It was one of those Days

Written by admin on February 28, 2009 – 12:29 pm -

No matter how long you live in a country, there are days expatriates feel as if they arrived the day before. Whatever you touch turns to mush, and there must be a full moon somewhere in the sky and it’s glowing on you, emitting bizarre vibes.

Having lived in Paris twenty-one years, I’m fairly confident I understand the French system. How wrong I am. No matter how fluent you are in the language, cultural differences get the best of you.

The day started with a cracked front tooth. My dentist retired last year so I had to scramble to find one who would take me tout de suite. I contacted one who came highly recommended and explained to his assistant, who recently moved to France from Romania, that this was an emergency. 

She offered me an appointment four days later and our conversations were mysteries to each of us. Even though we were both speaking French, let’s say our accents would cause members of the Académie française to wonder and shake their heads in disbelief. 

I sent frantic emails to the dentist, who speaks numerous languages, was trained in America, and practices in London, as well as Paris, begging for compassion and an appointment. That seemed to do the trick (plus, asking my friend to intervene), and I was being drilled on before 2:00 p.m. that day. The song “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” kept going menacingly through my head.

In the process of getting that appointment, I had made numerous calls on my land line. Each time I called a number, a recording played that I wasn’t authorized to make calls from this number—eh? My phone bill is automatically deducted from my bank account and I’d been receiving incoming calls; however, I’d been making out-going ones from another phone which permits me to make unlimited calls anywhere in France, so I wasn’t aware until then that I had this problem.

After dialing France Telecom’s (now Orange’s) support line and playing the “if you’re experiencing this, push that…” game and being cut off four times, I had lost any semblance of patience. Finally opting to speak to a real live person, and being placed on hold for 20 minutes in order to have the privilege of paying to do so, he informed me that another company had high-jacked my phone. He couldn’t tell me which or when, but I would have to file a complaint. And by the way, I shouldn’t be surprised if I receive a hefty disconnect bill from the culprit group that never received my authorization. 

Clearly, this was going to be a problematic day. I stopped in a France Telecom/Orange boutique thinking that if I were able to make eye contact, the problem would be resolved. Not quite. Giving up on that, my next errand was to go to the bank where I’ve been doing business for more than 15 years, albeit with a few name changes. It was a little more unsettling when I realized the bank was no longer there. We’re not talking out of business (thank goodness), but it no longer has a physical office in Paris. That meant not being able to deposit or cash checks or speak to someone. Anyone.

I had been contemplating opening an account at one of the 42 banks within a mile of my apartment. So it was time. I went to three branches of one bank and was told there were no available advisers authorized to open an account, and would I like to make an appointment for next week? 

At branch number four, I made a discovery. My French is less than perfect until I get angry. Then I am amazingly communicative. Insisting there must be someone in one of their branches available immediately to open an account, I suspect that bank manager guessed that this American lady with the expensive-looking coat might a.) have real money that she could put in another bank, or b.) have a meltdown in the bank worthy of a two year old or c.) both of the above. 

I was ushered to my new best friend’s office. Sébastien had been with the bank for ten years and was more than willing to open a bank account. I was not depositing big bucks (the manager didn’t need to now that), but as we talked (in part English and some French), he got the idea that I might become a decent client and yes, he could refinance the mortgage on my Paris apartment.

But first things first: I signed multiple papers and numerous copies, initialized each page, signed where appropriate and took care of the essentials, including signing copies of 1099 US tax forms.

I gave him my ten-year residency card on which my address is noted, my press card and some checks and cash with which to open the account. He could see I had more than a few US credit cards since my wallet was in the process of disintegrating. When Sébastien requested a utility bill in order to prove I was domiciled in France, my mouth must have fallen to my knees. He conceded I could email him a copy, as it’s the law. 

We hit it off swimmingly. I was getting my way and he was signing up a client. No, there weren’t big bucks involved. But before I left his office, I promised I would send him clients as his English is good and he understands customer service. He even has a Blackberry and said he would email me as soon as my checks and credit card arrived. 

