Love Letter to Alsace . . . and how we finally got there

Love Letter to Alsace is a series of essays about my trip to the Alsace region of France in May 2015. It was of the most delightful adventures I’ve ever experienced! I hope you will enjoy reading about different aspects of the trip, from traveling to the destination, to stories about the lovely towns and villages we visited, and more.

After reading about my trip to the Alsace region of France, should you care to follow in my happy, dancing footsteps, here’s some information on traveling there from the U.S. Now, it might seem like this information should be the last post because, after all, what if you read all about Alsace and decide you don’t care if you ever see it or not? Unlikely (in my very prejudiced view), but possible.

Well, never mind. This is how I planned the trip and I’m going to write up the whole shebang chronologically. And here’s a new map for you, so you can see what we were up against.

That little pink area is Alsace. Germany is to the right and though it doesn't show it, Switzerland touches the bottom.

That little pink-ish area is the Alsace region in eastern France. Germany is to the right and though it doesn’t show it, Basel, Switzerland just about touches the bottom of pink Alsace section of the map.

Although there is a Strasbourg Airport, it’s pretty small. You certainly could find a way to fly into Strasbourg from the United States, but you would definitely have to connect through a larger European city and your ticket would be much more expensive. I love looking at maps, by the way, so I soon discovered that the nearest major airport was in Frankfurt, Germany.

Now, the Frankfurt airport is HUGE. It’s Lufthansa’s home airport and serves as a hub for all kinds of connections throughout not only Europe, but the world. It’s the third largest airport in Europe, 11th largest in the world, and about 60 million passengers go through this mammoth facility each year. They also serve really great soft pretzels.

Typically, you get the best fares between busy airports, simply because so many airlines service them and there’s decent competition. Basic economics. So I already knew that flying from a major North American city to Frankfurt would offer plenty of options at competitive rates (especially if you can be flexible about dates and days of the week for travel). Sue was able to splurge a little and get a United flight direct from San Francisco to Frankfurt. I chose to use some of my United miles for my ticket and ended up flying from Cleveland to Toronto to Frankfurt on Air Canada, then return on Lufthansa to Toronto to Cleveland (United, Lufthansa, Air Canada and others belonging to the Star Alliance work together to share flight options).

A word about flying into Canada:  don’t do it. First, thanks to freaking terrorists and TSA and all of that other inconvenient and annoying stuff that makes it unpleasant for people anytime they cross a border (except in the sane and sensible European Union), you have to screw around with customs and immigration on what is designated as a little patch of U.S. soil within the airport, and it’s confusing as hell. Coming back, in particular, was irritating and after walking at least a mile from the plane to the immigration area, the teenagers working there were too busy gossiping with each other to give coherent directions to any of the weary travelers wondering what strange move they’d have to make next.

Now, I’ve been in the Montreal airport and that wasn’t bad, but Toronto is a really mixed bag. I had more than four hours between flights on this last trip, coming and going, and I’d have to say that Toronto is unquestionably the prettiest airport with the most mundane food I’ve ever come across in a first world country. With all that time to kill I thought I’d treat myself to a nice dinner. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Toronto’s gourmet option is a Tim Horton’s.

While there is nothing wrong with Tim Horton's, I still say it's sad if that's the fanciest option in the airport.

While there is nothing wrong with Tim Horton’s, I still say it’s sad if that’s the fanciest option in the airport.

On the other hand, the general waiting area is super nice. There are tables with comfortable chairs where you can charge your phone and play with a bolted-down iPad (I’m okay with that, I mean, how long would they be there if they weren’t bolted down, right?). In fact, all the chairs are large and cushy and there are even signs clearly stating that you don’t have to buy pre-wrapped sandwiches or yogurt parfaits or anything else to be allowed to sit there. That part is really nice. Just don’t count on anything more substantial than a sub and chips for dinner.

I thought flying on Air Canada would be preferable to United. I was wrong. In fact, I’m not sure I even like Canadians anymore after the lackluster experience of flying with them on their nationally-named carrier for eight hours. The experience was as bland as, well, Canada.  I just got the feeling the staff weren’t particularly interested in whether we came along or not. Maybe they knew I was American. I don’t know.

angry lady on plane

Me, upon learning banana bread was the only thing on offer for breakfast. Ick.

Airline food is always an easy target, but compared to what they served on Sue’s United flight, the Air Canada menu was pitiful. These were both overnight flights, and a couple hours out of Frankfurt, the United folks offered passengers a complete breakfast with a choice of scrambled eggs or French toast. On Air Canada, after a quick spin around the cabin with the beverage cart, they tossed a cold, shrink-wrapped hunk of banana bread to each person calling it a morning snack. Really?

Gotta love those hospitable Germans!

Gotta love those hospitable Germans!

Returning home on Lufthansa was pretty great (if sitting in coach for nearly nine hours can EVER be considered a tolerable experience). First, they had the individual entertainment screens at each seat offering a boatload of free movies and TV and music. I watched TWO recently released movies – “Still Alice” and “The Imitation Game,” which were both excellent – and before dinner, the flight attendants walked around with those nice hot, wet cloths to freshen up. And then after dinner, they offered brandy or Bailey’s . . . for free! Hospitality! What a concept!

More about Lufthansa

it's always safer to be a Canadian when traveling abroad. Better than Swiss.

it’s always safer to be a Canadian when traveling abroad.

