How to Get to Europe for $318: Taking Norwegian Air from Oakland

Stockholm Harbor, a boat, and swans on iceIn November, Sweden and Denmark were not on the hazy, voluminous to-travel-to list I keep in my head. The top contenders right now are Peru, Mexico, Montreal, Washington DC, Thailand, and (of course) France. But almost everywhere that doesn’t limit the rights of women, sexual minorities, or anyone considered gender variant is a contender, so it’s hardly a limiting list. I liked Iceland for sure; I idly wondered sometimes if other Scandinavian countries had the qualities I liked about it. But that’s as far as it went until one fateful day late last fall, when a friend who knows these things told me to get on the Norwegian Air site like right now, because there were round-trip fares from Oakland to Stockholm for around $318, if I picked my dates right.

What.

Cue a fairly adrenaline-chased hour, in which I frantically wrote to my boss, played with dates, tried to envision an unclear future*, and ultimately decided to book a trip and get it refunded in the following 24 hours** if it indeed would not work with work (which was and remains the major priority in my life right now). I found I almost literally could not resist traveling that kind of distance for that little money. As of this writing, a similar ticket through Norwegian is more than $1,000. Other airlines come in at $1,500 or more. Because it’s a freaking flight across the world. 

Fortunately, my company is founded by and filled with insatiable travel fiends, and I was given the green light. At the end of what I thought would be a fairly ordinary workday, I suddenly had plans to travel to Sweden in the coming winter. Stunned and with plans to make, I tried to wrap my head around what I’d done by researching, starting with this unfamiliar airline. I learned that Norwegian has a different balance of services and fees as compared to most airlines. Thus, it required some strategy.

Norwegian Air progress map, with bonus USB

The A La Carte Model

In the US, we’re not completely unfamiliar with this. It’s pretty common on your average airline (Delta, American) to pay for blankets and snacks or to pay to check a bag. Then there are airlines like Spirit, where you might find a ticket somewhere for $6 but have to pay a couple hundred dollars or more for the amenities (carry-ons, water) to make your trip tolerable.

Norwegian falls somewhere in the middle. In the couple of months that passed after I booked the ticket, I did buy three add-ons:

  1. I paid $45 to select my seat on the way there, because I figured there was a chance I might see the Northern Lights during the flight. I didn’t, but it was worth it, for me, to pay for the possibility. Getting to the airport three-plus hours before the flight would probably accomplish the same thing for no extra money.
  2. I paid $45 ahead of time to check a bag on the flight back. I did this so that I wouldn’t have to look at any individual souvenir and wonder if it was worth paying for a checked bag later. I considered this a gift to myself, because I know my tendency toward overthinking.
  3. I paid $15 for Fast Track through Stockholm airport security. On travel days, I’m nervous and unhappy until I’m through security and at the gate; this was, to me, a small price to pay for an easier travel day. It was ultimately pointless, as the regular security line was almost as short as the Fast Track lane, but the motivation was sound.

Things I opted not to pay for: $42 each way for drinks and two meals; a seat assignment on the way back.

One thing to keep in mind while booking is that they have different classes of service; indeed, the Norwegian booking path was one of the most complicated ones I’ve ever seen. I booked the cheapest level, which includes basically nothing; if you go a level or two up, meals, checked bags, a greater weight allowance for carry-on bags, and other things are included – but, of course, you pay for it then too. You can learn more about their fees, in a variety of currencies, here. Like many airlines in the style of European low-cost carriers, you’ll pay twice as much to check a bag if you only decide to do it on the day of travel. And Norwegian Air’s bag check is a highly involved procedure, you see.

Sky outside Stockholm from a plane

The Best Time I Weighed My Carry-On Like Six Times

Have you ever traveled during the winter? Your bags bloom to twice their usual volume. Have you ever tried traveling during the winter with a 10-kg/22-pound carry-on allowance? This is not your usual luggage Tetris.

I realized immediately that I’d be doing laundry while there. I was ok with that. And I wasn’t tempted to check a bag on the way over, because I would be staying at four different places across my nine days, which would include multiple train and bus rides. My travel backpack and the cloth shopping bag I use on trips would be more than enough to deal with while going between spots. So economy of space (and money) was the name of the game.

