Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Hassle free and cheap foreign currency transfers with Moneybookers

One internet service that I've not written about before, but use several times a year for our French home is Moneybookers for transferring money to my French bank account.

Our French bank account is with La Poste (the French Post Office) and although we don't need lots of money in the account we do need to pay for direct debits and cheques such as electricity and water bills, council tax (taxe de habitation/taxe fonciers), pay our agents that look after the house, etc.

So periodically we need to transfer money over to France from our UK bank account.

If you go into a UK bank and ask them about transferring money over then you'll often get quoted a poor exchange rate and have to pay a £15 or £20 bank transfer fee. Given that we knew we'd need to transfer money over on a semi-regular basis we were keen to find a more cost effective manner and after a bit of searching came across Moneybookers which we've been using successfully for over 3 years now.

Here's how it works:

Moneybookers acts as an electronic bank which you can transfer money into and withdraw money out of. The clever bit is that it has interconnections to banks in 30 or so different countries so you can transfer money directly in and out of bank accounts in any of these countries for free. The list of countries directly supported is quite extensive and includes most of Europe including the UK, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal as well as USA, China, Brazil, India, Singapore, Australia, etc.

The fees vary slightly depending on the countries concerned but are almost all free to deposit money and either £1.30 or £2.40 to withdraw funds depending on whether you want the money transferring direct into a bank account or paid out by cheque. In addition any foreign currency exchange is converted at the European central bank daily interbank rate plus 0.95% - a considerably better rate than you would get from a high street bank.

Transferring money to my French bank account using moneybookers is a straight forward four step process:
1. From my UK bank account I firstly transfer the required funds into my moneybookers account as a manual standing order payment
2. When the money arrives in moneybookers I receive an email telling me my account has been credited (this is usually 3 or 4 days after I sent it)
3. I then login to moneybookers and request a withdrawal of my moneybookers account balance into my French bank account
4. About 4 or 5 days later the moneybookers withdrawal arrives in my French bank account

Setting up the service is pretty straight forward, here's a summary of the process:

Once you've registered your moneybookers account you need to create a standing order from the source bank account (which in my case is the UK but can be any of the 30 or so countries moneybookers operates in).

Click 'Upload' and you'll be presented with four different ways of crediting your moneybookers account - I use Bank Transfer (which is free) or you can use Maestro/Switch which is also free, or credit/debit card (1.9% fee):
Uploading funds to moneybookers

Use these details to setup a standing order from your UK bank account - which must be in your name (for compliance with anti-money laundering regulations).

Next you need to setup the corresponding withdrawal facility within moneybookers to your French bank account (or wherever else in the world you want):

Click 'My Account', then 'profile' then 'Manage' (next to 'List of bank accounts'), and 'Add'.

On the next screen choose the country your destination bank account is in (so France in my case) and enter the bank's details:

Moneybookers: add new account details

Click 'Next', then enter your account details:

Moneybookers: add bank account details

And that's it!

In the 3 years or so I've been using moneybookers I've had no problems at all, the only thing to be aware of is that by having to transfer your money via moneybookers as an intermediary it can take up to 2 weeks from start to finish to clear into your French account, but considering the savings over other transfer mechanisms I consider this an acceptable compromise - you just have to be organised enough to transfer funds before you need them!

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry Potter (sort of ) seen on platform 9 3/4

On the way home tonight from central London at 10pm after what's been one of the most exhausting week's I've ever done at work (90+ hours at work), I came across a bit of Potter-mania at Kings Cross.

When I'm working in London (which isn't every day) I travel in via Kings Cross which isn't normally the most exciting of travel destinations, but tonight on the eve of the launch of the final Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows" of course the world has gone potter-mad, especially as Kings Cross is the home of platform 9 3/4 for the Hogwarts Express.

As well as the usual bemused commuters (like me) and drunken Londoners (not like me) there was more than the usual fair share of muggles, wizards, camera crews and Harry Potter look-a-like's. There was a queue of wizard hopefuls waiting (some in fancy dress) outside of WH Smith for the midnight book launch and I spotted a Harry-a-like and a Witchy sort of person who were posing for the tourists (mainly Japanese) who were obviously somewhat bemused by all the attention that Kings Cross was receiving at such a late hour.

Several camera crews were filming the action (such as it was) and I was particularly amused by the German TV crew and presenter that had setup home in the bookstore and kept on rehearsing their excited pitch in front of the camera whilst dodging the normal shoppers.

In case you hadn't realised (or had been sleeping under a rock for the last year or so), the seventh and supposedly final (unless JK Rowling gets a bit short of cash I guess) book in the Harry Potter storyline (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) goes on sale in just over an hour (at time of writing on the train). Doubtless by Monday the papers will be full of analysis as to how good the book is but it's been well promoted (to say the least).

