During the last week of school we received an email from the Spanish Consulate that said… (drum roll)… our visas had been approved!

You’d think that after all the work and stress that went into getting these things, we’d jump in the car and speed down to Houston.  But we had last days of school craziness, guests, more guests, a trip, another trip and loads of packing to do.  Thankfully, as it turned out, we didn’t all have to go together to pick up the visas, like we had been told early in the process.  So last week, after I sent the kids to camp and Rob to work, I headed out the door and arrived at the consulate before lunch.  Guess how much time I spent in the office?

Two minutes.  (Compare this to the 3 hours we spent there last time.)

The six hours of driving was painful, but a lot less painful that the rest of the visa experience.  Of course, we still have to make it official after we arrive in Spain by visiting the local police station.  (Gulp) There we’ll (try to) get our official stamp that will allow us to stay longer than 3 months.

Now the question is:  Can I pack up this house in time?

How we’re getting to Spain for “free”.

About a year and a half ago I started to get serious about earning points for free travel.  Yes, I’ve always joined airline programs, but they never really added up to much.  So I decided to ask Amber, my amazing friend and travel guru, how she does it.  That began the months of research and credit card wrangling.


The short version is this:  apply for credit cards when they offer a big points bonus… and follow a whole lot of rules.


That is how I was able to fly the four of us to the NW last year for the price of two, and pay nothing for all of our hotel stays.  And that is how we were able to fly for free to Colorado for my 40th birthday last September and pay nothing for our rental car.  That is also how I flew all four of us to NY in February and again this summer before we catch our free flights to Madrid.  And I was still able to get us two and a half of the four tickets to LA on points for our mini trip in two weeks.


Altogether I’d say I’ve probably saved us at least $8K on travel in the past year and a half.  But it’s work.  It takes meticulous record keeping, research, good credit, lots of planning, and, above all, paying each credit card in full every month (kudos to Rob for making sure that happened, even when it got complicated).  The blogs MillionMileSecrets and MommyPoints have helped immensely.  But I also couldn’t have done it without Amber.

We met for lunch this April because I was ready to get our tickets to Spain.  Honestly, I should have gotten the tickets long before, but I was too nervous to make that purchase without at least having applied for a visa.  Plus, I was waiting for some points to come in.  When they did, I realized I had points spread out across different cards, airline programs, and family members.  I was going to have to do some serious wrangling to pull this off, and I needed expert help.

Over Vietnamese noodles and broccoli we set to work on our laptop, iPad and phones:  Lots of Chase Bank points, lots of American points…well, United and American are consolidating, so we can use those points together, check for award seating, um, no United but yes to American and British Air, BA is a points partner with AA, so check for award seating, um, yes! consolidate my Chase points and convert Rob’s Chase points to American, DANG!  there isn’t enough for four, but WOAH, there are direct flights from JFK to Madrid on American, and oh!  there is a non-stop JKF-Madrid on BA the same time!  do we have enough points?  ugh, only for two… wait… what if we split up?  not ideal, but okay, let’s do it. Nooooo!  The awards seats are gone!  Quick! check the next day….  whew! available on BA…  and American!  Go go go!  Reserve two seats on one computer while calling the other airline on the phone to reserve the other two seats….  dang… the credit card isn’t working…. dang!… on hold… click refresh compulsively, hoping the seats are not snatched up again…  oh whew, the card finally works.  Yes!  Phone call finished!  Tickets secured!


We collapse back in our chairs, realizing that we’ve literally been sitting on the edge of our seats for two hours.  Results:  four free direct flights from New York to Madrid during peak tourist season.  Yes they are on two different airplanes, but they are (incredibly) leaving and arriving within less than an hour of each other.  No, it’s not a first class ticket, but we purchased extra leg room for one trip and the other has only two seats in the row.  It could be worse.  And we could be actually paying for it.  Granted, we do have to pay stupid taxes and stupid baggage and stupid fees.  But I prefer to think about what we’re NOT  purchasing.


