Mild Rover: Go your own way

Curated tours, cruises, resorts and reviews

Travel guides – knowing where you’re going

I’ve never been much of a fan of travel guidebooks.  Back in the day, if you used the Lonely Planet as your guide to a city, you’d soon find yourself surrounded by clones of yourself or at least members of your itinerant tribe, all reading the same section of the local edition.

Tripadvisor was revolutionary when it first lobbed on our computers, then phones. It has so much more information. and is more up-to-date but is but deeply flawed, simply because of the sheer numbers of reviews by occasional travellers who don’t read websites like this one. 

Basically, you have to apply a “newbie” filter to remove the reviews that complain about things not being exactly what they had at home or in their favourite Holiday Inn. Look for reviews by people who’ve posted lots of comments elsewhere – at least you can get a feel for what they do and don’t like.

I don’t know how inexperienced travellers would have coped with my first hotel in Saigon where it took me two days to discover the reason the hot water never warmed up was because both sink taps were connected to the cold water pipe.

This was the same hotel where I met a Scots couple who asked me if my air con worked. It did.  They told me that theirs didn’t; it didn’t matter how much they turned it up, it just got hotter and hotter.

Not much call for air-con in Scotland, I guess. I explained that they were turning up the temperature, not the cooling power.  Sadly, they were checking out when I met them – they had loved Vietnam but they’d just spent a week in a sauna.

These days I go by personal recommendations first – that’s how I discovered the Citizen M chain where I have stayed many times in Glasgow plus once at Charles De Gaule airport in Paris.

Our writer Sue Williams has stayed in one in London too where they gave her a room with a view of the Tower, no less.

But personal recommendations can backfire.  I recommended the hotel in Hanoi featured on this website, mainly because of its location.  I didn’t know that when it rained, water poured from the balcony into the room.

I should have realised from the fact that my friends weren’t interested in the price that they would have been happier somewhere more expensive … and drier.

It’s hard to underestimate the power of the internet when it comes to travel advice.  We were in Cuba a few years ago and stayed in a casa particular in Cienfuegos which was a terrific little place.

Casa particulares are basically the local equivalent of Airbnb, or at least the original concept of staying in a room in someone’s house.  The host was falling over himself to get a good review.  His was the No2 Casa in Cuba and he wanted to be number one.

I said number two was pretty good but, prior to Tripadvisor, he had struggled for years due to not being listed in Lonely Planet.  The properties that were listed got all the traffic and the other operators had to feed off the crumbs.

Then along came Tripadvisor and turned the world on its head.  The favoured few had become complacent and couldn’t raise their game to compete.  Our amigo was now a prince among proprietors, but he wanted to be king.

This, of course, is exactly what Fidel warned about when he railed against the forces of capitalism.

When it comes to booking accommodation in places that I don’t know, I have a process that’s a little bit complicated and far from foolproof. First I check the booking apps like and Agoda to see what’s available in the area where I want to stay and is in my price range.

Then I look at Tripadviser for reviews, then go back and use that as a filter for the booking website.  I have rarely been let down but then I expect travel to come with challenges.

And while I try to avoid Airbnb for philosophical and political reasons, I realise that any apartment you book on or any other platform is likely to be on Airbnb too.  Increasingly, that includes hotels and motels.

A case in point was the terrific little two-bed apartment Kieran and I booked in Avignon as a base for our Northern Provence hike last year.  Once inside, we realised it was all set up for Airbnb.

As an aside, the description said the stairs were “a bit tricky”. Who knew that “tricky” was code for three flights of steep and narrow spiral stone steps designed to impede the passage of even moderately sized travel bags?

Then there was the Sunny Serviced Apartments in Saigon.  My spacious, clean and well-appointed room was non-smoking, which was great, but the one along the hall definitely wasn’t. 

Every day when the chain-smoking businessman who lived there permanently was out, the cleaners opened his door and windows (presumably so they could breathe), blowing all the stale smoke into my room.

Eventually they moved me to a room at the back with a fascinating view of the rear of a low-rise apartment block – no, really, it was quieter and less crazy than the street view.  In any case, what can you expect for $79 a night, two streets from the Opera House?

So I don’t trust review sites 100 per cent and I always have a final check before booking.  We didn’t when we travelled to a family event in Waihi Beach, New Zealand, and my  highly professional, award-winning travel-writer partner booked us into a grotty motel in Waihi, 15 minutes away by car.

She didn’t even have a chance to put a dent in a cushion before I’d located a very nice (and brand new) studio flat at the beach.

I should have known better. She’s a backpacker at heart.  The first hotel  where we stayed in Brisbane had pressed tin foil ashtrays (ashtrays!?!) screwed to the bedside tables.

The one she picked for us in Glasgow had a soft-drinks vending machine right outside the door.  Nothing lulls you to sleep quite like the steady hum of a refrigeration unit.  Nothing rouses you from you slumbers quite like the rumbles and clunks of cans of Irn Bru being dispensed.

Of course, they wouldn’t say that in the description of the hotel but you can bet your bottom dollar an angry American would have put in his or her ten cents worth in a one-star review.

Thank heavens for newbies with Tripadvisor accounts – they’re the canaries in the travel coalmine.

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