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A Letter to Ryanair…

Because their online contact form isn’t long enough and their Facebook page doesn’t allow for visitors to post (gee, I wonder why), and they don’t offer any additional contact information…

Dear Ryanair,

My husband and I understand that issues happen.  A shortage of staff can cause chaos, a broken plane can cause delays, weather can have an impact on take offs and landings.  Most of the time, we both go with the flow and if our plane is a half hour late, it doesn’t bother us and we carry on.  However, the events of Saturday, 16th June need to be addressed and reparations need to be made.

My husband and I were scheduled for flight FR1548 – London Stansted to Leipzig (Germany).  The flight gets in to Leipzig quite late, so we always book a room at a hotel with 24-hour reception and book our rental car to be picked up the following morning as no one is manning the rental desks that late.  This is a system that has worked out for us on several previous trips, including one where we were delayed by about an hour.

On Saturday, we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.  After going through security, we checked the departures board and our flight said “Gate info 1845”, so we went to Giraffee for dinner.  While on our walk around the duty free area, my husband noticed the flight information changed to “Delayed until 1940”.  This was fine, as it would only make the flight a half hour late (original departure 1915). We finished up our dinner, and checked the board once more.  Our flight info was now blank, only showing the flight number, time, and destination.

We tried to find someone who could explain what that meant, but you have no staff on that side of the airport and neither does the airport.  We finally spoke with a man at the currency exchange who could only tell us that he didn’t know either.

To our delight, the gate was announced at 1845, the original time stated.  Fantastic, we thought.  Still slightly later than our boarding passes said, but maybe they can get the plane loaded in a half hour.  We all rushed to the gate and joined a neverending queue . It seemed half the plane had opted to get “Priority” boarding to be able to put their bags on.  We did, since my rucksack carries my laptop and I didn’t want it to wind up in the hold.  We stood around for fifteen, maybe 20 minutes. I probably should have kept track, but I didn’t.  Eventually, we got told our gate was changing and there was a mad rush to the new gate, now putting us at the back of the Priority queue.

We stood.  A Ryanair employee finally arrived and started scanning people through.  They stood on the stairs, unable to go outside to board the plane as the doors were locked and there was no staff around to unlock the doors and babysit our walk.  It was around 1945 when the queue finally started moving and we were able to board the plane.  Once again, we optimistically thought this would only cause about an hour’s delay, and I quickly checked the S-bahn schedule for Leipzig to make sure we could still get into the city centre before shutting my phone off per flying regulations.

We sat on the plane.  No one was speaking to us and as far as anyone knew, we were still boarding.  Except that a quick look around (we were in the last row) showed the plane was full.  What was going on?  They went through the safety announcements and we thought for sure this was the signal that we would be pushing back….nope.

Finally, sometime after 2030, the pilot finally comes on to tell us “There was a problem with the flight plan.”  Naturally, this caused confusion as surely the plane would follow the same flight path it always follows from London to Leipzig?  But then my husband and I speculated that we were simply waiting for a slot to take off since we were late.  The PA system remained silent.

Around 2045, there was a sudden announcement to return to seats, fasten seatbelts, and we would finally be departing.  Hooray!  Some quick Maths and we determined this would mean landing around 2330 local time, but trains would be running until 0130, so we weren’t worried, and the flight progressed as normal….but it seemed a little long.

Finally, well past the hour and forty minutes in the air, the pilot comes on to tell us –Surprise!  We’ve brought you to Berlin. “Unable to land due to curfew” was the reason given, although I now know that our plane could have landed and Ryanair could have paid a fee for landing outside the curfew.

Berlin?  Berlin wasn’t even on the side of the country we planned on being in.  “What are they going to do for us?”  began the common thread across the plane as we descended.  Once we landed, we had to wait on the plane some more as we were waiting for busses.  At first, we thought the announcement about the bus meant “We’ve arranged for busses to take you t Leipzig”, however we soon found out that this was not the case, and we were waiting for busses to take us to the terminal.

