From Texas to Beyond

Local, Near and Far: Our journey of exploring the world.

Month: April 2015 (page 1 of 5)

Prague City Overview

Rebekah and I have always wanted to explore Eastern Europe, and Prague was the top city on our list.  Prague, the City of a Hundred Spires.  When we found a cheap flight to Prague using frequent flyer miles, we didn’t think twice about booking the flight!

After much planning, we decided to spend four of our ten day European trip exploring the Czech Republic.  We also wanted to see the Czech Republic beyond Prague, so we limited our time in Prague so we could travel 4 hours south by train to the picturesque Czech town of Český Krumlov.  This decision left us with two full days in Prague.  Looking back, two days is theoretically enough time to catch the Prague highlights, but we moved quickly to cover so much ground.  You could have easily spent a week in Prague, including short day trips to see the surrounding countryside complete with small castle towns.

To make the most of our time, we researched the destination beforehand so we could spend our time on the ground enjoying.  Rick Steves 2014 Prague & the Czech Republic Guidebook was a most helpful resource.  I highly recommend this book for traveling in the Czech Republic.

Before we jump into what we did, let’s take a look at the city of Prague itself.

Crossing the Charles Bridge from the Little Quarter into the Old Town

Crossing the Charles Bridge from the Little Quarter into the Old Town

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The National Gallery

With only two hours in central London via a long layover, David and I decided to spend our time at The National Gallery.  We love art and wanted to see the gems that are housed in London.  The Gallery is open every day and is free so it was a perfect fit for us.

Trafalgar Square - View from the Museum

Trafalgar Square – View from the Museum

From the airport, we headed into London via the Tube and after a short walk, ended up in Trafalgar Square at The National Gallery.  When we arrived at the museum, I had to eat something before I could enjoy the art.  We headed down to the café, a little afraid of the prices; to our surprise, it was very reasonable.  The chicken curry sandwich, carrot cake and coffee were delicious and perfect.

Once we arrived, we realized we were right on time for a tour.  Guided tours are offered daily at 11:30 AM and 2:30 PM.  We joined at least 50 other patrons as a docent guided us through the busy rooms.  At first, I was discouraged when the docent stated she would show us only 4 pieces on the hour-long tour due to the large size of the group. But, I can honestly say, it was the best museum tour I have ever experienced.

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An Afternoon in London – Making the Most of Our Heathrow Layover

It was 8:45 PM, and Rebekah and I were pulling away from the gate at DFW International Airport and heading to London.  Seated next to me, Rebekah was tired from all the preparation.  I was trying not to bounce off the walls with excitement.  Sipping a Newcastle Brown Ale shortly after takeoff, Europe was beckoning me! Our time in London would be short.  With an eight hour Heathrow layover,  we would have three hours in downtown London.  An hour delay at DFW Airport now meant 60 minutes less in London. London Telephone Booth You may ask, “Why does an eight hour layover turn into only three hours in central London?”  In short, plan on 5 hours for Immigration/Border Control (1 hour), transportation to the city center (1 hour), and transportation from the city center back to Heathrow (1 hour), arriving approximately 2 hours prior to your flight’s departure time. We found an excellent article on Trip Advisor breaking down the times and possible sight-seeing options. If you only have a few hours, I strongly recommend focusing on one destination in London, and fully enjoy that one destination.  There is no way you can see everything in London in a few hours; we chose The National Gallery.  The National Gallery is free, located in a great part of town with easy connections and we love art!  Plan your itinerary before leaving home, as you do not want to use your precious time looking up options once you arrive.

Step One:  Immigration/Border Control. We were very fortunate here, giving up just 5 minutes instead of the scheduled hour. We were making up some time lost in the flight delay. If possible, check your bags all the way through to your final destination. Since our bags were checked to Prague, we did not have to spend time picking them up. If we had luggage, I am sure our Immigration time would have been much longer. Besides, you don’t want to carry your bags around London.

London Heathrow Train Map - Courtsey of HeathrowAirport.com

London Heathrow Train Map – Courtsey of HeathrowAirport.com

Rebekah and I on the Piccadilly Line

Rebekah and I on the Piccadilly Line

Step Two:  Transportation to downtown London.  Here, you have two options.  The newer, faster, more expensive option is the Heathrow Express (HEX).  The second option is the traditional Underground Piccadilly Line (Dark Blue Line).  See the map of the Underground above for more information.  We chose the latter based on what we had read in the Trip Advisor article.  Following signs from Immigration, we easily found the Underground station, and purchased RETURN trip tickets from a machine for $15.00 each (£8.90). We used a credit card instead of converting dollars to pounds.

