TRAVEL with pat and lew

Archive for the ‘problems’ Category

* Paris to Nice was an adventure … kudos to Air France for dealing with a baggage handlers’ strike

Posted by Lew Weinstein on August 3, 2014

air france

Earlier in the week, we had dinner with our Paris friends Marilyn and Bernard. When we told them we were planning to fly to Nice on Saturday they told us it was the absolute worst travel day of the year, which the French call Black Saturday, the first Saturday of the August vacation season. We were advised to leave plenty of extra time, or even go to Orly on Friday night and stay in a nearby hotel.

We opted to arrange a taxi at 8:00 am for a 12:20 flight. and were pleasantly surprised when the drive to Orly took only 15 minutes, half the usual time in normal traffic. We quickly used the kiosk to get both our boarding passes and our luggage tags. So far so good, but it still turned out to have been a really good idea to have left early.

By 8:30 we were in line to drop the already tagged luggage. The airport was crowded and it was a long line, but one which should have taken no more than 20-30 minutes. It took over 2 hours. A baggage-handlers strike had put the Orly terminal into chaos. There are automated machines for taking the pre-tagged luggage, but most passengers could not figure out how to make them work, and the baggage handlers stood by and did not help. It was taking 5-15 minutes to process each piece of luggage.

air france composite

Air France management personnel did a terrific job answering questions and supplementing the baggage handlers, who stood there but did nothing. I tried to find out what the strike was about, and was told it had to do with “working conditions.” When I asked for more details, the condition they were complaining about seemed to be that they were being asked to work.

We finally got through the line and had time for coffee and croissants. Then the flight was delayed, probably due to the baggage handlers not moving the luggage quickly onto the plane. We took off over an hour late, but amazingly, our luggage arrived with us in Nice.


Posted in ... 2014, ... France - Paris, problems, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

* caution to Avis car renters in Europe … Avis purposely and systematically over-charges the conversion of your bill from euros to dollars

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 13, 2010


There’s a clause in Avis’ European Car Rental Agreements which says …

“I confirm that I was offered a choice of payment in euros but chose to be billed in US dollars. (US$538.13 at exchange rate 0.72 euros to US$1.”

If your experience is like mine, no one will ever point out that phrase or offer you a choice of payment in euros. The bill you see will be presented in euros and you will have no idea that it will be converted to dollars before it is sent on to MasterCard.

What makes this a scam is that the exchange rate used by Avis will be substantially higher than the published rate used by MasterCard for all merchants who submit their bills in euros. In my case, the Avis invented rate was 1.38 dollars per euro versus the published rate for that day of 1.28 dollars per euro, a difference which cost me $28.00.

Avis does not tell you that they will use their own invented rate instead of the published rate used by everyone else.

Even after the fact it is very difficult to get Avis to tell you how they calculated your bill. It took me a month of phone calls and numerous misrepresentations by Avis billing department personnel, but Avis today (7/13/10) finally admitted to me that they are purposely and systematically over-charging customers by using the inflated euro conversion rate and by use of the confusing and untruthful “you have confirmed” message on the Rental Agreement when it is issued.

Then they blamed me.

The nice Avis lady told me I gave permission to be over-charged by signing the Rental Agreement. As if anyone in their right mind would knowingly give permission to be over-charged!

Avis counts on you not reading the “you have confirmed” clause when you’re in a hurry to get your car at the rental counter, with a line of customers behind you, and then not checking your credit card bill when it arrives many weeks later. Note to Avis: You got me at the rental counter, but I do check my credit card bill.

As a courtesy, Avis says they will refund the $28.00, but many days have passed and no refund has yet been posted to my MasterCard.

It’s a nasty scam!

Avis, why can’t you try harder

to treat your customers fairly?


Posted in ... 2010, planes, trains & automobiles, problems | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

* Avis round 2 … Avis tries harder to cheat me every way they can … and when they’re found out, they make the refund

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 16, 2010

Avis adds an extra day and an incorrect fuel charge

to a bill they said was “final” …

and once again inflates the euro-to-dollar conversion rate


UPDATE … Avis has issued a refund

for the full amount of the overcharge.



Before I knew the devious way Avis cheats its customers on the euro conversion (see * caution to Avis car renters in Europe … Avis purposely and systematically over-charges the conversion of your bill from euros to dollars), I had another car rental with Avis.

It was even worse than the 1st time …

Not only did they again jack up the euro conversion, even though, this time, I specifically asked to be billed in euros and not dollars, they also …

  • added an extra day car rental to the bill even though I returned the car precisely when the rental agreement said it should be returned
  • added a fuel charge even though I returned the car with a full tank
  • changed the bill even after I had asked and been told that the bill I had in my hand (from the time I picked up the car) was the final bill

What kind of company is this?

Once again, Avis has agreed to take all the extra charges off the bill, or at least they have submitted the adjustment for approval.

But what about all the people who don’t check their bills?


Posted in ... 2010, planes, trains & automobiles, problems | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

* a rocky trip from Collioure to Vilnius … “this is the adventure part”

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 11, 2009

It  started out bad; got much worse; there was a recovery (at great expense), then it was ok, and finally, all it all ended up with a really terrific conclusion.

We had long ago booked Ryanair flights from Perpignan to Stansted (London) and then the next morning from Stansted to Vilnius, overnight at the Radisson in Stansted.

So all we had to do was get from Collioure to the airport in Perpignan.

