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Why do couples marry? Perhaps it is easier to ask why couples decide not to marry and continue just to live together. Marriage is a legally binding contract and not one that is easy to get out of (unless either partner has 'broken' the contract) and so people tend to live together without getting married as it is simpler. Many co-habiting couples will object to this and say that there are other reasons why they have decided not to marry but when we look at these reasons closely we see that there is really no argument behind them. For example, some people say that getting married is too expensive. A wedding can be as expensive as you want it to be. All that HAS to be paid is the registar fee (typcially around £200.00). This is a one-off payment and when you consider that a lot of people spend more than this each year on holidays then it is really not a vast amount of money. There is no law that says you must have the most expensive dress in the shop, or organise and finance a 12-hour eating and drinking binge for 200 people (180 of whom you will probably not exchange more than 3 words with throughout). Aside from the registrar, everything is optional. We married in October 2001 and invited less than 50 people to the entire event. It was a civil ceremony and afterwards we had a picnic where everyone brought along a food contribution of some sort. Sitting there sipping supermarket-brand cola from a paper cup and eating my Mum's sausage rolls I couldn't have been happier. It is what you do - not the way you do it - that counts. Others will say that they do not need a piece of paper to prove to others that they are a couple. To which I can say, 'neither do we'. We married purely for each other. It had nothing to do with anybody else. I do not feel the need to prove anything to anybody else. The 'piece of paper' means nothing to me. What counts for me is that we have promised each other to stay together a
nd to support one another and have asked our families to share in the promise by being there. Then there are those that say 'We are happy as we are, why change anything?' Marriage does not change anything for the worse - on the contrary, it changes things for the better. We view our relationship in a completely new light now that we are married - in a way we never thought possible before we married. We believe this is something you can only experience after you have looked someone in the eye and vowed to stay with him/her for the rest of your life. When we said those words to each other, we felt a whole new bond between us that brought us closer together. There are people who only feel the need to marry if children feature in the couple's future plans. Having children is something that we intend to do in the very near future but this was not the reason we decided to marry. It would be more truthful to say it was the other way around. We decided to marry and spend the rest of our lives together as one and then decided that children would add a further dimension to our relationship. Some people think getting married is all about one particular day and that after that life goes back to normal. For me, though, our wedding day was not the biggest or most important day of my life. What is important is what comes after it. Anyone can make a promise to someone but it is whether you spend every day after that living that promise that counts. Nowadays where life is more stressful than ever with redundancies, money problems, stressful jobs and all the other strain of modern life, marriage is more relevant than ever before as we need a strong bond to the one we love to strengthen and support us in this life.
Yet another tale of woe about Parcelforce (or Parcel Farce - a more accurate description). My main gripe about this company is their being totally out of touch with the modern world. One Wednesday in March they ambled up the path to our house with a rather large parcel of items I had ordered from a specialist Peter Rabbit shop abroad. As it was a weekday and both my husband and I work full-time there was nobody home. Parcelforce seem to think that we only work on Wednesdays as they left a card to say that they would be back the next day. But we work full-time (as does a large proportion of the adult population) so their jouney the next day would be completely wasted. I tried calling them when I found the card on the Wednesday to save them the trouble of making an unnecessary journey to our house the following day but they were closed by the time I arrived home from work (8.00 pm). So the following day I had to call them during work time and make alternative arrangements. I was advised to ask my neighbour (who is retired) to stay in all day aand wait for Parcelforce to re-deliver the item. I found this disgraceful. I said that if my neighbour happened to be home when they called, fair enough - ring her bell and ask her if she is happy to accept the parcel for me. But don't expect a third party to plan their whole day around someone else's parcel. The only answer I got was 'Well, isn't that what neighbours are for?' As they refuse to deliver on Saturdays (which would be a much more sensible solution) my alternatives were to either travel to Woking (without a car this would involve several hours of train and bus travel and plenty of additional expense) or to have the parcel delivered to the Post Office (not without an additional fee of 50 pence - it seems that they are determined to penalise people who work full-time). When I asked if the parcel could be delivered to the Post Office as this seemed to be the lesser of th
e two evils, I was told that the computers were all down and I would have to call back tomorrow. Sometimes when you call Parcelforce you are answered by a recorded message that tells you that everyone is too busy to take your call and that you should try later. At which point the call is terminated with no option of holding being given. Surely when I am paying for the call and making the call in my time (they are paid to answer calls, I am not paid to make calls), I should be the one who decided whether I want to hold or not? Anyone who doesn't want to incur these charges can hang up but after trying more than six times to get through I wish they would just allow me to hold sop that I at least have the feeling that I might be getting somewhere. It is also infuriating that when they are too busy or lazy to take your call that you have to wait to be connected (and start paying for the call) to be told this. When I finally got through it was arranged that the package would be delivered to the local Post Office but wouldn't be there for another 3 days (just how long does it take a parcel to travel from Woking to Surbiton?). So 3 days later my husband went to the Post Office (ironically he was off work for 2 days as he worked overtime throughout the weekend and so could have been home to accept the parcel there - although it would have meant waiting in all day for them so the Post Office option was more convenient). He went to the Post Office on two consecutive days only to find that the parcel had not been delivered there. In the end the man at the Post Office made a note of our phone number and said he would call us when it arrives to save us a trip to the Post Office every day. After another 2 days there had been no word from the Post Office so I called Parcelforce to be told that the package had been sent back to the US a few hours earlier! The reason for this happening was apparently that we had made no contact with Parce
lforce to arrange a delivery and so was marked 'not called for' and returned. I explained that I had arranged for it to be sent to the Post Office (fortunately I had made a note of the woman's name when this was arranged and taken a call reference number) and he confirmed that I had called but that I had been advised that the package could not be sent to the Post Office as it was from overseas. Although they had a note of my number (given when I called to make this arrangement) and they also had our address, not once did they think to contact us to let us know that it was not possible to do this. I asked the man if he really thought that after spending $40.00 on postage and even more on the items inside whether I would really just leave them for 3 weeks in the depot and show no interest in them at all? Unfortuantely he had been trained to read scripts out to complaining passengers and so I was simply bombarded with the text of Pre-determined Answer Number ... which says that for 99.9% of their customers things run smoothly and their parcels are received without any problems (funny that they themselves claim to lose 7% of all parcels so these figures do not add up). This enraged me as I am not interested in the 9 million other parcels they have delivered. If I belong to the 0.1% of the customers for whom things have gone wrong it's 100% disastrous for me. I wasn't waiting for the other 99.9% of the parcels, just mine. And in my opinion based on my experience they failed. All of this could have been rectified if they would just deliver on Saturdays. Letters and small packets are delivered on Saturdays - why not parcels?
