When you are travelling independently, there is an art to choosing an hotel, and it's a good idea if possible to look at the room before you take it. The vast majority of hotels have no problem with this; some aren't happy, but let you do it with varying degrees of ill grace; and if they refuse to let you see it at all, ask yourself what they are trying to hide. If you are staying at a place you have stayed before, or if it is part of a chain where you have a fairly clear idea of what the room will be like, you can omit this step. Even then, you can be in for a surprise. For example, one of the major French low-cost chains for more details) always has en-suite bathrooms -- except in one place we stopped, without checking first...
We quite often look at one or two hotels before deciding on a third, and it has been known for us to look at five or more, though this is very unusual. After a while you develop a sixth sense; if you don't like the look of somewhere when you stop outside, you just drive on. We generally start looking at anything between 17:00 and 20:00 (5 pm and 8 pm), depending on the season and our assessment of how likely we are to find somewhere we want to stay. We are then in the room between 18:00 and 22:00. The last would be a bit desperate. Normally, after about 20:00, we are prepared to put up with ever greater departures from perfection and by 22:00 (10 pm) we are nothing like as choosy as we are 5 hours earlier.
You may be willing to pay a premium to stay near where you want to be: it's often worth quite a bit more to be within walking distance rather than within driving distance, and (for example) if we ever went to Chengde again (the old Summer Palace north of Peking), we would stay inside the park.
The same goes for beaches, city centres, ruins, spas and more: walking distance is always better. Our rule of thumb is that we don't want to stay more than twenty or twenty-five minutes' walk from what we want to see.
On the other hand, if you are prepared to walk for a few minutes, you can often save a great deal by not staying in the most expensive tourist-trap hotels. A quarter of an hour's walk from central Sighisoara, for example, we paid maybe a quarter as much as we would have for a hotel in the very centre.
On a closely related point, remember that a cabin on a ferry, or a sleeper on a train, may look expensive but saves you the price of an hotel room and allows you to do the more tedious portions of your travelling while you are asleep, thus leaving more time in daylight to enjoy yourself.
We generally prefer ground-floor rooms, simply because it's easier to carry our luggage. Above the first floor (American 'second floor' -- the first floor after the ground floor) it's preferable to have a lift (elevator): it's all too easy to look at a room, unencumbered; decide to take it; then struggle up three flights of stairs carrying the luggage.
Regardless of which floor it is on, the same considerations make it desirable that it not be too far from the car park.
Often, you will be offered (or can negotiate) a better rate for 3 nights or more than for 1 night. This is a finely balanced choice. If you are sure you want to be in that area for more than a night, and if you are reasonably confident that the room is OK, take the deal. Make it clear (if you can) that if you leave after one or two nights, you will pay the one-night rate, duly multiplied. Watch out for places that insist on a 2-night minimum.
Congress Hotel, Miami Beach.
Hotel rooms can spring an uncommonly large number of surprises, of varying severity. Some may not matter at all; some may merely mean that you don't get as good a night's sleep as you might have wished; and a few (a very few) are downright disasters. Here are the things we check, very roughly in order of importance, plus a few things you either can't check or can't decently check: you just have to hope. A perfect room would score 100% on the list below, but equally, you may be willing to put up with less than perfection if it's late, you're tired, and you're planning on getting up early next day anyway.
Your assessment of the relative importance of the various features may vary, and besides, some hotels post a list of prices and features outside. Of course a lot depends on the season.
This is a real swine if you are travelling as a couple, as we always do. In Spain, for example, a room priced at 32 euros might be either a bargain at 32, or rather stiff at 64. In France, you might find the price fair at 45, a rip-off at 90. You can generally rely on the old adage that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, but equally, there are bargains to be had, and if something looks absurdly expensive, you may have misunderstood (though you probably haven't).
It may be a good idea to pay at the time of booking. Not only does this mean you can leave whenever you like, i.e. if you wake up early: it also means that a different desk clerk cannot try to charge you more. Alternatively, get the price on a scrap of paper. This has rarely been a problem for us, but we have been caught on it in both France and India. Do not be afraid to shout if necessary.