Americans are used to banks begging for their business. French banks and, I’m told, banks in the U.K., are more cautious. Bankers are on the lookout for people wanting to launder money. If a cash deposit is made in excess of 10,000€, the rule is that it must be reported to the French banking authorities.

With all the awful news about the economy, frozen credit, and big-time scams, it never occurred to me that not having a checkbook would be a major disaster in my life or might even be related to the awful news. But it was and it could be. 

Even so, the day was a success, if you believe two out of three ain’t bad. I not only have a front tooth but a bank account as well as a private banker. The phone line is still on hold and in the system. The reality is that it probably wouldn’t have been any easier had I been in the U.S. Since I’m here, I might as well believe that.

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Posted in Paris |

Are B&Bs viable business travel lodging alternatives?

Written by admin on February 26, 2009 – 8:53 pm -

Looking for less expensive places to stay when traveling on business?  All you need to do is access the Internet and you’ll find thousands of listings for B&Bs.

These are no longer exclusively delegated to Mom and Pop country homes that have a few extra rooms where cityfolk can escape from downtown pressures. You know the type: rooms with four poster beds, lots of country prints and a delicious breakfast served with homemade breads and jams. The host family generally hovers and serves as guides with a vast amount of information about the area that they’re delighted to share.

There’s a new trend. B&Bs in major cities are mushrooming and many of the owners are doing their best to cater to business travelers. Some business travelers think they’re the answer. Others wouldn’t go near them.

For example, one road warrior says he always shies away from them for work related travel because he needs a certain amount of anonymity. The management consultant explains, “During breakfast, I don’t really want to chat about homemade scones. I’ve got to get my mind/notes together for that day’s meetings.”

Others are converts who opt for B&Bs over hotels even though they might not be substantially less expensive than inexpensive hotels or motels.

But, there are certain requirements and an increasing number of B&B owners are willing to supply them.  The economy is tough for everyone.

Here are a few things people cite as priorities when opting for B&Bs:
1. Location
2. Easy access to public transportation
3- Free WiFi
4- Use of a printer and a photocopy machine
5- Good beds
6- TV’s in the room with English language channels
7- Good showers with lots of hot water

When it comes to breakfast, some business people say they prefer having the option of self-service and being able to carry it away rather than sitting down at a communal table.

Other necessities:
24-hour-a-day access to the premises without disturbing others.
Being able to book on-line and pay with a credit card.

Some people do appreciate the coziness of B&Bs plus the ability to connect with others. One friend stays at them when she’s attending conventions. She’s willing to walk up to 20 minutes and likes returning to a smaller place after she’s spent the day being jostled by too many people in a convention hall. She’s quick to say it’s nice to be able to have a drink in her temporary home’s living room and relax. In addition, she’s met some nice people.

The B&B concept is growing in popularity. Ten years ago, there weren’t any in Central Paris. Now there are hundreds.

What’s your take?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Thailand wants tourists and will go a long way to attract them

Written by admin on February 24, 2009 – 8:55 pm -

AirAsia, Southeast Asia’s top budget carrier, is giving away 100,000 “free” tickets to Thailand to support the nation’s tourist industry that was badly impacted last year when the Bangkok airport was closed because of political demonstrations.

“Get Your Baht To Thailand” is the theme of this aggressive marketing campaign that’s being sponsored by the airline in conjunction with the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Tickets are available until March 31 on AirAsia’s official site. The airline operates approximately four hundred international flights between South Asia and China and nearly that many within Thailand each week.

Free is not always free. First, you’ll have to get yourself to an Asian city where you can climb aboard one of the airline’s flights. Second, passengers will be responsible for airport taxes and an administration fee. But AirAsia has waived fuel surcharges.

Surf the Internet for hotels and resorts in Thailand and there are an amazing number that are practically giving rooms and extras away. If you have the urge to go and the money, you’ll get the most bang for your buck and return having experienced a special culture — or simply vegged out on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

How I’d love to go.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

What are senior executives doing to save on travel expenses?