Having been to Butlins Bognor Regis many years ago with my parents and brothers and sisters, I thought I would take a trip down Memory Lane and booked a weekend break there with my husband. When I looked through the brochure I wasn't surprised to see that a lot had changed since our family holidays there but I was looking forward to the old favourites (the swimming pool, the fun fair rides and the shows, for example) and also hoping to experience that little bit more now that Butlins have re-vamped their parks. The weekend that we had booked was an adults-only weekend and the brochure encouraged us to 'get away from it all' and to 'relax and enjoy the weekend'. This sounded just perfect for my husband and me so we booked on-line and decided to really push the boat out and opted for the deluxe accommodation and the half-board supplements. We were really looking forward to not having to worry about cooking and clearing up on holiday and enjoying the best accommodation the park can offer. As we had booked deluxe accommodation we were advised that we could check in 90 minutes before the other guests which we thought was a superb idea - first into the pool, or first onto the fun fair and it gave us that little bit of extra time there and that the queue at check-in wouldn't be as long. However, when we arrived we were handed a note at the front gate saying that we could check-in at 2.30 but the accommodation wouldn't be ready until 4.00 pm. Hmmm - we needed to fill some time. It appeared that although you could arrive and check-in before 4.00 pm, all that you could do until that time was spend money: the bars were open, the restaurants and cafes open, the shops and amusement arcades open. So obviously the idea behind is that the deluxe accommodation guests can come in earlier and spend even more money. Fortunately, by the time they had found our keys it was almost 4.00 pm and we headed off to our room. Deluxe
accommodation can mean different things to different people. However, I cannot think that anyone would associate deluxe accommodation with used tea bags on the floor, missing light bulbs, peeling wallpaper, torn sheets, chipped furniture, dirty carpets, used wine glasses in the bedroom, the balcony door not closed properly, no toilet paper, broken heater in the bedroom (during a very chilly winter weekend) and hot water that ran out after one 5-minute shower! But that is what we had. To say we were disappointed is perhaps an understatement. But it was to get even worse. The brochure stated that the half-board guests would be allocated to a restaurant depending on the accommodation booked. Seemed reasonable enough to me. Checking the prices we found that the half-board supplement (i.e. the difference between the self-catering and the half-board price for each accommodation type) varied. In fact, guests staying in deluxe accommodation had paid more than 20% more than guests in the studio (standard) accommodation for the food. This led us to believe that the quality of the food and restaurant would be higher than that of the cheaper option. We were looking forward to a relaxing break and were happy to pay a higher price for a higher standard. However, when we went to the restaurant for the first evening meal we found that regardless of the price paid the food and service was the same. It was a self-service style 'grab what you can and then search for a free table' affair. This was disappointing as from the brochure we had been led to believe that we were paying more for something better than this. The vegetables were tinned, the meat swimming in grease and everything was lukewarm as it had been out on counters for some time. The only soft drinks available were carbonated drinks - no water or fruit juice to be seen. The staff were totally disinterested and were even rude. The bread rolls were not fresh, tables had been left uncleared and
there was a general apathetic attitude to the place. The food was bland and tasteless and nothing short of chaos reigned in the restaurant with people pushing and shoving with their trays. It was worse than those school dinner days we all hated. Throughout the park the staff maintained an air of indifference about everything. Not once did we see anyone smile. When I smiled at the young woman working in the shop I felt as though I should have apologised for offending her - never have I seen such a look of contempt! When we reported the faults with our accommodation we were told that we could not be moved as the park was full. But we didn't want to be moved - to pack our bags and trail everything across the park - we just wanted everything to be rectified where possible for us to enjoy. Obviously the peeling wallpaper and chipped furniture would remain but it would have been nice to have heating that worked and the rubbish removed from the bedroom. And this should have been done before we arrived so we were not asking them to go out of their way and do anything more than was expected. Unfortunately, adults-only weekends at Butlins are basically 18-30 holidays without the sun. Hordes of loud, drunken brash, ignorant louts intimidated us throughout our stay. Not one night did we sleep peacefully - instead we were woken at all hours of the early morning by their singing, shouting, swearing and general nuisance behaviour. At times the noise was so bad that we felt we couldn't leave the accommodation for fear of being caught up in a brawl. There were broken windows, broken bottles, drinks spilt everywhere, fast food wrappers discarded randomly, even items of clothing abandoned in the car park. The couple in the room next to ours left early and had it been possible I am sure we would have done the same. Alcohol was even being served at breakfast on the Sunday. The free ativities all closed at 6.00 pm - which we considered
to be very early considering it was an adults-only weekend and there were no children who needed to be in bed by a certain time and that we were all on holiday and there was no reason to be awake early the following day. But the only activities open after 6.00 pm involved an additional cost and/or alcohol. It soon became apparent that this was the whole idea - we weren't supposed to enjoy the free activities, we were supposed to drink copious anounts of over-priced alcohol and spend even more money on tacky amusements and side shows. On the subject of over-pricing, even Burger King have raised their prices by about 20% compared to London high street prices (which are higher still than the rest of the UK). All in all we felt cheated and insulted. We certainly did not feel like guests 'relaxing and getting away from it all'. A formal letter of complaint has been sent to Butlins but judging by the lack of professionalism and enthusiasm of the staff at the park I doubt we will receive a satisfactory response.
