Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cut price ferry tickets to France

As I blogged back in November, December and earlier this month, following the demise of SpeedFerries I'm having to look for other travel options to enjoy a holiday in our French Holiday Home.

For once we've got ourselves organised this year and have booked ourselves in for a two week stay at Easter and then a three week August summer holiday. In 2008 what with moving house and a difficult project at work we only went over to the Gite as a family once, at Easter, so it'll be lovely to take more time off and relax a bit more.

For Easter I've booked an outward crossing with Condor Ferries from Poole to St Malo which gives us a few hours stop-off enroute in Jersey (which I've never been to), and then a quick hour-and-a-bit drive at the other side from St Malo to the Gite. We're returning back through Dieppe with LD Lines, so it's a bit of a longer drive, but it's some £70 cheaper and is overall probably slightly quicker too.

I've been trying to decide which route to take for August and as we intend to take our dog Dexter with us, and as Liz gets really stressed out with the thought of him "all alone" in the car, it's better if we take one of the shorter crossings.

As luck would have it I've received a couple of emails special offers in the last few days so the choice (and cost) has been made a bit easier.

First arriving in my mailbox was LD Lines who are promoting their new Dover Boulogne route with single journey crossings costing from just £24. I noticed that that the email was sent to the email address I've used previously for SpeedFerries, and in the LD Lines email they explained that they've bought up the SpeedFerries customer contact list from the company administrators.

LDLines have also managed to bring the start of their new Dover/Boulogne service forward, originally it was due to commence in July 2009, now it starts on 12th February.

For the three week period I wanted in August the cost of a Saturday to Saturday return crossing came in with LDLines at £79. To this I'll have to pay roughly £40 of fuel and £15 of tolls each way, so at £189 total cost it still compares extremely favourably with the £400-500 cost that I'd have to pay with Brittany Ferries for the shorter western channel routes. Don't get me wrong, the BF boats are lovely, spacious, and with good onboard facilities, and the shorter drive is nice too, but it's still an awfully large price premium to pay.

Next I took a look at the same August dates with Norfolk Line from Dover to Dunkerque.

Depending on what time of day I travel at single tickets range from £17.50 (for a silly o'clock in the morning) through £29 and up to a maximum of £42. In the past I've noticed a slight saving by buying two single tickets with NL as the return sailing from France is priced in Euros (and the prices can vary during the day), so maybe I can save a few quid, but as it's another half hour drive up the coastal motorway to Dunkerque there's probably not much difference in cost overall when compared to LDLines.

And then I received an email from Just for good measure I received the email twice, one that was sent direct to me from FerryCheap, and one that was sent through the email address I've used with SpeedFerries (so looks like Ferrycheap have also bought up the SpeedFerries customer contact database).

FerryCheap are running a NorfolkLine special offer of a car with 4 passengers on their Dover-Dunkirk route for any date up to 17th December 2009.

There's just two different ticket prices:
  High Season (3rd-19th April and 17th July-6th September) - £29 each way
  Low Season (any other dates) - £19 each way

And all tickets are fully flexible with no amendment fees so you can change your booking any time you want - as long as there's space on the boat of course!

Only other condition of this special offer is that you must book your crossings by 18 February 2009.

So we'll be NorfolkLining it in August methinks.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Into year 5, and a look back on 2008

Payment time came around again this week with a renewal request from to renew another year's website hosting for Another £25 lighter in my pocket but it got me thinking back to how we've progressed with our Gite website, our Blog and renting the Gite over the last few years.

So courtesy of Google Analytics, here's a summary of how the websites have performed:
     visitors     page viewsvisitorspage views

* The 2005 figures have been extrapolated as I launched the website on 22nd January 2005, but didn't start tracking it with Google Analytics until November 2005, so only have visitor numbers and page views for the last 43 days of the year! In reality I expect the actual numbers would have been lower than this. I launched the Blog on 1st January 2006 (a New Year's resolution), so again no data for 2005.

As well as the people that view the Blog on the web there are also a number of people that subscribe to my RSS feed, and according to FeedBurner as at 31/12/08 there were 20 subscribers, 4 who receive daily emails of new entries through FeedBlitz, and the remainder split across Internet Explorer, Firefox, Thunderbird, My Yahoo, Google Reader, etc.

So how has all that translated into holiday rental bookings?

YearRental bookingsNumber of nights rentedAverage days in advance

I've excluded from these figures our own holidays in the Gite which vary year by year; last year we were there 26 days for instance, and this year we have already planned for 35 days stay.

