Booked: Spontaneous Europe

I’m currently on a rather spontaneous week-long jaunt through Europe, which is my first time back in this part of the world since the start of the pandemic. 

While I sometimes skip over these “Booked” posts for my casual domestic and transborder trips, in this case there were still a few points-optimized flights and interesting hotels I’ve planned along the way, so let’s take a quick stroll through my thought process behind planning this trip – even if it was fairly “on the fly”.

Kraków Christmas Market

The Trip

This early December trip was originally supposed to look very different than the cold and wintry Central European nights that I’m experiencing as I write this.

Instead of crisp snowfall and 3:30pm sunsets, this trip was supposed to be about sunbathing on the beach and sipping wine with views of Table Mountain under the long southerns summer nights. 

Indeed, I had originally planned to spend this week in Cape Town, South Africa, which longtime readers will know is among my top bucket-list destinations that I haven’t been to yet.

My friend and fellow travel enthusiast Spencer from Straight to the Points was planning to be there at the same time, allowing us to sneak in a much-needed long-haul escape at the tail end of an otherwise relatively housebound 2021. 

Alas, it came down to a situation of particularly bad timing. As we all know by now, the Omicron variant was first sequenced in South Africa a few weeks ago, leading to many countries implementing some heavy-handed travel restrictions out of an abundance of caution.

Still wanting to take a trip, Spencer and other his travel companion decided to replace their fortnight in South Africa with a road-trip through Poland and Ukraine instead.

Wieliczka Salt Mine, Kraków, Poland

That perhaps doesn’t quite carry the same immediate appeal for a trip in the first week of December, but could still be charming – so I decided to join as originally planned for the Poland leg of the journey.

I’ve visited Poland before in 2017, when we spent a few days in Warsaw and then visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on the first stop of a two-week Aeroplan Mini-Round-the-World journey at the time

Still, I’m always happy to go somewhere for a second time, as I find that it’s often a much-changed experience to rediscover a place compared to discovering it for the first time.

The Flights

After a modest year of flying by my standards, in which I’ve mostly taken short-haul flights and long-haul products I’ve already tried before, I’m excited to add to our collection of airline reviews here at Prince of Travel in 2022 – and I figured I may as well get a head start with this late 2021 trip. 

Among the major Star Alliance transatlantic business class products that Canadians might consider, Austrian Airlines business class is one of the few that I’ve yet to try before this trip.

That’s because Austrian has historically levied high surcharges under the old Aeroplan program, but that obstacle has now gone away with the new Aeroplan’s relaunch in November 2020.

Austrian Airlines business class

The Vienna-based airline offers a thrice-weekly service to Montreal on their Boeing 767s. I happened to have quite a few meetings lined up in Montreal after spending the past week on the US East Coast, so it was convenient enough for me.

(Departing out of Montreal also allows me to review the new Air France Business Lounge Montreal that opened earlier this year, which is accessible via Plaza Premium lounge benefits on the Platinum Card, Business Platinum Card, Gold Rewards Card, or Visa Infinite Privilege cards through June 2022.)

From Vienna, I’d need to connect through Warsaw to get to Kraków on a series of otherwise uninspiring LOT Polish Airlines short-haul flights. I ended up booking the following journey for 70,000 Aeroplan points:

  • Montreal to Vienna, Austrian Airlines business class, departing 6:35pm and arriving 8:35am
  • Vienna to Warsaw, LOT Polish Airlines business class, departing 10:15am and arriving 11:30am
  • Warsaw to Kraków, LOT Polish Airlines economy class, departing 2:30pm and arriving 3:25pm

Interestingly enough, I had originally booked Montreal–Vienna, then decided to add a Washington–Montreal segment at the start (with a 24-hour layover in Montreal), and then decided to drop that segment (since I wanted to spend longer than 24 hours).

In doing so, my Canadian departure taxes were refunded on the first change (since my origin was in the US instead) – but not charged again on the second change! 😉

In terms of the return flight, while it’s also a new product I haven’t tried before, I haven’t quite lined up all the connecting pieces of the itinerary just yet. I’ll have an update for you about the return journey when the time comes. 

The Hotels

With a one-night stay in Montreal to kick off the European leg of my trip, I looked no further than the Humaniti Hotel Montreal, Autograph Collection, which opened in June of this year and has attracted positive reviews from Marriott Bonvoy loyalists in the time since. 

I booked the Member Opening Rate at a reasonable $205 for the one-night stay, and (since I’m writing this after the fact) had no problem suite-talking my way to the hotel’s Haiku One-Bedroom Suite.

Haiku One-Bedroom Suite, Humaniti Hotel Montreal

Now, Poland isn’t exactly a place known for its overly impressive high-end hotels, so my choices here have largely been dictated by cost rather than comfort.

Hilton options tend to be more modestly priced than Bonvoy, and Hilton’s ongoing triple-points promotion is just too good to turn down. I’m writing this from the $78-a-night Hilton Garden Inn Kraków, and I’ll likely post up at the Hilton Warsaw City tomorrow. 

