Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hotel Recommendations in Europe

In addition to opinions about the museums and attractions we visited (and have consumed this blog these past months), I also had opinions about the hotels where we stayed.

This post shares those opinions (which I’ve also posted on, so people who are thinking about visiting these cities— 

  • Berlin
  • Barcelona
  • Istanbul
  • Madrid
  • Paris
  • Valencia 

can figure out if they, too, would like to stay in the same hotels.

But first, I describe the challenge of finding hotel rooms on the Internet.

Finding Hotel Rooms on the Internet: As I’ve aged, I’ve become pickier about the places where I sleep.  And because I was visiting new places on this trip—and visiting others where I still did not feel I knew the city well—I invested a fair amount of time in researching hotels.

At times, it felt like too much time.  I could spend hours checking out hotels in a single city looking for possible bargains, then comparing prices with other websites to see who offered the best deal.  (In most cases, it’s the hotel’s own website that offers the best prices.  Or, if the price is the same as another site, then the hotel’s site offers more flexibility (such as refundable hotel reservations.) (And if the search was conducted over several days, I had to verify rates, which could change daily or even more frequently.)

Once I found a hotel that had the right combination of features and prices, I wanted to check out its look—and checked out the photographs on the official and tourist websites.  But not trusting these, I also turned to reviews. became the most valued source.  It rates hotels numerically and provides written reviews. For 3-star hotels and up, I looked for hotels with an 8.5 rating or above; for 2-star hotels, 7.5 or above.

But I also paid attention to the number of reviews (for a hotel with just 5 reviews, one bad review can significantly lower the ratings) as well as the written comments (to determine whether the people who offered low ratings had a valid complaint or seemed like complainers with unrealistic expectations).

In the end, I was pleased with the advice TripAdvisor gave as I was generally pleased with all of the hotels I visited, except one. In that particular case, the concern had to do with the staff, not the hotel itself.

Barcelona—Hotel Europark:  The only difficult part of this hotel was checking out.  The process itself was easy; we didn’t want to leave.  This hotel pleased on every level.  The reservation process was easily handled online and we were able to easily change reservations online, too.  The website is easy to navigate and provides an accurate depiction of the hotel.  The hotel made a great first impression; it’s clean, attractive, handsomely furnished—with a black, white, and gray stripe motif that shows up everywhere, from the lobby to the sheets on the beds.

Because we arrived early in the day after an all-night train ride from Paris (around 9 am), we did not expect to be able to check in.  But we had no problem.  After a scary all-night train ride in coach (that included a brush with a scary looking stowaway and some possibly illegal immigrants), we would have been pleased with any room.  But this room was particularly appreciated—with those striped sheets, hardwood floors, clean lines, and comfortable bed.  Ours was the smaller double room but it was sufficiently large.  The bathroom was terrific—a large counter beside the sink with sufficient space for the toiletries of two people and a huge tiled shower.  The flat screen TV had a great choice of channels, including an Andalusian channel with an addictive soap opera late at night.  Free, wireless Internet is available in all rooms.

The only limited aspect of the room was the view—an interior courtyard with views of other windows and a brick wall.  Breakfast (extra, but a good deal if you purchase it with the reservation) is served in a pleasant room on the first floor.  The selection of food was large, without being gluttonous.  The orange juice was freshly squeezed and the coffee freshly brewed.  And it gave me a glimpse at the other guests.  In terms of looks, they seemed interesting.  In terms of other things, I have no idea.

The location is excellent.  It’s about a 10- to 15-minute walk to Passeij de Gracia, the main shopping street, another 10- 15-minute walk to the Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, and a 5- to 10-minute walk to the Metro, which is 4 stops from the main strain station (which is not the one where trains from Paris arrive, but that’s an unrelated issue).

Berlin—Holiday Inn Express Berlin City Centre: In terms of basic facilities, this comfort-priced hotel is adequate. The room, while on the smaller side, has an OK bed, small desk, and a fine bathroom.  The TV was older and had a broken remote control, but did offer only 2 English channels (both news—but this is Germany, so any English language programming is appreciated).  Breakfast is standard (I still remember the days when it was standard at all European hotels, which is no longer the case) and, for a cold buffet, is more than adequate.  The highlight is the sophisticated coffee machines, which can make nearly every imaginable espresso drink.  Location is fine—about a 5-minute walk from an S-bahn station and 10-minute walk from Potsdamer Platz and its U-bahn station or Checkpoint Charlie (and its tourist spots).

