Category Archives: Travel

Flying across the ocean with kids – leave the stroller at home or consider a cheap one

I was just looking back at some of my old posts, and I thought it could be a good idea to write a short, simple post about this to make a point – airlines don’t know how to handle strollers. Out of 4 international trips with kids that I’ve taken, my strollers have been broken twice – once with Delta/KLM and once with Iberia — and both times “conveniently” when I’ve been traveling alone. And don’t think the flight/ground attendants were so helpful when both times I was left with a baby/toddler asleep in my arms (and in one case a baby and another little one). Note that both strollers were left at the door of the airplane, not checked in previously.

If this happens to you the most important thing is to go directly to the airline counter when you land to fill out an incidence form (even if it is the last thing you want to do). Then you’ll probably have to go to the store where you purchased the stroller to get an estimate of how much it will cost to replace or fix it. In the case of Lufthansa I went through all of this since I had brought my expensive stroller with me. It was a bit of a headache, but in the end they paid to replace everything. (see: Delta/KLM and the broken stroller (continued)

In the case of Iberia, during my last trip I decided to purchase a cheap umbrella stroller online to have when I arrived since it wasn’t necessary for me to travel with one as my youngest was older. Iberia decided to break it (wheels and entire frame missing/destroyed) when I landed back in Madrid at 7am from Boston (direct flight by the way). In this case it was going to be more hassle for me to go to a store and get all of the necessary forms, and given the cost of the stroller I didn’t pursue it further. However, it doesn’t seem right to me that they can get away with it. In any case what Iberia should do is offer a voucher or gift card to be used at your discretion. The damaged items web site has a voucher as an option, but when you try to get this you get a strange error message which forces you to call Customer Service (not toll-free). When I did call it turns out that apparently they do this with bags, but in the case of baby strollers it’s not an option. So they shouldn’t even have this option on the site since it was clear it was a baby stroller…

I’m glad to finally be getting away from this phase of traveling with strollers, but I thought it might be helpful to share my experiences for those with upcoming trips. Airlines (Delta/KLM, Iberia, etc) need to be more careful with these kinds of items! And in the case that something happens the post-service reclamation should be a lot less headache-filled for those who already have enough headaches with little kids!

Is Saudi Arabia the new Spain?

The short answer is no. After my recent travels to the kingdom, however, I would venture to guess that in 10 years time the current kingdom as we know it will be unrecognizable, perhaps in the same way Spain was unrecognizable after the fall of Franco’s fascist regime in 1975.

Over the past few months I have traveled three times to Riyadh for work-related purposes. Prior to the first visit I have to say that I really didn’t know what to expect. When I would hear about Saudi Arabia, images that would come to mind would be oil, the desert and women wearing burkas. To be honest I really didn’t know much about the culture and life there, nor if I would feel safe. Approximately two years before my trip women started joining the work force, and approximately one year before my trip women were given the right to have driver’s licenses.

While there is a long path ahead to modernity, I will admit that I had some incorrect pre-conceived notions.

I had no sensation of lack of safety during my visits. A sensation of subservience, yes, but lack of safety, no. At least in Riyadh and in the office setting where I was it was not necessary for me to wear a hijab. I did this during my first visit out of respect, but during the past two trips I’ve let my hair down. (Note: this doesn’t mean that the Saudi women are doing this. I didn’t see any women in fact that did not at least have their head covered, and full burkas are extremely common, probably in half of the cases). As for clothing I don’t think it would be appropriate to wear my fitted outfits that I wear back home, but with a long, loose shirt (better if it’s dark) and/or a long jersey or jacket over my clothing it’s been fine (see my past post: Saudi Arabia just changed its formal dress code for international female visitors). What you don’t want to do is wear something really tight, fitted, or showing skin; I think it will take a while to get to that point.

The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is moving forward a lot of change in the kingdom, especially with the ambitious Strategy 2030, a plan to diversify the income of the kingdom with moves into areas like technology and tourism. Since he came into power in 2017 he has made a number of changes like with the religious police (a colleague of mine pointed them out sitting in a police car while he was showing us around Riyadh’s center one evening; they have a real lack of power now).

