Monthly Archives: December 2014

International travel and layover with an infant

Surviving international travel alone with an infant…and a layover (Part I- Delta/KLM)

Yes, it can be done! Back in June I traveled alone with my 4-month old son from Madrid to Boston on a direct flight. Since he was so little, he slept for most of the trip, but I said that in the future I would only travel when there were direct flights. However…due to a family emergency this all changed. I was dreading the 15 hour total trip alone with my 10-month old son, with a layover in NYC (JFK airport), but it turned out to be better than I was expecting. Probably the worst part was sitting there staring at the clock countdown with the little image of the plane on the screen in front of me during the 7 hour 25 minute flight from Madrid to New York.

Here are my travel tips for surviving the trip from my experience traveling with Delta/KLM from (1) Madrid-(2) New York JFK-(3)Boston:

Gate in Madrid

1. Try to avoid making the trip until your baby can sit up on his own. There were many times during the trip when I had to put the little guy on the floor. The first time was going through security in Madrid Barajas. The security personnel are not allowed to hold your baby nor can they help you fold up your stroller (especially when it’s a complicated UppaBaby like mine). It’s impossible to fold that up while you have a 10-month old in your arms, so I put him in a little playpen that they had set up at the security area and let him play for a minute while I got our bags, stroller, his food, etc. through security. Right before getting on the plane once again you have to fold up the stroller so you can leave it at the door. And once again the little guy was put on the floor for a minute. And going to the bathroom is another challenge. When he was 4 months old I could put him in the Baby Bjorn backpack, but at 10 months and 25 lbs sitting up is the only way to go.

Boarding in Madrid

2. Get to the airport early and ask everything 3 times. We departed from Terminal 1 in Madrid (not the huge international Terminal 4 with a satellite terminal and underground shuttle train), so this made the transit time a little easier. In any case, I would recommend getting there between 2 1/2-3 hours before your flight. Since I had bought the ticket last minute I had to pay for the infant ticket at the airport counter (not at the check-in desk like I was told on the phone). There wasn’t any line, but this whole process of the woman processing the infant ticket and getting it printed took almost a half hour. When I purchased the ticket over the phone  (calling the toll-free US number while in Madrid) I specifically requested a baby bassinet for the flight and was guaranteed this without any problem. I also specifically asked if I would have to go through security again in New York as security is a real pain in general with a baby and also to know whether I could buy water for the trip. I was guaranteed again that I would not have to go through security and that I would arrive at gate B30 and depart from gate B32. I would only have to pick up my bags and go through customs (no big deal). Don’t believe anything you’re guaranteed with the trip and the flight. If it doesn’t go according to what you were told protest. Why do I say this? Keep reading. When I got on the plane, I found that I was in a window seat with a person right next to me, and no baby bassinet in front of me… the baby bassinet space seemed to be in the same row, but a few seats over. I happily realized this as the pilot was announcing that it was a full flight while people were boarding. After asking the flight attendant about this and saying that I had been guaranteed a seat with the baby bassinet I was told that she was sorry, but that it was a full flight and there was nothing that could be done. She even asked me if I wanted to reschedule to a later flight as I had my 10 month old sitting in my arms. To this I replied that I was going home for a family emergency and never would have bought the ticket if I were not going to have a baby bassinet. Ten hours with a 10 month old in your arms in a little window seat was not going to happen…Fortunately a young girl who was traveling with her younger brother and sister switched seats with me so I was able to have the baby bassinet. And I definitely used it a few times!

Baby Bassinet Delta

When I landed in JFK I went through customs and followed signs to connecting flights, only to find that I was being redirected to go through security with all new passengers again. Even after asking both over the phone with Delta and at the check-in counter at Madrid and being guaranteed that I would not have to go through security again, as it turns out I did. At this point there was really nothing I could do about it and nothing that protesting could help, but I was at least not made to throw out 3 bottles of water and a hot thermos that I had purchased as I said that I had specifically bought this to make baby formula. Thank goodness for little things.