I’ve learned a so much about points and how to travel for a lot less over the past year.  Now that I know a bit more, maybe we’ll be able to return to the U.S. in serious style next year.  In the meantime, I don’t know how to thank Amber enough for her help… except to invite her to come visit.

DSC_1504.NEFAnd don’t you think she should start her own Points Guru business?



I know you are all waiting anxiously to find out if we have received our visas.

The answer is: NO

It has been two months since they were submitted.  We were told that the process takes two to four months. That means our visas could arrive about a week before we leave.


Meanwhile, our lovely friend Bianca sent us this short film.  I’m not sure if I feel encouraged or defeated.  I suppose that depends on whether or not we get our visas.  Let’s just say that this is definitely only a slight exaggeration of what we experienced at the Spanish consulate.  And I was not as prepared as the women in the video:

¿Por qué Granada, España?

So, when you decide to have a giant, crazy family adventure, how do you choose where to go?  For us, language narrowed it down considerably.  (see #2)  But there were still almost 30 countries to consider.

I thought about Panama.  After all, my great-grandparents moved there, my grandparents grew up there, and Panamanian lore has always been a big part of my family history.  But because of that, I know very well that it’s constantly hot and damp and the cities are growing quickly.  This sounds way too much like Austin.  I think I’ll just visit someday.

I thought about Mexico.  I have family there, we’ve visited many times and it’s always been lovely.  But because my cousin moved out of Mexico after her friends’ kids were kidnapped, we weren’t that keen to bring our own kids there.  Besides, we may as well try someplace completely new.

I thought about Ecuador.  Some friends of ours are from there and bring their children back every summer.  They say it’s safe and lovely with mountains and beaches and good infrastructure.  So I followed many family blogs detailing adventures in Cuenca… until the post about the armed robbery gave me pause.

Now I know no country is safe everywhere all the time, but many South American countries really are too unstable.  And some are too touristy.  I was zeroing in on Argentina, but Rob seemed vaguely uninterested in the entire hemisphere.

So I suggested Spain.  I wasn’t initially too excited about it.  But the idea made Rob the happiest out of all our options.  After all, we’ve never been to Europe.  It’s relatively cheap, and the internet connection is fast.  (Don’t laugh; Rob’s ability to work remotely is key to this endeavor.)  So in the name of family buy-in, I agreed that Spain would be our goal.  And I started my research.

For months I followed blogs, scoured maps, emailed friends-of-friends, read articles and researched schools.  Spain is tricky because there are so many other languages in addition to Spanish.  I wanted to make sure that the kids’ school wasn’t that kind of bilingual.  (I know, this sounds strange coming from a serious dual language proponent, but I think the shock of moving to a new country, a new school, and total spanish immersion is enough for the kids to handle.)  The north was out of the question because of all the Basque, Asturian, and Galacian spoken up there.  All along the east coast they speak Catalan.  So that just left central and southern Spain for Castilian spanish.

Okay.  I’d narrowed down a hemisphere of choices to an area about the size of Oregon.  Helpful, but still a lot of work.  I needed more parameters.

Rob and I have talked about moving from Austin many times.  So we have a pretty concrete list of ideal characteristics for our imaginary new town.  I used these ideas to help me narrow down my search.

  • near the mountains, not the beach
  • small city, not a tiny town or a giant metroplex
  • four seasons (but not 9 months of bone-chilling cold or 9 months of death-star heat)
  • dual language school

I crossed Madrid and the costal towns off the list.  Now I was only thinking about an area the size of Kentucky.  I spent weeks staring at a map, researching each town near mountains.  Finally, I whittled the list down to Segovia, outside of Madrid, Càceres, in western Spain, and Granada, near the Sierra Nevada mountains in the south.  Segovia is a perfect size for us, home to an incredible Roman aqueduct that towers over the town, and it’s a short train ride to all the art and culture in Madrid.  However, it is very cold there in the winter.  Càceres is an ancient city, a UNESCO World Heritage site in fact, because the central area remains much as it looked 500 years ago and is surrounded by a fortified wall to protect it from attackers.  Cool.  However, it’s very isolated and doesn’t have much of an expat community.  In theory, this would be ideal because we would all be forced to learn Spanish quickly.  In reality, though, I know that we need to have some English-speaking social ties to stay sane, and English-speaking help if/when we run into difficulties.

