My mom is coming! My mom is coming!
Upon our departure from the United States last year, no less than a dozen people said they would come visit us in Europe. Until recently only one had made good on their promise— and that was my mother. Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand that flying halfway across the world is a tremendous investment in both time and money. We’re talking passports, customs, an overnight flight, etc., etc.
Now she is coming and I am starting to panic a little. What will she think of my little apartment? Will I be able to entertain her? How much time should I take off for work? What can she do while I’m at work? Will the weather cooperate? And if it doesn’t… what then? Can I ask her to watch the kids for me? Do the laundry? Cook a few meals? How much money is this going to cost? And who will pay for what?
First things first, don’t assume your parents have a passport. And if they do and haven’t traveled overseas in awhile, it may not be valid. Passports can be obtained from the Department of State. Application information, process times, and fees can be found on their website under Travel. Currently, routine service takes 4-6 weeks for processing and cost $135 (which includes a $25 execution fee). Don’t get caught out there, expediting a passport can be costly! Expedited passports start at $195 not including the overnight charges.
According to the Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985, the maximum length of stay in Europe for non European Union passport holders is currently limited to 90 days within any 180 day period. Tourists do not need a visa for the initial entry into the Schengen area, but you must have a passport valid three months beyond the proposed stay—just in case your travel is delayed. UK is a non-Schengen country, and allows tourist stays of up to six months. The list of Schengen countries can be found on the State Department website.
European Union regulations require that non-EU visitors obtain a stamp in their passports upon initial entry to a Schengen country; many borders are not staffed with officers carrying out this function. If you want to be sure your entry is properly documented, you must ask for a stamp at an official point of entry. Without the stamp, you may be questioned and asked to prove how long you have been staying in Schengen countries when you leave.
Next we spent two or three months monitoring airplane prices. The prices left us stunned. Where were all those advertised deals I kept seeing splashed across banners on the Internet? To say prices were high is a mild understatement. With so many websites devoted to discount airfare, we were totally overwhelmed, limiting our search in the end to the major airlines exclusively. We even toyed with the idea of utilizing Space-A travel which scared her to death. She had recently witnessed my first foray into that mode of travel and, well, it didn’t leave her a whole lot of confidence. Since she was traveling solo, we decided against it.
SATO, a U.S. government contracted travel agency, offers immediate family members, with a U.S. passport, discounted airfare through negotiated rates with most US carriers. Immediate family members include parents, siblings and grandparents. According to the office in Kaiserslautern, SATO can offer reduced fares based on the season, destination, date, and availability and frequently beat what you can find on the Internet. Negotiated rates are usually available 4-6 months prior to travel, but shop around and make sure you are getting the best deal possible.
Planning an itinerary was easy. My mom, agreeable by nature and eager to go just about anywhere, made only a few requests. She wanted to visit Heidelberg, Paris and Amsterdam, and to limit any other road trip to no more than 2 or 3 hours. Itineraries should not be etched in stone, due to the shear unpredictability of travel. Make sure you plan for an equal amount of downtown to rest, enjoy a good book, kickback with the family or just catch up with family back home. Remember that while this time is important to you; make sure it’s not about you.
So I began planning a reasonable itinerary for a month-long visit taking into account my mom’s must-sees and other interests, physical condition, the time of the year, and of course, the dreaded budget.
At the very beginning we had a serious, yet informal discussion about who would pay for what. Whether you split everything 50-50 or spring for the whole kit and caboodle, getting it out in the open helps all parties make an accurate budget and avoid a stressful situation later. As a general rule, I found it easier to pay for all the food and split hotel expenses down the middle. Mom was on her own when it came to souvenirs.
A week before her visit, she called to ask what she should pack. I suggested she pack for the activities and agenda we planned together. And unless she had toiletry items that she could not do without, leave it all at home; Germany is not a third world country, thank goodness, and she could purchase things easily left behind later if it didn’t fit in her luggage. I set her up in my guest room, bought new linens, pillows and brought up a comforter from the storage area. I thought about all the comfortable hotel rooms I had stayed in over the years and tried to replicate those environments, within budget of course. I was able to get a wall locker and single bed from housing. A small bed-side table, a couple of light sources, mirror, telephone, and TV made the room comfy and practical.
