17 August 2011

Are excursions worth it?

Some friends of mine were visiting Europe for the first time, and they chose to take a guided tour that zoomed through four countries in 10 days. You know the sort: if it's Tuesday this must be Belgium. I'm not necessarily criticising this kind of tour, as many tourists find that it's their best economical option. What does annoy me, however, is the excursions offered by the tour companies. They argue that it's the way they make money out of these cut-price tours, as the travel costs are kept to a minimum. That might be true, but it's unfair on the customer.

The tour operators rely on the fact that many of their clients are first-time visitors and don't know what they want to see, or that they don't feel confident enough to strike out on their own. Or even that they can't be bothered and prefer to be led. But do the companies really need to charge up to four times what a tour is worth – or, worse still, charge for attractions that are free to begin with?

To take some examples: an excursion in Paris takes in the Louvre and Notre-Dame, charging 45 for the privilege. A full ticket at the Louvre is €14 and Notre-Dame is free. If this hugely overpriced excursion includes jumping the horrendous queues at the Louvre, then people who are pressed for time might consider it money well spent. But it's free to visit Notre-Dame, and the cathedral even organises its own free tours. Similarly, a "special" night-time trip on a bateau mouche (excluding dinner) on the Seine costs €32, when a trip usually costs only €11.

The Rome excursions are just as daft. You can pay €69 to visit the Vatican and Colosseum with the tour company, or pay €30.30 for both on your own. There's even an excursion to Piazza Navona and the Pantheon (pictured) for the ludicrous sum of €32. Both places are free, so why not just buy a map?

It doesn't take much effort to do a bit of research on your own before you set off and make some decisions about what you want to visit. If you have only one day in Paris or Rome, you might just want to take in one major attraction and leave the rest of the time to explore and have a delicious lunch. You might enjoy getting a feel for the place rather than just ticking off a list of places you feel you have to see.

05 June 2011

What all hoteliers should know

For the past four weeks, I have been in France researching the latest Frommer's guidebook to Provence. This involved 21 different hotel/apartment stays in 27 nights. Over the years, I've stayed in more hotels than I can remember, but having this prolonged period away from home has really focused my mind on what hoteliers consistently get wrong – as well as what they do right.

First things first: all hoteliers should spend at least two nights in their own hotels – with their luggage. If you're male, then get your wife, sister or other frank female to do the same. Too often no one bothers to get a woman's point of view. This is daft, as it's usually the woman who chooses the accommodation for the family holiday.

Secondly, the bathroom. I've stayed in brand-new five-star hotels with fantastic showers that have leaked all over the floor. And why can't people put a shelf in the shower? All those lovely fittings and nowhere to put your shampoo except on the floor. If a designer tries to tell you that shelves will "spoil the line", slap him. Oh, and a strong hook wouldn't go amiss either for people with hanging toiletries cases. (In fact, hooks in general are a good thing. More, please.)

Beautifully designed bathrooms with very deep basins look lovely. But spare a thought for short-sighted women who need to get close to a mirror to put on makeup. If the main mirror is three feet away, have the decency to put a small makeup mirror on the side wall. To those hotels that have already done so, thank you. It's very appreciated.

A special plea to French hoteliers that, unfortunately, will go unnoticed: put up a shower curtain. Otherwise, if you're determined to have an open shower, then leave a huge pile of towels to mop up the floor. If you've gone to the trouble to put up a shower screen, try to find one that actually works.

Small pedal bins in the bathroom are the work of the devil and should be banned. As are those chrome covers for the toilet roll. It is not aesthetically displeasing to see an uncovered bin or a naked toilet roll. We can handle it, trust me.

Very rarely are there enough plug sockets for today's traveller. These days, not many of us go around without a mobile phone, laptop, digital camera, iPod, etc, and all of them need to be charged up at some point.

And another thing: full-length mirrors. They don't need to take up much space and can easily be fitted behind the door of a wardrobe. Speaking of wardrobes, can we have more than five hangers? And can we have deep enough hanging space for dresses? I recently stayed in a supposedly "superior" room whose wardrobe was too short to hang a T-shirt.

