Little did I know that, on the eve of our great North Africa adventure, our decision to screen Casablanca would be the inspiration for one of the reports from the trip. Sadly, however, it has come to pass that we are stranded in Casablanca, awaiting exit papers to Tunisia. Really it is more like we are awaiting the next flight but it feels the same: nothing we can do and nothing more the airline will do. And so we wait.
In our case the situation was a pretty simple yet rather egregious snafu on the part of Royal Air Maroc. The morning started reasonably enough. Some minor confusion upon checkout from the Riad regarding the bill but those details were quickly resolved and we quickly made our way to the airport. A line here, a line there and next thing we knew we were in the international terminal for our domestic flight from Marrakesh to Casablanca. The flight continues to London and I guess no one ever takes just the domestic portion. Either way, we were in the international transit area awaiting our flight amongst the hordes boarding Ryanair and easyJet flights to the Continent.
At the posted boarding time no gate assignment on the departure screens nor any update to the flight status. A full 20 minutes later – only 20 minutes to departure now – still nothing posted. I wandered over to the lounge (small but clean and decently stocked) and asked the agent there what was going on. Not to worry, she assured me, as the inbound was only delayed a little bit and the flight would leave soon. She was right. We were only about 10 minutes late pushing back and made it to Casablanca with 60 minutes to make the connection over to the second flight of the day.
Then things got ugly.
None of the departures screens in the terminal had any details about our flight. Through some dumb luck we happened across a wholly different set of monitors that indicated that departures to five countries, including ours, should proceed to a specific gate. We headed down to the gate, now about 40 minutes prior to departure to discover a desolate area. We were the only passengers there. Not good at all. There was a gate agent off in the corner flirting with a police officer. She seemed to suggest that it was fine, that we’d be fine and that she’d call a bus to take us to the gate. Ruh-roh.
Twenty minutes prior to departure we’re still waiting for the aforementioned bus to appear. By now we’ve been joined by three other passengers, two of whom were also headed to Tunis. I ask again about the bus, noting that it is very close to departure and that I am quite worried we won’t make the flight. Eventually a bus shows up and the five of us scurry aboard. And wait – and wait – and wait. Precious minutes tick away before we finally start rolling to transfer to the other terminal.
The bus drops us of about 150 feet from an aircraft, the one that happens to be bound for Tunis. Unfortunately, we aren’t going to head directly on board. Instead we have to go into another transit area in the new terminal. As we enter there is an agent inside who come out, calling for the Tunis passengers to hurry so that we can make our flight. We hurry, as instructed, only to get to the gates about 60 seconds later and watch as the other gate agents laugh at us and the plane rolls away. We’re now officially screwed.
At this point the four of us who have missed the flight become allies. It was of great help considering my limited French skills. A cacophony of French, Arabic and English overwhelms one agent after another. How to get help? “Nothing we can do for you here.” We head back to the original terminal where we visit the transit desk. “Nothing we can do for you here.”
So we immigrate. Again. In our case, because we never really left Morocco they actually just annulled our exit stamps and gave us additional entry stamps. Then the search for useful help continued.
No one was willing to help and few were willing to point us in the correct direction to even see help. Ultimately, whether by design or just dumb luck, we ended up in what I believe was the Royal Air Maroc Station Manager’s office. Even he wasn’t all that interested in lending assistance until we started to pull out chairs and make ourselves comfortable in his office.
Eventually we did get help. A guy took our boarding passes, wandered off for an hour or so and eventually came back with passes for the early flight tomorrow. They took us to retrieve our bags, only one of which was located.
They provided us with hotel and food vouchers at a pretty dingy airport hotel where the lunch offerings were pretty bad and the restaurant itself had not a single clean table. Needless to say we ended up buying our own meal at the other restaurant in the hotel to avoid that mess. There’s a cute little bar that is dingy, smoke-filled and over-priced, but the value of a wee bit of alcohol at this point is not to be underestimated. The WiFi doesn’t work and the room is pretty dingy though the sheets appear to be clean.
And it only took us about 3 hours to get all that sorted out.
Suffice it to say, I’m not really all that impressed with Royal Air Maroc. Or maybe it is me. We had similar troubles last year on our trip between Egypt and Barcelona for New Year’s Eve then.
Read more of my Marrakesh adventures here!
I actually enjoy the somewhat controlled chaos that comes from wandering amongst the souks in Marrakesh. Much like the bazaars of Turkey, the souks mostly appear designed to confuse and confound their visitors, eventually resulting in a sale or at least some entertaining negotiations. Watching folks come and go, checking out the various merchandise and the interactions with the merchants is enjoyable, at least to a point.
I hate negotiating on prices. Partly because I’m really bad at it and mostly because I believe in asking a fair price and not trying to screw over your customers. Either way, the process at the souks is not one that I’m good at and not one that I should engage in.
