Category Archives: Travel

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…

 

 

My Abusive Relationship with Iberia

I’ve written how my experience moving to a foreign country with a basic level of the language was humbling and made me more accepting of circumstances (and people) and more relaxed.

However, there is one thing that can always manage to make my blood boil. No matter how long I’ve been abroad I just cannot tolerate bad customer experience. There still exists a strong mentality, at least here in Spain, that the customer is wrong. After having worked for several years in the Customer Experience research team at Forrester Research (https://www.forrester.com/Customer-Experience) back in Boston and having researched and documented the high correlation between positive CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE, consumer loyalty and positive business impact ($$), it still boggles me how there can exist this mentality and bad treatment of customers. Maybe there are still some businesses or sectors where consumers don’t have much of a choice, but with the way the world is changing so rapidly with digitalization, AI, paradigm breakers in existing sectors (think Uber, Amazon, Amazon Go, …) I don’t think this mentality will work forever.

Iberia and I have an abusive relationship. Sometimes I like being close to him to get to the end result (get from Madrid to Boston and vice versa without having to go through a layover). However, there are other times when I can’t even stand looking at him, when he disrespects me and even hangs up on me.

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Let’s be honest; people fly to get from one point to another. I’m not looking for miracles. However, I do expect to be treated with respect, especially when there are loyalty programs involved. So, what happened the other day? Well, it goes back to 6 months ago when I tried to use my frequent flyer “avios” to purchase tickets for Boston for the summer. I figured I had enough points that I could buy my ticket and one of my child’s. As it turns out it’s almost impossible to use avios to buy tickets during high travel season. Eight months prior to the planned travel dates there was only 1 seat available that could be purchase with avios (my husband called 5 minutes afer I did and there were no longer avios seats available). In the end I purchased my seat with avios and had to pay almost 200 euros in taxes. Makes you wonder to what point it’s really worth the avios…

For my two kids (ages 5 and 2) it was impossible to apply any of my avios. I purchased their tickets for almost 2000 euros, but in order to get assigned seats for them to be near me we’d have to pay another 200 euros. I said I think it would be their mistake to try to put a 2 year old screaming for his mom in a different aisle, but I think I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it in a few weeks. I’m pretty sure someone will prefer to switch with me if Iberia won’t give us seats together than suffer 8 hours of screaming…

On top of the kids’ tickets I also purchased some sort of travel insurance that wasn’t very clear at all over the phone but made to seem as though it was an essential part of the purchase. Next thing I know I had an extra 108 euro charge on my card. When I called a few days later to ask for more information about the insurance I had purchased I was told I’d receive it via email (the same email through which I received the tickets). Nothing came. Honestly out of pure laziness of having to call Iberia again and wait on hold I put it off for months.

The other day I called Iberia to ask about the insurance policy I had semi-consciously purchased. They confirmed that I had purchased a policy for both of my children with Allianz insurance, but to receive information about the coverage I would have to speak directly with Allianz. I asked what information I would need to provide to Allianz when calling (I’ve had enough experience with being bounced back and forth) and was told that with my ticket locator number that would be enough.

Next step- I called Allianz. Not surprisingly they were unable to find my information, policy, etc. They said that likely Iberia had made a mistake and that unless I had a separate payment on my account for the insurance that it was never purchased. They were unable to look up any more information with my name or personal data; I even tried repeating my email twice (another thing I’ve had enough experience with is people not understanding me on the phone with my accent) spelling out each letter like “M as in Madrid, A as in Alemania…” Nothing.

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Their solution: send an email to a generic Allianz sales email with a proof of payment from my bank account from January. That’s when I hit the table (literally) and tried to politely express my anger at their complete lack of efficiency as I had a ticket right in front of me. As I saw I was getting nowhere the conversation ended. I immediately found the information and sent an email titled “URGENT” with the information they requested. To my surprise they answered me within a couple of hours with the information I had requested and the full policy coverage. I have to say I was impressed with this part of the service, but was it really worth it for Iberia to put me through this hassle? Talk about making things not easy for the customer.

As it turns out, despite having repeated my email address twice and having the agent repeat it back to me, he somehow had managed to completely butcher it with about 3 letters and a period missing.

So, I’ll fly with Iberia in a few weeks, and maybe things will be smooth between us for a while, but at some point we’ll hit a bump and it will go back to rocky. For now I’m not going to end our relationship as I’m still getting the final results I’m looking for, but once something more attractive comes along with less hassle (and baggage) I will be first in line. My next challenge: try to understand the insurance policy.

To be continued…

Iberia, how about a little logic over the rules?

