Sunday, May 9, 2010

Aid for Ash Cloud Affected Travelers

In light of my own recent experience, I thought it might be handy to dedicate a post to enlightening links and info for those affected by the ongoing volcanic eruption in Iceland and the resulting clouds of ash that hinder, or otherwise hamper, air travel. It's probably even more beneficial to be up on some of this stuff before your trip is even booked.

★ On what to know before you go:

List o' lessons from the Practical Traveler at The New York Times.

★ On affordable accommodations (i.e., free):

★ On European airspace (the latest):

★ On reimbursement from the airlines:

"Today thousands of consumers affected by flight disruptions are still rightly clamoring for their rights to be respected in practice," said EU Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli.

"My message to them is: do not hesitate to claim what is yours. If an airline or a tour operator continues to ignore your rights, a European Consumer Centre near you can be your next port of call," he added. Source.

On 4 May 2010, the network of European Consumer Centres (ECC-Net) published a practical complaint package, which is designed to help consumers affected by recent flight disruptions to exercise their consumer rights guaranteed under EU laws. The package includes a standard complaint letter, contact details of all airlines and other practical advice. Source.

Your rights as an air passenger apply to flight cancellations or delays caused by the volcanic ash cloud. They include (see source).

If the canceled flight has been purchased as part of a package holiday, you have more extended rights. If you have not yet started your trip you have the right to obtain a refund for the entire package (including e.g. the flight and the hotel) and if you are stranded you have the right to assistance on the spot.

You can find more information here (see source).

If you are affected by the situation, you should contact your airlines or travel agents first. If you booked a package holiday you can download a complaint form here (see source).

If you only booked an airline ticket, you can find a similar complaint form here (see source).

You should first send your complaint to your airline or your travel agent. You can search for the contact details of your airline's head office in the membership directory of these airline associations (see source).

If you are experiencing problems having your consumer rights respected, you are advised to contact a European Consumer Centre, a national consumer organization or a national enforcement body.

A European Consumer Centre (ECC) supported by the European Commission exists in every EU country as well as in Iceland and Norway. All the ECCs are working together to ensure a coordinated response to the crisis. Your local ECC can help and advise you. Find a European Consumer Centre near you.

If you do not reach an agreement with your airline or your travel agent and the value of your claim is less than 2000 €, you can under some conditions use the small claims procedure to resolve the dispute. Your local European Consumer Centre can give you more information and advice on this procedure. Source.

★ On being stuck in Paris (yay and yikes, both):

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Paris is for Survivors

In celebration of my (gasp) 35th birthday, I'd planned (over a year ago!) to spend four splendid spring days in Paris and another 12 on the French Riviera, using Nice as a home base from which to flit from one picturesque hill- or seaside town to the next, with a final night in Paris before flying back home the following afternoon. Sounded dreamy to me, too. Well, what was to be a dream trip come true morphed into a nightmare of sorts at 2AM on the dot, the day I was to depart.

Having been fully packed nearly a week before, I was looking forward to an easy-breezy crack-of-dawn departure. Wake up at 2AM with an hour to shower and dress before rolling out the door and catching my 3AM shuttle to the airport. Instead, I woke up at 2AM to a voicemail that my landlord had not received my April rent check (14 days into the month, at that point). The last time that happened, I got a notice on my door to "pay rent in 3 days or quit" (eviction proceedings would begin). So, as you might imagine, this is the last news I wanted to hear at 2AM the day I'm leaving the country for two+ weeks.

I frantically spent the next 50 minutes trying in vain (half because I was only half awake and the other half because online banking isn't what it should be and 24-hour customer support by phone isn't an offering where I bank) to get the matter sorted. The remaining 10 minutes I spent brushing my teeth, washing my face, and throwing on my clothes, sans shower. Sans shower before a 6AM flight, followed by a 5-hour layover (in Toronto), followed by (finally) the flight to Paris. That is many, many hours to be without a shower and in transit via the close-quarters airborne nastiness that is economy-class modern commercial aviation. Yuck! (I'm not the camping type, can you tell?)

