Club level upgrades


David Whitley finds that upgrading hotel rooms is sometimes worth it 

If there’s one thing that hotels like, it is tempting their guests into parting with more money. Stay at one, and chances are you’ll be presented with many opportunities to spend more cash. Sometimes this is via the tour desk, sometimes it’s in the restaurant and occasionally it’s in a god-awful souvenir shop for simpletons who like walking around with hotel-branded merchandise.

An increasingly common wheeze, however, is to offer an upgrade to a Club Level room. It’s not always called that, of course – hotels tend to have all manner of silly names for it. But the concept is generally similar – you pay a bit more to stay in a room on a special club (or executive) level and some extra benefits.

Those benefits vary dramatically. Usually there will be an exclusive lounge/ breakfast area and the views from your room will be better as it’s on a higher floor. The rooms may be larger, the upgrade may include free internet access, you might get fluffy robes and you might get a free newspaper in the morning.

It’s often hard to tell what you will get, however, because hotels are terrible at spelling it out on their websites. It’s as if just knowing you’re in a special club is enough, without giving any details of what that special club involves.

Most of the time, the upgrade is clearly not worth it. If you’re just using your hotel room to sleep in, then splashing out the extra cash is going to be pointless – you’ll not be there long enough to appreciate the benefits. Similarly, if the upgrade price is huge, you’d be daft to take the offer up.

However, sometimes it can be worth the investment – particularly if you’re sharing a room and you’ve no particular desire to explore the city that night.

Those benefits, you see, often include little snacks throughout the day. Go there in the early evening, and you can usually stack up a dinner’s worth. More importantly, the soft drinks and bottled water are usually free all day long – stick a few in your bag to get you through the day in the morning, have a couple more when you get back in. Then there are usually a couple of hours with ‘complimentary cocktails’. Roughly translated, that means free booze between 5.30pm and 7.30pm or something similar. There’s a certain brinkmanship to how many you feel you can order or pour yourself within the boundaries of reasonable etiquette, but it seems socially acceptable to get three or four down the hatch.

There comes a price point, therefore, when it’s well worth it. For example, in April, my wife and I were in Kuala Lumpur. We stayed at the Hotel Istana for the last night, and felt like a quiet night chilling out before the flight the next day. We’d booked a £57 normal room, but enquired how much a Club Room would be. An extra £17. That, we figured, was just about worth it when the free soft drinks, food and couple of hours of early evening boozing was factored in between two of us.

It’s not going to be worth doing every night, of course. But every now and then, it’s worth checking at reception what an upgrade would cost. And, crucially, what benefits that upgrade may include.

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




Communication in thank yous


If linguistic ability can be measured purely in terms of how many languages you can say the word for “thank you” in, then I regard myself as something of a marvel. Unfortunately, once I want a conversation in Zulu, Croatian or Icelandic to veer beyond the in-depth confines of repeatedly thanking a shopkeeper for letting me buy something, it all gets a bit trickier. 

Native English speakers have been given a blessing and a curse when it comes to travel. In the last 50 years, English has become the global fallback language. If you meet a Dutchman, a Dane, a Greek and an Israeli in a hostel, you can pretty much guarantee they’ll be talking to each other in English. This both makes travelling easy and learning another language hard – it takes a lot more dedication and determination when just about everyone you meet speaks English better than you speak the local lingo.


Benefits of learning a language


But there’s no doubt that fluency – or even the ability to make a conversation less painful than eating a packet of salt and vinegar crisps whilst afflicted by mouth ulcers – in an another language can be a great help whilst travelling. Being able to talk to someone properly, ask the right questions and understand what’s going on opens a lot of doors. But given that most native English-speakers are so bad at learning languages, it’s unrealistic to expect conversational ability in multiple languages. To put off a long haul, multi-country trip because you can’t speak all the languages required means you’ll stay at home forever. A little prioritisation is required.


So then, if you can learn just one language, which one should it be?


Asian languages?


Well, obviously a lot depends on where you’re going. If you’re going to spend a year in Indonesia, then Indonesian is the best choice. Same with Japanese for Japan or Thai for Thailand. Outside these countries, however, all three languages are nigh-on useless. The same applies for Mandarin. Yes, it’s the most spoken language in the world, and anyone who can speak Mandarin fluently is clearly going to have a big leg up in the future business world, but any traveller not going to China is not going to need it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Mandarin isn’t the main spoken language in many parts of China itself.




If you’re looking for a language that is used in a number of countries, the Arabic is worth considering. It has spread over much of the Middle East and Africa, although Omani Arabic, Egyptian Arabic and Moroccan Arabic tend to have some rather large differences. Another factor is that in many Arabic countries, English is used as the defacto language of business and media. In the major travel hubs, such as Dubai, you’ll get by just fine speaking only English.




So how about the languages we get taught at school then? French tends to be the one that most British people learn a smattering of, but how useful is it? In France, very. Outside of France, in former French colonies? Very as well. But start placing those former French colonies on a map and you’ll soon realise that very few of them feature high on a list of appealing destinations. Travellers don’t tend to venture to Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic all that often.In other former French colonies – particularly those in Asia such as Vietnam and Cambodia, American influence has seen English overtake French as the second language of choice.


German or Russian?


German, I’d say, is the most handy second language if you’re travelling in Europe, In the likes of Poland, Hungary, Croatia and the Czech Republic, German is often more widely used as a second language than English (although this is changing). Outside of Europe, though, and it’s rarely useful – unless you plan on spending a lot of time in bizarre pockets of Namibia. Head further east, and Russian is the best language to have. Many people in Eastern Europe don’t like speaking what is seen as the language of the oppressor, but it is still widely understood. In the former Soviet states, Russian is by far the best bet, while in Russia itself having at least a few key phrases is absolutely essential.




That leaves Spanish. It’s no use outside Spain and the Americas but – crucially - it is the first language in a hell of a lot of countries. And those tend to be countries where the grasp of English isn’t all that good. The lazy man’s point-and-shout-in-English isn’t as effective in South America as it is in South East Asia. On balance, therefore, if I was to invest time learning a language (or improving my abilities in a language), Spanish would be the one I’d pick. Una cerveza, por favour...


Do you agree with David? If you could choose to be fluent in one language, which one would it be and why? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.




English needed?



I blame the French. More specifically, the Frenchman who lost his temper with a 12 year old boy in Montdidier. In 1988. My attempt to put a year's worth of French lessons into practice had caused the octogenarian to rant and rage at me and then the sky, all in a language I didn't understand. Clearly I'd cause offense, although how remains a mystery. I suspect it was the charge of 60 British schoolchildren up the high street asking where the swimming pool is in rudimentary Franglais that tipped him over the edge, the poor bastard.

I'm not great with second languages. I'll make a stab at learning basic greetings before traveling somewhere new, but anymore than a few words is a struggle, but I'll take comfort in the fact that I make an effort rather than assume others will take up the slack and be able to speak English. I'm ignorant, but not as ignorant as some, which makes me clever by comparison. Go me.

It was while reading David's post about learning a second language that got me thinking about this topic - where in the world will a traveller really struggle if they can only speak English?

There may be several reasons:

- the country / region / city in question is rarely visited by English-speaking visitors, or there are few ex-pats - there may be no be tourism or trade that forces locals to speak a language other than their own

- there's no common history between the country and other English-speaking territories

- it's a cultural issue; locals and/or the country as a whole is wary of visitors, or perhaps there's little tolerance for pandering to outsiders

Is English is a truly global language, or are there vast swathes of the globe where you'll  struggle to get by? Which countries don't speak it? Which countries prefer not to? And is there anywhere that learning the basics is a must before you arrive? What do you think? Leave a comment or thought below...



By Paul Smith



If you’ve got to be up early, and the people in the room next door are having a highly inconsiderate private party, what’s the best way of getting revenge? It comes with the territory. Spend enough time in hostels or hotels, and eventually you’ll end up in a room next to someone you want to strangle. Noisy neighbours, alas, aren’t just confined to the real world.

Sooner or later, you’re going to end up losing sleep because the inconsiderate expletive in the next room just wants to drunkenly shout, turn the music up or run down the corridor knocking on doors. It’s either that or overly vigorous carnal activities. The mature way to deal with someone being so selfish at two or three in the morning is to knock on the door and politely ask them to pipe down. 

The alternative is to ask reception to either sort it out or move you to a different room. But this won’t always work – the biggest culprits will just ignore polite requests and you probably don’t want to pack all your stuff up in the middle of the night.

And that’s where immature methods come in. None of these are likely to get you any extra sleep, but they may well get sweet revenge...

1. Applause
Easily the best way to deal with people having noisy sex is to start clapping and cheering them on. Whoop and pretend you’re backing a nag at long odds in a horse race.

2. Leave an alarm clock
If you have to be up obscenely early (note: this always happens when you have to be up obscenely early), it may be worth sacrificing your alarm clock in the name of revenge. Pop it right next to the wall, set it to go off on repeat, then leave it in there as you check out.

3. Turn the TV on. And up.
If, like me, your alarm is on your phone and leaving that behind isn’t worth it, then the TV can do the job even better. As you leave the room at five or six in the morning, turn it on and max the volume. When I had this noisy neighbour problem recently, I appealed for suggestions on Twitter. One most excellent idea was to blast the TV out with it set to the porn channel. That’s not always free, however, so a particularly bad music channel should do the trick. The problem with this approach is that you may end up making neighbours on the other side suffer too, and they probably don’t deserve it.

4. Join the party
A nice idea in theory, but the drunks aren’t usually having a party. They’ve usually finished the party, and have come back to the hotel for a couple of hours to be highly annoying before falling into a coma.

5. Invite the maids in
When you leave, why not pop your “Please Make Up Room Now” sign on their door handle? It should ensure a nice, early interruption.

6. Order some food
After such a big night, they’ll probably appreciate something to eat at 4.30am. Why not take advantage of the 24 hour room service and get something brought to them at this time? The only problem is explaining away why you’re not calling from that room. If you’re in a motel, of course, the done thing is to phone for pizza delivery.

7. Steal their breakfast
At a lot of hotels, you have to give your room number before you can attack the breakfast buffet. Give theirs instead of yours, and then their brekkie is already taken by the time they finally make it down there. There’s potential to be a whole lot more evil here, too. I’m not condoning this, but...When you give your room number at breakfast, the staff member usually has a list of names and room numbers to tick off. If your eyes are sharp enough, you’ll be able to see the name opposite next door’s number. A bad person might be tempted to use that name and number when signing off things like dinner and drinks later that evening...

8. Give them a call
A lot of hotels tell you how to phone from room to room, so a series of early morning prank calls is a winner if so. If you have to go through reception, you may be faced with too many awkward questions about why you want to call at 5.30am.Otherwise, you could try calling the hotel from your mobile and ask to be put through. Perhaps claim to be a family member if you got the right name at breakfast. If you haven’t got the name, you may need to get inventive, so here’s a suggestion...

Use the internet to find the name of a suitably seedy-sounding massage parlour, brothel or gay sauna. Pick up your mobile and phone the hotel, saying that you’re calling from said red-lit establishment and that a wallet has been left behind. “The keycard for room 402 at your hotel was with it, so I’m assuming it’s your guest,” you might add. Or, perhaps: “They’ll probably want it back – there’s a wedding ring inside the wallet.”Either you’ll get put through, thus waking them up, or you won’t – and they’ll have to run a gauntlet of dirty looks and behind-the-hand laughter the next morning.


What do you think is the best way of dealing with noisy neighbours in hotels or hostels? Have you got any particularly cunning suggestions for revenge? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


Which guidebook




David Whitley looks at the bricks of information we pack in our bags, and tries to work out which are the best bets for a big trip





Despite so much information being online these days, a good guide book is invaluable whilst on the road. You don’t have to use it as a bible – a mistake that many people make – but it does tend to be multi-purpose. For a start, it is (or at least should be) a great introduction to the history and culture of the place you’re travelling in. It’s also good for ideas of what you want to do, plus accommodation and eating options. Then there’s navigation – it’s incredibly useful to have a map already in hand when you arrive at a destination rather than wandering around lost.



But which guidebooks should you take? If you’re away for a long time, you’ll probably have to ration them a bit otherwise the weight of carrying five or six in the bag is going to be a killer. It’s always possible to buy and ditch as you go, but some people (ie. me) like to keep the books as mementos and are loathe to discard them.



