Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Nationwide drops its no fee policy for overseas card transactions

I've written a few times about different aspects of Banking in France, like the shock of having to pay bank account charges in France, using Moneybookers to transfer money to my French bank account and trying to work out whether it's cheaper to use paypal or visa to pay an overseas bill.

I haven't blogged though about my other favourite French Financial trick, my Nationwide FlexAccount debit card.

When we were over in France at Easter I realised that we were imminently going to run out of oil in the central heating tank and despite having used Moneybookers to transfer over a load of money before the holiday, I could see we weren't going to have enough Euros to pay to fill the tank up.

So all I did was to go to the nearest cash dispenser (which happens to be in the pretty floral town of La Cheze, just 2 miles from the Gite), and withdraw a few hundred Euros, then pay the withdrawn cash into my French bank account at the post office (which seems to involve an awful lot of form filling in for what is a simple task, but that's French bureaucracy for you!)

With pretty much any other bank or building society you'd be slapped with an overseas card handling charge for withdrawing cash from a UK bank account whilst overseas. And heaven help you if you make a cash withdrawal with a UK credit card because as well as the overseas handling fee you'll get charged a cash withdrawal fee and interest from the day you take the cash out.

Fortunately up until now Nationwide with its 'proud to be different' motto has absorbed any charges that the overseas bank or Visa may have levied and all you pay is the transaction amount converted to Sterling - and the conversion rate is usually pretty good as well - certainly much better than you would get if you went to a travel agent. So the Nationwide FlexAccount debit card has been long recommended by financial websites for overseas spending.

But all that's changing and from the 6th May 2009 Nationwide will start passing on the Visa overseas transaction fees it pays, at the rate of 0.84%, but rising to 1% in July 2009.

There are some exceptions though, and the first and most important is that for European card transactions there's no change - whether you withdraw cash in a Spanish ATM or pay for a romantic hotel booking in Italy with your FlexAccount card you still don't pay any additional fee. And so of course for me therefore there's no charge for French cash dispenser withdrawals (phew).

Secondly, if you have a Nationwide cash card (not debit card) then there's also no overseas charge as these cards are issued by MasterCard, but don't hold your breath as it's likely that these will also start incurring a fee soon as well.

There's more details of the overseas fee and precisely which countries Visa (and hence Nationwide) charge an overseas transaction fee on the Nationwide website along with more general advice about using your Nationwide card abroad.

All is not lost however and despite these fees for non-European withdrawals the Nationwide card still comes out significantly cheaper than many of the rival banking providers. There's further details and a comparison of overseas ATM withdrawal costs on the Lovemoney (ex Motley Fool) website.


Friday, April 24, 2009

Treated the swimming pool to a new cover and a new pump

When we were over at Easter we treated the 15 foot frame swimming pool at our french vacation rental home to a new pool cover.

It may sound like a really minor thing, the swimming pool cover, but with us not living onsite in France all the time it's amazing how these little things can become an organisational "challenge".

Some time ago I bought a cover for our Intex swimming pool to keep the leaves out when not in use but mistakenly I'd bought a 'Bestway' cover and despite my struggling it just wouldn't fit - seems not all "15 foot frame pool covers are the same" !

Courtesy of ebay I bought a proper Intex one which fits a treat and doesn't the pool look happy as a result !!

When we arrived at the Gite we found that the pool pump wasn't working and there was a bit of green slime in the pool along with quite a few leaves from the non-fitting cover.

I chucked some Chlorine Shock and Granular Flocculant into the pool, replaced the filter in the pool pump with a new one, kick-started the pump and left it running overnight to see what would happen.

If you're not into swimming pools (as I wasn't when we first bought one) the world of swimming pool treatment can be quite complicated with different chemicals to raise PH, lower PH, chlorinate the water, purify it, testing kits, etc. Took a bit of reading up to understand the process and then write up some instructions for the guests to follow.

Here's details of a couple of links to Wikipedia on how Chlorine is used to purify and kill bugs in the pool water and Flocculant to clean the water by causing suspended particles to clump together so they can be filtered out.

Next morning the pool was looking a bit clearer and by the morning after that it was all looking good again. Quite a relief as water's expensive in France and the thought of emptying out 15 cubic metres of water from the pool, cleaning the pool, and then refilling it all again wasn't something that sounded a fun way to spend the holiday and would be costly too.

We did however spend most of the rest of the holiday periodically going to the pool and fishing out more leaves from the bottom of the pool. It was actually quite therapeutic pooling the depths with the pool net!

Unfortunately I had less success with the swimming pool pump.

Recalling back to the Blog article I wrote in October 2008 about the faulty pool pump that kept tripping out the main house electrics, Alan had to put a new pump on the pool in August 2008 and just 7 months later I found that the new pump kept on stopping unexpectedly. Fiddled with it a bit but in the end I had to swap it with the replacement pump we had just taken over, and I guess I'll be buying a new pump off ebay again unless I can find out why it keeps on stopping.