Is Iberia a great airline? Not really. Does Iberia offer great prices? Not so much. Does Iberia have a good cross-channel experience? Eh. So, why do I keep coming back for more? Well, Iberia happens to be the only airline that offers direct flights to Boston from Madrid (during certain months of the year), and with a two year old in tow there really isn’t any other option. So this fact puts it on my “better than other options” list. Also, Iberia has an executive devoted to Customer Experience (Dimitris Bountolos), something which I think is great given my interest and sometimes annoying persistence with this topic here in Spain. (Note: after writing this post I’ve discovered that this VP of CxP no longer exists at Iberia. Go figure).

The other week I finally sat down to finalize my summer plans and buy tickets home. As usual I had to make things a little more complicated, just to challenge the system I guess – I wanted to use frequent flyer points for my flight and buy my son’s ticket separately.

Step 1: When I tried to do this on the web site it wasn’t possible since you can’t mix buying two tickets by different methods. And if you want to buy a separate ticket for a two year old you have no other choice but to pick up the phone and buy the ticket through an agent.

Step 2: So… I picked up the phone. When I spoke to an agent to try to buy both tickets, mine with points, he told me the only way to see my options and do this was through the web site. Then I would have to call after and buy my son’s ticket over the phone since there’s no way to buy a 2 year old ticket through the site.

Step 3: Back to the web. Buying my tickets using my avios through the site – easy enough.

Step 4: Right after that I called Iberia customer service to buy my son’s ticket to make sure there wouldn’t be any problem getting seats on the same flight. I didn’t have any problem doing this. And Iberia didn’t have any problem charging me 90% of an adult fare for his ticket (one of the things you don’t think about when you’re young and reckless and decide to move across the ocean…). I of course tried to be reasonable and say that I could have him sit on my lap for the 8 hour flight (no way would this be possible), but apparently age is the determining factor here. Between 2 and 12 years (no scaling) you get a fantastic discount of 10%. Good thing I already flew with him twice while he was younger…

I figured, well, at least everything is set and the tickets are now a sunk cost. After hanging up the phone and reviewing the tickets in my email (and happily seeing a 20€ fee for buying my son’s ticket over the phone even though there was no other option…) I remembered one very important thing – our seats.

Step 4: Back on the phone. And this is where it got amusing. The agent who attended my call informed me that it would be free for me to pick my seat now since I have a loyalty card, but I would have to pay over 40€ to assign my son’s seat next to me! She quietly suggested I could wait until checking-in at the airport. Talk about logic, Iberia…

Step 5: Time will tell. I’ve decided to take a “gamble” and see what happens at the check-in counter this summer. Call me crazy, but somehow I don’t think Iberia will put my 2 year old next to a random person, with his mother aisles away. And if this were to happen I can absolutely guarantee that Iberia itself would be willing to pay me to switch seats!

 

Note: I’m currently waiting for an Iberia Kids loyalty card. Maybe this will change the situation…

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Can airlines really deliver good experiences? Listen up Iberia Customer Experience!

Iberia, I know here in Spain you actually have a Customer Experience director (not a common job title in this country), so, read on…

Let’s face it – most airlines are pretty similar. Unless you’re taking advantage of frequent flier miles, the reason you pick one over the other is price, plain and simple. In my case, the only reason I might pick Iberia is because they have direct flights to Boston from Madrid, not because the service is great – or even that good. I think we’ve just resigned ourselves to the fact that flying is what it is – a means to get from one place to another and something that you have to put up with. (maybe you’ve seen one of my earlier airline experience posts).

So, is it possible to create a good experience?

Yes! I think it is possible to break old thinking and barriers and create something new with flying. Take a look at this article about a design consultancy’s idea “Poppi” for reinventing the airline experience:

http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/07/design/airline-future-uber-airbnb/index.html

For example, instead of having customers be upset and complain for being stuck in a bad middle seat, why not let those who want a free gift choose  to go with that seat? Why not make the luggage experience more hassle-free? Why not think of ways to make the waiting time at the gate be better?  Poppi might not be a reality yet, but I hope it follows in Uber’s footsteps to shake things up.

