What a failed holiday in Spain teaches you about the reasons for Europe’s failure

October 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was to be a week spent looking at paintings in the Prado.

Problems began as soon as I started to look for a hotel. From guest reviews on several usually reliable websites I usually book on, I quickly realized that Madrid Hotels were not worth the stars they were awarded; that they tended to be noisy; poorly serviced; and seriously overcharged people for what everywhere else in the world are expected to be included in the room rate: breakfast (anywhere between 12 and 25 euros per person!) and wireless connection (the usual rate being a not-problem free 6 euros PER HOUR). You could say, I suppose, that in the age-honored conquistador manner, Spaniards are into monopoly pricing and rent seeking behavior.

I decided to book an apartment instead. The leading short-term rental agency (Rent4Days) did a minimum amount of work to take a booking, charge my credit card and send me a list of stiff penalties in the event I should cancel. I accepted since other agencies were not prepared to meet me at the premises — they were literally — I am NOT making this up — asking me to go from the airport to their office in one part of town, collect the keys, and then go and let myself into my rented apartment in another part of town. (No, I am NOT making this up).

I booked air ticket on Rumbo, a Portuguese website, who promised to sell it to me for whole 15% cheaper than everyone else. I checked their credit-worthiness and all appeared in order; the airline’s computer system was confirming the existence of the reservation placed through Rumbo; I moved on to pay… only to discover that the 15% discount was BEFORE service charge which — you guessed it — was exactly equal to 15% of the purchase price! But don’t blame the Spaniards for this spot of false advertising. Rumbo is a Portuguese company.

Then about 20 days before my departure, the airline — Iberia — Spanish — wrote to me that my flight schedule has changed and would I please approve it; if I did not, they would of course refund my money for this ticket (which was otherwise not going to be refundable).

I was not happy about the change since the flight changed from early morning to midday robbing me of half a day of sightseeing; but I agreed in principle — what the hell, I was too tired to go out and do it all over again; but being naturally lazy and of procrastinating nature I have failed to confirm my acceptance of the new schedule.

And thank God I did since 4 days later — 16 days before departure — the agent from Madrid (Rent4Days) sent me an email to tell me that the owner of the apartment they had contracted to rent me has sold the unit and therefore it was NOT available; would I care to choose another; otherwise, of course, they will be happy to make a full refund.

Now, that got my goat. Refund? Refund? How about a late cancellation penalty? What kind of business is this Spanish company? They sell me, under threat of cancellation penalties, a product they don’t have? A product whose delivery they cannot guarantee? And they notify me… by email? Were this the United States, this would never happen, of course, but, if by some miracle it did, the president of the company would be kneeling on my doorstep, beating his breast and offering me keys to a rental Porsche made available to me for one week for free in contrition. But Rent4Days… sends an email!

The hell with Spain, I said to myself, told the agent to refund my card (I am still waiting to see how many weeks – or months -that is going to take) and went onto Iberia’s website to refuse the change of schedule. Only to discover that while you can “refuse” online, to ACTUALLY arrange an ACTUAL refund you must ACTUALLY call them. So I called them. On something called a 700 number. That’s the one that’s free — free for Iberia, that is. Yep. You pay 35 cents a minute to Iberia for the privilege of calling, being put in queue, and, after three minutes, getting disconnected. Three times in a row. Don’t imagine for a moment my local phone company will refund that money to me. (“To get a refund for any telephone call to a 700 number, you must contact the owner of that number directly”. Yes, that’s right, that would be… Iberia. Get it?)

I am still trying to get through.

A leg of the trip was to be done on EasyJet, a British discount airline. Worried that a missed connection or a flight cancellation might end up in me not making the flight, I bought at the time of booking a cancellation insurance thoughtfully offered by EasyJet. At the time of sale, EasyJet did not disclose I was buying insurance from — yes, you guessed it – a Spanish company (Mondial Assistance). “You will get the complete policy by email”, the website advised helpfully. An email with that description did arrive in my mailbox. So, I now went to look it up. The attached document did NOT spell out any details. I called Spain. “Oh, no, assisted me the Mondial Assistant assistant: we only cover cancellations due to health reasons or job (i.e. if your boss cancels your holiday for you).” “Are you saying your policy does not cover missed connections or cancelled flights?” “No.” “Are EasyJet misrepresenting your policy on their website?” “I don’t know.” “I will tell them that they do.” Did I really hear her say — or was I only imagining it — “Yes, you do that. There is probably a 700 number for that.”

Except — there isn’t. There is not even a general complaint contact on the EasyJet page. Thanks, Easy Jet, for putting me in touch with a reliable, honest, and helpful Spanish insurer. Guess which discount airliner I am NOT going to book again?

I have to say, after 10 years in America and 20 years in Asia, this Ibero-European form of capitalism seems to be a kind of madhouse. I now know why the continent is in crisis; and, I have to tell you, I find it fully self-inflicted and think they deserve whatever they’ve got coming to them.

POST SCRIPT:

Finally, I did get through to Iberia. If you wish to make a refund, there is a 30 Euro cancellation charge. I am NOT making this up. Iberia enters into contract with you whereby they agree to deliver a specified service for a specified fee; then, if they fail to deliver within the terms of the contract and you balk, they charge you a fee for balking. Anything else you want to know?

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