According to my newspaper, sales of the Potter phenomenon have been over 21 million in the UK alone:
BookHardback salesPaperback sales
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997)193,1653,667,302
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (1998)187,0423,050,953
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)507,6912,657,726
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)1,318,1842,097,870
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2003)3,468,610643,791
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince3,618,278286,550

I have to admit to being in the 'not bothered' category as regards HarryP but I wouldn't miss the £545 million JK Rowling's worth so far from the massive phenomenom it's become, 65 languages and 325 million worldwide book sale's isn't bad for someone who was rejected by 8 authors and sold the initial rights for £3,000.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Virgin France wins the right to rename a TV channel and a radio station

News from France that the Virgin brand has expanded a little bit more with Virgin in France (which is operated by HDS) has recently been given authorisation by the Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel (CSA) to rename Europe 2, one of France's most popular radio stations, to Virgin Radio.

This change will also see Europe 2 TV, a music television channel, renamed to Virgin 17. Both of these are owned by the Lagardère Group which owns rights to the Virgin brandname in France. Didier Quillot, the chairman of the board for the Lagardère Active group, owner of HDS was quoted as saying that the deal was "a marketing plan" to improve its music strategy.



Wednesday, July 18, 2007

August holiday vacancy problem solved, some lovely tenants found

In June I posted an article about an August cancellation for our Breton Gite and although I had a couple of enquiries we still had the peak season vacancy a couple of weeks later on.

And then I hit upon a brilliant idea as to how to fill the diary .... we could go !

It's probably a bit worrying that going and using our own holiday home didn't immediately spring to mind when the original guests cancelled, but like last year we'd resigned ourselves to not going in the peak season as we'd not got ourselves organised as to when we wanted to go and had taken guest bookings for August instead. Paying guests also have the big advantage of helping to pay the bills unlike when we go which only serves to reduce my bank account balance!

Liz and the boys had planned to go to Cornwall with her parents and brothers family for the start of August, but as the vacant dates were at the end of the month that wasn't a problem, it only remained to find out if I could get a ferry crossing at a reasonable time and at less cost than the Lichtenstein national debt ... some ferry companies charge outrageous prices for the summer holidays, especially one that shall remain nameless but let's refer to it as "BF" ....

A bit of searching of prices and I was amazed with the deal I managed to get with Speedferries. We're crossing over on the 7:10 from Dover to Boulogne on Monday 21st August and then only wanted a paltry £20 for the car and the four of us. The return journey in the evening a week Friday later would have cost £39 but as I'd already pre-paid for 10 Speedferry crossings at £24 each last year I used one of those tickets instead. By the time we add on petrol and €15 tolls each way it'll come to around £150 for the total travelling cost, but as we're only booking 5 weeks in advance of travelling in the peak school holiday period, I don't consider that bad value at all. Other (unnamed) ferry companies can charge £400 or more so I'm very happy with this.

Incidentally Speedferries are currently doing another special offer of 6 flexible tickets (valid for a year) for just £26 each - £156 in total. Offer ends 23rd July.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Auto Europe car hire - offering good prices for France and world-wide

Although roughly two-thirds of the guests that stay in our Brittany holiday home travel over in their own car through one of the many French ferry ports in Brittany, Normandy and Pas de Calais, there's the remaining third who prefer to fly and then hire a car in France.

Some time ago I looked around for a good hire car company that I could recommend through the Gite website, that offered hire cars at a reasonable price, and offered pickup at all the local French airports.

Auto Europe ticked all the right boxes for me and even though two sets of guests have now taken up our recommendation and hired through them, for reasons various (mainly I didn't put aside the time to focus on it), up until now I never added Auto Europe's details to the options page for ferry and airline routes to our Gite.

Prevarication over, this weekend I finally found the time to integrate Auto Europe into our website and added their advert to this blog.

In total they offer some 900 car hire pickup locations across France including all the nearby airports served by budget airlines (Brest, Dinard, Lorient, Lannion, Nantes, and Rennes) as well as of course all the major cities further afield in France like Paris and Nice.

Of course starting to make changes to the website then got me onto a more general update of the travel options page, correcting an external link that had stopped working, word-smithing the text, fiddling with and resizing some of the ferry and airline logos, and all in all spending far more time that I expected by making lots of minor changes that no-one will probably notice anyway!


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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

English homes attacked in Brittany

On my way home last night I read a slightly unsettling article in one of the free London newspapers:
British families have had their homes and cars set alight in a spate of attacks against foreign-owned property in Brittany. "Britts out" graffiti has been daubed across towns in the area in protests over an influx of foreign homeowners, which has caused house prices to spiral. Last night, Iraq war veteran Darren Widd and his wife Linsey were forced to flee their home in Callac at 2am with their daughter Chloe, two. Arsonists had attached their car,parked directly outside their café-bar, causing their property to go up in flames. On the same night, two English-owned homes in a nearby village were ransacked and a camper van set ablaze.