So that left Granada.  I had been following several blogs from families who visited or lived in that area.  It seemed ideal: mountain views, 30 minutes to skiing, 45 minutes to the coast, not too overrun with tourists (comparatively), home to a “castle”, an ancient Moorish neighborhood, hot summers (but cooler at night than Austin), cold-ish winters (but not as cold as the north), and a dual language school.  Great!  And really, at this point I just wanted to get on with the process.   So Granada became our goal.


From half a hemisphere to one town.  We’ve cast our lot.

¿Y ahora qué?

How to Get a Spanish Visa the Hard Way — Part Seven — The Consulate

1.  A complicated combination of work, a doctor’s appointment, gigs and kids’ activities makes it impossible to go to Houston the next week.  Then a letter from the school district arrives, reprimanding us for the kids’ unexcused absences while we were in NY.

ARG. Fine!  We’ll go to the consulate the first day of Spring Break.

2.  Sunday night:  Rob and I double check all of the paperwork.

2.  Monday morning, 7:15am:  Arg!  Fifteen minutes late!  And stuck behind an accident!  Panic-drive for 2 hours. Arrive just minutes before our appointment.

3.  Blanch at the hot, crowded, dreary room with the “Now Serving” sign perpetually blinking 72 and only one human behind the bullet-proof glass window.

4.  Paste on smiles, hand the young clerk our 4 packets of neatly organized applications.

“You cannot all apply at one time.  You must apply at different times,” she says in a slight Spanish accent.

“The website only let us sign up for one person.  We’re one family.  Can we possibly do it today?” I plead.

 She sighs.  “Yes, but you must wait for all the others with appointments.”

We cheerily agree.

5.  “The computer cannot accept this form,” she says of the first page in the first file.   “There are no boxes.”

What??  “But… that’s the way it printed from your website…”

She sighs again.Here.  Please fill these out.”  She hands us the same forms, WITH BOXES.  We fill them out AGAIN for ALL 4 of us, spread out on a tiny table in front of the room filling with even more people.

6.  Suddenly realize that my neatly organized application folders are neatly organized in the WRONG WAY.  All the copies are in a separate folder, clipped together by type rather than person.  Madly scramble to re-org, the paperwork now spreading over the tiny table and onto the floor.

7.  “The copy of this form has only the first page,” she says of the second page in the copy section.

WHA??? Note to self for next time:  Do a last-minute file check of the copies as well.  Glance at the giant sign on the window that says “WE DO NOT MAKE COPIES”.  Look pleadingly at the clerk.  “Oh no!  I’m so sorry!   Um… what can we do?”

She sighs again. Grits teeth.  “I will make copies for you.”

We grovel.

8.  “I need 52 dollars for this form processing fee.”  We look in our wallets.  $45.

“Do you take credit cards?”

Sigh.  “No.  There is an ATM down the street.”  Rob gallantly  contains his rage, heads out the door, down one elevator, up another elevator, drives down six parking garage stories, down the street, withdraws cash, drives back up the street, up six parking lot stories, down an elevator, up another elevator, then back into the Office of Doom and hands over the fee.

9.  “You do not have bank records from the last three months,” she sighs.

“What?!?  Um… that was not on the list.  We have proof of future employment, like it says.  We also have our W2s from last year.”

Long sigh.  “Yet, you need three months of bank records.”  We stare at her in disbelief, unable to speak.  “Well, maybe you can email them to me, and maybe I will be able to attach them to your file.”