Confusion continued with another announcement “Ryanair will pay for taxis to your final destination”  came over the PA.  Cue cheering.  My husband and I assumed this meant there was ground personnel in Berlin who was going to be arranging this for us. Perhaps they would pile as many people as possible into taxis to the various final destinations. We needed the city centre, so we were fairly confident there would be a few more heading that way.

A steward near our end gave us clarification. “You pay for the taxi now, and Ryanair will reimburse you.”

Since we were now on the ground, I turned back on my phone and googled for taxi rates.  The cheapest was €381, the most expensive over €500.  We looked at the trains.  The earliest train to Leipzig was at 4 in the morning (it was now close to 1AM).  While that was an option for some of the passengers, it wasn’t an option for my husband and I, who had a further drive on Sunday to our destination in the Harz mountains.  Neither was shelling out €400 or more for a taxi ride with no actual guarantee in writing that your company would be reimbursing us.

We still remained optimistic, thinking surely there would be ground staff able to help.  In the meanwhile, an email came through from our hotel in Leipzig that I was being charged €107 for the room we should have been checking into, and being listed as a “no-show”.  I tried to contact the hotel, but had no luck.

Once in the baggage claim, it became obvious to all of us that there was no staff other than airport staff to help, who naturally had no idea what was going on.  Sighing, I opened up a hotel app on my phone, and booked the cheapest and closest hotel I could find – the Best Western for €86.  We then jumped on the DB app to look up tickets back to Leipzig (remember, we had to pick up a rental car there!). Tickets were showing up around the €50 mark.  Our quick trip to relieve stress was soon adding up.

Next came figuring out how to get to the hotel, so I rang them and in my halting German asked about a shuttle.  The shuttle doesn’t operate on weekends.  Fantastic.  We had to book a taxi, €21.20.

I am seeking the following in reparations:

*€86.36 Hotel in Berlin

*€21.20 Taxi in Berlin

*€6.80 S-Bahn tickets

*€50 DB Tickets

And lastly, I am also seeking €107 for the cost of our hotel in Leipzig which I had to pay for as a no show for a total of €271.36.  Please see attached photos for proof of amounts.

Additionally, I would like to add that I have Type 2 Diabetes and by the time we arrived at our hotel there was nothing open nearby to purchase food and if it wasn’t for a cereal bar in my suitcase, you might have had a serious medical issue on your hands.

I expect to see a cheque waiting in the post when we return from our trip.

Thank you.

Rebecca Lockley

***
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Quick and Painless Passports

Today (well, Friday), my mom and I went to apply for her first passport. The only traveling outside of the US she had done in the past was to Canada, which formerly only required a driver’s license. I’ve had a passport since I was a minor, and was able to renew my passport as an adult since my former passport was less than 15 years old, so I was unfamiliar with the process for applying. To assist my mom, and so I’d know what to expect, I started reading up on all the current requirements on the Department of State’s website. A few things I learned today I thought I’d pass on to you, some of which are not on the DOS webpage:

1. Make sure you have a valid birth certificate. Your birth certificate needs to have a raised seal on it and most likely comes from your state’s department of health. If you do not have a certified copy, you’ll need to get one. It will cost about US$10 (fee varies by state), and might require you to drive to an office to apply in person. We went to Harrisburg last year to get a certified copy of my mom’s birth certificate. It took us about an hour between filling out the form and waiting for it to be processed. (please note: this only refers to US citizens born in the United States. For details on how to apply as a naturalized citizen, you will need to check the Department of State website.)

2. Get your passport photos taken. If you are a member of AAA, you can get passport photos for free with AAA Plus, or for $6.99 as a regular member. This seems to be the cheapest way to get passport photos. Walgreens, CVS, etc. charge between $8-12. (Note: AAA price may vary by region, as a friend of mine has AAA Plus and was charged $8.99 for her photos two years ago in Upstate NY. We’re part of Central Penn AAA, so check with AAA first!)