There were several alternatives, including a taxi from our apartment to the airport (roughly 50 euros). The other choice was to train from Collioure to Perpignan, then take the shuttle bus from the Perpignan train station to the Perpignan airport, which is what our British neighbors in Collioure do all the time. The appropriate shuttle bus was scheduled to leave the train station at 3:45 pm, arriving at the airport roughly 20 minutes later, in plenty of time for a 5:25 pm flight. The latest train to arrive in Perpignan before the shuttle would depart left Collioure at 1:00 pm, arriving in Perpignan at 1:20 pm.

Since the day we were leaving was also the day the Tour de France was arriving in Perpignan, I thought it would be wise to confirm the shuttle bus schedule for that day (July 8). I sent an email to the people who run the shuttle bus and received the following reply …

HI, There are shuttles buses at every arrival in front of the terminal. You buy tickets at the driver. For the 08th july the departure from the railway station is at 15h45 French local time. Bests regard. Marc FIANCETTE, ResponsableQualité Formation Développement, CCIPPO, Aéroport Perpignan Rivesaltes

So we had plenty of time. We walked, with our luggage (there’s no place to check it) about a half mile to the main street in Perpignan, which was the finish line for the Tour de France. We enjoyed the atmosphere, walked back to the train station, had a snack at the café across from the train station and waited for the 3:45 pm shuttle bus.

Which never came!

I inquired inside the train station and was advised that, due to the Tour de France, the shuttle bus was not running from the train station, but only from the bus station, 20 minutes walk away. It was now too late to get to the bus station, except by cab.

But there were no taxis!

No taxis to get to the bus station and no taxis to get to the airport. There are always taxis at the train station; today there were none. Maybe they took off to watch the race.

It is now after 4:00 pm, still plenty of time to get to the airport if we can find a way to get there. A man comes to drop his wife at the train station; she is going to Paris. We ask if he will take us to the airport, and he agrees to try, although the route he knows is blocked off because of the race. Pat and I get in his car; he kisses his wife goodbye, and off we go.

Around and around Perpignan, with blocked streets and confusing directions, the clock ticking away. Finally, we are on the road to the airport. We arrive at the airport at 5:10 pm; the Ryanair plane is still there. But the gate has closed, and we would have to be the premier of France to get them to open it again. We have missed our flight. Peter – that was the Good Samaritan’s name – leaves, we’ve thanked him profusely but barely learned his name, and in the confusion, no way to contact him. Peter, if you’re reading this blog, please get in touch with us.

We try to evaluate our options.

We have paid for the flight we missed, a hotel room at Stansted, and the next morning 7:00 am flight from Stansted to Vilnius. The Ryanair agent, a Mr. Delaporte (who was very helpful and considerate), explains that rebooking both flights for the next day will cost upwards of 600 euros ($840). Plus re-booking the hotel (another $200 or more). If the air seats and the hotel are even available. Plus staying somewhere for almost 24 hours until the flight leaves at 5:25 pm the next day. Total misery!

Pat asks, “Is there any other way to get to Stansted tonight?”

“Yes,” says Mr. Dellaporte. “There’s a 10:00 pm flight from Girona.”

Girona is more than two hours drive from Perpignan, across the border in Spain. We could rent a car, but the drop-off fee, for a pickup in  France and a drop in Spain, is almost $1,000. Plus the car rental itself.

So we’ll take a taxi. But … there are no taxis at the Girona airport.

I call Nicolas.

Nicolas is the Perpignan taxi driver we have used to go to Girona and to Barcelona, and who we also hired for our friends Cindy and Ron when they came to Collioure last summer. Nicolas answers his mobile at 5:45. “Can you get us to the Girona airport before 8:30 tonight?”

“Yes,” Nicolas says. “I’ll pick you up at the Perpignan airport at 6:15. You’ll make your flight.”

While I’m talking to Nicolas, Mr. Dellaporte is booking the change in flight to allow us to go from Girona to Stansted: 100 euros each for the re-booking, 40 euros each for the fact that we don’t check in on-line (how could we!), total 280 euros ($390).

By the way, we learned from Mr. Dellaporte that Ryanair knew the shuttle bus would not be running from the train station because of the Tour de France, and had posted a notice on their web site to that effect. But they did not take the next step, which would have been to send an email to all passengers leaving from Perpignan on July 8 to advise of the problem.

What do you think are the chances of getting Ryanair to reimburse me for the consequences of their failure to advise me of pertinent travel information?

At 6:25, Nicolas calls. “The traffic is terrible. The Tour is over and everyone is leaving. They’re all going to Girona which is where the next leg begins tomorrow morning. But don’t worry. I know back roads. I’ll be there in seven minutes.”

Seven minutes later, Nicolas arrives. We load the luggage, and off we go. We are now commitrted to the second Ryanair flight and to the taxi ride to Girona, with no guarantee that we’ll make it.

Nicolas takes us through back roads around the mess in Perpignan. We go through the village where he was born. There is some traffic as we approach the highway, and our hearts drop, but Nicolas says not to worry, we are in his hands now and we will make our flight.

And we do.

Usually, we negotiate a fare for a long distance trip with Nicolas. Tonight, however, is on the meter, and the fare increases at 7:00 pm. We arrive in Girona at 8:15 pm, the fare is 300 euros ($420).

We have now spent an extra $810 because Mr. Marc Fiancette told us there would be a shuttle bus at 3:35 pm. Had we known there was not going to be a shuttle, we could have taken a taxi and waited at the Perpignan airport. (There were plenty of taxis at the train station at 1:30.) Of course, had we known there was no shuttle, we could have taken a taxi from Collioure to the airport.

