Lastminute.com – A frugal traveler’s Best Friend, or the Devil Incarnate?

Is there an experience more invigorating than realizing you’ve just spent $350 on something that will give you nothing?

I just want to see the Eiffel Tower - why does it have to be so difficult?

I don’t think so. I’m fresh off 30 minutes with lastminute.com, a United Kingdom-based travel-booking website and I’m sure my blood pressure is up, my heart rate climbing into the upper reaches of the aerobic zone and all the vessels in my head are ballooning into aneurism-blowing dimensions.

We’ve run into trouble getting  a hotel in Paris for the Easter weekend. It appeared we had one booked, but that booking was made in error and has been snapped back from us with the same pinching sensation of getting clipped with an elastic band.

I moved on to check out hotels at lastminute.com – I put in our dates – April 22 and 23 and up came a list of hotels including “secret hotels.” I should know better than to play with something so dubiously titled, but after checking the cancellation policy, decided to take a risk. It looked like the worse that would happen is I’d lose about $40 Cdn.

The idea behind the “secret hotel”  is that the hotel is so high-end that it doesn’t want anyone to know it engages in this last-minute whack-down-of-prices. You only get the name and address after you’ve paid up.

Surprisingly, this is not the part of my exchange with lastminute.com to go wrong. The hotel, the Westin Hotel de Vendome (no secrets here on hobonotes.com), is indeed an upscale establishment with bottom prices at $430 a night. I would have paid $175 – not bad.

The problem was that  I assumed entering the dates April 22 and 23 ensured that only hotels with those dates available would come up. Not so.

Lastminute.com spit out hotels with different dates – dates that I did not look at because of my assumption, and so at the very last phase of the purchase, the website informed me that I had just booked April 13 to 15 at the Hotel de Vendome.

I checked my watch. Today is April 13. What the what!?

I tried to get through to lastminute.com’s customer service – the privilege of calling them is charged to the customer, ie. me, at 10p -the “p” standing for pence or maybe 10 pounds per minute, which is really frustrating, because I don’t even know how much 10 pence actually is. Am I signing away my vital organs? Or just paying a penny or two?

When I finally got through lastminute.com’s multiple-layered phone system (press 1 for new bookings, 2 for existing bookings – even though I had dialed a number that was listed as specifically for existing books – remember I’m paying for every minute of the recorded system), I finally get through to a nice woman with an East Indian accent, who for all I know is in Mumbai.

Not to complain about that – it’s the way of the world these days. I’m just making the observation. I will complain about it later.

She goes into what is obviously a scripted patter about lastminute.com’s policies, about 80-pence-or-pounds into it, I say, “I’m paying for the privilege of being bamboozled, just tell me straight up: Can I cancel? Can I change dates, yes or no?”

She went to Script page no. 2, at which I interrupted her again and said, I just need to know, can I cancel or switch?”

Flip to Script page no. 3, and I said, “I get it. I can’t cancel, but you’d rather I pay more of this per-minute rate to hear it.”

She put me on hold while she called the hotel. 40-pence-or-pounds later, she came back to tell me they had agreed to cancel the booking without any charges. Apparently, the refund will show up on my credit card account in 7 to 10 days, which brings me to another complaint.

Why can they take my money in a nano-second, but take more than a week to hand it back?

So in the end, lastminute.com did the right thing, so I can’t say for sure they are the Devil Incarnate, but  I can say that providing different booking dates than those entered in the search is definitely misleading.

Postscript: I’ve had an hour and two chocolate yogurts to calm down, and so in the final analysis, I have to give lastminute.com the thumbs up for cancelling the reservation. I also received an email confirmation of this from another customer service rep within that hour, which was reassuring.

Making friends fast

As in so many places in the world, it is in Switzerland: It’s easy to make friends when it appears you’re carrying a 24-pack of beer.

This isn’t to say the quality of friends is that which your mother would approve whole-heartedly, but friends all the same.

It started when I gave  into my very North-American vice and picked up a 24-case of Coke Zero for about $13 – quite a bit more than in Canada, but as I said, it’s a vice and today I am missing a few of those.  With the case propped atop my right shoulder, I made the short walk back to our hotel.

Swiss soldier on the look-out for beer.

I didn’t get there before I heard two men shouting at me in German from a car waiting at a red light. The two, dressed in army fatigues  were waving me over enthusiastically, asking me to spare a beer or two for a soldier.  I look German, so I got away with laughing derisively at them before they drove away, all smiles, but no beer (or Coke).

The hotel manager, Reiner, and our helpful front desk clerk Daniela were on their break by the side of our hotel, and as I approached, their wide smiles and exultations expressed their mistaken belief that I was carrying some brewskies. Their faces melted in dismay when I came near enough they could identify the Coke Zero.

The dismay turned into shock when I told them that a. I’ve never carried a 24 of beer and b. generally, speaking I avoid alcohol.

“How can you live this way, how can you be happy?” they demanded to know.

“In wine is a cure for all things,” Daniela said, ” You don’t need vitamins, just wine.”

I can’t say that I agree  – too many tragedies, traffic fatalities, high levels of stupidity start with the bottle, but I’ve got nothing against the occasional glass so I promised to test Swiss wine at the coming autumn festivals.

In the meantime, Dave is spending his evenings reading to me from our favorite travel guru Rick Steves’ guide book, suggesting that this weekend we head up to one of Switzerland’s mountain-peak chalets where sixty beds are jammed into a four-bedroom house with shared baths, but the views are spectacular.

“Just pretend I’m Leslie,” I say.

Leslie is an Atlanta friend of ours who emancipated me from all socially induced pretense back in 1996 when she said to me, “Let’s not pretend that I will ever cook anything,” and “Camping? Never.”

Switzerland's famous Interlake region

Up to that point, I was under the delusion that a love of camping held some mystical virtue and cooking was a necessity, but happily Leslie showed me another way, and that way started with a firm  “No” to crazy ideas that would have me doing either, or anything even remotely resembling such. That includes booking into hostel-style accommodation.

So, no. We are not heading up to any mountain peaks this weekend, but instead will enjoy a train ride through the mountain range’s valleys. Much more civilized.