‘Spring is sprung; the grass is ris…

I wonder where the birdies is? They say the birds are on the wing, but that is quite absurd. You only have to look to see the wings are on the bird.‘ Such a dumb ditty that was used by Mr Lawrence, who taught us French at school and which, regrettably, has stayed with me for longer than the conjugation he worked so hard to embed. Such is life; but it goes on and at this time of year teases us with an occasional warm and sunny day.  Never one to be patient, I’m off to find sunshine in the troubled Middle East and will be back in Dubai this week. Today oil prices have risen again, Libya is in turmoil and a note from friends in Bahrain this morning suggests that we are not hearing about all that’s going on out there. 2011 and we live in troubled times.

Forget four stars; this is what I think

When I travel and stay in rented accommodation, be it hotel, villa or something in between, I don’t like surprises. I’m not thinking here about the surprisingly wonderful view from the balcony or the surprisingly good deli that you find across the road. No, I mean the kind of surprise you get when you find the hot tub is constantly topped-up with chemicals as a measure against over-enthusiastic guests passing on STDs or the landlady discreetly breeds Great Danes and lets them wander the corridors at night. So, if one wants to avoid distractions like a peeling epidermis or being woken in the small hours by the sound of bestial footfalls and low snuffling at your bedroom door then it clearly pays to do a little work before you go. Times were when I’d just look up a hotel, check how many stars it was rated at and make a selection on the understanding that I would find, within reasonable limits, what I expected. And, perhaps more importantly, none of those little surprises. Things have changed somewhat with the advent of internet review sites as they allow you to get something of an insight into what it’s actually like to be a cherished guest at your chosen venue before you book.

We’ve had a lot of fun looking through online reviews but, whilst I’m not entirely convinced that they have a lot of credibility, they are always worth a glance even if only to see if your accommodation is what it says it is. The good news – if you don’t mind trawling through grammatical errors and rants about dust-bunnies – is that personal reviews are in the ascendancy and star ratings are being given the finger. It was reported last week that the government in UK is eschewing the traditional system of rating hotels as ‘five star’ or ‘three crowns’ in favour of more ‘realistic’ customer reviews. I believe that awarding stars because rooms have wi-fi or a shoe-cleaning service is a slightly less-than-honest justification for high room rates but whilst I haven’t decided which system will be more helpful customer reviews will definitely be more entertaining. For the most part, people tend to compliment following a special experience but when it comes to complaining disgruntled folk want to share even the slightest of gripes with the rest of the world.

I’m sceptical about good reviews and won’t be convinced that a large number aren’t planted; who, for example, photographs the hotel bathroom before commending the plumbing facilities and bed turning-down service? Complaints, however, are a lot more interesting to read, unquestionably heartfelt and usually truthful even if they are for the most part excruciatingly subjective. TripAdvisor has grudgingly acknowledged this and now displays a coverall get-out-of-jail statement below each review – ‘This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC’ – so that’s alright then.

At best the disparity between star ratings causes a disappointment; there is no European [or international, for that matter] standard in terms of quality, cost or facilities provided. It’s well known that many places pay to receive the endorsement of an official body and usually write their own testimonial, too. At worst complaints are often justifiable so when that manifests itself as a bad review the amusement in reading it is tinged with guilt. I’ve looked again through some reviews of a place we’d stayed in last year to see if the opinions offered by guests would have helped me decide to stay if I was a less-experienced traveller. There were, to say the least, contrasting opinions. The names have been omitted to protect the innocent and, er, I haven’t corrected any errors. What questions would I have asked and what did previous guests say?

Is it  a quiet place to stay?

‘…aircraft did appear overhead, but were not at all intrusive.’

‘Planes coming over was a thrill…’

‘…no noise except the gentle lapping of the waves…’

‘The planes were so low at times we really thought that they were going to hit the roof. You could even see how worn the aircraft tyres were.’

Hmmm. What are the rooms like?

