Thursday, April 1, 2010

Small adventures in travel

I found a ghostly sitzmark on my back window yesterday morning.  ‘never a good sign when a bird so clearly misjudges the flyway – I only hope it’s one of the many pigeons that are waking up earlier and earlier with each dawn.

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On my way through Schiphol this morning, I stopped to pick up a bottle of single-malt scotch from the duty-free shop.  As I turned around with the bottle, I found myself face to face with a stern, uniformed customs agent.

“Papers?”, he inquired.  I gave him my passport and residency card.

“Spreekt u Nederlands?”  Inevitable.  Best to not try my Level 2 Dutch in this situation.  Een beetje.

  “May I exchange the bottle?”  I’m confused.

  Ho pointed to the scotch.  “Your bottle.”

  He fingered through the rest of the stock, picking one from the third row.  “Thank you for your cooperation,” he smiled, handing me the new selection.

  I wanted to ask if there was a further discount for this, but wisely decided to scoot for the plane before this advanced to the contents of my See-Buy-Fly bag.

They are a bit touchy at Schiphol these days…and I don’t want to end up like the pigeon, with only a ghostly trace left to tell the tale.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Adventures in car shopping (Part deux)

I continue to collect advice and experiences as I look for some new wheels.  By the end of the weekend, things had converged to a Ford Fiesta, and a Renault Clio.  Both are around 19K euro new, offer good “B” class emissions (very green, so the business gets a big tax credit), and good ratings in the car guides.  (Engineers always consult someone’s spreadsheet before deciding anything).

I made an appointment to test drive the Fiesta for Monday morning and biked over in a warm rain.  Unlike the US, you get to drive the salesman’s car, so it really provides a good feel for how well the car will wear and how the kids accessories fit in.  I took it out onto the A2 and climbed the mightiest hill north of Maastricht (1% grade, 1/4 mile); the 1.2 L engine muscled up without having the engine drown out the radio.  I drove through a neighborhood, taking the drempels (speed bumps) a mite quickly; my head didn’t bump the ceiling and my coffee didn’t spill.  I used to do a test where I’d belt a toddler into the back seat; if they cried and I could still hold a normal conversation up front, that was a passing mark.  Unfortunately, no toddler at hand, so I didn’t evaluate this quality.

The salesman asked if I was serious: I looked serious and said that I was.  He told me I’d receive an e-mail offer and we solemnly parted.

I asked about a 4 year, 30K km/year lease on a 20K euro car; the answer came back, about 450 euro per month.

Doing a bit of quick math, the lease then costs 5400 per year, so 21,600 over 4 years.  since maintenance, insurance, and road taxes are thrown in, this sounds like a reasonable deal.

A friend on LinkedIn suggested that looks could be deceiving, however: if the car goes back early or over mileage, then huge penalties accrue.  I asked the dealer to estimate a lease for 3 years / 40K km/year.  The answer came back, 500 euro per month.

Another friend suggested that dealers give a discount of at least 15% if I negotiated and took a payment plan.  Assuming I negotiate well and put down a few thousand, I asked my bank how much the financing would be for 15K euro on a 36 month payment scheme.  The answer came back, 450 euro per month.

There are clearly many paths to the same answers in the Netherlands.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Adventures in car shopping, Dutch-style

The costs of renting a car to go back and forth to Cambridge are getting to be well in excess of the costs of buying a car, so I’ve decided to let the business invest a bit of cash in some mobility.

Shopping for cars in the US is always an exercise in research and negotiation: I never actually get the better of a salesman, but I’ve become adept at trying and (like all American men) I think I get pretty close to the mythical “Good Deal”.

I don’t know what the equivalent experience might be like in the Netherlands?  But the one, certain Universal of Car Shopping is that I’m going to get killed if I don’t have skilled help. 

So I enlisted a Dutch friend, knowing that he would know the process, be absolutely focused on getting value for guilder, and enjoy chewing down the salesmen.  I had a budget, an vague idea that a VW Polo was a good car, a desire to get green technology, and certainty that we wanted to take every angle allowed under the business taxes..

abcdefg We started at a used-car showroom, where we could compare lots of in-budget models with good fuel efficiency (A or B on the Brandstoflabel, right, assuring a 20% tax credit).  I was immediately ready to take the Mercedes convertible for 24K, or (someone else’s) classic red Jaguar in the parking lot.  But we steered towards the Clio, the Polo, the Fiesta, the Corsa, the 207, while I slowly got my mind around Euro-car buying.

There are differences.  In the US

I size up the car and the salesman

I take a test drive

I settle on a feature package

I negotiate the financing.

Along the way, I shake my head and start to leave at least 3 times.

I usually wrap things up, reducing the salesman to weeping frustration, within five hours.

In contrast, among the Dutch,

We have coffee.

We study the brochure together.

We review a table of prices, sorted by packages and options.

If we are interested, we may make an appointment for a test drive at a future date.

If still interested, then we have to decide on financing strategy: a financial lease (a payment plan after which I own the car) or an operational lease ( a series of lease payments after which I return the car).  Only a financial lease may be negotiated.

The salesman takes notes, thanks me for my interest, and promises to send a quote by email in a day or so.

If still interested, I may accept.

Augh…where’s the bid, where’s the negotiation?  Where’s the fun ?!

  So, I await the weekends bids, and have test drives scheduled for Monday morning.