Update!!! Lloyds TSB are now scrapping the £5.00 monthly fee for auhtorised overdrafts and the first £50.00 of your authorised overdraft will be interest-free! It just gets better... Looking at all the other opinions about Lloyds TSB I can see I am in a minority with my positive opinion of them. When I received a bank statement in March I noticed there was a debit card transaction on there that I had not authorised. Looking abck over previous statements I saw to my horror that the same transaction had been carried out on the 4th of each month for three months. The recipient was Virgin trains web bookings. I had used my debit card several months earlier to buy train tickets to the value of £30.00 over the net. Somehow, this £30.00 sale was appearing month after month on my statements. Immediately I called my branch (which is still in my parent's hometown, 80 miles away) and explained the situation. The young man said he would send some forms for me to fill out immediately. My past experience of people 'sending out forms immediately' has never been good so I thought I should pick some up from the Knightsbridge branch (close to where I work) and complete them there. But the following day I received the promised forms from my bank. Within days I received a letter giving me the name of the person dealing with the situation and their direct telephone number, address and fax should I wish to contact them. After a week I received another update on the investigation into these charges. When I called the woman responsible was never too busy to take my call even though I was only querying £90.00. All too often personal account holders are left to feel unimportant by banks but this is not the case with the Lloyds TSB. The £90.00 were promptly refunded and I was sent a friendly letter confirming that my card had been used fraudulently and that they were happy to credit my account with the £90.00. That
day i checked my balance and saw that the money was already there. But Lloyds TSB have not only excelled when there have been problems. Everytime I call into the branch to arrange a standing order, pay a bill or transfer funds I am greeted most pleasantly and the staff really give the impression that it is a pleasure to serve me (which is how it should be - customers pay employee wages, not just in banks but everywhere). One woman in particular is extremely efficient and professional and always greets me by name when I call in. You may think she knows my name because I call in every day. No, I have called in to the local branch 4 times in the past three months but each time has been a pleasure. The branch closest to my office is the Knightsbridge branch, which, due to its location, handles a lot of foreign exchange transactions and also holds a lot of big accounts belonging to the wealthy local residents. The staff are always genuine and friendly to every customer and it makes such a wonderful change. Recently I needed to order a new debit card and it did not arrive (I presume it was lost in the post). Lloyds TSB arranged for a replacement to be couriered immediately and also allowed me to withdraw funds from my account over the counter without having my cheque book or card with me.
Maybe it is just because I am getting married this year and seem to be surrounded by brides- and grooms-to-be, but it seems that weddings are back in fashion. There are to be 4 weddings within the next 12 months among the staff of 18 in the department where I work and one colleague was invited to 3 weddings in June (2 on the same day) and 2 weddings in July. With the costs of wedding rising faster than hemlines it is not surprising that several couples are looking to save money where they can. One place where this was possible was BHS. They introduced a wedding collection for brides, bridesmaids and page boys, comprising of dresses, suits, footwear, hair accessories, garters, tights and stockings, bags, shawls, jackets and even accessories for grooms such as cuff links and cravattes. The prices were very reasonable and last winter I spotted some outfits that would be ideal for our little page boy (whho will be almost 2 when we marry) and our youngest bridesmaid (who has just turned 7). When i first saw the items I was tempted to buy them immediately but common sense got the better of me and I decided to wait until this year when I have a better idea of what size they will be by then. Obviously I didn't expect the exact same designs to be re introduced a year later but the general idea of buying clothes off the peg for the little ones appealed to me and seemed less troublesome than taking them for measuring and fitting at a dressmaker's shop. The price was also a deciding factor. In specialist bridalwear shops I had difficulty finding dresses for the little bridesmaid below £120.00 but BHS had some beautiful designs starting at £40.00 and they were not too flamboyant that she couldn't wear the dress to a party later. For the last few months they have had the summer collection in and I bought my wedding shoes there for £20.00. They have similar shoes for bridesmaids in keeping with the bride's shoes as
well. Everytime we have been to look, the display area has been thronged with people trying on shoes, jackets, dresses, looking at tiaras and other pieces of headwear. When I bought the shoes I had to queue for a chair to sit and try them on! Yesterday we passed a BHS store (Kingston Upon Thames) and decided to ask when they expected to have the winter collection in. Once again the place was packed and we couldn't find a free assistant as they were all busy helping customers try on outfits and advising on the length of gloves suitable for a particular dress, etc. So we walked back through to ladies' wear and asked someone there. To our disappointment we were told that the wedding items were being discontinued. What was left of the summer collection was half price (to get rid of it) and there would be an extremely limited number of items from the summer collection carried over to the winter collection with no new items being added to them. This is so frustrating as this was one of the only places left where you could buy affordable outfits for children for weddings. After spending several hundred pounds on my dress, even more on the reception, transport, photography and flowers I am loathe to spend more than £60.00 on a dress she may only wear 2 or 3 times in her lifetime. (I know I will only wear mine once but I am hoping it will become a family heirloom.) Why has BHS decided to stop the wedding collection? It was always so popular. Not all of us want or can afford big fancy meringue-style dresses at our weddings.
Bring back Napster! It's not just because I liked adding to my music collection this way but because I cannot see any reason for closing it down. It should be allowed to continue in full format. There is no compulsion to use it and anyone who collects songs and other audio files in this way should be entitled to continue doing so. Apart from the fact that it allows people to listen before they buy (just as they can in HMV or Virgin Megastore), it is a great way of finding rare or unusual pieces. I have lived in several different countries and listened to artists from each of these places. It is a little difficult in Kingston-Upon-Thames to find the latest Icelandic CDs without ordering them, paying a fortune and waiting ages for them to be delivered. Napster always provided me with the songs I was looking for. Likewise with other audio files. Jeff Foxworthy has to be my all-time favourite comedian and although when I was living in Texas and Louisiana it was easy to get hold of his material, it's a little more difficult here. However, thanks to Napster, I now have a handful of CDs of his shows. Now what is the difference between downloading the songs/comedy shows from Napster and a friend copying a CD for me and sending it in the post? You can buy blank tapes and recording CDs and the equipment to make copies perfectly legally. So why should Napster be labelled illegal? We constantly hear that the record companies and artists are concerned about the loss of revenue and the breach of copywright. This is just ridiculous. Do we hear writers and publishing houses up in arms about public libraries and photocopiers? These are sharing and copying instruments for printed words, just like Napster is a sharing and copying instrument for spoken/sung words. People share books when they join a library but as far as I know it hasn't led to the closure of bookstores. In fact, books are selling more than ever now. I
f people do stop buying CDs from music stores and continue to copy and share music, it is because CD prices are far too high and we no longer want to support such a scam.
