Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: September 2014

I won’t be presumptuous enough to label it a trend but one evolution within the hotel industry I have noticed in recent years is the growing number of hotels in major cities offering a ‘small is all’ concept to deliver a minimum of a room for a downsized nightly room rate. The best part of this development is that unlike a trend where everyone seeks uniformity this evolution instead has yielded a refreshingly diverse set of unique choices and so will offer a few examples I know well or have inhabited in my travels.

Before going further I should note that these hotels aren’t the global equivalent  of the Japanese capsule hotels whose plastic frames measure 3 – 4 feet wide and high by 6 feet long and offer a tired or drunk salaryman a rest refuge when a long commute back home to the suburbs wasn’t always possible or convenient. Those types of hotels are still mainly a Japanese innovation despite one opening in 2012 in Xi’an, China.

The more common format for micro hotels is to deliver a small 100 – 150 square foot room with private facilities but an overall minimum of added on-site features which are more typically found at full-service hotels with correspondingly higher rates. Beyond that base recipe however there is a myriad of different formats within this niche including at Yotel whose founder used the compact design and style of airline first class pods with a little Japanese influence to create  a thoroughly modern atmosphere from the self-service check-in kiosks to the robotic luggage concierge. The room itself isn’t even called a room but a ‘cabin’ that while small has a sense of style with user-friendly features such as flat screen TV, WiFi, laptop safes and a work desk with multi power point sockets to recharge a handful of personal devices.

Yotel New York offers a choice of cabin sizes that depending upon season and advance purchase can start as low as $189 which in a city that recorded an annual hotel room rate average in 2012 of $281 according to nycgo.com offers a significant savings especially when considering most New York hotels rooms aren’t that much bigger than the Premium Queen cabin’s 170 square foot dimensions.

photo credit: Frank Tasche by  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Unlike many micro hotels the Yotel New York also has incorporated a social element with terraces and lounges.

While researching a past trip to Manhattan I found good value in The Pod Hotel which has two locations, Pod39 (145 E 39th St., 212-865-5700) near Grand Central Terminal and the original Pod51 (230 E. 51st St., 212-355-0300) which opened in 2007 near the United National headquarters. Both locations were renovated buildings given a modern design featuring large lobby murals and a minimalist retro design décor.

Rooms average 100 – 120 square feet and while economize on size have plus features including rainfall showerheads, iPod docking stations, WiFi and a dimmer switch for finding the right lighting level.

A Full Pod with double bed can be had for as low as $145 per night at Pod39 or you may opt for bunk beds for the same price if you’d rather not share.

Both locations offer seasonal rooftop terraces that boast memorable New York City skyline backdrops and are worth a visit for the views alone.

While it’s been a few years since I stayed at the easyHotel Budapest Oktogon (Eotvos utca 25/a
Budapest 1067) I felt it worth including here as this no frills hotel chain has continued expanding since that trip and now counts 20 locations with most being in Western Europe.

A part of the easyJet brand, the easyHotel concept is basically a bed and bathroom with only one coat hook on the wall and no shelves, coat hangars, closets or any other places to store clothing or luggage. The glaring orange colour scheme is also unique but fortunately wasn’t quite vivid enough to keep me awake though the warm Summer night, lack of A/C and late night revellers creating neighborhood noise helped achieve that one night. It was overall an adequate two night stay and would likely return if given the chance but couldn’t imagine myself staying any longer than two or three nights.

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The chain charges for housekeeping, TV access and even windows in some locations but for EUR31 per room per night within a block of one of Pest’s main thoroughfares Andrassy Street it’s hard to go wrong at this price for a short stay. The rooms average 80 – 90 square feet though feel larger likely because there was no other furniture beyond the bed in the room.

Note that like airfares room prices rise the closer you book to arrival date so planning well in advance will yield you the lowest rates  but watch the fine print as these rates as they can be either fully non-refundable or carry a cancellation charge one third as much as the lowest nightly rate.

In March 2013 I had the pleasure to stay at the opposite end of the micro hotel spectrum from the easyHotel while visiting Tokyo for the first time staying 3 nights at the Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo which is located directly opposite the sprawling Tokyo Station and offers outstanding value for location. The Ginza with it’s high end shops, the financial district of Maranouchi and Imperial Palace are all a short walk from this little gem of a hotel which I reserved a few weeks in advance for CAD$150 per room per night and was worth every yen.

