Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Budget Airlines? Don't Make Me Laugh

The fares may look cheap in the adverts, but by the time Ryanair and easyJet have done with you, you pay through the nose.

I bought tickets on easyJet a couple of months ago, for MamaDuck to spend a couple of weeks in England. Something came up recently, and we needed to bring forward her departure date a few days. No problem, says the easyJet website, it'll cost you €75. That's almost as much as the original return ticket cost, but the fare has risen since then, so you have to pay the difference.

Just out of curiosity, I checked Ryanair. Whenever I've done this previously, although the route exists in theory, there have never been any actual flights available. But lo! This time, lots of flights, and seemingly very cheap fares. So we decided that I would use the easyJet ticket, and we'd buy fresh tickets from Ryanair for MamaDuck. By the time we'd got to the end of the Ryanair booking it was €78 (with compulsory online check-in @ €5 each way, 1 hold bag @ €10 each way). Ho hum. We booked it anyway.

Yesterday I went onto easyJet.com to change the name on the original ticket. I had an idea this would cost €30. And so it did, each way. Plus another €55 to cover the difference in fare since we originally bought it and what the fare is now. This is blatant robbery, so I aborted the transaction. For a laugh, I checked easyJet's refund policy. You're right, they don't have one. Actually, I'm lying - the policy is that they don't give refunds. I'm lying again. They do give refunds in exceptional circumstances, but these are in the form of credits to your account (minus a 'reasonable' handling fee) and they have to be used within six months. So if anyone wants a cheap flight from Madrid to Liverpool and back, you can have my ticket for €200.

By now, though, I'm quick keen on going to England for a bit - it's been way too hot for far too long here in Madrid - so I've booked with Ryanair too.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Relax - Take The Train

I was tidying up my computer this morning, and found this blog post which I wrote while I was in England in June, but never published because I couldn't get online. But I know you enjoy my rants, and this is definitely ranty, so here goes...

I left Liverpool this morning. Train to Doncaster. Being Mr Super-Organised, I had booked a ticket in advance. Being a suspicious foreign git, though, the website refused to accept my payment card. I enlisted Offspring to do it on my behalf, using his UK credit card. He emailed me the reference number for the booking, and in theory I should have been able to pick up the tickets from a machine at Lime Street Station anytime before the trip.

I noticed the document said I would need the number of the card used to make the booking - I made sure to get it from Offspring.

So, I turn up at the station in plenty of time, find the machine, and am somewhat dismayed to find the bugger actually wants me to put the card into the machine. I go into the Virgin Trains help office, and complain a bit. First thing they say is 'these trips are nothing to do with Virgin.' Not my problem, I say, it's your machine, and it would have been useful if the confirmation email had said they wanted the actual card, not just the number. What am I supposed to do? Ooh, they say, get your son to go to a railway station and pick up the tickets, and then he can fax them to us. Yes. Brilliant solution, with 40 minutes before departure.

So I mentally break their windows (I'd decided against trying to tell them that I am Richard Branson, and congratulating them for their diligent foiling of this obvious fraudster), and go to the ticket office. I find out a ticket will be 33 squids, they will not accept my payment card, and there are supposed to be cash machines at the entrance to platform 7. The cash machines are surrounded by steel construction barriers, and I can't get to them. So I head off out of the station: the wrong way, as it happens. I get some way up London Road, and there is not an ATM to be seen. So I head down into the City Centre, and eventually found one. Get cash, and rush back to the station, sweaty, panting and pissed off.

When I return, a queue has assembled at the ticket office - the old lady behind me wants to talk to me about the weather. I finally get away from the ticket office with my ticket and ten minutes to spare before the train leaves. I am fairly desperate for a quick beer by this time, but both bars in the station are closed. Never mind, there'll be a buffet service on the train.

I get on the train, and off it goes. The guard comes round pretty sharpish, and I ask him if there's a buffet. No, he says, they were all made redundant six weeks ago, you should've got something before you left. Yes, thanks and fuck off. This train actually goes from Liverpool to Norwich, and takes about five hours - imagine being stuck there without refreshment for that trip.

Crossing eastward over the Pennines, the heavens open, and when I get off at Sheffield, where I have to change trains, I take a moment to get my waterproof jacket from the bottom of my case. The other people on the platform enjoy the view of my underwear, PJs and other stuff as it tumbles onto the wet platform. I am irritated by the 'safety announcements' on the PA every two minutes: 'it's raining: wet patches on the platform may be slippery, be careful and don't sue us, you stupid people.'

The train to Doncaster, when I eventually find it after hoiking my luggage up and down stairs between several platforms where the train *could* have been, is spacious and fast. It gets to Doncaster in record time, but Doncaster station doesn't have a platform ready for it. So we wait outside the station for a slot, and actually arrive five minutes late.

The final irritation. Doncaster recently got itself a transport interchange (bus station next to railway station, some taxi ranks nearby) combined with an extension to the big mall. I'd arranged to meet my dad and his girlfriend at the pub across the road. But I find out that the old crossings are now gone. The only way to cross the road is to go into the mall extension, up the escalators, and bumble round like a lost thing. A two-minute dash across the road has now become a 25-minute trip through northernChav central. Carrying half a ton of luggage.

Anyhoo, I'm here. No Internet, nothing to do. Shall try to find a spot of wi-fi (yeah, right) either in the village or in Donny.

Gee, but it's great to be back home...

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Caught Out Again

When we first arrived in Madrid, a little over two years ago, MamaDuck had risen early one Saturday morning to try to join a public library in La Latina. I was somewhat dischuffed to be woken by a phone call from her. 'Get your camera and your arse down here, right now,' she said.

