16 December 2011

Christmas shopping and antiques market in Venice

Here's a link to an article I wrote a couple of years ago about Christmas shopping in Venice. The only real change is that this year's antiques market in Campo San Maurizio runs from the 16th December (today) until the 18th. Stay tuned for more about winter in Venice...
> Christmas shopping in Venice

10 December 2011

Strikes in Italy

Many Italians aren't at all happy with the package of cuts proposed on their behalf by their new unelected leader Mario Monti. So December in Italy is likely to be disrupted by a number of strikes and possibly demonstrations. Although strikes are often threatened and do not always go ahead, travellers should be aware of the following provisional strike dates. This list contains all the relevant strike threats I've found mentioned, but it may not be comprehensive or updated.
- Monday 12 December: General strike of 3 hours or more involving several unions.
- Thursday 15 & Friday 16 December: Transport strike (check the website of any transport organisations relevant to your travels). Railways strike from 9pm on 15th for 24 hours; extra-urban transport likely to inflict 24 hour strikes on 15th, and local transport the same on the 16th, with certain peak-hour services operating. Also on the 16th, Milan Malpensa and Linate airport staff and Meridiana Fly staff will be on strike.
- Monday 19 December: State employees (which could include the staff of state-run museums), postal services
- 20 January - another local transport strike is scheduled

Wondering about the timing of Monday's strike? Well, the 8th of December is a public holiday, so many Italians will have taken the following day, Friday, off work for the traditional ponte 'bridge' or extended weekend. So a strike on Monday means that the long weekend can be extended still further....

6 November 2011

Sunshine in Sardinia

Last month I returned from a trip around Sardinia. At the end of September and beginning of October the weather was still hot and sunny. The island's resorts were open for business, but the famous beaches of Sardinia were almost empty. It was a great time to visit and see Sardinia at its best, and I explored some fascinating places, from the lively tourist town Alghero to the remote beaches of the Maddalena archipelago. Even though I was relying on public transport, I still managed to get to some out-of-the-way spots, including a couple of the island's enigmatic nuraghic archaeological sites.

You can read more about Sardinia as new pages are added to the Italy Heaven website in a dedicated section for Sardinia:
> Italy Heaven guide to Sardinia.

Current highlights include historic Olbia, a gateway to the island, and the picturesque seaside citadel of Castelsardo.

20 August 2011

British Airways flights and group bookings (short version)

(See the long version)

Booking my BA flights as part of a holiday through a tour company has taught me:

- Group bookings are treated differently from normal bookings, even if you have a booking reference number

- You cannot check in online or using BA's mobile app, you will have to check in at the airport

- You can request that your flights are associated with your Executive Club membership number, and you can earn miles and tier points (call BA for assistance with this)

- You may be able to view your flight under 'My bookings' but you won't have access to 'Manage my booking'

- If you want to upgrade your class of travel, ask at the airport check-in desk, BA don't offer pro-active upgrades in advance

(Note: this is based on my experience and BA's responses to my queries).

British Airways flight booked by a tour company (long version)

(see the short version)

In case this is of use to other travellers...

I booked an organised holiday through a tour company (Exodus). I had the option of booking my own BA flight to Naples, or letting Exodus include them in my holiday booking. A quick check showed me that the prices would be pretty much the same. Considerations of potential liability/insurance claims led me to book the holiday inclusive of flights.

There followed extended exchanges of emails with both my tour company and BA as I attempted to confirm check-in arrangements and whether I could earn BA miles and tier points on the flight with my BA Executive Club membership. Exodus notified BA of my membership, and the flights appeared in my BA mobile app under 'my bookings'. Not, however, on their website when I logged in.

A helpful customer service assistant at BA checked my flights and tier points (20, the standard Euro Traveller amount), and a couple of days later the flights appeared on the BA website under 'My Bookings'. However, clicking on 'Manage my booking' led me to an error message.

Exodus assured me "You are able to check in on line 24 hours before departure" and erroneously stated that "You are unable to upgrade on this flight as they are small planes with no business or first class seats available" (I've flown this route and there is the usual BA short-haul Club Europe cabin). A week before travel, BA's flight search was offering two Club Europe seats on the flight at high prices... so probably unlikely any affordable upgrade will be on offer later. Regarding online check-in, BA wrote to me "As you have made a group booking, you will be unable to access your booking through 'Manage My Booking' and check in online for the flight".

