and kids made it to the gate. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt. We made it! Or so I thought…

Fifteen minutes passed, and there was no sign of my family. My husband is very good with directions, so I knew he didn’t get lost. I tried calling, but there was no answer. The agent told me if they don’t come in the next five minutes, the plane would take off without us. Six minutes later my family showed up. My husband got flagged for terrorist risk due to the abundance of electronics he had in his laptop bag. You know, to keep the kids entertained.

They called a security guard, who showed up with a giant rottweiler dog and a semi-automatic weapon. They then proceeded to inspect each electronic item one by one, and eventually cleared him to go to the gate. Alas, our once-a-week plane already took off.

I immediately had to go into the crisis management mode. I knew if I started losing it, it would only make things more stressful for the family. I had to keep calm and take care of the situation. I figured I would scream in the shower later or something. This is where it pays to do research ahead of time. Since I knew that missing this flight was a real possibility, I looked up some potential options while we were stuck in Chicago.

If I wanted us to fly to Montenegro, we would have to take a flight that involved at least one (long) connection. I’ve decided to think outside the box and try Dubrovnik in neighboring Croatia. I quickly checked to see if we would be required to take a Covid test, and that wasn’t the case. Since we are US citizens, we also would not need a visa.

So, I talked to a Lufthansa agent and asked to be rebooked on Croatian Airlines, which happens to be a codeshare of Lufthansa. My request was granted, and we were also given a free hotel stay, plus vouchers for food. The hotel was nothing fancy, but we just needed to crash somewhere for the night. I was happy that they gave us two connecting rooms, so we had more space to spread out.

I should also add that I was able to stay calm because I had good travel insurance in place, so I knew I could book the flights myself and get reimbursement in case Lufthansa decided to shaft me.

On the plus side, I’ve reached out to the guy who was supposed to pick us up from Tivat to let him know what happened, and he offered to get us from Dubrovnik instead for only 75 euros. Dubrovnik is located about 2 hours from Kotor, including time at the border crossing. I asked him if he would be willing to do a brief detour to the city if I paid him 100 euros total, and he happily agreed.

I really wanted to see Dubrovnik anyway, and didn’t think it would work out since my family would need a visa to enter Croatia (a deal breaker). But I got my wish in the end due to our missed flight. We didn’t spend a lot of time in Dubrovnik, but got a chance to walk around the old town for a bit. My family was flying to Montenegro later that day, so we were in Kotor by the time they got there.

Making lemonade out of lemons

 

3. My husband lost his special Australian hat in Frankfurt airport

This may not seem like a big deal, but definitely put a damper on things. I did go by the “lost and found” department after changing our flights, but it was closed for the day. We could have stopped there the next morning, right before our flight to Dubrovnik, but my husband said to just leave it. He does have another Australian hat that I bought for my late FIL, which he ended up inheriting.

In retrospect, I wish I would have insisted on going and looking for it the next morning, but I was very tired and took the path of least resistance. There was no guarantee that the hat would even be there, and we really needed to catch that flight to Dubrovnik.

I’m debating on whether to reach out to Frankfurt airport to get it shipped to US. Ironically, this is the second item my husband lost in Frankfurt airport. Five years ago, we paid $150 to get our camera back.

4. My relatives got flagged for security in Istanbul airport on their return trip to Belarus

There were some issues on the flight to Montenegro, and the Belavia rep had to make some phone calls to resolve them. I was concerned about that happening, and for a good reason. But they did give them boarding passes all the way through Podgorica airport in Montenegro.

On their return trip, they only checked them through to Istanbul, where they had to collect the bags and re-check with Belavia. They barely had enough time to take care of everything. On top of it, my nephew has grown so much since his passport was issued, that Turkish immigration officer took my sister to an isolation room where they questioned her on whether it’s really her son. She had to dig up some old family photos on her phone to prove the relationship.

5. Traveling with kids is still hard

My daughter is 14, and my son is 11. You would think traveling with them is a breeze, and you would be wrong. They constantly complained about carrying their backpacks, didn’t want to go on tours and instead preferred to stay in a hotel room playing video games.

They also constantly bickered and drove me and my husband crazy. Our breaking point was at the Louvre where they starting pushing each other in front of the Mona Lisa painting. My husband grabbed them by the shoulders and led them out of the room. I suggested we leave them in Louvre with the sign “Free” attached. My husband supported the idea. 🙂

But then we met this older couple who told us what a cute family we are, and how they miss the time when they could force their kids to travel with them. So we didn’t leave our spawn in Louvre after all.

6. My suitcase got ripped apart on the flight to Iceland

This would be a minor problem, except the only place you could buy a suitcase was in Reykjavik. And we wouldn’t have a chance to shop for it due to our packed schedule. We used good ol’ scotch tape to make do. A nice bonus: we could easily spot this beauty, no chance of getting it confused with someone else’s luggage.