Could have, would have, didn’t.

What are my chances of getting anyone in the French railroad system to even consider reimbursing me for the consequences of Mr. Fiancette’s bad information?

Of course, Ryanair, with the best on-time record in the world, leaves 45 minutes late, all of which we have spent standing in line.

Our room at the Radisson is superb, although we only get 4 hours sleep. The 7:00 am flight leaves on time and arrives on time in Kaunus. Ryanair celebrates the on-time arrival with a flourish of horns.

Now the good part. Our home exchange partner was leaving Kaunus on the same Ryanair plane that brought us. He had arranged for his parents, who brought him and his wife to Kaunus, to wait and drive us back to Vilnius, saving us two more exchanges, more waiting, and who knows what other difficulties.

The parents were a delight. We chatted, learned a few words in Lithuanian, and then they gave us a driving tour of old town Vilnius, which is lovely.

As Pat and I say to each other on days like these, and there aren’t very many of them, “This is the adventure part.” Our life, and our travel which is such a big part of our life, is so wonderful that we can put up with an occasional “adventure.”

But … I’m still deciding how to deal with Mr. Fiancette and Ryanair. I want my $810 back!

Posted in ... 2009, planes, trains & automobiles, problems | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

* Velib … not designed for tourists

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 29, 2009

We have described Paris’ Velib before – a magnificent concept poorly implemented. But, we thought optimistically, we solved it last year, we can do it again. No problem. Wrong!

Velib is a system of bike rentals, with stations all over Paris. You rent the bike, take it wherever you want, leave it at another station. The system is designed for repeat use by Paris residents, who purchase an annual membership and for whom, we suspect, the procedure is quite efficient.

Not so for the occasional user.

There are 17 steps in the process of renting a bike. Make a mistake in any of them and you immediately return to GO. You can almost hear the French bureaucrat chortling in the background.

There are 3 distinct phases, with many sub-steps in each.

First you must register; the cost is 1 euro; it must be paid with a card with a chip (we use our French bank card, our credit cards will not work). When you register, you agree to a 150 euro hold against your bank account in case you don’t return your bike. The bikes are worth more than 150 euros, but be assured the French legal process will find you if they need to.

Step 2 is to obtain a ticket for this particular bike rental. This involves creating a personal 4 digit code which is stored in the system. The ticket comes with its own 7 digit code. All entries must be made on a keypad located below the screen, not on the screen itself; this is not immediately apparent. After each entry, you must enter ‘V’ for validate, although this instruction, if given at all, is less than prominent on the screen. Any mistakes are punished immediately; return to GO.

Imagine doing this with a long and growing line of people behind you. Fortunately the French are patient, and someone will probably help you.

After you get the ticket, the screen says take your bike. This is a trick. If you go to the rack of bikes, choose one, and push the button to release the bike from its lock, nothing happens. Shake the bike, kick it, nothing happens. French people laugh. Take more than a few seconds, and you are blown off the system. Return to GO.

What you should have done is press ‘1’ which is the number next to the words ‘take your bike.’ There is no instruction, however, to push anything. When you finally figure it out, or more likely someone else shows you, if you push ‘1’ the screen will chug along for awhile and then display a list of the available bikes, by the number in the rack. You now enter your chosen number, followed by your personal code (did you forget? return to GO!), after which the chosen bike may be removed from the rack. But not easily. It still takes some yanking and pulling and shoving.

When Pat finally mounts her bike, she is sent on her way by a crescendo of clapping from the outdoor café across the street. My enthusiasm for bike riding having waned, I join the clappers for a cup of coffee.

NOTE: there’s a postscript. When I check our bank account some days later, I learn we have been charged 23 euros. I call and am told the bike was not properly returned 15 minutes after renting it, and was not checked in until after 1:00 pm. This is an outrage.  … Several calls, forms and frustration later, I was told that we had not properly engaged the bike to the rack  when it was returned. Apparently, a small light changes from red to green when the bike is properly engaged, and if it doesn’t, you’re supposed to call the Velib people immediately. We were told that we were charged from 9;15 am when we picked up the bike until 1:30 pm. What happened at 1:30 pm? Did someone then attach our bike? No one knows.

Returning to Partis in August, we told our tale of woe at dinner, and gained no sympathy from anyone.


However, while we were eating, Evan suddenly jumped up and ran outside. He came back to excitedly tell us that the Velib man was outside, servicing a line of bikes on the street adjacent to the restaurant. I went outside, and Rawy followed.

With Rawy translating, we tried to learn what had happened; we got the same story: you didn’t properly attach the bike. But it was locked in the rack. No matter, did the light turn green? Now, since we arrived on Saturday, Pat and I had been inspecting lines of bikes. At every Velib station, there were several, sometimes many, bikes which seemed to be attached but for which the light was still red. Were all these people being charged?

You’re supposed to notice and to call immediately, the Velib man said. How can you call if you don’t have a cell phone with you? There’s a phone built into the rental machine. And he showed us. But what if you can’t tell red from green, Iasked, since I’m color blind. The Velib man had every answer. Without hesitation, he said, “Then you better hold onto madame.”

Posted in customer service, problems | 4 Comments »

* French customer service … NOT!

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 19, 2009

Posted in ParlerParis …

Part of the American roots which go so deep that it’s doubtful they will ever cross to French soil is the concept of “customer is king” — that because we are the paying customers, the merchant will always do their best to accommodate us. WRONG.