Maybe.  We nod, grimly, visions of travel fading.

9.  “Now finally you need your money order.  Please write all of your names on it.”  We comply, relieved at the thought of being finished after two hours, and hand her the fee.  “Wait… this is not a money order.”

“Oh, it’s a cashier’s check,” I reply.  “My bank assured me that it’s the same thing.  Safer, in fact.”

“We only accept money orders,” she says, very firmly.  We look bleakly at each other.

“I am going to kill that bank teller,” I mutter.  Then louder, “What time do you close?”


“Okay, it’s 12:15 right now.  We’ll be back.”

10.  Throw files and papers into our bag and rush the kids out the door, snapping and cursing at the world, bureaucracy, our children, and each other.

At this point I highly suggest throwing in some comic relief.  For example, have the kids “forget” to get out of the elevator, forcing them to ride all the way back down to the bottom while the parents pace and describe in detail the throttling they will give the children when they finally find the correct floor.

Arrive at the closest grocery and run to the customer service desk.  Approach the extremely grouchy looking employee with trepidation.  Leave the store 5 minutes later with a shiny new money order, an optimistic attitude, and a deep love for the grouchy-looking-yet-extremely-fast-and-friendly grocery store employee.

Speed back to the consulate.

11.  Pay!  Leave!

12.  Panic about the bank statements.  We really really need those today.  They’ll never get “attached” to our applications if we email them.  Google the nearest branch of our bank.  YES!  It’s a mile away!  Thank you, technology!

13.  Return the consulate.  Drop off bank statements.  Thank the young lady behind the bullet proof glass profusely.  She smiles vaguely and sighs.  Turn to leave.  It’s almost 1pm.  The room is still full of people.  Mostly the same people.

The “Now Serving” sign blinks 72.

14.  Eat loads of Mexican food.  Drink a large margarita.  Take the kids to an awesome Children’s Museum and buy them ice cream. They really were amazing throughout the ordeal… reading and drawing and not complaining at all.  Drive home.

2015-03-16 14.53.42 2015-03-16 16.19.42

2015-03-16 16.20.44 2015-03-16 16.23.46

And now we wait.  And wait.  And wait.

How to Get a Spanish Visa the Hard Way – Part Six

1. Monday — Bring kids to school two hours late because we had arrived home from New York in the wee hours the night before.  Call doctor to try and get an earlier appointment.  Nope.  Bring papers to the translator.  Far north.  Pick up kids.

2. Tuesday — Ack!  Forgot to bring my Letter of Intent to the translator!  (This letter may be the strangest request from the consulate; I have to explain why we’d like a long term visa.  What is the purpose of this?  Do they expect villains will confess their nefarious plans in this way?)

No worries, they say.  I can scan and email it to them.  Great.  Now, how does this scanner work again? …. No…. that’s not it… no… not that… nope… IM Rob.  He says the new update scrambled the scan directions and it’s too hard to explain over IM.  Sigh… another day to wait for IT help.

3. Wednesday — Call doctor to try and get an earlier appointment.  Again.  Nope.

Finally unpack.  Finally clean house.  Parent-teacher conference. Homework. Dinner.  Etc. Etc.

4.  Thursday — Have a mild panic attack that our W2s from last year will not be enough proof of future income.  Ask Rob to request a letter from his boss.  *cringe* Hope this isn’t so annoying that the company will decide they’d rather not deal with a remote employee.

Success!  Letter received! Scanner issue overcome!  All papers emailed to translator! 

5. Friday — Wow.  This is great.  I can relax!  All I need to do now is go to my doctor’s appointment on Monday, pick up the translations, make photocopies of everything, and head down to the Spanish Consulate in Houston.  Whew!

At this point, I’d like to direct your attention again to the title of this series of blog posts.  Spoiler alert: It’s not going to be that easy.