Therefore you’ll need to get the balance between detail and breadth right. As a general rule, I find multi-country guides (ie. South East Asia or South America) spread themselves too thinly to be great on any particular country, city or area. If you’re only going to Thailand, buy the book for Thailand. But it might not be practical to carry individual books on Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.




The who and the when


Quality of book – even within the same brand – can vary dramatically from author to author as well. Some do an excellent job, some cut corners. It’s worth doing a web search for the author’s name and the area to find other things they’ve written about it.



Another important thing is how up-to-date the book is. Information dates very quickly, and the research is often done a year before publication. All else being equal, a 2011 guide book from a brand you’re usually not as keen on is likely to be more helpful than a 2009 book from your usual favourite.




Brand by brand review


Of the main guide book brands, each has its own qualities and quirks. An awful lot depends on what you want from the book – is it usability, quality and depth or research or background and cultural immersion? But, in brief, this is what I think of the main brands.




Lonely Planet


Often very formulaic, and a perhaps unfair reputation for out-of-date information (this is only because people carrying around 2008 books expect everything to be the same three years later). The formula is the weakness and strength simultaneously – LPs are arguably the best guides for quick reference. The structure is strong, the maps amongst the best if not perfect, and it’s generally easy to find the information you need.




Lonely Planet Encounter


These small guides are generally aimed at people going for a quick city break. The maps are really good, if not always covering as many areas as you’d like, but the books are poor on accommodation and detail for the major attractions. They’re brill as a pocket overview and good on bars and restaurants, but not aimed at people on big trips.



For travellers to Asia, small company Travelfish has superb app quality and coverage. You can also try out their lite versions for free




Rough Guides


The main competition for Lonely Planet in terms of scope and audience, Rough Guides are stronger on history and culture, but can be more of a read than a reference material. Apparently a big design change is imminent – which may aid the usability in future.






Reputedly the best for South America – although I’ll admit I’ve never used one so I can’t really comment any further.






They only cover limited destinations, but the Moon guides do a good job on those they do cover. They’re good at finding oddities that other books gloss over and putting the neck on the line by picking out the best spots rather than just listing loads with equal weight. Maps are excellent, but poorly bound so the pages come loose. Which, needless to say, is very annoying.






The Frommer’s guides are brilliant for suggesting itineraries, walking routes and the like. The key strength is prioritisation – a star system suggests which things to do, places to eat and places to stay are better than others rather than chickening out and making you read between the lines. The detail in the shopping section is particularly immense if you’re into that sort of thing.




Time Out


For cities, Time Out’s guides stand head and shoulders over the rest. The authors genuinely know their stuff, picking out local haunts, trends and cultural options that other guides don’t seem to be able to get near. The maps are good, but the only quibble would be a tendency to concentrate on higher end options and neglect the budget traveller.






Generally very good all-rounders, the Insight Smart guides (mostly for cities) do well in breaking things up by theme and interest rather than geographical areas. The full country guides are superb on history and background, but can fall into the same big chunks of text trap that befalls the Rough Guides.




DK Eyewitness


They’re often translated from the original language and thus concentrate on weird things that perhaps  aren’t of interest to the English speaking-market. Infuriating over-concentration on pointless photos and difficult to find your way around. They seem like they’re aimed at simpletons.




Thomas Cook


I could write reams here, but it’s easier to just say: “Shop elsewhere.”






The Bradt guides go where others fear to tread – often covering parts of the planet that other guide book series don’t go near. There’s a big emphasis on history and culture, and they make for excellent pre-trip reading. Usability is poor, however – the maps are shocking and the presentation makes for a big wordy trudge. The content often leans wildly towards the author’s individual interests – and they’re often written by people with a passion and connection for the place rather than neutral outsiders who are perhaps stronger writers and researchers.





The Odyssey Guides aren’t that well known, and cover some rather odd spots across the planet. Like the Bradt guides, they’re especially dependent on the skill, dedication and abilities of the author. They vary from other guide book series in that they’re designed to be read before the trip, rather than used as a continual reference during the trip.