The night before my departure, I managed to get my bag within the acceptable weight range after about five iterations. I did cheat in the end, stuffing the pockets of my coat with socks and tights and wearing my heaviest shoes and skirt. My coat felt like a pea pod, but it got my bag where it needed to be. In addition to the 10-kg main carry-on, there’s a 5-kg limit on a smaller carry-on, in the vein of a laptop bag or purse. It helps, but it’s not much when trying to envision a sensible wardrobe for Scandinavian winter. Something very helpful: they weigh your bags only at check-in, meaning you can stuff all available space with heavy water and snacks after you’re past security.

I read several different accounts of the strictness of airport bag weigh-ins with Norwegian (they weigh, they don’t weigh; they care, they don’t care), but I decided to leave nothing to chance. (See: departure anxiety.) The day of, I arrived, carrying my uncommonly lumpy winter coat. I watched as person after person in front of me had their bags weighed and, often, found overweight. A quietly impatient (but very pleasant) ticket agent oversaw the whole thing, moving between two desk spots to give one group and then another time to shift weight between bags.

The group in front of me was a four-person family, and I had a feeling they hadn’t been very fastidious with reading Norwegian’s strict rules or with their packing. Indeed, all of their bags were somewhat over, and the agent left them with four open bags and looks of great uncertainty when she walked to me. After having to deliver bad news to several people within the previous ten-odd minutes, I think she just didn’t want to bother with me. My bags read as sufficiently compact, it seems. I was given my boarding pass and was good to go, with no weighing required. Strategy: look like you know what you’re doing, and be behind a bunch of people who don’t? Or something like that.

On my return trip, since I’d paid to check a bag, the ticket agent didn’t weigh my backpack then either. I still think I got off lucky and would not suggest assuming this might be your experience, especially if you read as a less-straightforward traveler, with kids, companions, lots of carry-ons, and other complications.

When I got through security in Oakland, I stuffed my small bag with snacks and an extra bottle of water, trying to imagine what would look good to me after nine hours in the air. The pasta was ok; the quinoa was so gross I felt haunted by it several hours later. I might’ve paid $42 just to get the taste out of my mouth after a while. Which brings us to…

The $42 Multi-Course Experience

This is where flying Norwegian got, to me, truly strange. Shortly after takeoff, the flight attendants walk around and double-check to see who ordered their meals ahead. About an hour into the flight, those people get coffee, wine, hot food, and dessert. (They get a cold breakfast bag not long before landing.) Only then is the possibility of buying snacks opened to the rest of us, usually about two hours into the flight. On the flight back in particular, I could see lots of people around me doing just as I was, checking the seat display to see when the closed tag would be taken off the snack bar button.

On the way back, I found buying in-flight snacks an almost frugal alternative to buying Swedish airport food, particularly after I accidentally spent $22 on an orange San Pellegrino and one of those lovely open-faced shrimp sandwiches. (Thank god I didn’t get the beer; I’d probably still be there, working off the bill via indentured servitude.) However, the open times for snack ordering are finite and, to me, a little unpredictable. I ordered the vegetarian dish (a salad with hummus and assorted veg), a ramen cup, a snack box, and a water, because I didn’t know if I’d get to order again when I needed a second meal.

If you like not thinking about things, maybe $42 for a one-way ticket of airplane food makes sense to you. However, most of the people around me appeared to have opted out. I saw clever people with leftovers in food storage containers and other people like me eating good-enough snacks bought at the airport, sufficient to get us to our destination.

The strangest thing was that, minus any pre-ordering, I felt pretty ignored by the flight attendants. If you haven’t paid, you don’t even get water. And they’re mostly not concerned about you. You’ll get attention if you ring the button to summon them, but otherwise, they don’t even collect trash very often. It’s a different model, but anytime I started to raise an eyebrow, I thought, “$318.” And then it all became amusing again.

Conclusion: Super Worth It

I was a little concerned about this trip, based on some of the research I’d done. There were stories of being stranded for two or three days due to mechanical problems. Norwegian’s fleet isn’t huge, and they don’t fly every route every day. When I booked, there were only three days each week to choose for my departure and return. If a plane went out of commission, a replacement might be thousands of miles away – and possibly also spoken for for a day or two. I said “$318” to myself one more time and said that, if I ended up with a couple surprise extra days in Stockholm, I’d make do (with profuse apologies to my work).