3. Take your time through security and let people help you. Going through security is usually where I get the most nervous as you have people rushing you and a million things that have to be taken off, taken out, then put back in and put back on. And add a little baby, a stroller, and baby food to it and you might as well add a partridge in a pear tree… my advice is to take your time. Most security areas have separate lines for people with babies, wheelchairs, etc. They won’t rush you, but you’ll still have to take off all belts, take out any liquids, etc. The most important thing is to take your time and make sure you keep an eye on all of your belongings (and your baby). Your little one will have to take off his coat too if he’s wearing a jacket. And if you’re traveling with cans of baby food and/or formula, you may have to have them tested in special machines. It doesn’t hurt, but it does add quite a bit of extra time to the whole trip process. I had several people offer to help me to hold my son while going through security and on the plane. The only time I actually took someone up on this offer was at the second security checkpoint in JFK when I had to fold up the stroller to go through security and really didn’t have anywhere to put my baby, and right before getting on the second plane to my final destination when I had to fold up the stroller again. I let two people hold him for about 20 seconds, and it definitely helped.

4. Prepare any food that’s possible for you and your baby ahead of time. As for you, don’t expect to be able to eat the meal they serve you on the flight…bring along a few sandwiches and snacks for when the little one decides to take a nap. As for the little one, bring single meal servings (fruit/veggie and meat jars) so that you don’t have to worry about preparing anything and put pre-measured formula in the plastic dispensers. Whenever you get a chance during the long flight fill up a thermos with boiling hot water that you can later mix whenever you need with cold or room-temperature water that you buy in the airport before the flight. Trust me; this is definitely helpful when all of a sudden your baby decides he/she is starving!

5. Take the little one out to play before the first flight and during the layover. I brought along a small roll-up towel that I put on the floor so my baby could play a bit before the first long flight and during our 2 hour layover. Once you’re on the plane he can’t move around much, so it’s best to let him get out as much energy playing as possible beforehand.

Layover time

6. There’s no easy way around jetlag, but trying to get food on a normal schedule asap helps. When traveling from Europe to the US expect to get up pretty early the first few nights and/or week until your baby gets used to the schedule. I remember the first night hearing my little one ready to play at 2am (8am his normal time). The only thing you can really do is play a little, but keep the lights off and the room dark. They should fall back to sleep a few times, so you can not really get up until close to their normal wake-up time. During the day, if they’re tired, let them sleep. However, when you notice that the late afternoon nap is turning into a nighttime sleep mode you’ll have to wake them up to avoid them sleeping 10 hours straight and waking up at 2 or 3am.

Good luck!

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Making the international trip back to Spain with an infant Part II (Iberia)

The trip back to Madrid from Boston was “pretty simple” since it was a night flight and our baby chose to sleep for a good part of it. Plus not traveling alone definitely helps. Once again the attention we received with Iberia, from the check-in at the airport to the service on the flight was great. And once again we had a baby bassinet and a little gift box with baby items.

Overall, the entire customer experience should have been great. However, we ran into an issue after landing in Madrid that changed everything.

When you travel with a baby and a stroller, you have to check in your stroller right at the airplane door before you get on (you’ve probably seen a lineup of strollers at the door of an airplane before when you’ve flown). The strollers aren’t technically checked in; they’re put in a special area below the plane and then given to the parents right when they land at the destination so they aren’t without them.

When we arrived in Madrid at 7am Spain time (1am for us), there were 5 groups of parents waiting outside the plane door for the strollers. The strollers seemed to be taking a while… eventually an Iberia employee came up to tell us that Iberia in Boston had made a mistake and had checked in the strollers as normal baggage, not as stroller luggage, and that they were being brought to the baggage carousels with the rest of the luggage. How could a stroller that was literally checked in at the plane door all of a sudden have been classified as a regular suitcase and brought to the normal baggage carousel?

baggae carousel

In any case, we of course all complained that this was ridiculous. I said that this is not acceptable (as I had my 5 month old baby sound asleep in my arms). To all of these complaints the woman kept responding that Boston had made a mistake and that there was nothing she could do about it. No sorry. No possible solution. Nothing. So we were all forced to walk with our children or small babies in our arms, with our carry-on bags at least a mile (we had to take a bus from the satellite terminal to the regular terminal, go through immigration and then go to the baggage area).