 Photo by author

 Photo by author

The double bed in this Forus Single  Discovery room is more than just a bed as the headboard was like NASA mission control housing not only controls for the rooms lights and temperature but an LCD alarm clock which could also be programmed to run to sleep function that automatically dimmed the lights and gently vibrated the bed in order to ease you into a good night’s slumber before raising the lights and more firmly shaking the bed at the pre-set wake-up time the next morning. I was normally so tired after a long day of sightseeing this immense but fascinating city I had little trouble drifting off but tried the controls a few nights for the sheer curiosity factor.

Beyond the bed the room itself was very quiet and seemed well insulated so as to block almost all hall or street noises out and this light sleep appreciated that serenity.

There are many other unique touches that make this room the best I’ve ever experienced from a postage paid postcard home to loved ones to the multi-lingual city maps and rental bikes. The small but well equipped bathroom with multi-nozzle adjustable shower stall with rainfall shower head and a Japanese toilet with its obligatory heated seat and control panel made for a refreshing start to the day after having downed a coffee or cappuccino made by the in-room Nespresso unit.


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The Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo not only delivers such user friendly in-room amenities to make for a very comfortable stay but is a tremendous value in a Tokyo district with a bevy of five-star accommodation options which will set you back several times this room’s rate. The standard rooms are not quite as well appointed as the Forus rooms and for that reason would recommend spending the $20 per night to upgrade. A reminder that smoking rooms are still available in Japan so those wanting a smoke-free room should pay particular attention to which room category they are reserving. In some cases non-smoking rooms may come at a small per night premium.

I should note that on this trip I spent my first seven nights in a more moderate but similarly sized micro hotel near Shinjuku Station, the busiest transportation hub on the planet with some 3.6 million people using it on a daily basis. The Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku   is a few short blocks from the station and within comfortable walking distance to the business skyscrapers of Shinjuku. Rooms booked in advance can be had for approx. CAD$100 per room per night including an extensive buffet breakfast though note that those readers like myself who love crispy bacon should prepare to be disappointed.

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If staying at any Sunroute I would recommend signing up for the hotel chains loyalty program for a small 500 Yen (approx. $5) fee as it not only allows later check out at 1 PM instead of 11 AM but also offers the ability to earn points for every night stayed which if you stay long enough as I did returns a 1000 Yen credit to the loyalty card that could be used at local convenience stores. The staff really helped explain the program both at check-in and check-out so if you are staying for more than just a few nights would encourage guests to check into this option.

I came across another micro hotel while planning  accommodation for a mid-February 2015 Chinese New Year’s visit to Hong Kong. The MiniHotel has two locations, one in Central which is Hong Kong Island side financial district, while the sister Causeway Bay location is  little further East. What caught my eye was that at times these small rooms can be reserved for as little as HKD 565 or CAD $84 per room per night though sadly it seems the busier New Year’s timeframe is not available to be booked.

Micro need not only apply to hotels on dry land as Norwegian Cruise Lines has pioneered a single occupancy stateroom onboard it’s cruise ships I was able to experience in November 2013 aboard the Norwegian Epic. At 100 square feet these Studio rooms are cozy but comfortable and the only minor drawback I found was the little blue LED light in the headboard that couldn’t be turned off and whose light cast a funky glow on this compact cabin.

 

Photo by author

The storage space to the right of the picture held life jackets as well as a mini-safe for securing your valuables.

Norwegian didn’t isolate the studios cabins but rather unified them within a space called the “Living Room” which is an exclusive haven for those guests staying in studio cabins and comes complete with bar, two large TV screens and comfy seating for hanging out, reading a book or just enjoying a drink before dinner. Note that only studio guests may access this area with their stateroom card key.

Smaller hotel rooms or cruise ship cabins are becoming more common and if travelling solo they offer far more choices and value than existed a decade ago especially in some of the world’s mega cities where hotel prices can be sky high.

I’ve quite enjoyed my time in smaller spaces but are you willing to trade space for price? How small is too small? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think about this micro hotel movement.

