Lessons from the Trail

Dear Senderos,

Having returned from France yesterday, I’m writing you from the lounge of the Cotswold Lodge Hotel, a somewhat overpriced but cozy and conveniently located hostelry back in Oxford.

Remarkably, the weather is quite pleasant—stunning, actually. In our first pass through Oxford a week ago, it was pretty much all rain, all the time. And my daughter, who stayed on here while the rest of us traveled to France, reported it stayed pretty soppy for most of the time we were away.

But enough about the weather.

For today’s necessarily brief posting, I want to share with you nine quick “lessons” I picked up on the trail over the last couple of weeks. Hopefully, they will do you some good should your own path ever lead this way.

Lessons from the Trail

In no particular order…

Lesson #1: Be wary of rental car agents. Having spent a fair amount of time standing in line observing rental car agents asset stripping the customers in front of me, I have come to view these people, no matter how pleasant their demeanor, in the same light as telemarketers.

You see, you book your rental car with certain expectations as to the type of car you will be driving and the price you will pay. It is the job of the rental car agent to turn those expectations upside down and upsell and cross sell you to the point where you begin pondering the interest rate the bank will charge on the personal loan you’ll need to take to cover the cost.

To encourage this behavior, I’m convinced all the rental car companies set bonuses and chalk up points toward promotions on the average amount of money an agent can skim off their customers.

“Just go for it, man! This is a great car!” chirped the young up-and-comer at the older Asian man standing at the counter. “It’s just £70 more! You know you want it!” (That is verbatim.)

Or, in our case, “Why don’t you just get the full insurance protection, so, you know, you don’t need to worry about anything,” cooed the sultry young woman with just the right amount of cleavage showing.

Only after I had agreed with her—how could I resist!—my wife told me in a somewhat dry aside that when I had stepped away momentarily from the desk, the agent had asked her the very same question and she had declined. But that didn’t stop the agent from (successfully) asking me anyway. Damn, fooled again!

So, here’s the thing. Before you travel, read up on the dos and don’ts of renting a car so the information will be fresh in your mind. I just googled the topic and found this one, but there are many. Some highlights.

  • You probably don’t need to take the insurance option. Your own car insurance almost certainly covers it. If it doesn’t, your premium or airline rewards credit card likely does.

  • There are a lot of discount programs out there. For example, most airline reward cards entitle you to pretty solid discounts. By using our card with Hertz, we qualified for a 30% discount. The rental agent won’t inform you of this fact, so do the research before you travel.

  • Go for the upgrade… but only on your terms. Rental agents have a lot of leeway on upgrades, so don’t hesitate to negotiate. You might want to book a low-cost car ahead of time, then once you are standing at the counter, let the agent try to work you up to a higher-level car, but reluctantly. Remember, it’s in the agent’s best interest to upgrade you, so with just a little effort you should be able to get the car you actually want, at a very reasonable price.

Having sharpened our negotiating skills along the way, for this last leg of the journey, we managed to negotiate a new Mercedes at a rate of just £50 a day.

Lesson #2: Mercedes Benz is on the slippery slope. On this trip, we rented two Mercedes and one BMW, and I can state without hesitation that Mercedes has compromised quality in favor of dropping prices in order to appeal to a bigger market.

The first Mercedes we rented was an E-Class. I don’t know where to start in my complaints. Okay, so how about the car is so poorly made that traffic noise all but drowns out the radio. And the foot well on the driver’s side is so narrow, your heels pretty much rub together when operating the pedals, which is both dangerous and uncomfortable.

The BMW, on the other hand, truly is a remarkable driving machine. It is tight in every aspect and a joy to drive. And that comes from someone (me) who generally doesn’t like to drive.

By happenstance, during our travels I met the quality manager for BMW here in England. I told him how much I disliked the Mercedes and asked him his opinion about the Audi. Everywhere I turn these days, I see high-end Audis zipping about, leading me to conclude the car is capturing market share among those who can afford nicer cars. He confirmed that BMW no longer views Mercedes as their biggest competition, but Audi.

In any event, if I were a car guy, which I’m not, the next time I went car shopping, I would start with the BMW and give Audi a look as well.

Lesson #3: There’s nobody here. Even though the UK and France have been populated since Neanderthals bumbled across the land, these countries—and most of the countries in the world, in my direct experience—are almost barren of people.

It is quite remarkable, actually. Miles and miles and miles of rolling hills with only a smattering of small villages to disturb the tranquility. In France, we stayed outside of the old city of Carcassonne, and while there were vineyards as far as the eye could see, there were very few people. Even in the small towns, it was entirely normal only to see a handful of people out and about as you passed through.

Of course, it’s not just Europe but the entire world that, outside of the occasional city or large towns, is awash with wide-open spaces.

Yet, the enviro-alarmists would have you think the entire world is about to topple off its polluted axis because of all the humanity clinging to the fragile orb.

Literally, nothing could be further from the truth.

As Senderos are highly intelligent folks, most of you will already be familiar with the term Zero Population Growth, or ZPG. This is the point at which births equal deaths. The right number of births per female to reach ZPG will vary by region, depending on the neighborhood and, specifically, the likelihood of dying.

In relatively stable neighborhoods—for example, in the United States, the womenfolk need to produce about 2.1 children, on average, over the course of their lives to keep up with the number shedding their mortal coil. An Afghani woman, on the other hand, will have to work quite a bit harder at it. Generally speaking, though, the number of children to maintain ZPG is between 2.1 and 3.

However, quickly scanning through the world’s birth rates—which you can do by clicking here—reveals that, for the most part, they are not keeping up with the death rates.