Since I joined ebay at the end of last year I have been well and truly hooked. The auction site is very simple to navigate and there is plenty of helpful information if you do run into difficulty. Just recently I also sold my first item through ebay so I now have experience of both buying and selling. Ebay probably has the largest range of items of all the auction sites - I collect Beatrix Potter things (anything at all!) and I am always finding interesting bits and pieces on ebay. Previously I used Yahoo! auctions but the range was quite limited and it was difficult to find unusual items. Using the feedback forum is vital for the continued success of on-line auctions. I must admit that if anyone ever said to me a few years ago that one day i would be sending cheques through the post to individuals I had never met before in the hope that they would send me some goods through the post I would probably have laughed. There is a lot of trust involved in on-line auctions but the feedback ratings show you what experience other users have had witha buyer/seller recently to help you make your decision as to whether you can trust them or not. Of course, even with an excellent feedback rating someone may let you down. Things can also get lost in the post and although it may not be the other person's fault, it's very much a case of your word against theirs. My tip in this case is to send things recorded delivery and keep the tracking number. I once sent money for an item which, 4 weeks later, still hadn't been received. As I had paid an extra 60 pence for recorded delivery I asked the seller for the tracking number. That way I could prove whether or not the item had actually been sent and lost or whether I was being taken for a dodgy ride. As it happened, the seller could not provide me with a tracking number despite 4 e-mails requesting it and so I threatened to file a fraud report with ebay. Well, guess what arrived
in the post the next day (postmarked the previous day)? But something mysterious is happening on ebay and I am wondering whether anyone has any idea as to how this happens. Just recently I bid on a Beatrix Potter game and for seven days I was the highest bidder. The auction was due to finish in the middle of the night a few days ago. When you win you are automatically sent an e-mail confirming your win from ebay and this also contains the other party's contact details. I had been particularly keen to win this item as I have fond memories of this game from my childhood and wanted it for my children. The next morning when I checked mail before going to work I saw that literally a few minutes before the auction was due to end I was outbid by 50 pence. This seems particularly strange to me as the auction was due to end in the middle of the night. Now it may be that a night worker or insomniac was surfing the auctions late at night and saw the item was about to finish and quickly placed a winning bid. However, this has been happening to me quite a lot recently, particularly when auctions close in the middle of the night. It may also be bidders from other countries where it's not the middle of the night for them at that time but I specifically look at ebay.co.uk and I can't imagine why foreigners would want to look there for a board game that may be available to them locally on ebay.com. A friend has even suggested to me that it may be the sellers themselves using a different ID to put in a bid so that they no longer have to sell the item - particularly when the price is not high enough for them. The answer to this problem is to set a reserve price, or minimum sell price. Naturally I am bitter that I have lost out on an item I was sincerely hoping to win. However, it seems strnage that in the middle of the night someone who has shown no previous interest in the item and not yet bid on it (you can look at the hist
ory of all bids - including unsuccessful ones) should place a higher bid and win the item minutes before it is due to close. Obviously there is nothing wrong in this. The whole point of an auction is that the items go to the highest bidder and it's just bad luck on the others. Has this happened to any other ebay users? Apart from this, ebay still remains my favourite auction site and thanks to ebay, our home is rapidly filling with beautiful Beatrix Potter memorabilia!
The recent IKEA television advertisement campaign has, to be honest, put me off going there again. (That and the fact that I have spent the past three weekends wrestling with Pax/Nexus!) Before moving back to the UK two years ago I was living in Germany for some years where IKEA really has attained cult status. The trend seems to now be slowly sweeping across the UK too and it won't be long before we, like the Continental Europeans, are kitting ourselves out in flat-pack furniture with names that sound almost rude. For many people IKEA is just MFI in Swedish. But there are differences and it was these differences that made me such a fan in Germany. Getting back to the advertising, one thing I did like about it was that they didn't advertise in every possible media source. This puts me off a company greatly as it results in the consumers paying inflated prices for their goods. IKEA only ever advertised in local newspapers in Germany and only at sale times (twice a year). My view is that anyone who needs to know about IKEA probably already does. Those who have never heard of them probably don't need to. For example, I can't imagine my grandfather spending the next four days puzzling through a booklet of instructions that resemble a university exam paper. IKEA's cost-saving goes further - and I'm all for it. The catalogue is international. No matter which country you live in, the catalogue is identical. Only the text has been translated. The names of the products and the pictures are the same in the UK as they are in Germany and everywhere else. Even the restaurant menus are uniform. I am not easily fooled by fancy store design and money-grabbing gimmicks, which is why I liked IKEA. You go there to look at and buy furniture and that is what you see the minute you walk through the door. No frills, no terrible outdated music coming out from behind the shelves, helpful signs to direct you around t
he maze of urban chic furniture and no chintzy sofas in sight! The procedure is pretty simple: pick out the bed/sofa/table you like, note down the name and go to a sales desk and order it. You are then given collection details or they arrange for it to be delivered (in the case of kitchens, etc). Smaller items, like chairs and bedside cabinets, don't require ordering at the desk. The label indicates where you can find the items in the warehouse and off you go! Another difference is the restaurant. No cheese ploughmans or beans on toast for this store cafe! Salmon, meatballs, pasta, salads and 'meal of the month'. All in pseudo-Swedish style and at prices you can't complain about. Downstairs you find a whole array of nick-nacks. Cutlery, pillows, pictures, mirrors, wrapping paper, you name it - IKEA's got it. As you trundle your way through the very epitomy of 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap', dodging all the 20-something couples in matching fleeces and hiking boots, you arrive at the warehouse. This is usually where the love affair with IKEA cools off rather rapidly. How many relationships have been tested to the limit in the IKEA warehouse. All over, couples are wrestling with enormous cardboard boxes and trying to manouver trollies through the aisles. Tempers soar as he drops a dining table on her foot and then she breaks a nail trying to pull a bookcase from the shelf. And where is that mattress? It's this one. No, it's not! Oh yes it certainly is! And who can remember the name of that nice looking table with a glass top? Whether you are paying for the items to be delivered to your door, or squeezing an entire bedroom suite into a Ford Fiesta, everything has to be wheeled through the check-outs. (Except for the Croydon store. There you simply hand over the list of the items you are purchasing, pay for them and take the list to the collection point. Here you sit and w
