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I’ll Be “Home” For Christmas 2021

Christmas has been at my sister’s home in Nebraska for the past few years, and this year was no exception. Planning this year had challenges and hidden surprises, but I made it through it all safe, healthy, and willing to talk about it.

Christmas tree
Christmas in Nebraska 2021; the photo is courtesy of my sister.

Years ago, Christmas lost its magic for me. After more than two decades as church organist and more than a decade and of retail, the happiest time of the year comes with a bit of dread.

I read somewhere that being a church organist or working in the service industry around the holiday is like being a lifeguard; you work while everyone else has fun.

But I enjoy seeing my niece light up while she points out the lights and decorations of the season.

Her excitement has changed my Grinch heart a little. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Christmas, but I do not get the joy from it I once did.

I know how important it is for my mom to see the family together for the holidays, so I wanted to make things work out to the best of my ability. Later, I discovered this would be my last Nebraska Christmas, making this one more critical. More on why in another article.

Work gets in the way, but there was a solution for Christmas 2021.

I started planning my Christmas travel in August (2021). Being a church organist and trying to be a good son, uncle, and brother takes a lot of work. Christmas Day for 2021 was on a Saturday, so planning travel around a church schedule was tricky.

Christmas 2021
Christmas 2021 at work

I needed to work on Christmas Eve and the First Sunday of Christmas.

We didn’t have Christmas Day services, so I did not have to worry about that.

If Christmas is on the weekend, the Sunday after Christmas attendance is meager. So I came up with an idea.

I suggested we pre-record the First Sunday after Christmas service and run it at the regular time on YouTube. The Vestry agreed with my analysis and liked the idea.

With all of that worked out, I could start planning the trip. Since my folks were already out at my sister’s and were staying into the New Year, I only had to worry about myself.

My plan for getting to Nebraska

I looked at my standard travel options: driving, train, bus, or flying.

SWA
Flying from Milwaukee to St Lois on Southwest Airlines

December in the midwest means there is always a chance of snowstorms or other weather that takes the fun out of driving, so driving was the last option on my list.

Taking the bus is similar to driving, but I am not driving.

The downside was the schedule, and I could not get there at a reasonable time.

While the train is less affected by weather than buses or driving, I would not arrive in Omaha until late Christmas Day.

Flying was the best compromise, and I could be there by noon and at a reasonable price.

I decided on a Southwest Airlines flight out of Milwaukee with a layover in St Louis. But making this all work out consisted of a few moving parts that made things tricky in the planning stages.

It looked like I would have to drive to the Milwaukee Airport and park there while I was away instead of my regular parking at the Sturtevant Depot. Parking is cheaper at the Depot even with the cost of the train, but the train would not get me there in time.

My plans to come home

With my plans for going out there set, I needed to find a way home.

With my plans for going out there mostly set, I looked at coming home. For about $84, I could take Amtrak home. So the total cost for the trip was about $200. Not bad for an around trip.

A last-minute change

At the last minute, something happened, some friends from church offered to take me to the airport.

Front of SVT
A street view of the Sturtevant Station

The thought came the weekend before, but I had to ensure everything worked out and the times and locations worked before we agreed on a plan.

And at the last minute, we were finalizing plans while sampling some delicious Christmas cookies after the Christmas Eve Mass!

I asked them if they would be willing to meet me at the train station and take me to the airport, and they said that would be fine.

This way, I could get to the airport in time, save myself some money, and make things easier, for the most part.

Day of travel

I tried to get to bed as early as possible, but 3:30 am was a little early.

Waiting to fly
Waiting at the Milwaukee Airport for my first flight on Christmas Day, 2021

I had no issues getting to the train station. Although I was nervous about the fog we had the night before, it had lifted while I was sleeping. So, it made for smooth sailing.

I did not wait long before the McDonald’s arrived to pick me up. Soon we were on our way to the airport. We used Apple Maps to remember what off-ramp we needed.

Since I had already checked in to my flight and had my tickets in hand, I headed to the terminal and quickly got through the TSA.

It was nice to get to the airport early to relax. I wrote and sent out the Travels with Kev weekly email. If you do not get it, you can sign up anytime.

I planned to eat at the airport but finished some leftover pizza before leaving the house. Besides, I was too comfortable to see if something had opened up since I arrived. I could wait, plus don’t forget that big bag of snacks you get on the plane.

SWA onboard snacks
My Christmas Day present from Southwest

Flying on Christmas Day, 2021

After I packed my computer away, it was time for a quick trip to the restroom and to get in line to board the Boeing 737-700 to soar to St Louis.

Christmas Beer in STL
St Louis layover beers

I purchased Southwest’s Earlybird boarding early on, putting me in the A group. Because I was one of the first groups of people to board, seat 17 F was mine, it is my favorite. That seat is behind the wing on the right side.

From there you can take some fantastic photos.