My hesitation is with the staff, whose failings were numerous.  Because of a change in travel plans, I needed to change the arrival and departure dates (arriving a day earlier, leaving a day later).  I called the hotel and they changed the reservation. But when I checked the online record, the reservation had not been changed.  When I called the hotel to correct their error, the guy at the front desk gave me a hard time, until I pointed out that his colleague was the one who made the error, not me.

During the stay, the front desk staff provided inaccurate information about public transport. After convincing me to take a bus (I wanted to use the subways), they didn’t change my 20 euro note, saying that the bus driver would make change.  That was not correct—it seemed that correct change was needed, as is the case in North America.,

But the most serious problem occurred at checkout.  They tried to charge me for Internet use.  I was kind of taken aback; the website specifically mentions complimentary access.  Furthermore, when I connected to the net in my room, no splash page appeared warning of the charge, as is typical of all hotels.  The guy at the front desk said I was supposed to be told at check in.  I wasn’t.  When he said that he had to charge me for the service, I told him he could, and the first thing I would do is put the charge into dispute.  He relented.

I went back and checked the web page—in bold face type, it says, “Complimentary Internet access” and in non-bold type (almost guaranteed to be missed), it then says, “in the lobby.”  Furthermore, the site never specifically mentions there’s a charge for access in rooms.  This—coupled with the failure of the staff to mention this at check-in and the lack of a splash screen warning that every other hotel (including all of the other ones in the Intercontinental chain)—makes me believe that this is a scam to scrounge up a few extra euros from clueless travelers.

Istanbul—Crowne Plaza Istanbul Old City: I strongly recommend this hotel.  In terms of service, it was great.  The staff was responsive, even with the oddest request (we wanted a knife delivered to our room to eat some cheese and crackers we had bought).

The room was large, had great TV service, and great bathroom, and made for a comfortable trip. The bed was excellent—I think it had memory foam mattress (but I didn’t check).

The location was excellent, too—an easy walk to the tramway, and a slightly longer walk to the Metro station.  (It’s about 5 blocks.)  On a decent day, it’s easy to walk to most of the major sites like the Grand Bazaar (about 5 to 10 minutes), Topkapi Palace and the Archeology Museum (about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your pace), Great service. Responsive staff.  Great location.  Use the trams—convenient.  The Metro is fine, too—but a little further away.  The hotel also offers free Internet—not just wireless access in the room, but also use of a free station in the business centre.

The only hassle is traffic—the poor taxi driver seemed to have to solve the Rubik’s cube puzzle to get through to the hotel, because the streets nearby are so narrow and crowded.  But if it’s your first trip to Istanbul, I’d still recommend getting a taxi from the airport to the hotel.   That said, once you become familiar with the public transit system, it’s faster and easier—less than half the time.  But as I said, this is a minor issue and not a reflection of the hotel.

Madrid—Ibis Madrid Centro:  I didn’t like this hotel at first.  It was impossible to find when getting out of the Metro.  Admittedly, that’s partly my fault, because I didn’t print the map.  But it’s just as much the Ibis Hotels’ fault.  The map on one of their official websites did not name the Metro stop, much less mention which of the six exits to choose.  When traveling with a now frustrated partner, and you both have heavy luggage that must be carried up a flight and a half of stairs to get out of the station, that’s key information.  Worse, one of those six exits is half of a block from the hotel.

Few people we asked knew about the hotel, it’s not marked on any of the maps in the Metro station, and when we finally did get near the hotel, its entrance is nearly impossible to find.  Unlike most hotels, this hotel has a simple, single door underneath the vertical sign—defiinitely not a typical hotel entrance.  Furthermore, the street entrance is one level below the registration desk, and there’s only a stair and a tiny freight elevator to reach it.

So I wasn’t exactly a happy traveler when I checked in.  But the perky front desk agent got past my admittedly sour attitude, and the room—while basic (especially in contrast to our rooms in Barcelona and Valencia)—was comfortable, had a great bathroom, and had free Internet.

After we recovered our happy moods, we went exploring and realized that the hotel was in a good location, about a 20-minute walk from the Gran Via, and another 10- to 15-minute walk from the historic Plaza Mayor, a half of a block from the Metro station, and had a number of restaurants nearby, including a terrific Peruvian restaurant and a local chain restaurant we liked—Vips (whom we learned owns the Starbucks operation in Spain and Portugal).

One drawback to the location is that a theater is on the lower levels of the building and there are lots of clubs and restaurants nearby.  That results, in turn, in a lot of street noise late at night.  We had no difficulty sleeping, but we did hear the noise.

