Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Low cost inkjet cartridges - recommended filling service

Last month I wrote about the panic I had with my son's expired passport that eventually required three trips to the Peterborough passport office as the photoshop editing caused the passport pictures to be rejected. All sorted in the end but at the time it was a bit stressful not knowing if we'd get a passport issued in time.

In amongst all the problems I had was the colour cartridge on my HP inkjet printer running out - passport photos in magenta and black would definitely not be accepted by the Passport Office!

Once we got back from France I needed to get a replacement ink cartridge. HP make excellent photo quality printers but they charge a fortune for their ink cartridges - circa £25 is not uncommon for the colour cartridge.

Looking in Tesco soon afterwards I saw that they were selling "refurbished" cartridges at 2 for £30 - better but still not good enough so I decided to turn to ebay.

After wading through the plenitude of options I eventually settled on an inkjet cartridge filling service. I'd never tried one of these before but the seller had a good feedback rating and offered a 100% guarantee so I thought I'd give it a go.

Magazine articles I've read have said that filling your own cartridges is the cheapest way of running an inkjet printer but equally tales of blocked nozzles, ink stains on your hands and leaking cartridges have put me off the idea myself. Paying someone else for their expertise seems a small price to pay.

I have to report being very pleased with the service and re-filled cartridge which appears to work as good as a brand new one from HP.

In total it cost me £6.55 for the replacement cartridge (£3.25 for the item off ebay, £2 for the return postage and £1.30 for me to send the cartridge off) - roughly half what it would have cost in the shops.

I'm more than happy therefore to recommend Compatible Imaging Technologists' inkjet filling service.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Vodaphone cuts the cost of calls from abroad with its summer Passport scheme

Using your mobile phone from abroad both for making and receiving has always been fiendishly expensive with charges of £1 a minute or more not being uncommon.

Fortunately due to EU regulation the charges have been coming down over the last few years, and now it looks like Vodaphone have been the first to abolish them completely.

Vodaphone announced last week that they are reducing roaming charges and abolishing them until September 2009. So it now will cost just the same to call from (say) France as it would be to call from Frimley!

All you have to do is register for Vodaphone's Passport scheme by texting the word ‘Passport’ to 97888 if you're on a monthly contract, or text to 2345 if you're a Pay as you go customer.

If you're not with Vodaphone then pickup a free
Vodaphone PAYG sim card
, pop it into your handset (which must be unlocked), and away you go.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Taste of France from Lidl

Coquilles Saint-Jacques
Steaks Hachés pur Boeuf
Gratin Dauphinois
Pineau des Charentes
If you can't wait until your next French holiday then I noticed that Lidl's are running a Taste of France promotion from Monday next week (25th May 2009).

There's a range of different typical French produce on sale, both food and drink, and as usual with Lidl are all at cheap prices and with a no-frills service.

I can personally recommend the 'Pineau des Charentes' which I've never seen on sale in the UK before, it's made from the 'left-over' bits of grape from when wine is made, with added Cognac to give it a bit of zing! Very nice, I've enjoyed more than a bottle or two of it in the past and have brought some back home to give to my Dad as well!


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Very last minute guests - coincidence or good marketing?

Yesterday evening I wrote a brief blog entry about P&O Ferries current ticket offer, concluding with a passing comment about our Gite being available in May and short breaks were an option. I never expected to get a result quite as quick as I did do!

This morning at a far-too-early 8:30am I was woken up by the phone ringing, with a customer who'd been looking at the Gite website and wanted confirmation that we did do part week bookings on a pro-rata price basis.

I said we did, and when was he interested in booking the Gite for, to which he replied that he wanted to book the Gite for 5 nights from tonight until Thursday next week, which was perfect for me as we have some American guests arriving Thursday evening.

He went on to ask if those dates were OK with me as he next needed to book the ferry over to Calais !

I said it was fine, found a pen and wrote down his email address and phone number, and we agreed the rental price there and then.

After I got off the phone I used paypal to send a money request for the Gite rental (normally I much prefer customers to pay by cheque as I object to the size of the fees paypal charge, but for emergencies like this, it's perfect), and then emailed our new guests with travel directions for how to get to the Gite.

Next was a call through to our Brittany agents, Cherril and Alan, to ask if they could prepare the Gite for the guests, and fortunately Cherril was in - phew!

And that was that. We've had some short-notice bookings before, but never one for a customer wanting to arrive that night.


Friday, May 08, 2009

P&O Ferries - 5 day sale - ends May 12th

P&O Ferries 5 day sale

A quick-blog update with news that P&O Ferries are holding a 5 day sale from today so if you're quick you can pick up a bargain ferry crossing to La Belle Francais.

