Monday, May 21, 2018

Travel Tips for French Holidays

Sometimes, I feel like I could give Rick Steves some tips about traveling in France that he might not have run into yet since he hasn't lived here for nearly five months like I have.
Today, we had some challenges that we've learned to deal with over the months, before I tell the story, I'll give you the tips straight up, just in case you aren't interested in the unfolding drama.

1. If you rent a car, check to see you aren't returning it on a Sunday, a holiday, or any other day that the car rental office might be closed. We've done this a few times and there seems to be a hefty fee related to it. Travelocity has not alerted us when we reserve a car that the office will be closed when we return it.
2. American credit cards often don't work in the gas station machines, so fill up on a day when there's an actual person present -- not a Sunday or a holiday -- so you can give them cash or they can run  your credit card.
3. There's a 150 Euro hold on a credit card when you fill up at a gas station, so think before you use your debit card. It will be a couple of days before the actual price of the gas replaced the 150 Euro hold.
4. Check the bus and train schedule on holidays and Sundays.

So, we rented a car more than two weeks ago when we dropped our sons at the airport in Paris. We had an 11-day housesit in the Poitou-Charente (near Cognac, France) and then we drove to our rental house in Quillan, France on Saturday.
I carefully chose Monday as the day to return the rental car, knowing to avoid Sunday.
What I didn't realize was that Monday (today) is a holiday in France. What holiday is it, you might wonder? Pentecost Monday or Whit Monday as it is known in some places.
"That is quite a big bank holiday," our British hosts warned us.
I tried calling the Hertz desk where we were returning the car in Carcassonne. We could not change the date to Tuesday since we had rented through Travelocity. Travelocity offers some help via Twitter, but not very much. They weren't able to  help at all when I had difficulties returning a car to La Rochelle a few months ago, which ended up in an extra $200 fee.
Hertz at Caracassonne airport did assure me that they would be open on the holiday, so that was one difficulty tackled. But I had to figure out how to get from the Carcassonne airport back to our home in Quillan, about an hour away.
There is a 1 Euro bus that runs between Carcassonne and Quillan -- perfect!
But, it's a holiday, so will the bus be running?
We walked to the tourism office in Quillan and the man circled the bus scheduled. Because of the holiday, the bus would run on a limited basis. We could catch the bus at 9:43 a.m. or at 1:37 p.m. It's about an hour and a half trip with stops along the way
We'd just get up early, return the car to Hertz, catch a taxi to the train station in Carcassonne and pay 1 Euro to ride back to Quillan. Simple!
I had a class scheduled to teach at 2 p.m., so we couldn't miss the early bus, or we'd have to find another way to get to Quillan, but how much could a taxi cost? 50 Euros? That's how much we paid in Paris when going from the airport to a hotel during rush hour, a trip that often took an hour.
Well, the Hertz office didn't open until 9, which made the schedule a bit tighter.
We left at a few minutes after 8 for the 53-minute drive, but the GPS seemed to send us to smaller and smaller roads. We also stopped at three different gas stations to try to fill up the car. Not a person was to be seen in any of the gas stations (it's a holiday after all) and both our debit cards and our American Express cards were rejected by the card readers. (No, we still do not have our Visa credit cards from Chase after they were stolen more than a month ago - that's another story).
Luckily, we had paid for the car to be filled up, but the man at the counter said it would be cheaper to fill it up ourselves unless the car was down to a quarter tank. We had more than half a tank but were grateful we'd prepaid so we wouldn't get a penalty on top of having to pay for gas.
We followed some convoluted signs to park in front of the airport then wandered into the terminals. The woman at the information counter said we could leave the car there but needed to go to the building across the road to turn in our key and paperwork.
It was a busy road as we wandered in that direction, but before we crossed, seeing a guardrail across the way, I noticed an underground staircase that went under the road. By the time we returned the car, my watch said 9:25. The train station was 11 minutes away by taxi. The helpful woman at the Hertz counter called a taxi. It wouldn't arrive for 10 minutes. There was  no way we'd make the 9:43 bus to Quillan.
"How much to travel by taxi to Quillan?" I asked.
"140 Euros," she said. Gulp.
What choice did we have? We ordered a taxi to Quillan.
This Monday class was one of the first scheduled classes I had for VIPkids, teaching English to Chinese students. I hadn't wanted to cancel my first class. By the end of the weekend, I had 20 classes scheduled, so cancelling one class ahead of time wouldn't have been a big deal, but I couldn't have known that. We had to get home before 2 p.m. so I could teach.
Earl and I paced outside of the rental car office waiting for the taxi and lamenting the waste of money.
My mind raced through possibilities. We could rent a car for a week for 140 Euros and return on another day when it wasn't a holiday.
Finally, I pulled out the bus schedule. We couldn't reach the train station in Carcassonne in time to catch the bus, but we might meet it somewhere along its route.
The biggest city between Caracassonne and Quillan is Limoux. The bus was scheduled to be there at 10:21. We could beat it.
The taxi driver pulled up and I asked him how much it would be to drive to Limoux. He estimated somewhere between 60 and 70 Euros. Half price the drive to Quillan. We took it!
After a 20 minute drive, for 67 Euros, he dropped us at Limoux train station before 10 a.m. The place was deserted.
As people began to show up, we became less nervous.
See the building in the background, there's a urinal there on the right side, no door. 
It's kind of disconcerting to be standing in a lonely train station hoping that a bus will arrive. We went to the ticket machine and paid 1 Euro each for a ticket (we could have bought the tickets on the bus). Having a ticket in hand made us feel more certain that the bus would arrive.
Then a man, woman and child arrived and the man asked whether the bus was coming.
"J'espere," I said, I hope, and we both consulted the bus schedule -- the 10:21 -- he agreed that was the bus he was waiting for. 
A family, a backpacker, a wide mix of people waiting for the bus. 
Other people arrived. A man with what looked like fishing gear. A young couple with the guy on crutches, a man with a hand cart for moving heavy things. When the bus showed up with Drake playing in the background, we all climbed on board and arrived back in Quillan at 11 a.m.
The hip bus driver with his popped collar and Drake playing on the radio
So we saved 70 Euros, or you could consider we wasted 60 Euros, because if we'd gotten to the train station in Carcassone, probably for the cost of 10 Euros, we would have saved what we paid the taxi driver.
After our harrowing morning of transportation issues, we wandered to a cafe along the river and drank a coffee in the sunshine. 
Looking relaxed after our hectic morning
Then we paused at a bakery for a loaf of bread and chausson pommes (apple fritters) covered in powdered sugar (which is unusual).
I was home in plenty of time to prepare for my class. And, at 5 minutes after 2, I received a message that the student wouldn't make it for the class.
Ah, well. At least I was ready, and everyone knows the importance of not traveling on holidays in France.