‘Room was not clean. Droppings of previous visitor in toilet even though the toilet was sealed with a hygiene strip, with the text: This toilet was cleaned.’

‘…not only that, our bath plug was broken for our entire stay and despite asking twice…’

‘…spotlessly clean throughout. Our room was well furnished, towels were changed daily and bed linen every other day. Everything worked! Complimentary toiletries were of good quality…’

And was the service good?

‘…we had to wait and eventually to call ‘hello’ to get someone to come and check us in. The receptionist appeared grumpy…’

‘All the guests sat in the bar area complained about the service.’

‘…staff were charming and most helpful…’

‘…the cleaner had left our bedroom door open and had left the master key card in the card holder…’

But it’s a four-star hotel so it can’t be that bad, can it?

‘Our advise is however; “If you are a frequent traveller, don’t go there!!!” [It’s] a run down hotel that has seen its best days. Why this hotel is ranked at 4 stars is an absolute mistery.’

‘They are clearly understaffed at this hotel and should really consider the star rating.’

What about the food then?

‘Food in the restaurant was really tasteless en cold.’

‘The food is terrible and yes we read all the reviews and went with a positive attitude but its all slush and mush. The beer is weak and disgusting very watered-down like the vodka!’

No decent cuts of meat, just bits hanging off bones. Very cheap food. No variety, apart from the flies landing on the salads.’

‘Chips especially got cold quickly so found the best way was to put them in a soup bowl and give them 20 seconds in the microwave. Helped also to warm your plate.’

‘My Partner lived off hot dog and chips the whole week as that was the only hot food available…’

So do all the guests go out to eat?

‘I enjoyed the buffet breakfast provided – there was plenty to choose from – cooked, cereals, toasts, fruits etc…’

‘Also contrary to what other people have written in reviews we loved the food and I am a very fussy eater.  I was waking my poor hubby up every morning early to get down for breakfast as it was so good and for the first time in my life actually got really excited about the food.’

‘…we made lunch at breakfast, with ham and the baguette rolls available, and then took them up to our room with some pastries and put them in the wardrobe (not only to stop the maid seeing them, but to keep them cool and out of sunlight). Definately saved at least 10euros a day doing this.’

Was there entertainment in the evenings?

‘There is entertainment if you hear about it as it is not advertised its usually animal shows and karoke.’

‘There are very few TV channels in the room, and most of them are in German and French. So after your dinner there isn’t much to do except for learning languages.’

Were the facilities good?

‘The edges of the pool were covered in brown scum.’

‘…pool area was never cleaned in the whole two weeks we were there…’

‘…a lot of public parking places available in front of or close to the hotel, however not guarded…somebody has stolen the rear bumper (!) of our rental car during one night…’

So, is there value for money?

‘It certainly didn’t live up to the beautiful pictures you see on the web.’

‘…we had a fantastic holiday, and thought it was excellent value for money.

‘With 4* prices it was way below what we had hoped for.’

I might have been too selective in those parts of the reviews collected here but the point remains that contributions to review sites are subjective and it has to be accepted that contributors are moved to submit a review – whether it be to praise or condemn. This means you would need to trail through a reasonable number in order to form a balanced impression and, with luck, avoid surprises.

As for me, I found the place to be exactly as I expected; staff, service and facilities a Curate’s Egg and with plenty of room for improvement as far as the food was concerned. We selected it as an overnight stay so as to avoid a long drive in the dark and, on that basis, it provided reasonable value for money. But only just; the place was threadbare and one day was enough. If I had relied on its four-star rating alone I’d have been disappointed so the reviews tempered that.

So, on balance I guess internet reviews were more useful than a star rating in this instance and there was the added bonus that it was entertaining to read what previous guests thought about it. Some of the reviews were just a little too long and just a little too detailed than was necessary. I didn’t post a review, but if I did I would have quoted James Thurber, who said [of a play not a hotel although the sentiment remains valid] ‘It had only one fault. It was kind of lousy.’