Check whether there are taxes on top of the price you are quoted. Usually, if there are, they will not be very much, but it is still irritating to have to pay 5-10 per cent more than you expected. In India the taxes on a 'luxury' room can be surprisingly high, and the bar for 'luxury' can be surprisingly low.
The French are the ones to watch here, though we have had the same problem in Hungary. You can easily see whether there is an en-suite bathroom or not, but check that there is actually a WC in it: there may be only a shower (or even bath) and hand-basin, though if there is a bidet, you can at least pee in that (the French don't seem to worry about this). The most impressive example was the Hungarian one: bath, shower, bidet, hand-basin, all brand-new -- and a shared loo immediately outside the front door, in the hall.
As noted elsewhere, if you are young and don't have to get up during the night for a pee, you can often save 30 to 50 per cent by taking a room without private facilities.
If you are in doubt, try the tap. In older hotels it may have to run for a few minutes before it actually gets hot. We have very rarely had this problem but since an evening in Portugal we sometimes check. There was enough water for a not-very-warm shower each, but no more than that.
Make sure these have been replaced; it's one less thing to have to ask for later. The French are still inclined to provide dish-towels instead of proper, full-size, absorbent towels, but they are much better than they used to be.
We always carry our own. This was of course one of the great jokes of the old Soviet Union but surprisingly many hotels in many countries nowadays deliberately remove them in order to encourage their guests to have a shower. They can try to disguise it as eco-awareness but we suspect it's more to do with water metering.
Some hotels provide soap; some don't. Usually, the most expensive hotels do, and the cheapest don't, but in the middle there are huge variations with many providing soap when you don't expect it, and many that don't provide it when you do. Because most chambermaids are trained to chuck out soap when they clean a room after a guest's departure, we always harvest the soap before we leave. This ensures an adequate supply of small bars of soap in the rooms that don't provide it, and also in motorway rest stops. Often, we'll break even a tiny hotel soap-bar in half and use/leave half at a motorway rest stop.
Again, some provide 'em, and some don't. We normally carry disposable plastic beakers in the car, but we also have a pair of tiny (2 oz) silver-plated tots that live in the main suitcase. We use them mainly for whiskey but if you are desperate and want to drink tap water, they're still a lot better than your cupped hands.
Check, as for towels. Actually, it's not a bad idea to carry some spare paper of your own, especially in India. For that matter, if you prefer the soft stuff, a six-pack in the back of the car isn't a bad idea in most countries: the paper that's provided can all too often be both thin and sandpapery. And in the United States the perforations are sometimes unpredictable. Odd, but there you go.
Look for a room at the back of the hotel (assuming the hotel is on a main road), not overlooking a building site, not next to the lift shaft or shared WCs, not over the disco...
There may be a significant difference between the noise with the windows open and closed, and if they don't need to be open for ventilation (see below) you may be amazed at how much noise is cut out by windows or shutters or both. We once stayed in a room overlooking Avignon station, but thanks to the quadruple glazing on the small window, it was quite quiet enough.
Unless you are a swimming pool addict, avoid pool views; rooms on the other side are quieter and often cheaper too.
Some noises, though, are simply unpredictable. One of the worst rooms we ever stayed in was in Mexico in about 1990, in a place recommended by the then-current Lonely Planet guide. After about an hour, the ceiling fan developed an intermittent chirp. Its irregularity made it curiously irritating. Then, an hour later, just as we had got to sleep, it developed a second noise, a screech, which was equally random. This room will reappear later as The Mexican Room.
The ideal here is the sort of rolling shutters that are common in France and Germany. Failing this, folding wooden, metal or even plastic shutters. Failing this, curtains backed with 'blackout' material . Failing this, any heavy curtains. Failing this, any curtains. In the early 1990s we stayed in a place in Prague with a huge east-facing window and no curtains at all. A friend had pre-booked it for us; we'd never have taken it if we'd seen it first. Nowadays we'd probably make our own 'curtains' out of black plastic bin-bags, though given that the place was filthy and a quarter of an hour's motorcycle ride out of the city centre, maybe we wouldn't. Obviously dark rooms are more of a concern with short summer nights than with long winter ones.