While we have to walk amongst the souks to get from our Riad to most anything else in town, today was the first time we purposefully spent any appreciable time in them on purpose. We were going shopping in hopes of finding some fun souvenirs to bring home.
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Certainly there are plenty more than just two sets of tombs in Marrakesh but there are two relatively famous interment sites that are absolutely worth a visit. And the experiences at the two could not be more different.
The Saadian Tombs, dating back over 400 years, are incredibly ornate and well preserved. It houses the graves of about 60 members of the royalty from that era. The story of the Tombs’ “discovery” mostly goes that an intrepid Frenchman eventually wandered far enough back into various dark alleys and past folks trying to keep him out until he found the beautiful site in 1917. The caretakers asked his assistance in helping to protect the secret and preserve the site. Today it is perhaps the most visited attraction in Marrakesh. At least each of the visitors pays a few dirhams to get in, helping to keep the site in decent repair.
The site is quite beautiful. The mosaic work on the walls is impressive but even more stunning is the intricate detail with which the cedar and stucco moldings are carved. It is a bit hard to get a sense of scale from the photos but the pieces are rather huge and the level of detail is quite minute.
The site is not particularly large but it gets crowded, so much so that there are lines to get to the doorways of some rooms from time to time. Fortunately the lines moved quickly.
Just a bit across town, in the Mellah district, is the old Jewish Cemetery. Contrary to the huge crowds at the Saadian Tombs, the Jewish Cemetery was nearly empty. For most of the time we were on the premises we appeared to be the only people there. No admission is charged and access is gained through a relatively poorly marked gate that hangs slightly ajar off a side road. If you didn’t know it was there (and none of the kids on the corner chased after you reminding you where to find it) then you could easily miss it.
Most of the monuments are unlabeled. There are mounds built up above ground to mark the tombs but many appear to have been never labeled or the writing is wearing away. Similar to the Saadian Tombs there are a few “special” grave sites marked in the space, mostly those of prominent members of the Jewish community. They are quite ornate in their own right, similar to the mausoleum across town. Even the simplest of the graves held a certain amount of beauty, however.
The Jewish Cemetery had the benefit of being mostly overlooked by visitors in town, giving it the quiet, respected feel that memorial sites should have. Similar to our visit to the Taj Mahal, where it was quite nice and serene for the first 45 minutes or so until folks started to show up en masse, the calm that overtook the space was incredible. As the crowds build a bit of that is lost, unfortunately. It doesn’t make the busier sites any less beautiful from an architectural perspective, but it does diminish the overall experience a bit.
Read more of my Marrakesh adventures here!
I have to say, with a smidgen of disappointment, that our experience on the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh was quite different from that of Graham Nash. Indeed, there were no ”Ducks and pigs and chickens” on the train. Then again, the reference to folks blowing smoke rings, though likely supposed to be a reference to the experience once in Marrakesh, was somewhat appropriate as folks gathered in the vestibules at the end of the train cars for most of the four hour ride to smoke cigarettes.
The ride was smooth, quick and quite reasonably priced (140/90 dirhams in 1st/2nd class). About 4 hours after boarding at Gare Casa Voyageurs in Casablanca we were pulling into the incredibly beautiful new train station in the Guéliz neighborhood of Marrakesh.
I spent most of the ride staring out the windows or otherwise enjoying the view. At one point another passenger noted that the train was a bit stuffy so he wanted some fresh air. Easiest way to do that was to simply open up the doors while we were rolling. Sure, probably not the absolute safest thing to do, but getting a clear view out of the beauty as we rolled past was worth the risk. Plus, I survived just fine, so it must’ve been plenty safe, right??
Rolling through the countryside – a mix of lush green farm land and ochre red clay soils – made for some phenomenal vistas. Ditto for the little snippets of life that rolled by. Whether shepherds and their flocks, folks on a bike or the kids who threw a rock at the train and freaked me out when it hit the window I was leaning against, it was all wonderful to watch passing by.
A snack car passed through the train once during the run with some food for sale. Given our 1pm departure from Casablanca and the almost 4 hour ride I was definitely up for a snack. I probably should’ve packed my own. The food wasn’t bad in that it didn’t cause me any discomfort or otherwise make me ill. But that doesn’t mean it was good. The chicken sandwich was boiled chicken, pulled from the bone and a handful stuffed into a loaf of bread. I think there was some lettuce in it somewhere but it was about as flavorless as the chicken was. Definitely not something I’d hope to eat again but also not so bad that I regretted the decision.
And then there were the folks hanging out in the vestibule with their cigarettes. Definitely an entertaining crew. Most were younger men on holidays or going to visit family in Marrakesh. Some of the train crew joined them at one point, lighting up directly under the signs warning of rather significant fines for smoking on the trains. There were a some others as well, including a few young women who the boys enjoyed flirting with. Best I can figure from the mix of languages involved in the conversations (Arabic, French and English, all at the same time) is that one of the guys got a date with one of the women out of the deal, though I’m not 100% sure. Either way, it was quite the enjoyable side-bar to help pass the time as we rolled along.