The return journey takes me through Barcelona, Spain, which is another city I’ve enjoyed visiting in the past that I haven’t been to in many years’ time. 

There, I’ve heard great things about the Cotton House Barcelona, another hotel in Marriott’s Autograph Collection that I think would make for an interesting review. Alas, the hotel’s Marriott Bonvoy Category 7 designation is far above and beyond its €194 cash rate.

Cotton House Barcelona

Testing and Proof of Vaccination

International travel these days requires navigating ever-changing travel restrictions, and the challenges add up when you’re travelling through multiple countries.

Here’s how I’ve dealt with and will be dealing with the various countries’ entry requirements on this trip:

  • Entering the United States at the very start of my trip required taking an antigen test (three days before travel at the time, now one day before travel). I used the Switch Health Antigen Test Kit to self-administer an antigen test and fulfill this requirement. 
  • Canada requires a negative molecular test to re-enter after trips of longer than 72 hours in duration. I used a free PCR test from Curative in Washington DC to fulfill this requirement.
  • Austria doesn’t have any restrictions for transiting, while Poland only requires proof of vaccination to enter. My proof of vaccination was verified at check-in with Austrian Airlines in Montreal and upon disembarking and entering the airport terminal in Warsaw. 
  • I’m planning to return to Canada via the United States, and I’ve got a Switch Health RT-LAMP Test Kit on me to satisfy both countries’ entry requirements. It’ll also be interesting to see whether I’m subject to the new on-arrival testing policies since I’d be a traveller arriving from the United States – though having arrived from an international destination before that. 

Conclusion

I’ve always been partial to the occasional spontaneous trip, dictated by the whims of wanderlust rather than careful planning months ahead.

The pandemic has taken away much of the flexibility in being able to plan full round-the-world trips on the fly, but an impromptu expedition in open-for-travel Europe is proving to be a breath of fresh air to wrap up my travels for 2021. 

I look forward to sharing with you the airline, hotel, and lounge reviews – including the return journey to North America – as part of our more casual content schedule for the end-of-year period.

12 Comments
  1. Chris OReilly

    Sorry I missed you Ricky – I was In Barcelona on the 11th as part of a Star Alliance mileage run (LGA-YYZ-ZRH-BCN—ZRH-GRU-YYZ).

    Would have been good to connect over a Glass of Cava.

    CC

    1. Ricky YVR

      Would’ve been fun! I was at BCN airport all day on the 12th… that’s a full story to come.

      1. chris oreilly

        Fantastic story – truly movie worthy 🙂 Based on the stress of the day, I doubt you were in the mood for a chat on Mileage Run/Mistake Fare strategies. Looking forward to reading the La Premier review – tried this myself in the past only to have AF cancel – buy your 649 ticket soon !

  2. Emmanuelle

    I loved the Humaniti hotel in Montreal and was upgraded to the same suite, Haiko. I’m very interested in your report on the Cotton House in Barcelona as I’ve booked this hotel for a trip in 2022.

    1. Ricky YVR

      Hi Emmanuelle, unfortunately since writing the post I’ve had to rearrange my trip and didn’t stay at the Cotton House. But my quick visit has helped me rediscover my love for Barcelona, and I hope to be back soon to properly scope out the hotel scene!

  3. Charles

    Hi Ricky,
    Was in SA when the sh*t hit the fan. BA canceled all their flights to SA and then made themselves totally unavailable to deal with the mess that they had created. After 2-3 days of watching and waiting decided to book JNB-ADD- FRA-MEX. Addis Ababa was a bit scary. Long layover of 17 hrs so Ethiopian put us up at the Radisson Blu for the day. Two roadblocks on the way back to the airport. Pitch black outside with lots of very unfriendly soldiers forcing us out of the shuttle while examining the vehicle and patting us down. No fun at all. Ethiopian was great but Lufthansa always wins. 747-8, upstairs for 12hrs from FRA to MEX. Will stay in Mexico for 2 weeks to avoid all the quarantine BS at home. Safe travels in the future.

  4. Cheri

    I’m interested in the cost of your two changes. since you initially paid 70,000 pts for the trip and then made two changes. Could you also please comment on whether you think it’s better to pay fewer points but pay for changes and/or cancellation… or pay the higher pts that are offered that include those charges. Love your articles!

    1. Ricky YVR

      Until December 31, you can make unlimited changes for free. After that, it’ll depend on a few different factors around how confident you are of travelling as booked or travelling at all – I’ll write a more in-depth article when the time comes.

  5. John Bucher

    Hooray! Another trip report
    This is what I love.At my age , I do not have the courage to travel, I wish I did.
    Maybe in the spring things will change
    In the meantime, I will travel vicariously through you.

    1. Ann

      There are plenty of luxury hotels in Poland. Just not chain ones.

  6. Al

    Our family loved Krakow in the summer of 2019! The old downtown castle was what my kids loved the most. Plus we took them to Schlindlers factory and explained the small
    Ghetto to them. It’s important to explain and teach your kids history so that it doesn’t repeat itself! Freedom is never free.

    1. Ann

      There are plenty of luxury hotels in Poland. Just not chain ones.

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