Our wine correspondent discovers that getting there is no longer “half the fun.”

When Canadian Samuel Cunard founded his eponymous passenger line in 1838, he advertised the journey by saying “Getting there is half the fun.” Humourist Henry J. Tillman* was later to say: “Getting there is half the fun became obsolete with the advent of commercial airlines.” So true.

Our trip to Nice had been in the works for more than three years. We had intended to stay for up to six months, but prohibitive medical insurance premiums forced us to reduce it to six weeks (interestingly, we ran into several fellow visitors who preferred to self-insure, relying on the relatively low cost of French health services to see them through).

It was to have been a family vacation, at least as much of one as work, school schedules and other commitments would allow. We had booked a large rental property in the heart of Nice with three bedrooms and, believe it or not, five working fireplaces. And we had made our flight arrangements with Air Canada, premium economy to Montreal and then direct to our destination. But the wretched plague and a family illness forced us to change our plans not once, but twice.

Unshuttered windows reveal our spot

We were fortunate in changing both our rental arrangements and airfare. For small ‘administration fees’ we were able to rebook our apartment for the same time the following year and then the year after that – at the original rental rate that would surely have otherwise escalated over the ensuing years. We dreaded cancelling with Air Canada, but they were wonderful. They gave us full credit for the airfare. It could be used anyway and at any time we wanted. As it turned out we were able to rebook our flights for much less and used what remained for last fall’s trip to Provence and the Côte d’Azur.

That earlier trip was a real corker. It was originally booked to Nice via Montreal. We had specifically selected, semi-isolated seats in Premium Economy to minimise Covid exposure. The return trip home was to have been the exact reverse. Air Canada subsequently changed our seats several times till we ended up with shared middle aisle locations on the way over. But much worse befell us.

We received the following message from the airline – Your flight from Nice to Montreal has been cancelled. We cannot find an alternative. We are sorry for the inconvenience! Inconvenience? Were we to spend the rest of our lives in Nice?

Nice airport

It seems that the Nice airport had cancelled numerous airlines’ flights including all of Air Canada’s due to the general mayhem then occurring in the air travel industry. So, we got on the phone with Air Canada to work out a solution. After waiting on hold for what seemed like ages, a very friendly operator answered the phone, sized up the situation and found a flight home via Munich on Lufthansa and then Air Canada to Toronto. There were no premium economy seats on the Lufthansa flight, but there were some available in first class. Perhaps for all our troubles we could be upgraded? This turned out to be impossible – far too big a fare difference. Then, before finalising the new arrangements and after 45 minutes the line went dead.

After another long wait a grumpy operator came on the line and we quickly settled on the previously proffered return arrangements before the line could go dead again. Then we had to go online to pay for our seats on the Lufthansa flight even though we had originally paid for premium economy all the way. Ironically, we were seated directly behind the first-class section on that flight. The seats were the same in both classes. Many in first class were unoccupied. The only difference we could discern was that the folks upfront received a small complimentary tray of cheese and crackers! Harrumph.  

The coup de grâce of that return trip? Hélène tripped on an improperly positioned lineup stanchion in the Nice airport and fractured her shoulder! She is still doing rehab.

Munich’s favourite beer saves the day

Something amusing occurred as we boarded the Lufthansa flight. We exited the airport door according to the number on our boarding pass. Ours was 3 – last. As we departed, we realized we were boarding a bus that would take us out to the airplane. The 1s were all seated, the 2s huddled mid-bus and we 3s were crammed in near the doors. Guess who got on the plane first?

Now then, back to our most recent travels. A blasted blizzard struck the day of our departure. Our flight was wisely delayed till the following day. Air Canada however changed our connection point from Zurich to Munich and reduced the time between connecting flights from two and a half hours to an hour and ten minutes. We knew that there was zero chance that we would make that connection.

Due to de-icing and other time gobbling pre-flight activities our flight left Toronto more than two hours late. By the time we arrived in Munich our flight to Nice had departed. An onboard flight attendant cheerfully told us that an agent would be waiting as we left the plane to assist with the last leg of our journey. No such agent existed.

Lufthansa was the carrier for our missed flight. So, we rambled among the hordes of fellow travelers, carry-on luggage in tow, and finally stumbled upon a Lufthansa desk in an adjacent terminal. A very helpful representative told us we didn’t have to wait till Lufthansa’s next day’s direct flight to Nice. Instead, he booked us to Zurich and then on Swiss Air to Nice. We waited several hours in both Munich (where we enjoyed some delicious Löwenbräu beer) and then Zurich (where we just waited). We finally reached Nice some 21 hours after setting forth.

But that wasn’t the end of it. A representative from the rental agency would normally have greeted us at our apartment. But it being so late, our keys were instead left in a lockbox at the rental offices in the center of town.

Nice in the silent gloom of night

We purchased tram tickets at a kiosk outside the terminal, pestered all the while by a young lady who seemed bent on helping us. We needed no help as we had done this many times before. She boarded the tram with us. A fellow passenger beckoned us over and whispered that our helpful friend was likely a pickpocket!

The tram deposited us in a dimly lit part of the city. The agency’s directions to their place were incomplete at best. We schlepped our roller luggage around for a while before finally locating the office and the lockboxes. Rental apartment keys secured, we hopped on another tram and rode it back across town to our destination. It was fortunate that we had scouted the apartment out on a previous visit because the street number (29) was illegible in the gloom of the night.

We took shifts riding the tiny elevator up to our third-floor apartment. There on the dining room table along with various helpful guides was a bottle of rosé. Oh, merciful day! We found wine glasses, added ice cubes andlaid quick waste to that tasty little devil.

We learned a few things through all this: 

1. Try to avoid air travel in winter;

2. Eschew, if possible, multi-segment flights; and

3. Plan to arrive a day or two in advance of major commitments such as long-term rentals or cruise departures (book a hotel – it can always be cancelled).

In conclusion I know that these are all first world problems and that many travellers have had far worse experiences. But surely, we should expect better from the airlines (note, the flight crews we encountered were terrific). And here’s the kicker … we just looked up the current return airfares to Nice. They are double what we paid for each of our last two trips!

Cheers despite it all, Jim

Featured image: Original Cunard postcard

*NOTE: Search all you want for any information on Henry J. Tillman and you will search in vain. Perhaps some anonymous humorist made him up as part of the joke. In any event he is credited with saying some very funny things, included “Oregano is the spice of life” and “Life is something that everyone should try at least once.”

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This is Jim’s 81st blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The SEARCH function at the top works really well if you want to look back and see some of his previous stories.

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