Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

New FlyBe routes to Brittany

FlyBe announced yesterday that following the acquisition of BA Connect it's starting a number of new routes in 2007.

Of particular interest to me of course are the new low-cost routes they're offering to Brittany:
  • Manchester - Brest (three times a week from 5th April) for £34.99
  • Manchester - Rennes (four times a week from 6th April) for £34.99
  • Exeter - Rennes (three times a week from 8th May) for £31.99
  • Belfast - Rennes (once a week from 26th May) for £39.99
Flight prices are as usual 'from' these headline rates (so usual message to book early to get these prices), are one way and include taxes and charges.

FlyBe also announced that they're recommencing the Southampton to Angers route from 26th March.

Rennes is only an hour's drive from our French Holiday Home, Brest is slightly further at about 2 hours and Angers 3.

I've now added these new routes to the travel options section of our website, if I've counted right there are now something like 30 different budget airline routes to Brittany!

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

French petrol prices

One of the nicer aspects of driving in France - apart from the generally straigher and emptier roads - is the difference in fuel prices. It always used to be the case that French diesel was cheaper than in the UK (Diesel is taxed much less in France), but unleaded was the other way round (i.e. France more expensive than the UK), and this in turn lead to a much higher adoption of diesel cars on the continent than in the UK.

Nowadays with increasing UK fuel taxes the situation has changed and all petrol prices are now cheaper on the continent than in the UK.

I've recently found a handy website from MINEFI (Ministère de l’Économie, des finances et de l’industrie) that lists current and historical French fuel prices and compares them to the rest of the EU:The headline you can take away from this is that French autoroute unleaded prices are similar to UK prices, but that it's about 10% cheaper to buy your fuel from a French supermarket than to buy it on the autoroute. Diesel prices are even cheaper in France, about 30% less than in the UK.

Personally we always try to go over to France with our fuel tank empty and fill up at the nearest supermarket, then refill the tank again just before we board the ferry.

To help our guests we've included in our holiday cottage travel directions instructions as to how to find the petrol stations that are nearest to the major ferry ports.

Spare a thought for the Dutch though, they come out as being even more expensive than the UK for unleaded fuel prices.

Update 7/7/08: The MINEFI website's not been updated since January 2007, see my more recent article on the Prix des Carburants site for current French fuel prices, route planning and more!

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

'Websafe" colour palettes

I've been working on a new page for our website (coming soon, watch this space!) and wanted some of the text to be a different colour from the standard darkblue-ish colour (like this) that we use throughout the site.

Here's some recommended sites that depict the "websafe" 216 colour palettes (which are guaranteed to display properly in all browsers):
  • Web-source present a nice single page with the different hue's arranged in large banks
  • Lynda Weinman presents the palettes in both hue and brightness sequence
  • And probably my favourite, Visibone show a "wheel" (see below) with similar tonal colours arranged together so you can easily choose complementary colours

I've chosen a matching green and purple colours which blend well with the blue text of the rest of the site.

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Dynamic website content - a custom TV listings guide for programmes about France

According to many sources (including Wikipedia's definition of Web 2.0), the next big "internet thing" is dynamic content and social networking, blogs, etc.

One of the PC applications I've been using for some time (many years in fact) is the DigiGuide TV listing tool. It sits in the corner and reminds me when I should watch my favourite programmes (as if of course I've the time to actually watch any TV!).

DigiGuide have launched an 'instant search' facility that generates dynamic TV listing content for your own website so I thought in this Web 2 world I'd have a go at trying to produce a customised TV listing panel that shows forthcoming programmes with 'France' or 'Brittany' in the title. It's fairly easy to build the search query to obtain the programmes you want using boolean AND, OR and NOT operators so I tried searching for france or (brittany and not (spears or murphy) ).

My sample search worked fine in my browser but when I tried embedding it in a Blog article it all went pear-shaped as Blogger doesn't allow you to have JavaScript content on a blog entry.
I am allowed to put dynamic content on the sidebar, but after testing it out I decided I didn't like it:

Oh well so much for the dynamic world of Web 2.0

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

I don't like the new VillaRenters/RentalSystems terms and conditions

I wrote in January about using VillaRenters to advertise our french holiday home. At the time I liked their model of charging on the basis of results - i.e. they charge a commission on actual rental sales they make.

Although I received a VillaRenters booking only a week after listing our holiday home on their site, I found we didn't get any further enquiries, even after they relaunched and changed their name to RentalSystems.

So in May or so I decided to boost my 'RentalSystems index' (which is how they rank different properties) by putting all the bookings through their site, even the ones that had contacted us directly. This had the advantage of one central booking calender, it automated the process of requesting deposit and final payments, and provided a mechanism for customers to write reviews of the Gite afterwards.

