Thursday, June 1, 2023

In Search of a Toll Pass, I Thought It Would Be Easy

You haven’t lived until you’ve done Christmas in Prague, or so I have been told. The statement was randomly blurted out during a conversation with several friends. I thought “what an odd thing to say,” but tucked that tidbit of information into the deep recesses of my brain.

We came to Germany to visit the Christmas Markets, so I thought why not make the drive and take an overnight trip to Prague. At least I will be able tell my friend that “I lived.”

Now, my ability to over plan is well known. Most trips are well researched, even if the planning started a bit late, as is the case in this voyage.

I spent hours in front of my computer, watching video after video about what to do, where to go, how to avoid scammers, where to get cash, pretty much anything you would ever want to know about visiting (btw, thanks “Honest Guides” for all the good advice on YouTube - Honest Guide)

Since we were driving, after getting great advice from the Honest Guides, I knew that we needed to get a Czechia toll pass. After watching this video - 

I knew that there would be a building at the border that looked like the place to pay the highway tolls, but that it wasn’t the official government facility and that I needed to find the government pay station.

(The video I linked is an update to the one I watched. Since our trip, the government has added a sign directing you to the kiosk, but it’s still not real clear where they are).

I also learned that you should be able to go online to the official Czechia government Web site and pay the toll online. Should.

So, from the comfort of our Berlin hotel, I managed to find the right Web site to pay the toll.

I attempted to pay with the credit card I use most when traveling, it wouldn’t go through.

So I pulled out my back-up credit card, but it didn’t work either.

At this point a lot of things are going through my mind. Did I just get scammed? Have both these cards been hacked? How can neither work. Did they shut down my cards for suspicious activity? Is the site down?

I pulled out my emergency card and gave that a try. Nothing.

At this point I put in a panicked call to my credit card company.

The nice lady on the other end of the call was having a bit of trouble understanding the situation. I explained that we were in Berlin, and I was attempting to charge about $9 to an on-line site to pay the highway tolls in Czechia.

As it turned out, the Web site never attempted to charge either card. So we have no idea what went wrong.

So, we headed to the border to take our chances.

To be continued….







Friday, March 10, 2023

Heading to the Christmas Markets

We spent two full days near Berlin but hadn’t been to the Christmas market yet.

We did spend one day in Potsdam, and we visited the Sanssouci Palace, King Fredrick the Great’s little get-away palace.

The Palace from the Garden Side

It was a nice tour, beautiful buildings and statuary, but since we were there in the middle of winter, the gardens weren’t as impressive as I’m sure they are in summer and spring.

View of the Gardens from the Palace

So we finally departed for our first Christmas Market in Prague.

The drive was nice. Not too busy on the roads. And the German countryside is everything you would expect.

I mostly enjoyed the Autobahn. The open speed limit areas, the way everyone stays to the right except to pass and the condition of the roadway was great. As for the 130 kph speed limits, every thing I watched talked about how fast it was. Actually it’s just over 80 mph, so it’s almost the speed I drive to work every day.

What did bother me was the consistent changing of the speed limits. It’s 50, now 80, now 130, ok no limits! Then back to 80 without much warning, down to 30 and back up again.

After we got home, I looked at my credit card account and noticed the car rental company had charged me $36 USD for some reason.

After getting the credit card company on the phone, it turned out that I must have been tagged by one the Famous German Speed Cameras.

At least that’s what we think happened. I haven’t received a ticket yet. I’ve heard it could take a year or more.

Friday, January 20, 2023

Day One in Berlin

My wife and I used to have a hard rule about dining while traveling, no chains, no restaurants that we have at home. It seemed like a good plan; it allowed us to find really amazing places like the “Fox and Goat” outside of Oxford England.

The Fox and Goat, we were lucky to find a great place to eat on day 1 of our England trip

It was on that trip in 2019, we found ourselves on the highway heading back to Oxford, hungry, tired and in search of anything to eat. We finally exited at a turnout along the highway and found something to eat. You can read about that in this blog entry: Food on the Fly: A French Burger in England? It Could Happen We ended up eating at the McDonalds in the turnout. I was actually pretty happy with the “International” burger that I had.

That experience led us to having breakfast at the McDonalds next to our hotel on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii. Food on the Fly: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam Wonderful Spam!


So tonight we found ourselves in Germany, short on cash, not able to find an ATM and not sure if our credit cards would be accepted. Once again tired and hungry, we turned to our old friend Mickey D’s. We had gone in search of an ATM and ended up driving into Berlin (which was not part of the plan). We set the GPS to go back to the hotel and saw a McD’s right on the route. We went in, wondering if the staff would be able to understand us. What we found were the electronic ordering board we have at home. After a minute, we noticed that we could switch the language to English. Hoping to find something different than the offerings in California, I ordered a hamburger Royal.