The kids as usual loved the swimming pool and despite it being mid April and the water registering a cool 12 degrees C on the thermometer they made frequent use of it, jumping in and out and splashing around. Me, I'll wait until our August holiday when the temperature's warmed up a bit more.

So all's well with the pool now and we're set for this summers guests. I've left it with the pump on a timeswitch set to come on every night for an hour to keep the water clean and the new cover works a treat.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

France Magazine - special subscription offer

As a reader of our blog and someone who's interested in France I thought I'd pass on a top-tip of a special subscription offer to France Magazine of just £24, saving 50% off the regular price.

"Spectacular scenery, vibrant cities and charming villages, FRANCE magazine brings you the very best of France. Featuring inspiring articles on weekend getaways, destinations and holiday ideas, an intriguing food and wine section for French foodies as well as articles steeped in history and culture it really is the next best thing to being there!"

In future issues there's lots of interesting articles; for June the magazine commemorates the 65th anniversary of D-Day with a visit to the key sites in Normandy as well as a tour of parks and gardens in the Auvergne; and in July the Boating Special features canal boating in southern France and a trip around the Marais Poitevin - France's Green Venice.

Normally a UK subscription to France Magazine will cost £41.50, by phoning 01858 438788 and quoting code FCE1, or using this France Magazine subscription link, it'll cost just £23.94.

NB: This offer is valid for new subscriptions taken before the 30th June 2009.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Back from a great Easter break

Following the problems with Toby's expired passport and then the last minute problem with the passport photo and loosing the French house keys everything went OK after that, I went to Peterborough passport office and collected the new passport on Saturday 4th April, and we were on the 7:30am Condor ferry from Weymouth to St Malo with a couple of hours stop off in Guernsey enroute.

After all the problems with getting the new passport it was quite galling to note that nowhere on our trip, booking in to the two ferries, or embarking in France, did anyone even look at our passports at all. I might have well have not bothered!! Of course coming back to the UK on Sunday they were a bit more stringent and they we did need them then so it wasn't an entirely wasted £94 for the passport renewal.

We had a really nice time over in our Brittany Gite. The weather was a bit mixed, we had some days of sun, then some days of rain, then finished off with some days of sun.

And when it was warm and sunny we were able to sit outside on the patio and eat both our lunchtime and evening meals there, something I don't think we'd be able to do in the UK in April.

For a number of reasons including too much work, going to the South of France for our August 2008 holiday and moving home in the UK in September 2008, it's been nearly 9 months since I was last over at the Gite in June 2008. This has been the longest gap we've had since we first bought the Gite in 2004 so there were plenty of the "little jobs" to do when we got over there - I'll write about some of them in later blog postings.

Like the last time I was over the French fishermen were on strike and blockading the ports. Unfortunately (despite my hopes otherwise) the strike was over all too quickly and so we had no problems coming back on Sunday. I rather hoped the strike would have left us isolated in France for another week or so!

Looking forward to going to Brittany again in August, this time for 3 weeks break- yipee!

PS: We've still got late holiday availability for April and May 2009 so if you fancy a break I can thoroughly recommend our Gite!!

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Further passport woes and then lost keys (again)

After last weekend's trial's and tribulations running around with photos for Toby's passport renewal which I desparately needed as we go to France on Sunday, I thought we were all sorted with the appointment at Peterborough passport office today.

But life is sometimes never easy and Liz phoned me in anguish from the office to tell me that they wouldn't accept the photos's I'd done as they "were not up to quality".

Arrgh !

They suggested making an appointment for the next day, Saturday, which would give us no time at all before we left. I sent Liz back in to the passport office to plead our case and she managed to get a better suggestion, that she go back to the office at 5:30pm with Toby (having picked him up from school) and they could take his photo and process the application there and then.

So change of plan again, more miles on the car up to Peterborough, but this time there were no problems, she got the photos done to the passport office' satisfaction and the new passport is in production.

I've got to now go back to the office tomorrow lunchtime and collect the passport, so that'll be the third 120-mile round trip we've made to get this passport sorted out, but fingers crossed we won't have any more last minute problems.

However we did have problems tonight as we packed the car for the holiday journey, I noticed that we'd not seen any sight of the keys for our Brittany House.

You may remember that I similarly wrote in May 2008 of losing the French house keys only to find that I'd already put them in the car, but this time we'd packed the car and definitely not seen them.

Of course since we last went to France we'd moved house in the UK so I was beginning to get a bit stressed as to where the keys might be.

I was fairly sure that they were in a box in the garage of other "stuff" to go to France but we'd put the box in the car and they weren't in it at all.

So we spent a good couple of hours searching for the keys. In my study, in the kitchen, the utility room, in the garden workshed, in the loft, in boxes that we hadn't unpacked yet, in the dining room, the lounge, our bedroom, in the car (both my car and Liz's - just in case), but they were no where to be seen.

