Category Archives: Travel

The Package Trip – Day 1

Today I went on holiday. I’m there right now. In a hotel. Somewhere else in Europe. They speak Spanish (and are also fluent in English).
I’m typing on an iPhone into the WordPress app, ready to take advantage of international data roaming. 2010, it is.

This is only the second time in my life I’ve ever been on a package holiday. The first was a Club 18-30 holiday that a friend won in a competition (which he didn’t remember entering because he was drunk at the time), and invited me along.
It was almost exactly like you imagine. Chavs, and a knackered old coach from the airport, which must have done a complete lap of every other hotel in Corfu, before finally arriving at ours. Then the early start next morning (after very little sleep) to try and get you drunk on Ouzo, and to sell you excursions.
I upset one rep on the first day by telling her I couldn’t afford all the events she was flogging, and that I could get drunk without her help. We bought three in the end because my friend fancied her. Two were a complete waste of money.

Then we upset most of the other Club 18-30 holidaymakers before lunch, by going to the bar and, while they took a Budweiser and sat down, me and my friend ordered a tea and a coffee.
The bartender seemed excited at the prospect of doing something other than opening another bottle, and proclaimed that he was about to make a really good cappuccino. The bartender really went out of his way.
He took ages.
I don’t know if you’ve ever held up a queue of chavs desperate to get drunk, while ordering a cappuccino and tea, but it’s an uncomfortable feeling.
We bought a kettle from a nearby supermarket and made our own from that point on.

Anyway, let’s see if this holiday is going better than that one, shall we?

Nice things:
– Taxi to airport was early, driver not too chatty (it was really early – far too early for talking).
Last package trip: long drive to London. This holiday wins.

– Thomson staff are very professional and helpful, when there was a problem (see below).
Last package holiday: our main hotel rep (not the one I upset) was arrested, then deported, a couple of months after my trip, for fellating a man on a public, family beach, during a drinking game.

– Off the plane, pretty quick onto a (nice, air conditioned) coach, and away. At our hotel in under 30mins.
Last package trip: ages in a bus that looked like it hadn’t been serviced since before I was born.

– Other people staying at our hotel are quite nice/friendly. Chatted briefly to several, and they’re nice. They are somewhat older than us, though. At a guess, I’d say the average age is about 55. Maybe slightly higher.
Last package trip: they were 90% complete idiots (if not higher).

Bad things:
– Showing on the screens during our flight was Glee, followed by a James May documentary about space travel. Glee is irritating as hell.
I like James May, but a documentary looking at the history of flight inevitably includes a “things don’t always go right” section, that reminds you that when flight goes wrong, it REALLY goes wrong.
I was a bit nervous as I haven’t been on a plane in such a long time.
Last package holiday: flight showed several episodes of My Family. I think that’s a draw.

– We’d paid for breakfast, my girlfriend had specified vegetarian, but they didn’t have her down as such. Hence she got a meat-included one, and enjoyed a nice bread roll, orange juice and cup of tea.

– Sadly, I actually got the breakfast I ordered. It’s been so long since I’ve been on a plane, I’d forgotten how horrible airline food is.
They just over overcomplicate it.
When it’s 7:45am and I’ve been up since 4, after about 2 hours sleep, what I want is maybe a chocolate croissant and cup of tea.
So given that everyone else was in a similar situation, and the limited cooking facilities they must have to heat food, why do they aim so insanely high?
They attempted tomatoes, omelette, sausage, and bacon-potato rostis.
I know that, because it was stamped on the outside of the foil packet it came in.
I managed about half the sausage. Tried the rest but it was all pretty grim.
I also enjoyed a bread roll, some orange juice and cup of tea.
And considering the time I spent at the airport, I could have eaten actual food there.
Last package holiday flight food: just as grim. Must remember to refuse flight meals on next trip.