All crossings are via P&O's frequent Dover/Calais route (75 minute crossing time) and there's three different deals on offer:
  • If you fancy a day trip out, maybe for a bit of fine French food (or topup on cheap wine at a hypermarket), then a one day return to Calais with car and up to 9 people is just £19;
  • Or alternatively stay longer, and enjoy more time in France with a 2 day return crossing for just £29;
  • Or max-it-out with a 3 day return crossing for £39!
As ever P&O say this is a limited offer, there's "just" 50,000 tickets available, all bookings have to be made by 10pm on Tuesday 12th May, and your sailing taken before 15th July 2009.

More details as well as regular ferry crossing prices to France are over on P&O's ferry website.

And of course if you fancy staying in a nice French Gite, I know of a nice one which still has some available dates in May and June .... (and yes, we will do short breaks at a very good price if you're interested).

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

301 rewrite broke the website

Google Analytics - sudden drop in website visitors
I admit it, I'm a muppet.

We tell the kids (especially Jack, our youngest) that they're "a Muppet" when they do something stupid.

I can now confirm, as suspected for a long time, that the kids must get their Muppet genes from me as I managed to completely break the holiday gite website for a week as the Google Analytics graph above all too clearly shows.

Back in January 2009 I wrote about the "extreme website trickery" of using .htaccess and rewriterule to auto-magically transform requests for web pages such as to

I concluded with noting that I still had some work to do with ensuring that (i.e. the default home page) and (i.e. the actual home page contents) were appropriately dealt as a single indexed page (in Google and the other search engines) to maximise my page rank opportunity.

Well with some on and off fiddling of the way that the website menu structures were automatically generated I managed to change all the internal home page references from /index.html to just / so this did most of what I needed to do.

All that remained was to do some fiddling with the .htaccess file to return 301 (permanently moved) for any direct page requests to index.html and the job was done.

Although of course 'it ain't never that simple' with me!

I remembered that over the years I had moved around a few of the website pages and I was concious that there were links "out there" on the web that still pointed to the old website pages that were now broken and returning an unfriendly HTML 404 'page not found' error.

Easy I thought, I'll use a bit of .htaccess trickery to return a 301 response code and redirect any 'old page' requests to the shiny 'new page', page rank will improve, broken links will be banished and customer experience will be improved as a result, and all will be well with the world!

In my travels to work out how to decipher the intricacies of page redirection I'd come across an article by Steven Hargrove on redirecting moved web pages which simply said to include an additional line in the .htaccess file:

Redirect 301 /old/old.html

So that's what I did, I added a new line like this:

Redirect 301 /test/index_lytebox_mod.html

Job done, I uploaded the new .htaccess file, and left the website to it.

You'd think that after 22 years working in the IT Industry I would know better and remember to actually test any changes I make - especially those that are as 'deep rooted' as this in the webserver config file.

Well, Mr Muppet didn't bother testing this config change at all, and purely by chance a week or so later I went onto the website to check whether a particular week was available or not and found that EVERY SINGLE WEBSITE REQUEST was returning a HTML 500 error - "fatal server error". I hadn't just managed to break requests to the page that had moved on the website, I'd broken everything.

Google's Webmaster console was full of error messages about unreachable pages and most telling of all was the Google Analytics report of visitor details (above), graphically showing how I caused us to "drop off the internet" for nearly a week.

Commenting out the offending line of the .htaccess file immediately fixed the problem, but finding a working solution to redirecting moved pages has taken me considerably more time as all the examples I found were variations on a theme and everything I tried continued to break the website.

Cutting the story short, and pointing out yet more Muppetry on my part, in the end I found out that the problem was that I had an unprintable character in the .htaccess file and as a result whilst '' and 'test/lytebox/index.html' appeared to be contiguous text when editing the .htaccess in Notepad, actually they were separated by another (invisible) character and as a result the Apache server was barfing on the unrecognised 'extra' text.

Along the way I did an awful lot of research and tried lots of different approaches, none of which worked, until I found the actual root cause problem.

I'll point out a couple of things I did find though, the 'redirect to' URL has to be a full URL (i.e. http://www.blahblah/newpath/filename), it can't be a relative path such as /newpath/filename - at least one site I visited suggested that this was the case.

I can also recommend the htaccess elite forum on using redirect and rewrite for other troubled .htaccess users like me, and then a series of posting by 'produke' on sample redirect statements and a full explanation of how to use the redirect directive in .htaccess.

In the latter article I noticed that the server response code, 301 (permanently redirected), was optional and only introduced from Apache 1.2 onwards. All the examples I'd ever seen had included this response code, so if you have redirect problems then check the webserver version (or take omit the response code).

I'm glad to say now that removing the errant unprintable character cured all my redirect woes and so as a result I have a .htaccess file that prevents directory browsing, redirects requests for non www. pages to the www. version and also now redirects requests for moved pages to their new home.

Putting it all together the .htaccess looks like this:

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

### redirect any moved pages that still have old links to them
Redirect 301 /test/index_lytebox_mod.html

RewriteEngine on
RewriteBase /

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

Moral of the story therefore, test things before you put them live and look for the obvious (or perhaps non-obvious) typing errors!