In the end, both flights were perfectly on time. My checked return bag made it with no problems. Flying out of Stockholm is a little odd – I went through an initial round of passport check to get into the international depatures area (to officially leave Sweden) and then an additional round to get into a separate gate area just for our flight (to comply with US regulations). But everything went exactly as promised, and I ended up with a surprise (and incredibly wonderful) trip to two countries I now love. But more on that later.

If a slight risk of inconvenience and having to work with a somewhat unfamiliar paradigm of airline service doesn’t bother you, I’d suggest going for this, if you have the chance. Norwegian’s sales aren’t rare, and they’re starting to go to more destinations. I subscribe to their emails now, and they’ve joined Icelandair in the short list of airline sale emails I am likely to push on friends.

If the timing is right, and the money works out? Do it. The details can come together later.

*I was maybe three weeks into a new job in a new industry and only recently permanently arrived in California. Travel was not on my mind.

**Like some other airlines, Norwegian lets you get a complete refund on a ticket in the 24 hours after booking. This is lovely, and I wish more airlines would adopt it.

Jury Duty in Seattle, March 2014

This marked my second summons in Seattle. The first one was as serendipitous as these things get: I was freshly unemployed and had no immediate prospects, meaning that being part of a jury (which I was, in the end) wasn’t a major disruption to my life. Having to tell unemployment to deduct the mighty $40 I was paid for my four days of service was a little galling, but the rest was fine. Well, except for being the alternate – that sucks, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. Otherwise, though, I’d recommend it to anyone. If you’re a person possessed of even faint curiosity, it’s a fascinating lesson in civics.

However, this time? I have a job, I am forever short on vacation time and my company doesn’t pay for jury duty, I was in the middle of finals at school, and I had an impending trip to San Francisco. The night before jury duty, I fretted myself a little sick as I thought about everything that could go wrong. A three-week civil trial. Going without a paycheck. Getting no sleep as I rushed to finish work, do homework, and keep some semblance of a life during a modern-day version of the O.J. Simpson trial. Missing my SF trip. Ruining oh my god literally everything.

Maybe you found your way here by searching “municipal court seattle jury duty service.” And if you did, I have good news for you: being called to municipal court means you have only two days in the pool, and cases generally don’t run longer than three or four days. Cheers!

You also get to experience this:

view of smith tower and downtown seattle from the municipal courtAfter the extremely patriotic video explaining everything you forgot from eighth-grade civics class, a very proud woman will tell you about her predecessor, who fought very hard for a nice place for potential jurors to rest between selections. This – THIS – is the view from the little outlet-heavy desk area in the north of that space.

And, if you’re lucky enough not to have to work, THIS is the view from the main space, where I wish I could’ve sat and read for hours.

jury room at the seattle municipal courtRight?

But maybe you were like me and many others, and jury duty fell during a real pain-in-the-ass time. I am here to tell you that there are ways to make the most of this.

By “ways,” to be clear, I mean “food.”*

il corvo seattleI put out an all-call on Facebook asking for lunch recommendations in the vicinity of the courthouse. A friend, guided by angels and with all the goodness in the world behind her, suggested Il Corvo. Holy sweet goddamn: fresh pasta with a menu that changes daily, depending on what they can get at the market.

The highest compliment I can give food is when I close my eyes so that I have one less sense to distract me from tasting what I’m eating. I did that a couple different times as I chowed down on my tagliarini in celery root, sage, and brown butter cream. If I had it to do over, I’d get the kale salad too. If I hadn’t needed to be a sober citizen of service, I would’ve gotten a little carafe of wine to go with it all. They’re only open for lunch on weekdays. Take a day off and go, if you don’t work close to 2nd and James.

And yet, after that, I still went to Piroshki on 3rd. I mean, come on.

piroshki on 3rd seattleTo be precise, I came here to grab a couple of these for class later that night. They were mighty, mighty fine. I still miss Piroshki on Broadway. I will always love you, piroshki.

On the way back to the courthouse, I walked by my favorite building in Seattle, the Arctic Building.

Arctic Building in SeattleI don’t like organizations of white men who gather to exclusively toast their success, but I do like their architecture.