Overall, I’d say that the Marrakesh Express experience, while definitely a bit different that the mid-60s version, is a wonderful one.
Read more of my Marrakesh adventures here!
Getting lost in Marrakesh is pretty simple. Head into the Medina and take about 3 steps. Congratulations; you’re now almost certainly lost.
Okay, so maybe it takes a few more than three steps, but not many. The Medina is a warren of narrow alleyways, filled with shops and some somewhat aggressive shop-keepers. Yes, there are some signs that label the alleys but that is only useful if you’ve got a map with corresponding names, and I’ve yet to find anything that comes close to that. Add on top of that a rather bustling community of kids who make it their goal to convince you that you’re lost so that they can take you on a bit of a hike in exchange for some baksheesh and the whole system is a mess.
|Sunset over the Jemma El Fna in Marrakesh
It took us about 5 minutes from when we stepped out of our riad until we were on the wrong track. The map the riad owners gave us was great and we were doing fine until we listened to shouts of “No, that way is closed” and quickly found ourselves without bearings and without hope.
|Cool view along the alleyways of the Medina. Sadly things look VERY different 15 minutes or 4 hours later, making navigation quite difficult.
Fortunately the “guide” kids eventually do point you in the correct direction so for the low, low price of a few Dirham we were on our way to where we wanted to be: Jemma El Fna. The heart of the Medina, Jemma El Fna is truly a sight to behold. A combination of market, restaurant, dance hall, boxing ring and circus sideshow, the not so orthogonal nor quadrilateral town square is the center of life in town.
The food scene is somewhat otherworldly. A cloud of smoke rises from the center of the square where scores of fires burn, each feeding the oven of a stand with a singular focus. Want lamb sausage? There’s a whole row of vendors vying for your business. Ditto if it is fish, citrus, dried fruits or desserts that you’re after. Each stall is numbered, making it slightly easier to find (or avoid) a particular proprietor on a return visit.
Having been told of a great lamb sausage at stall #31 during a random chance encounter with a knife-wielding Brit at a bar in New York City shortly before the trip we knew where our first meal was to be. And he was right, the sausage was delicious. The other options, just okay.
Particularly interesting about dining at #31 was that they didn’t seem to advertise. Unlike the other stalls which had folks chasing after customers, begging them for a look at the menu or shouting random phrases to entice you to return (some of our favorites included: “My mother is Jaime Oliver,” “47 sends you to heaven,” and the ever popular “Finger-licking good!”), there were a few like #31 where folks stood 2-3 deep behind the seated customers, anxiously awaiting a seat at the table.
After a bit of wandering about the square, working (mostly unsuccessfully) to establish bearings, we decided to stop for a quick dessert at another stall. At #71 there was a tasty ginger tea and dessert of some sort being served. I have no idea what I ate but it was pretty good. A bit of cardamom in there, I believe.
After dessert it was time to navigate our way home. Plenty of “students” along the route to tell us that open roads were closed, promise us that they just wanted to talk and not take money or otherwise try to screw with us. Indeed, it seemed that there was a network of them, passing us off from one to the next as we crossed streets or turned corners. Each kid had his territory and he was determined to try to milk the visitors therein, even if it meant cursing us out as we walked away without needing his services.
I guess he really did just want to practice his English for free after all.
Read more of my Marrakesh adventures here!
First there was the announcement that Air Canada’s Aeroplan program would require flights on AC metal to earn elite status. Now there are rumors floating around that booking options for award flights – particularly on partner airlines – are being artificially limited by the company.
Previously one was always able to check for the award inventory directly via a number of different tools (AwardNexus or www.ana.co.jp are the most popular and comprehensive for Star Alliance) and then feed the flights to an agent segment by segment. Now the agents are apparently limited to only being able to sell the seats they see on their search screens. Among other things this restricts some carriers, including Asiana and Swiss, from being displayed at all. Not very helpful.
Currently partner bookings are still being processed by managers but it is not clear how willing they will be to process such requests going forward. Either way, it is a rather unfortunate devaluation of the Aeroplan program. Coming on the heels of their wins at the Frequent Traveler Awards program this past November these devaluations are especially unfortunate.
More discussion on this recent development here.
Sure, it was blustery and cold outside, but that doesn’t make a winter afternoon in upstate New York any less beautiful. Indeed, the cold added to the beauty in many ways. The gorges that run through Cornell University’s campus truly are beautiful and when not trudging through them just to get to class it offers the opportunity to go slow and actually enjoy the view.