While in the air, I took advantage of the free iMessaging that Southwest offered, and I was surprised to see a snack mix instead of just pretzels (photo above).

During my layover in STL, I found a little bar not far from my gate. With that first flight behind me, I got thirsty.

I was unaware of the price of a beer there, and after two brews and some great conversation, I found out a “pint” cost about $15.

The exciting part of this layover was sitting next to a guy who flew in from Omaha.

After the second beer, it was time to get back on the plane and the same seat as before.

I’ll make it home for Christmas.

Abby getting Christmas Scratches.
Abby loved getting Christmas scratches from Uncle Kevy

My mom texted me while I was flying, saying Mackenzie thought it took too long for me to get out there. She knew we could open the gifts under the tree when I arrived.

After landing at the Omaha Airport, I went outside and waited for a few moments before the Buick pulled up.

Soon, I got greeted by my niece, brother-in-law, and his mom. It did not take too long before we were home.

I was surprised to see my brother-in-law’s mom come along to get me. I usually sit next to Mackenzie in the car, but when I opened the door, she was there. She and I always have fun together, and we took a short train trip together and went for a few drinks.

Once we got to the house, someone else was excited to see me, Abby. Oh, and my folks, I think, were glad to see me as well.

While I was there

Not long after, I put my gear down and got comfy; we opened and exchanged gifts. I got the one thing I wanted, my 2021 Amtrak Christmas tree ornament; thanks, Paula and family.

While there, I spent most of the time with family and friends. Mackenzie wanted to see “Christmas,” meaning she wanted to see the lights and decorations. So we took a few nightly drives. There was also a neat paid light display that went drove through.

We did a few activities, the old standby of taking my dad to the hardware store—also a few walks around the neighborhood.

No trip to Nebraska would be complete without a trip to the Omaha Zoo. The temperature was nice enough to see some outside exhibits and not get too cold between buildings.

Since I was only there for a few days, I tried to relax, which is not easy with a house full of people.

I need to make a choice.

The day before my departure, I checked the status of my train, and it was running uber late. The train I take starts in California, and on its way East, snowstorms and other “acts of God” caused delays.

I canceled the train trip because I would miss my next train. I did not book this trip as one ticket, so Amtrak was not obligated to accommodate me.

CA Zephyr
The California Zephyr stopped in Omaha, NE.

Another option was to take the train and catch a Metra train to Fox Lake, but I did not want to have someone pick me up that late at night.

I looked into other options.

Renting a car and dropping it off at the Milwaukee Airport would work well because I could still take the train from there to my car. That was not a cheap option and seemed more of a pain.

Taking the bus would work, but I decided to try another option.

Then I looked at flying. I did have some criteria, a reasonable price and a decent time for my brother-in-law to drop me off at the airport.

I found a flight from Omaha back to Milwaukee for about $186, but I upgraded to Delta Comfort Plus for $211. The rate was reasonable, considering I bought the ticket the night before leaving. Delta had the best rates and times and allowed me to carry on my bag.

The flight home

This trip was not my first time flying out of the Omaha airport, but this was my first time going to the “other terminal.”

OMA terminal A
Terminal A at the Omaha Airport.

Terminal A is much smaller than B, where I am used to flying to and from in the past. I had plenty of time to get food and a brew or two. It was nice to get in some good conversations with other travelers.

From my barstool, my gate was in view so that I could keep an eye on things.

My flights included getting on a small jet and then transferring to a smaller jet. The flight was from Omaha to Minneapolis and from there to Milwaukee.

The flight went well, and it did not take long before we arrived in Minneapolis. The drink service was short, just coffee and water, and I think a snack, but I do not remember.

Flying over Minnesota.

I only used the “little traveler’s” room at the Minneapolis airport and found my gate.

I did not have a long wait, so I did not need anything.

The final flight got delayed a little, but it did not affect my plans. I put my headphones in, hit my travel playlist, and was happy while waiting.

Like I said before, this plane was even smaller, and there was a chance I would have to check my carry-on.

I was not too keen on that because I had my laptop in it and didn’t want to take it out. And there was no drink service on this flight.

I found some bin space for my bag, and I brought water and snacks with me, so I was all set.

Early boarding on this flight was worth the upgrade price!

It all worked out

While the trip did not go as expected, everything worked out, and I was happy.

As a seasoned traveler and lifelong Midwesterner, I know that all winter travel is up in the air. I always have a plan B during the winter (and most times), and if I can travel without delays, that is amazing but never expected.

I hope you and yours had a great holiday season, and I look forward to serving you more during 2022. Let’s get out there and travel as we feel safe.

Safe Travels!

Kev

Kev

Kev has been traveling with Amtrak since 2012, celebrating his tenth year this year. Over those years, he has been on over 700 trains covering over 200,000 miles of rail. Kev enjoys helping others achieve their travel dreams by assisting them to get started. Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

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