Airline à la carte add-ons offer a world of choice – for a price

International air travel is constantly changing to respond to or in some cases to anticipate consumer trends and a recent innovation of many airlines may benefit the occasional flyer if they know where to look and are ready to pay a little more for comfort.

Once held for elite frequent flyers more airline are now selling economy seats in rows with extra legroom such as exit row or bulkhead seats and found this to be what Aer Lingus is doing for my upcoming trip to Dublin.

Within economy the choices are to take a standard seat without charge or pay a small premium of USD$30 per flight for either priority boarding and seats toward the front of the aircraft, which Aer Lingus calls Choice seats, or USD$50 per segment for Exit. The difference between these seats is that while the Choice seats offer no more legroom or seat width they do feature earlier boarding so you get better access to overhead bin space which is important for those flyers like me who only travel with a carry-on while Exit row seats feature the same seat width but several inches more legroom which for taller travellers on longer flights can be much more comfortable.  There is more of an overview on Aer Lingus’ website here.

Exit row seats come with some caveats in my opinion as while you gain more legroom the lack of overhead bin space means you have to place your carry-on items either a row or two forward or aft of your row, the extra space can be used by passengers wanting to go from one side of the aircraft to the other tripping over your outstretched legs, and they can be cooler than other seats given their proximity to the emergency exit doors. Some exit row window seats may also lose some of the extra legroom due to a jut out at the bottom of the emergency door which houses the evacuation slide.

 

The option to pay for these seats is normally given at time of booking but if booking through a travel agent or on an award seat can also usually be reserved with a call through to the airline or online with the airline reservation or file number. Once paid these fees however are almost always non-refundable so choose wisely.

In the end on this Dublin trip I’ve opted to forgo the cost to select specific economy seats as the flight time from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is just over 7 hours and as a frequent economy class passenger I should be able to survive the trip in a standard economy seat. Every trip and airline however is different and so it should be something considered on a case-by-case basis.

For example on another upcoming trip from Edmonton to Hong Kong over Chinese New Year in February the 15 hour nonstop flight Seattle – Hong Kong on Delta Airlines  there is the ability to pay a $150 supplement to reserve what the airline has branded an Economy Comfort seat which not only allows up to 4 inches more legroom but priority boarding, and greater seat recline while complimentary beer, wine & spirits come without charge in all economy seats on all Delta long haul international flights. While I have yet to make a decision on purchasing this roomier economy seat it is tempting to pay a supplement to enjoy a much more comfortable journey.

United Airlines offers the same type of product with their Economy Plus seats available which are available for sale online in advance but are free for elite frequent flyers.

I should note that in addition to offering for sale preferred seat locations many airlines also have started offering flyers a broad à la carte menu of choices to prepay everything from airport lounge passes, in-flight Wi-Fi or priority boarding and while it offers flexibility to pick & chose services for only certain flights it and the obligatory checked bag fees can inch the overall travel cost up. Travelling with a carry-on only I like having the ability to decide whether on a busy holiday weekend I’m willing to spend $19 to board a few minutes earlier to find coveted space in the overhead bin but I know not everyone feels the same about these options. Many frequent flyers holding elite status get many of the perks included as part of their benefits and see their sale as an erosion of their loyalty.

The airlines consider anything beyond the actual airline ticket itself ancillary revenue and for many it forms a growing and important slice of their total revenue pie. United Airlines, for example, earns almost 15% of its overall revenue from ancillary fees while at several low cost airlines it can be double that amount according to the statistics published in this Forbes article. With such a lucrative source of revenue in an industry with razor thin profit margins these optional extra fees are here to stay so knowing what they are, how they work and how they may benefit you is worth investing the time to research on your own or in concert with your travel professional.

Free Dublin visitor attractions

 

In a previous post I’d outlined the advantages of buying a Dublin Pass to save a few dollars while gaining some convenience on many of the most popular attractions in and around Dublin but there are a number of notable museums and attractions that are available to visitors without charge and on a permanent basis.

Many leading museums offer free entrance typically once day or evening per month and while a bonus always worth exploring the savings may mean coping with a surge in visitors and an overall busier museum which may not be to everyone’s liking. In Dublin however there are a host of leading institutions that make their permanent collections available without charge on a permanent basis including:

The National Library Of Ireland houses over 8 million items including books, periodicals, photographs, maps, manuscripts  and genealogical records for those curious to explore their Irish heritage.