6. Monday — Get a 7 a.m. call from my doctor’s office.  HE HAS THE FLU.  Guuhhhhh.  Try to reschedule.  Nothing until mid-April!  Panic.  Schedule an appointment with another doctor, realizing this person I’ve never met before will never sign papers vouching for 3 other people she has never met before.  Panic.  Call all the travel clinics in Austin.  They don’t sign these papers either.  They just give shots.  Sigh.

7. Tuesday — Write a pleading letter (longhand!) to my doctor, explaining the situation.  Enclose it in an envelope along with all the certificate of health paperwork for the four of us, and leave it for him at his office.  Cross fingers.

8. Friday — Pick up translations.  They’re beautiful and professional and very official looking.

Get a call from my doctor.  The signed documents are waiting for me!  Yes, Yes, Yes!  Houston, here we come.

How to Get a Spanish Visa the Hard Way – Part Five

1.  Thursday:  Oooh!  The kids’ birth certificates finally came back from the passport office!  Now I can get the Apostille forms for them and have them translated!

Call my doctor to try and get an earlier appointment.  Nope.

2.  Friday:  Okay, it’s been 4 days.  Our fingerprints should be ready.  I have to work up north so I can pick those up after and zoom down to the Secretary of State for the Apostille.  Hmm… no lines at either place.  Wow!  Everything is going so smoothly!

Except that I forgot the birth certificates.  (Soy muy estupido.)  Run to pick up kids.

3.  Monday:  Go to work.  Zoom to the Secretary of State with the birth certificates.  (“Wow!  That’s so strange,” says the lady at the desk. “There was someone in here last week with your name.  It’s not very common!”  Um… that was me.  I live here now.) Done!  Pick up kids.

4. Tuesday: Our marriage certificate Apostille arrived!  Whew!  Now we just need it translated.  My years of working for a language institute have paid off.  My old boss is going to give me a deal on translations.


3. Wednesday:  Call my doctor again to try and get an earlier appointment.  Nope.

Run up north to drop off the translation paperwork.  (Why is everything up north?)  Stuck in horrible traffic.  My old boss isn’t there.   Hover over the grouchy translation coordinator (I did tell you I’m going to be late picking up my kids, right?)  Blanch at the quote:  $650?  Are you kidding me?  Most of these pages are duplicates, aside from different names!!  How do normal people afford this service?  

Thank them for their time and flee.

4.  Thursday: Get ready to leave town for a week to visit family.  Secretly panic.  Research other translation services.  Continue to be shocked at prices.  More secret panic.  How can we go anywhere right now?

6. Monday:  Vacation!  Snow!  Family!  Death defying driving!  Freezing temperatures!

Actually, I think I recommend taking a break at the tail end of a visa process.    Plus my boss just wrote and overrode her coordinator to give us an extreme translation discount: $195!  Woohoo!  Glad I didn’t pull the trigger on other shady-looking translation services.DSC_0921

We can’t do anything else until my doctor’s appointment.

How to Get a Spanish Visa the Hard Way – Part Four

1. Check mail.  Yes!  An official looking letter from New York; it’s probably my marriage certificate and the Apostille form.  Open.  NOOOOOO!  They just sent it back.  Whyyyyyy?  The letter says I need the notary and clerk signature.  But they are clearly RIGHT HERE on the paper.  What the…?!?  Well, it’s Friday after 4pm.  Nothing to be done until Monday.

The washing machine chooses this moment to break.  

2. Monday.  Call New York as soon as the family leaves at 7am. Time difference working for me.  On hold 12 minutes.  The guy is nice, even as he is explaining that I’m pronouncing “Apostille” all wrong.  He tries to transfer me to another department but only succeeds in hanging up.


3.  Call New York again.  On hold 30 minutes.  Insist the operator wait on the line while I’m transferred… to an answering machine.


4.  Run downtown to pick up Rob for our fingerprinting and criminal record check.  $50 to wait in dingy office and be man-handled by soulless government employees.   And I get to come back in 3 days to pick up the results!   Good times.