This is especially true in the more developed countries where the mortality rates have leveled off but birth rates continue to drop. In the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, the birth rate is now at 1.9, below the replacement rate. France at 2.0 is right on the edge of the bubble. Tellingly, even Ireland, where the church goes all out to scare women into breeding like rabbits, now has a birth rate of just 2.0.

And Japan as well as Germany are dead men walking, each with a birth rate of just 1.4, meaning their populations are moving in reverse.

Make no mistake, the population trend is headed in the wrong direction on a global basis (“wrong” because, for one thing, we need the youth to support the rest of us as we age).

While one could cite any number of reasons for this decline, I might point to financial insecurity caused by widespread decline in the fortunes of the middle class in the developed world, or the deployment of new technologies to replace humans and therefore keep a lid on salaries. Then there is the sheer inconvenience of raising children in the age of self-absorption (speaking of which, click here to check out this latest tool for recording your wonderful life).

Apparently, in Japan (and elsewhere) adults are giving up sex altogether, at least with another human. Google the topic and you will find any number of studies showing that one-third of young Japanese has no interest in sex or that half of the Japanese adult population no longer has sex.

Global overpopulation? Not hardly.

In fact, I suspect there are large tracts of rather fine land available in England, France, and elsewhere going for a song because there just isn’t anyone in line to buy them off the old folks who inherited it and no longer have the means to keep up with the costs.

Lesson #4: Europe is the new melting pot… sort of. I am reminded of this point by the gentleman sitting a few feet behind me chatting, loudly, on his phone in Russian. Or maybe it’s Lithuanian or Estonian. All I know is it’s not the King’s English, and neither are any of the staff at this very English hotel.

The same is true in France. Everywhere you look, the service industries are, for better or worse, dominated by immigrants. And their presence is not just obvious in the service sector, but interwoven throughout the fabric of Europe.

So much so that, in my opinion, referencing “English” or “French” culture is now correctly done only as an historical reference.

Those ships have sailed and won’t be coming back to port… ever.

How long the various cultures will manage to live cheek to jowl in a civilized manner is impossible to say. There have already been some serious flare-ups in both France and the UK, a trend I also fear is in motion.

Lesson #5: But there are still some cultural differences. For example, the British say “sorry” a lot. Case in point, this morning as I approached the door leading into the wing of the hotel where our room is located, a man dragging a couple of wheelies pushed through, momentarily blocking my forward progress. Even though the encounter lasted less than 20 seconds, he apologized no less than four times.

The French, by contrast, have mastered the expression of disdain with the subtle lifting of the lip and/or the eyebrow, usually accompanied by a “tsking” sound. I swear that even when handed their first grandchild for the first time, a French person would manage a sneer and a disapproving huff.

Frankly, I am not sure which is worse. In the case of the British, one is tempted to retort, “Pull yourself together, man, you’ve done nothing to apologize for!”

In the case of the French, “Ah, why don’t you piss off” seems about right.

Lesson #6: The borders of Europe are tightening up. I remember arriving in France just a couple of years ago and having the border guard barely glance at my passport before disdainfully waving me through.

On this trip, however, there has been a noticeable tightening up at the borders that makes the inconvenience of traveling in the modern age even more inconvenient. After having spent probably four hours in lines in airports in England and France, time enough to observe the goings-on at some length, I will share with you a useful tip.

Try to pick the line with the fewest Middle-Easterners in it, because there is clearly profiling going on. I make no judgment on the profiling, just stating a fact—the odds of suffering long delays at a border crossing appear directly correlated to the number of Middle-Easterners in the line ahead of you.

Here’s another tip. Traveling by plane has become almost insufferable at this point. It is something that if you have the means to avoid it, you increasingly will. As such, I expect the fractional jet industry to do very well going forward, especially as private-jet companies compete to come up with better, faster, cheaper planes to tote their customers here, there, and everywhere.

Wait, what’s this? Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owns NetJets? Something to ponder…

Lesson #7: The old world is expensive. Maybe it’s just that life in Argentina is so cheap by comparison, but even by New York standards, prices for dining out, hotels, and so forth are much higher in Europe.

Here in Oxford, the hotel we are staying in costs close to $300 a night even though, while quaint, the room is not much larger than a large closet. Which is probably related to the next point…

Lesson #8: Don’t come here at the height of tourist season. If you really want to see the sights in Europe, do yourself a favor: buy some warm clothes and do it in the middle of winter. Then you’ll pretty much have the place to yourself.

The alterative, of coming in the “season,” is to voluntarily submit yourself to moving through the sights as a cow in a herd might shuffle down the chute to the abattoir—except that rather than getting snuffed at the end of your shuffle, you’ll get skinned… of all available cash.

I don’t care who you are, no one can properly appreciate, let along enjoy, seeing the sights en masse while being hustled along like the rubes waiting to get on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Okay, I suppose if you were a pervert who enjoyed rubbing himself on heavyset middle-aged women, maybe you’d enjoy seeing the sights in peak season. But for anyone sane, I’d suggest just stay away.

Lesson #9: There’s a lot of quality in Europe. Throughout Europe you can still find companies who take great pains to produce very high quality products. Whether it is kitchenware, confections, teas, ceramics, clothing, bedding or… or… or… if you appreciate the finer things in life and are willing to pay up, I don’t think you’ll find comparable quality in any other region in the world.

When quality counts, start your search in Europe.

And with that, I will sign off for the week, hoping you have gleaned at least a little something useful.

We’ll be back in the States the day after tomorrow, then a few days later hop back on another plane, this time bound for Puerto Rico for a reunion of sorts with a number of the folks who own properties at La Estancia. As this will mean my first trip to Puerto Rico, I am looking forward to taking at least a quick measure of the place.

Until next time, happy trails!


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