Photo by author

Photo by author

Sadly while you may visit the library’s Main Reading Room with it’s 50 foot high ceiling visitors are typically kept in a designated viewing area only.


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National Library of Ireland by Nico Kaiser is licensed under CC BY 2.0.  

Having visited the New York Public Library’s Rose Main Reading Room and being suitably impressed with it’s grand scale I look forward to visiting this space and finding a quiet corner to curl up in and read part of a good book.

The National Gallery Of Ireland is celebrating it’s 150th anniversary in 2014 and not only allows free entrance but offers free guided public tours, lectures & workshops, audio guides and even drawing kits should you feel inclined to copy some of the masterpieces in the permanent collection from Monet, Picasso, Goya and Vermeer.

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National Gallery Library of Ireland by dahon is licensed under CC BY 2.0.  

 

The National Museum Of Ireland has three of its four branches in Dublin – Archaeology, Natural History and Decorative Arts & History  – with the first two located around the corner from the National Gallery at one end of Merrion Square Park with the third, Decorative Arts & History, located a short distance away near the Old Jameson Distillery  in Collins Barracks site, a military barracks named after the revered Irish revolutionary Michael Collins.

The  Archaeology section has prehistoric gold artifacts as well as more recent Celtic and medieval art set in a Victorian building opened in 1890 that’s as aesthetically interesting from the outside as the inside.

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National Gallery Library of Ireland by Carlos Pacheco is licensed under CC BY 2.0.  

 

The adjacent Natural History museum has animals from Ireland and abroad as well as over 2 million scientific specimens while the Decorative Arts & History is home to military displays – a natural given the history of the facility- Folk art examples of Folk life and a wide range of objects like ceramics, silver and glassware.

Irish Museum of Modern Art  is in an equally as notable building having reopened in October 2013 in it’s home which is the former Royal Kilmainham Hospital, a facility built in 1684 to house retired soldiers modelled after Les Invalides in Paris.

Photo by author

The modern art housed inside is to my taste less interesting than the building itself as one exhibit consisted of a room with gravel on the floor. And no, the artist wasn’t a Rolling Stone.

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Around the hospital are a French style formal gardens that provide a restful detour in a day of sightseeing.

Photo by author

 

The National Botanic Gardens are a few kilometres north of the River Liffey and while entrance is free note that parking and guided tours both come with a nominal fee of EUR 2.00 for each. Along with the outdoor plants and fauna admission includes the indoor Great Palm House, Alpine House and Cactus House.

Public Domain photo 

The Chester Beatty Library  is found within Dublin Castle and is named for Sir Alfred Chester Beatty,  a mining magnate who while born in the United States became a naturalized Irish citizen, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and left his   world-class collection of Oriental art and religious books to the Irish state upon his death in 1968. The museum’s location within Dublin Castle makes it easy to match up with a visit to the castle grounds and attractions as well as the nearby Christ Church Cathedral. There is a handy online tour of the castle’s State Apartments here.

Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane houses one of Ireland’s foremost collections of modern and contemporary art and is named after the Gallery’s founder Sir Hugh Lane who donated the original collection in 1908. Along with impressionist master’s Manet, Monet and Degas gallery also features the entire contents of 20 century Irish artist Francis Bacon’s studio.

Farmleigh House is a small Georgian house built in the late 18th century and was purchased by Edward Cecil Guinness, a great-grandson of Arthur Guinness, founder of the eponymous brewery that bears his name. The house is near Phoenix Park which is one of Europe’s largest walled city parks at over 1750 acres and also is home to the Dublin Zoo. While the zoo isn’t free both the Farmleigh House and Phoenix Park Visitor Centre are open without charge so combining several nearby sights into a day’s schedule makes it possible to make the most of your sightseeing time.

Other museums and attractions with free entrance in and around Dublin include the Gallery of Photography and the Pearse Museum south of the city center which is named after Irish patriot and educator Patrick Pearse.

The only difficult decision may be in trying to find time during a Dublin visit to explore as many of the free museums and attractions as possible.

This list was complied with the help of the wonderfully user-friendly Dublin city visitor website. Please find a custom map below showing all the listed museums and attractions.

visit dublin


View Top Free Dublin sights in a larger map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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