ait to be called - pretty much like a doctor's surgery.) The home delivery side of things is actually operated by another company and so really my opinion on them does not belong here. However, they obviously have a very profitable contract with IKEA and it is a shame that IKEA could not use this argument to demand that services either improve or another company will be awarded the contract. The main argument is that the home delivery charges are actually quite high and even then you have to accept a delivery date when it suits them and not when it suits you, although you are paying for the service. As we both work, when we handed over our items to the home delivery counter on a Friday evening we requested Saturday delivery. Not possible. It would have to be Monday. But we both work and I refuse to take a day's holiday to wait for my furniture. Apart from that, we requested Saturday so that we could spend all weekend putting the pieces together as we don;t get home from work until after 7pm each evening. Not having a City and Guilds qualification in carpentry, putting the things together proved almost impossible. Neither of us has even held a drill before, let alone used one. An electric screwdriver is certainly a good idea as I don't really think i have enough power in my wrists to tighten up screws sufficiently to hold a double bed together. Having spent the last three weekends struggling with IKEA furniture, I have come to the conclusion that I would rather spend a little more money and buy ready-assembled furniture. My freetime is more valuable than the money we saved buying flat-pack items. And the fact that they are now advertising in every connceivable way leads me to thinking that the days of being cheap and cheerful are coming to an end.
As part of their election campaign, the Tories decided that anyone travelling on a commuter train who didn't get a seat would be offered their money back for that journey. For some people, this would mean never having to pay train fares ever again. During the 14 months that I had to endure Connex commuter services into London I never once had a seat. (I sympathise greatly with anyone who has had to endure thm longer and for greater distances.) In fact, sometimes the train arrived at our station only to announce they would only be letting passengers off but not letting any more on and we would have to wait for the next one. The Tories planned to employ people to walk through the trains, refunding money to any standees as they go. Hmm...if there are people standing in the aisles how can anyone walk around with a ticket refund amchine strapped to his chest? Whenever I was on a train you couldn't even fit a knitting needle between the bodies, let alone a strapping Connex employee and his refund machine! Great idea by William Hague (I will always support something that means I travel for free!) but impossible to put into practice. But what more can we expect of politicians? Since they never use the trains anyway, they have no idea how cramped they get. But don't the train companies and politicians realise that there are more important issues to tackle before we look at seats for all? I spend all day sitting at work anyway, standing for 20 minutes each way is not so tragic. However, smelling like an beer glass when I get to work is a big problem. As is arriving anything more than 1 minute late. Before bothering about seats, can't the train companies at least clean the trains and make them run on time? One of the most annoying theings is waiting for a train home at a London terminal. the train arrives but no one is allowed to board as the train has to be 'serviced' (as they now call it) and when you board you find nothing but
rubbish everywhere and this so-called servicing has delayed your train! I realise that the litter on the train is largely due to other passengers' misbehaviour: the train companies don't deliberately fill the trains with old newspapers and soft drink cans. But don't delay my journey home even more under the pretence of cleaning my train and then make me sit in what resembles a rubbish bin. The fact that not everyone gets a seat and some people aren't even able to board trains is at times also due to passenger stupidity. I have had enough of the 'door culture' - people who refuse to move from the train door. There is often plenty of space further down but no amount of yelling 'Can you please move down inside the train?' from the platform will make them budge. Instead, they look at you as if they don't understand English, look around, shrug and continue reading the FT. This selfish attitude of 'Well, I'm on the train. I don't care if you get on or not' has to stop. Many of them are afraid of being wedged inside the carriage and then missing their stop. On a commuter train, 90% of the passengers will be getting off at the same stop: the last one. There is no way anyone can miss this stop. Others just want to be the first off the train and so barricade the doors to stop anyone else being able to get off before them. On the particular Connex line I used to use I was fascinated by the number of people who felt the need to travel one stop by train! They would stand at the penultimate station religiously, morning after morning. Sometimes they wouldn't be able to get on one train and have to wait for the next! All I can say is I would rather crawl on my hands and knees to work than pay extravagent fares to wait in the cold and rain, having to allow several trains to pass before one arrived with enough space for me to nestle under someone's armpit with a newspaper press
ed to my face and an umbrella in my ribs only to get off five minutes later! I could go about the number of tourists and visitors to London who feel the need to travel by train at 8am and then complain that the train is full, but I think you all know what I'm getting at already! So, although the passengers don't help the situation I still feel bitter at having to suffer the journey to work on a late, dirty train, travelling from a station where there is no shelter from the weather, the information boards constantly giving the wrong information, often no staff in sight at the station (and on the one occasion where I found a member of staff and asked him where this particular train was going he gave me the wrong information!)and at prices that, per mile, are dearer than long-haul business class flights. At least when I fly business class I have a seat (sometimes a bed), food is brought to me when I want it, clean toilets, entertainment, drinks from the bar, plenty of staff on hand to answer my questions, my luggage is carried for me, limo pick-up and drop-off, arrivals and departure lounges with showers, snacks, newspapers and office equipment...need I go on? Where does all the money go? I have now moved to a different area and travel by SWT. They are marginally better than Connex, but many of the old problems still abound. Let an airline take over the running of our trains (and I don't mean Virgin!)