Of course reading articles like this it's hard to understand whether this was just a one-off incident or whether it really is as bad as the headline writers would have us believe. I had a look on both BBC news where I found nothing and then Google news which lead me to a similar article about English homes being attacked on Times Online.

My experience has if anything been pretty much the opposite of the story-line. We've found that although there are quite a few ex-pats living in Brittany there's hardly enough to be described as an 'influx'. We only know of one other English couple a few miles away from us and it's hardly Costa del Sol with wall-to-wall fish and chip shops and English bars on the high street. English occupation levels are I believe much higher in neighbouring Normandy around Cherbourg, St James and Vire.

We've always been made very welcome by everyone we've met; our immediate neighbours often give us (and our holiday guests) little parcels of home-grown produce from their garden - a lettuce or two, tomatoes, rhubarb or French beans. I've always tried to keep them informed of what we are doing in the house and they've always been very friendly and pleasant despite the language barrier which can reduce the small-talk between us!

I've also heard quite the opposite on the issue of the English buying up all the properties in the area. Most English looking to buy in rural France want to buy a characterful house with stone walls and oak beams - quite the opposite of the French who want to live in a modern centrally heated house with big windows and a manageable garden. They're often more than happy to sell on a crumbling pile of stones (sometimes little more than a shell of a building - what our estate agents would call 'has potential') and move to somewhere more up to date and modern. Of course renovating the property then means more work for the local builders, tradesmen and bricolage's and if the mad Anglais want to pay over the odds for a ruin then a canny Frenchman is hardly going to stand in their way!

The housing market in France has for the last few years been considerably steadier than it has in the UK. Most areas have seen a gradual 4-7% rise in property prices per year, far lower than the galloping UK property inflation, and obviously there is the usual laws of supply and demand especially in and around fashionable towns and seaside resorts. There's definite evidence of over-supply as well and it's not uncommon for houses to take up to 2 years to sell - two sets of friends of ours have had their houses on the market for over a year.

I'm obviously sorry to hear of the Widd's tale and hope (and my own experiences back this up) that this is a relatively isolated incident.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Tour de France comes to London

It can't have escaped notice that the Tour de France came to London this weekend with the time trial prologue on Saturday and then the main race starting on Sunday.

We didn't go down to London ourselves, preferring instead to watch the action as the riders threaded through London and Kent on the TV.

Lots of photos and a good explanation of the Tour de France are all on the BBC's website and on the dedicated Tour de France London website.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

Free disneyland tickets and a mini racer game from P&O

I think the picture below pretty much says it all, if you book a Dover/Calais car crossing with P&O then you get a free adult entry ticket to Eurodisney. OK you've got to buy another adult ticket to be able to redeem the free one, so it's really a BOGOFF offer, but it's still good value.

Another fun thing I spotted on the P&O website is a mini racing car game; you can have fun driving little mini racing cars around the ferry deck, restaurant, shop, etc. I think I've proven I have little hand/eye co-ordination with this one !

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Friday, July 06, 2007

Apply for your EHIC (European Health Insurance Card) online

For many years I can remember queuing at the post office to collect my 'E111' form that gives free reciprocal health cover if you're travelling within the European Union (plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland).

A couple of years ago the E111 was 'Europeanised' and replaced with the snappily named 'EHIC' (European Health Insurance Card). We've been encouraging guests through our Gite booking conditions to apply for one as it doesn't cost you anything and it gives a basic level of medical cost cover if you're abroad for a short period of time (as long as you're a British, EU, EEA or Swiss national and living in the UK). The EHIC is complementary to travel insurance and some insurance companies insist that you have one or have to pay an excess if you don't have one. Note that the EHIC only covers state medical cover and doesn't include things like repatriation or lost luggage, etc.

Up until now it's been necessary to apply for your EHIC card by phone on 0845 606 2030 or by collecting the requisite form from the Post Office.

Well now the DoH has gone all internetty and you can now apply online for your EHIC card via a new EHIC website. You need one for each member of the family (including children) and

As the EHIC's are only valid for 5 years you can also use the online site to renew your card. The E111's are now all invalid so if you haven't got one I strongly suggest you do so as soon as

Further details on the EHIC and general health advice for travellers is available on the DoH website.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

White smoke seen at the office - my promotion was successful !!

Back in April I wrote about preparing a business case for promotion and being a bag of nerves at the actual promotion panel.

Since then I've been waiting ...

... and waiting ...

... and waiting some more.

I've heard occasional bits of good news unofficially on the grapevine but the formal decision making process has ground it's way through various levels of moderation, evaluation and double-checking. The decision was due by mid June but then got put back a few weeks.

On Friday I finally heard what I'd been waiting for, that I'd been successful in my application and was being promoted to 'Associate Partner'. Of the 7 people in our business unit that went forward only 2 were successful (including me) so it's been a tough job to get through.

Drank most of a bottle of champagne to celebrate that night !