7. My MIL tested positive for Covid in Iceland, a day before US did away with entry requirements 

This was a super scary situation, as she is 77 years old. She is not disabled, but the thought of leaving her behind was unsettling. My SIL had to get back to US to do payroll, my husband also had to return to his job. We decided I would try to stay behind, but my MIL absolutely refused.

We were set to fly out the next day and scheduled her another test first thing in the morning. It was a long shot, but worth a try. Negative!! She was able to go home with us after all. We knew there was a possibility of this happening, but facing the prospect of leaving an elderly person in another country was a very bad turn of events. Once again, it was nice to know that her travel insurance would pay for her hotel quarantine and new flight if needed.

8. My in-laws’ van got towed and the battery was dead

We were so happy to land in Orlando and figured we would finally be home in less than two hours. Nope. The van was gone from the airport parking lot. My in-laws apparently parked there illegally (by accident). Fortunately, the towing company was still open, and someone came to take them to pay a fine.

I figured this is it, but then they called and said the van wasn’t starting. Several guys tried to jumpstart it, to no avail. After about an hour they got it going, but not before me and my husband got into a giant fight. He wanted to rent a car to go home, and I said we need to get a hotel room for the night and figure things out the next day.

In the end, we did neither of those things, but ended up arguing all the way home in front of in-laws. Btw, we got home around midnight. The next morning we woke up and said how dumb this whole thing was and laughed it off, but tired and jet lagged brain can do a number on you. My advice is to simply stay quiet until you feel like a normal human being again.

9. The war in Ukraine was never far away (literally and figuratively)

I was debating on whether to mention this point because it feels inappropriate somehow. But it’s the elephant in the room (at least in Europe), and I feel like it’s worth addressing. Since Montenegro doesn’t require Russians, Ukrainians or Belarusians to have a visa upon entry, there is a sizable population of my compatriots in this neck of the woods.

In one of the restaurants we’ve come across a lady from Ukraine, who had to flee the war. She was working (illegally) as a waitress, barely making ends meet. She told us that she is here with her daughter, but the husband had to stay behind in Ukraine. It was gut wrenching listening to her story, especially the part about her friend getting killed in Bucha.

I was able to pull her aside and slip her some money. She started sobbing and hugged me for a long time. It breaks my heart just thinking about it. Here she was, in this beautiful country, and all she wanted to do was get back home.

There were other encounters too, like the Russian captain of the yacht we have chartered who mentioned that he has doubts on whether Russian soldiers are really committing crimes in Ukraine. I felt it was extremely inappropriate for him to bring this up, since we were essentially his captive audience. I finally asked him politely to change the subject. You know, since I paid to charter the boat.

My dad kept ranting to anyone who would listen about how all Russians are imperialists, and that Belarusians are different. He always told me that we are the descendants of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, who have been colonized by Russia. I was very glad he kept quiet and didn’t respond to the yacht captain.

There was a funny incident with a taxi driver in Paris, who told us about customers from Kazakhstan who had a hard time communicating with him. He finally asked them if they spoke Russian, to which they answered that they refuse to use it because of the war in Ukraine. He goes: Well, can you make an exception so I know where to take you? It was bizarre, but this is a very unsettling time in Europe right now. I wonder if that’s how it felt before WW2, right after the occupation of Sudetenland.

What went right

Almost everything! Despite the list above, I consider this trip to be a great success. My goal was to meet my family, some of whom I haven’t seen for five years. Everything else was gravy. It was an incredibly emotional reunion, especially seeing how much my nephews have grown up. I’m sure they looked  forward to iPhones I was bringing  them  more than seeing me, but I don’t care!

Enjoying our super fancy yacht (though only for a day)

Of course, I was extremely grateful to see my dad. He almost died from Covid a few months ago, and this reunion was an incredible gift I will always treasure. His health has deteriorated considerably since I last saw him, and my husband thinks my dad won’t live much longer.

In fact, he reminds us of my late FIL in the last year of his life. I really hope I’m wrong, but family is never something to be taken for granted. Seeing dad with my kids was worth all the expense and long flights in economy.

I’m thrilled that I was able to provide my relatives with this experience. Montenegro blew us all away, and I will have a series of posts on it in the next few weeks. It is worthy of your time/miles, and on par with Italy (at least in my opinion).

A view from our rental in Kotor

I’m also happy to have seen Paris:

…as well as Iceland:

But Montenegro is a place I hope to return to, maybe even have another family reunion. Kotor, in particular, has exceeded my expectations.

Hiking Kotor fortress walls with my sister

There is so much I want to write, but let’s save that for other posts, as this one has already gotten too long. I hope to inspire some of you to put together a similar trip in the future, and give lesser known destinations like Montenegro a shot.

As always, I’m extremely grateful to this hobby, since using miles for our flights has saved me almost $5k. In turn, I used that money towards lodging, food and tours in Europe. My meticulously planned reunion happened after all, despite all the curveballs thrown my way. And what a memorable reunion it was!

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