At any rate, I finally got to Paris. But only by the grace of god, or rather, France, which had yet to close its air space due to the volcanic eruption in Iceland. In preparation for landing, our pilot announced that we'd taken a 1-hour and 300+ kilometer detour around "a cloud of volcanic ash" and that it hadn't been noted in the flight-tracking info that we could follow along with on our personal TV monitors, and he was sorry. We all just looked at each other like, whatever. So you cleared a cloud. Who cares? Just land the freaking plane already.

It wasn't until the following day when I began to receive wild emails from family and friends -- Did you make it? Are you stuck in Toronto? Why haven't you contacted us to let us know you're okay?!! -- that I realized the gravity of the situation; I hadn't seen the news or read the papers, as I was just trying to get over my jet lag and directly into vacation mode.

Mon dieu. What a Debbie Downer the impact of Iceland was, once I started tuning into the latest via TV and the Internet. It freaked me out. It killed vacation mode (which was already suffering due to the stress of my missing rent check). It jiggered with my travel plans.

Come day five, the day I was to fly to Nice, I'd come to find out my flight was canceled. Which, at that point, I was expecting. I'd spent several hours the day before at a train station to inquire about riding the rails down to Nice if air travel was not to be an option. In short, I came up short here as well because there was a train strike in the south of France in addition to train tickets being outlandishly expensive and in short supply per the strike and the airport closures across much of Europe.

And so, I embraced the reality that I would be stuck in Paris for the duration of my vacation. At which point I promptly got sick with a wicked cold (of course), requiring that I spend much of my first week at the hotel and in bed. And when it wasn't the jet lag or the cold or the stress of not knowing if my rent check would ever arrive or if the volcano would keep me in Paris indefinitely (how long should I wait before lining up a job?), it was problems with my back-up bank (a huge international bank with no listed number for Americans travelING (hint hint) overseas to call should their card be lost or stolen or whatever), suffering a semi-severe burn to my gums from a piping hot falafel, or other bodily ailments that would be TMI to detail here (even for open-book me).

In brief, I find it something of a miracle that I managed to enjoy myself at all. But then, I was in Paris. And Paris is, even under the worst of circumstances or annoyances, a pretty damn enjoyable place.

While the point of Nice was to experience something that is renown to be so very nice, it was also (and moreso) to see something new. Although I do love to return to favorite cities, I find that I take fewer and fewer photos upon my return trips because as I get to know a place more intimately, the familiarity does little to inspire fresh photography. Unfortunately, that's just the way it seems to work, for me. The more a place becomes home, the fewer images I make (just like at home). Which is why I had only planned to be in Paris for four days. Having gone to Venice the year before (where I've also been multiple times and twice for one month at a time), I was really (really) looking forward to the newness of Nice. It was going to be oh so nice, and would result in a glut of colorful and inspired new pictures. Something that I was in urgent need of, both professionally and personally.

But Nice was not to be. So I made a point in Paris to venture into corners of the city that I'd not seen before and to hit a few of the touristy spots or things-to-do that I'd always avoided like the proverbial plague. In desperate need of inspiration, I was now open to braving an evening (never a morning or an afternoon, per the hordes) at the Louvre. But although I even made it to Versailles (finally), I didn't get around to (finally) going up in the Eiffel Tower. And I must say, thank god I've already been to Paris on a number of occasions and wasn't looking forward to seeing or photographing the Eiffel Tower, or the Arch de Triomphe, or a handful of other monuments that scream "Paris" because it seemed as though they are all currently undergoing major restoration or maintenance work that detracts (and majorly) from the expected aesthetic awe.

In the end, I discovered a passion for the city's pretty portals. Of which Paris has no shortage. There are delicious doors in a rainbow of paints and patinas around every corner. And I have the pictures to prove it!

And while I would love to regale you with stories, I don't actually have that many. This trip was far from exciting, I think per the non-newness of Paris (for me). I did serendipitously meet more than my fair share of interesting or (purely) entertaining people, but those moments aren't nearly so worth recounting as the half-day spent with an old friend who just happened to be in town at the end of my trip.