I’ve practiced the French technique of getting good service for years now, with tutelage by Polly Platt and the other cultural experts, not to mention a lot of trial and error on my own. And just when I think it’s been perfected, something happens to stir up those deeply entrenched American roots…like a visit to an Orange/France Telecom boutique to exchange old mal-functioning equipment for the latest model.

I won’t bore you with the details, but imagine a grown woman sitting on the floor in the middle of the boutique on boulevard Saint-Germain at Odéon, papers spread all over the floor, with her coat, hat and other belongings draped on a nearby chair, blocking their copy machine so no one could use it, on her cell phone to a France Telecom customer service representative (oxymoron) after dialing 3900 and a zillion other code numbers which eventually take you to the right person. The person on the phone, now after having spoken to 5 or 6 others, is asking to speak with a sales person in the boutique to settle the matter, who are not only completely ignoring her pleas to come to the phone, but downright refusing to assist! That’s when the American roots exposed themselves…when the yelling started causing a big stir…and then guess what happened? The customer service representative on the phone hung up. TRUE STORY.

Three trips to the boutique and three trips to the apartment later, the issue was settled, but those old American roots found their way to the surface and asked, “will I ever get used to this?”

For the entire post and links to many other interesting and useful articles, click …

LMW NOTE: We’ve had our own customer service issues, with IKEA, getting our phones and internet set up, and with the Paris bicycle rental system. We’ve also had some quite positive experiences at Galeries Lafayette and Le Train Bleu, among many other restaurants. You can read about these experiences by clicking * IKEA’s idea of customer service* getting connected: telephone & internet* Velib … not designed for tourists* anniversary at Le Train Bleu* good customer service at Galeries Lafayette. Or just click “customer service” in the categories list to read them all.

Posted in customer service, problems, shopping | Leave a Comment »

* CDW … why is this so difficult?

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 26, 2008

I had made a car rental reservation, for 8 days in Sicily, with Hertz, some time ago, making sure to exclude collision damage waiver (CDW) insurance. The reason for this is that CDW is provided by Citibank, if I pay for the car rental using my MasterCard, but Citibank’s 100% coverage is invalidated if I also purchase CDW (with a deductible) from the car rental company. So buying CDW from Hertz would mean spending more money for less coverage. I made this mistake once before and I am very careful to avoid it again.

Two days before we left, while I was on the web looking for an address for the Trapani airport to plug into our GPS, I saw an ad for car rentals in Trapani by a booking company called, with which I was previously unaware. I clicked on the ad, found a NYC phone number, booked a car rental in Trapani (with Europecar) for roughly 50% of the Hertz price. I was absolutely clear about no CDW, and was assured that CDW was excluded from my contract.

Argus sent email contract confirmations to me, two times, but I did not receive them. I asked them to send it to Pat; she did not get it either. We are having some sort of email problem, involving blocked emails, and have not been able to determine if it is Comcast or which is the culprit. That is a story for another day.

I looked up the Argus reservation on their web site; it was there, but without any details. I called Argus, and they gave me the Europecar confirmation number, without which Europecar will not release the car. I cancelled the Hertz reservation.

Then, nervous about not having a full written confirmation, I asked Argus to send the confirmation to Pat’s daughter; we simultaneously asked Kerry to forward the email to us. That procedure worked fine.

However, when I read the Argus confirmation, it said CDW included. I called and was given totally incorrect information by two Argus agents, who insisted that I didn’t have CDW even though the contract said I did. There is a second level CDW insurance, which covers the deductible, and they were saying that since I didn’t have the ‘super’ CDW insurance, I had no CDW insurance. I got a number for Europecar HQ in Ireland and called them.

(thank you, Skype, for making all these international calls so inexpensive.)

Europecar immediately confirmed that they did not offer car rentals in Trapani without CDW coverage. I would have to cancel the reservation. But, would I be able to get another car from Hertz, or anybody, without CDW. A call to Hertz international reservations resolved the problem. And, my happy ending was enhanced by the fact that the new Hertz reservation was $300 less than the one I had previously cancelled. The original reservation was for an intermediate car, since no compact was available. This time, I was able to book a compact at the lower price. Also, maybe last-minute reservations, if a car is available, are discounted. Something to keep in mind.

Post script. When I picked up our car from Hertz in Trapani, the contract included CDW, although the price did not. ALWAYS READ THE CONTRACT !!!  After a brief discussion, Hertz corrected the contract to exclude CDW. The car is a Ford Fusion 5 door square back, which I think is not a compact.

As I drive this too-large car, through the narrow, twisting streets of Taormina, with crazy Italian drivers and motor scooters constantly passing me on the right, noticing that most of the other cars have dents large and small, I am very happy I was persistent enough, and fortunate enough, to retain my 100% Citibank CDW coverage.


Posted in ... 2008, planes, problems | 1 Comment »

* Comcast messes up SlingBox … SEE UPDATE … no Comcast problems for several years

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 26, 2008

UPDATE 8/7/10 … This post is several years old. We have had very few problems with SlingBox since the issue described below, and none of these subsequent problems was caused by ComCast. SlingBox continues to be a valuable and generally quite reliable means of staying in touch while we travel.

On the day we left Collioure (May 15), I demonstrated Sling Box to Pat’s cousin Renee, who would, with her husband Gary, occupy our apartment for part of the time we were gone. A few hours later, Sling Box no longer worked. After 10 days away, it was still not working.

My first thought was that something was wrong inside our Key West home: the cable box had gone off during a power out and had not re-set; the new DVD recorder, through which our Sling Box video feed was wired, had failed to re-boot; the new cable box installed by Comcast had crashed and burned.