– Everything seems quite expensive.
There are vending machines here selling 500ml of water for €2.
The exchange rate at the moment makes that nearly £2. For a 500ml bottle of water?
To put that in perspective, a UK motorway services charge about £1.30 for that.
Standard bar of chocolate is about €1.50.
I saw an English version of today’s Daily Mail earlier for €2. That’s at least €2 too much.
Last package trip: water was, if anything, cheaper than UK supermarkets. However, Corfu’s tap water is definitely undrinkable, and there are street fountains here now. I guess if everyone in the country uses something, it gets cheaper.

Anyway I should get to sleep. It’s been a very long day, and there’s a meeting tomorrow morning to sell us excursions…

The Wonders of Technology

Sometimes it looks good. Sometimes it sounds good.
Other times it looks gimmicky and unnecessary, but you want it anyway.
Technology is a help to those that understand it, and a hinderance to those who don’t.
So here’s some real-world examples of where I’ve found it very helpful recently.


LateRooms.com recently enabled me to book a double hotel room, at a hotel in Shropshire, which had a gym, sauna, and swimming pool, all for the princely sum of £39 for the night.
It included breakfast too, but not dinner.

Having got to the hotel, I spent a period flailing my arms around in water and not drowning, while my girlfriend swam up and down with considerable ease. Eventually we both got a bit hungry.
Where shall we eat?
At home I could look online, but I’m here now, in a hotel, with no laptop.
How to find a local restaurant in an area I’ve never visited before?

Bring on Vouchercloud.
Using the handy location search, it’s a free app that could pinpoint my position using the GPS in my iPhone, and got me a discount on local eatery Frankie and Benny’s. I’ve never eaten there before, and I’d never even heard of it, but I now know it to be a nationwide chain.
The food was alright (I would have said “good”, but the sweetcorn was soggy), although the restaurant a bit quirky, in that it plays loud old music, and every 15-20mins, the song skips to Cliff Richard’s “Congratulations”, they bring out a cake and sing Happy Birthday to someone.
Side note: I’ve seen the cake thing in TGI Fridays before, on a work colleague’s leaving do, when someone told them it was his birthday (it wasn’t).

The next morning, after enjoying our inclusive-breakfast, we leave the hotel.
The plan was to spend the day looking at a few museums, then travel back home.
However, we spent a long time out, ended up quite tired, and neither of us fancied driving home.
We hadn’t had the foresight to book a second night at the original hotel, so I pulled out my iPhone and went to Laterooms’ website.

Sadly, O2’s signal at Ironbridge is practically non-existent.
We drove for a bit until I had a signal, then attempted to use Laterooms’ website.
It just doesn’t really work on the iPhone.
Not because of the iPhone’s lack of Flash support either. The website is just too big, and too awkward to navigate.
I managed to get it almost as far as booking, and then it wouldn’t let me enter my billing address for some reason, so wouldn’t complete the transaction.

I went to the App Store to see if Laterooms had an app. They don’t 🙁
However, I found a free app called iRooms, that works pretty much the same way.
Through this, I found a hotel near the first one. In fact it was right across the street.
We were on the 5th floor, and the lift was broken, but never mind.
It was £6 more at £45 for the night, and didn’t include breakfast or dinner.
It did have a pool, but the novelty had worn off a bit, and we were both quite tired.

Never mind breakfast though – where are we going to eat tonight?
There wasn’t much else locally that we fancied on Vouchercloud. I tried looking at Google Maps, but some of the restaurants sounded terrible, and others that sounded nice seemed to have closed down when we attempted to find reviews.
Back to the App store to look for some form of location-based nearby-restaurant search.
I found the free AroundMe app.
It’s essentially just the “points of interest” section that you would find on a sat nav, but it uses Google Maps to find places and direct you there.
And thus a nearby Indian restaurant was found.

The food was great. The service mixed, and one member of staff insanely rude.
I asked for pineapple juice and was told that young trendy people don’t drink pineapple juice, and thus they don’t sell it.
Any excuse.
Just Coke or orange juice again then is it?
The typical restaurant with the usual shit-poor selection of soft drinks, then.
And considering it was a Saturday night, I can only assume the young trendy people were all eating elsewhere, as there was only 6 of us in the entire restaurant.

