Posted by: ramblinrobert | February 22, 2008

How the heck do I get there? An exercise in playing favorites.

I’m behind in my blog, already. Scotland–heck, life–is happening faster than I can write about it. But that won’t stop me from trying. First I’ll write about present activities then go back and fill in a few details about this trip. For those who have traveled to Europe, some of this will be old hat. But for this new traveler crossing the pond, every step of the way is an adventure.

Last week’s adventure was learning about air travel to and around Europe. For travel within the U.S., I’m a creature of habit. Having long-ago decided on Southwest Airlines as my favorite airline, it’s simple to book a flight. I simply go to the Southwest website and book it. When we make decisions, we often spend a lot of time, and sometimes some experimenting and making mistakes, learning what works for us. We find a favorite approach to each decision. Once we figure that out, it’s simply a matter of exercising that approach when needed. It’s cognitively simple and saves a huge amount of time. In short, the time we have invested in finding our favorite reaps future savings as we simply use the favorite.

Never having travelled to Europe, all I knew until last week was that my usual habit of hopping onto the Southwest Airlines website wouldn’t get me where I wanted to go. (It turns out there is another airline, Air Southwest, flying out of the Plymouth, England. But, I digress.) I found myself without a favorite and under time pressure to book my tickets. In short, I was feeling more than a little overwhelmed by having no experience to guide me and the need to get up to speed. Last week, I spent a whole evening on Monday exploring airline websites and travel options, then more time on Tuesday. Finally, Wednesday, I booked my airline reservations with a sigh of relief. What did I learn?

From a neighbor, I learned that Aerlingus, out of Ireland, was having a sale on flights to Ireland. There were some good deals, but the challenge was trying to get from Dublin or Shannon to Glascow at a reasonable cost and with a reliable airline. There are many budget airlines in Europe with quite variable ticket prices, service reputations and cities served. RyanAir had scheduled flights and great prices between Dublin & Glascow, but had such awful reviews I decided to avoid them. EasyJet seemed better on customer service, but didn’t fly from Dublin to Glascow. I want to enjoy my time there and trying to find an air connection to Scotland appeared fruitless and like it would lead only to frustration. Another way I thought of doing this was to fly into Dublin and take a ferry to England or Scotland, then bus it into Glascow. What a great way to meet people, see the countryside and learn about getting around. But, the ferries from Dublin seemed to all be large ferries that you take your car on. Despite one place I found where passenger-only prices were listed from Dublin to Liverpool, the passenger-only option was not available where you actually buy tickets. So, after deciding there was not an obviously inexpensive and reliable or interesting backdoor through Ireland, I gave up on Aerlingus.

Next, I tried various airlines to get from San Francisco to London. Prices and schedules were all over the map. I looked at flying directly into London with the possibility of busing my way to Glascow. I ended up better educated about options, but still found no reasonable way to balance time and money by going into London. The added time, trouble and cost of getting to Glascow from London didn’t look reasonable, since I really don’t care to spend time in London this trip. One little anomaly amused me. Several times I found it was cheaper to book a round-trip ticket than to buy a one-way ticket. The airlines clearly want you to help them fill their planes!

Finally, I decided it would be best to fly straight into and out of Glascow. I found no airline that does this non-stop from San Francisco, so the challenge was to find the right combination of fare (low!), outbound and return dates and times (want to have as much time there while still leaving myself some time on either end to get un-jet lagged), and actual travel time (15 hours is better than 39 hours!). After visiting Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Air Canada, United Airlines, Aerlingus and Northwest Airlines, I settled on Northwest. On average, prices at Northwest seemed lower than the other airlines, with no worse connections.

I have to give Northwest a plug here, not just for their prices, but for their website. I have experience in web design, databases, programming and decision making issues and know that putting together a range of trip options in a user friendly way is no easy task. This is complicated by using not just their own databases, but also that of their European partner, KLM. They have done it well. There were still a few minor problems (read on), but overall it was a positive experience for someone who regularly conducts business on the web. Frankly, it would have been overwhelming for someone not familiar with using the Internet regularly. For anyone in that boat (groan!) it might be best to use a travel agent.

My favorite way of looking at the options was to put in my departure and return dates, with a flexible travel date option. This returned a high-level matrix of average prices for round-trips on my specified dates, plus and minus three days for both outbound and inbound trips. Clicking on one of the 49 departure-return date combinations resulted in a set of 1-3 itineraries coming back. After viewing these choices, it was easy to go back to the matrix and explore another combination of dates.

Of course, my preferred departure and return dates had the highest prices, so I noodled around for a while, playing with alternative dates. Lowest prices had strange combinations of good one-stop (two-leg) trips paired with awful two- and three-stop trips. Total travel time varied from about 13 hours to 39 hours, with the longer trips having up to 23-hour layovers in some cities. Given more time and a desire to explore other cities, these options might have worked. But, this trip is for Scotland, so I wanted to maximize my time in Scotland. Unfortunately, those combinations giving me the most time in Scotland were several hundred dollars more expensive–until I discovered a little secret.

The secret, it turned out, was to NOT select one of the proposed itineraries, but just the piece of an itinerary (outbound in my case) that I liked. This resulted in a VERY long list of possible return options, many of which were not on the paired itineraries. Doing this resulted in finding a return flight that leaves at a reasonable time (10 am, not 6 am) on the day I wanted and that was at a reasonable price. Delighted with what I found, I booked the flights.

The remainder of this tale is about actually buying the tickets and reserving seats. Here I will grouse a little about their website. It wasn’t simply a matter of selecting my flights and paying with my credit card. Before I could do that, I had to set up an account for accumulating miles. Then financial information about credit cards had to be entered. Unlike all other websites I’ve used to buy things, this site wouldn’t accept my credit card until I’d gone thru an additional step of setting up a special password security feature. Once all these things had been done, I could then book my flights.

A final feature–available only on the Northwest legs of the flights, not the KLM legs–is the opportunity to select my seats online. I’ve never seen that before, and it was a very nice feature.

So, now, my flights are booked, I can get on to other trip preparation and I may have a candidate favorite airline for getting to Europe. I’ll have to continue to check alternative and talk to people about their favorites, but Northwest provides a good starting point for my next adventure to Europe.



  1. Hey!!! So I’m just starting to read on this here blog, but as promised, I’m here! Good luck with everything. If you have any questions about this stuff (or Spain), let me know!!!

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