Turns out it is just a ¼ pounder with cheese. I really didn’t mind, I was just looking to eat something. They also offered a chicken sandwich that looked a lot like the original chicken sandwich at Burger King, I thought about giving that a try, maybe next time we are in Germany.

So, it wasn’t a life changing experience, but I still think we will wander into a McDonald’s when we visit France in the Spring.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Arriving in Berlin

We arrived at Los Angeles International Airport around 4pm. Our flight boarded at 6:45, we arrived at least 3 hours before our international flight as the airline advised. 

Parking and check-in were fine (see previous post). We were in the “cheap seats” so we were among the last to board. 

We lucked out, there was still some space in the overhead storage, so we were able to put our carry-on luggage there. 

Now if you have read any of my previous critiques of air travel, you might have noticed that I’m not a fan of the ever-shrinking economy seat and reduced leg room. 

So, after flying from Los Angeles to Berlin, let’s just say we arrived a bit tired. Ok, we were completely exhausted. 

Now in my exhaustive research, I had learned that rather than use a currency exchange, I should just use the ATM in the airport once I arrived in Germany, to save any currency exchange charge. 

Seemed like a good idea, since my debit card has no foreign exchange fees. 

Should have been an easy task. 

We went to baggage claim and retrieved our checked baggage without any issues. 

Once we recovered the rest of our belongings, I looked for an ATM. 

At this point, I have to say Berlin-Brandenburg might be the nicest airport I have ever been in. 

In the airport, heading from baggage claim to the rental car desks. 

I know it’s still pretty new (opened about two years ago), but it seemed to be so clean, friendly and welcoming. Not to mention the lack of crowds.

I saw a sign for the ATM, but it seemed to be directing us to the currency exchange booth. 

It that point, I just decided to find an ATM in town, and headed to the rental car counter. 

We had no problem picking up the car, went to the parking garage, managed to find our way out of the garage, and headed to the hotel, only about 10 minutes away. 

The one issue we had was with the navigation system. I paid good money to have a vehicle with a local nav system. I had read that you should make sure the rental company reset the system for the proper area and language. 

Unfortunately, there were no employees in the garage. 

I tried to reset the language on the system, but I couldn't read the instructions (turns out the last renter was Dutch). I tried guessing what the buttons/instructions meant. You can guess how well that went. 

Even though we couldn't read or understand the directions, the nav system did have a great backup camera with an overhead view.

So, we ended up using google maps to find the hotel. We checked in, put our stuff in the room and went downstairs for a drink.

After a couple glasses of wine, I had an idea. I went back out into the cold to the car. I used my phone and google translate to decipher the instructions and reset the system. 

I did feel an odd since of victory.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Flight is How Long? LAX to BER

I’ve taken a lot of trips that required air travel. Not as many as some of my friends, some who must routinely fly for business, but I’ve likely flown more than the average person (I think).

The first 18 years of my life, I never even thought of getting on a plane. The family trips we took were mostly camping. We had a trailer and a tent and would travel around California, and a few times to Baja California (the adults used the trailer, we kids were banished to the tent).

Then my mom separated from her second husband, and let’s face it, we were pretty poor. Mom did her best, but there were no fancy vacations on the horizon.

Then mom remarried. I don’t remember many real vacations, but my stepdad bought a boat, and we did a lot of water skiing on the local lakes. I couldn’t have asked for more.

My first experience with air travel came courtesy of the US Army. I joined the Army while still in my senior year of high school, and after a really great summer, headed off to basic training in New Jersey in October.

 A group of us, maybe 9 or 10 new recruits, were given packets with our tickets, orders and some other vital information and dropped off at Los Angeles International Airport.

As I remember it, none of us had ever been to an airport. The instructions were a bit sketchy, but we managed to make it to the plane, survived making a connection in St Louis, and arrived unscathed in Newark New Jersey. Our travel class was less than economy, I can only assume the Army had arranged for a special category of flying hell that they used for new recruits.

The Family Visiting Me in Hawaii in the 1980's

Since that first flight in 1979, I have flown a lot. Some flights have been great, some good and a few less than desirable. One or two a living hell.