In the days when Take a Break, or TaB as it likes to call itself, first started it was something new. Initially costing only 10p it was like The Price is Right in magazine-format. There were cars, holidays, cash, clothes, kitchens and toys to be won if you could survive a few moronic puzzles that make The Sun crossword look like University Challenge. As for the stories, well they filled the pages between the puzzles, rest stops for those who had been mentally exhausted trying to win a spending spree in Marks and Spencers. The stories are of the Jerry Springer variety. The plainest, most ordinary-looking people having wild, torrid affairs you thought were reserved for rock and roll icons. All this is acceptable, perhaps even interesting, for a week or two. Then it starts to get old and uninteresting. Just like Jerry Springer and the like when you're off work for a week. The first day it fascinates: questions such as 'How could he do that?' and 'Why did she let him get away with it?' erupt. By the second day, the deja-vu sweeps over and bow no one can remember whether Billy left Judy for Tara who was married to Pete but having an affair with Steve who was Billy's brother and Pete's boss, or.... forget it! The TaB stories are from the same mold and irritate after a while. Unfortunately, several other magazine have now jumped on the scandal and super prizes bandwagon and now the shelves are full of the not-so-secret affairs of women who still wear leggings and men with long hair and tattoos, coupled with the odd Caribbean cruise and the latest dishwasher. I must say that I tend to disagree with people with no morals and dignity being given a mouthpiece to let the world know how tough life is for them - and then to be paid for it! Lately there have been a series of stories of men and women leaving their wives/husbands AND CHILDREN(!!!) for fantasy lovers from the Internet. Why anyone thinks we are a) inte
rested in and b) supportive of such selfishness is beyond me. Such magazines are a paradise for those wallowing in self-victimisation and greed. From time to time we see campaigns to raise money for sick children and animal shelters, which is full of good intentions but totally misguided. It should not be the responsibility of cheap magazines to fund such causes. More pressure is needed on the government to accept the responsibility of such projects. This cannot be achieved if the politicians see that the general public are happy to bake cakes to raise money for cancer research - they will let them carry on doing so. I continue to buy this magazine in the hope that I can one day win a 'fabulous' package holiday to Cyprus flying from Stansted at 2am or a supermarket grab (I have always wanted £200 worth of Persil Colour). At least TaB has not sunk as low as Chat and offered a divorce as one of the prizes! (I am getting married ina couple of months and I don't want to tempt fate!) To be honest, I also yearn for better stories and each week open the magazine to be utterly disappointed. One piece of entertainment TaB has brought me: my mother and I hold regular competitions to see who can complete every puzzle in the magazine the fastest!
I spent my happy student days abroad and was forced to take on part-time work as there are no student loans or overdraft facilities available to students in Germany. There it is a case of either having rich parents or finding a job. Student jobs need not just be at McDonalds or the local pub. I worked at the library and also took on some extra hours with a major publishing company. Admittedly the pay was not fantastic and it was hard work studying and going out to work most days too. But nobody can say that they decided to go university for an easy life. Having survived and come out of university debt-free and with a wealth of work experience, I can now say I made the best choice. When I applied for jobs immediately after university, prospective employers were impressed that not only had I gained some work experience but that I had initiative and determination to succeed at all costs. It was character building and has all paid off in the long run. Remember in this day and age a university degree is not a golden ticket to a well-paid job. Most employers are now demanding some sort of experience too. Use the opportunity to gain some valuable experience - even if it is only during the holidays. It will all be to your advantage later.
We all seem to be on a constant trail of bargain-hunting these days and flights and holidays are certainly no exception. Everywhere you look (teletext, Internet, Sunday papers), you are bombarded with the latest deals in travel. But where do you start? How can you tell a real bargain? I have been working as a travel agent for several years now and this op should help separate the fact from fiction when it comes to travel. Fact number one: with a few exceptions (promotional offers, preferred agent agreements) no travel agent has any better prices than any other. This is particularly important to remember when shopping for flights. Airlines release the same discounted contracts to each and every travel company. The prices are the same, the booking conditions are the same and even the cancellation penalties are the same. The difference lies in the individual agents. For example, a passenger intends to travel to Singapore and calls various agents for fares. Agent A quotes £400 on Air France whereas Agent B quotes £420 on Lufthansa. Is Agent A cheaper? No, both agents have the same fares but Agent B just didn't want to sell the Air France fare. Agent C then quotes £450 for Air France. This is purely a case of a higher mark-up. The base fare is the same, the mark-up is just higher. Many agents work almost purely on commission and rely on marking up flights as much as possible. One agent will mark-up 10% and another 15% and so on. If Agent A can offer Air France for £400, every consolidator in the country can. Fact number two: no travel agency has a secret allocation of seats! Basically, if a flight is sold out - it is sold out. No amount of ringing around various agents (who are probably all sub-divisions of the same company anyway) will get you a seat. All agents all over the world book seats from exactly the same allocation. Even calling the airline themselves will not help as they are also booking from the same allocat
ion. Sometimes it may be the case that the flight has sold out of discounted tickets as there are a limited number of these on each flight. The only seats then left are at the airline's higher published fares and often have to be purchased instantly. Fact number three: scheduled airfares do not drop nearer to the time of departure. Too many people are confused by the different principles on which chartered and scheduled air fares work. Chartered air fares are slashed a few days before departure (subject to seats still being available) as they need to sell as many seats as possible to operate the flight. This may mean selling them at much lower profit margins and gives passengers the opportunity to snap up last-minute bargains. The disadvantage of waiting until a few days before departure is that you run the risk of the seats being sold out beforehand. Scheduled air fares, however, increase in price closer to departure date. Seats are released 331 days in advance. There are a limited number of seats at the lowest fare. These are usually the ones to be booked up first and once they've gone, they've gone for good. There is no such thing as a last-minute cancellation. If someone who bought a ticket 10 months ago for £200 cancels two weeks before departure, the seat will not go back on sale at £200 but at the current maximum selling price, which could be £800. Or if may be automatically assigned to someone who has been sitting on a wait list for 3 weeks. Fact number four: Only the check-in staff can allocate the much-coveted exit row seats. It is a CAA regulation that the check-in staff must physically see and visually assess the person assigned a seat in an exit row as there are certain criteria that must be met before being allowed to sit there. The passenger must be over 15, be able to communicate in English effectively, not suffer any physical disability which may prevent him/her from opening the door quickly and saf
