Sunday, November 1, 2015

Stumbling Around Schengen

Brent and I spent about four years planning a big cycle tour in Europe.  We diligently researched the visa requirements for each of the countries we thought we might visit, and each one indicated that we could stay for up to three months.  Easy peasy.  We weren't planning on spending nearly that long in any one country, so we didn't spend any more time or effort on that aspect of our trip planning.

We plotted out a rough route, which evolved over time.  When we left Canada on May 1st 2015, our plan involved touring in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, then heading over to Frankfurt to leave our bikes there while we went to visit Ireland and the UK.  We would return to Frankfurt in mid-July to collect our bikes and meet up with Laura and Gabi to ride the Danube Cycle Trail from Donaueschingen to Budapest.  After Budapest, we would travel southwest to visit Slovenia, then Italy, Spain, and back to France to fly home on October 31st.

Aside from specific dates with friends, we left the plan completely open.  We'd learned from experience (ahem... Australia) that it was difficult to determine where we'd be at any specific time, and we didn't have any reason to box ourselves in unnecessarily.  Good thing because our best laid plan was out the window before we'd been in Europe five minutes.

When we arrived in Iceland and went through customs, the lady asked us about our plans, and we told her the high-level plan as described above.  Her chilly question: "You know you can only spend 90 days in Schengen, right?"  Our response: "What's a Schengen?"

We had a whirlwind itinerary in Iceland, and wouldn't have time to take care of anything there, so we decided to visit the Canadian Embassy in Paris as one of our first "things to do" and get our visas straightened out so we could spend longer than the default 90 days in Schengen.

On our first day in Paris, we found an address for the Canadian Embassy and used Metro to head down.  When we got there, we were told that they couldn't do anything for us - we needed to contact the country we're visiting (not our home country).  I had no idea how to contact a French Embassy from within France, or even if that was the right thing to do for Schengen, so I sent off an e-mail to the contact listed on the Schengen support web site inquiring about options.

We started talking about adjusting our plan so that we would only be in Schengen for 90 days.  We could spend about 45 days cycling within Schengen and then head over to Ireland and the UK (which are not part of Schengen).  That would still give us 45 days to spend on the Danube with Laura and Gabi, which was more than ample.  We didn't have any other confirmed plans with folks within Schengen, so worst case scenario... only 90 days in Schengen.

Using Google as our guide, we learned more about Schengen.  The Schengen Area is a collective of countries, sort of like the European Union, which does not have international border crossings between the member countries.  It's sort of like one big "country" encompassing a bunch of European countries.  Some people from the "online community" indicated that they would just "pop out" of Schengen, then go back in to start a new 90-day visa.  Several people suggested the same on my Facebook.  But, as I dug deeper, I learned that that, unequivocably, is not the solution.  It just doesn't work that way.  The way it works is simple:
- When you enter the Schengen area, a "counter" starts lasting 180 days.
- Of the subsequent 180 days, you are only allowed to be in any Schengen countries for 90 of them, regardless of in-and-outs.
- After 180 days have elapsed, you can re-enter Schengen to start a new 180-day counter.
- There is no such thing as a "long term visitor" visa for Schengen.
- Some Schengen countries offer long-term visas for a variety of purposes - most commonly: student visas, working visas and retiree visas.  Any one of those visas allows the holder open travel within the whole Schengen area.

Many people over-stay their Schengen visa, and many of those people do not get "caught" or suffer any consequences.  Some web sites recommend departing from France if you're going to do this because they seem to be the most lax about it.  But, if you are over-staying your visa and something happens (say, you are the victim of a crime, or are injured and require medical attention) you will most certainly be found out.  And if you are found out, you get a "black mark" on your passport/record which makes it difficult to visit the Schengen area in future.  You can be banned from entering Schengen for five years.  Brent and I decided that it absolutely is not worth it to us to "take our chances" as some people suggest.