Excuse the rant about Air Canada. I don’t really dislike Canadians. In fact, I still am tempted to tell strangers I’m from Canada when I’m traveling if the strangers look at all threatening and/or inclined to look unkindly upon Americans. Nobody hates Canadians. They make the Swiss look controversial.

Now, to get from the Frankfurt Airport to Strasbourg we discovered that we could take a Lufthansa BUS. Yes! Lufthansa has regularly scheduled motor coaches making the little-over-two-hour drive to Strasbourg every day. So we thought, why not? We can see a little of the countryside. The price wasn’t bad (about $100 each round trip). Sure. Let’s do it.

And thank goodness we did, because when we arrived the entire German rail system was on strike! The bus to Strasbourg was packed, and we thought it may be because of the strike, but we found the same thing returning to Frankfurt ten days later. I think it’s just a cost-effective, convenient alternative to the train or flying and people use it a lot.

One thing we could not determine before leaving the U.S. was whether or not the Lufthansa bus stopped only at the train station in downtown Strasbourg, or if it also went to the Strasbourg airport. No one we talked to at Lufthansa ever really knew and we were finally told to ask the driver. Seriously. No one knew. And as it turned out, oddly enough, the Lufthansa bus does NOT go to the Strasbourg airport. Lufthansa? Airport? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Consequently, we spent 50 euros (about $57 US dollars these days) each way to get to the airport to pick up our rental car. I looked into getting a rental car in downtown Strasbourg, but was unable to find an agency that could promise a rental with automatic transmission (more about car rental in a moment).

Now, if you DO follow in our footsteps, complete with Lufthansa bus, be aware that the return trip from Strasbourg to Frankfurt is interesting, to say the least. We got back to the place where the bus stops, which is on a city street near the train station. There’s a Lufthansa sign at the curb. That’s it. No one taking tickets. No terminal or anything.

This is kind of what it looks like, trying to board the Lufthansa bus in Strasbourg to return to Frankfurt.

This is kind of what it looks like, trying to board the Lufthansa bus in Strasbourg to return to Frankfurt.

As the time gets closer, more people arrive and start lining up with their bags. Or not. Many just hover on the fringes, waiting to leap for the bus the second it arrives, hoping to accurately estimate where the closest luggage area and door will come to a stop.

These experienced (and ruthless) Lufthansa bus travelers elbow everyone aside to toss their suitcases in the hold, then charge for the door. The bus driver can’t help with luggage or attempt to restore any semblance of order or civility because he has to serve as a barricade at the top of the steps, checking names off his list before allowing passengers to dive past him to claim what I guess they think are “good seats.” Forgive me for saying it, but – it’s a cluster fuck.

Would I take the Lufthansa bus again? Mmm. Maybe. But I think I’d check other options first. Maybe see if there are cheap flights on Ryanair or other European commuter airlines, either out of Paris or somewhere else. I’d check on the cost of flights from the U.S. to Basel, Switzerland, since that’s actually about a two hour drive from Ribeauville, where we stayed. For that matter, having seen the Frankfurt airport and experienced the drive to France, maybe I’d just rent a car there after all. We were a little concerned about driving out of Frankfurt, but didn’t need to be. It would have been easy.

About the rental car

And finally, I’d like to tell you just a little about our rental car, which we ordered through Hertz. It isn’t necessarily that difficult to rent a car in Europe – unless you want a car with automatic transmission. Then it can get tricky.

I’m not going to say Sue and I are OLD. I will say we are old enough to know when something would be a very BAD, not to mention dangerous idea. Reacquainting ourselves with how to drive a stick shift in the rolling hills of eastern France when we don’t even know for sure where we’re going seemed like an invitation for trouble. Since nearly all Europeans drive standard transmission cars all the time, it’s difficult to even find an automatic car to rent. And when you do, it will cost nearly twice what you’d pay for the stick shift autos.

Yeah, I know that's a corn field, but that's kind of how it looked. I was driving and I was traumatized. Sue laughed.

Yeah, I know that’s a corn field, but that’s kind of how it looked. I was driving and I was traumatized. Sue laughed.

We agree it was worth every penny after winding our way up and down a mountain (we saw BOAR ROADKILL!) to visit Haut-Koenigsburg Castle, not to mention trying to parallel park on narrow village streets, or to carefully maneuver the car backwards out of a dirt road leading into a vineyard that the GPS girl inexplicably led us into, well . . . all I can say is, thank GOD for automatic transmissions.

And finally, finally (I mean it this time), if you rent a car, DO pay for the extra insurance. Or at least check with your insurance agent at home before you go. I always refuse rental car insurance when I’m out of town in the U.S., so I’m glad I checked to learn that I was not covered overseas.

And don’t wait until the tank is on empty before learning how to pump gas. On our last day we intended to fill up the tank before returning the car, but the gas station (this was a Sunday morning) refused all of my cards and all of Sue’s cards, and there was no cash option. A couple of guys on motorcycles tried to help us, but even they threw up their hands and left after a while (one of them might have said, “Sacre bleu!” Or not). Fortunately, we had enough gas to get back to the Strasbourg airport, where we circled endlessly trying to find the Hertz drop off lot, then dumped the keys and grabbed another 50 euro cab ride to the city.

Whew! Okay! And I didn’t even get into the quirks of our little Renault with its endless beeps and push button starter and . . . never mind. Enough for now!

À tout à l’heure! Until next time!

About katemahar

Freelance writer and event planner by trade . . . mother/daughter/sister/friend . . . passionate traveler . . . compulsive reader
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