Step Three: Enjoy central London. In 45 minutes, we emerged from the Underground station in the heart of Piccadilly Circus. Piccadilly Circus is the Times Square of London. Broadway show posters plaster buildings. Pizza Hut, KFC, TGI Friday’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and other “wonderful” American contributions to Europe cuisine clamor for business. Hundreds of people mill about. Remember, any time you are around crowds, keep an extra careful eye on your belongings. Bypassing the crowds, we headed to Trafalgar Square on foot. Passing a statue of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square, we asked directions from a friendly police officer.  With a few more turns, we arrived at Trafalgar Square.  Staying focused on the goal at hand, we proceeded directly to The National Gallery.  After all this, we had two and a half hours at the Gallery. Heading back to Heathrow, we exited the museum and were greeted with a light rain.  Big Ben came into view for the first time; it will have to wait for our next London visit.

Trafalgar Square and Big BenStep Four:  Return transportation to Heathrow Airport.  We easily found Piccadilly Circus, and boarded our train back to the airport.  Before getting on the Underground, check to see from which terminal your flight departs.  There are three stops for Heathrow, Terminal 1,2 and 3; Terminal 4; and Terminal 5.  Not all of the trains go to all of the stations.  Our connecting flight to Prague departed from Terminal 3, the first stop.  Again, the return trip took 45 minutes.

Step Five:  Security.  The last step for a successful layover trip to London is clearing security on your way back.  Following the signs from the Underground, we made our way through a very detailed security check point.  Once inside the secure area, we sampled gin and tonics at the Duty Free shops, killing the remainder of our layover before making our way to the gate.  At Heathrow, gates are not assigned until 60 minutes prior to departure, so spend time in the mall-like common area.

The Piccadilly Underground Line

The Piccadilly Underground Line

Well, was all of that hassle worth it?  Definitely!  There are risks involved, but overall, we experienced an extra destination for a small amount of money and no extra time.  If you plan appropriately, and leave enough time for the return trip, 3 hours in London will be much more rewarding than 8 hours in the terminal. If you have any questions, feel free to post in the comments section, and we will do our best to assist you with your upcoming plans.

A Case Study in Redeeming Frequent Flyer Miles

Today, we kick off a series about Rebekah and my most recent international trip.  But before we dive into the stories from the trip, we wanted to take a minute to break down redeeming frequent flyer miles.

Our trip, like any good trip, started with the classic question:  “Where should we go?”  Rebekah and I had accumulated 120,000 miles in our American Airlines frequent flyer accounts, and the miles were burning a hole in our pockets.  Where should we go?

London - Picadilly Circus

London – Picadilly Circus

Redeeming American Airlines’ Frequent Flyer Miles:  Since we were redeeming miles, we figured a good place to start was the American Airlines website.  The Awards Map, a relatively new feature, helps find possible destinations based on the number of frequent flyer miles you wish to redeem.  Using this option, the website shows possible destinations in a selected area (such as Asia Pacific, Europe, Central and South America, etc.) originating from a specific airport, ours being DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth) Airport.  We set the miles we were willing to spend to 30,000 miles per person (one-way).  Based on the dates of travel, we realized we did not have enough miles for Asia or Africa and few options for South America.  Europe seemed to be the best fit.  By eliminating the countries we had already visited in Europe, we only had 45 countries to choose from.  Ha.  Still daunting.

When booking flights using miles, we were shocked to find the additional taxes and fees to be extraordinary.  Some options, such as a flight to Gibraltar, cost 30,000 miles and $760 per person one way.  We quickly ruled out these locations.  In general, we found flights connecting through London Heathrow were more expensive than connecting through other airports.  Also, direct flights were normally the cheapest, since less airports equals less fees.

One benefit of using frequent flyer miles is that you can easily book one-way tickets for half of the miles of a round trip ticket (based on the dates).  We quickly realized there was no benefit for us to book a round trip ticket, and started to view each way as an independent option.  However, the Award Map became even more difficult to use for a one-way return ticket, as you have to select one city in Europe at a time, and select continental US as the return.  Once you do this, you can see if DFW airport is available from the selected European city.  The American Airlines Award Map can be a frustrating tool because of its limitations, but after a lot of work, it helped us narrow down our final destinations.

After much searching, we decided to fly home from Paris, mostly because it was a direct flight back to DFW with ideal departure and landing times and minimal taxes.  After even more struggles, we found a great flight to Prague.  We wanted to explore Eastern Europe if possible, and this was as far east as we could fly on 30,000 miles.