sillygirl said...

That was certainly a big "pearl" to put on your life necklace!

Anonymous said...

It's true that some gas stations don't take American cards. Roady at Pont Rouge does, and I think Leclerc also. Considering the price of gas these days (€1.50-ish a liter...that's about $6.70 per gallon), I'm not surprised the taxi was so expensive. Quillan is more than 50kms away, and the taxi has to drive back empty.
You can look up holidays on Two weeks ago, there were holidays on May 8 and May more holidays until July 14.
Services/shops at airports tend to be open regardless of holidays.
Glad you made it back in time!!!

Shelagh Kouwenhoven said...

I am exhausted just reading this. Never mind all the anxiety. What a day.

Lee I said...

What a day indeed! I've sent a question about credit cards to my daughter. I'm pretty sure her credit card worked at French gas stations. Or mine did, if she borrowed it for the fill-up.

Jeanne Washburn said...

Love these tips...Thanks!

Paulita said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. It's amazing the things you have to adjust to living in a new culture. Sometimes credit cards work, but when they don't, it's usually on a day when no one is working! Lol

Sim Carter said...

Hilarious! Do you have a list of French holidays for the year? One thing that strikes me is that Europeans -the French anyway- have more holidays than we do! They certainly know how to live while we often toil away 24/7.

Jeanie said...

These are such good things to know. Yes, I'd be getting that holiday listing too, and posting it where everyone can see! Great tips!

Sunny in Mirepoix

Many days I can’t go on adventures because I have to teach in the afternoon, but the Chinese New Year holidays provides me with some free ti...