 

He’s also opening the kingdom up to tourism which wouldn’t have been thought of five years ago. Now beautiful, historic (and interestingly/importantly, religious) sites like Al Ula will be opening up to tourism (Al Ula in October 2020). There are now tourist visas upon arrival into the country and just recently a new norm allowing unmarried opposite sex couples to share a hotel room, something that would have been unheard of before (see Another Saudi Arabian law change).

And women are now allowed into football games (or at least one recently), public concerts are happening, movie theaters are opening up. Even the NY Times published an article about coffee shops becoming a new space for young unmarried people to meet up (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/15/world/middleeast/saudi-women-coffee-shops.html).

NY Times article Saudi Arabia coffee shops

It’s almost hard to keep up with all of the changes!

While I was given a tour around a historical museum/fortress in the city center I was overwhelmed by the  hospitality of the people welcoming us into the center. At the Masmak fort museum we were greeted openly with tea, dates, incense (and repeatedly) without anything expected in return. I had the feeling that the idea of tourism and foreigners visiting the country is so new that people don’t know what to expect. In a sense this reminded me of my honeymoon trip to Myanmar 8 years ago. Five year old boys were riding around on top of buffalo and Coca Cola didn’t exist (now it does). When we were there the country was on the brink of tourism. I think Saudi Arabia will be there soon.

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My favorite Arabic coffee and date man (I don’t know his name as there was no common spoken language…)

All of the changes also make me think of Spain, which explains the title of this post. When the fascist regime of Franco ended in 1975 Spain changed – dramatically. Granted I wasn’t around at that time, but from what I’ve heard and read this is when the free, fun, vibrant, live and party culture that currently defines a large part of the Spanish being and culture came into being. Once you take away religious restrictions, involve alcohol, freedom, music…. well, I guess the rest is history.

Of course all of these changes will require a BIG shift in mindset for the people within the country and a softening of religious norms and views of outsiders. What is clear though is that there’s no turning back. As the country opens itself up to the influx of foreigners and the nationals go more outside the kingdom and experience more of the world it will be very difficult to maintain an enclosed, tightly enforced society as before.

Time will tell… there are already a lot of similarities to the Spanish culture in the kingdom, like the importance of family, gatherings around food, lunch/dinner schedules (I had no idea they ate so late), etc.

What are your thoughts? Have you been to the kingdom? What are your impressions from your visits or reading of the news?

 

 

The Iberia Oro (Gold) Status upgrade – WIM. My customer experience.

So, what does it mean being upgraded from Plata (Silver) to Oro (Gold) Status with Iberia? Not too much really. It was more exciting for the colors to change from silver to gold on my phone app then anything else. I had the barometer forever showing that I was thisclose to upping my status. However, the one big difference I noticed was when I had to contact Customer Service…

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With Iberia Plus Plata (Silver) the best part is that you can check in at the business class counter (whether you’re traveling business or not), priority boarding (key if you don’t want a small suitcase to get involuntarily checked-in when there’s no overhead space left), ¡ and you can check in an extra bag for free, depending upon the flights. With the upgrade to Oro (which is not easy to get there as you need to have either a ton of flights or a number of business-class flights earning points), the only additional real tangible benefit is that you can use the VIP lounges at the airports.

The big difference was with the Customer Service when I called the Customer care line. Normally I tried to avoid as much as possible calling any Customer Service number here in Spain. Usually they don’t care and aren’t very friendly (not to generalize of course, but this has sadly been my experience). The best is being hung up on, which has happened to me several times, and Iberia is not out of the blame game here as they have hung up on me in the past. The reason I called was to look into booking a ticket with points (avios) and with kids – impossible to do this online. Granted I had done this in the past, but I remembered it was a painful process, speaking to different people, receiving different information, etc.

So I called the Iberia Plus Oro dedicated Customer Service number (different than the standard one). The woman who helped me out was very nice and efficient throughout the process. Of course the call didn’t come without complications – just as the tickets were being issued there was a technical problem, and it wasn’t possible for her to finalize the transaction. She said not to worry, she would complete this as soon as the system was back up, and then I would receive the emails. Granted to say I was more than skeptic. To reassure me she said she would call me once everything was finalized so that I would know it was all set. Right!