Rush to pick up kids, rush to piano, rush to meet washing machine repair man.

Check mail.  Our passports arrived! Yes! YES!  So lucky!  I really thought this would be our biggest wait.


5. Tuesday.  Call New York, again.  No hold time!  (OH.  I need the county clerk signature and notary instead of the city clerk signature and notary.  Sigh.)

6. Back to the post office.  Explain my nesting doll situation. (Okay, I need to send this paperwork to Ithaca, which includes an addressed stamped envelope to Albany ,which includes an addressed stamped envelope to Austin.  Got it?)  Pay $20, then sit in the car quelling an anxiety attack about not spending $90 on express mail.

7.  Call health insurance to check up on proof of international coverage.  They can’t email it.  They can’t translate it.  Copies on their way by snail mail.  Sigh.

8.  Call doctor to see if I can move my appointment earlier.  Nope.

Yikes… this is a nail biter. 


How to Get a Spanish Visa the Hard Way — Part Three

1. Alright, kids off to school… back to form EX-01. Google.  Read.  Google.  Read.  So. Much. Useless. Info… wait!  What’s this?  A blog with a link that works!  Whew!  Surely I can translate this one page.

2.  No.  I can’t translate this one page.  How are people doing this?  Google.  Read.  Google.  Read.  Useless. Useless… wait!  What’s this?  A translation and directions?  San Francisco Spanish Consulate, you are my new best friend!  Houston Spanish Consulate, I am very disappointed in you.

3.  Fill out, print… Oh… no more black ink in the printer.  Jesucristo.  Okay, I’ll run out and get ink later.  Meanwhile:

4.  Marriage license. Find safe.  Find key.  Find marriage license.  Briefly reminisce about wedding day.

Ack!  Editing job coming in.  Can’t say no to a bit of extra money.  Edit.  Edit. Edit.

5.  Okay, now what do I do with the marriage license again?  Oh, get a Hague Apostille form.  What is that, anyway?  Google.  Aha.  Some kind of internationally recognized notarization. And of course I need to get it from the state of New York, where we were married.   Yay! Post office trip! (Is what no one says, ever.)

Pick up kids, drag them to office supply store for ink, then post office to send for the marriage license Apostille.  Inform husband how much I accomplished.  He asks if I made a copy of our marriage certificate first.



How to Get a Spanish Visa the Hard Way — Part Two

1.  Okay, second on the list of of visa paperwork: form EX-01.  Click link.  Broken.  Grrr…

2. Search for proper link.  Spend an hour combing through comments about said link.  Try to upgrade Adobe.  Technical questions.  Must wait for Rob to come home.

shower, dishes, laundry, beds, garbage, grocery list

3. Call Texas Department of State to ask about getting our criminal records, proving that we are not running from the law.  We must visit north Austin.  In person.  Of course.  Can’t do that today.  Back burner.

4. Call health insurance company to find out if we’re covered abroad.  On hold. On hold. On hold.  Nice lady.  Very helpful.  We are, in fact, covered.  Rob may be switched to contract work while we’re abroad, but at least we have proof of insurance for the visa application.  Sweet!  Hang up, satisfied.  Realize I forgot to ask if they have a Spanish version.  Mierda.

lunch, dishes, pack kid snacks

5. Call my doctor to set up an appointment for a family well-check, proving that we are not oozing with contagion.  On hold. On hold. On hold.  Aaaand… Rob and the kids have been responsible and gotten their well checks less than a year ago.  So insurance will not cover their appointments.  Sigh.  I make an appointment for myself and hope my super-cool doctor will sign all our documents when I am there.

Dang.  Time to pick up the kids.

6.  Whew.  Homework, dinner, dishes, kid bedtime: done.  Time to ask Rob technical questions, then upgrade Adobe.  Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.  There.  Now click EX-01 link.  Damn!  Still broken.

Sigh.  Go to bed.


Feeling overwhelmed.