So, what to do to ensure that we don't violate our 90-day Schengen visa?  Reluctantly, we decided that once we were done the Danube tour, we would exit Schengen - we just had to figure out where we would go.  We had lots of options... the biggest problem was going to be finding an option with decent cycle infrastructure.  We could "convert" from a cycle holiday to a hiking holiday (or some such), but this was supposed to be our six-month cycle tour and we really didn't want to do that.

I arranged to borrow our "Danube Cycle Trail 4" book back from Frank, which describes the route east of Budapest to the Black Sea.  That portion of the route is outside of Schengen as soon as it leaves Hungary.  We learned a lot about that route, though, and decided that we weren't really interested.  Not only does it look like kms and kms of "flat and boring", it also sounds like it has some sketchy bits (for example, sections where panhandlers will block the trail and not let you pass unless you give them money... in the wild west, I think these were called highwaymen).  I'm not interested in encountering highwaymen, nor am I interested in cycling kms and kms of flat and boring just for the sake of cycling for our remining two months.  We considered many many options, and ultimately decided to spend some time cycle touring in Croatia.  I'd heard good things about cycling there, and I managed to get ahold of a map for Istria (northern peninsula) that shows cycle routes on it.  Brent talked to a couple from New Zealand who'd done some cycling there and they declared it to be quite wonderful (albeit expensive for camping).

About a week before we were due to be done our Danube tour, I did a last-minute search for any other options for staying in Schengen.  I discovered that France offers a long-term visitor visa!  Sonofagun!  I don't know how I missed that earlier!  Well, I do know how I missed it... I had been searching for countries that we wanted to visit at the end of our trip, not countries that we'd already visited.  I did some more research, and started pulling together the information we needed to apply for the visa.  One web site said that you could apply from outside of your own country, as long as you explained your reason for doing so.  We planned to apply for the visa in Vienna.  If you're rejected in one place, you can still apply from another place, so we thought that would also leave us back-up opportunities to try from Budapest, and then from Croatia.  We tried to apply in Vienna, but the visa application department of the French Embassy in Vienna is almost closed down... you need to make an appointment ahead of time just for them to show up.  Brent did a little more research into how to apply, and he found that, to apply for the visa you need to have an in-person interview (at an Embassy... ie in your home country), you need a police clearance, and you need to provide three months of "original source" bank statements.  "Original source" meaning hard-copy bank statements from your bank.  Bank statements printed off the internet only count if they're stamped by your bank.  Realizing that it would be pretty much impossible for us to provide those things without being physically in Canada, with lots of lead time, we finally gave up.

After our time in Budapest, we zoomed down to Croatia and had a great time.  We spent seven weeks there altogether.  At the end of the sixth week, due to autumn and scary traffic conditions, our cycle tour was completed.  We gave away our bikes and shipped our cycling and camping gear home.  We shifted to a "backpacking" holiday, touring around the Dalmatian Coast for a week, then headed over to Sarajevo (Bosnia), then to Cappadocia (Turkey).

At the time we left Hungary, we still had 11 days left on our Schengen "ticker".  Our 180 days actually expired on October 28th and we weren't heading home until October 31st, so if we left Schengen on (or before) October 28th, then went back in on October 29th, we could technically have 14 more days in Schengen (11 on our original visa and 3 on a new visa).

Brent mapped out a plan for us to do a whirlwind train tour across Europe after we left Turkey.  I created a spreadsheet to help us confirm the number of days we had remaining in Schengen (and also as backup documentation for our passport stamps for any Passport Control personel who may want to see it).

We did our 11-day train trip from Venice to Bruges.  Brent had tried to find a way for us to pop over to the UK on the 28th and return to France on the 29th.  He was very vexed to discover that, without a vehicle, it is very difficult to use the ferry crossings between France and England.

Finally I suggested using Dublin instead, which worked out great.  Passport Control questioned us quite thoroughly coming into Ireland, and Brent went on a bit of a runner explaining what we were doing and why. We got passport visas valid until the 29th only... no messing around!  But that was all we needed, so it was all good.

On October 29th we headed back into France and Passport Control didn't even blink at us (nevermind ask us a question).  Wow.  That was easy.