Exodus suggest that specific seats may be requested through one of their agents - I may try this and report back.

Unless events prove otherwise, I am stuck with queueing to check in at the airport - with the August crowds - and getting a limited choice of seating. I was interested in upgrading the flights to earn more tier points, but this possibility is not open to me until the airport - minus any special offers that would have been accessible through 'Manage my booking'. An email from BA states ambiguously that "If you pay for your upgrade, you may then earn Tier Points for your upgraded cabin."

So booking through a tour company has given much less control over my flights, without the possibility to use online or mobile check-in, earn more tier points, or choose a seat prior to airport check-in.

As a note to anyone with the same initial dilemma: Yes, allowing your tour company to book your flights may well provide increased security if you have to cancel or if things go wrong. A group booking may be cheaper in some cases, and may be nice if you are travelling with a group you already know (perhaps groups are seated together?). But you may be sent back to the dark ages of air travel, without the convenience of queue-skipping online services. Frequent flyers will find this frustrating. And the upgrade/tier points restrictions may also be worth considering.

In short, if you want to keep control of your travel, think hard about how you book. I could have paid a similar price, travelled on the same flight, met the group as arranged in the destination airport, but benefited significantly if I had booked my own flights. It also, as it turns out, would have saved me the time spent trying to hunt down correct information about British Airways and group bookings. The conflicting messages and lack of online information has led me to write this article.

Perhaps there will be no airport queues (not even at Naples), a good choice of seats and no problems... I'll report back.

15 August 2011

BA upgrades - and Gatwick lounge

As an update to my previous post about the merits of upgrading from BA's Euro Traveller class to Club Europe, I've now upgraded on a UK - Italy flight. This was my first opportunity to sample the hospitality of a dedicated British Airways lounge - and I was very impressed. The BA lounge at Gatwick is large and very lavish compared with standard airport lounges. It's large, with a TV area, a quiet business area, and lots of armchairs with views out over the airport. Children are - marvellously - confined to a kind of soundproof glass 'cage' and despite the number of summer travellers, it was quite peaceful.

The food was exceedingly generous. A large salad cart with a good choice of healthy options, cheeses, speciality bread rolls, soup of the day (tomato and red pepper) and sandwiches. As well as these filling fresh foodstuffs, there were also loads of pre-packaged items, from cake slices to cream crackers, from Kettle Chips to boiled sweets. Two self-service bars provided limitless alcohol - wines, spirits, mixers - as well as fruit juice, soft drinks and hot drinks.

It was a great way to fill up before a flight - on the short trip to Venice, it was a challenge to manage the onboard meal after feasting in the lounge.

Consequently I have now set my heart on getting BA Executive Club silver status (not that easy if you only fly within Europe) in order to gain access to this marvellous spot, and others like it, while travelling on my frequent standard-class flights. You get various other perks with silver status, including extra BA miles, but I think lounge access is probably the most useful benefit. I would advise those with similar inclinations to consider this quest towards the beginning of their membership year, however. I have only a few weeks left and 100 points still to accrue...

10 August 2011

Ba Club Europe upgrade - is it worth it?

Is it worth upgrading from BA Euro Traveller to Club Europe?

Euro Traveller is the British Airways standard class for travel within Europe. Club Europe is the business-class equivalent. Sometimes, before your flight, BA may offer you 'upgrade offers' – for example, £59 per leg of your journey. Is it worth the additional expense?

It all depends on your journey – destination, length of flight and time of day – and on your priorities. Flights are classed according to their length and the time of departure, with different food and 'comfort' options for each band of flights. You can find out more about the food options and flight categories by scouring useful forums like flyertalk.

I fly frequently on the Venice – Gatwick route, a flight of approximately two hours. In standard Euro Traveller class you are offered drinks – hot, cold, alcoholic – and a choice of cookie or birdseed. There are three seats either side of the aisle; seating is reasonably comfortable. The first row of seats on the left, behind first class, is the most comfortable place to sit as usually you will have first-class seating - two wider seats with a narrow folded seat between them.

The best offer I've received for upgrading to Club Europe on this route is £59. Not a bargain, especially considering my sister, flying a longer flight to Greece, obtained upgrades for £40.
On my last journey Venice- London I decided to pay the extra and give Club Europe a go. Here's what I got for my money, and what I thought:

- Priority queue for bag-drop and check-in at Venice Marco Polo Airport. In theory useful, in practice I got stuck behind a family travelling on connecting flights with lots of baggage, so had quite a wait.

