Why you probably shouldn’t use Opodo to book your flights in Europe

When I lived in the United States I unfailingly used Hipmunk to search for flights.  They use an “agony index” which scores layovers, price, etc. to give you the best option for your journey, not necessarily just the best price (you can always click “sort by price” if you want).  They also have a simple and beautiful design interface that makes reading and understanding the fares simple.  Odd inclusion these days?  Amtrak.  Expected exclusion?  Southwest.  But you can always search Southwest in a separate tab.

Hipmunk simply doesn’t work in the European market as well as Skyscanner, which is the go-to travel website over here.  Skyscanner searches an absurd number of airlines you’ve never heard of, and then proposes all kinds of itineraries that don’t take into account any manner of logic.  Oh, you want to go to Budapest?  You probably want to stop in Dusseldorf for 4 hours on your way there.  No I don’t…wait, I mean, I’ve never been to Dusseldorf…and it looks like the direct flight is 100€ more.  Hmm.  Maybe I could go to Dusseldorf… (not a random example – I did do this last year, and Dusseldorf is definitely worth a few hours of your time, at least).  Alternatively, you’ll also want to check out Skypicker, which dynamically shows cheap flights in real time geographically.

I was headed to Romania to see some friends recently and had difficulty finding direct flights to Bucharest, Romania’s only airport, at reasonable prices.  It was short notice and it was December, so I understood.  I spun the Skyscanner bottle and landed on…Munich or Frankfurt for 8 hours on the way.  I polled my friends in a large facebook travel group and the vote was unanimously Munich.  Done.

I booked the ticket through Opodo for seats on Lufthansa.  Wait, what?  Why didn’t you go to Lufthansa?  Well I would have, but it wasn’t an option at that pricepoint.  Skyscanner lists a number of resellers of varying levels of excellence which have bought seats in advance for the express purpose of reselling them.

Some you will recognize – Expedia, for example.  Others, you will never have heard of, but like most Americans, will cautiously use because no one ever cheats you on the internet for flights, right?  I had used Opodo before, I think, with no serious issue.  I can also vouch for travelgenio/travel2be, though they look shady and my bank initially denied my purchase due to “high fraud with that site” they told me later.

Anyway, I paid for the flight through Opodo, got a confirmation number via Lufthansa, and even went into Lufthansa’s system with the confirmation that showed that yes, indeed, I had a flight to and from Bucharest from Roissy (Paris CDG).

Until I didn’t.

I was in my online banking website, preparing for a meeting with my accountant when I noticed that Opodo had refunded all but $5 of my ticket.  Hmmm.  I called Lufthansa after a login to their system revealed my return flight still, but no outbound flight.  In its place was an ominous error message: there has been a change in your reservation.  I explained all this to the bemused customer service agent, who, after conferring with her supervisor, informed me that the reservation number was simply a hold.  No ticket number had been issued.

I checked my email and nothing had been sent to me from Lufthansa or Opodo.  Four days before my flight and I had been dropped without notice – not even an email – and I only noticed because I was, by chance, looking at one of my accounts in online banking.

Opodo – which seems to be run like a vending machine – great when it works, but useless when it doesn’t –  at the time simply had an FAQ page where there should have been a “contact us.”  As of January 2016 they’ve added an actual phone number on the site.  That’s at least some progress.

I didn’t want to bother over an issue of $5, which they had effectively stolen.  I did another search on skyscanner, but this time I did a quick cross-check in my travel email for an aggregator that I had successfully used in the past – travelgenio won that lottery – and I booked my ticket.  Again.

And now I’m telling you this story over dessert in a cafe in Munich.

I should note I’ve successfully used Opodo at least twice in the past, but such a catastrophic letdown, which led to me re-buying the exact same ticket I had bought originally, but this time for 50€ more, is a dealbreaker…and I didn’t want any of you to make the same mistake when you take your casual trips around the continent.  And trust me, mine isn’t an isolated tale.  These guys are muppets.

If you have any resellers your really like or have good experiences with, please share them with us in the comments.

