On being my own Travel Agent

27 May

Once upon a time there were such things as “Travel Agents.” This magical race now dwells in the same fairy realm inhabited by gas station attendants.  When I was last overseas as a lad of merely 20 years, I went to the travel agent when I wanted to go on a trip. I told them where I wanted to go and what I wanted to spend and a day or so later they handed me a printed itinerary and an envelope full of tickets and said “Have a nice trip.” It doesn’t work exactly that way anymore.

Planning our big trip took a while. Fortunately I had lots of help along the way. The first thing I did was ask some friends for their input. I asked my friend Scott, who lives in Colchester, if he had any recommendations for hotels inLondon. He pointed me to Purpleroofs.com, a guide to finding hotels around the world that are friendly to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community. Yes, us hetero folks are allowed to use it too. Cool how that works, huh? While it isn’t very helpful in terms of reviews, it is a place to start and several hotels give a small discount for mentioning Purpleroofs when you book your stay. It saved us about $60 on our first hotel in London.

I also started out simply searching Google Maps for the keywords “Hotel” and “B&B.” While handy for seeing proximity to the major destinations and finding public transit routes this is a VERY time-consuming way to go about it.  Things moved along much faster after I found Tripadvisor.com. Tripadvisor lets you search by geographical area, price range, rating, you name it. After finding The George Hotel using Purpleroofs.com I found everything else through Tripadvisor.com. I know several people in the hotel industry and I’ve learned from them that people in the business take Tripadvisor very, very seriously. Since it is user generated there are some quirks, little things you need to be aware of going in.

1) Even the highest ranked hotel is going to have negative feedback. Somewhere along the line someone had a horrible time. The trick is to take in the big picture. What percentage of the feedback is negative? Did management respond with a plausible explanation? How long ago were the ratings given? If I see a place with 127 “Excellent” ratings and 1 “Terrible” I am inclined to dismiss it. If I see ratings going back several years with a wider distribution of positives and negatives and all the negative ratings are within the last 9 months it doesn’t matter the ratio, I’m likely to move on.

2) Who is complaining about what? I found this interesting. Tripadvisor.com gives you the option to list your nationality. (WARNING: Yes, I am about to stereotype some folks based on what I saw) When looking at the negative comments I determined that Americans are the most likely to complain about the size of a room. Australians complain about the quality of breakfast. The English complain about places no longer being “Family run.” (Near as I could tell this was code for “The person at the desk now has a foreign accent.”) The Southeast Asians seem to love every place they’ve ever stayed.  Most English-speaking people complained about the lack of a lift (Or the size of the lift if one was present) and the number and width of the stairs they had to climb equally and without regard to nationality (Although age appears to be a factor there).  As a caveat I will say that in general I didn’t take the time to translate comments from other languages into English. Also, I was looking for hotels in a handful of cities in Western Europe. A search in other parts of the world may turn up completely different trends. As there are big cultural differences, please take what people say with a big grain of salt. If I saw people across cultures and age groups complaining about the same thing, then I paid closer attention.

3) Actually contacting the hotel once you’ve settled on one can sometimes be an issue. Tripadvisor.com is user-generated. Sometimes you will run across a highly-ranked place that looks great and there is no link to the hotel’s page. You may have to do a little leg work on Google (Or your preferred search engine) to track them down. I remember there being one very well spoken-of place in Paris that I never could find a number or website for.

4) Information overload. You will eventually have to make a choice. Not counting Harlaxton Manor (Which is not open to the public, and since it was the sole reason for part of the trip there was never a question of NOT staying there) we stayed in 8 different hotels/B&B’s in three weeks. Finding those places took forever because I AGONISED over my choices.

Try to narrow down the criteria that are important to you, set a standard, and GO.  After taking nearly a week to find the first two hotels on our trip I settled into a set of criteria that moved things along a little more quickly;

A) Location. This takes into account not only physical proximity to the place we want to see, but access to public transit. In Paris, for example, we were a little off the beaten path, but only a 5-minute walk to the Metro, and could reach any destination in Central Paris in half an hour or less. In Ireland we had a car, and so positioned ourselves in Killarney. That put us on the Ring of Kerry and only a 30-minute drive to the base of the Dingle Peninsula.  In Normandy we had no vehicle and there was very limited public transit, so we stayed within walking distance of Omaha Beach.

B) En suite. This was a deal-breaker. While I’m not that keen on the idea myself, Julia absolutely will not do a shared bathroom. Period.  This has less to do with other people using the same shower or toilet than it does with wait times in the morning and having to get dressed to go use the can in the middle of the night. En suite or shared was an option almost everywhere we went. I’m ok with $10-$15 a night more to have a bathroom to myself.

C) Price. Like everybody else I set an amount and then raised it when I discovered what that amount would and would not get me. Rooms in major urban centers are costly. Decide how much of your budget will be given over to lodgings (A large percentage most likely) and move on.

D) Feedback. I set a percentage (85%) of positive to negative feedback below which I would not go. I used the percentage as a tiebreaker between places that were close in price.

Things I mostly ignored;

A) Complaints about the stairs/elevator. We’re still relatively young and in good shape. We made it a point to travel light. We had a few miserable shleps of course, but nothing that would have kept us from staying someplace again.

B) Complaints about street noise. We lived in New York City for seven years.  If it had ever gotten really bad (Which it did not), well… that’s what earplugs are for.

C) Room size. While a larger room is always convenient you mustn’t lose sight of why you need a place to stay…. Because you are out traveling and running about looking at stuff from morning till night! For the sort of trip we were on the room was a place to change clothes, shower, and sleep, it didn’t need to be an aircraft hangar. If you are staying in a single location for more than a week, then fine… yes… by all means get a place to stretch out in.

D) The food. This will, I am certain, shock some of you but I skipped right over the comments about food. Breakfast is included nearly everywhere we went in Europe, so it wasn’t a cost issue from one place to another (The places that did charge I simply didn’t eat there. This was the case in Paris, where the plan had always been to have pan au chocolat from the local patisserie every morning anyway). If I really didn’t like the food at a given place (Which never happened by the way) I could just pick something up from a bakery or fruit stand as we headed out for the day.

E) Internet access. Most places have it. One or two charge for it. It was always nice of course to be able to come back at night and upload pictures and cruise Facebook to stay in touch, but we weren’t there on business so when we couldn’t get online it wasn’t a huge deal.

Once you have found your hotels there is the little matter of getting to them.

Next time; Trains, Planes, and Automobiles!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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