In addition to the natural beauty of Ithaca it also still has some rather interesting and entertaining small-town business experiences to behold. Walking through the Farmer’s Market I was somewhat surprised to overhear a conversation between a vendor and customer detailing a purchase and return from two years prior. The original hat didn’t fit but the shop offered only a credit, not a refund. No paperwork or receipt, just a promise that they’d honor the exchange if the customer stopped back by and reminded them of it.
So the customer did. Two years later, a quick “Hi, I’m Mr. xxxxx” was greeted with a happy “Welcome back; go ahead and pick the hat you want.” Certainly not the type of business arrangement I’m used to experiencing but I suppose it works.
Gotta love a small town.
In what can only be described as an incredibly strange show of support for a staunch competitor, online travel agency (OTA) Expedia has decided to “de-preference” listings from American Airlines following the move earlier this week by AA to pull their fares from Orbitz. It is still possible to purchase AA fares on Expedia but the offerings from the carrier are not included in the regular results matrix. American Airlines is the last carrier listed in any search and rather than displaying the price a customer must click through to another page to see the AA options:
Even when clicking on the “See flights” link the fares do not show up:
When selecting random AA flights in this particular case they were the same price as the cheapest ones listed above but the process of finding those fares on Expedia is somewhat time-consuming and most definitely not trivial.
This move is certainly an escalation in the battle over fare distribution and one that was not particularly expected by most folks. Still, Expedia’s contract with American Airlines is coming up for renewal very soon, similar to Orbitz’s and given how that negotiation transpired this move seems to be giving Expedia a bit of leverage, at least for now.
An Expedia official offered the following, somewhat scathing statement:
American Airlines has shown it only intends to do business with travel agencies through a new model that is anti-consumer and anti-choice.
We believe American Airlines’ proposed direct connect model will result in higher costs and reduced transparency for consumers, making it difficult to compare AA ticket prices and options with offerings by other airlines.
American Airlines’ direct connect model is of questionable, if any, benefit to travelers, costly to build and maintain and would compromise travel agents’ ability to provide travelers with the best selection.
One analyst has estimated that Orbitz provided $800MM in revenue to American last year. Although the exact numbers are not published that sort of revenue should translate into something north of $10MM in revenue for the GDS systems that are owned by Travelport which also owns Orbitz. It is not clear what the actual revenue effects will be on either side of this fight but it is quite clear that there is a rather significant amount of real money at stake.
I guess the old proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not always hold true.
Three more airlines have joined the Star Alliance upgrade program this month, bringing the total number or participating carriers up to 19. The new entrants to the program include Air Canada (December 3), US Airways (December 14) and TAM Airlines (December 17).
Upgrades using the program are still expensive – per segment rather than per direction and they require the purchase of the highest fare buckets – but having the options available is always a good thing, particularly if you’ve got someone else footing the bill for your flexible international itinerary but where they won’t pay for premium cabin service. As always, call the airline where you have points accumulated to redeem for the upgrade awards.
American Airlines has received a favorable court decision from a judge in Illinois this afternoon, allowing it to pull its fares from the search results displayed by online booking engine Orbitz. The move, lifting a temporary restraining order, allows the carrier to remove their flights from the results that are displayed online for passengers. They have already made the necessary technical changes required; Orbitz is currently not displaying any results for travel on AA.
Ultimately the fight comes down to a fight over the costs of publishing the fare information and the various ways that travel agents (including the online booking engines) can get the data to display to their customers. American wants Orbitz to source their price information through a new system that they’ve built, Direct Connect, rather than through the traditional Global Distribution Systems like Amadeus or Sabre. Orbitz, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into only being able to acquire fare information from a single source.
American is trying to control costs – publishing data into the GDSes is expensive – and increase revenues – the Direct Connect platform allows for more ancillary revenue options such as baggage fees, “special” seat assignments, Mileage Multiplier and similar offerings. At the same time, it also allows the airline to skew other search results if it chooses based on the agency selling the seats rather than providing all customers equal opportunity to the same inventories.
Orbitz claims they are trying to protect consumers by ensuring that the best price can be offered. Of course, Orbitz has not flied suit against Southwest that I’ve seen trying to force them to offer those fares online so that argument might be a bit skewed.
This conflict is not new. American has been pushing vendors towards the Direct Connect platform for more than a year now. Their ultimate goal is to shift as much of the indirect sales channel – tickets not purchased directly from the airline – to the new platform as it offers the best margin opportunities. They haven’t gone so far as to pull their data from all other channels similar to Southwest’s practices or those of some other, smaller carriers. At the same time, however, this case will clearly serve as a bell weather for the future of indirect sales channels. If American is successful in dictating distribution channels to each vendor it could significantly segment the marketplace.
The lawsuit will continue – this was just a temporary injunction being lifted – but it is not clear what the ultimate resolution of the case will be nor the timeline for such. Either way, consumers lose. Transparency leads to lower prices and this move is one that certainly reduces that.