Afterwards, we went back to the hotel room, and put the TV on.
I was surprised to find it wasn’t a digital TV, nor did it have Freeview. How do I know what’s on later?
The free iPhone app for the http://www.tvguide.co.uk/ website solved that problem for me.
It couldn’t however, help with the fact that it being a Saturday, there was nothing on.
Never mind eh?

We checked out of the hotel the next morning.
My girlfriend hates to leave anywhere without having breakfast. We’d exhausted the tea/coffee making facilities by this point as well.
As our hotel price didn’t include it, and breakfast was an additional £16 for the two of us (on a £45 room, seems a bit expensive, surely?), AroundMe found us a nearby Sainsbury’s with a cafe, where we had cereal, tea, and pastries for less than half that.
I even got the chance to read (and mock) the Sunday tabloids. Footballers sleeping with prostitutes, eh? What’s on page2 – bears shitting in woods?

And thus concludes a weekend of useful technology, blended in nicely with some historic museums.
I interspersed my sightseeing with Twitter updates, and photos on my iPhone. In fact, I’m moderately embarrassed to say I only got my proper camera out once, I think.
Is convergence of technology finally here?

Yorkshire – credit where due

I’ve just got back from a weekend away. It was a chance to stop worrying about my current financial problems and lack of decent employment, for a brief period (although ironically, by spending money).
There were some mistakes along the way. I took my old Nokia 6600 with bluetooth GPS receiver (and an ancient version of TomTom mobile on the phone). Together they make up a usable sat-nav (with very out-of-date maps).
Sadly, I forgot the old pay-as-you-go Vodafone sim card I need to make the thing work. The phone won’t let you do anything without a Vodafone sim card in it, and both me and my girlfriend are on o2.
Luckily my girlfriend can read a map pretty well (because I’m rubbish at it).

Also, we were going to be travelling for 5 hours each way.
On the day we left, I spent most of the morning picking music for my iPhone (my collection has now got too big to just synchronise it all).
A couple of hours into the journey, when the DAB reception was falling apart (see below), I reached for the iPhone, then realised I’d left the cable that connects it to the radio, at home. Balls. Oh well – maybe we can pick one up somewhere on the way?

Before leaving, we went looking for cheap hotels. There was a good guide to getting cheap hotel rooms on MoneySavingExpert, but the best hotel deal was regarding Travelodge’s £19-per-night offer. Sadly, the deal involved booking your room at least 21 days in advance, and we were booking about 5 days before we left.

We looked around a lot online, and got more and more frustrated. Not just at the lack of availability so close to Easter (we had after all, left it quite late), but also at the fact that some hotels increase their prices during the Easter period. Why? Because they can.
I can certainly see the sense in this from a business perspective, but it did put a lot of them out of our price range.

Price comparison sites were fairly rubbish as well, due to them all listing hotels “FROM per night”.
While this is great in November, when you enter the dates during the Easter holiday, you find that they’ve added another 50% to that price.
There was a lot of “the f**kin robbing b****rds!” coming from the living room that week.

We did find an amazing-sounding hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by Buddhists.
While I was initially concerned about staying in a hotel run by a religious group (of any denomination), there didn’t seem to be anything too bad about the place.
It offers only vegetarian-friendly breakfasts (which both suited my girlfriend and didn’t bother me, as I don’t have a cooked breakfast very often).
Also, smoking/alcohol is banned from all rooms, which I assume would sound off-putting to undesirables.
I instantly assumed that a Buddhist retreat would be quite simplistic and cut-off, but all rooms come with free wifi.
It wasn’t expensive either.
Sadly, this was fully booked.

With time running out, I remembered that LateRooms.com had got us out of a hole on a previous occasion.
Then, we had actually driven all the way to the South coast (of England), without much planning at all, and were struggling to find anywhere to stay. We asked in several B&Bs, but the people of Torquay mostly told us they didn’t rent rooms “just for one night”. If I’m honest, I can’t imagine staying a whole week in Torquay.
I think I’d just got my iPhone at the time, so with the help of Google, and Laterooms (who need an iPhone app if they don’t have one already!), we finally managed to find somewhere to stay.
LateRooms helped us again this time, and we had found our rooms within the hour.

