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The art of booking a holiday

Your big vacation should be the highlight of the year. Here's how to do it right...

The art of booking a holiday
18 January 2017

David Whitehouse on everything a good holiday should entail

Where you go on holiday says a lot about you. Whitby – coddled by grandparents. San Sebastian – hated by neighbours. Majorca – impressed by any fish dish. I could go on. Holidays are, of course, the only good thing to happen to anyone in a given year. Done right, they represent literal and figurative escape from the mundanity, banality and crass generalisations of our everyday lives. Just thought of another one: Peru – feckless drug mule.

But a decent holiday isn’t an easy thing to pull off, which is why, in the decades preceding this one when people were thicker, travel agents were a thing. You couldn’t trust your average Mike and Susan to independently book a ferry and a hotel without them accidentally buying shares in British Steel, or going into labour. Now, because of the internet, we can all book our own holidays as easily as it’s possible to lie about owning a TV licence on BBC iPlayer.

But still, we must get them right, otherwise our slice of the happiness pie goes cold on the windowsill for another 12 months, and we’ve only ourselves to blame. So take this advice, as though my own aspirations are somehow superior to your own.

Never leave for a holiday while it’s still dark – 3am, say. It’s a trap, not a video-game cheat that gives you an extra day on holiday. You’ll know tiredness akin to radiation sickness that’ll take three days to best, and whether you’re perusing an archaeological dig at The Acropolis, or in Faliraki attempting to maintain an erection for someone you think is called either Wendy or Peter, tiredness eats holidays. Day one is for travel. Accept that and ascend to the travelling man’s higher plane (Giraffe café, Heathrow Terminal Five).

Credit: iStock

Don’t make plans. Think back to a time you’ve been annoyed on holiday. It’s always because someone has made a plan. Mum, thinking the pencil museum would be interesting, say, or Dad, in an Italian hospital, explaining to a disinterested surgeon how long he’d dreamt of shucking oysters on a Caprian beach, only to get there and find he only had a cordless power drill. Planning is slow, arranged death.

Eat everything. Forget about your tastes, fads or unfounded concerns about food poisoning. This is a holiday for the senses, too, and your familiarity with the pedestrian British diet makes literally every other cuisine far more interesting than our own. In Japan, handed something that looks like a bat on a stick? Eat it. Norway, fluorescent sausage, smells like guts? Eat it. Guatemala, it’s moving, has arms and maybe even a penis? Eat it. This is living and will never be regretted. (Note: doesn’t apply to fatal nut allergies.)

Swim. Every opportunity you get, be in water. Don’t pretend you can swim at home, because you won’t. If Andy Murray winning Wimbledon didn’t make you use that expensive tennis racquet you bought immediately afterwards, looking at a pool in a French villa because you can’t be bothered to change into your trunks isn’t going to turn you into Michael Phelps the minute you get off the plane.

Remember, being on holiday is what life was like before we invented social constructs like work and worry and small talk. It’s the natural order of things. The way
we should be. Doing nothing, somewhere nice. Ask yourself what you’d do if absolutely nothing mattered, and that’s what a holiday should be, because, on holiday, absolutely nothing does, your bosses email headed ‘sorry to bother you while you’re away’, included. “F*ck you,” you email back because you read this article. And lose your job. Congratulations, you’re now on holiday forever.

Travel documentarian and renowned nice guy Simon Reeve on chatting to people

Simon Reeve

Talking to people is a fundamental part of having a holiday that lingers in the memory longer than a sun tan. Not for virtuous reasons, but just because it’s fun. The travel industry often sells us experiences that are just sitting by a swimming pool topping up a tan, but you will have a more memorable experience
if you go for a drink in a local bar, meet people, chat with them, hear their stories, understand their lives and learn a bit about their culture.

Chatting to people has given me experiences I could never have imagined. When you meet people and have a little human moment together, doors start to open.

It’s the same whether you’re trying to chat somebody up in a nightclub or get into a monastery. We pitched up once at a Greek Orthodox monastery on the West Bank. The monks were reluctant to let us through the door. But just chatting, showing an interest – almost like this process of flirtation and seduction – they eventually let us into their holy of holies, where the bones of their venerated brothers were buried.

I’ve never managed to learn another language. I have tried, but I’m rubbish at it. I’d tried learning French at school and I was crap at that, then I tried learning Arabic and I was hopeless at that, then I tried learning Russian – completely useless. The huge number of people on this planet who speak our language is a joy.

I’ve had a few serious misunderstandings, and a few amusing ones. A few years back, I was in a market on the Georgian-Russian border. I wanted to get some fruit for the team, so using a bit of Russian that I’d learned I went to ask a trader how much her oranges were. Her face changed from friendly matron
to dragon she-devil in less than a second, and she started chucking oranges at me and shouting. It transpired I’d asked for the price of her c*ck.

I primarily rely on body language. Generally you can read what people are saying from their behaviour. You can sense whether they are warm towards you or bear you ill. Though there have been times where I’ve been watching somebody and thinking they’ve been saying something jolly, and I’m smiling away back at them, and then I get a translation from a colleague that they’re telling me about how their village was burned to the ground by raiders.