This seems to have been successful, we've a much higher rating as a result, and we've had one further booking for this year (from Ireland) and another for August 2007 as a result.

Then when I logged in to RentalSystems a couple of weeks ago I found that they'd changed their terms and conditions. I emailed them on the way they did this before, but the same approach was used this time of simply listing a new set of terms and conditions on login, no details were given as to what paragraphs or points had changed, and I had no choice but to accept the new terms and conditions before I could login or do anything else on their site. Last time they changed their conditions they were minor changes so it didn't really bother me.

This time I find that they have withdrawn the option for renters to send payments directly to me (by cheque) and are instead insisting that all payments are made by debit or credit card through their site. Whilst I'm OK with this for rentals that they have generated as it makes it easier for them to collect the payment and to ensure that I pay the commision I owe, I'm not at all happy about this enforced change for rental bookings that I've collected myself because every credit/debit card payment incurs a 1.5% handling fee.
This change in terms now means that I have to make all customers that I put through RentalSystems pay by card which effectively means a tax of 1.5% on all my bookings. Although cheque payments mean a bit of extra legwork for us it does mean we get the customer's money straight away and in the 30+ customers we've had in 2005 and 2006 they've been happy with paying by cheque as well.

I've emailed RentalSystems again tonight to ask if there is any possibility of them re-introducing the facility for me to continue receiving cheque payments for my own bookings and we'll see what happens. If they stick to their new terms and conditions though I will probably have to stop using them as my "central booking engine". I did have some concerns about the wording in some of the emails their system produced (not being quite how I would have put it) and this new change for me is just a step too far.

Rant over!

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The builder's hard at work

Whilst over in France the week before last I went to the Mairie's office and collected the Declaration de Travaux that was approved (but they'd neglected to tell me about).

In the end it's quite a simple and boring piece of paper simply saying that my works are approved, and that's it.

Had a number of chats with the builder during the week which has ended up with me agreeing more work for him to do in the second house within what may (one day!) become a second Brittany holiday home to rent out. That's somewhat in the future right now and the priority is on doing some of the work before the next rental season catches up on us. I absolutely want to get the work done in the "quiet" season and not have any of it done whilst guests are staying next year.

So the upshot of this is that the builder has agreed to take down the ceiling which the previous owners had put in the second lounge and re-do it properly. The previous owner had laid double skin sheets of chipboard across the old oak beams and then put floor joists on top to level up the floor of the bedrooms above. Of course the chipboard has sagged between the oak beams and the beams are not level so the crossways floor joists vary in thickness from 4inches to 2 inches.

He's taking all this chipboard out (which doesn't look great) and properly battening and plasterboarding it out. I want to keep as much of the oak beams visible (which are some 18 inches thick) as we can and the builder's promised to do this for us. I've seen some of his previous work and it looks good so am looking forward to seeing the end result. Glad I'm not over there dealing with all the mess from the old ceiling though right now ...


Saturday, November 18, 2006

Happy Birthday dear domain name

Happy Birthday dear domain name
Happy Birthday dear domain name
Happy birthday dear domain name
Happy birthday tooo yoooo!

Bring out the cake, candles and decorations, today's the second birthday for, our holiday home website domain!

Before you start thinking that I must be really sad by marking off memorable dates such as this in the diary, the only reason I know this is that I've just had to pay the domain name renewal fee for another year.
'Twas on this very eve two years ago that we spent most of the evening looking at differing domain name alternatives before we settled on the one we have now. We'd started out thinking of (the hamlet where the Gite's located), or; but all of these had already been taken. A bit of lateral thinking and we ended up with which has proven to be a really good memorable name and one we've been really happy with.

At the time we not sure we liked the name so we actually bought as well but's proven to be so popular we've not bothered with the other domain name and I'm actually going to let it lapse.

As I've blogged about before, our domain name and website are both hosted with which charge a quite reasonable £8.99 (+VAT) for the domain name and £19.08 (+ VAT) for the annual hosting fee. We've been very happy with both the performance of the website and the customer service given on the couple of occasions we've had to contact them - they're certainly recommended.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Holiday rental scam warning

I received an email warning earlier in the week from one of the sites I advertise on, which I thought worth passing on ...

Several holiday home owners have contacted us regarding a scam booking for a "Christian Summit" conference held near their holiday home.

One owner wrote to us: "A Rev Ken Bryan from the UK made a booking for 11 days in May for a Christian Summit in Rotorua. I became suspicious when both his grammar and spelling were inadequate for such a person. Also a phone call came from him at 4.00 am with a middle eastern accent. He then requested a conversion of the rental into pounds and sent a cheque for 3x the correct amount, requesting the balance be returned by immediate TT to a bank account in the UK..... I cancelled the reservation without any loss and have not heard from them again. Upon checking in Rotorua there were no Christian summits being held."