Don’t break the bank on décor. Remember you have a lot of traveling to do. I purchased her favorite ice cream and chips and asked her what she wanted for her first meal. The small things can really make all the difference and act as catalysts to making your “guest” feel at home in their new environment that much faster.
If you have to work during your parents visit, there are a few things you should do—besides give them a key to your house: Make up a small welcome “packet” with your address, phone numbers, a strip map for your parents in case they get lost;
Purchase a cell phone and minutes for your parents to use while they visit and make sure they know how to use it; and introduce them to your neighbors, you never know an instant friendship could develop.
If your parents don’t have a military ID and you live on post they can get an ID card at the IACS office that will allow them to pass through gate security without you. Remember, their access card is just that—access, it will not allow them the right to shop in the Exchange or Commissary;
Before my mom left, I made her a DVD of all the pictures we both took, complete with music, captions and transitions. And even though we didn’t get to all the places on our itinerary—this time—the time was well spent after all and neither one of us will ever forget because, “We’ll Always Have Paris.”
A few other things to keep in mind...
With no FCC to regulate what is played on the radio in Europe, I made sure to have an ample supply of “parent-approved” CDs in the car for those long car rides.
Talk to your supervisor to make sure it’s OK to have your parents stop by your work place and meet your co-workers before you just show up with your parents in tow. It may be more comfortable, and much more fun and relaxed, to introduce your parents to your friends and coworkers in a social setting planned especially for them. Not only will your parents appreciate the special attention, they’ll have the opportunity to see with whom and how you spend your time in Europe.
Don’t assume your parents will like everything you do. Don’t be surprised if they’d rather hit the local mall, flea and antique markets while you take an hour long Zumba class at the Recreation Center. Agree on a place and time to meet back up together later and share your escapades over tea.
All roads lead to Ausfahrt! Plan ahead if your family member plans to drive while on vacation. Most European Union (EU) countries allow US citizens to use their own license for 12 months. An American tourist — who likely knows little German beyond Gesundheit, and less about German traffic rules — can rent a car and drive in Germany with his or her US driver’s license if they are in Germany for 364 days or less, according to the United States Diplomatic Mission to Germany, essentially eliminating the need for an international driver’s license.
Keep in mind that foreign countries make agreements with individual states! Each state has its own rules. Your New York driver’s license is valid (for the first year) in Spain, but your Massachusetts driver’s license is not (whether the police know which states are valid is another question). Italy and Austria are the only EU countries that do not accept national driver’s licenses from the United States. Both countries require foreign drivers to carry an international driver’s license when they’re driving. It’s officially called an “International Driving Permit,” and it’s a translated form of your actual driver’s license – so you’ve got to bring that along, too. It is easily obtained at AAA and costs $15 for one year.
Parents visiting for an extended period of time may enjoy a little free time to themselves if you have to return to work for a portion of their visit. This would be a great time to walk around the neighborhood, catch up on the latest bestseller at a local park or have lunch with the grandkids.
Don’t feel the need to parent your parents, your parents may surprise you and come up with an agenda that may—or may not include you. Resist the desire to ask your parents to babysit, unless they bring it up. Instead offer to drop them all off at the roller rink, movie theater or park for a little one on one time for them and a little “me” time for yourself.
Ask, and don’t assume, if they mind watching the kids for awhile. That’s just being considerate. Make sure they know how long you’ll be out, how to get in touch with you and how to use your phone to dial emergency services.
Don’t forget that some adventures are as far away as the local Globus or Aldi. Shopping is a little different in Europe; don’t deprive your parents of that experience. Instead of eating out at a restaurant, take a field trip to a local market for the ingredients to whip up some local cuisine and make an evening out of it, cooking together at home.
If your mom is anything like mine, she won’t hesitate to jump in and lend a hand when needed. But don’t expect it from her or any other guest you invite to visit. A subtle hint goes a long way. So when you return home with all the ingredients needed to make your Mom’s world famous banana crème pie, chances are you won’t be disappointed.