At the End of the Day

Me6“Breakfast in the hotel is included in the price at an additional cost,” said the website for the hotel at Charles de Gaulle airport. I was glad about that, as I’d have to get up at 05:30 hours the next day to check in for an early flight….and thus would not be requiring the free cost-more breakfast.

When it comes to travel these days (as with almost everything else) the rules are an unpleasant marriage between caveat emptor and Lord Queensberry. Let me just offer you a few pointers.

First up, it’s not wise to use intermediaries who make lavish promises about cheaper prices “because we shop around”. On a room costing €115 online, the price if you ring the hotel direct is likely to be anything between €20-30 less.

Second, those intermediaries often use an economy of description that in days of yore would’ve been called fraud. The Yotelair chain (building a brand very astutely within airport terminals offering hourly prices for stopovers) uses some middle-men who quote €75 a night…. ‘a night’ meaning four hours. You could very easily find yourself in an involuntary and embarassing ménage à trois on that basis.

To be fair to Yotelair, when I discovered this – having already paid – they refunded my money without any quibble. Not all hotel groups do that: bizarrely, if you pay online upfront for an Ibis room and your plans change, they will say “Hard luck matey”. Whereas, if you reserve and then pay on arrival, you can cancel with almost total flexibility. As always, I sense the Dead Hand of the binary-brained accountant in that nonsense….cashflow added by stealing money is very much the bean-counter’s façon in 2017. Screw the customer loyalty and brand reputation, just give me nice fat columns for the short-termist remote shareholders.

Third, buying online is convenient at first sight, but a nightmare if your life is anything other than tediously predictable. Website software is a stranger to the idea of people being resident in one country while paying with a debit card from another State. Autofill ensures that if you write “British”, then obviously it is impossible you might want to pay in euros. The system simply stops dead and refuses to accept any excuses for your mad and probably depraved choices: at the very best, you are suffering from ‘User Error’. (This deranged conclusion is based on the sad lifestyle of software designers, who rarely venture forth from their attics without expert help on the left foot, right foot order of play.)

Filling in a form online – an e-visa for example – involves the sort of pain for which an anaesthetic antidote has yet to be developed. The civil service employed by my country of destination has adopted a four-stage process with the following obstacles strewn at random in the hapless user’s path:

  1. The date of birth panel refuses to accept numbers
  2. The current address panel refuses to accept an address without numbers
  3. It waits until right at the end of Stage 3 before pointing out that you fucked up at Stage 2
  4. When you make the correction to Stage 2, it points out that the other 15 sub-sections are now blank again
  5. Because by this stage progress is terribly slow, the software gets suspicious and times you out.

It’s like snakes and ladders, but without the ladders side of the equation. And the real prize is on the last page, where you press the Pay Now button to discover that the cost of two hours with the Marquis de Sade is going to be a princely €120.

The only way to feel even slightly better at the end of this torture is to Google ‘Help filling in entry visa form for Ubazomania’, and then read the distressing tales of those poor devils who never made it to the tape, having been doomed to spend an eternity in the Help Forum.

Most of them date from the 2009-12 era. The pleas are heart-rending, conjuring up images of wizened old inmates unable to find a way out of the Chateau D’if  they unwittingly entered.

“Does anyone know where my grandma was born?” asks one. “Please help me, I don’t know what 5ft 6″ is in metres” wails another. “What do they mean by ‘If unclear, do know that clarity failure could result in your passport being flagged’?” begs a third.

There they sit, dozens of Mr Ks feeling guilty about a crime of which they have no knowledge, beyond the certainty that they didn’t commit it.

But then, satisfaction in reading about tragic confusion requires a degree of schadenfreude most of us don’t possess. It is, I think, preferable to imagine that there really is a Heaven and Hell after all, and that bureaucrats end up at the gates of the latter venue. The Devil is there to greet them, a terrifying leer on his pockmarked face.

“You died leaving your passport with three months to run,” Beelezebub asserts, “why have you allowed this to happen?”

“I, er, didn’t expect to er, um, die as it were,” Sir Algernon Analblythe stutters.

“You have three choices of eternal accommodation,” barks the Diabolical One, “Room 1, Room 23 and Room 56. Which is it to be?”

“Er….I don’t know,” Analblythe whinges.

“In Room 1,” says the Horned Avenger, “residents are in freezing water up to the waist. In Room 23, they’re in tepid water, slowly rising past their noses. And in Room 56, they are knee deep in shit, drinking the most delicious Assam tea”.

Sir Algernon weighs up the pros and cons before saying, “Room 56”.

The Devil leads him to Room 56. The Whitehall mandarin collects a cup of tea, and wades into the quagmire. As the door closes, a voice announces, “Right….tea break over, back on your heads gentlemen please”.