Fortunately I've not seen this particular scam although I do occasionally receive enquiries that "don't seem right" - usually they're asking to accomodate far more people than we have room for, the English is incredibly poor, or it's for what looks like a scammers email address like
What I usually do is register for a one-month disposable email address with and reply back using the temporary reply-to address - that way if it is a scam then I haven't given out my real email address and contributed even further to the mountain of spam and junk mail I already receive.

The email then went on to explain that they've setup a blog to collate reported scam messages (which for some reason has now been suspended by wordpress) and ended with some useful advice to all holiday home owners:
  • Use caution and common sense when dealing with any financial transaction
  • NEVER wire funds to a distant buyer, via Western Union or any other carrier
  • Be wary if the other party wants to use an escrow service such as BidPay or Squaretrade
  • NEVER give out personal financial information (bank account number, SSN, eBay/PayPal info, etc.)
  • Trust your instincts, and always remember the most important rule -- BUYER BEWARE

So far we've been OK (or maybe just lucky) and all our guests have been genuine - keeping fingers crossed that it remains that way.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Mort pour La France

Remembrance Poppy
As This French Life comments, last weekend much of France paused to remember those that had died for their country (or Mort pour La France as it says on the memorials in most villages).

Unlike in the UK the French remember their fallen on the 11th November (not the nearest Sunday), so Saturday 11th was an official French public holiday.

Knowing how much the French love their family life and that most shops close at lunchtime and on Sunday, I was quite suprised to find that although all the small shops were shut on the Saturday, most supermarkets and large stores were open; either for the whole day, or for the afternoon.
I hope this isn't a sign of a French trend towards UK-style consumerism and 24-by-7 shopping - I love the laid back lifestyle, lack of rush and time to relax.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Just back from France after a week's working holiday

Last week I was over at our Brittany holiday home, taking over much of the furniture that's accumulated at home and also the furniture we collected from Wales at last month.

As usual my trusty Primera was completely full to the brim (and on the roof as well) with furniture and although it only does 25mpg when this laden it's still suprisingly agile and will still do 80+mph without any complaints.
In all I took
  • A double bed
  • Two single bed bases
  • A bedside cabinet
  • A bedroom chest of drawers
  • Microwave oven
  • Pots, pans, cutlery and plates
  • 20 shrubs and plants for the garden
  • A kids bike
  • 3 headboards (for the beds)
  • A pile of wood left over from when we had our UK garden terraced (that I chopped up for the fire in France)
  • 3 bedside lights and a table lamp
  • Tools for the week
  • Some more toys for the garden and indoor kids games

  • ... and of course me!
I had quite a successful week whilst over there (and I'll write some more about what I did later). Of course getting returning to work after a week's absence meant I had an enourmous pile of emails to deal with - 170 emails at work and 330 at home (of which a good 200+ must have been spam). Included in there was three booking enquiries which have so far translated into two holiday bookings, for December 06 and June 07 - so that was one nice part of returning home (plus seeing the family as well of course)!

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Firefox 2 released

It must be the season for it; after IE7's launch two weeks ago, the new Firefox 2 was launched a week later.

Details of Firefox 2's new features are on the Mozillazine and it's available to download from Mozilla in numerous languages.

I took it for a quick test drive on the weekend and like Firefox 1.5 it's pretty rock solid stable. Much of the user interface is identical to earlier versions although there's a cool autocomplete on the search engine box and some of the extensions I used to use (e.g. to autosave tab sessions, to provide a drop-down list of all the tab contents, and an Undo Close Tab feature enables re-opening of previously closed tab) are all now provided out of the box so I removed the now redundant extensions. Other big new feature is anti-phishing as per IE7 and Opera 9.1 - good moves to make the web a safer place.

One improvement I noticed over IE7 was that printing now prints any background colours set (the fact that IE6, IE7 and Firefox 1.5 don't has been a bugbear of mine as I used background colours heavily on our Gite availability page to show the different rental rates and whether dates were booked or not - this simply doesn't come out if you print the page in anything other than Firefox 2).

One thing I didn't like was that if you've got a lot of tabs open (like I always seem to do - as I'm typing there are 30 open tabs in my browser) then Firefox 2 won't shrink the tab size below a certain size and instead shows left/right scroll buttons. I personally prefer the control options provided by the 'Tab Mix Plus' extension which just keeps on shrinking the tab button size. Unfortunately TMP doesn't work with Firefox 2 right now (and neither does the 'Download Manager Tweak' extension) - I guess these'll be fixed soon now that Firefox 2 is out and being used in anger.

In all I still stick to my earlier point of view that I prefer Firefox over IE7, new features and general usability of Firefox 2 still put it ahead of the Redmond camp.