To make matters worse when my husband and I arrived at the large immigration lines (with my 5 month old in my arms) there was a much longer line for the foreigners than for the Spanish nationals. We asked the woman that was controlling the traffic flow if we could all three go together through the Spanish line as we’re a family (I’m the only one who’s not Spanish), but she said no, impossible. I had to go through the foreigner line. I was ready to cry at this point. So I handed my now half-asleep and confused son to my husband who then proceeded toward the Spanish line, while I went to wait in the foreigner line. A few minutes later when my husband was already at the immigration officer booth (I still had about a half hour line in front of me), I saw the immigration officer wave his hand for me to go over there. I promptly rushed over (and right past the woman controlling the traffic) to pass through with my family. Of course I made it a point to tell the traffic control woman that the immigration offer was letting us go through together as a family as should have happened in the first place.

Overall, what had started out as a very pleasant experience ended poorly due to poor customer attention and problem solving.

Iberia does not have its hands tied behind its back; it’s simple enough as making a call to other Iberia employees to collect the strollers from wherever they are and bring them to the plane to avoid the inexcusable situation that entailed. Unfortunately, a great customer experience turned bad…

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling on an international flight with Delta from Madrid to Boston with a layover in NYC. And I’ll be traveling alone. I really am hoping to have a great Experience to report back!

Flying alone across the ocean with an infant Part I (Iberia)

This past June I decided to take advantage of my maternity leave and spend a month at home in the US. In theory this was a great idea, but I was quite nervous about the international trip with my four-month-old infant alone (my husband would be joining us later in the states and accompanying me on the trip back).

Part I: Booking the trip

I would be flying with Iberia, the only airline with direct flights to Boston (during certain months). It would already be enough of a traumatic experience without having to add a layover to it! (Note: tomorrow I will be taking a 15-hour trip home with a layover with my now 10-month old baby. That should be interesting…See (Surviving International Travel Alone with an Infant and a Layover). Since I was traveling with an infant and at the same time using accumulated frequent flyer miles, I decided it would be best to make the reservation over the phone to avoid any issues. The reservation process went very smoothly, and the agent helping me on the phone was very friendly. She assured me that I would have a seat with an infant bassinet in front of it. The entire reservation took about 40 minutes to complete due to all the details, but the service was great.

NOTE: I did not realize that the phone number on the Iberia web site was not toll-free! That is until I later received a 40€ charge for the phone call…(see Paying for customer service)

Part II: The trip

There’s no way around it. Flying with an infant is difficult. However, everything went quite smoothly, and the Iberia service was extremely helpful. One of the most difficult things is going through security at the airport because you have to fold up the stroller yourself, but a four-month-old baby can’t exactly be left alone. I ended up handing off the little man to an employee for 10 seconds while I folded up the stroller and took off the wheels so it would fit in the machine. Another complicated thing was finding a place to heat up water for his bottle. After waiting in line for about 10 minutes at a coffee place near our gate, I got to the front of the line only to find out that they don’t have a microwave. Finally I found water and made it to the gate after boarding had already started (oops).

Baby Bassinet IberiaBaby bassinet Iberia 2

We were quite comfortable with our seats (my seat really) and the baby bassinet. The crew was extremely helpful and attentive, and we were even given a little baby travel kit as a remembrance (bibs, baby cologne, diaper and wipes). This was an extra touch that was quite appreciated, but not necessary.

Thankfully my baby behaved quite well during the trip. We arrived in Boston without any problems and headed on our merry way.

iberia gifts

Now the jetlag for the next two weeks is another story….

