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Gambling on a cheap hotel

As an expat in Switzerland I have had the good fortune to be able to explore the surrounding countries with minimal effort and expense. Lacking the backpacker instinct to use hostels, and being too cheap to stay in decent places, I have made extensive use of that most unpredictable of establishments, the budget hotel.

These days most of us rely on the internet for finding hotels, optimistically disregarding the obvious perils. When I do a search I discard anywhere with three stars or more, which generally leaves me a handful of options. The location is critical. I narrow down the choice by ignoring hotels not within walking distance of the town centre. The streets around railway stations are often convenient but they tend to attract the more insalubrious type of institution. After that I hunt for clues in the text or elsewhere. A guide-book recommendation is a major plus but the best-known places often fill up well in advance. Website descriptions and photos may be of some use but at the lower end of the market finding a good value room is mainly a question of luck.

Among the five hotels on the list you can guarantee that one will be a haven for cockroaches and illicit activity of all kinds; another will be in the midst of an ambitious renovation programme and next door to the loudest nightclub in town. The challenge is to spot the odd one out: the respectable, family-run place with working showers, comfortable beds and passable breakfasts.

In my Euroland experience, €50 a night is about the minimum for a reliable room in a city centre hotel. Pay any less and you take a gamble. A two-star rating is encouraging but I have found the star system to be, er, shall we say “flexible” on occasion.

Until recently my worst hotel experience was in a nameless French town. It was very cheap, too cheap. I should have known better. The red neon sign outside was nature’s way of warning me off. Unfortunately it was too late at night to wander round town looking for an alternative. The receptionist was cheery enough, or at least so it seemed through the clouds of smoke. Obviously he didn’t have my reservation but it didn’t matter as I was the only one of the six billion people on earth foolish enough to be staying there that night. He showed me up the creaking wooden stairs. The room was a dingy, dirty and dilapidated disaster. A battered table was all that prevented a tottering wardrobe from crashing to the floor or, more likely, through to the floor below. The unwashed bed covers had apparently endured a twin attack from moths and cigarettes. It was with a heavy heart that I peered into the bathroom. Sure enough, the shower produced no more than a few drips of brown liquid. The toilet was repulsive. I contemplated spending the night in my car but finally plucked up the courage to stay. In the light of day (I scarcely dared use the electric light that night) I saw that nothing had been touched in the hotel for perhaps 30 years.

As I sat down for breakfast in the deserted dining room I contemplated my fate. Relieved that I would soon be on my way, and hungry ahead of a long journey, I was determined to eat whatever was put before me. The bread roll (estimated age 2 weeks) was probably the newest addition to the hotel. I chomped away manfully and managed several mouthfuls. I packed my bags, paid the pitiful sum and ran out of the place as fast as I could.

For some time I hoped and believed that this would remain my worst hotel experience, at least in the sheltered life that we lead in Europe. Recently, however, there was a challenger. Planning a short trip to Italy I did some extensive internet research (OK, 10 minutes, isn’t that what everyone does?) and settled on a hotel that hovered around the magic €50 threshold. Upon my arrival I was concerned to see the whole frontage covered in scaffolding. The pneumatic drills were so loud that I struggled to communicate with the receptionist. On the way to Number 23 I passed another room which had a huge hole in the wall where the window was being replaced. I was relieved to see that my room was structurally intact and fairly well appointed.

I slept well as the drilling stopped before nightfall. In the morning I looked forward to a hot shower. I ran the water in the bathroom but it was cold. With that familiar feeling of helplessness, I stood beside the shower letting the water run, more in hope than expectation. No luck. As I was waiting I heard a voice. It sounded as if the builders were starting up again now that it was 8 am. The voice was so loud that it could almost have been coming from my room. Once I had established that the water temperature was permanently fixed at 3 degrees I wrapped myself in a towel and peeked out of the door. A workman was sitting on a stepladder in my room painting the window.

He didn’t seem surprised to see me but then my open suitcase and wallet lying on the table had probably given him all the clues he needed. He greeted me in a friendly manner and indicated in sign language that he would only be another 10 minutes. There was a chill breeze blowing in through the open window. On balance I decided I was better to wait in the bathroom than to argue with him. 45 minutes and no hot water later he finally finished off and climbed back out of the window. By this time the room was freezing and there was a strong smell of paint. I got dressed and went downstairs for an inedible breakfast. Afterwards I tried to complain at reception that a painter had climbed through the window at 8am and occupied my room for an hour. Unfortunately the noise from the pneumatic drill made it difficult to converse and the receptionist proved conveniently hard of hearing.

With these experiences behind me, I appreciate it all the more when the gamble pays off. Each time I choose a hotel that turns out to be better than expected I convince myself that I have learned to interpret the little clues and that I will never make a bad mistake again. As a quick test, see if you can spot the catch in these two sample internet descriptions:

“Friendly hotel welcoming gests for 10 years. All rooms with en suite. 15 minutes from historic center. Euro 45.”

Yes, that’s right. It takes 15 minutes by helicopter, or perhaps in a limousine with a police escort. The occasional spelling mistake doesn’t put me off. I regard it as a badge of authenticity.

“In the heart of the city, hotel X is perfect for turists seeking rooms with character at affordable price. Rooms from 40 Euro.”

Alarm bells should be ringing. “Character” is what hotels develop after 20 years of neglect. It’s also a word beloved of estate agents, which is warning enough in itself. I would also check the location in this case. “Heart of the city” could turn out to mean “notorious red light district”.

It was on the basis of such flimsy evidence that I chose a place to stay in Sydney. Judging from the brief blurb, it was some kind of student residence, which sounded ideal as I was looking for self-catering accommodation. After one desultory exchange of e-mails I agreed to pay in advance by money transfer, which was a fearful gamble.

Some days later I emerged from the airport in Sydney after the interminable journey. As I got into a taxi I reflected that I had no real proof that the place I had booked even existed. I could easily arrive at the alleged location and find a hole in the ground or a private house. I was therefore relieved when we arrived at the given address and I saw an austere but plausible student accommodation block. Jet-lagged and bleary-eyed, I was delighted to be greeted at the entrance, although I did register that the warden seemed a little surprised to see me. I was shown to a basic but perfectly adequate room.

Early the next morning, still in another time zone, I walked along the corridor to the communal bathroom. An invigorating shower helped to wake me up. I emerged from the cubicle wrapped in my towel and was surprised to see a row of female students in dressing gowns cleaning their teeth. One of them let out a small shriek and I bolted for the door. I scampered back to my room as quickly as I could. In my half-asleep state I had wandered into the women’s bathroom. Mortified, I imagined being kicked out onto the street, homeless in Sydney. Once properly dressed I had a quick look for the men’s bathroom. It must have been hidden away and I couldn’t find it.

I went downstairs for breakfast. There were about a dozen young women in the kitchen area. They all looked round as I entered, although none said anything. I poured myself a bowl of cereal and sat in the lounge to eat. I noticed a row of bibles on a bookshelf. I could hear a couple of the girls sniggering in the kitchen. Finally I twigged. From the other side of the world I had unwittingly booked myself into a student hostel for Christian young ladies.

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