30 December 2012

Out with the old ...

I'm not alone in thinking that New Year's Eve is horribly overrated. Too many expectations, too much hysteria and far too many restaurants charging five times the usual rate for a "special" menu. I like the idea of marking the end of a year and the beginning of a fresh new one, but I'm not so keen on the forced jollity.

The best New Year's Eves are the ones that take you by surprise – when nothing is planned yet everything falls into place. Some years ago when I was living in Bristol, my friends and I were at a loose end one New Year's Eve, having left it too late to sort anything out. The only restaurant table in town was for 7pm. All right, we thought, at least we'll be well fed. Just around the corner from the restaurant was the only pub in town that didn't require buying a ticket in advance – and it had a decent DJ. Great, a bit of dancing would go down well. There we ran into mates who told us about a nearby party hosted by mutual friends. Armed with plenty of booze we had the foresight to buy earlier, we were welcomed with open arms. Snow was falling gently when we walked home at 4am, marvelling at the night sky and pleased we weren't shivering in a horrendous queue for non-existent cabs.

I had the great luck to spend a couple of New Year's Eves skiing in France, and if I had my way (and the budget) I'd do this every year. The French love the occasion even more than Christmas – and why not, when it's another excuse to bring out the oysters and champagne? In a Pyrenean village we joined the party in the local ice skating rink, while people of all ages strolled with streets with bottles of champagne and somehow turned outdoor drinking into a civilised event.

And this year? Well, it's France again, but not quite in a magical mountain setting. We decided on a whim to book a ferry to go to Boulogne on the northern French coast, a place we'd visited many times before – but never on New Year's Eve. A quick trawl through the internet revealed a distinct lack of restaurants that can be bothered to open, and those that are have put on one of those dreaded "special" menus. So we're off with no plans, nothing in place – apart from emergency supplies of cheese, pâté and fizz. The only thing that's certain is the dreadful weather forecast. Wish me luck. And Happy New Year.

01 May 2012

Olympics guide to London transport

This summer, London's beleaguered public transport system will be hammered as rarely seen before. The expected mass exodus of the natives to avoid the Olympics is unlikely to happen to any great extent, so millions upon millions of people will have to be squeezed on to our antiquated Underground. This will result in an awful lot of grumpy people (that'll be me, then) muttering in disbelief at tourists' inability to grasp the basics of travelling in London. Here are a few tips to reduce the grumpiness, if only by a smidgeon.

1. How to use the escalator in a Tube station
Patronising title, I know, but believe me, people still need a lesson in this. It all boils down to this: STAND ON THE RIGHT AND KEEP THE LEFT CLEAR FOR PEOPLE TO WALK. Wonderfully simple logic, I know, but hard for many to grasp. It's not just tourists who ignore this, of course. But, really, it's just good manners. That leads me to ...

2. Don't block the entrance
You reach the entrance, or the exit, or the ticket gates, or the train platform, and there they are – a cluster of people who arrive and just stop. And don't move. And then wonder why you're scowling at them as you try to get through the throng. Shuffling over just a few feet will make a difference.

3. How to board a train
More patronising tones, but I'm standing firm on this. A Tube train finally arrives and what do you do? We'll, what you don't do is stand in front of the doors and prevent people from getting off. Because this will just delay your chance to get on the train. Another simple piece of logic routinely ignored. And once you do board, bear in mind that there's a pretty good chance that someone will be behind you and will want to get on the train as well. This is not the signal for you to saunter on and just stand in front of the doors. Expect to get nudged forward, with varying degrees of politeness.

4. A couple of Tube tips
London Underground trains have buttons on the doors that indicate "open". They don't actually do anything. The doors will open automatically. Also, regular Tube passengers are accustomed to a juddering stop-start motion of the train as it tries to leave a station. This means people are leaning too heavily against the doors, which will prevent the train from leaving. So don't lean on the doors. Yes, it is your fault.

5. Other forms of public transport, namely Boris Bikes
London's bike-rental scheme has been a huge success – too much so for many people (yep, me again) who find it considerably more difficult to find a functioning bike now that everyone can rent one easily. The problem is that many people who happily hop on one of these things have no idea of the rules of the road. You wouldn't get in a rental car and blithely ignore the law, yet that's what people do with bikes. Not just naughty, but dangerous. Here are a few basics.

5a. We drive and cycle on the left – gauchesinistralinksizquierda – esquerdalevo – etc
That also applies to bike lanes. Do try to bear that in mind. And don't let your kids weave all over the path, even if it's within a park. You might think you're in a safe place, but there are plenty of speeding cyclists (this time not me) who are in a hurry and have little patience with people who get in their way.

5b. Know when to give way to oncoming traffic
When you come to a crossing or any sort of junction and you see broken lines in front of you on the road, that means you do not have right of way. Let other people – be they pedestrians or other cyclists – pass first. I really wouldn't ignore this rule. People will get hurt.

5c. Indicating when you're going to turn would be helpful now and again
Stick the appropriate arm out if you're turning left or right. We can't always read your mind. This inability to indicate applies to cars as well, but that's another story.

What all of these points boil down to is to remember that there are other people travelling with you – in London's case, anything up to nine million people. So take a moment to pay some attention to your surroundings and you might just keep some of the natives (including me) from growling too loudly behind you.

04 March 2012

Hotel websites – less is more

It's an easy trap to fall into. A hotel wants to revamp its website and has a quick trawl through the web to see the latest concepts. It finds a web designer who assures the client that all the latest online bells and whistles
will be just the thing to entice potential
guests. The result is a website that is so
teeth-clenchingly annoying that the punter is put off before he even thinks of setting foot in the place.

This is a familiar whinge from travel writers, whose needs are often different from an average holidaymaker. We're usually up against a deadline and need to find basic information very quickly. A phone number, for example. Or an address. These would be quite handy to have on the opening page. Too often they're not. And I don't want to know about a toll-free number that doesn't work for international callers. (US hotels, I'm looking at you.)

But surely travel writers aren't the only people who sit impatiently while an elaborate intro wastes your precious time. If a website gives me the choice to "skip intro", I always will. There's nothing in the intro that shouldn't appear in the main site.

And then there's music. It doesn't belong on hotel websites. End of discussion. No arguments. The mute button goes on at once.

Photo galleries are lovely, useful and all part of the fun. Please make them easier to click through. Don't have each photo open its own window. It's very tiresome.

My biggest bugbear is one that involves a fundamental reason for choosing a particular hotel: the room rates. I want a list of tariffs for all types of rooms and showing the different seasons. A minimum and a maximum. Very simple. What I don't want is to have to input my dates before I'm told what offers fall on those dates. I need to know early on if the hotel is within my price range. Going through the whole inputting-of-dates rigamarole is another time-wasting nuisance. It also doesn't endear me to the hotel, as I automatically assume that it's afraid to be honest in its dealings. Why does price have to be something to hide? I'm fully aware that hotels want to have the flexibility to drop their prices at certain times and will offer incredible discounts. But I'd rather have a reasonably clear indication of the price range to begin with.

When I read flowery prose about the "essence" and the "philosophy" of the hotel, my eyes glaze over. And then I get angry when they neglect to tell me important information about the hotel's layout – such as that new annexe they built that is a 10-minute walk from the hotel.

But all of this matters not a jot when I can't get on to the site to begin with – because it's only in Flash. So that immediately excludes iPhone and iPad users, those people who are being continually bombarded with brilliant new travel apps for their devices. So don't forget to ask that clever web designer to come up with an HTML version too.

I'm curious to hear what experiences hoteliers have had with their websites and how they've affected business. Feel free to pass on your thoughts.