On October 31st, we had our final trip leaving Schengen.  We flew from Paris to Iceland, which was our final exit point from Schengen, 183 days after we arrived on May 2nd.  When we got to passport control, the fellow asked us the date we first entered Europe.  I told him, and in dismay he exclaimed "MAY SECOND!?" I could tell he was steeling himself for dealing with the Canadian scofflaws standing in front of him (I'm sure it's not his favorite thing to do).  Then I clarified: we were in and out of Schengen during that time: 90 days within Schengen, and another 90 days outside of Schengen.  He was relieved and we were golden.  He happily gave us our exit stamps and sent us on our way.  I didn't even have to show him (or anyone else) my fancy spreadsheet.

My advice for visiting Schengen: follow the rules.  I'm glad I didn't have to experience the consequences if we'd over-stayed our welcome.  Some folks risk it and some folks get away with it.  If you want to stay longer than 90 days within Schengen, apply for one of the approved visas from one of the member countries well in advance of your visit.  That's it.

We will probably never have to follow our own advice again, though, as it's unlikely that we'll plan another six-month vacation.  I think a month or two is a nice amount of time.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Epic European Cycle - Blog Quick Links

In 2015, Brent and I spent six months cycle touring in Europe.  The trip is extensively chronicled on  This page just provides some quick links to the Trip Log page.

Page Dates (Click) Synopsis Friends
1 2015/04/30 - 2015/05/09 Left Canada, Whirlwind Iceland, Paris, Véloscénie NA
2 2015/05/10 - 2015/05/19 Véloscénie NA
3 2015/05/20 - 2015/05-29 Mt. St. Michel, Nantes, Loire à Vélo NA
4 2015/05/30 - 2015/06/08 Loire à Vélo, Rhine Route NA
5 2015/06/09 - 2015/06/18 Rhine Route, Ireland Sandie
6 2015/06/19 - 2015/06/28 Ireland, Scotland Dawn
7 2015/06/29 - 2015/07/08 Scotland, England: Dorset Dawn, Beth, Lorraine, Pip
8 2015/07/09 - 2015/07/18 Isle of Wight, Frankfurt Beth, Lorraine, Pip
9 2015/07/19 - 2015/07/28 Black Forest Train, Danube Cycle Trail - Donaueschingen to Dillingen Laura, Gabi
10 2015/07/29 - 2015/08/07 Danube Cycle Trail - Dillingen to Linz Laura, Gabi
11 2015/08/08 - 2015/08/17 Danube Cycle Trail - Linz to Vienna, Vienna, Budapest, Kalocsa Laura, Gabi, Michelle
12 2015/08/18 - 2015/08/27 Budapest, Nagykanizsa, Croatia: Čakovec, Varaždin, Krapina NA
13 2015/08/28 - 2015/09/06 Croatia: Krapina, Zaprešić, Jastrebarsko, Belavići and area, and then to Ogulin where Brent's "Traveler Tummy" got the better of him. NA
14 2015/09/07 - 2015/09/16 Croatia: Sick days in Ogulin, train to Rijeka, first taste of Istria: Opatija, Medveja, Mount Učka, Lovran, Labin. NA
15 2015/09/17 - 2015/09/26 Croatia (Istria): Labin, Marčana, Premantura, Kamenjak, Pula, Rovinj, Novigrad, Monkodonja, Kanfanar. NA
16 2015/09/27 - 2015/10/06 Croatia: Kršan, Lovran, Rijeka.  Ditched our bikes/gear.  Zadar, Plitvice, Split. NA
17 2015/10/07 - 2015/10/16 Dubrovnik (Croatia), Sarajevo (Bosnia) and Cappadocia (Turkey). NA
18 2015/10/17 - 2015/10/26 Cappadocia (Turkey) and train journey: Venice, Innsbruck, Luzern, Geneve, Bruges. NA
19 2015/10/27 - 2015/10/31 End of trip: Bruges, Dublin, Paris, home. NA

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Air BnB: Three Out of Five Ain't Good Enough

I first heard about Air BnB when I was doing some planning for our big trip to Europe.  I thought it was a great idea and I was keen to try it out.  I love the grassroots and cowboy things, especially if I end up having a nicer time for a cheaper price.

