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I've been in Bulgaria for the past couple of days, for a project meeting for my EU project. Generally pleasant although not entirely eventful trip out; rather than take the Air France to CDG from Southampton, I decided to travel up to Heathrow and take Austrian Airlines via Vienna. This was partly because of my experience travelling to Luxembourg via Paris CDG a couple of months ago; the Southampton flight now arrives at and leaves from the loathsome terminal 2E (reopened after the ceiling collapse a few years ago) rather than the nicer 2F. Moreover, CDG managed to lose my hold luggage on the outbound flight, which was a bit of a pain.

Anyway, it turns out that the fastest way to get from Southampton to Heathrow (bar a taxi) is the National Express service that calls at the university. All well and good, arrived at LHR with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, the weather in London on Wednesday was dreadful, and my outgoing flight was delayed by 46 minutes, which meant I missed my (35 minute) connection in Vienna. This is just one of those things; Vienna is a well-designed airport, and they guarantee transits as short as 25 minutes, so I would have otherwise been fine. As it was, getting the later flight from VIE to Sofia was fortuitous, because it meant I had less time to wait for my lift at the far end. Austrian Airlines were also pretty good, and I could be persuaded to travel with them in future.

The meeting was not in Sofia, for which I am extremely thankful; daytime temperatures in the latter half of the week were peaking at about 35C, which is Too Hot. We were up in the mountain resort of Borovets, which was about ten degrees cooler. Not much to say about Borovets, sadly; it's an off-season ski resort which seems to cater heavily to Britons buying second homes (a datapoint: consider a two floor building containing: a one bedroom flat, a three bedroom maisonette, two retail units, one storage unit and a large basement. Total combined floor area of about 500m^2, located 6km from Borovets. The price? £75k).

My problems really began when I got off the plane in LHR on the return journey. I purposely haven't used National Express in the past fifteen years. My last experience was travelling down from Coventry to Exeter in 1991 for a weekend with [livejournal.com profile] martine_uk; a five hour journey ended up taking nine hours due to missing coaches and a complete disinterest in customer service on the part of National Express. Sadly, this time was little different.

I'd booked on the 1945 to Southampton, which didn't show up. Actually, that's not quite true; it arrived at 1930 and left immediately without picking passengers up. The dispatch staff in the bus terminal didn't know that it had been in, so there hadn't been an announcement in the waiting room on on the departure boards to say which stand it was arriving at. By the time we'd managed to get any member of staff to take an interest, the 2045 had arrived. I wasn't allowed to get on this because I'd booked for the missing 1945. I could, however, rebook for the 2130 bus. Actually, that turned out to be the 2145 bus; the staff were completely ignorant of the timetable. The 2145 bus was running 25 minutes late. At 2210, a bus for Southampton pulled onto the right stand. I wasn't allowed to get on that bus because that was actually the 2210 bus running on time, and I'd be rebooked on the late-running 2145. The delayed 2145 turned up at about 2215.

They finally deigned to get us a cup of tea at 2200. My requests to talk to a supervisor were ignored. They weren't prepared to offer us any other form of transportation. I finally got to Southampton at 2355; a 100 minute journey took closer to 250 minutes.

Never again am I travelling by National Express.

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Nick Gibbins

August 2010

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