So I did. The day was La Fiesta de la Virgen de la Paloma (the feast/fair/party of the Virgin of the Pigeons (others mights say they mean doves, in which case they should be talking about Palomas Blancas)). Us Brits know it, and largely ignore it, as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, where she got a special upgrade on the big fluffy cloud to take her up to Heaven without her having to go through all the tiresome business of actually dying first.

I took lots of photos, but I can't find them right now. What happens is they have a float at the church of La Virgen de la Paloma in La Latina, and people arrive from early in the morning to pin bunches of flowers onto another float, and eventually they do a procession. We were there for most of the morning and there were assorted stalls selling traditional food and drinks, and a lot of people dressed as old-fashioned Madrileños.

The fiesta goes on for about four nights - music and drinking and dancing in the streets, and so on.

All jolly good fun.

We had planned to maybe think about attending some of this, but decided we were just too tired. But we completely failed to realise that today, Saturday, is a major public holiday. I went out shopping this morning and was astounded to find the market shut. Likewise all the supermarkets, little shops and all but one bar. It's a bit of a pain because we'll be eating lentils all weekend, but at the same time it's pretty cool that people who work in shops and bars do actually get the day off.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Hot, Hot, Hot!

I'm beginning to understand why most Madrileños get out of the city in August if they can. It's bloody hot (high 30s, methinks) and it's been a bit humid the last few days. You might think we should be used to it, having lived in Dubai for so long. But everything in Dubai is air-conditioned, even the cheapest, nastiest car has a/c. So you run from building to car and back again and don't really experience the heat. In Spain the extreme heat only hits for a month or two, so air conditioning is not so common.

We had a house-warming party a month ago, and about thirty people came. The house certainly got warm, and two of our neighbours disappeared down to their store-room and came back with a portable air-conditioner. They said they didn't need it in their flat because they've got permanent a/c installed, so we could hang on to it as long as we wanted. It was extremely kind of them, but we really didn't think we'd use it. It has, however, been on day and night for most of the last week.

Before we made the move to Spain (2 years and 12 days ago, in fact), we spent a couple of summers in Valencia and Barcelona. During the second of these trips we did a 2-week intensive Spanish course. On our way to class one day (we might have got off the tram one stop too early), my shirt was soaked, so MamaDuck disappeared into a shop and came out bearing a brand-new t-shirt. I put it on and we went into the classroom. Llorence, our conversation teacher took one look at it and collapsed in laughter.

'What does it mean?' I asked.
'Fuck, it's hot,' he replied.

Sadly, that shirt went missing shortly after we returned to Dubai, although I have seen it on sale here in Madrid.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Lozzing By The Pool

I've just noticed it's been a while since my last post. I apologize for that. The last few weeks have been somewhat shitty - mainly to do with Barclays and Jazztel stealing money from me, plus a personal matter that you don't need to know about - so here's a post about a nice thing we did a couple of weeks ago.

A friend of ours said 'let's go swimming in the mountains!' Everybody else said 'huh?'

Watch out for Coo-Beasties on the path

Near the village of Cercedilla, 57km north of Madrid, there's a park containing a sort of Amazonian jungle walkway up in the trees, and an outdoor swimming pool. About twelve of us decided to take the train there. It's a Cercanias (suburban railway) choo-choo, and I think the rest of the party joined it at Atocha or Nuevos Ministerios. We got on at Chamartín, and walked as far up the train as we could, but we couldn't find our buddies. A phone call confirmed that they were on the train, but it turned out later it was actually two shortish trains joined together, so we were unable to walk through the two drivers' cabs.

Short walk up a mountain

We all met up at Cercedilla station, and made our way to the bus stop. There was no sign of any bus actually showing up, but our leader said it was walkable, and would take maybe half an hour.

Jungle trail in the trees

An hour and a half later, after walking through some fairly spectacular woodland (all of it uphill, pant, pant), we arrived at the park. It cost, I think, €6 to get in. I have to say that whoever the genius was that decided to have this pool built in this location deserves a medal of some sort. There are two pools, actually - a shallow one for kiddiewinkles, and a deep one for grown-ups. It sits close to the bottom of a valley, and is surrounded on all sides by tree-covered mountains. Amazing.

The pool

We spent maybe three or four hours there, and then headed back to the village. When we got to the bus stop it seemed we had just missed one. The next (and last) was scheduled for about ten to ten, so we walked back to Cercedilla. This was somewhat easier than the walk up to the park: it was downhill, and it was a shorter route. Still, I reckon it took 45 minutes. One of the party had arrived by car, and he and his wife offered us a lift back to Madrid, which we gladly accepted.

When we got to the station, the train was on the platform. Those that were planning to take the train waited for the stragglers to arrive. Unfortunately the train left before they got to the station. The next train would be an hour, so we decamped to a nearby bar.

Service was a bit slow

When it was time to go, our friend with the car - we'll call him 'The Cat' because he is a Madrileño - took us on a tour of Cercedilla. Up and down, down and up, up some more. He was completely unable to find the car park where he'd left his vehicle. Eventually, some kind soul told us where the town proper (which we'd never known about, despite having been to Cercedilla a few times) was, and after probably an hour's extra walking, we found it.

But, it was a great day out, so it was.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Weather Report

We noticed the weather was a little bit cooler today. Of course, it's the first of August, so we're almost into winter. It was quite humid and overcast when we came back from town this afternoon, and at 8pm we heard rain outside. It was a torrential downpour. Which is good, because we hadn't watered the plants on the roof.