Customer experiences

While I was away, I experienced varying customer service from loads of different places, so thought I’d tell you all about those that performed well (and those who didn’t).

Welcome Break – stopped at Hopwood Services for a cup of tea.
It has a large pond (or a small lake) with tables overlooking it, but unfortunately it was raining, so we sat inside.
It is quite a large services, with a mobile phone shop inside. I asked at the shop regarding a connection cable, but the only one they had was £12.99. From the look on my face, the person in charge replied “I know that’s expensive – so I could maybe go down to £10”. I declined his offer.
I’d swear I bought my current one for about £3. I agreed I’d go up to maybe £5 given the circumstances, if I happened to spot one somewhere else.

Currys Digital – During the weekend, we happened to wander past a Currys Digital in the street.
I asked regarding my mp3 player connection cable (which lets be honest here – is a 1-2m (tops) cable with one jack plug on either end. It costs pence to produce), and they told me they had just the thing, and would need to nip out back and find them.
The assistant returned with a 1.8m Belkin-branded lead. How much? “£12.99
Completely mad.

I looked in WHSmiths (who had every cable but that one), and Wilkinsons, then stopped looking. I managed the rest of the weekend without the cable. Power to the..err..poor.

Marks and Spencer – We had an interesting lunch at Marks and Spencer’s cafe in York.
On entry, my girlfriend notes a sign that says that one of their ovens is broken, and so food may take longer than usual.
We ordered our hot food and sat down.
You get your drinks at the till, so we had something to drink.

We then waited a long time.
How long do you wait, before wondering if they have somehow lost your order?
There was a few “maybe just another couple of minutes”, before my girlfriend went back up to ask how much longer our food might be.
Turns out they had lost our order, somewhere between the till and the kitchen.
They apologised, and we were given free additional tea/coffee.

When they turned up with our hot food, we were given a full refund of said food.
That’s right – we essentially paid for “tea for two”, and got tea, plus a free refill, plus our hot food. Lunch in total cost us about £1.50.
Hats off to Marks and Spencers for going above and beyond. They realised their mistake, and not only apologised, but also gave us our money back.
Instead of recounting how long we were waiting, or how they lost our order, we can now tell people about how we got a jacket potato and soup for free.

O2 – 3g/Edge is pretty poor up north.
I spent the weekend in various parts of Yorkshire.

The following photo taken from o2’s own coverage checker.

The blue circular-ish bit in the centre is York. They have 3g coverage. The rest of it? Err..no.

York – parking is very expensive.

£1.70 for 1 hour, or £3.40 for 2 hours. Nice zero-discount there for buying additional time. (It does start to get (slightly) cheaper over 2 hours)

Most of York’s main car parks are pay-and-display.
I hate pay and display car parks, especially when sightseeing, as it seems like you’re always clock-watching, and in a rush to make sure some arsehole isn’t about to clamp/tow you.
If you get a bit lost and take a bit longer to get back to your car, who needs the extra stress of wondering if they’ve got a £70 release fine waiting for them?

>So a tip for anyone visiting York – the visitors map given away by the tourist information office has loads of car parks listed. They’re marked “A”, “B”, “C” etc. There are also car parks on there listed as just “other”.
Go to the “other” car parks!
All the ones we tried had barriers, pay-on-exit type, plus were staffed and had opportunities to pay by credit/debit card.

There is a park and ride system in place, but it’s £2.30 for a day return, each.
The first visit to York, we were only there 2-3 hours, which costs £5.10.
Given the choice between paying £4.60 to park miles away and bus in, or paying 50p more for the time we were there and being able to park right in the centre, I know which one I would (and we did) choose.

If there were 4 of you (a family, for example), the park and ride option would be £9.20, yet you can park all day in central York for £10 with the convenience of having all your stuff with you. Park and ride system = FAIL!