I was convinced they were in a box of France stuff but that had gone into the car and they weren't in it. So thinking they had somehow fallen out I started methodically going through everything in the garage. There's quite a lot of stuff in the garage still after the house move, bottles of wine, garden chairs, paint, more paint, ladders, wood, books, but no keys.

Eventually after an hour's searching the garage, guess what? I found near the back under several other boxes a box of stuff labelled to go to France.

And in the box, the French house keys.

So relief at finding them but yet more late night stress. Hence why I am still awake and blogging past 1am !

Any suggestions as to where to put the house keys so that I don't lose them will be gratefully received ...

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Telegraph article points out the costs of a 'simple' ferry change

Daily Telegraph
Over on The Daily Telegraph I came across an article from columnist Gill Charlton on some of the pitfalls that can occur when changing your holiday booking.

One of the readers problems she investigated highlighted a sharp practice by some of the ferry operators:

Lindsay Hirst in Bowdon, Cheshire, writes
I booked a return ticket with Brittany Ferries travelling out from Plymouth to Santander and back from Cherbourg to Poole in mid-June. Now my wife and I have decided to spend an extra night in France, so I asked the ferry company to delay our return by a day.

This change is going to cost us more than £100. Brittany Ferries says that this is because we have moved out of the 10-day return fare bracket.

Where's the logic in that? What difference does it make to the company which day we return if it's an off-peak sailing?

Gill Charlton replies
Brittany Ferries says that customers travelling to Europe for more than 10 days always pay the standard fare. In an ideal world the company would like everyone to pay this fare, but recognises that people expect discounts for shorter hops across the Channel.

"It's a tradition," a spokesman said. "In a way these discounts are fair as they mean the ferry element is more in proportion to the total cost of a shorter holiday."

What I hadn't realised until now was that an open-jaw return (sailing into Spain and out of northern France) is available as a discounted return fare, so you don't have to pay for two singles.

What do you think is this a fair or not fair fare policy?


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Testing Internet Explorer 8 using Virtual PC

It doesn't seem all that long ago that I was writing about first impressions of Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, but it's actually nearly 2½ years ago (in October 2006), and here we are again with the launch of Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8.

The Microsoft Internet Explorer homepage is all full of news and video's about how it's quicker, more secure, more compatible and overall a 'better browsing experience' than the competitor browsers (most notably of course Firefox and Chrome), but I'm sure the reality is that it's a case of Microsoft catching up and perhaps slightly leap-frogging them, only in turn to be leap-frogged with the next Firefox version.

I have to admit to being a bit worried about this new version as Microsoft have made strides to make IE8 more standards compatible (something they were ludicrously poor at in the past), but of course in doing so many legacy websites will "break" and not render properly.

Some months ago I asked a friend of mine who'd installed the IE8 beta on his machine to see if our holiday rental website rendered properly, and the news and screenshots weren't good, seemingly the website design that I'd spent months on didn't work properly.

IE8 Compatibility View
Microsoft have tried to ease the transition pain by adding a 'Compatibility View' button (right next to the Refresh button on the address bar), and my friend told me that the site worked OK in compatibility mode with the IE8 beta version, but nevertheless anything that detracts potential customers from the website is something I want to avoid (hence all the pain I've suffered in trying to get the website W3C standards compliant).

On away from the main IE8 public launch section, on the Microsoft Developer Network site, I found an article about the different IE8 website compatibility modes and how you can use a new 'X-UA-Compatible' meta tag in your HTML <head> section to force the visitor's browser into 'legacy compatibility mode', emulating either IE5, IE7 or IE8.

Currently I have IE7 on my home computer and IE6 on my work computer so I can easily test browser compatibility on the two main IE versions. Similarly I have Firefox 2 on the home machine and Firefox 3 and Chrome on my work computer.

I was thinking therefore that I would have to upgrade one of the machines to IE8 to try out the new browser, when I found through MSDN details of a set of Microsoft Virtual PC images for different versions of Internet Explorer.

Provided are images of Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6, IE7 and IE8 and also Vista with IE7. All you have to do to try them out is download and install Microsoft Virtual PC (a mere 30-odd Mb) and then download the selected images. Each image basically comprises a virtual hard disk with the operating system and browser pre-installed; you start up MS Virtual PC, point it at the downloaded hard disk image and then it starts up as a 'PC within a PC' so you can easily test that your website operates properly with the new browser version.

It does take quite a while to download each VPC image as they're 600+Mb in size (and the Vista image is a wopping 2Gb), but they really are a doddle to use.

After trying out XP with IE8 on both the Gite website and this Blog I was really pleased to find out that everything displayed properly without having to revert to compatibility mode.

The only problem I discovered was that the 'Photo Gallery' feature (using Pictobrowser) didn't work with IE8. After a bit of head scratching I realised that the XP IE8 VPC image only had Flash v6 installed. Downloading and upgrading to Flash v10 cured the problem.

The Windows XP images all automatically expire (and stop working) at the end of April 2009 and the Vista image expires 120 days after first use, so these are not permanent test facilities, but they're certainly very useful.

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