Special occasion


David Whitley reckons you should always let people know if you’re celebrating 

Last Sunday night, I did something a little bit naughty. I’d taken my wife away for the night to a charming hotel in the Yorkshire Dales – it was her belated birthday present. Just after the waiter – who I’d guessed was the manager – poured our wine, I made an ostentatious little toast. As we clinked glasses, I made sure the waiter/ manager was in earshot while I said: “Happy birthday, my lovely.”

Lo and behold, before the meal was over, we had a couple of extras on our table – they brought out a teddy bear and a balloon. And, on our bed that night were a couple of mini packets of love hearts. Nothing to get particularly excited about, but a nice gesture nonetheless.

It is not the first time I have pulled this trick. On our honeymoon, we got all manner of wine and chocolates through announcing we’d just got married. A couple of hotel room upgrades were forthcoming too.

It has even worked on the trains. Just after we got engaged, we sauntered up to the first class carriage. When the conductor came past, I said: “We’ve just got engaged and we wondered how much it would cost to upgrade to first class?”

She smiled, offered her congratulations and let us stay there without charge.

The point is that if you’ve got something to celebrate or a special occasion, you’ll rarely lose out by letting people know about it. Many places have policies for dealing with such special occasions that they won’t tell you about in case people start taking the piss. Many more are staffed by people with a big heart who’ll do whatever’s in their power to make your experience a little bit more special if they can.

Attitude is key though. If they think you’re fishing for freebies, you’re far less likely to get those freebies. It is far better to say: “It’s occasion X, and we wondered how much it would cost to upgrade” than say: “It’s occasion X. What are the chances of getting an upgrade?”

Nobody likes to feel they’re being played or emotionally blackmailed, but you’ll be surprised at how many people like to make themselves feel warm by throwing in that little bit extra for someone who’ll really appreciate it.

With a bit of cunning, that good nature can be turned into free stuff…

Check out your hotel before you go here - and do try us for rates; we can surprise...

Queenstown - why to visit

It’s stunning: In terms of good looks, there are few more impressive towns on the planet. Queenstown sits on the edge of the dazzling Lake Wakatipu, and is surrounded by the Remarkables Mountain range. It’s highly photogenic, which is part of the reason why the town has grown in the first place.

Horrifying bungy jumps: Sure, you can do bungy jumps all over New Zealand, but the original site is at the Kawarau Bridge in Queenstown. That site is a weakling compared to the Nevis, however. Balls of steel are required to even get to the cable car spanning the gorge, let alone jump 134m from it and get slowly winched back upwards.

Other action man adventures: Bungy is just the tip of the iceberg in what surely has a rightful claim to being New Zealand’s adrenalin capital. You can whizz through canyon walls in a jetboat, take on lunch-regurgitating swings, go on helicopter rides, plunge through rapids on white-water rafting expeditions and chuck yourself out of a plane. You can also take to the pedals and attack some seriously sweat-inducing mountain bike tracks, fly over the horizon in a glider or go canyoning. Amongst other things. Basically, there’s no excuse for being bored, but you may have to wash your pants frequently.

Skiing: For all its extreme sports, Queenstown is essentially a ski resort town. The Remarkables range surrounding it is home to many of New Zealand's prime slopes. If you fancy strapping on the skis in the southern hemisphere, this is the place to do it. And, if you’re not inclined to strap bits of wood to your feet, then you can always bomb around fields of the white stuff on a snowmobile. 

Skipper’s Canyon: Many of the hair-raising activities take place in Skipper’s Canyon, a gorgeously craggy slice of spectacular ruggedness. The four wheel drive tours into the canyon, along dicey-looking roads, are well worth taking, both for the views and the insights into the gold mining industry that was once the big money-earner in the region.

Pinot noirs: The Central Otago wine region – the most southerly in the world – is just on the doorstep. At this sort of latitude, you have to concentrate on wines that can deal with cold climates, so there’s a specialisation in pinot noir. And some of the best pinor noirs are made here – the focus on quality over quantity is both essential and admirable.



You can get Queenstown included as a stopover on your RTW here



Beaches baby



David Whitley reckons we put far too much emphasis on whether a destination has good beaches. Do you agree? 


The sex appeal of a destination is often based on the quality of its beaches. The marketing images used are of the golden, or white, or even sometime pink sand. If a place has great beaches, it is seen as inherently desirable – the link between holiday and beach is firmly engrained in our collective psyche.


I can admire a good beach. I can easily assess why one beach may be better than another. I can often enjoy some time spent on the beach. But on the whole, I find beaches massively overrated. Let’s face it – they are rather ill-suited to the two purposes they are most often used for.


The first use is lying down in the sun. Contrary to popular belief, this is not something that can be done exclusively on a beach. It can be done by a hotel pool, in a park, on a lightly-inclined hillside and basically anywhere else that doesn’t have something blocking the sunlight.


In terms of what you’re lying on, too, beaches are pretty terrible. The sand gets in your clothes, your hair your bags and all over your skin. It also cakes your feet as you try and walk back from the sea. It’s, frankly, a pain in the backside. And literally if you’re on a nudist beach…


The other key selling point of a beach is swimming. Again, this can be something it’s not particularly brilliant for. If the water is calm, then you’re OK, but when the surf starts pounding you have to get out way beyond it and then contend with some fairly hefty swells. Throw in seaweed, jellyfish, rocks to stand upon and saltwater to swallow, then the hotel pool seems increasingly more alluring.


Of course, the real appeal of going in the sea isn’t swimming at all. It’s about cooling off and – if there is some surf – playing in it.


