We’ve infrequently used accumulated miles and points over the years, but those were mainly acquired through my Mrs. OG2’s work travel and targeted to big trips. The greatest example of such a trip were first class flights from the east coast to Hawaii for my youngest and me seven years ago. We were tagging along with my wife on an associated business trip. Thus, her flight and the hotel were covered. We still ended up spending a ton of money on food and the helicopter volcano tour. We didn’t discover credit card churning until late last year, along with the concept of Financial Independence (FI). Couple that new avenue along with the fact that our youngest also had never been to Europe and I had only been once a decade ago, we started planning.
First up was creating the plan, purchasing the flights and hotels. We focused on using Chase Ultimate Reward (UR) points for flights to Frankfurt, returning through Amsterdam. as well as hotels in Mainz & Cologne Germany, and a boutique hotel in Amsterdam. Our accumulated stash came from meeting the bonus requirements for the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Business Preferred cards.
The trip actually kicks off 2 days prior to my son and I’s departure. My wife arranged a business trip to meet with clients in Switzerland. This was orchestrated so that her 1/3 of the flying costs were covered through work.
I am Clark Grizwald – Day 1
My wife being the frequent traveler she is, always has us analyzing flight status and the weather for trips, big or small. It paid off the first day. We were to have a leisurely time packing that day, as we wouldn’t leave the house until 2pm. Well, a Nor’easter came through the day prior and now was causing havoc at the New York airports. Our flight was delayed, creating a domino effect on connecting flights. However, the flight 3 hours earlier was on time. After a quick call, our flights were changed and we rushed out of the door to our awaiting Uber. Because we were rushed, I ended up having to buy lunch at the airport. Never cheap, or particularly good. Next big trip, I’m going to prep potentially throw away or freezable food for just this type of emergent event. Even if we throw it away, it’s a lot less of a loss than airport food. There are no lounges at RIC to take advantage of.
We boarded the plane and proceeded to park on the tarmac for an hour, with the engines off. It was blazing hot inside the plane. Once we took off, we flew into the 30 mph gusts. For the same reason we sat on the tarmac, we then also circled Newark for an hour. The bumps and circling were too much for mini OG2 and his lunch was deposited into the emergency bag. He felt awful, but was a trooper throughout and never complained. I didn’t have anywhere to put the bag and felt terrible handing it to the steward upon deplaning.
The day didn’t get any better at Newark. From the plane we boarded a bus, which took us to another bus depot. I asked and was told to board another bus which took us to another terminal. This is where me not paying attention caused us more headache than it should have. In the terminal I find a flight to Frankfurt. We chill until I hear an announcement that the flight is full and all carry on wheelies must be checked. I thought this was odd because when last I checked, the flight was nearly empty. At the counter the guy can’t find my reservation. I start to panic. Then we both realize… THIS ISN’T MY FLIGHT, WE’RE IN THE WRONG TERMINAL. What a dumbass! To top it off, in order to get from this particular terminal to another we have to GO BACK THROUGH SECURITY. I’ve now put us in danger of missing the flight to Frankfurt. Thankfully with a lot of running and cursing (I’m sure this was helpful), we made the flight and off we went.
Running Total out of Pocket Costs: $75
Mainz – Day 2
Upon arriving in Frankfurt, we hopped on a train and headed to Mainz. By this point it was time for lunch and partake in my favorite reason to travel, food. I had been looking forward to having a Pork Knuckle and we did so at Eisgrub Brau. We took in the St. Stephen’s Cathedral, known for its Chihuly blue stained glass. After some generic walking around, we hit the local grocery store for snacks and drinks. This was the only poor weather day. Fortunately the rain was light and tolerable and the temperature not deserving of heavy clothing.
Observations: Buses and trams are everywhere. Even little kids used them for going to school. I would also say that 80% of people DID NOT have their heads down looking at a device. That was very refreshing. If you wear skinny jeans, you’ll fit right in as they were everywhere.
Day 2 Cost: $140
Running Total: $215
The Castle – Day 3
The next morning we ate pizza and pretzels purchased the day before. We caught the bus to the train station and headed for Oberwesel.
This stop on the trip is all about staying the night at the Castlehotel Schonburg. No points. But honestly, it was pretty cool and worth it. This was our big splurge. The castle wasn’t overly huge, but had all the things you would think of for a Medieval style structure.
After touring the grounds, we set about exploring the nearby towns. Our first adventure included taking the Boppard chairlift to the top of a cliff. This was picturesque as the river makes a hairpin turn below. You could observe the train tracks following the river on the outside and some small town surrounded by the river on the inside. It really was something for a postcard. Other stops included the St. Goar fortress and Loralee Rock.