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Much to my disbelief, about a half hour later (after I received the confirmation emails) I got a call from the Iberia lady just to let me know that everything had gone through and was all set, saying she wanted to call just because she had agreed to do so. And to think in the past I had been hung up on by the normal Iberia Customer service people.

Even just this past summer when Iberia broke my baby stroller on a flight home from Boston, I was cursing them after their lack of help on the phone to deal with this (that’s another story in itself).

My learnings: 1. Iberia Plus Oro is great for the Customer Service and fringe benefits, although overall not significantly different than the Silver level 2. It makes me wonder how there can be such a difference between “normal” Customer service and that for elite customers. It seems to me like Iberia should be striving to improve their overall experience, not just for one level.

Another Saudi Arabian law change

I’m starting to wonder if it’s because I’m more aware of this and noticing things more since my recent trip to Riyadh or really because Arabia is making headway and news headlines recently (I think it’s the latter).

Here’s another change moving toward modernity:

https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/saudi-arabia-unmarried-couples-female-travelers/index.html

Although this specific news won’t affect my next trip to the kingdom (likely in a few months), it will still be interesting to see if I notice any changes vs. the last trip (See more about my trip to Saudi Arabia here: My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work)

 

Saudi Arabia just changed its formal dress code for international female visitors

 

How interesting that only a couple weeks after I visited Riyadh they have just made a public announcement of a huge change in the way the country will receive, perceive and welcome foreign female visitors. Now women will be able to enter with conservative clothing but not the formal abaya and hijab like I donned during my visit.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-26/saudi-arabia-opens-to-foreign-tourists-and-their-foreign-ways

I remember speaking with an executive from the General Entertainment Authority, a fairly new organization dedicated to opening KSA up to international tourism and also promoting national leisure activities, modernization, etc. a few months ago while he was at IESE for a leadership program. He was telling me all about the changes going on in the kingdom and how there is now this big push for international tourism, all in line with the 2030 Strategy. He mentioned things like tourist visas upon arrivals and the idea of KSA as a top international tourist destination. I wasn’t sure to what point this was really going to happen, but it definitely seems now that things are moving in that direction…

I have to say I’m happy that I had the opportunity to visit Riyadh when I did, in this “older” state, as it will be interesting to observe the changes and difference over time as I go back for future trips.

(you can read about my past experience in Riyadh here: My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work)

 

 

 

My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work

Since the start of my blog I’ve talked about cultural differences between the US and Spain, from my point of view as an American living for a third of my life in this country. As I travel quite frequently for work, for example to Germany, the US, Hong Kong, Nigeria, I have seen many cultural differences vs the US with these travels. However, nothing has been as interesting as my recent trip to Riyadh. So, for this blog, I’m going to talk about my perception as a Spanishized American traveling to Saudi Arabia.

To give a little background, in my work I talk with a variety of potential clients from all over the world. In the past year and a half the number of requests from companies within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has increased significantly. I see this as a result of two factors: 1. Strategy 2030 within KSA – a move to become more international and modern, a top international tourist destination, etc. and 2. IESE’s FT rankings as the #1 Executive Education institute in the world. They’re tied together: as KSA is looking to gain more international exposure they’re looking to top educational institutes to grow. I have had many phone calls, proposals, etc. with a number of companies, but nothing was ever really moving forward or the conversations were difficult. Finally, however, one did move forward and after a year of conversations, proposals and negotiations I finally found myself on a plane traveling to Riyadh for a full day of meetings with the company CEO and VPs.

I didn’t travel alone. After my not so great experience last year traveling to Lagos, Nigeria, I decided that I wouldn’t travel alone, and in this case I needed to go with a male. I may not completely agree with the cultural norms in KSA, but my feeling is that if I’m going to travel and enter into a foreign country I should be respectful of the norms there  – if not, it wouldn’t make sense to go.

First off the visa process is a bit complicated. If you have to go make sure you have plenty of time. In my case as the trip was pretty much right after summer vacation there wasn’t a lot of time to get everything together. There are a number of different forms and papers to gather including an invitation letter from the KSA company, which, as one would assume, comes in Arabic. This ended up slowing down the process as the job title they had put in their letter didn’t match the one I had put on my form. Note to self – learn Arabic beforehand next time.