TIPS for international travel:

  1. Make sure the airline you’re calling won’t be charging you for the call! Check out the web site No Más 900 (http://www.nmn900.com) for a free equivalent phone number if the one you’re calling is 900 or 902.
  2. Arrive at the airport 3 hours ahead of time. I arrived a little under 2 ½ hours and ended up getting to the gate when boarding was already underway.
  3. Bring a thermos and fill it with very hot water whenever you get the chance to have them heat up a bottle that you purchase. Buy separate room temperature bottles. This way you’ll have the hot water for a while and can mix it with the room temperature water to make bottles during the trip.
  4. Be prepared to have to put everything (everything) through security. Practice folding up the stroller beforehand at home. (This was something I was dreading, but in the end I survived).
  5. Request the baby bassinet. It’s extremely helpful!

All in all, the trip over with Iberia was great. The trip back in general was just as good except for one MAJOR problem when arriving back in Spain (See Part II)

I don’t have a second last name and my middle name is not my first last name.

If I had a nickel for every time there’s been a confusion with my middle/last name (like not being able to find my medical records when I’m going to have a baby…) let’s just say that I’d be pretty well-off. I completely understand that here in Spain everyone has two last names (first the father’s and second the mother’s), and I understand that this can be confusing. However, not everyone living here (and paying taxes here I might add. Somehow the agency collecting my taxes didn’t get this wrong) is from Spain. I can see how this could be confusing the other way around in the US, classifying a first last name as a middle name, but I think the key is to be clear and specific whenever signing up for anything.

I tend to specifically state (and make a joke about it) to whoever it may be handling my paperwork when I’m signing up for something for the first time that I only have one last name. Despite this, I still constantly find it classified incorrectly. This has happened with all types of documents: bank accounts, hospital documents, health insurance cards, NIE (Spanish residency card), you name it.

A few examples:

  • Right after getting fingerprinted at one time for one of my residency cards I noticed that the temporary card paperwork had my middle name as my last name. Good thing I caught that right there in the comisaría (police station) or who knows how long that would have lasted for…
  • In another instance I was picking up hospital records while pregnant only to be told they had no records for me. Yep, turns out everything was filed under my middle name. If you have a baby here, make sure they put your child’s last name with your last name and not you middle name as a last name! Right after giving birth, as dazed and confused as I was, I asked this to the people with paperwork right there in the delivery room!
  • There have been a few times where I’ve been trying to fill out an online form and there’s an obligatory “Segundo apellido” field. BancSabadell, for example, has this on their web contact form when you’re already logged into your client account. I don’t think I’m the only foreign client…here’s what I put in this field (in Spanish obviously) “I don’t have a second last name, and this should not be an obligatory field.” Of course when I finally got a response a few days later to my request this part was ignored.

Sabadell contact form

My advice: apart from specifically stating that you only have one last name, make sure you double check any and all documents before signing anything.

You can assume I’m an English professor, but I’ll assume you’re a Flamenco dancer. (BBVA)

Today I had an interesting experience at the BBVA branch near my apartment. I say “interesting” because it was a mixed experience. I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience as the woman who helped me was nice; however, there were several things that went on during this interaction that were just basic customer service 101s gone wrong. Overall the employee was efficient and helped me to complete my transaction with a smile (minus one snafu – #7 below), but as with any experience with a bank here there are areas for improvement… :