After a leisurely lunch at La Grande Mosquée of Paris (wonderful Algerian food in an amazing setting that makes you feel a million miles away from France and transported directly to North Africa; can't recommend it highly enough, even just for mint tea in the garden), window shopping, treats-come-true from La Pâtisserie des Rèves, and just doing whatever, my friend and I decided to have dinner at Angelina's before taking advantage of the reduced crowds and fare offered up by the Louvre every Wednesday and Friday (the only way to see the Louvre, in my opinion; it's 6 Euros after 6PM and stays open until 10PM on these evenings).

With 19 Euro big salads (with the tangy mustard dressing, you can't go wrong; worth each and every Euro) and its world famous hot chocolate, Angelina's is an old (founded in 1903) and swanky joint on the ritzy Rue de Rivoli in the heart of Paris.

Wrapping up our meal and in mid-chat, my friend suddenly let loose a blood-curdling scream. I turned to look in the general direction where the horror seemed to be sourced, and witnessed a small mouse weaving its way frantically toward the wall and into a hole one table over from ours.

Lucky for Angelina's, they were closing in under 20 minutes and the palatially proportioned dining area wasn't overflowing as it is nearly every afternoon. Even still, there were plenty of people and after the scream, you could hear a pin drop. Several ladies at table near us asked what had so upset my companion, and they were visibly upset to learn it was rodent-related.

The best part was, perhaps, the manager's cool estimation of events (we're doing some renovation and construction work, and so there are mice, and you've already finished your meal, so why not just leave) and suggestion that we not mention it to anyone.

They say there's no such thing as a free lunch. Perhaps we noshed on mouse droppings and that's what made the salad so good, though I'm hoping not. I'm just glad the bill was forgiven, and get the feeling ours wasn't the first waived with regard to a Remy sighting. And while he did suggest we not recount our experience, we didn't shake on it or anything, so I can't feel too bad about going public with it here. Plus, there's no such thing as a free lunch (or dinner). For either party!

In closing I am happy to report that my rent check was finally received toward the tail end of my time in Paris. I had three whole days to enjoy without that hanging over my head, and with things looking pretty quiet on the volcano front. So that was nice.

What was not nice was the trek home. At the airport in Paris, I was asked to remove each and every item from my camera bag and place it in a plastic bin. Two DSLR bodies. Four lenses. Six external hard drives. And I don't know how many batteries and cords and memory cards. It was total bull merde, if you ask me. I thought that'd be the worst of it, but I had to empty my camera bag all over again in Montreal. Took nearly 40 minutes and if I hadn't sprinted to the gate directly after, I would have missed my connection to Toronto. As it was I got there right as they were announcing the final boarding call.

Toronto should have been a breeze. I had 2 hours to kill before my flight on to San Francisco. Sadly though, most of it was killed in customs. Air Canada flights had been delayed all day due to a reduced number of customs agents. The line was unreal. All said an done, the customs affair took a good hour and 20 minutes. Then there was security. I was starting to freak that I'd miss my flight home and be stuck in Canada for the night, but -- praise the lord -- the security agent I got was an angel. I simply said to him that I was a photographer and that my backpack was full of camera and camera-related gear and could he please allow it to go through the scanner without unpacking the contents. Whether because he was just a nice guy or because he could perhaps sense that I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he chipperly said sure. No problem.


That time-saver bought me just enough on the clock to buy a drink and a snack before boarding began. And it got even better. So many people were delayed or otherwise detained in the customs debacle that the flight was only half full, if that. I got an aisle seat, and between me and the nice man seated by the window (a fellow shutterbug with whom I shared a lovely conversation about travel and travel photography) was luxurious emptiness. Hassle-free security screening, awesome. But no middle-seat travel companion on the last long leg home? Priceless.

As for Nice, I hope it's still as nice as they say when I mange to (finally) get there. One day.

Update, Saturday, May 8, 2010: "The eruption of the glacier-capped volcano has shown no signs of stopping since it began belching ash April 13. It last erupted from 1821 to 1823." So, with no end to the eruption in sight, it appears that ash cloud related airport closures and flight delays, cancellations, or rerouting will continue. Indefinitely. Therefore, it's handy (if not of the utmost importance) to know your rights when your European travel plans fall through. And, ideally, know before you go!

Update, Sunday, May 9, 2010: I have an all ash cloud post now, which I will try to keep updated with fresh and relevant info; so long as the Icelandic volcano remains an issue to air travel.

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.


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