With any curtains, make sure they meet and are big enough to cover the window. Bulldog clips can help hold them together. Put a length of brightly coloured ribbon on the Bulldog clip to reduce the chance of leaving it behind.
If you are on the ground floor, or if there is a walkway outside your window (typical in many US hotels), and you are worried about your modesty, make sure no-one can see in. The Mexican Room was an example of this: we could have the shutters open and breathe, allowing all passers-by to see in, or have them shut, and rely on the fan.
If the weather is OK and it's not too noisy, and you're not overlooked, you can just open the window (cf. The Mexican Room) if there's no air-conditioning or fan. Otherwise you may have a choice of suffocating (probably not fatally, but very uncomfortably) or being kept awake by the noise/icy draughts. Or being looked in upon in the morning.
Generally we are as happy with a fan as with air conditioning, and indeed, we tend to prefer a fan in India where a/c and television together -- they are rarely available separately -- can double the price of a room, or worse. Ceiling fans are best but table fans are pretty good too. If there is no fan, just ask: most hotels can find one. Though we once bought one and carried it with us in northern Portugal.
Beware of the absence of effective heating in countries that have a self-image as warm. Often, they just endure winters, without doing much about heating. A combination of no heating and icy tile floors is especially depressing. Much as we love Portugal, the Portuguese are pretty bad for this.
Increasing numbers of low-end and mid-range hotels, and even some of those with greater pretensions, require you to shove your key-card into a slot just inside the door in order to get any power in the room. When you leave, you take the key and the power is cut off (sometimes after a delay of half a minute or so).
This can be a disaster in winter if you have just checked into a cold room and you want to go out for dinner. In inclement weather, demand a second key-card or banjax the slot with something else: a comb handle works very well (we learned this one in China) if you don't have a supermarket loyalty card handy. If the key card has a chip, and the slot reads it, banjaxing obviously won't work.
Something else that is increasingly common is remote-controlled heaters (below and right). Many have a built-in 5-minute delay. Check them as soon as you are in the room. If there is a delay, go somewhere else. We accept these things only if we are desperate or if the room is otherwise excellent.
If you want to read or to check maps, guide-books, etc., you will need decent lighting, not a glow-worm. If you want to go straight to bed, lighting may not matter. Check all lights when you examine the room. New bulbs can then be delivered with the towels (see above) and pillows (see below).
An interesting variant on this is bathroom lighting. We normally carry a small, plug-in night-light so we can find the loo in the middle of the night, and this is ideal. Otherwise, unless the bedroom is otherwise fairly bright (street lights outside, not very efficient curtains), we leave the bathroom light on. This is fine if it is not too powerful, but some bathrooms have Klieg lights in them so that when you open the door at night, it is like the sun coming up. Also, some bathroom lights are connected to an extractor fan, which can be absurdly noisy.
Note that power to the night-light socket in the bathroom may or may not be cut when you turn off the bathroom lights. Tie a piece of coloured ribbon to the night-light to reduce your chances of leaving it behind.
If the bed is shoved hard against one wall, one half of a couple is going to have to struggle over the other or crawl off the end of the bed. Similar considerations apply to roofs that slope smartly inwards, so you have to crouch or bang your head. Guess which you are likelier to do if you are half asleep. Beams may be picturesque but can make it even more painful.
Sloping roof, hotel, Spain
Now look at the rest of the room. Can you stow your luggage so you don't trip over it between the bed and the bathroom? Can you get past the furniture (including the bed) without stubbing your toe, bruising your shins or otherwise colliding with painful objects? Is the floor slippery? In conjunction with the wrong kind of rug this can be very dangerous indeed.
Can you close the door to the bathroom/toilet? Yet again, old French hotels may give you so little space that you can't actually sit down and close the door at the same time. A variant on this was The Mexican Room where the door had no lock; was a long way from the WC, so you couldn't jam it with your foot; and swung outwards anyway. The only option was to ask your partner to block it with a suitcase.
Another unexpected one is the tiny bathroom door. A few -- a very few -- ancient hotels (more than 300 years old) are built on widely varying levels, so that the door to the bathroom is less than five feet high but leads down two steps (or more) into a bathroom with a more or less normal ceiling height. All very magical and romantic but not so good when it's 3 am and you're trying to find the bathroom in the dark.