Our first two nights in Paris were with a gal named Maguy.  A few days later we stayed in Chartres with Peggy.  At the end of our time in Frankfurt we spent two nights with a gal named Jessica.  They were all fantastic experiences and I'm glad we had them.  They, unfortunately, are not why I decided to write this article.

At the time of this writing, we've had a total of five experiences with Air BnB, two of which have been quite horrible.  We have one more reservation with them coming up, and I'm confident that it will be great, but even if it is, a track record of 2/3 fantastic and 1/3 horrible, is just not good enough and I won't be using Air BnB anymore.  My friend, Linda, says she never uses unregulated services like this.  In this case, I'm going to have to concede... no more "coyboy way" for me when booking accommodation.

Anyway, without any further adieu, let me share with you the two horrible experiences.

EXPERIENCE #1: Alençon

The first one was with a lady, Maryline, in Alençon France.  I was still getting used to cycle touring, and we had very brief moments of WiFi access along the way, so I was less detail-oriented than usual.  I found Maryline's place in Alençon on Air BnB, and followed their procedure to "Request to Stay".  It was advertised as an apartment, including ensuite, small kitchen, and free WiFi.  I speak very little French, and Maryline spoke about as much English, so we had some challenges communicating via e-mail, but thanks to online translators, we did alright.  She accepted my request with a note that she "has an opportunity to put us in a room at such-and-such address, and Sebastien would be there to meet us".  Here's where I missed a really key detail.  It never for a second occurred to me that she would accept my request and then put me in a property that was NOT what she had advertised.

As our stay in Alençon approached, I wrote down the address of the property as advertised on Air BnB, plus Maryline and Sebastien's phone numbers, on our little "cheat sheet" for the day.  The property was a little difficult to find, and I hadn't yet gotten into the habit of saving screen shots of Google Maps on my hard drive, so we had to find a cafe with free WiFi so I could look it up. 

We finally found the place, and it looked like a quaint little hostel, except for the fact that it was completely empty and somewhat abandoned looking.  The front door was unlocked, so I went in and called out, but no one answered.  We decided that maybe we were too early, so we went down the street to a restaurant to wait, have a beverage, and use their WiFi.  Brent walked down the block a couple of times to check for someone, and found that, now, the door was locked and he couldn't get in anymore.  That was odd.

By about 6PM, we knew something more was wrong, so I tried to call Sebastien.  He spoke no English at all, and I couldn't make myself understood in French.  Brent had noticed a guy hanging around the property and struck up a conversation with him.  He knew Maryline and Sebastien.  Brent called Maryline and put the guy on the phone with her.  This was when we discovered that we were at the wrong property.  When Maryline said she "had an opportunity to put me in a room at such-and-such..." what she meant was, I'm passing you off to my colleague, Sebastien, who has a flophouse that you can stay in. 

Brent got the address of Sebastien's place and went over there, then the two of them came back to collect me.  We went over there, but the property was awful.  He has cats living there, and the whole place reeked of cat litter.  I'm asthmatic and highly allergic to cats.  The guy took us up to the top floor to the room we were to stay in.  It was a small, horrible room with two horrible beds in it.  No bathroom - the home only has a shared bathroom.  No WiFi.  And we were supposed to stay there for the same price that I'd booked an apartment for.

I started to have trouble breathing right away and I told the guy about my asthma and allergies.  It took a bit of "Frenglish" and charades to get him to understand, but he finally got it and he was really nice about it.  He placed a phone call to Maryline.  After some heated discussion, he said that they decided to put us over in Maryline's property, so back the three of us went to the original place.

Maryline's property would be really nice when it's in operation.  But it wasn't in operation.  Our room/apartment was ok, except the bathroom had an overwhelming paint smell, and no hot water.  The kitchen had old, withered produce on the counter as thought it had just been abandoned there weeks, or months, earlier, for the "off season".  The building seemed to be under renovation, or seasonal maintenace or something.  There was no WiFi and no other people in the place. 