Although we didn’t purchase it with our room, we took the ample and reasonably priced breakfast buffet each day. Though less extensive than in Barcelona and Valencia, our expectations were also changed because the Ibis is a tourist class hotel, not a boutique or luxury class one as the other two hotels were.  The buffet actually compared favorably to the one at the Holiday Inn Express in Berlin.

The guests, too, seemed like nice people from all over Europe and the UK.

Although the lobby and breakfast area on the entry level seemed a bit compact, the staff had room to store our luggage on the last day of our visit, when we had to check out by noon but were not leaving for the train station until 5 pm.

In fact, the staff was always kind and helpful, and provided knowledgeable tourist information about the sites and the Metro system whenever we asked for it.

I’ve not been an Ibis fan in the past.  But I am now.  All in all, this hotel offered  a pleasant tourist class experience.

Paris—Crowne Plaza Paris—Republique: Excellent hotel—strongly recommend.  In terms of the staff and service, they’re superb.  Greeted warmly and promptly each time I visited the front desk.  They even humored me by speaking with me in my broken French, even though we were all capable of conducting the transactions in my native English.

Rooms were a bit on the small side, but still excellent and comfortable.  I thought the bed was comfortable but my partner felt otherwise.   When I requested a wake-up call, it was signaled both by phone and through the TV.

One thing to note about the room: it has a digital mini-bar.  We didn’t buy anything, but did use the refrigerator for food and drinks that we stored. There’s a miniscule personal area in it (about enough for a candy bar and a small can of Coke).  And if you move anything in the mini-bar, it automatically charges the purchase to the room.  The staff is excellent about taking the charge off of the bill.

The hotel does not provide free Internet. By North American standards, it’s ridiculously pricey.  But there’s free Internet access nearby in the McDonald’s and Quick fast food restaurants.

In terms of location, it’s less than a block from the Republique Metro stop, which is served by 5 lines (which, according to an informational sign in the station, represents one line for each of the five republics).

The Republique area is well-located—lots of restaurants on the beautiful square, as well as some cool shops.  And if you’re looking to control food costs, there’s a small urban grocery (Monop) a half of a block from the hotel (as well as two other similar markets within one-half-block of the Republique square).  And within a 5- to 20-minute walk are many of the boutique museums in the city (like the Musee des Arts et Metiers and the new Chocolate Museum), and as well as the stores of the Grand Boulevard (a bit more of a hike).

Valencia—SH Valencia Palace: Because the conference I attended in Valencia was housed at the SH Valencia Palace, I stayed there.  Frankly, the process of making the reservations online only raised concerns about the hotel.  Rather than make reservations through a secure website (as is typical of most hotels these days), I had to complete a form offline (with my credit card number), scan it in, and send it un-encrypted to the hotel. They responded quickly and confirmed my reservation, but with my guard always up, I had concerns all the same.

But the speed and friendliness the staff showed in responding to my request for a reservation was backed up by a hearty greeting when I arrived at the hotel.  In fact, trying to practice my Spanish, I spoke with them in Spanish and they humored me (initially responding in English, but I asked to practice).  Check-in went quickly, and we soon entered our phenomenally spacious room (had to be at least 20 feet long, plus a 12-foot bathroom, with a separate room for the toilet and bidet).

But I understood the reservation process after seeing the hotel; it is an elegant hotel, but it is somewhat dated, perhaps 20 years old. And, despite having flat screen TVs in all of the rooms, it is probably ready for a major renovation giving it a contemporary look—and a website giving it contemporary reservation capabilities.

But that’s no complaint about the hotel.  The staff was always ready to help, offered accurate tourist information, and always offered a friendly hello.  More importantly, they were one of the few staffs who remembered us from day to day.

Breakfast was included in our room fee, and the buffet was easily the most bountiful of all of the hotels we visited.  It was the only hotel with a large hot display—made-to-order omelettes, as well as an extensive selection of meats and salads, a wide array of fresh fruit, fresh squeezed orange juice, and tempting sweets (doughnuts, pastries, and pies).  The display even included crackers and cereal bars.  The selection of breads, however, seemed limited and getting coffee seemed to be an effort. (Most days, they served, but were not always around; but one day, it was self-serve.)

The location of the hotel was good: a 5 euro cab ride from the  train station and an easy walk to the Metro, the historic center of the city, and the architecturally eye-grabbing City of Arts and Science. Directly across the street from the hotel is an ancient river that has since run dry—and the city has turned into a lush park, whose orange trees were full of oranges when we visited.

Although the hotel offers Internet access, it’s not free nor cheap.  

But the huge bed, excellent views from the window, and kind hotel staff are included in the room rate.  All in all, a great hotel.
Next Post: Travel Pet Peeves.

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