Finally, on this topic, one of our biggest surprises was an otherwise excellent room with the most ferocious Artex-style wall finishing in sharp pointed peaks about 1/2 inch (12mm) high and maybe an inch (25mm) apart. Brush against it, and it was like being attacked by piranhas: you'd be stripped to the bone in seconds. The gentle caress of a cheese grater or a wire brush was as nought compared with this.
If you're going to eat a picnic in the room, you want somewhere you can do it. Often, one of you can sit on the bed while the other uses a chair, but two chairs are more convenient. And does the table move?
For us, electric kettles are a modest bonus (for Frances's tea in the morning) but hardly decisive.
Do you need to charge your mobile 'phone? Digital camera batteries? Laptop...? We have a dual-voltage cooler that runs off both 12V DC (the car) and 240v AC (mains in most of the world) and we like to leave it in the bathroom overnight, if at all possible. This has two advantages. One is that the cool water is in the bathroom when you need it in the night, and the other (in hot weather) is that the warm exhaust from the cooler doesn't warm the room any further. Carry a socket doubler (Christmas tree) if you want to run both the cooler and the night-light simultaneously.
A lockable safe in the bedroom, with a user-set code, can be handy for leaving documents and surplus camera gear in the room. This is one of the reasons we prefer small, light rangefinder cameras to big, bulky reflexes: the safes are not usually very big. Leaving valuables with the front desk is sometimes more nerve-wracking than leaving them in the room: we don't want to see $20,000 of Alpa gear in a case in an unguarded left-luggage room.
A lot depends on how much you value TV. As we don't have a television at home, it has a certain novelty value for us and we sometimes stay up unreasonably late, watching things that are mildly interesting. This normally applies only if they have cable channels: domestic TV is rarely that interesting after midnight. On balance, we probably prefer not to have television. Frances certainly prefers a room without; Roger mildly prefers having one, but so mildly that he'll cheerfully live without.
In India, as noted above about air conditioning, a TV can add an utterly disproportionate premium to the price of a room. Even if you have satellite, it can be silly; if you don't, well, how much Indian domestic television do you want to watch?
Mostly we don't give a stuff about this but we keep idly thinking that it might be a good idea to take our WiFi lap top with us (one is enough!). This might also allow us to use Skype or a similar internet 'phone service. Some hotels offer free internet access, while others charge (usually quite modestly) for a password. Some have access in the room; some, only in public areas. And some are still wired: you hire a 'phone connector at the front desk.
You don't want a bed that's too hard or too soft, but still more importantly you don't want the quite common variety where there's a pit in the middle and you both roll into it, or (rarer but arguably worse) the sort with a central hump so that you have to cling to one another for fear of rolling away from one another and over the edge. Unless you are recently married (or indeed enjoying a dirty weekend, or otherwise feeling amorous) you may care to reflect upon the possibility that you will sleep better in twin beds. You can still have a cuddle in the morning, or before you go to sleep, or both).
Something you can't really test for, without half-stripping the bed, is those crackly, impermeable mattress covers under the bottom sheet. They are becoming more and more common. Hygiene is one thing. Clamminess is quite another.
There are two things to look out for here. One is the dreaded bolster, the full width of the bed and intricately linked to it by folded sheets so you cannot easily move it. The French are worst for this but it sometimes happens elsewhere as well. The other is feather pillows (if you are allergic). Most hotel-keepers will however bring pillows, or exchange feather ones, on request.
When we travel by car, we actually carry a pair of small pillows, the sort that are very 'dead' and floppy; we call them 'dead cats'.
This falls into one of three categories: included at no extra price, included at extra price, not available.
Usually, we have found, the breakfasts for which you are charged extra are not worth having: you pay a disproportionate amount for a small amount of indifferent food. This is especially true in France, where you can easily pay 8 euros for a croissant, a little plastic tub of jam and an admittedly very large coffee. There is further advice on French breakfasts in the piece on la France profonde.
Fewer and fewer places include breakfast at no extra price, but it remains a good reason for choosing a British Bed & Breakfast, where you often get a good meal. Subtract the price of the meal from the price of the room, and the latter suddenly looks a lot more reasonable. Germans and Dutch normally provide good breakfasts too.