I can't really tell whether the up's and down's of bookings are as a result of pricing, the global economy, ferry costs or just as a result of randomness, but it is pleasing to see that we're getting more and more advance bookings. So far we've taken 5 bookings for 2009, for 40 nights in total, and most of July and August is booked as a result.

We've also had 76 sets of guests stay in the Gite, although some of these are families that have been back a couple of times, and one family has been back 3 times, so the number of unique guests is slightly lower.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Speedferries Administrators' Statement of Proposals

Continuing the story of speedferries in administration after the notice to creditors, and of my own situation as a creditor of the company.

Over Christmas I received from Asda Mastercard a "dispute claim letter" requesting details of the nature of my credit card dispute, why I wanted to make a claim on my credit card, whether I had attempted to resolve the dispute with the supplier, etc.

I duly wrote them a letter explaining the background to my SpeedFerries advanced ticket purchase with details of the unused tickets I was claiming for, details of the company's fall into administration, and enclosed a copy of the Administrator's Notice to Creditors which set out the wind-up of SpeedFerries as a going concern.

Over on SpeedFerries website the Administrators have recently posted on the SF website a guide to credit card customers (and providers) in making a claim.

So far no response forthcoming from Asda; I'll let you know what happens.

Today I received another email from the SpeedFerries Administrators setting out details of their proposals to deal with "SpeedFerries in Administration". These creditor proposals are also published on the SF website along with details of the creditors and debtors, and make interesting if despondent reading.

SpeedFerries was setup in 2002 by Curt Stavis, began operating in 2004, and has made a trading loss every year since - accumulating to some £15m as at July 2008. In the latter end of last year the company experienced severe cash flow problems brought on by rising fuel prices and a decline in ticket and retail sales. Although shareholders had previously bailed the company out, on this occasion they declined to do so.

Problems escalated when the Port of Boulogne issued a claim for £1.3m of unpaid port fees, and subsequently seized SpeedOne on 6th November 2008.

As I read the 36 page administrators report it's clear the size of the problem that SpeedFerries faced. Under administration they've had to borrow a further £200,000 from Bank of Scotland in order to pay staff wages and ongoing costs (such as maintaining SpeedOne in saleable condition) but have only been able to identify some £60,000 of cash and money owed - not all of which they expect to receive.

SpeedFerries owe some £12.6m to Bank of Scotland (marine mortgage) and to Incat (the Australian manufacturers of SpeedOne). The companies principal asset is SpeedOne itself and the administrators are currently going through the judicial sale process to realise the maximum value for the boat.

131 staff of SpeedFerries have now lost their jobs - some of which from the list of staff creditors look likely to be married couples now both out of work (and all will only get the statutory minimum redundancy payment), roughly £3.7m is owed to some 200 trade creditors of which the largest sums are £1.3m to the Port of Boulogne, £1,100 to HM Revenue & Customs and a smaller £238k to Dover Harbour Board; a further £3.6m is owed to 50,300 customers with pre-paid tickets and a 100 or so investors in the company will also lose out.
I did have a wry smile from noticing that B&Q owe SpeedFerries 2p, some £3,182 is owed to a dry cleaning company, £500 to Microsoft AdCentre, £3,847 to Google Adwords and a massive £14,000 to the Douwe Egberts Coffee company!

The Administrators predict that after the sale of SpeedOne and realisation of any other company assets it's unlikely that the secured creditors (Bank of Scotland, Incat and the 131 company employees) will receive a full reimbursement, and so as a result the unsecured creditors (myself included as a customer creditor) will get nowt.

Us creditors are informed that because of the unlikelihood of payment the administrators don't intend to organise a creditors meeting - but if we creditors formally request one, and deposit suitable funds to cover the likely meeting expenditure, then one will be organised. Methinks this won't happen and I won't get an invite to a day-trip to Dover.

All in all very sad reading.

Meanwhile I am now having to look elsewhere for my 2009 ferry crossings to our holiday Gite.


Monday, January 05, 2009

When isn't - using mod_rewrite to correct the URL

Hopefully the Blog title has added a bit of mystique to my first Blog rambling of the new year (today was my first day back at work after the break so I can't honestly say "Happy New Year" to anyone as I'm reluctantly back in the office ...)