This is a serious matter. We use Sling Box to keep current with the news, and a few other regular shows (Meet the Press). The Democratic primary race continues; unbeknownst to us, on Dancing with the Stars, a winner has been selected.

I am particularly nervous because I watch Yankee games on MLB.TV, unaffected by any Comcast/Sling Box problems, but Pat’s viewing is all dependant on our Key West to internet TV connection.

Our next door neighbor Bill, who so graciously watches our home while we are away, was himself on an extended trip. We call our friend Paul, who goes to our house. We talk via Skype. He tells me what he sees, we try together to determine the problem. The Comcast cable box is on. The DVD recorder is on. Paul turns on the TV; there’s no picture on any channel. A message says this channel will be available soon. Paul, watching nothing, wonders if ‘soon’ means minutes, days or years. I ask Paul to turn on the TV in the guest bedroom, powered by a second Comcast cable box. Same story. No picture, ‘soon.’

Paul says he thinks the service has been disconnected. He turns off both TVs, leaves the cable box and DVD recorder on, and leaves.

There’s another piece of relevant information.

Some months ago, Comcast came out because the DVR feature of our cable box was not functioning. They fixed it. But when I looked at my next invoice on the Comcast web site, I noticed they had charged me for a service call. I objected, and they agreed it was a mistake, promised a credit.

When we returned to Collioure from Sicily, my checklist said to review my credit card bill to see if the credit had been processed. I also looked at my on-line Comcast statement. The credit had been issued.

But I noticed something strange. The billing address on my statement, for the Key West bill, was Stone Henge Drive in Fenton, MI!

I called Comcast (thank you again, Skype) and was told there was no record of any change in billing address for as many months as the representative could see. He couldn’t see much, because while he was telling me that, I checked my previous on-line statements and found that the billing address had been changed only for the most recent statement. He agreed to change it back.

Now we’re back to why Sling Box doesn’t work. Paul thinks the service has been discontinued. Pat concludes it must have something to do with the incorrect change of address. She puts it together intuitively like the courtroom defense lawyer she was. Someone who lives in Florida for the winter went home to Michigan for the summer, discontinued his Comcast service for the duration. Maybe it’s someone named Weinstein.

We do a lookup on the Fenton, MI address. Guess what? Sheldon Weinstein, wife Rebecca. Unlisted phone. Next we do a search for Sheldon Weinstein in Florida; find him in Lake Worth, wife Rebecca, Lake Worth listed phone number, temporarily disconnected.

I call Comcast again. NOTE: this exercise took over 4 elapsed hours, perhaps 3 of that on the phone; with Skype, a cost of less than $5.00; without Skype, too expensive to do.

Comcast tells me that my account in Key West was put on seasonal suspension on May 9, effective May 15 through November 15. I say I didn’t do it.

“We verify street address, phone number, last name,” she said. “If someone else has that information, it’s not our fault. Do you want the number of our fraud unit?” Do we sound just a tad defensive?

“It’s not fraud,” I say. “Would someone use our information to suspend our service, for what reason I cannot imagine, and then leave his own summer billing address so he could be traced? Does that make any sense to you? Isn’t it more likely that someone at Comcast applied the seasonal change order to the wrong account?”

We all know that the people we talk to in customer service, at almost any company, are not particularly attuned to common sense. Some are smarter than others, some are ruder and more arrogant, but they all have their script. If your problem doesn’t fit their rote training, they don’t know how to talk to you. Thinking is not part of the job description. Same applies to supervisors.

“Could you check for me to see if a man named Sheldon Weinstein in Lake Worth is a Comcast customer, and if he also lives in Fenton, MI?” I give her both street addresses.

“I can’t do that. Lake Worth is a different customer service call center. So is Michigan. I can’t access those areas.”

“Who can?”


“Can you reverse the seasonal suspension?”

Comcast does reverse the seasonal suspension, and some time during the night, Sling Box re-appears. They also give me a full month’s credit. But they will not admit it was their mistake. “Someone called, gave your address, and requested the change,” they insist. “You should call our fraud unit.”

I’m not going to call the fraud unit. Instead, I get the names and phone numbers of supervisors and their supervisors, as well as Comcast corporate headquarters in Philadelphia. I’ll make another round of calls on Tuesday (Monday is Memorial Day). You’ll be the first to know what I learn.

Posted in ... 2008, problems, travel technology | Leave a Comment »

* let down by Budget Car Rental in Rouen

Posted by Lew Weinstein on June 25, 2007

On our way to Normandy, we train and taxi to the Budget location which is not at the station. We resolve to favor, from now on, car rental companies which are at the station. For this and other reasons, we’re beginning to re-think my choice of Budget as our car rental company.

The next hour provides much more reason to do so.

Our car is waiting for us. While doing the paperwork, I repeat that we are declining the collision insurance (covering damages to our rental car) since this coverage is provided by our Citibank MasterCard. I then say, offhandedly, that I understand the liability insurance (covering damage to other property and persons) is automatically included in French car rentals, which I have been told by Budget US when making the reservation.

The local Budget manager says this is not true, and if we want 3rd party liability insurance, it will cost 25 euros per day, 100 euros total for the 4 day rental. I protest, and ask him to call Budget in the US to resolve the question. Instead, he calls a friend of his who speaks better English, and after several interchanges between the friend, the manager, and me, he reluctantly agrees to call Budget’s main French office in Paris.

