Traveling anywhere, especially internationally, always has the potential to go unplanned. Carefully crafted, meticulously devised itineraries stand no chance. No amount of flexibility is enough.
Having traveled to Germany multiple times for work over the last 5 years, my journey this time was no exception. As I put my phone into my pocket after security, an email arrived in my inbox: "Your Lufthansa flight is delayed...". Due to a medical emergency, the arriving flight into SFO was delayed by 3 hours. Our flight from SFO to FRA shifted, and subsequently, this meant that I would not make my connecting flight from FRA to STR. Jumping in line to rebook my connecting flight to a later time, I thought I was in the clear.
Until another email landed in my inbox as I stepped off the plane in FRA: "Cancellation of your flight..." From past experience, I was conditioned to expect a cancellation from FRA to STR and vice-versa. The total flight time is ~52 minutes. Lufthansa, and other carriers, probably lose money on this flight, though there are multiple flights to and fro. Lufthansa offers to rebook passengers onto an ICE train (i.e. inter-city high-speed rail) for no charge, which generally makes for a very comfortable 1.5-hour ride through the German countryside. Unfortunately, you end up at the Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof (translation: Central Train Station), which is a decently far distance from the Stuttgart Airport and where the rental cars are located (I later learned that rental cars are available at the Hauptbahnhof, but oh well). Schlepping luggage is therefore not trivial on the S-Bahn (city train network). I regret the weight of my duffel bag, but it is what it is.
"Kein problem!" (translation: no problem!). Instead of traveling via ICE train, I requested Lufthansa to issue a voucher for a rental car. I'm already planning to stay in Germany for 3 months and I will need a car. May as well enjoy the German Audubon sooner than planned.
I read about this alternative option online, and was pleasantly surprised when Lufthansa was happy to issue the voucher. However, I was even more surprised when the partner vendors, Hertz and Avis, told me that neither company had available cars to rent. That's a bummer. I learned that while Lufthansa can easily issue these vouchers, they don't check if there is availability prior. Thankfully, National had some cars available – the Mercedes-Benz / Daimler corporate account came in very handy.
Travel Tip: To anyone who wants to use this option in the future, check with Hertz or Avis beforehand to make sure they have availability. Otherwise, you end up losing the option to re-book to a later flight and/or getting a free hotel room until an available flight the next day.
Action Item: Get a refund for my flight from FRA to STR and rental car voucher from Lufthansa. Let's see how Lufthansa Customer Service responds.
Awesome! With a rental car booked, I was pumped to jump on the Audubon for the first time. I know – it's so embarrassing to admit this, but this was my first time driving in Germany. I absolutely love public transportation, when it's well designed and operated, which Germany has (when transportation workers aren't on strike). I'll detail my love for German public transport in another post.
Hitting a top speed of 175KPH (~108MPH), I loved the freedom and flexibility that came with driving so fast. Of course, there are many sections of the German highway that require you to reduce and control your speed, especially as you get closer to residential and city outskirts. At 3AM on the I-5 in California between LA and SF, I'm accustomed to driving this fast (give me a break, the California Highway Patrol is asleep), but it was great not having to proverbially be on the look-out for a cop to jump out and give me a ticket. In Germany, the automated traffic limiters (radars, camera imaging systems, etc.) will do that automatically 😄. Expect a ticket to be sent within 1-3 business days. That top speed was fleeting and only for a few minutes. Soon, I hit bumper-to-bumper traffic. Another bummer. A few cars fell victim to the heavy rains sporadically occurring along the drive.
But there were a few surprising observations during my drive:
1) The roads were practically rain proof.
Normally, in California, I'm accustomed to massive spray kicking up behind cars on the road. On the German highway, there was practically none. Of course, there were parts of the road where there was some spray, but I would say ~80% of my drive was without road spray. I'm curious what kind of materials are used for highway road construction. Knowing German engineering I'm sure it's a well-designed and testing solution honed over many years. Check out the video below for a better visualization (It's not great, but hopefully you see what I mean).
2) Experiencing a Rettungsgasse
This was a really cool experience. As the traffic slowed down, drivers in the farthest left lane and the lane adjacent to the right started shifting as close as possible to left and right lane lines, respectively. I thought this was a bit absurd at first. In the oncoming traffic, I saw a similar thing happening. Soon after, a Polizei (translation: police) vehicle came charging down the Rettungsgasse (translation: emergency rescue lane) with lights on and sirens blaring. A few minutes, I saw the emergency vehicle in my rear-view mirror. I moved to the side following the example of other drivers. I was given a heads up about this prior to coming to Germany, but I was surprised to experience it so soon. In college, during my final year, I was researching how varying saturation levels cars equipped with ADAS/AD technologies coupled with DSRC / V2V / V2X communication infrastructure could theoretically minimize travel time of emergency vehicles going from A-to-B. Little did I know that Germany has it nailed down to a tee. Such a cool experience.
3) ADAS systems make life so much easier
Compared to Germany, the average consumer in the US does not care about ADAS technologies. For one thing, most consumers don't know their cars are equipped with the technology and capability. Also, many OEMs charge a hefty fee on top of MSRP to install said technologies. My rental car was a Hyundai Tucson. It's not the flashiest vehicle out there, but its cruise control was stable with good lead vehicle detection and lane keeping assist (too good sometimes). That made such a big difference. I can only imagine what it would be like to have such technology cruising through the wide Interstate Highways in the US. The safety benefits are innumerable for having this technology be in as many drivers' hands as possible. It makes me very excited for the trajectory of industry with expanding Level 3 capabilities.
Time for Bed
3 hours later, I finally made it to my hotel in Sindelfingen (home of Mercedes-Benz HQ). Exhausted from the flight delays, cancellations, and drives, I inhaled a Rindwurst mit Pommes (beef sausage with fries), orange Fanta (it's totally different than in the US), and fell asleep for the night.
While travel plans often get interrupted, I've learned that there are definitely many silver linings that can appear if one is willing to keep their minds open and calm. Overall, that was such a fun way to arrive into Germany.
Frieden und Liebe ❤️ (translation: peace and love)