Twice I have had the pleasure of a First-Class upgrade. Once with the kids when they were very young (flight was over booked, we opted to fly direct to Boston, instead of flying to Atlanta with a long delay, the kids were young enough that they don’t remember), once while traveling alone on Army business (weather closed the airport in St Louis for nearly 24 hours, and while rescheduling the flight, the guy in front of me treated the poor desk agent like crap {she was almost in tears}. I was nice to her, and she made sure I was well taken care of for my flight home).

Since the Christmas trip was a spur-of-the-moment idea, and we are heading to London/Paris in a few months for our 40th Anniversary, I hoped to do this trip on “the cheap.”

Now “cheap” has changed a bit. Our trip to London/Oxford in 2019 our flights were under $900 for both of us, oh yeah, and we had upgraded seats. Not business class, but better than the cheap seats.  This trip to Berlin the flights we a bit more. We were in the cheap seats. However, we paid over $1630 to sit in the back of the plane. Yeah, double the price from 2019.

Stonehenge 2019

So, what did we get for the additional $800?

I’m pretty sure that they reduced the distance between the seats. I’m not that tall, but I’m at about the max leg size for the cramped seats in economy.

The food is pretty sub-par. I remember flying on Alaska Airlines back in the ‘80’s. The lady in front of me was complaining about the quality of the salmon they served on the flight. I thought to myself, “you just had salmon on an airplane, are you kidding me?” (Might have been my first “Karen” experience).

I won't comment on the food they offered on this trip to Berlin, but it was "free" which was still overpriced. 

On this flight, we didn’t get charged extra for drinks, so a couple of glasses of wine were nice.

However, neither of us were able to get much sleep. So, we arrived in Germany almost totally exhausted.

The lack of sleep, combined with the time change meant that we would waste the first day + of an eight day trip trying to acclimate to the time change.






Monday, December 19, 2022

To the Airport!

 After just a couple of weeks preparation, we were off to see the wonders of the Christmas Markets of Europe. Well at least Germany and Prague.

It's something we have wanted to do for years, and on a bit of the spur-of-the-moment decision, we were off. 

We used to like flying out the the airport in Long Beach, CA. It's a smaller airport, but was always easy to get to, and to get to your gate.

Unfortunately, we have found ourselves leaving out of Los Angeles International Airport for our last few trips.

Parking at LAX has been a living hell. They were working on building a new high rise lot, so the available spaces were pretty few. Parking off airport has it's own challenges, which almost made me miss a flight to Boston (too few transports to the airport). 

They've finished the new parking structure, and it's pretty nice. It still is clean, not too many people are using it so far, it's close to the airport and the bus runs often.

We were flying Air France to Berlin with a 2 hour stop in Paris.

We left out of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. It's a bit confusing, but we managed to get our bags checked in.

Security wasn't bad, and we went to our gate. 

Our gate was at the far end of the terminal. There wasn't a lot of things at the gate, some vending machines that who knows how long the food has been in there. 

The worst part of the terminal was there wasn't a bar. NO BAR! How am I expected to spend 12 hours on a plane without starting with a drink!

Well time to board came quickly and we made our way onto the plane.

At least I had a good meal before we got to the airport

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

I Decided to Take My Wife Christmas Shopping – In Germany

Just over a month ago, I was sitting at my computer, mindlessly surfing the internet.

My wife mentioned that she had sent me a link to a story by a gentleman that calls himself “The Points Guy.”

He writes about travel and suggests ways to save money using points from credit cards, hotels, airlines etc. to save money.

This story was about the Christmas Markets in Germany.

A trip to the European Christmas Markets has been on our list for several years. A co-worker once suggested that “you haven’t lived” until you had been to Prague for Christmas.

I looked out the window at our front yard. The trees had dropped most of their leaves, but it was still very warm in our SoCal neighborhood.

I thought, why not.

I went online and started looking at flights and hotels.

I booked us a flight to Berlin, Germany. I found a hotel near the airport and rented a car. I also made plans to drive to Prague and booked a one-night stay, about a 10-minute walk from the main Christmas Market.

The Christmas Market in Prague

Then I figured I should probably tell the wife. Her reaction? She seemed to think I had lost my mind.

Usually, before we go anywhere, I begin planning at least six months before departure dates. More often it is closer to a year before the trip. Once I make the “folder” it is official. We are going!

I made the folder and put the receipts for the plane, hotel and car inside it. We only had just over two weeks until we departed.

Amazon purchases started to show up daily, long johns, new winter coats, shoelaces for boots I rarely wear, masks to wear on public transport and a few accessories for my camera.

I spent almost every waking minute looking at Utube videos and researching every fact, tip and trick I could find on traveling to Germany and Czechia.