The tree in front of our house is in bloom. Natasha says that it is either a cherry or an apple tree. The flowers are small and a frost may yet get them, but it is still quite amazing. It also produces a very strong scent, which I do not find particularly pleasant…
Returning home from a holiday, however short, always ends up emphasizing the contrast between the fun of vacation and the banality of everyday routine. To fight this unfortunate after-effect, we immediately got into full swing of planning our next trips, the first two of which will occur in the first half of April. Adding 5 confirmed (with more in the works) visits from family and friends during spring and early summer, we should be well-equipped to minimize routine as much as possible.
In the meantime, it’s back to getting up early, driving Becky to school, going to the office, and so on, according to the familiar script.
Kimmy had the cast on her arm taken off and appears to be all right. Natasha is slowly regaining her voice. Becky and I are welcoming them both back into the fold of healthy and uninjured.
I went with a bunch of co-workers to a Bavarian Beer Festival. That is a rather grand name for a pub that serves several brands of Bavarian beer along with some traditional Bavarian fare, prepared English-enough to be sufficiently bland. The beers themselves are of easy-to-find variety (Erdingers and Paulaners, mostly), which was quite a disappointment to me. I was hoping if not for kellerbier, then at least for Hacker-Pschorr Weisse. There was very loud music, some of which had nothing to do with Bavaria, Germany or even Europe as a whole. There were large groups of adequately inebriated revellers, occasionally dressed in what was supposed to pass for traditional Bavarian garb. I spent most of the time trying to hold discussions on politics, sports and travel destinations over the incredible din around us with various colleagues. I also downed four liters of Erdinger Hefe-Weisse, which prompted more than half a dozen trips to the loo (including a critical stop-over at a McDonalds half-way home) and considerable discomfort the following morning.
By the way, I went to lunch with a co-worker today, to a pub, and we had beer with our fish and chips. Not that this is the first time that I had beer in the middle of a workday, but we liked it enough to agree to do it regularly.
Natasha, meanwhile, took the girls to a market and endeavored to teach them the art of street-smart shopping: Comparing prices, looking for bargains, identifying alternatives to supermarket shopping, etc. Now that she knows more than one good market, she is getting back to her well-honed mastery of reducing the family budget strain by shrewdly seeking the best possible deals in her everyday purchases. And every master requires students, obviously. Becky, anyway, is a natural, having already cut her teeth at bazaars in Rostov. Kimmy is a bit shy as yet, but the market atmosphere definitely appeals to her.
They also started experimenting with cooking. Kids, I mean. Kimmy has learned to prepare fresh salad, including cutting and mixing. Natasha, obviously, supervises, but Kimmy is doing everything herself. She is at an age where she needs to be praised for the quality of her dish several times during the meal, but it is truly an excellent salad. Becky has prepared pork chops today, and they were excellent also, although, unlike her younger sister, she was quite indifferent to praise. She did, however, put together a sizeable shopping list for Natasha, to obtain ingredients for some seafood stir-fry.
I can only sit back and enjoy, occasionally salivating.
For the second part of today’s post, a brief discourse related to vacation planning.
Over the last few years, we have had a number of satisfactory occurrences in renting apartments for our trips. There are many websites out there that provide easy-to-use mechanisms for researching and securing apartment- or B&B-style accommodations for vacation needs. We have not encountered any problems, and even though the quality of offerings varies, always came away with a positive feeling.
Our friends, while planning their trip to London, have followed our advice and looked for an apartment. We even pointed them to a property that was the first to come up in a simple search on our favorite website. They sent an inquiry, received a response, and were ready to consummate the deal, when they received a notice from the website warning them that this particular vendor was suspected of not honoring the reservations… Whoa! The very first attempt – and such a negative result. Could be worse – they could have already sent the money – but still!
This misadventure nudged me to share a few important but simple practices to follow, for those readers of mine who may ever decide to rent an apartment or a villa online.
First of all, establish communication with a prospective vendor. Ask many questions. Evaluate promptness, completeness and breadth of responses. In many situations, you may be communicating with a person who does not speak English well, so adjust your impression of them accordingly. Of course, chances are that a fraudulent vendor will be making an effort to appear inviting, but the more you get to communicate with them ahead of time, the better you will be equipped to make an intelligent decision on their trustworthiness.
Do not rush into snapping up an appealing apartment. Letting it percolate for a few days (while keeping communications open) gives you a window to discover potential problems.
If a booking calendar is available at the website that you are using, pay attention to whether the property shows being booked on various dates. If all dates are available for months ahead, it is a bit of a red flag, but that, of course, also depends on how much in advance you are doing your booking.
Testimonials are rather valuable on the directory-style websites that allow guests to post them. The number of recent testimonials is a better gauge of quality than the marks themselves (although seeing consistent low marks is, obviously, bad). When the quality of accommodation is good-to-excellent, people tend to want to leave feedback, so a dozen of positive testimonials in the last year is a pretty good sign, even if the marks end up to be not perfect.
Conversely, testimonials found on sites that are dedicated to specific properties are fairly worthless, as they can be easily falsified.
Nonetheless, definitely visit the stand-alone site of the vendor and research your target there as well. All reputable vendors create comparatively elaborate sites, and offer direct bookings there.
Be wary of going for the lowest-priced of the alternatives. Always have more than one alternative in mind. Pay attention to the disparity in price, compared to the difference in size, amenities, location and such. If you see something that is fairly comparable, but priced very differently, the lower-priced property is bound to have some problem.
50% deposit is the maximum that is acceptable. Unless other signs strongly support reputability of the vendor, payment in full prior to arrival is a red flag. If someone requests payment in full well ahead of your arrival, walk away.
PayPal is a widely acceptable method of deposit remittance, followed by credit cards and bank wire transfers (although I prefer to stay away from the latter, even though sending you bank account details appears as giving you an additional proof of vendor’s trustworthiness). Requests to wire money by Western Union or to execute a postal order are clear red flags.
Bottom line: Renting accommodations online is largely a safe and pleasant endeavor, if due diligence is applied. Happy travelling!