Monday, November 20, 2006

THE LONG WAY BACK

We’ve been in Italy just over three years now. Every year we’ve returned to the states once in the spring, because Art wants to work the Derby, and once in the winter, November, December and/or January.

This year we had to accept the fact that a winter trip was just not in the budget. Well, actually I had to bring it up and sort of force Art to accept the reality of the situation. Although in many ways Art has ‘corrupted’ me, my spendthrift ways and financially conservative nature still win out most of the time.

I think the thing Art has the hardest time with is the idea of living within a budget. He’s used to working hard, putting in extra hours, and being rewarded with some extra cash at the end of the month. At the track he often got nice tips from customers, and occasionally even bet on a winner. At the Post Office, twice a year we’d get a “bonus” paycheck, during the two months that had three paydays. Although we didn’t live a grand lifestyle, we were comfortable.

The idea of living on a budget isn’t as difficult for me. I put the numbers on paper and see the reality. That’s it, no discussion, just reality. Our pension checks come once a month, with no bonus checks included. If it were up to me I’d use the good old fashioned envelope system, putting each months allotment into an envelope and when it’s gone it’s gone.

Now of course we both knew we’d have to make sacrifices when we moved to Italy, but I think the reality is harder for Art to live with. I feel as if I’m always the bad guy, always the bearer of bad news when I have to be the one to say “No, we can’t afford that.” Sometimes I resent my role, and think that common sense should show Art what we can and can’t afford, but still I end up playing the money police, mostly because I’m the one who will do it.

So….this year we had both accepted the fact that we simply couldn’t afford to go back to the states in the winter. Even though Art could work at the track, even though we could stay with my sister, even though we might be able to use her car. The cost of the flight, although less expensive in the winter, was still something that we just didn’t have the money for, nor did we have the money for the other expenses of a visit to the states…the dinners out, the movies, the things we’d buy. And so it was decided and accepted by both of us, and really, after living here for three years, it wasn’t as if we needed or wanted to go back to the states desperately. We’re content here, and a visit to the states is just a visit, just a quick vacation really.

And then our friend offered to get us buddy passes. When we learned that the cost of a buddy pass was only 10% of the “real” price we thought “hey! Why not?! Let’s splurge!” We told her to go ahead with the tickets, picking dates that would work for us, although apparently having to select specific dates is something new, something post 9/11.

The deal was that we, as friends, could fly using these buddy passes during the off season without the employee having to be on the same flight. Apparently during the high season the rules are different. We chose to depart from Italy on November 1st, the first day of the ‘off’ season, and to return two weeks later in order to be back in Italy in time to coordinate with our friends Paul and Mer. We knew we’d be flying standby but figured that during November the flights would surely have two seats for us.

Our first surprise came when we found out the cost of the tickets. USAir has just merged with America West, and apparently America West must wield a lot of power in the deal. In addition to other changes, the buddy pass system is now operated under the America West system using a zone formula. Tickets from the United States to Europe cost $100 per person, per way, so for our trip, $400 plus taxes, bringing us to almost $500.

This was a little hard to me to handle. I just don’t do well being in debt, having a credit card bill hanging over my head, but I tried to make the most of it. We were committed now, so I tried to make the best of it. Art planned to work at the track while were home, so it was some consolation to know that he’d at least make enough money to pay for the trip. My sister gave us some good news when we found out that she did indeed have a car that we could use, saving us the cost of a rental. I truly was trying to be positive.

On November 1st we drove to Orvieto to take the train to Fiumicino, Rome’s airport. Because we were on standby, we decided to leave the car in Orvieto and call Giacomo to let him know if we made the flight or not. If we made the flight he’d come to Orvieto to get our car, and if not it would be waiting for us when we returned later in the day.

November 1st, also known as All Saints Day, is a big holiday in Italy. Everything is closed and services are reduced. Services including train service, meaning that the only train running that morning to FCO was the more expensive train that ran directly to Termini, then using the more expensive Leonardo Express to get to the airport. For the two of us, the tickets were somewhere in the €50 range, about double what we usually paid. Okay, once again I tried to use the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ philosophy, combined with deep breathing.