Written by admin on February 23, 2009 – 8:57 pm -

With the economy at an all time low since the depression, what are corporate executives doing to cut costs and still generate business? If they’re going to ask staff members to hold back, many believe they should set an example.

Many executives have adopted the mantra that they need to spend money as if it’s their own. If it is, now’s not the time to flaunt it even if they have it.

The days of chartering private jets are on hold unless there’s no way you can get from here to there without spending days away from the office in the process of competing for a mega-buck contract.

Some executives justify flying business class if they can depart early in the morning and sleep all the way to their destination with the proviso the aircraft’s seats are sufficiently comfortable. More than one person states he or she takes the first flight departing New York City for Los Angeles or San Francisco and returns after dinner (on the West Coast) essentially packing two days into one.

Other road warriors have resorted to using frequent-flier miles to upgrade (if they can). No more accumulating them as a perk for family vacations. Now’s the time to utilize affinity/airline programs, hotel programs and other incentive programs such as credit card points.

Try to avoid last minute travel since it tends to be more expensive especially if you lack flexibility when it comes to the date and the time. Book as early as possible if you know of an upcoming trip. Some business travelers might stay over a Saturday night if the meeting is on Friday and the destination is interesting. But few bosses insist that employees do so, since they respect that people need weekends to be with their families. Now’s not the time to add additional stress to marriages which invariably are already experiencing pressure.

Executives appear to be unanimous about analyzing whether or not the trip is essential. They may prefer face-to-face meetings. But frequently there are times a conference call will suffice.

Where entertainment/meals are valuable in building and nurturing relationships, executives say they’ll continue to wine and dine. But they no longer feel it’s essential to impress people by entertaining at the newest or most expensive restaurant in town.

Other money savers: Stay in the company’s best rated hotel that’s as close as possible to office where the meetings are taking place, and if possible, walk rather than taxi. Savvy travelers try to stay in the same hotel group to amass points that can be converted into free room nights.

Some people are staying at mid-major hotels, making sure the value they’re getting matches their business needs. An executive explained, “Once we’re in a conference room for meetings, we can’t tell whether the room is in the Ritz or a Marriott Courtyard or, for that matter, whether we’re in Fort Lauderdale or Fort Worth.” Try to group trips, especially if international travel is involved. Intra-Europe travel usually can be booked relatively inexpensively.

It’s a whole new and challenging world in the realm of travel cutbacks. How are you coping?

Karen Fawcett is president BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Big savings at luxury hotels — uncovering surprising bargains

Written by admin on February 19, 2009 – 8:59 pm -

The time has come to get down and dirty when it comes to saving money when traveling for business. The faltering economy is enough to give most people hives. How and where to save money has become a major factor.

Hotel consultant Michael Matthews, a frequent contributor to JoeSentMe advises people to set their sights higher rather than lower. “Hotels at the bottom of the lodging ladder are doing fine because travelers, who normally stay in the mid-tier properties are being forced to downgrade. Mid-tier properties are hurting too because their rooms are not being filled by travelers dropping down from the five-star rung. Why? There are far fewer hotels in the top tier. Therefore fewer travelers downgrading to the middle tier.”

Matthews says that, “luxury hotels at the five-star level are currently hemorrhaging cash. Their revenue per available room, a crucial measure of financial health, is off 16 to 20 percent. And occupancy rates have plunged to the 50 percent level.” As a result, luxury hotels are discounting and cutting rates like there’s no tomorrow. (And for some of them, there may not be a tomorrow.)”

Always a skeptic, I decided to test Mr. Matthews’ premise. After surfing the Internet’s many many hotel booking sites, I was amazed by some of the prices that are currently available. Even in Manhattan, rooms in super-deluxe hotels are costing out at less than $250 per night.

If you’re somewhat flexible and (even better) can book at the last minute, you may be able to score a room in a “palace” hotel for less than $200. Hotels need to keep rooms occupied so they aren’t forced to fire staff members. Something of something is better than a whole lot of nothing.