  1. Loudly chewing gum in your customer’s face. This is a classic customer-facing no-no. I was happy when the woman decided to get rid of the gum, but I don’t know if spitting it out in a piece of paper in front of me was quite appropriate either.
  2. Continuously yelling across the branch to another employee. All I have to say is that if I were the customer they were talking about, I wouldn’t be so thrilled at my confidentiality.
  3. Checking your phone messages, laughing and writing back to whatsapps while the customer is sitting in front of you. No comment necessary.
  4. Discouraging the customer from conducting the transaction today. I went into the bank to open up a savings account and had to almost justify three times to the woman why I wanted to do it today. As far as I remember when I was a bank teller at 16 years old, it was a good thing to open up accounts for the bank’s income…
  5. Assuming personal details without any reason. The topic came up that I had been recently laid off (that was the extent of what I said). What I’m not sure of is how or why the woman felt it was right to say “You were an English teacher, right?” To which I responded back, “No, I was working for five years in marketing at a multinational consumer goods company.” I thought that would end the line of ignorant questioning. However… then the next question was “So you’re not going to go back home?”. To which I politely responded, “Well, since I’ve been here almost nine years now and have my husband and baby here, I don’t think so.” And that was the end of that. I should have asked her where she learned flamenco.
  6. Assuming I don’t understand a legal contract. After handing me the new account contract to sign, as I started to read it, the woman quickly told me that I just had to go to the last page to sign it (assuming I didn’t understand that I had to sign at the end). I said thanks, I know, but I always read things before signing them.
  7. Not knowing how your products work cross-channel. After opening up the account I asked if I could make transfers between the new account and my old one to which the woman responded that she had no idea, but that I should try it out later at home and see.

Overall a good attitude is the most important thing, and the woman helping me was nice, but a few quick fixes could go a long way to the overall experience here.

Banc Sabadell Calle Orense

Is this really the same bank and branch? (BancSabadell)

First interaction (not-even-close-to-good) Not too long ago I went to the BancSabadell branch on Calle Orense (Madrid) to conduct the simple transaction of depositing cash in my account. Now you might be wondering why this even deserves a post, but you’ll soon find out. When I entered the branch there was one person in front of me and another currently being helped. There were two tellers at the main desk (or so it appeared): one to the right who was dealing with the current customer, and a woman to the left with a plaque in front of her reading “Servicio al cliente” who seemed busy on her computer, but without any customers. Now, even if you don’t speak Spanish you can probably tell that this means Client Service. The woman sitting behind this sign seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that there was a line of people waiting to be helped. The person in front of me moved forward, and I promptly moved to the “Servicio al cliente” woman and asked if she could help me. She looked up, gave me an obviously annoyed look and in a rude tone stated that no, I had to wait in the other line to be helped. I said ok, I’m just surprised because it says “Servicio al cliente” right here. She quickly retaliated and said “No, this is a work desk. Go back and wait in that line. “ She then returned to her computer screen.

Banc Sabadell Calle Orense

Now, after many years in Spain I’ve gotten used to the service, but could not believe the blatant rudeness and comic element here with the plaque in front of this woman. In the past I would not have said anything, but this time after the other teller (who was also quite unpleasant with me likely because she heard my conversation with the other teller) finished with my deposit, I said I’d like to speak to the manager. Her response was that the manager was not there and she did not know when he would be back. I asked for his name, which she did give to me, but to actually make the effort to go back to the branch at another point to try to talk to someone who likely would treat me in a similar manner was enough for me to just leave in an angry mood and bitter at BancSabadell.

Note to BancSabadell: the customer-facing part of your business and the daily interactions that your employees have with your customers are critical! An experience like this will not leave a customer feeling eager to invest in any other products at your bank.

Any employee who is client-facing (literally) and especially one with a “Client Service” sign in front of them should be prepared to treat customers with respect and a smile!

Second interaction (great)

Just the other day I walked into the same branch where I had had the wonderful customer service experience earlier detailed. This time I was going for a more “difficult” request, as I was interested in running a loan payoff simulation. Instead of going to the tellers, I immediately walked into one of the private customer areas and interrupted a woman who was busy at her desk to ask if she could help me. She immediately looked up, smiled and said that of course she could help me. And she did just that, with a smile.

Unfortunately the interaction that stands out in my head and that receives a few paragraphs compared to this last interaction is the negative one.

Getting a driver's license in Spain

My driving instructor is younger than me.