Once we reach the airport we decide that we should go ahead and buy the upgrade, just in case. Standby passengers can upgrade to Business Class for $100 each, which of course is a fantastic bargain, but for me is also $200 MORE that I hadn’t planned on spending. Breathe….breathe.

The deal with the upgrade is that if there is room in economy you don’t have to use the upgrade and can get it refunded, but I knew that once we bought the upgrades Art would never agree to sit in economy. Okay…get ready to enjoy the luxury of Business class…the comfy seats, the free drinks.

But of course you have to actually get on the plane first. As standby passengers we sat, waiting while everyone else boards. We were thinking good thoughts, positive thoughts. We chatted with several other couples who were also on standby. Two of the women were USAir retirees who shmoozed with the gate attendants and discovered that eight seats have been sold that very morning, meaning that none of us on standby would be flying.

We made sure our names were on the list for the next day, retrieved our luggage from the carousels downstairs, then trudged back across the street to the train station. I called Giacomo and told him the news. We bought our train tickets and luckily I thought ahead and bought the tickets not only for our return to Orvieto, but also for the trip from Orvieto back to FCO the next day. Those four tickets cost less than the two we’d purchased for the trip that morning!

The woman at the ticket counter tells us there’s a train leaving in five minutes so we scurry over to the local platform. It’s fairly crowded, and I stop to validate our train tickets. By the time I get the machine to work and start to walk towards the train I realize that I don’t know where Art is….and the platform is empty. Then the train leaves. I feel like Barbara Streisand in “Funny Girl”, standing there disheveled, luggage in hand, watching the train get smaller and smaller. I have our cell phone but Art doesn’t have a phone.

I try to figure out if the next train will also go to or through Tiburtina, the station we need to get to. I look at the train map but can’t figure it out. The cell phone rings because of course Art has borrowed one from a fellow traveler. He’s full of apologies but of course I’m not too interested. Had it been really crowded I could have understood if we had yelled to one another to get on and meet later, but I can’t believe that he just got on the train without me even being there! Without even looking to see if I was there! I told him I wasn’t sure when I’d be there, but that he should wait for me at Tiburtina.

I went to the train information office and told the men working there that my husband has just left on the train, ‘senza di me”….without me. They tell me that yes, the next train is going to Tiburtina so I head back to the platform. Before I get on I verify with the conductor that yes, this train will stop at Tiburtina, then I settle in for the thirty minute ride.

After arriving at Tiburtina I spot Art after just a few frantic seconds. He’s of course full of remorse and we’re both relieved to be together again. I ask him what time and platform the train to Orvieto is, but he says he doesn’t know. That’s kind of odd…I figured that since he’d been there for at least forty minutes he’d have checked it out and been ready to go. So what happened? Had he been relaxing with a coffee and a croissant while I was all stressed out?

He said that he’d just arrived in Tiburtina. And then he pointed to the train that was still there…the train I’d just gotten off….and told me that he’s just gotten off that train. My brain just couldn’t figure this out! “What do you mean you just got off that train? That’s the train I just got off!”

Apparently in his panic he’d gotten off the train at the first station he saw that started with a “T”….and ended up in the Trastevere station, not Tiburtina. It wasn’t until he couldn’t find a train to Orvieto that he realized his mistake. I guess the ticket windows were inside, so he found an automated ticket machine, which would have been great except for the fact that in the airport he’d emptied his pockets of all his euro and given them to me to keep until we returned to Italy in two weeks!

Luckily he did still have a €20 note hidden away, so with that he purchased a €1 ticket from Trastevere to Tiburtina. He was given a €19 voucher which we would use to get back from FCO to Orvieto two weeks later.

Eventually we found the train to Orvieto, drove our car back to San Venanzo, and the next morning we started all over again! We did use the vouchers for Business class…..without them we wouldn’t have been on that flight either. For us it was such a relief to be on the plane, and I happily called Giacomo to let him know that our car would be waiting for him whenever he found it convenient to pick up.