That’s enjoyable, but is it really a major reason for picking a holiday destination? I’m far more interested in what there is to do. And, from a scenic setting perspective, I’ll go for mountains and desert – and even lakes – over beaches. I’ll get far more enjoyment out of any of them; but plonk me on the beach, and I’m likely to be bored within a couple of hours, no matter what colour and how pure it is.

However if you do enjoy a good beach, we have lots of options via the Pacific here



Published by Stuart Lodge

How to make the best of a late night flight


David Whitley departs Washington DC at 10.30pm, and hits upon a strategy for making the best of the day before

It’s difficult to know what to do before a late flight. Planes that take off long after darkness has fallen are something of a nuisance. This is largely because you have to check out of your hotel way before you need to go to the airport.

It creates a series of problems. None are massive, but all are slightly annoying. First, you’ve got your bags to deal with. You really don’t want to lug them around with you all day, but leaving them at the hotel means you have to traipse back to the hotel before going to the airport. You can’t venture too far from the hotel, sadly.

Then there’s the issue of getting horribly hot and sticky all day before having to sit on the plane in grim, sweaty clothes that needed a change hours ago.

It took a trip to Washington DC for me to work out the solution to this problem. Washington Dulles Airport is 26 miles west of the city. There’s no direct train link, so getting there from the city either involves an almighty faff with buses, trains and interchanges or an unpleasantly expensive taxi ride. If the fare comes in under $60, you’ve got very lucky.



So on my last night, I decided to test a theory. Would it be possible to hire a car for the day from somewhere near the hotel, then drop it off at the airport? And if so, how much would it cost?

The good news? It is possible. The bad news? It cost $81 including a SatNav or $66 without. That’s quite pricy for getting to the airport – especially if you have to top up on fuel before dropping the car off.

But when the flight’s at 10.30pm, it’s not about just getting to the airport. It’s about getting to the airport after spending the day visiting things that would be tricky to get to by public transport. I could have a proper explore, go to the Arlington National Cemetery, Mount Vernon, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site or frankly wherever else I wanted within a reasonable driving distance.

That suddenly makes financial sense – it’s a transfer to the airport AND a day tour round things I wouldn’t otherwise get to. Hell, I could have just spent the day in a theme park had I wanted to.

There was also no need to get back to the hotel – I had my luggage in the boot and could get at it all any time I wanted to. And the most crucial things in there were swimming trunks, goggles and a towel.

The second strand to the genius plan involved a little online research the night before. Guidebooks, largely for good reason, don’t make a habit of listing public swimming pools that are quite near the airport. But a quick Google Maps search located a couple. And, at about six o’clock following a long, roasting hot day walking around in the sun, I went for a swim at a particularly unremarkable leisure centre.

A shower afterwards, a change into the clothes I planned to wear on the plane, and the issue of flying for seven hours in sweat-caked pants and a stinking shirt was neatly dealt with. An air-conditioned drive to the airport, and air-conditioning once in the airport. Beautiful.

This tactic won’t work everywhere of course – I really wouldn’t fancy trying to drive to the airport in Bangkok, for example. But it’s certainly worth considering – and can turn a problem into an opportunity.



Ideas from elsewhere that Australia should try



David Whitley thinks he’d love Oz even more if it’d just take a few foreign concepts on board…

For the traveller, Australia is one of the easiest countries in the world to get around and enjoy a glorious few weeks (or months) in. It does so many things really, really well – educational sign-posting on walking trails, preserving nature at every given opportunity and good pub dinners amongst them. But, just occasionally, it strikes that Australia could do with taking an idea or two from abroad and gleefully adopting it. The country couldn’t half do with this little lot, for example…


Go to the US, and there will be affordable places to stay near pretty much every interstate junction. The motels there may be soullessly generic, but they serve a function marvellously well. Sometimes, all you need is a bed for the night after a long drive - and a reasonable idea of the accommodation standard. Australia does have motels, but they tend to be spread about fairly randomly in anodyne suburbs, and independently owned.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s definitely room for the American model too.

Budget hotel chains

In a similar vein, Australia is curiously lacking the likes of Premier Inns, Easyhotels and Travelodges. (Well, actually, it does have Travelodges, but they’re rather different and higher in both standard and price). The hostel scene is superb for the budget traveller, but there’s a big gap in that next step up that seems eminently fillable.



Free WiFi

It’s gradually creeping in to some places, but Australia on the whole is appallingly behind the rest of the world when it comes to offering free WiFi. Part of this is due to the somewhat antiquated broadband network the country has lumbered itself with, but a lot of it is due to laziness and greed amongst hotel managers. Essentially, they’ve signed up for onerous service contracts, and aren’t prepared to bite the bullet, absorbing the cost, while they think they can just about get away with it.

High speed rail

Covering relatively long distances in Europe can be remarkably pleasant given some countries’ dedication to high speed rail. It’s 775km from Paris to Marseille, for instance, but that can be covered in around three hours and 15 minutes by train.

Australia has some of the busiest air routes in the world, and a number of city pairs that seem like they’re crying out for high speed rail as an alternative. Sydney to Melbourne, for example, is around 100km further than Paris to Marseille. A high speed rail line covering it in less than four hours would be far preferable to a grim nine hour slog down the Hume Highway or faffing around at airports at either end. It seems bleedingly obvious to kick off a high speed network linking the two largest cities, probably stopping at Canberra on the way.

Pre-packed sandwiches

I feel marginally ashamed of myself for saying this, but Australia could do with embracing mass-produced sandwiches stuffed into plastic packets occasionally. It’s utterly admirable that the norm is freshly-made sandwiches, put together with your choice of ingredients. But sometimes speed and price is of the essence – you just want a cheap Boots or Tesco meal deal to keep you going with the minimum of fuss. Go into the Aussie equivalents of British chemists and supermarkets, and you’ll find such things conspicuous by their absence.



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