In 1996 I passed my driver’s test and got my license. In 2011 I failed my driver’s exam after driving for 15 years…

In 2011 after being in Spain for over five years I decided it was time to finally get over my pride and annoyance and sign up for a driving school. It still, to this day, seems ridiculous to me that there’s no agreement between Spain and the US where US drivers can have their licenses homologated, but that’s one of the prices to pay for being an American in Spain. And there’s really no way around it if you want to drive here. Sure, you might think of getting an international driver’s license with AAA when you’re back home and technically you can use that here for 60 or 90 days but that’s not a long-term solution. What happens if you have an accident and the police see that you’ve been living here for years and are just now using an international license? Not a good idea.

learning

In my opinion, even though it’s frustrating to have to go back to driving school, it’s worth it to get your Permiso B that you can use anywhere in the EU. And on the bright side, you’ll learn driving shift (and probably end up liking it more than automatic).

There are countless numbers of “special offers” from drivers schools that offer a fixed rate including a course for the theoretical part of the exam and 10 driving lessons. The offer is relatively inexpensive (I think mine was 89€), but think twice before signing up for a special offer with few classes. Learning to drive shift is like learning to drive all over again.

After huffing and puffing and deciding that I would go to driver’s school, I first tried to look into the option of just getting a license to drive automatics. Then I discovered that this is really only an option if you’re handicapped. So… I then went down the standard route and signed up for a course at Lara Autoescuela (http://www.autoescuelagala.com/es_ES/) near Cuatro Caminos in Madrid. I started out with the theoretical classes at night, going along with the shiny new book they gave to me when I signed up. After a few classes I was starting to get bored with learning things like how to drive in the rain (been there, done that), but I kept going to make sure I had the vocabulary straight. After a few months of theoretical classes and countless numbers of computer exams, I boarded the big bus with a few dozen of other hopeful 18 year olds to take me to the driving exam at the Motor Vehicles registry in Móstoles. Believe it or not, with so many people taking the exams every day, they’re not electronic, but actually done on paper. You turn them in and get the score a few hours later.

You’re allowed 3 wrong answers; I had 4… .who knew they were going to ask me questions about types of gloves while driving a motorcycle. I never said I had plans to drive a motorcycle… After these results I threatened dropping out, but then I realized I had gone this far (and already paid). I passed the next time.

The actual driving was a whole other story. Learning to drive standard is tough when you’re used to driving automatic. When I first met my driving “professor” I was shocked to learn that he was younger than me. I’d been driving for way longer than him. But… I’m not going to lie: I had a few instances of my car going backwards down a hill and people honking at me because they saw the big “L” and car screaming “STUDENT DRIVER” on the road. Once I finally got the hang of it, it got easier, but just a warning to anyone thinking about signing up to get their license: 10 classes to learn to drive standard are not enough. I ended up buying 8 extra classes at 27€/class (that’s where they get you with the money). Another place they get you with the money is the “renovation” (renovación) tax. When you sign up with the driving school you have the right to take 3 exams (theoretical or practical). This means if you fail twice you have to pay the tax again. I remember having to pay almost 300€ for everything.

So, what happened during my driving exam? Everything was going smoothly until I drove as if I had 15 years of experience…wait a minute; I did have 15 years of experience! I was driving at a fast pace (not speeding of course) when I approached a traffic light that turned yellow. Now I literally would have had to slam on the brakes to stop at the light, so I pushed the gas and went through it. FAIL. Don’t repeat this on your exam. Apparently it’s better for the driving examiner to get whiplash than to go through a yellow light. Fortunately, the next time I took the exam I didn’t run into any snafus and passed. And now I’ve been happily driving around in Spain for almost four years, and only had one accident (I’ll save that for another post).

Here are my tips for signing up for driving school and passing:

  • Get over your pride. Yes, you’ll be one of the oldest people in the class, and you might be older than your instructor, but getting annoyed won’t help anything. Just think of the end result.
  • Don’t expect it to take a month. The whole “experience” is a process. In the end it took me a few months to finish everything.
  • Don’t sign up for the cheapest 10-class package. Most likely if you’ve never driven standard before you’re going to need more classes, and they’re a lot more expensive buying single classes than buying a bigger package from the start.
  • Drive like your grandmother during your driving exam. Forget that you’ve been driving for x number of years and remember that driver examiner whiplash is better than going through a yellow light.

Good luck!