It's been pointed out to me that the home page for our French vacation rental website, is actually available via four different URL's:

In other words the whole of the site is available both with- and without- the www prefix, and if this wasn't bad enough, because the index.html page is also served by default when just the domain name is accessed, there are potentially four URLs for the home page.

The upshot of which is depending upon how other websites have linked to my website I can have up to four indexable entries in the search engine databases for the home page and two for all other website pages.

Now although the search engines do tend to work out the best correlation, they rarely do this 100% correctly (some of the different Google data centres are returning different results for instance), and because I have the home page internally linked to /index.html within the site rather than just /, this also has an additional negative effect of page rank dilution.

So what to do?

Well the solution is a bit of website management I'd not really fiddled with much before, the .htaccess file, and in particular making changes to the website configuration so that attempts to access these different URLs results in them being simply and automatically redirected by my hosting provider to a single page.

If you have a really good memory you may remember that back in July 2006 I first created a simple .htaccess file to prevent people browsing the subdirectories of my website. I achieved that with a .htaccess file that contained the following rows:

<Files .htaccess>
order allow,deny
deny from all
IndexIgnore */*

The new trick is to use the mod_rewrite directives in the .htaccess file to cause the web server to take the URL that's requested and rewrite it to what you want it to be.

So if someone requests you can respond back with, and what's even cleverer you can (if you want to) tell the client browser that you have done this and return a HTML 301 error code telling them that the page they requested has been permanently redirected to the new page. At first I was a bit worried about this, returning HTML errors back didn't seem to me to be a good idea, but after quite a bit of Googling I found that returning a 301 error is quite safe, it's what browsers and search engines expect, and has the benefit of ensuring that the search engines will then automatically link the 'input' to the 'output' URL, thus removing at a stroke the problem of having duplicate search engine entries for the same website content.

By the by, if you want to temporarily redirect users to a different webpage (perhaps if a section of the website is unavailable for some short term reason) you can return a 302 error code instead.

There are loads of instructions and tutorials on how to use mod_rewrite out there on the web so I won't repeat them here, instead pointing out a couple that I found to be useful over at there's a simple beginners guide to mod_rewrite that explains the basic structure and usage of the .htaccess entries, at HTMLsource there's an explanation of regular expressions in mod_rewrite and on Stephen Hargrove's Blog he shows how to redirect from the non-www site to the www-version.

So putting these different tutorials together I ended up with an extended .htaccess file like this:

<Files .htaccess>
order allow,deny
deny from all
IndexIgnore */*

RewriteEngine on
RewriteBase /

### re-direct non-www to www
rewritecond %{http_host} ^ [nc]
rewriterule ^(.*)$$1 [r=301,nc]

The first part of the .htaccess is exactly as before, then the RewriteEngine and RewriteBase commands loads the mod_rewrite engine (as it's an optional webserver plugin and may not be loaded by default) and defines the base directory from which rewrite instructions will be derived.

The rewritecond line says to match any URLs where the http_host (i.e. first part of the URL you are accessing) starts with (the upper 'hat' means that the string starts with) The [nc] simply says to make the match not case sensitive (so GiTeInBrItTaNy is equally matched as is giteinbrittany).

Then for all URLs that match the rewritecond line, apply the rewriterule, which says take any page requests (the ^(.*)$ means match any page name) and return the requested web page prefixed by The [R=301 means return the page with a 301 HTML permanently redirected response code and again NC means make the match case insensitive.

So for example when you request, rewritecond will match http_host to, then the rewrite rule will fire for fred.html and return instead the page with a 301 response code.

All sounds a bit complicated but believe me it does work and it works seamlessly without any problems at all.

To see all this in action take a look at the website server responses provided by the StepForth's HTTP viewer server tool.

And not only can you see it working for, try entering other URLs such as and see the same 301 response and automatic page redirection being returned as well.

So this fixes the bigger problem of dual page ranks for www- and non-www pages, but still leaves the issue of the default home page and index.html being separately indexed.

For this one I'm still thinking about the right answer. I've been advised that I should redirect all index.html requests to the default home page (/), and then change the website navigation structure to match but this isn't trivial in Rational Application Developer that I use, or I could use a similar mod_rewrite to change index.html requests to direct them straight to the default home page, but again if I don't change the website navigation structure to match this just seems wrong as all internal navigation links will still point to '/index.html' which then gets 301'd to '/' ... it seems wrong for me to do this.

I think I will celebrate the success I have achieved and will ponder this secondary problem a bit further ...