Jorvik Viking Centre – York

Incredibly knowledgable staff ready to answer any question.
Very cool/modern videos and models about how/where they found the artifacts.
If you like the little car at Cadbury World, you’ll enjoy the ride at Jorvik Viking Centre, through an odd little village.
The only thing that was disappointing was that some of the exhibits use touchscreens, which I just couldn’t get to work. Either it misinterpreted my keypresses, or just didn’t recognise that I’d touched the screen at all.
Check out Bob the skeleton. He’s definitely had his teeth whitened.

York Castle Museum – York (obviously)
Maybe split it into two trips if you can.
It really is absolutely massive, and we were pretty tired by the end of it.
There’s a very cool Victorian street (I quite like that sort of thing for some reason) with all sorts of shops.

At various times, it gets dark and the streetlights come on.
There’s some nice attention to detail, such as the fact that there was nobody in the bank, as it was a bank holiday.
I was given a free copy of the “Kirkgate Examiner” – a mock victorian newspaper. I believe it’s recently started suffering, as everyone is reading it online.

I was convinced that this was something Banksy had snuck in.

glasssmoother

Mangling board and…”glass smoother”? Uh huh. Of course.

York has some actual old-fashioned streets though.

DAB – Whoever is currently in charge of DAB radio, hasn’t a hope in hell of turning off the FM transmitters anytime soon.
DAB has different multiplexes – if you can pick up say Digital One, then you can listen to Absolute Radio, TalkSport, Amazing Radio (and various others), as they are all on the same multiplex.
There’s also a BBC National one, containing Radio1, 2, 3, 4, 5live, 6music and all the other BBC National stations.
BBC National and Digital One should both be available nationwide.

Well I can tell you that there were quite prolonged periods of quiet time en-route to the North East of England and back, where I failed to find anything on DAB. Granted I was driving, but if DAB is to succeed, it isn’t any good for it to be only usable in one point of a bedroom at home.

Hotels – pretty average.
It’s possibly unfair to complain about the decor of our hotels, as they were the cheapest available. Neither had more than 3 stars, and were chosen by their availability and price.

The first night was spent in a hotel in the middle of nowhere called the Burn Hall.
It doubles as a conference centre for training courses, etc.

I felt a bit uncomfortable staying in a room on the ground floor. I’m not sure why.
We had freeview, but the TV was the most complicated I have ever used.
It defaults to analog, you push for digital. The TV guide didn’t seem capable of letting you scroll channels and go to that channel – scrolling to an interesting sounding show, then hitting like “select” or “go” or whatever, just gave you further information about it. Whoever designed that TV can’t have ever used it.
Nonetheless, the function was there.
The radio (built into the TV, and accessible by pressing one of the teletext buttons…of course!) was a nice addition.

The website lists that each bedroom includes “dial up internet connection (with network cable)”. I’ve no idea what that is. There was a network-lan-cable type jack in the room.
I’d swear that while booking, “free wifi in reception” was mentioned (though I can’t find it now). I managed to just about get a good enough mobile phone signal to (very painfully slowly) access Twitter, on occasion, from one spot in the hotel room.

The food was more of an issue.
As the hotel was in the middle of nowhere, and we didn’t really know the area, coupled with the lack of 3g reception, meant we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant.
There were two food places – a dedicated restaurant, or a kind-of bar which also did food.
The bar had less choice, but both had very complicated menus, with very fancy-sounding food.

As my girlfriend is a vegetarian and I’m a fussy eater, we struggled a bit to find anything that either of us wanted on the bar menu, so “Richardson’s Restaurant” it was.
There were two tables left when we got there. One was in the centre of the room , and one was right by the door to the bar. My girlfriend didn’t like the idea of everyone watching us eat, so we took the one by the bar door.
Draughty, it was.