Travel agents who work closely with specific hotels may be able to find rooms at a fraction of the cost of the quoted rack rate. For that matter, anyone who pays the full rate now (unless there’s a special event taking place and a limited number of available rooms), should have his or her heads examined.

Wondering if French hoteliers would be receptive to negotiating, I called one of Paris’s top hotels and spoke with the General Manager. He said that some hotels are opting to be rated with one (or more) fewer stars that are awarded by the Ministry of Tourism. Jean-Jacques explained hotels that as a consequence, hotels are liable for paying lower taxes to the French government. In addition, many corporations don’t want their personnel staying at the most expensive hotel in the city.

One friend, Arthur, who spends a great deal of time in Paris, has negotiated a rate of $225 per night at one the Paris’s most prestigious hotels. Dinner for two people in the dining room costs considerably more than that. Arthur guarantees 100 room-nights per year and pays the total amount each January. As a result, he’s treated like a king and is usually upgraded to a suite and generally the same one. He concedes that he’s shuffled to a deluxe room during the fashion shows.

What happens if he doesn’t need to be in Paris all of that time? He says that even if that’s the case, it still costs less than booking a room as needed. Last year, he gave two sets of friends wedding gifts of five nights each at “his” hotel. They were thrilled.

Have you discovered any money saving hotel secrets? I was thinking B&B’s were the solution. But this is an intriguing idea.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

At business lunch, who picks up the tab these days?

Written by admin on February 16, 2009 – 9:02 pm -

The International Herald Tribune ran an article this past weekend about a new dance that’s taking place. At the power lunch, the check is kryptonite. Clearly not everyone is frequenting the Beverly Hill Hotel. But entertaining budgets have come under scrutiny during these difficult economic times.

There are occasions when you have to spend big bucks to close a deal. But it’s time to be creative and make subtle cutbacks. Be sure you factor in cultural mores when conducting business in other countries.

Most people believe the person who does the inviting should pick up the tab. But they’re are looking for less expensive options. Some suggest patronizing a favorite restaurant and asking the owner or the manager for a discount since times are tough. The hope is that some members of the group will return once they’ve eaten there so it may serve as public relations for future business.

A business owner with whom I spoke said he doesn’t want to give the impression that money is no object when businesses are so bottom-line conscious.

Others suggested a pre-fixed lunch menu with limited choices. When it’s a large group, would the restaurant be willing to comp one or two of the group? Or throw in free desserts and coffee?

Another thought – there’s no mandate business has to be done over lunch. How about breakfast or mid-morning coffee? Another option is having a catered lunch sent into the office and eating (and discussing business) in the conference room.

Some say they’re inviting business guests to lunch in a pub. One caveat: Be sure your table is situated in an area where you can hear people speak and diners don’t leave with headaches.

If you’re entertaining an out-of-town colleague or a potential client, inviting them to dinner at your home may be one way to make a friend forever. Before doing so, be sure it’s an inviting and conducive environment. If there are children running around the dinner table, your good intentions may end up going down the tubes…and fast.

What advice can you offer as to how to entertain without declaring bankruptcy?  This is war.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

A Valentine’s Day full of love without the expense

Written by admin on February 12, 2009 – 9:04 pm -

Some couples traditionally take off for the weekend or go on a mini-vacation to celebrate Valentine’s Day. They may just go to a local inn but it’s become a part of the dating/mating tradition.

Or they might eat at a favorite restaurant to toast their love. This is especially true in Paris where many feature special hearts and flowers menus, accompanied with pink champagne, so diners may express their adoration. Or perhaps their intentions.

Holiday meals invariably carry a monetary premium. Even though there’s usually a more limited menu, the fact that it’s a special event is license to charge more. Ah, the heart-shaped cake and the complementary chocolates. Women dress up and the dining room is decorated for the occasion. Perhaps there’s a string quartet.

This year may be the time to hold back but not delete the day from the calendar. Plan a festive dinner at home. But you’ll need to add some thought as how to make the evening memorable.

