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GLOOM SERVICE

15-09-2006

Fancy a weekend break? Dave Woodhall did, but after a wallet-busting trip to Wales, he wishes he's stayed at home.

There was good weather forecast for last weekend and we decided to go away for Saturday night. It's a long time since we've been to Cardiff, the drive down there must be one of the most picturesque in the country, so that was where we were staying.

A quick surf of the net threw up the Hilton, who had a room for £82.80. Sounds good enough, so I was on the verge of booking. Then I noticed that this was room only, a recent invention of the hotel trade designed to make a few pounds extra from their customers. Breakfast was an extra £18. The room was starting to look less of a bargain, but what the hell? We were on our holidays, sort of.

Arrival at the hotel and no problem with parking. Just hand over the car keys and everything will be taken care of - at a price. That'll be another £13 a night.

It was, in truth, a very nice room, with an en suite bigger than some flats I've known. Perusing the room service menu gave another few examples of the ‘captive audience' mentality that permeates the industry's thinking. Had we not ordered breakfast as part of the deal, it would have cost over £35 a day for the two of us. Delivery to our room would have been another £6 - for ten minutes work by a member of staff who I doubt earns anywhere near the £60 an hour that this charge represents.

Saturday night saw us eating a reasonable, and not very over-priced, meal in the hotel bar. Unfortunately, staying in there much after nine was impossible, because it was becoming unbearably crowded and noisy as a result of Saturday night revellers.

With security men warning against entering most of the city centre, there wasn't much else we could do other than return to our room. I've had better Saturday nights, although in fairness to the hotel there was another bar on the premises that we hadn't noticed, although whether it was any better than the first, I don't know.

We ended up with a bill of around £150 for a night's stay, which could have been a lot more had we used room service or any of the hotel's other facilities. For the cost of two nights we could have had a weekend in Barcelona.

My partner, far more versed in the ways of hotel usage than I, reckoned that we'd got away lightly and during her work-related stints in British hotels she frequently gets charged much more for worse service. I've no doubt that this is the case. Our hotels are notoriously overpriced, as a ten-minute internet survey shows. For Friday 22nd September, a standard double room at the London Sofitel costs £160. A room at the Sofitel Porte de Sevres in Paris would cost £116. On the same night a Marriott in Edinburgh city centre would be £113, a similar room in Brussels £61.

I'd like to know how hotels can justify these prices. I can't remember the last time I had a really good, imaginative meal in a hotel, or received spectacularly efficient service - although for the wages paid, I don't blame the staff for doing the minimum they can get away with.

I do know that we're encouraged to stay at home and patronise the British tourist industry. I'm in full agreement with this - regardless of the environmental argument, we have some of the best scenery and heritage in the world right on our doorstep. I'm sure that I could spend the rest of my life without going abroad and still not see more than a fraction of what Britain has to offer. It's a pity that our hoteliers don't do more to help me.

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