Before traveling I did quite a bit of research online and spoke to a female who travels there frequently for work. The main things I learned were that I shouldn’t worry too much about saying or doing anything wrong; it would probably just be best to follow what others were doing. And I definitely needed to buy some appropriate clothing (=hijab and long shirt/very loose clothing, preferably black, that covers your entire body). By the way, thank goodness for youtube with the Hijab or I wouldn’t have had much of an idea of how to tie that thing together. Apparently 1.6M other viewers also feel the same: search for “youtube how to wear a hijab”; that’s all you need.

So with a bit of preparation and hijab in hand I headed off to Riyadh. Originally we were flying with British Airways, but due to a pilots’ strike we ended up flying out with Saudia. I had never flown or heard of this airway before although my past experience with Asian or MEA airlines has been that they tend to be more luxurious than US/UK Western airlines. I was right. The plane was nice, and the business class Furla present was a pleasant surprise.

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Saudia Airlines Business Class swag – not too shabby

The only thing that was a bit strange was the prayer that was played over the loud speaker and accompanied by video and captions before takeoff, but I did recognize that I wasn’t going to California…

The trip started ok, but we ended up landing in Riyadh 9 hours later than originally planned… Thank god (Allah) I wasn’t traveling alone. To make a long story short, the plane had technical problems. We took off about 3 hours late from Madrid. Then the planned 45 minute layover in Jeddah where we shouldn’t have gotten off the plane turned into a 2 hour excursion into the airport while we waited for a new plane.

Unexpected stopover @ Jeddah airport

Trying to figure out a plan – @ Jeddah airport with plane technical problems

Once on the new plane and about to take off we received a message that there were new technical issues and we had to go back to the airport and back to the lounge. At that point I wasn’t even sure if we would make it to Riyadh for the meetings I’d been working on for so long. To top things off my companion had his Apple watch stolen (I still find it hard to believe that this happened in a place where you could get your hand cut off for a crime like that), but in any case it disappeared in the security line when they made him take it off and put it in one of the trays. The only thing I can think of is that either it (a) fell down somewhere and got lost in the moment or (b) was stolen by another passenger behind him. What didn’t help is that I was in a different security line as a female so I didn’t see a thing.

 

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Getting off the plane in KSA. As soon as the plane landed everyone put on their formal outfits and covered up

What was interesting to see was a number of women more relaxed with their clothing on the flight from Spain. As soon as the plane landed in KSA, however, they immediately covered themselves up.

There were many women working in the airport, mostly in the security lines and in the passport immigration section, all completely covered except for their eyes. I had seen this type of clothing in pictures but it was quite shocking to see so many women walking around only with a small slit to see through, especially as an “uncovered” woman watching the scenes play out.

Fast forward – we finally made it to our hotel at 9.30 in the morning, over 9 hours later than originally planned. As we had all important meetings planned for that day sleep wasn’t an option. A quick shower and a hijab/loose clothes change later we headed out to our meetings.

Everyone has asked me since the trip and since seeing pictures if I had to wear the hijab. The short answer is no. No one was there forcing me to put it on or watching over my shoulder (probably two years ago when women weren’t even allowed to be out on their own this would have been the case), but, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable without it seeing that all other women that I saw around the city had their heads covered. To me it was showing respect to my colleagues as well. As I was making a presentation in front of 50 (almost all) men I didn’t think now was the time to be making statements. In my opinion it was already quite modern and a statement to be having a female in this role.

Overall I was treated very respectfully and felt comfortable speaking during the meetings and presenting in front of the group. Probably the most uncomfortable part was having my hijab falling off during the presentation and awkwardly trying to fix it with one hand as I was holding onto a microphone at the same time with the other…

 

Business meeting in Riyadh

That’s me with my black hijab and my colleague in his black suit. Apparently, no one told us about the dress code…

As for the office setting, overall it was very formal. Despite all the changes and modernity that the country may be going through there is still a long way to go. Two years ago females couldn’t work or drive or probably be even seen alone… there were a handful of women at the office where we went (half totally covered except for their eyes, the rest showing only their faces), but overall it was still a very male-dominated environment. All of our meetings were very formal, and you could see the strong sense of hierarchy within the organization. You could also see the strong sense of hospitality – I can’t even remember how many fancy types of dates we were offered or fancy Arabic tea/coffee and chocolates. At one point we had to just refuse, even if it could have been seen as rude. One can only have so many cups of Arabic coffee…

As I said I felt quite respected in the meetings and the overall reception was great. However, there were a couple times where I noticed a man not being able to even look at me, and one instance in which I was refused a handshake (I only offered it as I saw that this was in general what everyone was doing, but I guess in this case as he was wearing a different type of clothing I should have guessed there was something different – I still haven’t figured it out). While we were in the hotel I took off my hijab, but in general I definitely felt more comfortable with it on.