-Priority through security. The check-in clerk scrawled on my boarding pass print out and I was able to sail through the priority lane, which was a distinct advantage.

- Free entry to the airport lounge. You may already have free or paid admission through loyalty schemes, of course. Using Priority Pass I can use this lounge at a cost of £15. The lounge at Marco Polo is comfortable with armchairs and room to work. It has great views of the apron and runway, and has an outdoor terrace where you can stand and watch the planes. There are free drinks – including local Prosecco – and snacks including filled croissants, small squares of cold pizza, nuts and crisps.

- Priority boarding the plane – in theory. In Venice the staff weren't particularly bothered about the order of boarding, but most airports will ensure Club Europe passengers board first.

-More space on the plane. On the left-hand side, there are two seats with a folded seat between them, on the right hand side there are three seats in a row, of which the middle one remains empty (these seats aren't sold).

- Extra customer service – a friendly assistant available for most of the flight for the small Club Europe section. Staff take customers' jackets and hang them in a locker. Our flight attendant approached me after boarding, addressed me by name and said “I just want to let you know we have your special meal on board”. If you are vegetarian or have other special dietary requirements, notify British Airways in advance of your travel date.

- Cold towel on take-off (more of a damp cloth, really).

- Champagne and other drinks offered early on and available throughout flight.

- A quite substantial meal with “more champagne?” offered. My vegetarian meal consisted of a filling mild curry dish, biscuits, cheese and grapes and a roll and butter. I found it very satisfying. The standard meal seemed to be involve salad; I thought vegetarians did better.

- The Club Europe section is at the front of the plane so you can be first off .

- I think in theory your luggage should have some precedence – a big orange priority label was attached – but I don't know if this often happens. My suitcase emerged quite a long way down the conveyor of luggage.

I really enjoyed the perks as a novelty. If I hadn't upgraded, I might have spent £15 on the lounge and some extra cash on a meal – though this wouldn't really take me up to £59. Compared with budget airlines, BA's standard class is really quite decent. On a strict value for money basis, it probably wasn't worth paying the extra – though a £40 upgrade, or a longer flight time, would shift this equation. The extra space and comfort and service was very pleasant, though. You can't guarantee there won't be babies or disruptive passengers in Club Europe (I once witnessed two men almost coming to blows) but you are more likely to travel in peace. If I expect to have a busy day or tiring onward travel, I'd consider paying extra for comfort. A special holiday would be another time when it might be a welcome treat to fly Club Europe with the lounge access and other perks. It's certainly worth doing once, as I did, just for the experience.

> Find a British Airways flight

5 July 2011

A lost bag and a good turn

Out for my daily stroll around Venice, I found a tourist's handbag on a bench. It's awkward, isn't it? You don't want to sit down and go through someone's wallet in case they reappear while you are rummaging among their valuables. But I couldn't just leave it there - someone less scrupulous may have come along, the owner may not remember and return to the spot, or perhaps it was stolen elsewhere and then discarded. So I cancelled my plans and caught a ferry to the police station at St. Mark's Square - surely the best landmark for a tourist. I left that information with other people in the vicinity of the bench, and on a voicemail for which I'd found a number inside the wallet.

Italy is a bureaucratic and suspicious country, so I couldn't just hand the bag over to the police. Of course not. I had to sit in the police office for half an hour while a police officer went through the wallet, removed all the cards and inspected the contents. Then he had to type up a list of the contents, slowly two-fingered typing the numbers of all the cards in the wallet - of which there were a vast amount. The owner was a foreign citizen resident in the UK and she was carrying EVERYTHING around with her. National insurance card, driving licence, umpteen credit and debit cards, NHS cards, council cards, toy shop loyalty cards...

Finally the catalogue was typed, and I was lucky not to get into trouble myself for not carrying ID around with me. I had to justify why I had a Venice transport card yet claimed to be resident in the UK, and then provide my address and phone number. Then I had to sign in triplicate a long document listing all the unlucky lady's possessions, which the policemen then stamped with a row of different stamps he kept hanging beside him. He gave me a copy to keep (listing all the numbers of the individual bank cards). I don't know if this exhaustive documentation was to cover me or the policeman in the event of any complaints. Probably both. Italy is like that. At last I was free to go.