I explain the issue to the English speaking person, who says she thinks I am correct, but will check with her supervisor to be sure. She leaves me on hold so long I think we’re cut off, and I ask the local manager to call again.

Instead he calls the friend.

As you can imagine, this has taken a long time – we’ve now been waiting for 30 minutes with all these phone calls, and everyone is getting aggravated. Finally, the manager again calls Budget in Paris, and remarkably, I speak to the same woman, who tells me I’m correct, that 3rd party liability insurance is included in all French car rentals without separate charge.

So it’s now clear that the local Budget manager was trying to charge me 100 euros ($140.00) for something he knew, or should have known, I did not need.

OK, now to the car, which upon inspection, is filthy.

All that time on the phone, the manager did not see fit to make sure the car was cleaned. We wait another 15 minutes while the attendant cleans the inside of the car. By then, we say enough and decline the exterior cleaning.

When we return the car four days later, our charge sheet includes the CDW insurance we had specifically and explicitly declined, and some other charges. I’m furious. The desk clerk calls someone (the manager?) and the charges are removed. I get copies of both charge sheets so I can later document my complaint letter to Budget. We also decide to cancel all remaining Budget reservations (Ireland, Italy, Key West, etc, etc, and do business with another car rental company.

Posted in ... 2007, planes, problems | Leave a Comment »

US Air sent our luggage where?

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 12, 2007

We’re flying from Key West to Philadelphia, the prime reason being the graduation from grad school of Pat’s son. Of course, the clothes for the ceremony, as well as the weekend of busy events with all six of our children before we leave for France next week for over 5 months, are all in our one suitcase.

We check in and the ticket agent places a luggage tag on the suitcase.

Prompted long ago by something Pat read and told me about, I ask, “Does that tag say Philadelphia?”

“Yes,” answers the agent without looking, as another US Air person grabs the bag and starts to put it on the conveyor belt.

“Don’t take that bag,” I say, loudly enough to attract the attention of everyone in the general area. This irritates him, but I could care less. “Show me the bag,” I add.

He turns it so I can see.

“What does BDL stand for?” I ask, reading the destination on the luggage ticket.

“Hartford, Connecticut.”

I turn, furious, to the ticket agent. “Did I ask you what the ticket said? Did you say Philadelphia?”

She changes the ticket (she had switched luggage tags with the agent standing next to her) but never apologizes. When she’s done, I insist on seeing the suitcase again.

The point is not that she made a mistake. Mistakes happen.

The point is that travelers must check every single time to avoid the impact of losing your bags, for a few hours, a few days, or forever.

Do the airline personnel get irritated when you do that? Sure. Do I care? Not one whit.

Posted in ... 2007, planes, problems | Leave a Comment »

* getting connected: telephone & internet

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Before leaving Key West, I had arranged with France Telecom and Wanadoo – I’m still not sure if this is one company or two – to have the telephone line activated in our apartment, and a telephone and broadband router sent to us in Collioure.  

Everything arrives as planned, and I spread out the instructions and try to get connected. Of course, all the instructions are in French, but there were pictures, and I had a French-English dictionary (no Google translate without the internet), so I set out optimistically.

The phone seems to work right away, but after several hours, there is no internet connection. Has the connection been activated at the Wanadoo end? Have I connected the wires correctly? Is the router functioning properly?

I spend 12 frustrating hours on the telephone with people at France Telecom and Wanadoo, all of whom try to be helpful. I have done this kind of analysis many times, on the phone with tech support people, but always, of course, in English. Trying to do this in French is impossible, and finding an English-speaking Wanadoo technician is next to impossible. It’s a nightmare.

There are also issues of coordination. Apparently, people from France Telecom do not, in the normal course, talk to people from Wanadoo. Nor do people from different divisions within those companies speak with each other. Some do speak English, but it often takes forever to get connected to an English speaker, and when I call back, there’s no way to find that person again.

I remind myself that I am in France, where people talk French. Pat urges me to repeat our mantra. “It’s an adventure.”

Finally, on the second day, I call Sam, and he agrees to come over on his way home that evening. He arrives at seven o’clock. We go through the installation together, and everything seems correct. Until we get to the password.

In the U.S., my experience is that you pick your own password, so that’s what I had done. Wrong.

I had been assigned a password, which had been mailed to me – somewhere – but I didn’t have it. Sam explains the situation to Wanadoo and they tell him the password.

A few minutes later, the internet and email appear on my laptop. We are connected to the world.

That night, we watch internet clips from Hardball with Chris Mathews, and the reception is astonishingly good.

Posted in ... 2006, customer service, problems | Leave a Comment »

* our inability to speak French

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Of course not everything goes as planned.

Two of the most frustrating experiences in our first summer abroad concerned our telephone/internet connections (France Telecom and Wanadoo) and our new sofa (IKEA).

A big part of the problems, in both cases, was our inability to speak French. If we had been able to communicate fully, I think we would have overcome what appears to be an underlying French aversion to customer service.

Posted in ... 2006, problems, speaking French | 2 Comments »

* IKEA’s idea of customer service

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

Our IKEA delivery arrives on schedule in mid June. The miscellaneous items are all there, just as purchased in January.

The sofa and ottoman, however, are not correct.

The 3-seat sofa comes with 2-seat covers, and without feet, so we’re practically sitting on the floor, on uncovered pillows with lots of feather quills coming through.

I call IKEA, and after bouncing around from one person to another for 30 minutes, I finally get an English-speaking customer service representative. He promises a call back in 24-48 hours with a ‘prompt resolution’ of the problems.