As much as I love food, I equally love quality adult beverages. This was one of the trip’s true budgetary finds. The Weingut-Lanis-Knab winery. Although I wasn’t in love with their particular grapes, the tastings and 3 bottles of wine only cost $36. Back in Virginia wine country, your base line local wine bottle is $30. A buzz and a financial win.
Observations: You’ll see lots of barges doing their thing on the Rhine. What is interesting is that the captain parks his car on the boat. The train was a great way to see the Rhine quickly. You see all the ads for cruises going up and down the river. However, we felt we saw it all just as well from the train (and much more quickly). For the castle and Oberwesel (and surrounding towns), it would have been great to have a rental car. There was a Lidl down by the river, but that would have been a crushing 1+ hour hike up the mountain to the castle. If we were to do it over again, we would have rented a car for the Mainz to Oberwesel leg of the trip. I just don’t know if we could have ditched the car there or not.
Day 2 Cost: $519 ($384 was the castle stay)
Running Total: $734
It’s a PARTY! – Cologne, Day 4
After breakfast and a walk through the castle’s gardens, we made our way back down to the train station. This where things started to get fun. I noticed on the other side of the tracks there were 5 guys waiting on the train to head south. They were drinking beer and obviously had a couple of grocery bags so they wouldn’t run out. It was 9am. I just figured they were off to a football (soccer) match. When our northbound train arrived, it was packed, standing room only. Which was was only exasperated by our wheeled luggage. Everyone was drinking, drunk, partying or all three. There was a bridal party going on in the back with loud ladies and music, all having a blast. There was a dude with a cart, making his way through the cars selling food and booze. It was festive. After the two hour trip, we arrived at the huge Cologne train station. That’s when we realized that every train pulling into the station was in the same shape as ours. Every person pouring out of each train was in some phase of having a festive day. 1 bridal party multiplied into 5. It was a hilarious sight. I don’t know if it was because the weather was perfect or if Saturday’s are always like this in Germany, but it was fun to watch.
Another smaller train took us over the river, dropping us near our hotel which was on the other side of the river from downtown. We got settled and then set out to take in Cologne. We trained back over the river and looked for lunch options among the tented fair style market set up along the river. We feasted on currywurst, bratwurst, mayo fries, steak on brioche (my son’s favorite) and a few adult beverages. We then walked along the river, heading toward the Chocolate Museum. I was graciously allowed to plop down in the biergarten just outside the museum. This turned out to be one of my favorite experiences of the trip. During the hour or so wife and son were in the museum, I sat at a long table drinking beer. I had always envisioned beer gardens to be a drunkfest. At least on this day, it was more of a place for folks to take a 30 minute break. During my time, I had 3 different groups sit at my table. It was great. No one took offense at my lack of German and I got to hear where people were from and things they loved about their country. All of this entertainment only cost me 12 bucks (4 beers). Meanwhile, when the family rejoined me, my wife was quick to exclaim that I got the better end of things and that the museum was a complete waste of time. Take that for what it’s worth.
Next up was the Gestapo museum (People’s Court). The stories told and the importance of what took place here aren’t lost on me. Basically it’s an office building with the small basement converted to have a handful of jail cells. It was a place of torture and murder for the poor souls imprissoned there. There was no audio tour, so you had to read placards for all the information. In the end, you may be better off reading a book on the place and visiting other more notable Holocaust sites instead.
We took in the impressive Cologne Cathedral. Aside from its ornate beauty, it’s also noted as one of the only structures to survive the bombings of WWII.
After dinner, we noticed a lot of people gathering along the riverwalk to take in the sun setting behind the cathedral. We finished off a bottle of wine purchased in Oberwesel, but weren’t quite ready to call it an evening. As I looked around, I noticed everyone seemed to have the same grocer’s brown paper bag. After some inquiry on directions, we headed off to a Rewe store. The walk was interesting, as it took you under the vehicle overpass in order to get to the other side. It was neat, as it resembled an underground pedestrian subway. Every so many feet, there was an ‘exit’ tunnel to a particular street. Once we got to Rewe, we realized this must have been the only grocer in the area as every patron was there for the same reason we were. There was even a ‘bouncer’ or security to keep an eye on things. We quickly made our way back and enjoyed the bottle of wine for another hour or so, long after dark, and enjoyed the people watching.
Observations: No shocker here – on the weekends, the trains turn into a party on wheels. Everyone seems friendly and accommodating.
Day 4 Cost: $210
Running Total: $944
Everything Phallic – Day 5
The next day we loaded up and headed by train to Amsterdam. When searching for places to stay, we knew we wanted to be in the Jordaan neighborhood if it wasn’t too expensive. We hit the lottery and found a boutique hotel that took UR points. The place was great and put us exactly where we wanted to be.
My only other trip to Europe included 2 days in Amsterdam. I think the only thing I didn’t do was the Anne Frank house. A decade ago it was first come first serve and the lines were always long. These days it’s well organized and you can purchase your time slot in advance. Let’s say, you need to do so WELL (month) in advance. It’s easy to say that visiting such a place is moving. I would add, it’s well done and the level of detail was beyond what I expected. I had no idea there were two families living on the top level and its amazing the level of preservation that has been done. Even the kids’ height marks on the wall are still there. It truly is something you must do while in Amsterdam.
The other thing I didn’t recall from my first visit was that there is no shortage of penis references. Shop displays, salt and pepper shakers, you name it. We even bought a tshirt with the Amsterdam flag for the 13 year old. Only to realize that after washing it back home, yep you guessed, it was made up of hundreds of little dongs. None of this really matters, it just makes for a lot of teenager giggling and awkward adult explanations as to why.
The other big ticket item was our first AirBnB experience. There was a guy who offered a multi-hour tour of the canals on his boat. It sat about 10 people and he had it outfitted with all the food and booze you could have during the trip. What made this so great, is that he’s a Jordaan resident. His perspective on growing up there was insightful and entertaining. Even lamenting the demise of the Red Light District to the internet.
The remainder of the day was spent wandering the canal area, cheese and chocolate shops, the market, stampots, The Lebanese Sjeria with Beef and Lebneh, and the like. I even tried the herring!
Observation: Amsterdam is a lot of fun, even if you’ve been before and think you done just about everything already.
Day 5 Cost: $235
Running Total: $1,179
Dying for Tulips – Day 6
My wife zeroed in very quickly in planning that we would be in the Netherlands during the 6 weeks the tulips are in bloom. If you ever see pictures of vast fields of tulips, they come from this region. There was no way we weren’t going to see them. It’s the ‘how’ we were going to see them that became the talking point. Biking.
Her idyllic dream was to bike through the tulip fields. However, it became much more of biking TO the tulip fields.
We welcomed day 5 with a train ride to Haarlem, about an hour southwest of Amsterdam. There we rented bikes and headed off to the tulip fields… they were 12 miles away. Now, back in my regular bike riding days, this would have been no big deal. These days? My arse was done after 6 miles and it became an endurance event from that point forward. Add to that several wrong turns, but alas we made it! My wife was in her glory and all was well. Once we were done, we hopped a bicycle friendly train back to Haarlem. This is where I would have done things a little different. Still, rent the bikes in Haarlem, but take the train to the tulip fields. This will save your energy and time to do much more biking amongst the tulips.
For the remainder of the day we hit some spots highlighted by one of Anthony Bordain’s shows, topped off with a fabulous Indonesian tapas place called Tempo Doeloe.
Day 6 Cost: $268
Running Total: $1,447
Observations: Here’s an odd one – no one wears baseball hats in the Netherlands.
Headed Home – Day 7
We left the boutique hotel at 5am and after a tram and a train, we arrived at the airport for the trip home. We went to the United Club to relax while we waited. This is where we were saved by the Priority Pass that came with our Chase Sapphire Reserve card. My wife has status on United, but it did not include my son and I. We were faced with being excused, until I asked if the Priority Pass would work. Poof, we were in. Too bad it was 7am. The food and booze spread was impressive. The item I noted was that the booze was self serve. Make’em as strong as you like. But it was 7am and all that 😉
Here’s where I got to experience the hardship of my wife’s frequent overseas travel. When she does go overseas, she gets to fly first class. She was nice and swapped with my bulkhead seat, allowing me to sample the first class hardship.
I watched non-stop free movies (The Green Book, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Black Klansman). The food and booze never stopped. About 5 hours in, I had to fight the comfort to stay awake. Once I landed in Newark, it was like I had not travelled at all. There’s a world of difference between first class and coach for those cross ocean trips. If it’s within your reach, I can’t recommend it enough.
Day 7 Cost: $88
Final Total: $1,535
Great trip, great memories
Overall: We weren’t super frugal, but we certainly saved thousands by using points, going to grocery stores and only spending where it had real value to us.
- I would research not just where to go like a tourist, but where to eat and drink for free/cheap. My previous trips examples are the juxtaposition of when I spent $17 for a 6oz coke in Paris versus a hole in the wall in Kona, HI where the Poke was only a couple of bucks.
- Get a debit card from Schwab (or similar). a) It allows you to get cash at ATMs anywhere in the world for no fee, b) it saved our bacon in the Netherlands, where the acceptance of our Chase card at the train/subway/tram station kiosks seemed very hit and miss as to whether the transaction would go through.
Have you traveled to these areas? Were there key spots we missed?