The lessons for tourists: Well, don't leave your possessions on benches, for a start. I lost a camera that way myself, in Rome. And be alert for bag-snatchers and pickpockets, especially getting on and off public transport.

1. Empty out your wallets and bags before you travel and consider what you actually need to take. You do need an EHIC health card, but other health, social security and ID cards aren't likely to be required. Local storecards, membership cards, official documents - most of these are unnecessary when you travel and would be a real hassle to replace. Only take the bank cards you need - and note down separately the details should you need to cancel them.

2. If your hotel has a safe, use it for anything you won't need during the course of the day.

3. Put your (or your companion's) phone number and contact details (for example, your name and hotel phone number) in an obvious position in your wallet, handbag, or mobile phone address book, especially if you know you are prone to losing things. You may get them back much more quickly.

4. The policeman informed me that if Mrs X didn't claim her bag, it would be sent to the address contained on her driving licence, through the British Consulate. So it may be a very good idea to include your home address in your possessions if you want to get them back - although consider this carefully if your house keys are likely to be stored in the same place.

2 July 2011

New UNESCO sites in Italy

Italy has a new UNESCO listing for 2011:
'Longobards in Italy. Places of power (568-774 A.D.)'. This listing includes seven different sites which are important monuments to the Lombard era. These sites include Cividale del Friuli, which I visited a few months ago and wrote about. It is a very attractive small town in the north-east corner of Italy, and its monuments and museum are a great introduction to the culture of the Lombards, the long-haired warriors and Christians so different to Italy's other peoples.
> Cividale del Friuli

Italy is also included in an additional new listing, 'Prehistoric pile dwellings around the Alps'. Of the 111 sites covered by this listing, several are in northern Italy. Approximately 5% of all UNESCO world heritage sites are in Italy.
> UNESCO sites in Italy
> Official UNESCO listings

2 June 2011

Biennale Bingo

It's time for Venice Biennale again. This week, during the launch, the city has been full of artists, hangers-on and parties for the select few. Next week the common folk are allowed to view the exhibition. It's an expensive and arduous business visiting the two principal sites, the Giardini park and the Arsenale shipyard. Hundreds of exhibitions and installations begin to blur into one another and if you haven't allowed enough energy, time and refuelling, it's easy to miss the few gems hidden among the contemporary art cliches.

To enliven the visit, I've come up with a Biennale Bingo game. See if you can tick off all the cliches below to get a 'full house' as you view the pavilions and art shows. I haven't looked around yet, but based on past experience I am optimistic (if that is the word) to be able to tick off several of the following:

1. A pile of rubbish.

2. A room or building dressed up to look like the home of an imaginary (preferably underprivileged) person.

3. An installation consisting of many identical items (e.g. chairs, mirrors) none of them made by the artist.

4. Video-installations/films which are loops of boring people talking, probably over a meal, amateurishly filmed.

5. Video-installations labelled with a duration of over an hour, which plainly no visitor has time to watch.

6. A large, random 3-dimensional structure, probably made of bamboo, with many meanings and yet, somehow, none.

7. A participation installation providing welcome excitement - walking into darkness, or dry ice, or water jets, a pipe you can look down, anything - which shows how desperate the visitors are getting for thrills.

8. A collection of gaudy advertisements, stuck to a wall.

9. 'Testimonies' either written or filmed, from unfortunates living in deprived conditions, preferably in the vicinity of dangerous pollution or natural disasters.

10. An exhibit where all the excitement took place in a big spectacle open to VIPs in the opening week, leaving nothing but broken memories & videos of the event for later paying visitors. For example, a big broken object which has been trashed by the artist, which later visitors are left to ponder.

11. Something you really didn't want to see (or have your children see): explicit pornography, perhaps, or dead animals.

and finally
12. A bar-restaurant where the staff don't want to serve you. (An exhibit which seems to feature each year at art and architecture biennales).

It won't be all cliches, though. This year there are apparently Tintoretto paintings in the main Italian pavilion.

> Read about the 2011 Biennale

26 February 2011

Mobile internet in Italy

Being able to get connected while you're travelling is very useful – you can check Italy Heaven for holiday ideas, for a start.

Previously I've always used my laptop computer for internet access, but I've just acquired a couple of smartphones and did some research into accessing the internet in Italy, which I'll share here.