The world is a welcoming place. I grew up in Acton in west London. I’m not from a wealthy, travelly family – I didn’t get on a plane until I started working. The greatest surprise for me since I started travelling is how safe planet Earth is. Yes there are dangerous and dodgy bits, but I don’t think anybody should be put off experiencing it by horror stories. Get off your arse, get out there and rack up experiences that will last forever.

Feel business class even if you can only afford economy

1. Socks that feel like you’re getting a massage from an angel who’s taken a BTEC in chiropody. Cashmere socks in charcoal grey £33 by BLACK,

2. On this plane it’s Thursday and you’re crammed next to an old guy from Bristol, but in this it’s Saturday, and you’re asleep on the sofa in front of Football Focus. Loopback cotton hoody £145 and track pants £95 by SUNSPEL,

3. Everyone will think you’re a smart boy reading a smart book when really you’re thumbing a trashy detective novel. How The Dead Live by Derek Raymond £8.52,

4. ‘Bang & Olufsen’ is a fun brand name to say so you can brag about your noise-cancelling, wireless cans and nobody will mind. Beoplay H9 headphones £449 by BANG & OLUFSEN,

5. Salvage plane food with a squirt of lurid red eastern Thai hot sauce. Pocket-Sriracha 1.7oz keychain £5.69,

6. Pressurised cabin air plays silly bollocks with your skin. This light moisturiser will help. Facial Fuel £21 by KIEHL’S,

7. It weighs itself and gives traffic updates: of all the things you’ll need in 2017 (a gas mask, a Russian phrasebook), you can add a suitcase smarter than you to the list. The A22 Carry £250 – £290 by RADEN,

8. Anna Walker London makes bags perfect to fill with Wine Gums, assorted notebooks and spare socks. Canvas Faraday Tote £220 by ANNA WALKER LONDON,

Holiday hacks from behind the curtain

Credit: iStock
The hotel receptionist
Stick it on the bill “Always put things on your room’s tab when it’s an option, especially for things like excursions. If you pay upfront, whoever’s in charge will have to get back-office approval for a refund – but if you’ve put it on theroom, the sale hasn’t technically happened, so there’s nothing to reverse. Useful if your day-trip turns into a disaster.”
Complain smart “Whatever the problem with your room is, the front desk probably haven’t caused it. Explain what’s wrong, offer a solution you’d be happy with, then ask, ‘Should I speak to a manager about this?’ It‘s more likely to get results than screaming, and it’s classier.”
The airport check-in agent
Don’t take the first offer “If we overbook and need to offer people money to take later flights, we’ll sometimes need to up the offer until we have enough space for everyone. If you’re involuntarily bumped on a long-haul flight, you’re entitled to at least €300. You can also choose legally between getting a flight at a later date or a refund.”
Use the lounge ”If you’re going to have a couple of liveners and a snack before the flight, it might well be cheaper to pay the lounge fee and hit the complimentary buffet. Plus, you’re less likely to have to fight for a plug socket. Use to check for cheap deals the day before you fly.”
Double up on problem-solving

The hotel manager

You can negotiate  “No website is cheaper than any other – they all have contracts stating that you won’t undercut them on another site. So search online then call the place direct and haggle. The minimum commission any online booking agent charges is 15 per cent, so go direct, ask for 10 per cent off and they’ll still be making more money than if you booked through a website.”

Ignore the mini bar  “They’re  often incredibly overpriced. If you must drink in your room, chat to the bell boy. For a tip they’ll usually be more than happy to buy you booze from a local shop where prices will be much cheaper.”

Use a travel agent… sometimes  “Yes, it can still be worth using a travel agent occasionally. They often work with hotels, and can get you upgrades, vouchers or at least a complimentary breakfast. The best way is to be upfront about your budget and let them know what you’re looking for.”


Five ways to appear well-travelled

Credit: iStock

Joe Madden’s tips for passing yourself off as a sage, urbane-jet setter without ever leaving the country.

1. Part-memorise the Wikipedia entries for all 195 countries, and some bawdy lines from biographies of Keith Moon or Oliver Reed. Whenever you hear a country being referred to, interject with, “Ahh, sweet [country’s capital city]! With its famed [landmark]. I once [salacious behaviour by Moon or Reed] there... Do forgive the indiscretion of a wanderlust-giddy youth!”

2. One in five of your tweets and/or Facebook posts should be impressively jaded complaints directed at airlines: “@Qantas How many times can one airline misplace a Prada ski bag?” “@British_Airways Veal moussaka over-seasoned AGAIN – a shameful stain on your #BusinessClass experience.” Et cetera.

Credit: iStock

4. Be constantly setting the web browser on your work computer to different languages – Burmese, Marathi, Serbian, Afrikaans… When a colleague borrows it, they’ll be taken aback: “Err, did you know that your Chrome is in Norwegian?” To which you shrug: “Yes, I suppose it is.
I hadn’t noticed.”

5. Mid-conversation, suddenly pretend to panic and frantically pat your pockets. Then breathe a sigh of relief as you pull out your passport, acting embarrassed at its tatteredness. “Really must get a new one, but who has time with all the endless travelling?”