Finale: Delta/KLM and the broken stroller

At the beginning of January I reported my experience traveling across the ocean with an infant alone and arriving in Amsterdam to a destroyed stroller (see: Delta/KLM and the broken stroller). At that point the customer experience with Delta/KLM was pretty good as they responded quickly to my official online claim and agreed to pay to repair the stroller or for a new one. Now, a month and a half later I can officially say that that this issue has successfully concluded, but, not without a little snafu of course.  We immediately went to the store where we had originally purchased the UppaBaby and were told that the damage was not repairable. We left our information as the distributor had to get back in touch to give the store an official cost estimate. Five days later when I still hadn’t heard anything back, I called the store and was told that the distributor was out of the office for a few days (or did they forget?). In any case, a few hours after the call I received by email the pro forma invoice totally the damage at 601€. I immediately forwarded everything to Delta/KLM, and a few days later received a pleasant email apologizing again for the damage and saying that I would be receiving 499€ in my bank account in a couple weeks. What a minute… I would have to pay the 100€ difference?! KLM email To this email I responded that this was not acceptable and again attached all documents as justification. Since Delta/KLM had been so efficient in responding to my online messages previously I was expecting a rapid response. However, two weeks later I had still not heard back and finally was forced to pick up the phone. Why hadn’t I just picked up the phone in the first place? Well, as the customer service game sometimes goes here in Spain, the number to call was not toll-free. And I was unable to find a free alternative number (See When It Doesn’t Pay to Call Customer Service). I was pretty adamant about not paying to call their customer service, but at the end of the day I had no choice as they were not responding. Fortunately, when I finally called, the customer service rep was extremely nice, apologized again, and within 5 minutes had reviewed my record, confirmed there was an error and immediately issued the processing of the remaining 100€ to my account. Phew. Final KL email Overall, there was a bit of a disconnect between the information sent to Delta/KLM and the final result, as well as the last email that didn’t receive a response…. however, in the end, I have to say that I’m pretty happy that the airline is taking responsibility and paying. Maybe they’ll be more careful in the future since, for them, they basically just paid back my plane ticket. Note: if something like this ever happens it’s very important to file the claim directly at the airline incident desk in the airport when it happens.

Delta-KLM broken stroller experience 3

Delta/KLM and the broken stroller (continued)

I must admit that I was quite skeptic about the response I would receive from the damage claim I filed with Delta/KLM. However, I was pleasantly surprised.

Technically, there really shouldn’t have been any question since they broke the stroller during my transatlantic flight from Boston to Amsterdam. (see International Travel Alone with an Infant…) However, as I’m not used to what one would exactly call “good” customer service, I was expecting the worst and a 1000 euro loss.

In order to move the claim forward I had to fill out additional information on the Delta web site and was requested to upload additional information (images of boarding pass, stroller damage, original receipt). Strangely, there was no open comments space to write any additional information. I wanted to tell my side of the story, so I uploaded a pdf document titled “URGENT” with additional information to let them know that they destroyed the only stroller I have and the urgency of the matter.

Tip: whenever you travel, don’t throw away anything (boarding passes, tickets for checked  baggage, tickets for baggage checked at the plane door, etc.) until the entire trip is over and you’re sure you don’t need it anymore. And, if anything happens, make the damage claim asap, directly in the airport where it happened at the service desk, if possible.

First, I received an automated email from Delta/KLM thanking me for my claim and letting me know that usually they responded within 10 days, but due to delays I should expect a longer wait time. Wonderful. So much for my urgency.

Delta email 1

However, much to my surprise, five days (4 working days) later I received a personalized email apologizing for the damage and telling me how to go about getting the repair/replacement done and how Delta-KLM would pay for it! I’m now in the process of getting the necessary paperwork from the store to finish this claim and get reimbursed.

Delta email 2

Mistakes and problems happen. What is important is the way that the companies deal with these mistakes and the overall experience for the client. So far, Delta-KLM is getting a good grade in my book!

International travel alone with an infant, a layover, and a broken stroller (Part II – Delta/KLM)

Unfortunately, similar to the trip with my infant at 4 months, I had a negative experience on the trip back home to Spain that marked the entire trip.

The plane ride from Boston-Amsterdam went more or less smoothly after securing the baby bassinet. (Note: I was told at check-in in Boston that they couldn’t assign me the seat with the baby bassinet. Apparently the only way to do this was to go to the counter at the gate and request it. I still don’t understand why this was not possible as I was given the baby bassinet on the way going…) Tip: make sure to get to the gate early to be the first to request the bassinet. I was the first in line and was able to get my seat switched, but if I hadn’t been lucky… Also, note that the bassinet weight limit is 25 lbs (printed directly on the bassinet), although the flight attendants mistakenly told me it was 10 lbs before attaching it to the wall.

When I arrived in Amsterdam with my infant half asleep and my 3 carry-on bags in my arms, I stepped out of the plane to find my (not cheap) stroller completely broken (and dirty). Delta had completely broken the stroller frame on both sides, and I was unable to put my infant in it. Not the best way to be greeted when you’re traveling alone and have a layover to catch. Fortunately, the Delta/KLM agents in Amsterdam were helpful and accompanied me to the KLM desk to file a damage report on-site and helped me to tape up the stroller enough to be able to put my infant in it to walk to my next flight. Tip: buy a cheap stroller for traveling. We only have one expensive stroller and traveled with this one, but damage to a 200 euro stroller isn’t as bad as that to a 1000 euro one…

broken side 1Broken stroller frontBroken stroller side zoom

Now the next test will be the response to the detailed damage claim that I just filed online with Delta. Supposedly I should receive a response in 10 days. To be continued…

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!

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!