Hotels and public places

Most hotels offer some kind of internet access, and a wi-fi network is reasonably common. If this is important to you, check hotel details when you are booking. The more expensive the hotel, the more likely you are to have to pay extra for internet. Hotels in Italy don't all seem to have grasped that many travellers base their choices around connectivity. Choosing your hotel carefully, you should be able to find accommodation with free wi-fi internet access.

Some cities, including Rome and Florence, have public wi-fi hotspots, though these won't always be practical to use.

Internet on your computer / buying and charging up an Italian SIM card
You can use your phone as a modem, but it is more efficient to use a USB 'dongle'. I bought one some time ago from O2 in the UK, removed the O2 SIM card and replaced it with an Italian SIM card from Tim. Ever since I originally moved to Italy I've used a Tim card for phone calls and their pay-as-you-go services are quite efficient and easy to use. First you'll need to find a Tim shop – there are lots scattered around cities – and purchase a pay-as-you-go (ricaricabile) SIM card (Tim Card) – take your passport as ID. Then you add some credit if it doesn't already come with credit. Do this when you're buying the card. Ask if the shop assistant can help you set up the line to provide English-language automated messages and responses. I managed to set this up on my phone years ago, and it's very useful. It's easiest to stick the card in your mobile phone to sort out credit and internet subscriptions, then transfer it to your dongle when you're ready to go.

Future credits can be added at most lottery points, tabacchi and other businesses with the Tim sticker in the window. Sometimes this is done using a scratch card, sometimes the shopkeeper will operate a device in the shop to credit your phone. Ask for una ricarica Tim [ or other network] da [amount= dieci, venti, trenta] euro. You can also use some cashpoints to add credit to your phone, but as your card providers will probably add charges to your transactions, this can work out more expensive.

Check the Tim (or other provider) website for their offers for internet on your PC. Currently Tim do packages of 40 or 100 hours a month at €9 and €19, which you activate by sending the appropriate code in a text message to their customer service number. The first activation costs €5 and the offer is renewed each month if you have enough credit on your phone. Follow the instructions on their website if your computer does not connect automatically.

If, like me, you are going to be in Italy a lot of the time, these packages may not give you enough online hours. I have also subscribed to Vodafone Italia, which offers a monthly contract (no need for Italian documents, just a credit card) with a generous amount of usage. The only trouble is that where I live in Venice, the Vodafone signal is so weak that I have immense problems even getting online. I would recommend Tim as a more reliable option.

On your mobile phone
If you travel abroad often, and want to use your smartphone for internet access, the best deal for UK customers currently seems to be Vodafone, which includes a 'data traveller' package with many of its monthly contracts. This allows you to use 25MB per day of data in most countries including Italy. (They also have a service called Passport, which is good value if you want to make long phone calls home).

My experience with Vodafone in my first days with them has been mixed, however. Customer service is confused and mostly outsourced to India. I have had many different messages about my contract, and after happily using my phone for emails, Twitter etc. I received a message telling me I was being charged per MB. After an irate email to customer services I got a message back telling me I shouldn't be charged and I should 'avoid' the message (I assume they meant 'ignore'). So although the contract terms are excellent for travellers, and after 24hours glitch when I ported in my old number from a different network, the Vodafone service is working well, my recommendation is rather cautious.

If you don't mind swapping SIM cards around, your best bet is to get an Italian SIM card, as detailed above. Check that your mobile phone is unlocked first – some networks will do this free, others will charge you, and iphones are a particular problem. I bought a pay-as-you-go smartphone from Phones4U which came unlocked and free from network branding and software. I've now stuck my old Tim SIM card in it. At the moment Tim offer a couple of different pay-as-you-go packages for mobile internet. You can check the latest on their website. I'm currently paying €2 per week for a package called TIMXSMARTPHONE which provides up to 250MB per week.

Just make sure you have enough credit on your phone (sometimes their offers require you to have the requisite amount, plus an extra 2 euros credit). Then send an activation text message (e.g. for my chosen package it was TIMSMART ON) to 40916, and wait. I was online around 2-3 hours after sending my SMS.

Why is it so great?
I'm still getting the hang of this smartphone business, but I've already found many advantages. I'll write another article soon, listing my top travel apps and tips. The biggest advantage is simply access to information and to emails while you're on the move.