 

I forgot my passport

A huge pit formed at the very bottom of my stomach.  A hot flash of embarrassment started at my chin, ducked below my eyes, and lurched forward onto my forehead, spilling down my cheeks.  These physical reactions usually accompany the realization I have done something catastrophically wrong.  I said the words to myself, just for effect:

I forgot my passport.

I rehearsed quickly what I would tell my French cab driver, which would start with an apology and a request that he immediately turn around.

But my brain had already run ahead of me (as it is wont to do), presenting two factuals:

1)  If you turn around now, you will certainly miss your flight.

2)  On several occasions you have flown within the Schengen zone and not been asked for your passport.

This stood against the conditional:

1)  How do you know they will ask for your passport?

Since turning around to get my passport offered the same risk as trying to board my scheduled flight and being turned away (missing my flight), I decided to proceed.  My brain asked the conditional “but what about returning” question but answered it within seconds saying: “let’s worry about this first.”

If the driver had looked back during the two minute colloquy that had begun with that flush of embarrassment, he might have seen my furrowed brow accompanying my eyes glancing out the back window, moving side-to-side in a slow calculus, because surely part of me was wishing I took a short international flight more seriously than a bus ride.

Worse – I still didn’t have my permanent carte de sejour – I wouldn’t have it until April.  All I had was my temporary recipisse, which simply indicated that I would get an ID.

I showed up at Paris’ southern airport, Orly, about 30 minutes before boarding time.  It was a 07h20 flight to Rome.  It was my grad school friend Donald’s birthday, and he was due to be in Italy for a few days, so I thought to join him for dinner before coming back to Paris the next day.

As I passed through security the only thing they asked for was my boarding pass, which I was carrying electronically in Passbook.  I cleared security with a little bit of private nervous laughter.  As I moved towards the front of the boarding queue, I unfolded my recipisse and steeled myself with a confident insouciance (imagine a “What, I need a passport?” type of look).  The gate staff were really only looking to see that my name matched the one on the ticket so I’m not certain she even realized what class of ID I was presenting.  I shook my head after I passed through and wondered why I had been conditioned to think that in a 1st world country it was vitally important to always show ID.  Grateful for the nonchalance of the gate agents I started planning for hitting the ground in Italy.

Donald had booked a cooking class beginning at 10h00.  Since I was due to land a bit before 09h00 I knew I would have to take a cab.  Traffic cooperated and I arrived there and had a 6-hour culinary experience of learning, prepping, cooking, and eating.  It was lovely.

Since the theme of this blog has always been focused on Paris and France, I’ll perhaps share the details of the Rome trip at another time and in another place.  For now, know that I am writing this to you somewhere over northern Italy.  On my return to France the Italian gate agent had taken exception to my recipisse, but fortunately two (quite lovely) Russian ladies who also did not bring their passports had already been asked to stand aside while a supervisor was called.  I was asked to stand with them and we started speaking in French about the Schengen area.  “I didn’t forget,” said the older one, “I simply didn’t bring it.  You don’t need it in Europe.”  I shared that I had needed it in Romania, Poland, and Croatia, but then added, “but I’m not an EU citizen, you know, so I never go in your line.”  “Ah yes, she nodded.”  The gate agent returned and waved us through.

This time the cool wave of relief started at the top of my forehead and slid slowly and luxuriously down my head, cascading over my shoulders, and down the rest of my body.  I flipped to “music” on my iphone, tabbed to David Gray, put on Shine, and slipped my noise-cancelling headphones on.

***

Moral of the story: write a huge note to yourself of DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT YOU NON-EU CITIZEN and put it on your computer monitor the night before any international flight, Schengen or not.

How to Renew Your French Long-Term Stay Visa

The heavy, ancient printer started printing my recipisse.  I closed my eyes.  Whenever the old printer starts running in a French immigration office, you’re in the clear.  I had done it.  I had survived my first year in France and I had just renewed my visa too.  The relief and triumph wasn’t nearly what I felt when I first got one or confirmed it.  But it was relief.  Palpable relief.  I could go on about my year without having to think about this again for a while.

