Accommodation

If the iPad is going to revolutionise travel, it needs some travel apps

On Friday morning, I did something I have never considered doing before and went and queued outside a shop… To buy a new iPad – my first foray into early adoption!

I’m not quite sure what possessed me to do it, except for some reason it feels like a groundbreaking device and I felt I wanted to be one of the first to get my hands on one. Plus, it seemed a great piece of kit to take with me when travelling – I can access email, write stories, store pics, surf the net… All sorts of stuff that will help me work contained in something smaller than a hardback and much lighter.

That it can also carry 1000s of books, films and music to consume on the go adds to the appeal of course.

Since I got home on Friday night, it’s been virtually grafted to my hand as I try things out and play around. Not only is it a lovely piece of kit, but it’s also incredibly intuitive to use. In fact, I’m typing this post on it right now.

One of the things I was keen to try were the various travel apps – applications, or bits of software, that help you perform specific tasks – and I was surprised and disappointed to find a lack of them.

While I can find apps to help me find a new house or suggest dinner dishes based on what I have in the fridge, I can’t find anything to help me book a holiday…. Seems like holiday companies are missing a trick to me.

Most of the apps available are mapping ones which seem a little silly as the iPad comes equipped with Google Maps anyway. Why do I need to pay £1.79 for a walking map of Seattle when I have a gadget that let’s me see exactly where I am on a map and also zoom in to street level?

The others I’ve tried so far are enhancements on either existing services or more advanced iPhone apps.

Currency Covertor XE.com has an app that does an auto conversion for you when you enter an amount and Free Translator will allow you to enter phrases and have them output in the local lingo. I’ve tried it with Greek (a language I speak) and it works surprisingly well.

Another is The Times app. While not strictly a travel one, never again will I have to sit in a hotel breakfast room reading a local English language paper if I want news from Blighty. Every morning, a new copy of the paper downloads to my iPad for an average cost of about 40p a day. One thing the iPad, it seems, could do is preserve our status as newspaper journalists!

It’s a shame there’s not more out there really, as the possibilities are endless for the travel world – whoever gets in first will make a killing.

One area that is making full use of the iPad in travel is luxury hotels that are using them to provide services for their guests. The Luxury Travel Bible has a great article on which hotels are doing what here

http://www.luxurytravelbible.com/Product.asp?active_page_id=115

One great idea and one good cause

Yesterday afternoon I went to the annual spring lunch of a company called Travel PR – for those not in the know they are, you guessed it, a travel public relations company that mainly specialises in small, independent and often quirky travel companies.

Their client list includes the Association of Independent Tour Operators (www.aito.co.uk), Kirker Holidays (www.kirkerholidays.com), Sunvil (www.sunvil.co.uk), Voyages Jules Verne (www.vjv.co.uk) and many more… but it was two newish clients that really caught my eye.

One is a company that is just launching called Get Back To Me. Anyone who has tried to book an independent B&B in the UK will be familiar with how frustrating it can be. These days, people expect an immediate answer when trying to book online and unfortunately for many small B&Bs they just don’t have the manpower to do it.

While Mr Bloggs is out buying the bacon and eggs for the next morning’s breakfast, someone who is trying to get in touch and can’t is likely now looking up the number of the nearest Travelodge.

What Get Back To Me does is allow the consumer to input a destination and the site will send an SMS to all registered B&B and hotel owners in the vicinity, if they have availability, it costs them £1.50 to get back to the consumer and the deal is done.

The consumer facing side should be with us sometime in early summer – owner Anne Corbett thinks end May is likely – but B&B and hotel owners can register at now at getbacktome.co.uk

The other interesting lady I met was Stella Huyshe of Lyme Disease Action (www.lymediseaseaction.org.uk). Like Travel PR’s MD Sue Ockwell, Stella is suffering from Lyme Disease – an infectious debilitating disease brought on by tick bites.

The symptoms sound pretty awful

Lyme disease can affect any part of the body and cause many different symptoms. The commonest symptoms relate to the person feeling unwell, having flu-like symptoms, extreme tiredness, muscle pain, muscle weakness, joint pain, upset digestive system, headache, disturbances of the central nervous system and a poor sleep pattern. In some cases a characteristically shaped, expanding ‘bull’s eye’ rash appears on the skin. However, a rash in any form is not a universal symptom. If the rash does occur, it is termed Erythema migrans or EM rash. It may manifest in a chronic form and be known as Erythema chronicum migrans or ECM rash. The list of symptoms known to be associated with Lyme disease is long and diverse. The symptom pattern varies from person to person.

But crucially, there are different views on how long the disease should be treated for. Government advisors believe a 28-day course of antibiotics will do it while other scientists are of the view that the disease can affect a person for much longer.

That Stella has suffered for almost a decade without any joy suggests the latter could be right.

They’re a decent charity that are trying to change the government thinking on Lyme Disease and deserve some attention.Please give them some!

Five-star pet peeves

For this post, I’ve teamed up with travel writing colleague, Jill Starley-Grainger  to come up with our pet peeves about luxury hotels. Jill has come up with eight of the offerings, myself with two and the whole post has to be read over our two websites (well, we have to drive traffic you know).

Whether you’ve saved up for that luxury trip of a lifetime or you wouldn’t dream of bedding down in anything less than a five-star, these hotel hassles can make your holiday more irritating.

Breakfast (by JSG)
If I’m paying through the nose to stay in your hotel, the least you can do is provide breakfast at a reasonable price, if not free. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been presented with the breakfast bill (the price is rarely displayed as it’s often a vast help-yourself buffet with additional hot-food menu), only to discover that the croissant and coffee I had have cost as much as the GDP of some small African countries. (PS If you’re going to charge through the nose for the buffet, at least allow a reasonably priced non-buffet menu for those with small appetites.)
Climate control (By JSG)
I now know to pack my flannel PJs if I’m going to a balmy tropical island, and my flimsiest nightdress if I’m going skiing. Just because it’s hot outside doesn’t mean I want it to feel like a freezer inside, and vice versa. What’s more, the air conditioning and heating controls often do not respond to any commands, other than on or off, and sometimes, not even that. Brrrr…
Villa / resort guide (by JSG)
How do I work the television? What are the channels? Where do I find the spare blankets? How do I turn off the fucking outside lights you’ve put on with my turn-down service and that shine through my window all night? How do I use that ridiculously expensive espresso machine in my room? Where is the shop that sells deodorant? How do I find the spa? Etc, etc. Just give me a map of the resort, a manual to the villa or room, and some idea of what’s on offer throughout, including all the restaurant and spa menus (with prices!).
Toiletries (By JSG)
Conditioner, people, conditioner! I know very few women who do not use conditioner regularly, if not every time they wash their hair, and a heck of a lot of men use it daily, too. But how many five-star hotels provide it? I can think of only two, and of those, only one provided good conditioner. And also, what’s with the crappy little plastic bottles? Big refillable ones with pumps to easily extract the product are far preferred. OK, some people want to take home their little plastic toiletries, but chances are, those of us in five-stars have a million of these throw-away two-use freebies already and would just prefer nice products in nice refillable bottles. For take-home, sell large versions in your shop!
Weight-sensitive mini bars (by WoJ)
Why is it that posh hotels cannot be satisfied with getting you to break the bank to stay there but seemingly have to find each and every way to screw as much cash out of you as possible? (See our entries on wifi and breakfast.) But of all the low-down, dirty tricks they can pull to squeeze that last cent out of you, the weight-sensitive mini bar – where you get charged when you lift the product up, even if you replace it in the fridge – has to be the worst.  Let’s say I’m prepared to pay the ludicrous price for the privilege of serving myself the smallest measure of spirit known to mankind (should I tip myself I wonder?), why can I not pick up a bottle, read the label and see if I fancy it or not without being charged? How does this system work any better than having the maid simply see if a bottle of booze has gone the next morning? Its only use is to annoy the hell out of guests. Way to go when trying to attract repeat visitors, hoteliers.

For our other five peeves, see Jill’s site:  http://uktraveleditor.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/top-10-five-star-hotel-pet-peeves

Follow Jill on Twitter:  www.twitter.com/UKtraveleditor

Cape Town's other World Cup battle

The One & Only - except there's a few around

There’s no doubt South Africa is going World Cup crazy… Whether it’s the giant footballs on the way into Cape Town’s Waterfront district or posters for real estate that claim to ‘help you reach your goal’, there’s a FIFA 2010 flavour everywhere you go and I’ve lost count of the number of questions we’ve been asked about Team England in the 36 hours we’ve been here.

‘How many fans will you bring?’ ‘Do you think they will stay in Cape Town?’ ‘Will David Beckham like so and so?’ have all been put to us, as though we’re members of the FA’s organising committee.

Along Cape Town’s Waterfront an off-pitch battle is raging… which luxury hotel is going to come up trumps during the tournament…

The Table Bay

The newly opened One & Only managed to put in a couple of early strikes given it’s where most of the FIFA delegation stayed earlier this month for the official draw … but many locals have dubbed it the ‘One & Lonely’ as occupancy has not been as expected. The hotel’s home to some signature restaurants like Gordon Ramsey and Nobu but having London prices in a city where dining out on great food at cheap as chips prices is always going to be a risky strategy.

Our hotel, the Table Bay pulled a result out of the bag at the draw as it’s where Charlize Theron stayed. The South African stunner who did such as magnificent job of appearing interested as the balls where pulled from the bag is the face of Sun International, the group that owns the hotel.

The Cape Grace

The waterfront’s grand dame The Cape Grace has refreshed it’s ‘squad’ in anticipation of the World Cup, having undergone a complete makeover lasting for more than six months. She might not have pulled in the big names during the draw but expect her to make a late surge for the title come kick off next June.

Free wi-fi campaign: the first responses

So I’ve been in touch with some of the major hotel chains in the world this week to find out what their policy is on free-wi-fi and internet access – the resulting answers make interesting reading.

If you don’t know how these hotel groups work, their head offices usually manage hotels on behalf of owners and franchisees – the company doesn’t own the hotels themselves. They do, however, in most cases, have the authority to designate brand standards – if someone high enough up at Hilton or IHG told their owners that a brand had to start providing free internet access, they would.

Here are the responses from IHG, Hilton, Starwood and Marriott, along with my comments. Accor have yet to respond, as have TUI  – who also own a great number of hotels.

Intercontinental Hotels Group

Brands: Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites

They say: ‘We don’t have a policy at our hotels, except at Indigo where it is brand standard. It’s up to individual owners to decide on how they price wi-fi in individual hotels [that are part of IHG’s other brands].’

Worldofjames.com says: ‘So if you can impose it as a brand standard on one brand, why can’t you on the others?’

Hilton Hotels Group

Brands:  Waldorf Astoria, Conrad, Hilton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Hampton, Homewood Suites, Home2, Hilton Grand Vacations

They say: ‘Across our portfolio of brands we offer a variety of internet choices, all with high levels of speed and security. In the majority of our hotels across Europe, access is via service providers such as BT Open Zone and Swiss Com in the public areas, while a high speed broadband connection is available in the bedrooms. The costs for these services are comparable with other major international hotel chains. Some of our brands which are new to Europe, including Hilton Garden Inn and Hampton by Hilton, do offer free wireless access to guests as part of their individual brand promises.’

Worldofjames.com says: ‘So where you charge, you do so because your competition does and you match their price. Why not make them match your price by making access free across all brands.’

Starwood Hotels

Brands: Le Meridien, Four Points By Sheraton, Westin, The Luxury Collection, aloft, Sheraton, element by Westin, St Regis, W Hotels

‘At Starwood, we fully understand that WiFi accessibility is important to our guests and we are committed to continually improve this offering globally.  Today, many of our 1,000 hotels spanning our nine brands do offer free WiFi in rooms and in common spaces. And in the cases where there is a charge, the hotels – which are independently owned and operated – determine the appropriate WiFi rate to remain competitive in the local market, just as they do for room rates and food and beverage offerings.’

Worldofjames.com says: ‘We like to be understood but no one really knows how many of the 1,000 hotels offer free access. Again, where there is a charge, it’s because everyone else does it. Try breaking the mould and see if others follow.’