IKEA doesn’t call back, beginning a long string of broken promises. I call them. They promise to deliver the corrected items within two weeks.

In three weeks, having had no delivery and no call from IKEA, I call them again. The replacement order has not even been placed. We are again promised delivery, this time in another week.

I wonder if anyone at IKEA is embarrassed by this performance. Nobody seems to care. Nobody apologizes.

There is again no delivery when promised. No one calls. And it’s impossible to call them. In a scenario that would be funny if it wasn’t so frustrating, I repeatedly call the English-speaking service line.

A voice message, in English, instructs me to press ‘1’ to continue in English.

I press ‘1,’ and get a stream of rapid French.

The days stretch on and IKEA’s promises remain an unreachable illusion. We’re increasingly concerned about delivering a finished apartment for our
upcoming home exchange. Carmel is due to arrive on July 25th.

We ask our neighbor Brigitte for help, hoping that she can get some useful information in French that we are unable to get in English. Brigitte works through the voice messages and reaches a live person, and it sounds like she’s really giving a piece of her mind to that person. The net result, however, is no substantive information and another promise to call back within one hour. Once again, there’s no return call.

We wonder if this is an IKEA problem or a French problem. Am I being unreasonably impatient? There are many who have written about the bureaucratic mindset in France, and the absence of any real sense of customer service.

It seems to me there’s no system or institutional process designed to make customers happy. It’s simply not a priority.

We travel for two weeks and try to forget our strange sofa. When we return, I re-enter the fray with IKEA with another series of fruitless calls to the English-speaking line.

Same automated response, same flood of French. Does anyone at IKEA realize how idiotic that system is?

Suddenly, in the midst of one more frustrating call, an actual person comes on the line, speaking English. I’m so excited I almost drop the phone.

I try to concentrate on solving the problem instead of venting my frustrations. She listens and tells me her colleague will call back in a few minutes.

“Do not hang up this phone,” I order in my most authoritative voice. “No one at IKEA ever calls back.”

By some miracle, she does not hang up, but instead transfers me to another English-speaking person. I think it might have been her boss. He listens to my tale of woe and tells me someone from the Montpellier store will call back in ten minutes. I ask him to please stay on the line, but he explains he gets off work in ten minutes. He promises I’ll get a call and hangs up.

He must have been a higher level boss, because someone from Montpellier actually calls. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the order for the missing furniture has still not been placed.

“And nobody had the courtesy to contact me to tell me that? You don’t care at all, do you?”

The woman is patient with me. “I’m trying to solve your problem. I cannot comment on whatever my colleagues did or did not do.”

I must have finally gotten through to someone, because IKEA is now on a roll. They send an email that uses previously unspoken words – sorry, apologize, inconvenience – and promises a delivery the following week. Another unsolicited email says the delivery company will call us to set a day of delivery.

The delivery company doesn’t call, so I call them. They have no merchandise for me. How could IKEA have told me that the delivery company would call me, when they have nothing to deliver? Do they just make it up?

Are you tired of reading about IKEA? Imagine how I felt, living with it.

I’m calling IKEA again, but now, after entering ‘1’ for English, they disconnect the line. Seven times so far. Eight. They’re too busy to answer the customer service line. Too busy doing what? Surely not providing customer service. Call # 12 is answered. Same nonsense.

“I will call Montpellier and they will call you by 2:00 pm.”

“But they don’t ever call.”

“They will call.”

“Can I call the Montpellier store directly?”

“No. This is not possible.”

So, the only place you can call doesn’t have the information, and the only place that has the information you can’t call. Who’s on first?

This is not a pleasant way to spend your day. It’s time to go to the beach and read a good book. But first, I must wait until 2:00 pm. And then?

Stephanie from IKEA’s Montpellier store calls at 2:15 pm. She knows nothing about what has been going on, but she says she’ll find out and call me back. Something in the tone of her voice makes me believe her.

She calls back in 10 minutes, having just spoken to the delivery company. She actually called them, instead of telling me to call them. She says they do have the merchandise, and she’s done the very un-French thing of taking the initiative to schedule a delivery for the following Tuesday between noon and 4:00 pm. I don’t have to call anyone.

Even more remarkably, Stephanie adds that when this matter is all cleared up, IKEA will provide ‘compensation’ to us for our trouble. She gives me her email address so I can contact her directly if there is a further need.

I tell her she is the only sign of intelligent life I have found at IKEA customer service and I wish I had met her a month ago. She laughs, and again says she is sorry.

Au revoir. Bonne journee.

On Tuesday, everything arrives exactly as scheduled – the sofa, all the covers, the legs. We put everything together and it looks great! How comfortable to sit at a normal height without being poked by feathers. IKEA has beaten Carmel to Collioure by seven days.

Several months later, back in Key West, we receive a voucher for 75 euros to be spent at the Montpellier store.

So what did we learn?

It’s our experience that customer service in France is a mystical concept, even if, like Brigitte and Rose, you speak French. It’s not that the personnel are unfriendly, or even that they don’t want to be helpful. The system, however, is stacked against results. Stephanie is the only exception to this rule that we’ve found. Her action in initiating a call to the delivery service and scheduling the delivery, so normal in the U.S., stands out dramatically in France.

Maybe things will change, but I wouldn’t bet on it. We love living in France, and this incident with IKEA will certainly not change that. But I could never work in France. It would drive me nuts.

In a broader context, I wonder how, if this mind set continues, France will ever compete successfully within the European Community. 

Posted in ... 2006, customer service, problems | 7 Comments »

France Telecom and Wanadoo

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

It’s June 2006 …

Collioure is glorious. We renew our acquaintance with the outdoor restaurants along the beach, beautiful shops and art galleries, thirteenth century castle and fourteenth century church.

We also renew our acquaintance with France Telecom and Wanadoo, a far less pleasant experience.

We had established a working telephone and internet service in January, and expected that when we re-attached in June, everything would work as it had before. Not so.

The problem, when we finally understood it, was financial, not technical.

I had, so I thought, arranged to have our France Telecom and Wanadoo invoices paid automatically by a deduction from our bank in Collioure, thus avoiding the problems of receiving and paying bills in a timely manner. By telephone, speaking with people who seemed to understand English, I gave the bank numbers to both France Telecom and Wanadoo in February.

However, no deductions appeared on our bank statement, which we can view on the internet. So I again called France Telecom and Wanadoo from the U.S. (thank you, Skype), paid the outstanding bills by MasterCard over the phone, and once more communicated the bank instructions for automatic deduction.

Towards the end of April, I had yet another conversation with France Telecom, once again paid the outstanding bill by MasterCard, and was assured that this time, all future bills would be automatically debited to my bank account. 

Back in Collioure in June, I plug in the telephone and the wireless router provided by Wanadoo. The phone seems to function but when I call the English speaking France Telecom line, I get a long message in French. No other calls are possible, and there is no internet connection.

Pat suggests that I have our neighbor Brigitte listen to the message and tell me what is being said. Not wanting to trouble Brigitte, I decide to wait until Monday when I expect to be able to call the English speaking France Telecom line. But that call produces the same message, and a justified “I told you so” from Pat. Brigitte, meanwhile, has gone to work.

Fortunately, the night before we had met our neighbor on the other side, an Englishwoman named Rose, who speaks French. Rose listens to the message, and informs me that our telephone account had been suspended for failure to pay the bill. No calls are possible, except to the recorded message, which, if you can understand French, provides an extension to dial for further information. Rose calls that extension, and after the normal long wait, someone comes on the line.

“Mr. Weinstein has paid his bill,” Rose says, “and has arranged for all future bills to be automatic bank deducts. Why has telephone service been suspended?”

After an extended conversation, Rose informs me that I owe 35 euros for what seems to be the May telephone bill. Apparently, the bank deduct was not scheduled to begin until June, and I had paid by credit card only through April.

I hand Rose my credit card and she pays the May bill over the phone. She is assured that telephone service will be restored by the end of the day. And, lo and behold, telephone service is restored by about 6:00 pm.

Phone yes, internet no

Unfortunately, even after phone service is restored, the internet still doesn’t function, and Rose has returned to England. Not to worry. Wanadoo has a 24/7 tech support line.

“I cannot speak English,” the Wanadoo service tech explains to me in perfect English.

“But you are speaking English,” I say. She explains, in English, that Wanadoo has a policy not to conduct tech support business in English.

I repeat our mantra: It’s all part of the adventure.

We go back and forth several times. She speaks French. I speak English, calmly and slowly. Then a remarkable thing happens. She answers in English. I compliment her on the quality of her English. She laughs. We’re friends. But she still can’t solve my problem.

“I can’t help you. Your account is closed.”

“Why?” I ask. No understandable answer.

She tells me to call the commercial office for further information and I reach another person who will not speak English. It is at this point, emboldened by my previous success, I decide to ignore all the French I can’t understand, and simply speak English, always slowly and calmly, with humor wherever possible. Every time, answers come in English. Remarkable!

I’m now informed that my Wanadoo account had in fact been closed, not for non-payment, but because I have a new account number. Why? Don’t ask. Why was there no automatic transfer to the new account? Don’t ask. She gives me the new account number.

“If you call tech support,” she says, “and give them the new number, they’ll help you.”

I call tech support again, now two hours further into my deepening frustration.

“Yes,” she says, after I gave her the new account number, “your account is open.”

“Then why doesn’t the internet function?”

She tries. Her English is much better than my French. But in the end, she says, I think quite sincerely, that she’s sorry, but her English is just not good enough to deal with the technical questions.

“What should I do?”

“Find someone who speaks French and call back.”

This problem is not trivial. All of my financial transactions for the next five months require use of the internet. I go to sleep with visions of unpaid bills, cancelled credit cards and general chaos.

Eventually, after many more phone calls, Wanadoo agrees to send a new wireless router, but their promise to actually install it and see that it works was apparently never communicated to the man who made the delivery.

I’m on my own. I go through the installation instructions again, and this time it works.

Was the router the problem? Who knows? I resolve that when we leave in November, I will not disconnect anything. Check back in June 2007 for the sequel.

Post script – lawyer letter

A week later, I go shopping in town and on the way back, pick up our mail. There are two notices regarding a judgment against us for failing to pay our phone bill. I’m furious, because we paid the April bill referenced in the judgment long before the legal notices were sent in early June.

Pat, sensing that my mood might not produce the best result, calls the lawyers. No answer except a message in French. I give her the English-speaking France Telecom help line number. A person answers, speaks English, and immediately tells us that we owe nothing.

“Why then did we get these notices?”

“I cannot explain that.”

Pat drafts a letter to the lawyers, explaining the facts, and we hope for the best. I expect more aggravation on this one before it is over, but we soon get a return letter. I scan the letter, enter the text into Google translate, and learn that our payments are acknowledged  and we need not respond to the judgment.

Posted in ... 2006, problems | 2 Comments »