Because I had originally moved to Paris in December 2013 my one year visa was up that same month in 2014.  Trouble was it was around the time I needed to go back to see my family, take care of some business, etc.  I could have chosen to renew it earlier, or I could have just chosen to move to France sometime other than in December, but there it is.  Think about where you will be in one year whenever you do apply for your visa.  I think December and January make a lot of sense for many, though, because the move has all the notes of “new start” and you give yourself a whole year of runway (although some of our readers need only two months!)

To be fair, I had to make two visits, because they asked for some things I didn’t have on hand the first time.  Let’s start with that list, shall we?  You can find it on the Paris Police Prefecture website, right here.  You can also make your appointment for renewal online at this link.  I should make the point that I am speaking to people applying for a long-term visitor visa.  Students and workers should consult their own subcategories when preparing their dossiers.

So, my dear long-term visitors, if you clicked on the link you came to a page that listed your requirements.  Let’s start at the top.  Notice that they want the original and 1 photocopy for each of these documents.  If you have forgotten or the copies get damaged there are large commercial copying machines that charge you 10 cent(imes) per copy in the vestibule of the office you have to go to.  There’s also two photomaton booths to take your pictures should you have forgotten them.  They honestly do have your bases covered here.  When I say “here” of course I mean this building below:

1212px-Paris-prefecture-de-police
It faces Notre Dame directly and is easily accessible via the Cité stop on the Metro.  Bring water, snacks, a nice book to dig into, charger for your phone, and block out your whole day for whenever your appointment is.  Some say mornings are better, others afternoons – I only chose afternoons because I’m not a morning person and in both instances I “checked in” an hour before my appointment which allowed me to actually be seen only 30 minutes after my scheduled appointment time.  Be early – or you may not even get seen that day.  I’m serious.

Paperwork you MUST have:

1.  A copy of your original titre de sejour as well as the passport which contains it.  This is the sticker you would have gotten on your follow-up visit when you first arrived in France.  For visitors your first year titre de sejour resides simply in your passport.  Come renewal time, you actually get issued a card.

2.  Your birth certificate.  You’ll need a certified French translation of it.  Mine was written in English by the Singaporean government and the French translation cost 72€.  If you need the translator’s contact info, simply ask me.

So, about that birth certificate.  If you’re like me, you keep all your important documents in a folder somewhere.  The trouble was, up to the point when my eyes first looked upon these requirements, I thought I had brought them with me to France.  My birth certificate, immunization record, baptismal certificate, all that jazz.  After the search that starts with, “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” turned to, “Goodness, did I actually not bring it to France?” I ended with the eye-closed panic of, “Oh no, it must be with my stuff in storage.”

Before I went to the nuclear option of having to order new copies I called up reliable people in my life – a business partner, a sister, and my mother: “Did I leave any documents with you or do you happen to have a copy of my birth certificate?”  They all replied in the negative.

The boxes of “stuff” that comprised my life when I had an enormous townhome in the United States were currently peacefully residing in the spare room of a dear friend in Kansas City.  It was already enough that he was storing these things for me at no charge.  I wasn’t going to ask him to do the dreaded task ahead: go through all the boxes looking for a manilla or green folder that has a bunch of important documents in it.

Who could I call?  My ex-girlfriend.  I know, this sounds odd, but hear me out.  She is one of the sweetest, best girls I’ve ever dated and she can tell you herself that the move to Paris was perhaps the biggest reason we broke up.  So, could she now assist me in helping to prolong said stay in Paris?  Yes, she’s actually that awesome.

After work one day she drove 30 minutes to my friend’s house and audibly inhaled when she saw the roughly 20 boxes and rubbermaid tubs she had committed to going through.  She called me.  “You’re kidding, right?”  Chagrined, I replied, “Look, if you find it, great.  If you don’t find it, I still owe you.”  Various words of affection were exchanged and she commenced.  Two hours later, no dice.  She hadn’t found it.  (Postscript to the story: when I visited last month to clear out those boxes I found the documents, in a green folder, in a box closest to the doorway.  It might have been in a state of fatigue that she missed the closest possible option.)