I couldn't figure out what had happened.  I thought it had to have been some kind of unfortunate mistake and maybe her property was listed accidentally, and then when she got a request from me, she felt compelled to try and honor it. 

This is one of the flaws of the Air BnB system:  If a host declines a request, they get penalized.  So they always accept.  But, if you request to stay with someone and they accept, then YOU decline, you get charged a service fee.  It puts everyone into a big game of "chicken" with their money and reputations.  If something isn't right, everyone is compelled to stick with it anyway because of the consequences of declining and canceling.

I pondered what happened for a while, certain it had to be a mistake.  Brent was convinced that it was a deliberate "bait and switch".  Then I read further back in her Air BnB feedback than I had before, and I discovered that... she'd done the exact same thing before to someone else!  She's advertising a property that isn't available/liveable, and sending people over to a guy who gives people a bedroom in a flophouse that reeks of cat litter!  Sadly, Brent was right.  Deliberate "bait and switch".

I left feedback for her that what she was doing was NOT ok.  In the "private feedback" to Air BnB I told them what happened, but I never heard back from anyone at all.

EXPERIENCE #2: Edinburgh

Dawn came to visit us in Scotland, and booked herself into an expensive place for the days we were to be in Edinburgh.  She sent me the link for the place, but I didn't want to pay the kind of price she was paying so I looked for something else relatively near where she was.  She was on Cowgate, which is just off the Royal Mile, and I was fortunate to find a place also on Cowgate.

The host, Carolina, seemed new to Air BnB... I think she'd only received one feedback previously, but it was important to me to be near Dawn so that it wouldn't be a big huge hassle for us to stay someplace different from her.  Carolina seemed very nice and accommodating, and even offered to get me some kind of cool box when I asked about a fridge to use (which she doesn't have). 

A few days before we were due to arrive, I sent Carolina a note asking what time would be good for us to arrive.  I advised her that we were going to have sketchy access to WiFi and she might not hear from me right away.  I didn't get a response.

On the day we were due to arrive, I messaged Carolina again in the morning, asking what time she'd like us to arrive.  We then went out for our day of "castling" and sight-seeing with Dawn.  We got to Edinburgh before 5:00 and went to Dawn's place.  She discovered that she'd inadvertently booked herself an entire 9-person dorm.  I said it was too bad I'd already paid for a place, otherwise we'd bunk in with her!  Then, I got on the WiFi and checked for messages from Carolina.

There were three message from her.  In one she suggests arriving at noon, and in another one she asked me to text her when we were 30 minutes away.  I texted her immediately and asked if we could come over now.  She texted back saying that she's been waiting for a reply from me since 8:30AM, and when she didn't hear from me by 3PM she left town and "sorry".  She offered to give me the phone number of a hostel.

I cancelled my reservation, but Air BnB still billed me for two of the three nights (because I cancelled).  I contacted Carolina back, asking her to process a refund on her side.  No answer.  Several hours later, I messaged her again asking her to issue a refund.  No answer.

So, I contacted Air BnB about it.  My first rep advised that since I had cancelled late, it was correct that I be charged for two of the three nights.  I wrote back to clarify the situation and asked for further assistance.  After learning the details, she agreed that more assistance was in order, and she said she'd pass me along to another department to help.  When I hadn't heard back in another two days, I followed up, and got an immediate reply from another rep asking for supporting documentation, and advising that he'd have to hear both sides of the story to come to a resolution (naturally).  I sent him all the messages and texts. 

A day later he contacted me again and processed a full refund.  He also said that, because my phone wasn't working propery (I can send and receive texts, and receive phone calls, I just can't place phone calls), he couldn't place 100% of the blame on the host.  WTF!?  It's ok for a host to skip out at 3PM on arrival date if the guest can't place a phone call?  You've got to be kidding me.

