Our European Adventure: Summer 2016 Edition! Part 1: Getting to Europe

[Note: I was going to title this “Our European Adventure: 2016 Edition,” but I realized that we were in Europe earlier this year…]

After months — nay, YEARS — of planning, we left Chicago on June 30, 2016.  We were laden down with the following:

  • Wine Check, packed with another Wine Check and a litter pan, litter, some cans of cat food, and other odds and ends.
  • 1 Wine Check, packed with another Wine Check (yes, this means we brought four total) and lots more cat food.
  • Chris’ duffle bag
  • Chris’ backpack
  • My backpack
  • 1 cat carrier with Mr. Meriadoc
  • 1 cat carrier with Mr. Peregrin

Our airline didn’t participate in TSA Pre-Check, so we left our house at noon for a 3:25pm flight.  We wanted plenty of time to get through security with the cats and we were hoping for some time in the airport lounge to grab some food.

We flew economy from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Berlin Tegel Airport (TXL) on Air Berlin, a One World alliance partner.  Last year, I had us apply for numerous credit cards, including the US Airways Barclay card, the British Airways Chase Card, and the American Airlines Citibank card.  These cards together provided much of the miles that we used for this vacation.  Since we flew economy, availability last year for this summer was excellent.  I booked Chris using 30,000 British Airways Avios and I booked myself using 20,000 American Airlines miles.  (We used Avios because we had spent most of our AA miles on Chris’ trip with his mom in the spring.)

It turned out that this mattered a little: my boarding pass indicated that I had access to “pre-boarding” and the “fast track security” lanes but Chris didn’t.  We both have Platinum status on American Airlines, thanks to the Barcelona trip earlier this year combined with Platinum challenges, so Air Berlin recognized my One World Sapphire status.  But since I didn’t associate Chris’ American Airlines account with his ticket, his boarding pass didn’t offer access to Sapphire goodies (which includes lounge access on international itineraries).

Fortunately, the agents at American Airline’s Admiral’s Club and at our plane’s gate didn’t care.  More on that in a moment.

Unfortunately, Mr. Peregrin was not a happy kitty in his carrier and decided to poop in it right before we entered the security lines.  Poor Chris had to try to clean up him and his carrier in a bathroom outside security.  After 20 minutes, Chris had gotten enough crap off of Mr. Peregrin to be able to carry him through security.  (We had lined the carriers with doggy pee pads, so Chris just swapped out a new pad to freshen the carrier itself.)

Although we had had a cat from 2002-2015, we had never traveled with her.  So this was our first trip with cats through TSA security.  And since AB doesn’t participate, we didn’t have access to TSA Pre-Check.  We were worried that they would try to bolt from us while carrying them through the metal detectors, so we purchased harnesses and leashes that were metal-free.  The cats were in the harnesses in their carriers and we snapped on the leashes right as we removed them from the carriers (which had to go through the X-Ray machines).  The little guys were very docile (likely quite scared) and stayed quiet in our arms as we went through security.

But by that time, we had very little time to spare before our flight began boarding.  So once through security, we made a bee-line for the Admiral’s Club, where they welcomed both of us, and asked for a shower room so that we could:

  1. better clean off Mr. Peregrin;
  2. better clean out the used pee pad;
  3. better clean out the soiled cat carrier; and
  4. let both kittens out of the carriers in a safe, enclosed space.

Both cats were much happier out of the carriers and together for even a little while.  When we needed to leave the lounge, about 15 minutes later, and head to the gate, we decided to put them together into a single carrier.  These carriers have a zip-out extension that doubles the amount of space when it is on a flat surface so that once we were seated, the guys had plenty of room.

Since getting Mr. Peregrin clean and getting through security took so much time, we didn’t have any time to grab food before we left, except for cookies.  But lounge access, specifically shower access, proved to be vital for the cats’ (and our own) well-being!