So I was officially out of luck, and given that I had only pulled up the requirements 6 weeks before renewal (how hard could it be, right?  Wrong!) I now had to convince either the American government or the Singaporean government to get me a certified copy of my birth certificate.  Why would both of them have one?  Well, I was born in Singapore, so that’s why the Singaporean government would have one.  But I was born as an American citizen abroad, by virtue of my father, so we had a Consular Report of Birth Abroad as well.  Either would suffice.  I decided to bet on both simultaneously.

I went to the American Embassy the Monday after Meghan’s unsuccessful search and got a notarization for a request for the certified copy of my consular report.  I enclosed an American check with the $14.95 overnight mailing fee.  The Singapore process was a little more complicated, but more automated.  I would have to request a copy of my birth extract, which would contain my birth certificate number.  Then I could use the birth certificate number in conjunction with other documents to request a certified copy of my birth certificate.

What had my failure to bring this single document to France with me cost, apart from the emotional distress of waiting?  Roughly 300USD.  So, don’t forget, kids.

Ultimately, Singapore won my bet.  A registered letter containing my birth certificate arrived the day before my appointment at the Prefecture.  The American one had arrived at my American post office box (I use US Global Mail to receive mail and packages while I’m in Europe) a day before but because it was around the Thanksgiving holiday I would not get it overnighted to Europe in time.  And you can’t ask them to ship your certificate outside the US.

3.  3 photos of standard size.  As I said in previous articles, you can find these literally all around Paris and even if you don’t, they have two machines out in the vestibule you can use.  5 euros gets you 5 photos.  Keep the photos.  You’ll need them for other documents and applications while here.

4.  If you are married or have children you will need proof of marriage as well as the birth certificates for your whole family.

5.  EDF or QDL.  EDF is short for “Electricité de France,” the monopoly state-run organization who provides you with a bill you can use for pretty much EVERYTHING in France.  If you rent, like I do, you might not get an EDF, so you’ll bring an up-to-date Quittance de Loyer which is simply proof from your landlord that you are paying rent and have done so faithfully, etc.

So those are the basics for all visas.  Now, let’s look at page 2 and what we long-term visitors additionally need.

6.  12 months of bank statements.  I hope you saved yours or get them digitally.  These should come from a French bank account and you need to ensure that you are not receiving any income from any French companies.  Make sure any wire transfers that come in come from a corresponding account in your name.  Remember that you signed an attestation when you got your visa that you would not do work while here and the careless forgot that (or just stupidly got jobs) and the careful civil servant may look at your statements line-by-line.  All my paperwork had been in order up to this point so when my agent started flipping through my bank statements she looked up and asked, “where do you get your money?”  “I tutor on the internet and I also write.”  She nodded, flipped through to October 2014, which was the last statement I could provide, and promptly turned them all over to her “done” pile.  If you don’t have sufficient cash flows in said bank account (they like to see a minimum of 1.5-2k € a month of revenue) you may have to produce other evidence of means – be it a savings account, etc.  As I’ve written before, a simple letter from your bank will not be sufficient.  They will want statements.  (A previous version of this article implied that your foreign, i.e. non-French, account would be sufficient, but that is not the case anymore.  They want to see a French bank account for renewal.  If you have experienced otherwise for a renewal of this visa, please share with us in the comments.)

7.  Health Insurance.  When I was in America, it was okay to provide proof for this in English.  Not now.  You’re in France now, so just as my birth certificate needed an official translation, I needed one for my medical policy as well.  I had originally selected Cigna Global and while I only found out later that they did have French translations of all the relevant documents, the agent on the phone told me that the “front page” of declarations would be sufficient.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t.  The cost of translating my whole policy would have been more than simply buying a French policy of health insurance for foreigners.  So I did just that, and in my cancellation call with Cigna (with a very courteous and apologetic Irish girl) I was told that they did indeed have French docs.  Sorry, I told them.  Maybe next year.  If you want a French policy, I can put you in contact with my agent.  Great lady.

8.  Renter’s insurance for my apartment.  Ohhhhhh.  Well, despite the fact that my lease had stipulated that I carry this, I had simply forgotten.  This held me up at my first appointment and led to a “follow-up” at which time I would bring said documentation proving I did have it.  Rather than admit straight out that I didn’t have such insurance I simply said that I didn’t bring it, which was true – I hadn’t. 🙂  We scheduled a time 7 weeks out, when I would have been safely and actually back from my Stateside visit, and when I came back, having secured insurance (if you need that, my guy is great), I handed said docs to her.  She stamped a couple things, had me sign the document for my new carte de sejour and the old printer started printing.

What was printing was my “recipisse.”  It was a “temporary ID” that was valid for two months.  In two months I could come back to the prefecture, drop 106€, and pick up my permanent card (which I’ll have to renew again).  This was the final separation of my passport from the act of flashing “ID” when asked in France.  To be honest, my American driver’s license worked most times.  But if you’re writing a check, they will prefer a French ID, though some smiling and hand wringing will usually allow for the exceptional passport to be used as proof.

I was, of course, relieved.  I didn’t do this entirely by myself, though.  I consulted with someone who specializes in helping expats, Jean Taquet.  I first started speaking to him last year as part of a long-term strategy to build a business and stay in France.  If you want he will hold your hand every step of the way through the titre de sejour process, up to and including coming with you to the Prefecture.  It’s not free – but I’ll leave it to you to discuss fees with him.  I’ll also talk more about Jean and his help for those who want to make a long-term living here in a future blog post.

As always – remember that if you have your stuff in order and are polite you’ll have success.  Speak the French you’ve hopefully been learning all year with even a measured diffidence, and you’ll go further.

NYC: Parisians’ Delight

I’m always curious to know what fellow Parisians think of their visits to my beloved United States.  Often they have been to America, and usually, they have been to New York.  Now, when most people tell me they’ve visited New York, I tend to ask, “where” because I don’t assume they mean NYC.  And I certainly don’t mean what Parisians mean, which is Midtown Manhattan.

While Midtown has its own striking features, it’s hardly “New York” and worse, it’s hardly worthy of the answer to my follow up question of “Why do you like it?” which is “Because it’s the most European city in America.”

The one time I was eating when someone said this to me I almost choked.  That statement is so untrue on a number of levels, and I usually have to ask a number of follow-up questions to clarify why my acquaintance or friend has come to such a strange point-of-view.  Some commonalities:

1.  NYC is the only American city he/she has visited

2.  While there, he/she never visited Brooklyn, Queens, or the other boroughs.

3.  He/she was there for a week or less

These circumstances, combined with an ignorance about what other American cities have to offer, or worse, an ignorance about European cities, inevitably lead some of these Parisians to an idolization of NYC which is unwarranted.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Cloisters.  And the High Line.  And Brooklyn.  The Park.  Washington Square.  The MET and all the things that make NYC great.  But it’s not our finest city.  That title firmly belongs in the hands of San Francisco (but that article is for another time).  For now I’ll confine my remarks to NYC.

The cityscape itself

NYC is part of an elite group of skyscraper cities, which includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and the like.  There is nothing European about streetscapes and cityscapes of massively tall buildings that create wind tunnels.  Indeed, in Paris all such buildings are clustered outside the city limits, at La Defense, as if to say – build these if you must, but please don’t invade our living space.

I’m not arguing that skylines need to look like Florence’s, where the majestic Duomo and the competing Medici Tower dominate and all other buildings rise to about the same level, significantly below both those buildings.  But NYC’s cityscape matches none in Europe.

The melting pot

On this point it’s important to note that London and Paris, like NYC, fall into the category of “international cities.”  Surely you will learn about England and France, respectively, upon visiting those cities, but if you want to really know Britain, you need to go out into the shires.  Or to neighboring countries within the United Kingdom, like Wales.  If you would know France you should visit Bordeaux.  Or Bayeux.  Or Grenoble.  Or Strasbourg.  Those are all “European cities.”  But they are not multi-cultural melting pots.