So, even though Air BnB has given me a refund, I do not consider this to be a good experience.  I was left high-and-dry without a place to stay (actually, it was just a stroke of luck that Dawn had booked a dorm... we bunked in with her for the first two nights), and with 2/3 of my money gone (until I fought to get it back).  And Air BnB "couldn't assign blame to the host". 

From these two experiences it seems to me that, although Air BnB is a great idea, there are too many people out there who are more than happy to use the service to rip other people off.  I'm sure that hosts have lots of horror stories about bad guests, too... I'm not saying the hosts are bad and guests are all innocent victims - far from it (it hasn't been that long since the people in Calgary had their place completely trashed by a bad Air BnB guest).  I'm just saying that, like Linda said, an unregulated service leaves people open to being taken advantage of by the unscrupulous.  I'll stick with in future.  I've not had anything like a bad experience with them.  It's all very regulated and professional and civilized with no unscrupulous cowboys to be seen.

I did a quick search for Air BnB horror stories and found Air BnB Hell.  Some of the horror stories listed by hosts are truly frightening.  I had briefly considered doing the Air BnB thing down the road after we've moved to Vernon, but after reading these, and after my experiences as a guest, that's not going to happen!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

pStyle Pitfalls

When I started this blog, it was supposed to be about various (mis)adventures in the Rockies.  It was never my intention to start a "running monolog" about peeing standing up, yet here I am, writing for the fourth time about just that very topic.

Since my last "peeing standing up" post in November of 2010, I have been merrily using my handy pStyle for peeing standing up in a variety of situations, including outdoors, in the snow, and in nasty stinky outhouses.  I have recommended pStyles to a number of friends, and a number of my friends are now merrily peeing standing up with their handy pStyles as well.

But I have to be honest.  All is not complete bliss with a pStyle.  If you're going to use one of these, you should watch out for the following pitfalls which I have been generous enough to discover for you so that you don't have to experience them yourself.

Pitfall #1: Bearing down too hard.  One time, I had waited a little too long to pull off the trail and take care of nature's business.  By the time I started peeing I REALLY had to go and I bore down quote hard, which caused my pee to overflow the sides of the pStyle "trough".  If you're using a pStyle, no matter how bad you have to go, take it easy and pee slowly and in a civilized manner.  None of this "RAAAHHHH!  I have to pee so bad!" pushing as if your life depends on it.

Pitfall #2: Inadequate tilt.  This sounds like it should go without saying, but make sure that, when you're using your pStyle, you have tilted it down, away from yourself, an adequate amount.  One time on a hike I pulled off behind a rock to have a pee but I did not feel that I had complete privacy in my chosen location.  I didn't want to pull my pants down too far, so I left them higher than usual as I did my thing.  Having my pants up higher, though, caused the pStyle to either be completely level (and not drain), or, it may have even been tilted a little in the wrong direction - towards myself.  Regardless of exactly how it happened, the result was the same.  Pee in my clothing instead of on the ground where I'd intended to put it.

Pitfall #3: Peeing in public with your "mudstache" on.  OK, this isn't really a pitfall, and it wasn't really my experience.  This happened to a friend of mine who shall remain nameless *cough*Marg*cough*.  When we were hiking the West Coast Trail, a few of us decided to make ourselves facial hair out of the ample mud to be found on that trail.  On that trail, it is impossible to pull off into the trees to go pee - the rainforest is simply too thick and treacherous for leaving the trail to hide - so one must find other ways to gain privacy, for example, finding a bend in the trail and hoping no other hikers come upon you while you quickly do your business.  My friend had stepped away with her pStyle (and her mudstache), but before she was finished, another group of hikers DID come along and busted her in the act.  I'm sure they have a great story to tell about seeing a Canadian woman with a moustache peeing standing up on their West Coast Trail hike.

In the four-and-a-half years since I started using the pStyle, these are the only pitfalls I've discovered.  That's a pretty great track record, especially considering how much I use it.  Go ahead... pee standing up.  Just remember to be careful out there.

See my previous "peeing standing up" posts: