Crap things

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 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

No more green waiver forms?

So America’s Department of Homeland Security (also know as ‘we scare you witless when we come on holiday’) has finally decided to scrap the need for visitors from Visa Waiver countries to fill in the green I94W form on arrival.

Frequent visitors to the US will know that a supposed paperless system, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization that last for two years,  was brought in last year to pre-approve entries. Despite the new system being operational for more than 18 months though, people still had to fill in the old paper forms, making entering the US a bigger headache than ever.

The DHS has now said the green forms are going, ‘to be phased out by the end of the summer’. For this, read ‘it will be more likely winter’…

On top of the Esta/green form/being treated like a criminal debacle on entry, we are soon to be charged a new $10 entry tax in the USA. The tax is being introduced to fund the country’s new marketing board – that’s right , we will pay to go on holiday so America can promote itself as a holiday destination!

Sometimes it makes me wonder why we bother visiting our ‘friends’ across the Atlantic – it’s really not like they welcome us with open arms at the border.

V.Hols in V.big travel writing cock up

Why on earth do people think that just anyone can be a travel writer? Because if you’re one of the dozens of scribes trying to scratch out a living at a time when newspapers are cutting commissioning budgets, the latest announcement from Virgin Holidays can only be seen as yet another  insult to the profession.

Get me Alex James. No, not the one who'sactually a travel writer...

Apparently, the company has done a survey of 2,000 holidaymakers and because less than a third of them say they would never use a guidebook, they have decided to ‘reinvigorate travel writing’ by appointing a ‘travel laureate’ to pen a series of ‘first-hand destination-themed novels’.

The lucky recipient of this fabulous new title? Alex James.

Sorry, that’s not Alex James the actual travel writer Alex James, the kind of person you might be expect to be commissioned to write travel copy… but Alex James, cheese-making, one-time bass player with Blur whose writing skills amount to the occasional newspaper column about what it’s like to have finally moved to a Country House and an autobiography that recalls the heyday of Blur through a haze of drink and heavy cocaine use.

Now don’t get me wrong, Blur were a fabulous band and I’m sure Alex James (not the travel writing one) is an affable chap but I’m not quite sure how he’s been elevated from the role of all-round half-decent celeb to travel writing genius – especially when there are dozens of brilliant travel writers out there who would have bitten Virgin Holidays hands off for the commission.

Of course, none of them have the ‘celebrity announcement’ factor that Alex James (not the travel writing one) has.

So there you are travel writers of the UK, once again, your expertise garnered travelling the world for a living has gone to waste and you’ve been dumped in favour of yet another celebrity, just because their name is more known than yours.

Guidebook publishers like Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Frommers, Bradt et al might also be slightly miffed at James’ new role. The press release that accompanies the announcement claims that in some spurious and unattributed research, 8.5m Uk adults found travel guides ‘boring and staid’.

I normally like V.Hols and find them one of our best package companies, but I can’t help but feel that this whole ‘travel laureate’ campaign insults both travel writers and travel publishers and can’t be seen as anything else than one V.Big cock up.

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:

Follow Jill on Twitter:

Guest blog: Crap things seen while travelling no.8. Little Englanders abroad

Many thanks for today’s Crap Things guest blog to the lovely Catherine Mack of and co-editor of

I hope they paid for those blankets

I had been in Kenya for three days, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to write about The Travel Foundation’s work with the Maasai. During 2007, Maasai village elders had come together with The Foundation to put a stop to the exploitation which had been going on for decades, whereby money was being charged to tourists to visit their villages, but the driver guides who drove the visitors there, passed none of it on to the villagers themselves. The only money the Maasai made was from selling a few bits of beadwork here and there.

One year after The Travel Foundation started to help the Maasai gain confidence to take on the driver guides, and the many tourist lodges which had been turning a blind eye to the unethical practice, tourism was starting to become an important source of income for the Maasai at last. I was honoured to be invited to their ‘AGM’, with five villages, men women and children, gathered together under an acacia tree in the middle of the bush, to celebrate what they had achieved.

The total amounted to $43,000 from tours alone, an 800 per cent increase in just a year. The applause and cheers must have been heard all the way to the Serengeti. The men held hands and smiled proudly and the women translated to their excited children. Already, Enkereri village had extended its school, paying two teachers’ salaries.

That evening I returned to my lodge, Olonana, which had been very proactive in supporting the new change in practice. Some of the visitors were less on the ball, however. I was joined at the bar by an elderly English couple.

They, like most guests, gathered round to compare notes on the day’s game sightings. “See anything good today then?” was the man’s opening gambit. When I explained that I had spent the day with the Maasai, I could see that I wasn’t going to get very far, as he interrupted quickly, “Uggh, we tried that last year, didn’t we dear?” he directed at his silent wife. “Aren’t their lives disgusting? And such greedy people. One of them lent my wife a blanket to keep warm when we did ‘the tour’. They’ll try anything to get your money.”

I begged to differ, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He waved his hand dismissing any further discussion, walking away with a smile, shouting: “All I can say is, it is God’s blessing to be born an Englishman.”

Choose your battles, I thought, as I went out for air and a much needed nicotine fix. Looking up the hill, I could just about see the lights from the nearby Maasai village fires.  The people who lived just up that hill had travelled such great distances and have such dignified wisdom, I thought. And yet, so many of their visitors have a much longer way to go until they gain even half of their knowledge and civility.

For more information on the work of The Travel Foundation, still ongoing in Kenya,  see

Ever lost something on a plane? (and did you get it back?)

Quite a while ago, when I was travelling what seemed almost every weekend, I was in the middle of one of those mad sets of trips travel writers tend to do at some point.

My memory is sketchy as to the actual series of events – the jetlag, not too much booze in business class – but over four weeks I did something like:

Ten days in Texas; one back in the UK; three days in Perth with a day layover either side in Dubai; two days in the UK; three days in Atlantic City for the Miss America Pageant (that, I admit was a boozy trip); a day in the UK; two days in Rome; three days in Boston…

On the first leg of my flight to Perth, I left the plane, went through Dubai’s passport control, picked up my case and then remembered I had left my suit carrier onboard. Now given an Emirates cabin crew had taken the carrier off me, attached my boarding pass to it and put it in their wardrobe, you’d think it was their responsibility to give it back… but I accept, my suit, my fault…

What followed was a three-hour palaver as I sat nervously waiting for about three different members of staff to try and retrieve it… all who failed. Thankfully, it ended up coming by taxi to the hotel much later that evening.

(Lost) Property of Mr KS Meeke (seat 3c)

Why do I bring this up? Well because my good pal and colleague Kieran Meeke left his glasses on a plane on Monday and has just had a frustrating week ringing lost property at Heathrow every few hours to see if they turned up, but naturally no one EVER answers the phone (TFL Lost Property is just as bad by the way). Way to go Heathrow, you can stick up new Terminals and try and build extra runways, but you can’t get someone to answer the phone.

Kieran was flying business class with a leading airline and you’d think that when someone leaves something in a business class seat it can’t be that hard for someone at the airline to locate the owner…

After all, for the duration of the flight, you have been fawned over by the crew: yes Sir, no Sir, can we wipe your bum Sir? And most of the time they address you as Mister Blah (I have never been called Mister Ellis anywhere but on a plane).

Then of course there’s the passenger list. ‘Who was in 3C? Ah, so and so… the chap who’s bum I wiped.’ So surely it can’t be THAT difficult to make sure an object returns to its owner.

Or is it a case of when the person’s off the flight and the dollars have been banked, any semblance of service has to stop? Perhaps airlines have an unwritten rule about it.

Imagine – I know for you that know him, it’s a stretch 😉 – that Kieran had been heading to some high powered conference where he couldn’t read his speech as the glasses were lost.

He’s had to give up now, shelling out another small fortune for a new pair, but really, what’s the point of airline service and lost property departments if neither are any good to you when you really need them?

Guest blog: Will Hide on why he's never seen anything crap on his travels

In the latest in our series of Crap Things Seen while travelling, renowned travel writer and Times scribe Will Hide tells us why he never finds anything he thinks is rubbish…

In 20+ years of travelling I can honestly say it is extremely difficult to think of much that I regard as “crap”.

I think if you travel with the expectation that things will be different, not much comes across that’s bad.

It’s when you go with the “ooooh, it’s not like at home, is it?” mentality (which drives me nuts) that you get negative impressions. (Incidentally, of course it’s not like at home – that’s why you just sat in a long metal tube at 30,000 feet for the last six hours).

Yes, there’s hassle in Delhi and Marrakesh but even looking back on that I can (just about) see the funny side. And I suppose the one thing I really do hate when travelling – being at the mercy of airport taxi drivers who know they have you over a barrel – can be put down to an unfortuate side of human nature that you can find anywhere.

In fact travel only serves to highlight for me how much is crap when you come home.

Leeds Station: home of stationary trains?

Like the thoroughly annoying tannoy announcements at UK stations that tell you to be vigilent about looking out for unaccompanied bags, which just serve to stir up paranoia. And the equally excrutiating computer-generated “we are sorry you are inconvenienced for the cancelled 18.00 service to Leeds” messages that are totally meaningless because no one actually cares at all. In fact only in Britain does the word “sorry” actually mean “Piss off and leave me alone, I’m going home in five minutes and it’s only two years till I retire and get my pension.”

So I really don’t find much at all that’s crap about being abroad, except the jaded realisation that on returning home, the airport train probably won’t be running, the cash machine will be empty, someone will be chucking litter on the floor two feet from a bin and just one man will be manning the desk at Luton immigration on a Sunday night.

If anyone out there is reading this and thinking “well if you don’t like it, leave”, then great. If you can get me a US green card, or an Aussie work visa, please do get in touch.

If you want a reason to leave the UK, check this

As news comes in that we are two degrees warmer than the poles, I’ve just been emailed this picture from the Dundee Satellite Receiving Station ( – it shows the UK looking pretty cool as it’s covered in snow…

All the more reason to leave the country… or it would be if the airports were open! Ho Hum…

Baby, it's cold outside

Travelling… it's not child's play

So mine and Laura’s wedding is now out of the way and thanks for bearing with me while I’ve been away.

I’m currently in the final stages of planning our honeymoon to South Africa and, after much to-ing and fro-ing it looks like it is coming together.

We fly out tomorrow night to Cape Town, have four nights there – including one day where we go diving with great white sharks – followed by three days in the wine region.

When we come back, we plan to walk off some of the good life with a three-day hike from Cape Town to Cape Point on a new hiking trail that has just opened, the Hoerikwaggo Trail. The trail is built on ancient paths taken by the Khoisan and is already being compared to Peru’s Inca Trail.

We’ll be following this with a trip from Cape Town to Jo’burg on the Premier Classe train, the cheaper alternative to the super-luxury Blue Train and three days in Kruger over Christmas.

Ahead of New Year, we plan to drive back through Swaziland and on to the Dolphin Coast for some beach time just north of Durban. I’ll be doing my best to do daily updates of the trip both here and on my running blog

Over the last few days Laura and I have had to travel quite a bit with my sister, her husband and their four kids up to the wedding venue in Inverness and back and, for the first time ever, I got to feel for parents on flights.

Some of you may remember a guest post by Michael Green on here about the troubles he had the first time he took his progeny abroad and I have to admit, I thought he was playing the whinging parent a little.

In fact, until now, I’ve always been one of those people who shudder when I see kids getting onboard a flight and sitting anywhere within my immediate vicinity.

Having seen the way my sister and her brood where treated by both fellow passengers and the airline, I have to now say, travelling parents have my empathy.

On our first flight up to the Highlands with EasyJet, we were delayed for boarding by one of her boys who suffers from autism needing the loo and arrived past our Special Assistance boarding time (for those who don’t know, EasyJet board in order of Speedy Boarding, Special Assistance for the disabled and those with kids under five, boarding group A and boarding group B).

When we got onboard, you would have thought we were a bunch of lepers… One woman in the middle of a row of three refused to move to either the window or aisle so my sister’s four-year-old could sit with his dad, meaning the child had to sit alone until take off.

Then when her 25-month-old was freaked out by take off and landing, the cabin crew refused a belt extension so he could sit on my sister’s lap. The reason? He was one month older than what is ‘allowed’ – despite parents of older kids clearly lying about the children’s ages so they could sit on mum’s lap.

On the return flight, my sister was given grief by the cabin crew for taking a dirty nappy (only ones, not twos) she had changed BEFORE boarding but had found no bin to dispose from her seat to the plane.

‘That’s disgusting’ bemoaned the crew member.

So next time you’re on a flight next to a whingy kid or parent, have a little patience, it might not be all their fault.