Once we landed in Philadelphia we checked to see if there was any way we could get to Louisville any earlier than our scheduled 11:30 p.m. arrival but were told no. The good news was that we would be able to get on the late flight, so at least we’d be sleeping in Louisville, not Philadelphia.

For the return flight to Italy we got the last two seats from Louisville to Philadelphia. As we checked in at Standiford Field, oh excuse me, Louisville International Airport, we ask the clerk about buying the upgrades for Business class. At this point I was trying to adopt a ‘what the hell’ attitude, especially since being in Business class would make sleeping just a little easier.

The check-in for USAir is set up to be completely automated, with a human being there only for problems. We try to use people whenever possible…just to help someone keep their job. Because we were flying standby our luggage had to be specially tagged, so the agent was helping us. We asked about buying upgrades (only for the Philadelphia to Rome leg because the Louisville to Philadelphia plane is very, very small with no Business class section), but he told us to wait until we got to Philadelphia. We now think that he just didn’t want to be bothered with the extra work.

Once we arrived in Philly we had to get to the international terminal which requires lots of walking, a shuttle bus, then more walking. As I looked at the time I realized just how close we were cutting it, and any thought we’d had of stopping along the way to buy upgrades was quickly dismissed. As we approached the gate we heard our names being called!

The good news was that there was room for us on the plane, but when we asked about an upgrade we were told that it wasn’t possible….the upgrades had to be purchased downstairs and couldn’t be sold at the gate. We explained that we had specifically asked in Louisville about the upgrade but had been told that we should wait. We also explained that we hadn’t realized how close we were cutting it, timewise, but that once we realized it we came straight to the gate.

Just as the agent in Louisville hadn’t been willing to go the extra mile, most of the agents in Philadelphia weren’t willing to help us either. Don’t these people realize that the more they do the more they help secure their jobs??? Computers can’t do everything, and for some things you just need another person Luckily for us, one of the agents, a man, offered to get the necessary paperwork for us and we did upgrade to Business class for the flight home.

Bottom line for this flight? Well, let’s add it up: $486 for the original tickets, $400 for the upgrades, then about $130 for the three train trips, so about $1016 in all, or about $508 each. Yes, it was a nice visit to the states. Yes, it was nice to sit in Business class. But, had I known then what I know now I wouldn’t have done it. Although I knew we were flying standby and I knew that there was a chance we wouldn’t make a flight, in the end the costs were much more than I had planned for, and as with so many bargains, there are always hidden or unexpected costs, such as the train tickets and upgrades.

Yes, we’ll always have to take the train to get to the airport, but in this case the (supposedly) low cost of the flight would have allowed for the cost of the train and still kept the costs well under $400 total. We certainly don’t blame our friend for this, and appreciate her generosity, but next time we’ll be better prepared and will be able to decide in advance if we can afford such a bargain fare or not.


By the time we fly to the states in the spring our tickets (in regular economy class) will be paid for, and we’ll be exchanging houses so the cost factor shouldn’t be as stressful for me. After that I’m not sure when we’ll go back and maybe from now on it will be only a once a year visit. I’m still trying to convince Art that a trip in September or October would allow us to visit not only Louisville, but also to maybe plan another vacation within our vacation to some of the U.S. sites we’ve never visited….The Grand Canyon, Savannah, Seattle, or to places we’d love to go back to like San Francisco or New York.

2 Comments :

At 11/22/2006 02:29:00 AM , Anonymous Judith in Umbria said...

Hey, you aren't even coming close to being cheap yet! $400 extra to fly business when you weren't sure you could afford the trip? Hahaha!
Why these fantasies of seeing the USA in your Chevrolet when you've moved to Europe? Have you looked at the bargain fares available here to European cities, Egypt, Africa, India?
Believe me, Savannah is not more interesting than Budapest!

 
At 11/22/2006 01:30:00 PM , Blogger Barbara said...

There are no grandchildren in Europe...at least not OUR grandchildren!

 

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