Prague - View of the Charles Bridge

Prague – View of the Charles Bridge

Modifying a Frequent Flyer Ticket Itinerary:  Later, we discovered another benefit of using miles:  no change fees.  After looking at our work schedules again, we were able to extend our trip by two days.  I was not sure what fees would be associated with such a change, but thought the extra time in Europe would be worth a try.  I was pleasantly surprised to find there was no fee.  As long as a flight for the same number of miles is available, the only cost would be the difference in taxes.  In our case, we only changed the return flight, knowing we would not find another flight to Prague.  We easily found a new return flight from Paris, and the taxes for the later flight was the same as the previous flight.  There was no cost to modify our itinerary.

Overall, the representatives at American Airlines were very helpful.  However, if they book the tickets for you directly, there is a fee, so avoid the extra fee by letting them help you make an online booking.  Once you have an online booking, they can assist you with any changes.

When all the planning was complete, we booked a 1 stop flight from DFW to Prague, with a layover in London Heathrow (a rare exception to the high taxes).  The cost for each person was 30,000 miles and $96.80.  The return flight was direct from Charles de Gaulle Airport to DFW for 30,000 miles and $90.90 each.  For those keeping score at home, our “free” tickets cost us a total of 120,000 miles and $375.40.  When it comes to airlines, “free” is not always free.  This definitely made us rethink the value of frequent flyer mile programs.

Our Itinerary:  After a lot of work, Rebekah and I were going to Europe.  We would visit the following locations:

Paris - View of the Eiffel Tower from the Arc de Triomphe

Paris – View of the Eiffel Tower from the Arc de Triomphe

In the coming weeks, we will break down each of these four destinations, sharing highlights and the most memorable experiences from each location.  We look forward to sharing our experiences with you!

If you have successfully booked a flight with frequent flyer miles and have any tips, feel free to share in the comments section!

Study Abroad

Every Friday we take a break from our regular blogging schedule to allow the authors an opportunity to feature a certain topic they are passionate about. In the past you’ve read about art, however we have a number of Feature Fridays ahead. Through this and other future posts we hope you’ll enjoy reading, we hope to share with you our personalities, passions, and interests on a more personal level.

Travel changes people.  It fosters understanding and enriches our life.  As a seasoned traveler, this fact seems like second nature.  That is why traveling abroad can have a profound impact on a student’s life.

Thinking back to my time in college, I did not participate in my university’s study abroad program.  However, I was able to spend one summer in Bolivia through another organization on campus.  To this day, I attribute many life changing moments to my time in Bolivia.  If you visit a place for a week or so, you can easily disengage from the culture and just be a tourist.  But when you actually enter into a different culture, it is amazing what you actually learn about yourself, your own culture, the world and perhaps your faith. It was an amazing and difficult time. I had to grow up quickly and learned to take risks. It was a pressure cooker for seeing my weaknesses and shortcomings.  I started learning Spanish, which has helped me immensely.

In my day job, I work for a non-profit that hosts two grants from the Department of Education called Upward Bound.  During LBJ’s administration, Upward Bound emerged out of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 in response to the administration’s War on Poverty.  The program is specifically designed for high school students who will be the first in their family to go to college and/or are low-income.  The goals are to increase the rates of secondary graduation and enrollment in and graduation from post-secondary education.

A few months ago, our office went to a conference. One of the breakout sessions discussed the benefits of first-generation students studying abroad.  I volunteered quickly to go to this session!  I love traveling and my students, so I was excited to learn.

This particular session was offered by a graduate student who was working at the University of Texas in Austin.  The initiatives from the University and staff to help first-generation students were amazing!  Their initial research along with other programs, shows that when a student studies abroad, their GPA will often increase as well as increase graduation rates. Traveling abroad could even help students secure jobs and summer internships later in their career path.  Traveling provides soft skills such as confidence, critical thinking, and helps makes connections to the world with their academic discipline.

If you know someone who is a first-generation student, or if you are a first-generation student and are interested in studying abroad, as soon as you speak with your advisor on campus, let them know that studying abroad is a goal.  Speak with the financial aid and the study abroad office to figure out your options.  Also, start looking up scholarships.  There are many scholarships that are specifically for first-gen. studying abroad.  Below is a list of scholarship links.

Scholarships

Gilman International Scholarship

The next two scholarship links are housed by UT-Austin.  Use them as a resource.

Global Assist and UT International Office Database

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