3. Know your parent’s birth dates and birth places. We were shocked to find out that even as an adult, you still needed to fill out that section. We had to make an emergency call to one of my aunts because neither of us were positive we knew the town my Nanny was born in. Turns out, you only needed to know the county or state. The woman working behind the counter told us that some people just make a random guess because they don’t know and don’t think to call a relative.

4. If you are divorced or widowed, you still need to provide information about your former spouse. Their name, the date you got married, and the date you were divorced or became a widow. You do not need a copy of your marriage certificate, divorce decree, or spouse’s death certificate. Even if your birth certificate has your maiden name and you are applying in your married name. As long as your married name is also on your driver’s license, you do not need your marriage certificate for your first passport. You will, however, need it if you are changing your name on your existing passport after marriage. (Thanks to mirrajay on UK-Yankee for answering this for me!)

5. Your driver’s license needs to be at least six months old. If it’s new, then you either have to bring along your expired license, your social security card, or another form of ID. The woman behind the counter was explaining to the people ahead of us that this is to make sure people aren’t just getting an ID for the sake of applying for their passport.

6. You must apply in person for your first passport, and you have to pay a $25 fee on top of the $75 application. These fees are paid in separate transactions, and the $75 needs to be paid either by cheque or money order. Conveniently, the post office sells money orders if you do not have a chequing account.

And that’s about it. It literally took less than 15 minutes after Mom filled out the application to hand it in. We were told to expect her passport in 4-6 weeks. We’ll also get back her birth certificate, and apparently it might even be mailed out separately.

For more information about applying for a US Passport, please see the Department of State‘s website.

Please note: All information in this post is current and valid as of 6/2009. If you are reading this post as an archived post, requirements may have changed, so please check the above website for more information.

[LJ readers reading this on the LJ RSS feed: Please click on the link at the top of the entry to go directly to my blog to leave a comment, as comments left on the LJ RSS do not get seen by me.]

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Finding Inexpensive Travel Deals

I ♥ travelocity. Let me back up. I ♥ moneysavingexpert.com.

Moneysavingexpert.com is a UK site for cheap bargains. I signed up for the weekly newsletter in the hopes that I’d find some good deals for Tim and I…and I have.

First, I discovered that for every £10 in Tesco vouchers we earn, we can trade it in for £40 in hotel vouchers instead of using it at Tesco. £10 off your groceries is nice, but if we can get a hotel room for free, we’ll take it! On our last Tesco statement, we had earned £12 in Tesco vouchers (which Tim used to get money off his groceries now that I’m back in the US), so we should be able to get ourselves £40 in hotel vouchers once every three months (Tesco earnings come out quarterly).

It also had deals on things that don’t apply to us, like credit card deals, deals on Sky+, etc. But this week, it had a link to their section on travel and tips on finding inexpensive hotels (which apply worldwide, btw). Since I have an upcoming trip to Ireland in September, I’ve been hunting for an inexpensive hotel.

I opened all their suggestions in tabs and compared it with the hotel I had already found (a self-catered place for ~US$250/3 nights). Travelocity found a fantastic deal. The Ardmore Hotel for only US$48/night! The hotel is a few miles from both the airport and the ferry port, as well as the train station. There’s a bus stop right in front that will take you into the city center….and the hotel has decent reviews on TripAdvisor. The other great thing about Travelocity is it will charge in USD, so we won’t have to worry about a currency conversion fee.