A lot depends on where you are. Off-road parking (in the hotel's own car park) is usually more secure, and closer. Security is however less of a concern in a small, peaceful village than in a big city: someone once tried to steal our Land Rover (or at least broke in to it) when it was parked on the street in Calais. Now, when we are on our way to the UK (the only reason we go to Calais) we stop half an hour or so before we get to the coast.
Parking in a secure, guarded lot (or better still a locked garage) is obviously best, but normally only necessary in some cities, either as a result of no parking elsewhere (e.g. Jaca in Spain) or a prevalence of car thieves (e.g. Budapest).
Check whether there is an extra charge for parking. Normally this is only for covered parking (though this may also be free, especially for motorcycles) but in some Czech spa towns they charge you a few koruna extra just to use the car park (even if you are on a motor cycle). It's not so much the money: it's the principle of the thing, especially when it's quite an expensive hotel (by Czech standards) anyway.
Obviously a picnic can stop you having to worry about this one, but otherwise, we prefer to have a restaurant either attached to the hotel or within walking distance, so we can have some wine with our dinner and not have to drive again.
A few hotel/restaurants will refuse to let you stay there unless you buy dinner, and as at that point their dinners are often overpriced, we tend to treat this as a deal-breaker unless the menu looks unusually good, or we are desperate, or both.
This is usually a question of ancient drains in ancient hotels. One of the worst we ever encountered was in Germany, but as the bathroom was thirty feet (10 metres) from the bedroom we weren't worried too much. That was in the 1980s, as was the room in Paris over the choucroute (sauerkraut) factory. The truth is, though, that unless the smell is really vile, you soon cease to notice it: the nose simply shuts down to that particular odour. We just thought we'd mention it in case the hotel is in farming terrain and it's muck-spreading time.
The biggest single problem here is normally mosquitos, in which case you want bug-screens (or closed windows and air-con, or mosquito nets) and either one of those electric things that bake a little pastille to scare away mosquitoes (we carry one of our own), or those incense-type coils that perform the same function: something like the famous Moon Tiger coils, 'guaranteed harmless to human beings and children'.
Hotel Krishnaraja Sagar
The Mexican Room not only had no bug-screens over the windows; it also had an open transom over the door, high enough to pose no threat to privacy, but wide open to bugs.
We once had a room infested with fleas. In France, as far as we recall, in the 1980s. The landlady refused to believe us, even when we showed her a couple of dozen or more that we had drowned in the hand-basin. "You must have brought them with you," she said. We wondered why she thought we might travel with our own flea circus. But that was only once, and many years ago.
Then there was the rat in the Krishnaraja Sagar hotel in South India in 1990 (above). In the bathroom, there was a stone over a drain in the floor. We moved it: we can't remember why. Next morning, a rat had eaten the soap (it cannot have done much for his digestion). So we put the stone back... At the same hotel, at breakfast, you had to watch out for mynah birds who wanted to steal your food. But it's hard to get too upset about that. We'd stay at the same hotel in a flash.
The bottom line is summed up in the last sentence of the paragraph before last: most of our disasters are a very long way in the past, and if you follow the advice given above, you should be able to avoid all of them. Given that we normally stay in at least 30 different hotels every year, and sometimes twice as many (or more), we must have stayed in well over 1000 hotels since we have been married, and possibly at 2000 or more.
Out of those, only three or four have been so bad that we had to get up early and leave: that's well under one-half of one per cent. The Mexican Room is of course the most shining example, with the room in Prague (which, remember, we didn't check -- it was pre-booked) as a close second.
Maybe 50, or well under 5 per cent, have been places where we wouldn't stay again unless we had to, but that's just because the choice is so huge that there is no point in putting up with any but the most minor inconveniences. Sometimes we have paid more than we expected, but equally, we've quite often paid less. Sure, the hotels we stay in are not the Ritz in London, the George V in Paris or the Grand in Calcutta (though actually, we have stayed a couple of nights in the Grand), but we've had hundreds upon hundreds of good nights' sleep at a fair price, or sometimes at bargain prices, and we don't really ask for a lot more.
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks