One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel is enjoying all the little luxuries that come with your room — slipping into a bathrobe or pair of slippers, trying out a new brand of body lotion. But for many frequent travelers hotel amenities leave a little to be desired, even at expensive properties.
Cecilia Freeman, a member of the IndependentTraveler.com community team, recently found herself disappointed by the in-room coffee at a Seattle hotel for which she paid $275 a night. “The coffee was Starbucks, but they stocked these generic fake sugar and creamer packets with a useless napkin and a stirry straw,” she told me. “Every time I travel and stay in any level of hotel, I always get the same lame amenity pack for the coffee. I wondered if Starbucks would be happy its coffee was accompanied by this awful generic stuff.”
It spurred her to look at other common hotel amenities with a more critical eye: “Shower caps? Who uses those? Shoeshine sponges? The list goes on … the whole amenity package for all hotels needs a redo.”
In fairness, I remember one occasion several years back when I did use a hotel shower cap — but that’s one time out of hundreds of hotel stays. Why don’t hotels cut some of these rarely used amenities and offer free Wi-Fi instead? In an informal survey a few years back, we discovered that it was the hotel amenity travelers want most.
I reached out to a couple of other well-traveled colleagues to get their perspective on hotel amenities. Brittany Chrusciel, an associate editor for IndependentTraveler.com’s sister site, Cruise Critic, wants to ban bar soap at the sink. “I don’t mind a bar in the shower, but I’d much rather have liquid soap for hand washing,” she said. “Half the time there’s no soap dish, so the bar slithers all over the sink and makes a mess. Plus, it’s a waste when you only use it for a day or two. A hand soap dispenser is so much neater and more convenient.”
My own biggest pet peeve? Hotels that only offer a single pillow on each side of a bed, with no extras in the closet. Cruise Critic senior editor Chris Gray Faust agreed: “I like having a fortress of pillows.”
There are some hotel amenities we love, including bottled water (preferably free), hypoallergenic pillows, facewash and cotton swabs. Best of all: a little note that says “Forgot something? Call the front desk” with an offer to supply things like toothbrushes, toothpaste or razors.
There’s a new hotel site for travelers who want to do good while exploring the world: KindTraveler.com. Launched in summer 2016, the site has partnered with hotels in the U.S., the Caribbean and Mexico to encourage travelers to donate to charity in exchange for a discounted nightly rate.
Plug in your travel dates, and you’ll get a list of available hotels and rates. Click on one, and you’ll see how much of a discount you can get for a donation of $10 a night to charity. For a February stay at the upscale 1 Hotel South Beach in Miami, I was offered a $95 discount per night with my donation, taking the rate from $731/night to $636/night. (If you book directly on the hotel’s website without making a donation through Kind Traveler, the lowest available rate is $640 a night — so the savings aren’t necessarily as large as they might appear.)
At the James Chicago, a $10/night donation took the price from $149 to $124 per night for my February dates. (On the hotel’s website, the lowest available rate was $130 a night.)
When you’re ready to book, you can select the hotel’s recommended charity or choose your own. The site’s causes fall into 10 categories, such as wildlife, human rights, environment, education, health and disaster relief. Charities within these categories include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Arbor Day Foundation, among others. You can pay for your booking with a credit card or use PayPal.
The site’s offerings are limited so far, with fewer than two dozen hotels, most of which appear to cost more than $200 a night. The properties are mostly boutique hotels and have been vetted for “Kind Factors” such as eco-friendly toiletries, recycling programs and donations to their local communities.
While the site’s offerings are too limited to benefit most travelers right now, the idea is a worthy one, and we’ll be keeping an eye on the site as it expands. Check it out yourself at KindTraveler.com.
The last minutes of summer are ticking away, with just two days left until the official start of autumn. So while the final countdown is on, I count down for you a batch of intriguing things in the world of travel that will help you decide where to go this fall (and winter), and how to get there in the smartest possible way.
10 Transport Apps to Help You Get Around
A technology reporter for the Guardian reveals his picks for the best 10 apps to help you navigate various transportation options. While the article is U.K.-centric, most of the apps are applicable to other cities around the world.
9 New Hotels Worthy of Your Instagram Account
Vogue magazine runs down nine new properties around the world that are chic enough to appear as a square image in your social media feed, including an artistic enclave on the beach in Nicaragua. Perhaps one will be on your travel list for this fall?
8 Adventurous Ski Holidays for 2016-17
Are you a skier? These are the hottest (coldest?) ski experiences in the world this coming season, according to the Guardian. Heliskiing in British Columbia late this fall, anyone?
5 Underrated European Destinations
Romania and Montenegro are among a handful of spots in Europe that more travelers should make a priority to see, says a woman who quit her New York City job to travel the world. This autumn’s shoulder season could be the ideal time to check some out.
4 Affordable Ways to Travel Long Term
Huffington Post travel blogger Shannon Ullman suggests that volunteering abroad not only is personally rewarding, but also allows you to stay in a place for a longer period of time without spending a lot of money. She offers three other ways you can afford to travel longer.
2 People Traveling for a Year on $20,000
Writer Chris Guillebeau profiles an Arizona couple who ditched their stay-in-one-place lifestyle and hit the road, allowing housesitting opportunities to determine their destinations. Hard to believe they financed nearly the whole year merely by selling their car!
1 B&B Shaped Like a Beagle
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you suddenly discover a bed and breakfast built in the shape of a floppy-eared dog. The blog My Modern Met features the Dog Bark Park Inn in Cottonwood, Idaho, a two-bedroom cottage shaped like a beagle. Go fetch?
Let’s say you’ve always dreamed of ringing in the New Year in Times Square, and you’ve always wanted to stay at the New York Marriott Marquis, with its revolving restaurant and stone’s throw location to the famous midnight ball drop. You go online to make a booking, only to find that all 1,900+ rooms are sold out. A dozen booking websites return the same frustrating result.
If you’re truly determined to get a room in that hotel, you can spend hour after obsessive hour scouring the Internet trying to nab a cancellation. Or you could let a new website do the work for you.
Type in your desired hotel and travel dates, and Open Hotel Alert will send you a simple email or text message as soon as a room opens up. You then click on a provided link to reserve the room on Booking.com, the site’s affiliate partner.
There are a number of scenarios where this service could prove useful:
– If you’ve saved up all your loyalty points to use on your honeymoon at a specific beach resort, but the property is sold out.
– You’re going to a popular conference in a large city, but all of the hotels near the convention center are booked. Set up alerts for all of the hotels in the vicinity of the conference, and you’ll receive a notice if one of them opens up.
– You’re planning on having client meetings at your hotel and really wanted a suite, but only standard rooms are available. The notification you receive from Open Hotel Alert will tell you which room types have opened up.
Open Hotel Alert has more than one million properties programmed into its site, according to its founder, Mark Downs. And as with similar sites like Hotel Room Alerts, there’s no additional fee to use Open Hotel Alert.
Would you welcome a traveler you’ve never met to come sleep on your couch for free? If you would, you’re not alone; CouchSurfing.com, a website devoted to connecting travelers with local hosts, has a network of some 12 million members, including Jamie Matczak.
Matczak lives with her chocolate lab in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and has been a Couchsurfing host for three years. She’s hosted guests from Hawaii, France, Denmark, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Texas, Wisconsin and South Korea. “I look at it as a fellowship type of exchange,” says Matczak. “I am providing a room in exchange for a new friendship!”
We chatted with Matczak by email about why she’s chosen to host, whether she’s had any safety issues and how welcoming strangers into her home has changed the way she travels.
IndependentTraveler.com: What made you decide to start hosting?
Jamie Matczak: I had stayed with families on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2011 and was looking for a similar experience on a solo trip to Spain in 2012. I discovered the Couchsurfing site and loved the idea of offering travelers (surfers) a couch/room as they are traveling. I signed up, and even though I didn’t use it for my trip to Spain, I began to receive requests as a host. I had previously hosted women from France through a different program and enjoyed the experience.
IT.com: What are the biggest benefits of hosting?
JM: The biggest benefit is getting to know someone new, possibly someone from another country. As a traveler who has been to more than 30 countries, I enjoy hearing about life and cultures in other places. I want to have conversations and learn, and that occurs with all of my guests. I also like the opportunity to show some highlights of my city, Green Bay. Surfers arrive at my house as strangers but leave as friends.
IT.com: As a woman who lives alone, have you ever had any safety concerns about hosting strangers? How do you protect yourself?
JM: The site has verification checks, so you know if people are legit. Every profile also has a references area, so I can read what other hosts have said about a potential surfer. I typically don’t accept guests who don’t have any references, or if I feel something seems “off.” I tell friends or family when a surfer is arriving, just as a back-up. So far, I have not had any bad or unsafe experiences. I choose to believe that people on the site are using it for something positive.
IT.com: Why host people for free instead of charging a nightly fee with a service such as Airbnb?
JM: I have considered using a site such as Airbnb where a fee is charged, but I don’t think that would fit with my busier lifestyle. With Couchsurfing, I don’t feel as bad if I have to decline a request or turn off “hosting” if needed. Also, I think if I charged a fee, I would feel under more pressure for my home to be spotless and perfect. Most Couchsurfers are happy to have a bed and are easygoing if my home doesn’t look perfect. And it’s really not about the money. With Airbnb, I might gain more in my pocketbook, but not necessarily gain a richer experience.
IT.com: Who’s the most memorable guest you’ve ever had?
JM: EVERY guest has been memorable in their own way. As a few examples, I hosted two friends from Australia who were driving to all 50 states. I met two women from Wisconsin who were in Green Bay to volunteer for the weekend. I hosted a young woman from France who was studying for the semester at our local university, and when she arrived, her campus apartment was not available. In January, a father and son from Germany stayed with me because the father took his son to a Packers game as a high school graduation gift. Most recently, I hosted a young man from Korea who is walking across North America.
IT.com: Are you still in touch with folks you’ve hosted? Have you ever slept on their couches in return?
JM: Yes! Most of them are on Facebook, so that is a great way to stay in touch. I have not visited any of my guests, but I hope to in the future. I have tentative plans to visit the family of the German father and son, as well as a former surfer who is now in Taiwan.
IT.com: Has hosting people changed the way you travel? If so, how?
JM: Definitely. I lot of people ask me what I “get” out of hosting. It’s not just a new friendship, but I also feel like, as a solo traveler, I have been really fortunate on my trips. People have loaned me a cell phone to use or offered me rides when I’ve been lost. Of course, you have to be cautious and careful when traveling alone, especially as a female. But hosting people has made me more aware that most people in this world are good and want to do good things. They want to be helpful to other travelers, just as I do.
Flights to Cuba Are Officially On Sale — for Under $300
Conde Nast Traveler reports that commercial flights are now officially available on the American Airlines website starting at just $262 roundtrip. Havana flights haven’t yet been approved, but you can currently book a trip to cities such as Cienfuegos or Camaguey.
How to Survive Being an Airbnb Host
Being an experienced traveler doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be a good Airbnb host, as this New York Times writer discovers when she’s given a disappointing three-star rating from her first guests.
Can You (Ethically) Go On Safari in 2016?
After spending part of his childhood in Africa, an AFAR writer returns to Kenya on safari, worrying that the experience will feel like a throwback to colonial hunting days.
Hotel Brands No Longer Sell Rooms. They Sell Experiences
CNN reports on the rising interest in “authenticity” and “something new” among travelers, particularly younger ones, and on how this is compelling hotels to change their offerings. Some are offering more communal spaces, while others are designing rooms that feature local artwork and other decor that evokes the destination where the hotel is located.
Why ‘Brexit’ Could Screw Up Your European Travel Plans
Britons vote today over whether to leave the European Union, and the ramifications of the decision could affect travelers, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Among the possible effects: Flying into London could turn into a massive headache, but Europe trips could be cheaper.
This Might Be the Best Thing to Happen to Airplane Seats
Popular Mechanics offers a look at a cool new design for business class, in which all passengers — even those in window seats — have access to the aisle. The seats will be used on United planes. (But can we get a design like this in cattle class?)
This week’s video highlights the best of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s under-the-radar capital city.
I arrived in Granada, Spain, during the height of tourist season and without a room reservation. After lugging my bag from hostel to hostel for four hours, I finally found a place with availability.
The only room left was a converted closet with a micro-bed. A single lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. To provide air, the proprietor had cut a “window” in the wall, which was covered in a shredded, rusty mesh screen. The window was opposite the shared bathroom, and it seemed like everyone who walked by poked their strange faces through my window, like Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene in “The Shining.” I was up all night staring at that nightmarish hole.
If you travel independently, you have to expect a few worst-night sleeps like that. Frequent travelers shared with us some of the scariest, filthiest, coldest, loudest and weirdest nights they’ve ever had on the road.
A Fungus Among Us
During his first around-the-world trip, travel blogger Marek Bron of Indie Traveller found himself in Chiang Rai, Thailand, without a place to stay. “Everywhere was booked out. So I ended up in this obscure hostel that, to this day, remains the worst place I ever stayed,” he said. “It had the ambience of a World War II bunker. Concrete walls, metal lockers, no windows.”
The grimy shower hadn’t been cleaned in months (at least). Not only were there dozens of empty shampoo bottles in it in it, but an apple-sized mushroom was also growing in the corner.
“If you can’t be bothered to at least get rid of the giant mushroom in the shower, you truly don’t care,” Bron said.
Not a Lot of Sleep Happening Here
Writer Ethan Gelber of The Travel Word and his wife arrived by bus in town along the Zambia-Malawi border well after dark. Having little electricity, the unfamiliar town was pitch black. “We didn’t know how far we were from anywhere, so we went to the only place with lights and begged for a room,” Gelber said.