I want to hug hoteliers who have the trust to leave a proper hair dryer in the bathroom – one that doesn't require constantly pressing a button to get the silly thing to work. Some people's hands cramp quickly. Thankfully, some manufacturers have come up with a model that is stuck to the wall but has a proper on-off switch. They do exist; I've seen them.

If you advertise free wifi, do make it clear when it works only in reception and not in the rooms. During this trip, I stayed in everything from two-star to five-star hotels, and not a single one charged for wifi. The luxury hotels that do are just being greedy. Add it to the cost of the room if you feel the need.

I have yet to see the point to a turndown service, except for the chocolates and perhaps a bottle of water. They're intrusive, almost always done when you're still getting ready to go out, and it's not very relaxing to feel compelled to tidy up before you go out for the evening. Leave the chocolates and the water during the morning clean-up.

Hotel breakfasts have become ridiculously overpriced and this is something that deserves its own blog post. Since when did the cost of breakfast equal or exceed the price of lunch?

Most of these suggestions require very little expense, and most hotels can certainly afford the odd hook or mirror here and there. These little things might sound insignificant, but they all add up.

19 April 2011

Done roaming – a cautionary tale

You would think, with the amount of travelling I do, that I would have sussed out the confusing world of mobile phone roaming charges. Evidently not, as my recent phone bill from Orange shows. I seem to have fallen into a classic trap of getting severely stung by extortionate roaming charges while abroad. And all thanks to a rubbish little app.

Ever since I got my first BlackBerry, I have been careful to buy additional travel data bundles that would allow me to access my emails without spending a small fortune. The trouble started when I apparently responded to an Orange text while I was in France early this year. As I was approaching the limit of my travel bundle, Orange asked me if I wanted my roaming limit lifted. Although I don't remember sending the text, Orange maintains that I did – even though I hadn't reached my data bundle limit. And no one pointed out that lifting the limit is for all time – not just for that trip.

Two trips to France later, I came home to find a massive bill, even though I had bought data bundles. What on earth was causing my phone to rack up this huge bill? I always turned off the updating facility on Twitter, for example, and even deleted the official Twitter for BlackBerry app that didn't give you this option.

Then I remembered that I had downloaded the only free BlackBerry app that tracks the number of Boris bikes that are in London's docking stations. The default setting meant that the app was merrily updating itself EVERY 30 SECONDS while I was in France. How can I have been such an idiot not to check all the settings? I've since deleted the app (which didn't work very well anyway), put the roaming limit back in place and bought another data bundle for my trip next month. If I bust the limit, so be it. Bear that in mind if I don't respond to your emails relatively quickly.

Right, must get back to work and make some money to start paying off this monstrous bill. By the way, has anyone figured out quite why mobile phone companies charge such ridiculous amounts for roaming? I'd like to hear a rational answer.

07 March 2011

When readers fight back

I was happy to see a feature in the Daily Telegraph recently about one of my favourite French ports, Sète. Anthony Peregrine wrote an enjoyable article about this unpretentious town that isn't really on the radar of most UK visitors. It's a bit scruffy, yes, but it's a real working port that has more important business to attend to than pandering to tourists: namely its huge fishing industry. Anthony was up front when he described some parts as run down. St-Tropez it isn't, nor does it want to be. I discovered it accidentally 10 years ago, and have been visiting ever since.

So I was quite taken aback when I saw the scathing comments from readers at the bottom of the article. Several called it a dump, suggesting that people would be better off visiting Slough. Another wondered if Anthony had ever actually visited the place. Considering that Anthony has been based on the South of France for a couple of decades, my guess is that he would have made Sète's acquaintance by now. Then there was that inevitable comment about writers swanning off on all-expenses paid trips and feeling compelled to write something good about a place even if it's a slagheap. (Why does everyone assume that all travel writers are on expenses? Most of us aren't.)

I've been to Sète numerous times over the past 10 years, and – bar one occasion – in a personal capacity. Why do I come back again and again to this place that supposedly makes Slough look good? For precisely the reasons Anthony explains in his article, and in one I wrote a couple of years ago (which you can read here if you fancy). If you want overcrowded expensive beaches, stick to the Riviera. If you want exquisite seafood and long, empty sands that stretch for miles, then give Sète a go. With any luck, you won't run into Sète-baiting Telegraph readers.