The minus to staying at the Ardmore is going to be that it’s NOT self-catering. It’s iffy if breakfast is included (hotel site says it’s available, but a review claims it cost €12 (~US$17) and apparently a cheaper breakfast can be had in town at Debenhams for €7 (~US$10)), but there IS a hotel restaurant/bar and they have daily dinner specials for €10 (~US$14) as well as room service, so if we can’t find anyplace else to eat, we can use the hotel as a fall-back option. But I can’t see us spending more than ~US$150 on food for three days (the price difference between the Ardmore and the self-catered place is ~US$150, and that’s before we’d have to shop for food for meals, too.)…if even that. Especially if I still head to a Tesco when we get there to stock up on some non-perishable snacks. If we eat a big breakfast at Debenham’s in the morning and pack snacks for the mid-day, as long as we eat an early dinner, we might be able to skip lunch (Tim and I did that frequently when we were traveling).

Do the discount websites work? Well, not always. And it’s always best to compare several in different windows or tabs to ensure you are finding the best deals. When I was searching for our flights I managed to find flights for $100 less through Priceline than even Kayak or Cheap Tickets was linking to (and those sites are my first stops for cheap air fare)! I also always open a direct link to the hotel or airline website to make sure there isn’t a better deal through booking direct. And if you’re looking at hotels, make sure you read the reviews or check Trip Advisor. Sure, a hotel for under $40 is nice, but is it going to be clean?

I also try to take advantage of membership cards. Obviously, airlines have frequent flier cards you can earn miles on for future trips and even spend buying other things. But did you know that many of the hotel chains have their own rewards system? Some even as easy as stay three nights in any of their hotels, get a one night stay for free!

Inexpensive travel is out there. You just have to be willing to search for it!

[LJ users reading this on the LJ feed, please click on the links at the top to go directly to my blog to leave comments, as comments left on the LJ feed do not get sent to me.]

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A Visitor’s Guide to Getting Birth Control in the UK

[Note added 9/12/12: This post gets a lot of traffic because there isn’t a lot of information out there about this subject. Please note that this post was written in 2009. Information may have changed, so please check the links provided or ask at a local GP practice.]

It’s bound to happen to you – you’re traveling and didn’t calculate how much birth control you needed to bring with you, or you decide to extend your stay past the amount you’ve brought with you. The idea of making an overseas phone call to your doctor to get a prescription filled, then calling and begging a friend or relative to pick it up, pay for it, and ship it over to you just doesn’t sit well with you, either. So, what can you do, other than going off your birth control for a few weeks or months?

The UK-Yankee website and board is a fabulous place to start for information about anything regarding visiting/living in the UK as an American. Several of the ladies on the message board advised in the past that visitors have access to free birth control through the NHS. This some-what contradicts the big stamp in my passport that says “no recourse to public funds”, so I was a little skeptical.

I first researched family planning clinics in the area near Tim’s house. I found one in Grimsby that also had a website and e-mail address, and I contacted them with my questions. The woman who wrote back told me I would need to pay for the visit but the pills would be free, and gave me the number of a clinic closer to here. I didn’t call them.

Then, I did some more research online, and found the Marie Stopes organization. Marie Stopes provides birth control to low-income women throughout the world, and their main office is in London. I sent off an email inquiring if they had a location closer to here, and what the costs would be as a foreign visitor. Marie Stopes calculates their fees on a sliding scale (similar to Planned Parenthood), but did not tell me what fees would be charged to a foreign visitor. Unfortunately, their closest clinic to me was in Leeds, which isn’t all that close!

Several ladies on UKY mentioned Dr. Thom Dr Thom offers online birth control pill ordering – no exam or need to see a doctor. Dr. Thom charges £29.99 for a three-month supply. The only catch is that you have to already be on birth control and you must be on one of the pills Dr. Thom provides. Unfortunately, my brand of pill was not on the list. The only “American” brands I noticed were Yaz and Ortho-Tri-Cyclen. I emailed Dr. Thom and asked about ordering a similar pill, but was told they could not provide a pill I wasn’t already prescribed. Dr. Thom also requires the person placing the order to have a credit card in their name and a UK address associated with the card, so you would also need to add your UK address to your credit card before using their services.