Turns out, it was a brothel.
A Tumble-Dry Night
Emily Harley-Reid of International Expeditions was on a primitive camping trip in the Australian Outback. One night it was so cold that she and her fellow campers relocated in the middle of the night to the campsite’s laundry room. They cuddled up together on the floor around dryers with the doors open.
“We pooled our change, feeding the dryers every hour to stay warm,” she said.
The story had a happy ending. “One guy actually married his sleeping bag buddy from that night. They have two kids now and live in Iowa.”
Adventurist Johnny Ward of One Step 4Ward was exhausted after traveling two straight days from Ethiopia to Khartoum, Sudan. He took a room in the first guesthouse he could find. Bad idea.
“It was FILTHY,” Ward wrote in an email. “We flipped the mattresses to see maggots crawling under the bed. Disgusting, but at 1 a.m. in Sudan, you’re happy to have a roof.”
The squirmy insects weren’t the only roommates Ward and his friend had that night. An hour later, they discovered a full-occupancy rats’ nest under the bed. “We managed to switch rooms, [had] the worst night’s sleep imaginable and checked out at 6 a.m,” Ward said.
Strange Noises in the Jungle
Travel blogger Caz Makepeace of Y Travel trekked all day through the Sumatran jungle to see orangutans. Nighttime was memorable, too, but for the wrong reasons: freezing temperatures despite being on the Equator and a tarp that dropped rain on her all night.
“To top it off, our guide told us stories of tiger encounters before we went to sleep,” Makepeace recalled. “During the night, we heard a gigantic crashing [sound] in the jungle, and our guide stayed up for the remainder of the night holding a big knife.”
Don’t Rock the Boat
Dutch blogger Maaike van Kuijk of Travellous World thought it would be an exceptional experience to sleep aboard a riverboat-based hotel in Maastricht, Netherlands. It was anything but, with partiers boarding at 3 a.m. and whooping it up until sunrise, not to mention the tiny bedrooms with dirty sheets, an unclean bathroom and a lousy breakfast.
“I learned my lesson back then: Always read the reviews before you decide on staying somewhere,” van Kuijk said.
Writer Dan Miller of Points with a Crew relayed this ominous tale from a trip to Mobile, Alabama: “The front desk agent behind a barred window told us he had no rooms left, despite our reservation. He told us that he could sell us, and I quote, ‘a room with something wrong with it.'”
Miller bravely took the room and found out that the tub “was completely covered in purple goo.” Needless to say, he skipped his morning shower.
The Worst Can Also Be the Best
Sustainable tourism expert Warren Green’s worst night of sleep was also one of his favorite travel experiences. While trying to cross a river in a remote region on the border of Tanzania and Kenya, his vehicle got lodged in mud up to the axles. A storm was coming, “and the roar of a lion reminded us that a walk … would be foolish,” Green said. He and his guide had no choice but to spend the night.
They gathered wood, siphoned a splash of fuel from the gas tank to start a fire and slept on the floor mats from the van. Lightning flashed in the sky.
“I lay awake drinking in this most uncomfortable night,” Green reminisced. “It was beautiful.”
What do you typically ask for when staying at a hotel — a few extra pillows? A toothbrush or phone charger if you left yours at home?
One traveler goes well beyond such reasonable requests on his business trips, asking for things like “a picture of a dog dressed as a boat captain” or “a fort [built] out of pillows,” reports the Daily Mail. He even asked the hotel staff to draw a picture of what they thought he looked like. The requests were all granted, and a friend of the businessman posted photos of the results in a thread on Imgur.
My first reaction was the same as that of several commenters on Imgur: Let’s hope this guy tips well! Because while many people seem to find the businessman’s behavior hilarious, I’m not sure I agree.
Sure, the requests are essentially harmless and might bring a smile to the face of a hotel staffer on a slow or tedious day. But do you feel comfortable imagining an underpaid, overworked housekeeper who only has 15 to 20 minutes to clean each room having to waste time building a pillow fort for a grown man for no reason other than the fact that he’s bored on a business trip? And don’t most concierges have better things to do than troll the Internet for pictures of the grandma from “Family Matters” or a dog in a boating costume?
While it seems to be meant in fun, it feels a little mean-spirited to make more work for other people just because you can.
Catch up on the travel news, photos and videos you might have missed this week.