Marriott:

Brands: Marriott Hotels & Resorts, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Renaissance Hotels & Resorts, EDITION Hotels, Autograph Collection Hotels & Resorts, Courtyard by Marriott, Residence Inn by Marriott, Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, Marriott Conference Centers, SpringHill Suites by Marriott, Marriott Vacation Club, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C, The Ritz-Carlton Destination Club, Marriott ExecuStay, Marriott Executive Apartments, Grand Residences by Marriott.

They say: All our Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, TownePlace Suites and SpringHill Suites hotels in the US and Canada offer free high-speed internet access, and, where possible, free Wifi.  Outside these markets phone and data communications infrastructures vary by country which makes it difficult to expand the complimentary service.’

Worldofjames.com says: ‘How unfortunate that Europe and the Far East have such third world communications structures. If only we could match those of the US, we’d be able to have free access. Blame the phone companies.’

Help for heroes cocktails

I’m currently at the Horseguards Hotel in Whitehall London. The hotel is a great supporter of two charities which, thanks to my dad’s stint in the Household Cavalry, are close to my heart : Help for Heroes and the Household Cavalry Charitable fund.

The hotel is part of the Guomen Group which also includes the Cumberland, Charing Cross and Tower Hill hotels and mixologist Andy Pearson of Something For The Weekend has created four signature cocktails -one per hotel- in aid of the charities.

All profits from the cocktails go to the two charities, so I would recommend you go down and taste them if in London. They are ace.

Diversity Dance Inn

What do you do when you’re in the middle of one of the biggest hotel relaunch programs ever? In the case of Holiday Inn, you get Britain’s Got Talent winners Diversity to show it off.

The clip’s a bit long and the Holiday Inn tune’s a it repetitive, but the dancing’s awesome – I’d be pretty pissed off if I was queueing behind em in reception, mind.

How to do hotel wi-fi

I’m currently sitting by a roaring fire in the lobby of The Priory (click here), a small hotel in Beauly, north of Inverness.

Great added value
Great added value

I’ve been in the capital of the Scottish Highlands for a couple of days and, while the surrounding countryside is gorgeous, it’s the kind of remote place where satellite navigation and mobile phone signals are often blocked out by the surrounding mountains… and yet I’m here with full wi-fi connectivity.

The Priory is a small basic but clean family-run hotel with just 39 bedrooms and Beauly is a very small tourist town around three streets by five that is famous thanks to the ruins of a medieval abbey and the fact it gives easy access to the north Highlands tourist trails and Loch Ness.

The wi-fi connection isn’t blindingly fast, I couldn’t stream X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing last night (some would say mercifully) but it is adequate (I can read email, see the headlines and blog) and, crucially, free in all areas of the hotel from the lobby to the furthest bedroom.

Now, I appreciate there is a low-cost airline pricing style argument for hotels where you strip away non essentials and get guests to pay if they want them, but connectivity is such a basic part of our lives now, it would seem to me to now be an essential.

And if they did decided to knock the price off the cost of the room, what kind of a saving would it really be? I doubt the service costs the hotel anywhere near £39 a day, in which case the most they could knock off would be £1 per room – hardly worth the effort.

Instead the hotel manager Blair Sinclair and his excellent staff realise that low-cost with added value is the way forward and gives them a crucial advantage when there are only two hotels in town. The provision of free wi-fi is great added value: massive hotel chains, take note…

Who lives in a house like this?

42212_slide_showWell it could be you thanks to a new social accommodation network that’s just launched in London called Roomerama.

Some of you may know of couchsurfing.com, the accommodation network where people loan out a stay on their couch and that was going great guns until some recent allegations of a woman getting raped while staying on a blokes couch. Well Roomerama is a similar concept, but different.

You list your house or flat on the site and rent it out as a whole – plus you can rent it for as short or long a let as you like. You could for instance go on holiday and put your place up for two weeks to help claw some of the costs back…

At the moment, the site is largely populated by short term rental apartments and some of the pictures on there are seemingly being duplicated – I can’t quite work out if there’s been some bulk adding to the site or not. But it’s been a success in the States so I can’t see a reason why it wont catch on here.

In fact, come the Olympics, when many of us may want to get out of London, it may actually be a godsend although slightly worryingly, I can’t find any information about how your home is insured when someone stays there.