It was beginning to become clear to me that I would need to try to see a doctor here, and I was a bit worried about the cost. There’s a family clinic (not family planning, just family clinic) in the next village over, so when Tim and I happened to be in that area, I stopped in with my old prescription.

I was told that if the dispensary supplied my brand, they would just give it to me, but since I was on a brand they were unfamiliar with, I needed to make an appointment to have a doctor give the prescription. I was told that as a visitor, I might need to pay £12 for the office visit, but they were not sure and would let me know when I had my appointment if that was alright with me. Well, £12 certainly didn’t seem like too much money to me, so I said that was fine.

My appointment took all of 10 minutes. The doctor weighed me, took my blood pressure, and asked me medical history questions. Then she looked up the chemical make-up of my pill and prescribed me a similar pill. I was expecting a month’s supply, but she prescribed me with a 3 month supply, and I was told to get it filled next door at the co-op. They did not mention paying a fee for the visit to me, but I assumed I would have to pay for my pills. I went next door, and to my surprise I was handed a 3-month pack of pills after a very short wait. I asked if I needed to pay for them, and was told no, they were covered under the NHS.

So, my advice to any of you ladies traveling to the UK who find yourself needing birth control (or the morning after pill, apparently), find a local family clinic or a family planning clinic…but don’t wait until the last minute. I started looking into things with 2 weeks left in my current pill pack, and by the time I saw the doctor and got a new prescription, I was less than a week away from running out!

For more information about what visitors are entitled to, please see: http://www.dh.gov.uk/en/Healthcare/Entitlementsandcharges/OverseasVisitors/Browsable/DH_074379

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Local Emergency Numbers

Now, before anyone panics, NO, I didn’t need to call for Emergency Services.

I texted Tim’s sister earlier today to tell her that the house was warm* and she wrote back with “Is the house on fire? Call 999! LOL” And that got me thinking about emergency numbers while traveling. Now, Tim hadn’t told me that if there was an emergency to dial 999 instead of 911, but I knew the UK emergency number was 999 because I watch a lot of British TV shows. But if I was traveling in another country, I don’t think I’d be able to tell you. In Canada, it’s also 911, so I’ve never had to look up an alternate.

I checked out Wikipedia for emergency numbers, and I found out that dialing 112 in many countries will also lead to emergency services, and that emergency services can be dialed even from a simless/networkless/serviceless mobile phone by dialing 112. Good to know.

The Wiki entry, complete with list of countries and their emergency code by continent can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergency_telephone_number or if you’d rather look things up alphabetically, you can check here.

Please check before you go on vacation to another country what you would need to dial in case of an emergency.

[*it’s a bit of a mocking point with Tim that his house is always on the cold side…or at least, it used to be until he re-arranged some of the heaters and got an extra space heater]

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AAA Rip-off!

Today, I headed over to the AAA office to get some US money exchanged for Canadian to have with me just in case I needed cash before I get up to Sarah and Joe’s. Everyone kept telling me to use AAA instead of a bank because AAA wouldn’t fee you. Uh…right.

AAA has these things called “cash packs”, that is – US$100 worth of currency, minus a “shipping fee”. So, I passed over my US$100 and was handed a packet with CDN$88.

Please note that the current exchange rate is US$1 = CDN$1.02. Theoretically, I should have gotten CDN$102, which makes the AAA fee $14. Seems a bit steep to me! I’d rather I had taken my chances over at the airport, but ah well. We can’t always win, right?

What really had me amused though, was the girl behind the counter’s reaction to the Canadian money. The envelope felt heavy, and I knew there would be a loonie and a toonie ($1 and $2 coin nicknames), so I opened the envelope to take them out before they fell out, and the girl was just fascinated with the Canadian coins. She turned them over and over in her hands a few times and asked me what they were, and seemed impressed that I knew the “nicknames” for the coins. I guess they don’t get a lot of informed international travelers at the AAA in Lancaster!

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