ely, etc. It is interesting when taking reservations over the phone that all male passengers claim to be over six feet tall! This doesn't help at all. The bulkhead seats in the centre block can be pre-allocated by the airlines but are only assigned to parents with infants requesting bassinets and wheelchair users. A certain number may be reserved for high-status frequent flyers but this is not always the case. Fact number five: There is no such thing as a cheap fly-drive. 'Fly-drives' are becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the US. Many travel agents will offer prices as low as £249 for a 2-week fly-drive to the number one love it/hate it destination: Florida. Watch out! These fares are often based on 4 adults travelling and are usually for a two-week stay but with one week's car rental of the lowest grade (2-door economy). Tax, insurance, handling fees, surcharges are not included. The cost of renting a such a car for one week in Florida is well below £100.00. Divide this by four and add it to the flight price and Bingo! There's your fly-drive. However, 4 adults will not fit comfortably in the car, they will have to 'upgrade' to a higher category anyway. The rental is only for one week so they'll have to pay for an extra week. Then comes the cost of the insurance (which in the US is astronomical). Many an innocent tourist has been faced with a huge bill within an hour of getting off the plane and if they didn't expect this and budget their spending money accordingly, it can be disastrous. My tip is to book flight and car separately. It may seem expensive, but remember that 80% of the car rental price is insurance which would only have to be paid once you get there anyway. Fact number six: There are no free child places. Nobody gives away anything free - it's just a matter of pricing policy. The 'free child' offers that we see constantly are a clever way of encouraging f
amilies to book this particular resort or with this particular operator. But the parents pay for the child in their inflated adult prices and flight supplements. It's a well-known trick. Compare the prices of resorts for adults only of the same standard and see the difference in price. Better still, book the hotel and flight separately with each supplier directly and see the saving you make. Not only did you cut out the middleman, you paid for exactly what you wanted. If you are travelling with children then the 'free child' offer is probably a good thing because you simply pay for them in the adult price. However, if you are travelling without children, it seems unfair that you should pay higher prices to cover the cost of other people's children. A real example taken from a brochure: One week in a three-star all-inclusive resort in Jamaica in April - £759. One week in a three-star all-inclusive resort in Jamaica offering massive child discounts in April - £929. These two resorts are almost next-door to each other and offer almost identical facilities and entertainments. Why the difference in price? To cover the cost of the children. I hope that this information helps you a little through all the options available to you. My number one piece of advice - only book with ABTA-bonded agents. That way you can be sure your money is safe.
Must admit I'm a bit of an addict when it comes to this show (likewise with Airport!) and it probably has something to do with being a travel agent. I don't know how Easyjet has managed to only sell tickets to people with limited intelligence and also to employ people who cannot cope with these people. It's a dangerous cocktail which explodes every Monday on our TV screens. There are the passengers who get to the airport too late (be it due to traffic and train delays or lack of organisation on their part) and are astonished that the plane can't wait for them. If you get to a bus or train station late (either through your own fault or entirely unintentionally), does the bus/train wait for you? I don't think so. If a plane is late, it has a knock-on effect all over Europe in terms of air traffic control patterns. Slots then have to be re-organised all over the country. It is extremely dangerous, especially over London where the airspace is already cramped, to miss your slot. Let alone the inconvenience caused to the hundreds of other passengers. The there are the passengers who demand to be re-protected, as it is called, free of charge on later flights. It surprises me just how flexible Easyjet can be on this policy. Maybe it's just for the cameras but the normal procedure (not jsut with Easyjet) is that an economy-class ticket is non-refundable, non-amendable and non-transferable. It is purely at the discretion of the airline whether you will be allowed to board a different flight. Most airlines would not even entertain the idea of switching passsengers from flight to flight just because they can't get out of bed on time. Then there are the really annoying passengers whose meetings/appointments are so important they have to let the whole of Bedfordshire and beyond know what a disgrace it is that they have been denied boarding for arriving late. If the meeting really is so important, why fly
on such a cheap airline on the day of the meeting? Even if they had been on time, acts of God (weather, floods, engine failure, etc) can always prevent an aircraft from taking off on time and can even lead to flights being cancelled. This often affects early morning flights out of Luton in the winter which are often delayed due to the pilot's old enemy: fog. Turning our attention to the staff, it is difficult to see what Easyjet expects of their staff. Admittedly, they are dealing with some of the worst passengers in the world who have little understanding of CAA regulations, but a little more customer service wouldn't go amiss. They are often responsible for making a bad situation even worse by constantly reminding passengers that they are lucky they aren't flying BA 'cos BA would charge ya for a whole new ticket, ya know' and the old favourite 'It's not our fault you're late'. A little more tact and diplomacy could certainly be used and a lot of the staff could also make good use of some lessons in eloquence. The manner in which they address the passengers can be painfully embarrassing. In many cases it would simply be more effective to leave the passengers to 'simmer' after an outburst instead of hounding them around the airport, as Helen Skeggs often does, and continually remind them that BA would have charged them for re-validating their tickets. Customer service does not lie in merely pointing out that the whole matter could have been even worse: the passengers want action and not excuses. Even if the action is to politely refer them to the conditions of booking to which they agreed at the time of sale. No further disputing and finger-wagging should be necessary but Easyjet staff have a knack of inviting customers to argue back. Still, they must be doing something right. People are still filling the dozens of flights each day out of Luton and Liverpool. My estimate is that i
t is the fact that they have abolished the minimum stay policy on leisure fares (unlike the major IATA airlines, who insist on a minimum of one Saturday night at the destination). But it just shows what some people will subject themselves to for the sake of saving money.