My experience in Riyadh was short-lived; 12 hours after arriving we were already making our way back to the airport. I can’t say that I was sad to be leaving given the overall experience, but it was certainly eye-opening to be there as a female and not exactly out of the spotlight. I’ll be going back in the future for work and, while I don’t see myself running around doing touristic activities or driving a rental car, I’ll look forward to seeing continuous changes as the kingdom itself keeps evolving and modernizing.

I was in the US for a month for summer holidays. Here are a few reflections.

I love the US. How can I not? I was born and raised there and it was my life for 26 years. I also love Spain. The more time I’ve lived in Spain the more I’ve become used to the Spanish way of living… and actually become Spanish. It’s been 13 years and the most recent years of my life.

It was great to be home with family in the US, which was the main objective, and also to have my kids immersed in English for a whole month. After having spent such an extended time there, there  are some things that stood out out in my mind that I wanted to share:

  • Where do kids in the US play? I have no shame in admitting that many times we googled “playgrounds” to see if there were any decent public play areas near where we were staying as we moved around. Turns out this isn’t an easy feat. In Madrid there are so many around where we live in the suburbs that you could probably go to a different, nice playground every day for a month without repeating.  Also where we live in Majadahonda we have a large, shared pool in our apartment complex that all the kids go to every day during the summer – no invite required. We found some good parks that we visited near Boston, but they required driving 20+ minutes to get there and there weren’t too many kids. This just made me wonder “what did I do as a kid?” I remember playing out in the street in my neighborhood, but I think the big thing is the US is going to friends’ houses and having your kids play with theirs with playdates. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the plus of having great public playgrounds is that you don’t have to be social with other adults for your kids to have fun. I don’t exactly consider myself an introvert, but it’s nice to just be able to go to a big public park where no one knows you and let your kids run around and make friends or not. If they hit someone or steal a toy the consequences won’t be personal.

Here are some pictures of some typical parks in the outskirts of Madrid.

  • Drive thrus. Surprisingly (and fortunately) this hasn’t yet made its way to Spain in the same magnitude as in the US. I had forgotten how prevalent drive throughs are in the US. This first hit me one day with my sister as we pulled into Dunkin Donuts. I told her I’d be out in a second to which she replied, “but we’ll just go through the Drive Thru”. Honestly it hadn’t even occurred to me. The coffee shop, the banks, the pharmacy, the car wash – you name it. Life made easy, but is it too easy?
  • Customer service can suck in the US as well. As you may now if you’ve read my blog, Customer Service/Customer Experience is something that is important to me. I’ve written many posts about not-so-great customer experiences here in Spain, as this is still something that has a long way to go. However, I discovered during our trip that it’s not all roses in the US either. We had a wonderful experience with Rentalcars.com (Hertz being the provider for a rental car) in which we were given a pick up location for the car that no longer exists. The hotel where we went to get the car no longer has a Hertz office there. When I contacted the Hertz office they were about to close in 20 minutes and were of absolutely no help. To make a long story short they ended up hanging up on me after saying they wouldn’t do anything and left us with no way to get back home and without a rental car. The best is that Rentalcars.com had already charged us for the entire two week rental. Note: do not use Rentalcars.com! The best thing is definitely to go directly with the company, even if you end up spending a little bit more. In the end we had to pay for an uber back to our house and then having to deal with Rentalcars.com on the phone so they could refund the payment they’d already received. Then we had to reserve a new car…
  • Coffee. Once you get used to the European coffee it’s hard to go back. Punto.

Overall it was a great trip home, but I still don’t see myself moving back to the US any time soon. I don’t think I would have a full month of vacation to be writing a blog like this, to start…