London and Paris are playgrounds for those of us who love to learn about other cultures, but as “European cities” they are outliers.  Most European cities have a dominant language, ethnic majority, cuisine, and culture.  And at least, at the end of the day, London and Paris can claim their own culture too.  But what is NYC, but the cathedral of change and the bastion of commercialism and the consumer culture?  NYC is in its own way, a celebration of no identity and no heritage and no culture because of the mistaken belief that since all cultures are “equal” (whatever that means) that a melange of all is a culture in and of itself.  It’s not, and the banal and ubiquitous “I love NY” shirts is perhaps representative of what NYC can be at times: tourist hype.

The cost of living

One of the magical things about Wimbledon is that it’s still one of the major sporting events that you can buy tickets for the day of, at face value.  You’ve got to queue, but that’s really a minor inconvenience. 🙂  It allows the groundlings to mix with the elite who never needed to queue to have an assured place.

A European city still has a place for the least affluent in our society (and I’m not talking about the homeless here: they manage to find spots all over the world).  Paris is on the margins of affordability, but NYC is in another solar system by comparison.

This is all to say that my fellow Parisians might look for some treasures off the beaten path the next time they decide to visit the US.  This HuffPo list might be the place to start.

NYC: hardly the most European city in America.  It’s not even the most American city in America. 🙂

What I always see when I travel

“Wow, it sounds like you’re really into churches.”  My companion was to my right.  Corsica was outside our window and below, to our left.  He was a Spaniard and we were both headed to Romania that weekend.  I, for a wedding, he for a bachelor party.  Our conversation that afternoon had covered all kinds of ground but we had finally come on to why I had been in Madrid.  I told him I had taken opportunities to go on day trips to Ávila and Segovia.

“Honestly,” I said, “churches are the most important things to see.  They matter most, in a way.”  As the words left my mouth I realized I had never articulated such a thought before but that I believed it deep down in my bones.  I began to make my case.

“Think about whenever you visit a new place.  Apart from enjoying the language, food, culture, and customs, you want to enter into how these people are the way they are.  You can examine their buildings, see their art, and see their places of worship.

“Castles are majestic.  Museums are fascinating.  But they are, in their own way, simply an artifice.  The Louvre was a working palace before it became the world’s largest museum, and El Escorial (my favorite royal palace in Spain) is magnificent, but I’m only permitted to see it because it’s no longer the king’s residence.  If things were now how they were then, it would only be under some extraordinary circumstance that I would be able to so freely traverse the private apartments of the king.

“But the irony is that despite being constructed in the happiest times of monarchy, these churches are the most democratic of buildings.  Overwhelmingly they were built by the contributions of the whole community, be they great persons or small.  People contributed their time and expertise and money to raise these stony testaments to God.  Stained glass provided otherworldly lighting for the space and catechism to the illiterate.  Statues of wood or alabaster or marble brought the lives of the saints and stories of Scripture into real and convincing relief.  Some of the people were paid for their work as artisans, but many volunteered their time: these buildings would be legacies to be handed down from generation to generation.  They weren’t buildings frozen in amber, as museums often are, but these were living things, the pride and joy of the communities in which they were always located in the center.

“Go to any small town in the countries that comprised Christendom after the Protestant Revolt.  You will find inspiring cathedrals surely, but you will also find beautiful little churches, ironically proud in their humility.  People started their lives here when they were baptized.  They ended them here when they had a Requiem Mass.  They may have been joined to another human for life in the company and witness of all their beloved in the enduring tradition that is marriage.  Or they consecrated themselves to God’s service.  People gathered under those roofs in all times – in peace and in war – in plenty and in famine – in good weather and foul – and in times sad and happy.

“As you breathe in the incense and candlesmoke of centuries in a place where so many spoke to God – or didn’t – or simply sat and listened, your senses can be afire.  Churches are places that remind us, by their majesty, that all things must end, no matter how glorious.  This is why I go to churches whenever I travel: to remember that I am immortal.”

He simply nodded.  I looked out the window at a beautiful bank of clouds.  I closed my eyes and was again in the dark beauty of a Spanish church.