14-Year-Old Girl to Be Youngest Person Taking on Massive Polar Expedition
We’ve got a new travel hero. Mashable profiles 14-year-old Jade Hameister, an Australian teenager who is hoping to complete a “Polar Hat Trick” involving expeditions to the North Pole, Greenland and the South Pole over the next couple of years. She’ll be accompanied by a master polar guide and by her father, who has climbed Mt. Everest. Check out Jade’s Instagram to keep tabs on her progress.
What Will Replace the Hated Hotel ‘Resort’ Fee? Maybe This
Consumer rights advocate Christopher Elliott has unearthed an obnoxious new fee to watch out for at hotels: a “hospitality surcharge.” A traveler who found this fee on his bill at a Hilton Garden Inn in New Mexico asked what it was, and got the following ridiculous answer: “The manager said it is for the TV monitor in the lobby displaying flight departure data and the lights in the hotel.” Seriously? What’s next, a charge for the front desk or the bathroom in your room?
This Is What Air Travel Will Actually Look Like in 100 Years
Travel + Leisure sat down with two Senior Technical Fellows at Boeing to find out what’s in store over the next several decades in the air travel industry. Their predictions blew our mind — including see-through planes, airport hotels in space and the ability to book flights via a chip implanted in your brain. Here’s hoping we live long enough to see some of these.
23 Incredible Pictures of Kenya
Rough Guides shows us the many sides of Kenya, from the cosmopolitan center of Nairobi to a camel derby in the hillside down of Maralal. Particularly striking are portraits of members of the Turkana, Samburu and Pokot tribes.
Why Are Americans So Afraid of Vacation?
The Boston Globe investigates a disturbing trend among Americans: not using all our vacation days. A couple of studies reveal that on average we give up four to five days a year. Even when we do take a trip, 61 percent of us still work at least a little bit during our vacation. But here’s why we shouldn’t: “Skipping vacation stifles creativity, creates health problems [and] leads to stress, depression, and less-than-ideal home lives,” says the Globe.
Airbnb to Purge Illegal Hotels from San Francisco Listings
For years Airbnb has faced legal challenges from cities concerned that the site’s hosts were violating their local short-term housing laws. Now the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the site is taking action against hosts who manage multiple listings in the City by the Bay. (San Francisco only allows residents to rent out space in their own home.)
Hamlet’s Kronborg Castle in Denmark Is on Airbnb for One Night Only to Mark Shakespeare Anniversary
Speaking of Airbnb, here’s a cool (and legal) listing: Hamlet’s castle. Lonely Planet reports that Kronborg Castle in Denmark will be open to two guests only on the night of April 23, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Interested travelers must hit “contact host” on the Airbnb listing by April 13 and explain why they want to sleep in the castle. Included in your stay: a special banquet and breakfast in bed served by Hamlet’s friend Horatio.
Don’t miss this jaw-dropping timelapse video of the northern lights in Norway.
Check out the best travel content you might have missed this week.
How to Be the Kind of Tourist Tour Guides Love
This Washington Post story by a tour guide in Paris offers practical advice every traveler should know before joining a group tour. (Example: “Don’t distract your guide when she is doing something tricky, like negotiating a busy traffic intersection on a bicycle tour, or setting up safety lines during a rappelling excursion. Your safety may depend on her concentration.”)
Planning the Spontaneous
In an essay for Travel Weekly, legendary travel writer Paul Theroux reveals how he prepares for his trips, including how he chooses destinations, what he reads before he goes and how he answers the “occupation” question on visa applications. (Also worth a read: Theroux’s interview with Travel Weekly about his recent trip to the Deep South.)
Why Your Next Hotel Will Be Staffed by Robots
CNN reports on the growing trend of automation in the travel industry, from robots checking people into hotels to automated bartenders on Royal Caribbean cruise ships. The story explores how far the technology might go; could tour guides be replaced by machines? While we’re all for efficiency, we hope travel never loses its personal touch.
Why Is Traveling Alone Still Considered a Risky, Frivolous Pursuit for Women?
This provocative essay in the Guardian was sparked by the deaths of two young Argentinian women who were murdered during a backpacking trip in Ecuador. The writer questions why many people’s response to the tragedy was to ask why the women were traveling “alone” and examines the double standards that women travelers face.
After Brussels, Why Travel Is More Important Than Ever
The Editor-in-Chief of Travel + Leisure offers a compelling argument for why we should continue to travel in the face of ongoing terrorist attacks: “Travel fosters human understanding, and empathy for people whose lives are unlike your own. … Travelers are, ultimately, the enemies of terrorists, and what they believe works against terrorists’ aims, person by person and little by little.”
Warning: This week’s video might make you cry. It’s from Expedia, which is using virtual reality technology to bring the world to kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who are too sick to travel.