So yes, you can have a fine day of jury duty. Get some good food, ogle some buildings you don’t see too often. Oh, and, uh, check out some fine art paid for by your hard-earned tax dollars.

seattle municipal court artI didn’t get picked. Indeed, I was specifically rejected from the one jury pool I was a part of, something I found confusing but weirdly pleasing. Also a relief – during voir dire, there were a lot of questions about domestic violence, victims who won’t press charges, and the implications of a black defendant facing a jury made entirely of white people, something I’d noticed and felt uneasy about. I hope to complete this life without looking at pictures of injuries in a courtroom; I’ve made it this far successfully.

I would be ok with doing it again someday, but ideally at a time when I didn’t spend an hour in bed panicking about it upsetting the tenuous balance of my life. And I hope you get to too.

*This entry would be longer, but I got released after just a day of service. Hallelujah!**

**Total lie, I would’ve just gone to Il Corvo again!

Culture Lunch and the Joys of Deliberate Interruption

I read a study recently that sea mammals are a natural study aid, aiding the mind in both retention and comprehension,* so I will be liberally seeding this entry with pictures of otters to make my point clearer to you, fair reader.

Teeheehee.

Teeheehee.

There are a million, billion blog entries and screeds (and at least one zine) that advocate mixing up your life to be more aware and more effective, whatever that might mean to you. This is good advice, but without elaboration, it becomes so broad and so big that it can lose any connection to a normal person’s life. For instance, I liked this list of creative rituals to adopt yourself, but most of us (and I largely mean Americans here) don’t have the money or time to do a quarterly retreat or the flexibility during the day to nap.

I’m a fan of the small disruption. I like it because starting with something small means you’re more likely to succeed at creating a new habit, and I like that because small changes add up to larger changes. For most of us, this is the best and most effective way to point our lives in a new direction.**

Oh, you!

Oh, you!

With that in mind, I have adopted the ritual of the Culture Lunch.

In January, I managed to do it twice; I’m aiming to bump it up to weekly. At Christmas, I asked my family for memberships to the Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Aquarium. My family came through, and now I can go to both as much as I care to for a year. It is the BEST PRESENT.

Usually, 30-odd minutes is far from enough time to take in all the art/otters/jellyfish/OTTERS, but if you do it multiple times over a lot of months, you end up getting a pretty substantial meal in small bites. It’s easy to get into ruts, to spend your lunch in some tiny lunchroom or – god forbid – in front of a computer at your desk. But it’s harder to do that if your lunchtime regularly involves fur seals, cars speared with rods of light, and fish being thrown.

OTTER! This dude was somersaulting and scrubbing his tail as he did. OTTER BATH.

OTTER! This dude was somersaulting and scrubbing its tail as it did. OTTER BATH.

Now, I  hear your rebuttal, and your rebuttal is a solid one. “My dear SD,” I hear you saying. “I don’t work in downtown Seattle, or downtown anywhere. I work in an office park from hell, or a shitty little village, or my living room. I can’t walk to artistic institutions OR a waterfront.”

Yes, I’m lucky, but there are things you can do too, I promise. The key is introducing regular change so that your idea of normal shifts.

Napping otter SUCKLING ITS TAIL.

Napping river otter SUCKLING ITS TAIL.

Just get up and go on a little burst of exploring. Try it once a week. That can mean walking to get a sandwich using a route you usually don’t take or just leaving your desk and using a tablet or a laptop to watch a half-hour of a rad foreign movie from the 50s or something (or Man vs. Wild, or whatever’s out of the ordinary for you). Dine with a friend, a new restaurant, a brown-bag lunch at a park you don’t hang out in. The point is to introduce difference on a regular basis.

Because not all of us can take a week to unplug every three months. But most of us can ditch life for 30-60 minutes once a week and have a little wander. It feeds your heart and your imagination, but it also has the wonderful of leaving you hungrier. And that’s where the larger, more insidious change creeps in.

But we’ll talk about that soon enough.

ITS TAIL. IN ITS MOUTH.

ITS TAIL. IN ITS MOUTH.

*I did no such thing. But I would happily participate in such a study and skew the results.

**Of course, you can also do the cut and run, the abrupt switch, the wholesale slaying of your old habit/life/position. I’ve done it, and it worked out well enough. But it’s not realistic or attainable for most people, I don’t think, and the nuclear option is something best kept in the pocket for most people.