Air Berlin #7421

Air Berlin’s ORD-TXL flight is on an Airbus A330-200, with a 2-4-2 economy configuration.  We had purchased “XL” seats in the second row of economy, on the starboard side of the plane.  Very annoyingly, AB does not offer free seat selection for these seats to One World Sapphire members!  But AB does seat Sapphires early, so we had plenty of time to settle into our seats.  We had checked the Wine Checks and Chris’ duffle, so all we had were the cats and our backpacks.  The backpacks fit easily in the overhead and, thanks to the extra leg-room in our row, the kittens fit nicely under the seat in front of me.

We took off pretty close to on time and Mr. Meriadoc completely freaked out during take off by trying to claw his way out of the carrier.  Fortunately, the two comforted each other and settled down once we were in the air.

I can’t sleep on a plane in economy anymore.  I don’t say that to mean “poor me, I need business class.”  I mean that since I know that about myself, I planned accordingly and booked a hotel so that we could check in early on arrival.  Since I knew I had a bed waiting for me in Berlin, I stayed awake and watched a couple of movies (Deadpool and Toy Story 3), read a little, and played some games on my iPad.

The IFE on AB was fine.  The screen was bright and easy to watch, the movie and TV show selection were good, the USB port was easily accessible.

But the food… okay, it was economy airline food.  So, it was salty and visually unappealing, but it provided some kind of nutrition.  But bottles of water were provided, so that’s a win in my book.

With Mr. Peregrin’s accident at O’Hare, we were worried about more accidents during the flight but they were fine throughout the flight.  They were nervous during the landing, but it was pretty smooth and they were very glad to be on the ground again.

TXL Experience: Unexpectedly Efficient!

Berlin’s Tegel Airport is small and outdated, so we disembarked by staircar and were shuttled to the international arrivals building.  But once we were there, getting through passport control was a breeze.  We got lucky and were second and third in line, no questions were asked about the cats, and all three pieces of our checked luggage emerged among the first 10 pieces of baggage.  Carts were easy to find, we loaded up, quickly found a taxi, and were at our hotel within 30 minutes.

Our Berlin Hotel

I booked us into the Holiday Inn Berlin – City West.  Thanks to the IHG Chase card and work, I have Platinum status and oodles of points for this hotel and it is a 7-minute drive from TXL, so spending points on two nights at this hotel (10,000 per night) was a no-brainer.  Since I had booked the night before, we could check in upon arrival at 7:30 a.m. and we were upgraded into an actual suite, with two bathrooms and a sitting room.  We were also greeted with a lovely fruit and cookie tray in the room.

As soon as we opened the carrier, the cats scurried for cover.  We set up their litter box and food in one room, grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel’s buffet, and then crashed for about 4 or 5 hours, until 1 p.m.  When we woke up, the kittens were a bit calmer and wanted to play with us.  So we ate the fruit tray for lunch and hung out with the kittens for a couple of hours before heading out to explore a bit of Berlin.

The room itself was fine, keeping in mind that it was a Holiday Inn.  The bed was delicious after a flight, but this is not a luxury hotel and shouldn’t be expected to meet the standards of one.  We had a comfortable one-night stay and I would recommend this hotel for anyone needing a hotel close to TXL.

Final Thoughts on this Leg of the Journey

We did a lot of things right for this trip: the XL seats were worth the cost, both for the extra leg-room and for the seating in the front of the plane (which is how we were able to be in the front of the passport control line).  Using the lounge’s shower room for the cats worked brilliantly.  Putting the cats together during the flight (and having a carrier that complied with airline restrictions but still could accommodate both cats together) made everyone happier.

But the single best thing I did for this leg of the journey was booking an extra night with the hotel.  It was important to have someplace where the kittens could settle down for the day and where we could sleep.  I no longer subscribe to the philosophy of trying to stay awake upon arrival in Europe.  We arrived early (~7am), napped for a while (8am-1pm), and then went out for the afternoon.  We were still pretty tired, so we crashed that night at a reasonable hour, but more on our afternoon in Berlin later. 

2 thoughts on “Our European Adventure: Summer 2016 Edition! Part 1: Getting to Europe

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