Begin your evening with a very French Kir Royale. Some gourmets feel the drink should be made with cassis (a raspberry liqueur) and good champagne. Most people can’t tell the difference between champagne and a sparkling wine when it’s mixed with cassis. But your bill at the liquor store will be very different. If you’re wine drinkers, buy a nice bottle, but it doesn’t have to be a vintage one with dust on it.

Ask the wine specialist to recommend one that’s moderately priced and will compliment to your meal. Prepare a favorite dinner but make it special by using good china and good glasses. If you don’t have them, buy two thin-rimmed wine glasses. It’s a lot less expensive than going out and every home should have a pair. Crate & Barrel, Ikea and comparable stores have moderately priced goblets that will do the job. No need to buy crystal stemware in this economy.

Candles do wonders when it comes to making rooms more romantic. Buy red and white ones at the grocery store; glimmering votive candles add to the ambiance.

Dress for the occasion as if you were going out. Differentiate this evening from others.

Pick out your favorite CDs and have them waiting. You may want a couple to which you can dance. Who knows?

For dessert, chocolate cupcakes with red icing and some sparkles feel festive and can satisfy your sweet tooth.

With the downturn of the economy, this is a time to be creative. Rather than sending a vase filled with long-stemmed red roses, consider a red box of dried rose petals containing a romantic card or note.

Even though the economy has never been worse since the depression, do you think Michele and Barack Obama won’t be celebrating Valentine’s Day? I’ll wager they’ll be doing something special.

How do you plan to express your affection?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis. She’s an incurable romantic.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

How to take a cheap vacation and not feel cheated

Written by admin on February 10, 2009 – 9:06 pm -

OK  — if you’re not feeling the economic pinch, you’re in a minority. But that doesn’t mean everyone has to put a kibosh on traveling.

You simply have to be more creative and unearth the travel deals to be had.

If you’re a cruise person, your plate is full of choices. If you’re able to be flexible, depart from a port where there are lots of ships (e.g. Miami or Fort Lauderdale), leave on short notice, don’t insist on a state room and forgo cancellation insurance; there are plenty of cruises that cost less than $100 per day.

Travel agents are often your best resource. They have access to deals (and know which ones are worth it) that many travelers don’t. There’s no reason a cheap trip has to be a bad one.

There are plenty of great bargains if Hawaii is your cup of tea. Rather than reducing room rates, hotels and travel suppliers are offering free nights, free breakfasts, room credits, airfare credits and more.

Condo hotels offer kitchenettes so you can have breakfast in the room, prepare lunch to go when you are off exploring and only eat dinner out. Some units have barbecue grills for guests’ use. Invest in a supermarket Styrofoam cooler and pack sandwiches and drinks to tide you over during your days’ explorations.

Now’s the time to cash in accrued credit card hotel points and air miles and use them to get discounts on your stays and flights. Who knows what they’ll be worth next week and why let them go to waste?

All-inclusive packages are good if you want to pay for everything before departure and know what to expect regarding costs. Even if you splurge and eat a dinner or two out, you’re bound to be ahead financially. But factor those expenses into your budget.

Another idea: Take a walking or cycling holiday. Pitch a tent, stay in campgrounds or in inexpensive bed and breakfasts. Pack your own lunch before setting off. There’s nothing wrong in most places with tap water and the price is right. At the end of the day, you’ll be so tired you’ll only want to eat and go to bed. Find places that serve cheap pizza or pasta.

You’ll return home fitter, healthier and less stressed and will have experienced natural beauty close up as you walk or cycle each day. You’ll also realize you don’t need a lot of money to really have a good time.

These are just a few ideas. Sure, there are home exchanges and other ways to stretch travel dollars. I have friends who live in Paris and are playing tourists and exploring different neighborhoods each day this week. Plus, they are taking daylong excursions and returning each evening to their apartment to eat and sleep.

I am eying last-minute package deals that come flying across my computer screen. There are some trips to Morocco and Tunisia that are increasingly appealing as Paris’s winter drags on.