We both felt very much out of place. Neither of us eats in places that posh normally.
We decided to skip the starter, as there wasn’t really anything either of us wanted on there.
I asked what the “potanesque sauce” (See “Yorkshire Chicken Supreme”) contained, and was told “tomato”. Before I could say “that sounds nice”, the waiter continued with “..garlic, anchovies…” at which point I asked for it sauceless.
What the hell is “fondant potato”? Nothing like a Fondant Fancy, presumably. I decided it was probably just a potato in a funny shape.

When the food arrived, I wasn’t offered ketchup or salt/pepper. I didn’t ask, as it somehow felt awkward to do so.
It turns out that a fondant potato is a roast potato. And yes – in a singular! My dinner was ONE piece of chicken, with ONE roast potato. To make it even more bizarre, it was delivered to me on the biggest plate I’ve had in front of me since I last visited a Hungry Horse.
My girlfriend’s dinner (the Spinach Italian Potato Dumplings) was delivered with a separate bowl of mixed vegetables (because putting some vegetables on the enormous empty plates wasn’t the done thing), so I had some of those.
We did get a second biscuit with our crème brûlée (think it was only meant to come with one) for free, though.
At the included-in-room-price breakfast the following morning, there were sauces in plentiful supply, so clearly posh people still like ketchup.
We made the most of
it, having a cooked breakfast, cereals, toast, AND croissants.

The second night was in a hotel in Malton called The Talbot.
The hotel room was basic. It could have done with a bit of redecoration, and the carpet was a bit dirty in places.
The remote was missing from the TV, which only had the 5 analog channels anyway.

For whatever reason, I had assumed that Malton was a reasonably small, quiet place.
A little town in the countryside with not much going on, thought I.
We lucked out really. On venturing into the town in the evening, we found several bars with loud music and even-louder lairy women out drinking heavily.
One of the louder bars had a sign on the front which said “room vacancies”. I had actually very nearly booked our room there! Online, it sounded like a nice country pub. Ironically, it was out of my price range, thank goodness.
We found an Indian restaurant called Malton Spice, which served enormous curries. Neither me, nor my girlfriend could finish either of ours.

The location of the hotel is really very good. It’s right on the main road on the way in (or out), 2 minutes walk from the centre (with its own car park), but far enough away that you don’t get drunken people wandering past the front shouting.
Sadly, the drunken people were shouting so loudly from the high street they could still be heard from our room. They did eventually shut up, and we got some sleep.
The staff at our hotel were very nice, even letting us remain parked in their car park after check out, for us to have a look around the town, and get some snacks.

Malton has some lovely streets, but is also home to the most hideous window display I’ve seen in a long time. Admittedly this was in a butchers, but pretty hideous nonetheless:

Surely the stuff of taxidermist dreams.
You can’t see the (hopefully not real) fluffy chicks nearby.

Malton as a town seemed to be thriving. In fact, most places seem to be.
There was a slightly odd shopping arcade in Beverley, which had one shop at the front and one at the back, and all empty shops in between. Aside from that, everywhere seemed pretty well.
If I take one thing back from the North-East, it’s that they don’t appear to be doing too badly.
We went to several high streets in a few different towns while travelling, and none were half-filled with empty shops, like some streets in Bristol.

The last day was spent in Goathland (apparently where they shot Heartbeat, but I don’t watch it (if it’s still running) so didn’t know who any of the local celebrity postcards were of). It was perfectly nice, although without any signal on my mobile at all for the entire time I was there.
Incredibly, it might not have mobile or DAB signal, but it IS on Google Streetview!

View Larger Map

Oh and there were very helpful friendly staff at the train station ticket office. We caught an old fashioned steam train to Whitby and back (no time spent in Whitby due to bad planning on our part combined with irregular train timetable), before driving all the way back to Bristol.

Oh and after I put away my Thermos flask and took off my cagoule, I took this photo.
A trainspotter wouldn’t take photos like this:

which made me laugh for some reason.

En-route, we stopped for fuel at a petrol station where I was served by an incredibly bored-looking young man, wondering where his life had all gone so wrong. There’s the back-to-reality reminder that I need to get back to job searching. That’ll be me, this coming weekend.