Well, it seems I'm the first one to write about my old Univeristy. I spent six years here from 1993 to 1999 as I believed that the courses I intended studying could best be studied in Germany (German and Scandinavian Studies). It would not be faur for me to compare a German University with a British establishment as I have no experience of University in the UK. All I knew was that I would be expected to complete a degree course in three years over here and I wanted more flexibility than that and Germany seemed like it would offer me that chance. In Germany you are free to choose the courses and classes you attend. You have a set list of courses which have to be successfully completed in order to graduate. The order you do them in is more or less left to the individual to decide (and let's face it, we're old enough to decide our own futures). You can also attend courses that have nothing whatsoever to do with your course. If, for example, you were studying biology and wanted to brush up your Spanish, you are able to attend as many Spanish classes as you wish. The only compulsory course for all students is Latin. Everyone must have GCSE equivalent for their Bachelors exams and A-level equivalent for Masters. As there are no student loans or grants on Germany, 87% of the students work at least 16 hours a week to pay for their administration costs, living costs and other incidentals. Fortunately, the University provided the students with plenty of employment opportunities: in the libraries, assisting the professors, in the post room and other administrative offices, in the cafeteria, cleaning, gardening, etc. I was fortunate enough to be offered a position on the library and as a student assistant to one of the linguistics professors. As so many students have to work, classes are repeated several times a week to give everyone a chance to attend. Classes start at 7 am and finish at 10pm. There are also classes on Saturdays and S
undays and all exams were held at the weekend. One thing I must say about British universities: I visited my sister once at her Univeristy in the UK and on Saturday afternoon I was surprised to see that those students who were up (not many of them) were lounging in pyjamas in front of Grandstand, sipping beer and munching crisps. In my halls of residence there was no one around on a Saturday afternoon. Half of them were working in rest homes and hospitals, the other half were making up classes they couldn't attend during the week because of work commitments. Just an observation... The University of Cologne has a cafeteria that has been nominated 'Best in Germany' and is also the largest in Europe. There are over 50,000 students at the University and the cafeteria manages to provide all of them and the staff with excellent meals. The cafeteria has several floors, all offering a different kind of meal. The lower ground floor is organic vegetarian food (both buffet-style and set meals), the ground floor has various hot buffets, there are also good set meals and themed restaurants. The cost to the students varies between 60p and £2.00, depending on the meal chosen. They have a minimum of two courses and are available from 11am to 9pm, enabling everyone to eat a decent meal regardless of their timetable. You can also watch TV on cinema-type screens or surf the net whilst eating. The student participation level in the day-to-day running of the University of Cologne is extremely high, with the students asked to vote on all major issues affecting the university. They are also asked to assist in preparing the lessons with the lecturers and professors and their opinions are always valued. The teachers are graded by the students too and they publish the feedback each teacher has received. The only drawback for most people is that all the classes are taught in German. Fortunately this wasn't a problem for me as I am bilingual anyway.
Students at Cologne are also expected to understand English as research material is not always available in German and many academic texts were written in English and have not yet been translated. English tests are randomly carried out and extra help is offered to those who struggle. All-in-all, a very realistic university, very student-friendly and a fantastic educational opportunity.
One of the perks of being a travel agent is the free trips all over the world and one of mine last year was to Barbados. A group of 7 colleagues were going to test some hotels, posing as a group of friends and secretly rating the quality of service, cleanliness, etc. In five days we had 7 hotels to get through and we started as soon as we arrived. Fortunately we were flying business class on British Airways and so arrived very relaxed and ready for work. Gillian Taylforth (Kathy from 'Eastenders') was sitting in front of me on the flight and was off to Crystal Cove to record an episode of BBC's Holiday programme (shown in January). The first place we visited (and spent the night) was on the south coast. We were there during low season (June) and it was very windy. Being travel agents we were prepared for this but it seems a wedding party on our flight wasn't and the bride was most concerned about her new hair-do. Obviously being there for work is not the same as being there for pleasure and you see things in a different light. The casual, laid-back attitude may be perfect for honeymooners but when you have appointments right through the day from 8am until late night it can be infuriating when people show up over an hour late (if at all) and it doesn't appear to bother them. After travelling so far, the hotel manager didn't think we'd mind if he went for a swim before holding the meeting which had been arranged in January. The south coast is windier, rockier and the water is choppier than on the west coast (our second destination). This being a poorer country I was not surprised to find the hotel rooms quite dirty and scruffy and cockroaches in the bar. It is also very popular with the British and several restaurants offer chips and burgers (we even saw fish fingers on one menu - more distressing, there were people actually ordering this junk!). That evening we had an appointment with a restaurant-owne
r and on the way we constantly harassed by street traders. We declined their wares because we did not want to encourage even more of their hard sell. I am more inclined to buy from a stallholder at the side of the road who waits for me to approach before trying to interest me in his goods rather than someone who pounces on me as soon as I leave the hotel lobby and bombards me with his sales spiel. Even better, we should try to avoid such salespeople all together and encourage the development of the local economy through recognised trade. There was even a certain amount of aggression among the salesmen as to who 'owned' which tourists and which section of the street. Two of them started fighting over who had the best baskets and we left just as it got quite nasty. The west coast has a cleaner beach and calmer sea (due to the geography of the island) but the salesmen are just as persuasive there too. One of the hotels we were staying at had a private beach (thumbs up) but they invaded with their tapes of steel band music, baskets, fruit and one woke me up whilst napping on the beach to ask if I wanted to see turtles with him (thumbs down). Obviously several tourists did and out they went in their boatloads, armed with sliced white bread (!) and disturbed the peaceful turtles. Haven't they thought that there might be a reason why they keep so far away from the hotel beaches? If there's one thing I don't need when posing as a tourist, it's a pushy salesman who seems to have a problem understanding 'No', even when accompanied by several shakes of the head. The hotel food and services were excellent but it's a shame that the islanders have allowed themselves to be let down by these pushy salesman. However, this is becoming a strong feature of several poorer countries. There is also so much rubbish everywhere. We even saw a couple getting married )yep, under those plastic heart-shaped arches) with Coca-C
ola cans, beer bottles and other refuse strewn all over the place - er...no thanks! Yes, there are some beautiful parts of the island and some beautiful houses. These tend to be the hideouts of the British rich and famous, though. There needs to be a more concentrated effort to promote tourists not to encourage these illegal sales and to support the local economy in such countries.