For those of you with travel fever, what are you doing to get up and go without breaking the bank?

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

If you only could travel with one electronic device, what would it be?

Written by admin on February 5, 2009 – 9:08 pm -

I’d be lost without my computer, camera and cell phone. But having recently splurged for a Blackberry Bold 9000, I can see that life is changing.

I’ve finally found a quad-band world phone that works in more than 200 countries for phone calls and more than 150 countries for data. I’m no longer unreachable in South Korea and Japan.

The camera actually functions and I can zap photos to my Facebook page. The phone also supports instant messaging services such as AIM and functions wherever there’s Wi-Fi. If only I’d had it during my last trip to Laos, I would have been a happy camper.

I’m able to surf the Internet, conduct online transactions, download documents and listen to music.

Being a technical neophyte, I must admit I spent many many hours on a support line with an employee of Blackberry’s manufacturer, Research in Motion. He was based in Singapore, was from Manila and had a Spanish last name and the patience of Job. It’s a whole new world of communications.

I’ve found my electronic soul mate even though I was lobbying Santa for an iPhone. The iPhone has so many applications and reading the New York Times online was a pleasure. But when push came to shove, I had trouble with the keyboard when it came to typing. Perhaps its because I’m a member of the older generation.

So many people I know are converts and wouldn’t live without theirs. They love the functionality and being able to download iTunes and the stability of the Unix-based operating system no matter where they are.

The iPhone’s travel kit allows people to charge their phones anywhere in the world and you can share your phone photos on Flickr and, naturally, Facebook. This is the world of social networking and all of this new and improved technology enables people to have instant gratification.

Again, I am so far from being an electronics expert that I suspect there are still people performing inside my television screen. Please enlighten me and tell me which mobile technology you’re opting for and why?

Who knows – I may spring for another cell phone in the  next decade?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

5 tips to stretch your business travel dollars

Written by admin on February 2, 2009 – 9:11 pm -

Some people are putting traveling on hold and not going any place that isn’t 100 percent essential.

Welcome to the world of video conferencing and talking via Skype or other programs such as Go to Meeting.

But there are times when business people need to sit down together and make personal contact. The challenge is how to make meetings more cost effective.

Here are some options:

1. Surf the Internet for the least expensive airfare and decide whether or not you’re willing to stay at one of the suggested hotels and rent a car (if needed). Package deals often save money.

2. Some people are opting to stay at less expensive hotels. “Residence” ones, where you can eat some meals or have a drink without going to the bar or the restaurant are cost effective. More than likely, there’s a grocery/liquor store within striking distance.

If you’re traveling on business, ask your client to suggest a hotel. If it’s the pits, you can book another. Make sure it’s close to where you’ll be conducting meetings or make sure there is direct public transportation.

3. The days of having a car and driver waiting have become an extreme luxury. Ask the receptionist to arrange for a taxi to meet you when you’re leaving a meeting.

Some people suggest their colleagues or clients meet them at the airport, and/or pick them up and drop them off each day at the hotel. It saves on rental cars and taxi fares. Plus, it insures you get to meetings at the scheduled hour. In addition, the commuting time can be used to discuss business.

4. If you have to host a meal, arrange to hold it at a restaurant and offer your guests a fixed menu with two to three choices for each course. That way, you’ll be spared from having to ante up for the person who decides he or she craves lobster. Plus, it saves time not having to discuss who’s eating what.

Some people pack their own food ranging from power bars to pre-packaged food. That saves money and can be eaten on the run. There’s nothing like having nuts or trail mix to satisfy middle-of-the night munchies. Whatever you do, stay away from the mini-bar.

5. One friend told me she is now willing to share a room at a conference. Sue said she would never have considered that before but it’s a real cost saver and she’s met some terrific people. I wouldn’t share a room with a stranger — but that’s me.

Welcome to 2009 and being creative when it comes to saving money. Your job may depend on it as well as whether or not you win the contract.

What compromises are you willing to make when you take business trips?

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |