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Pandemic Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express, Swansea East

Unsurprisingly, it has been a little quiet on here of late. Like most of you, I’ve not been travelling all that much since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In fact, I’d hazard that as I don’t have a car and I am able to work from home, I’ve travelled far less than most, the furthest afield being about an hour’s walk away from home to get a rare bit of exercise.

Until this past weekend.

For family reasons I had to head down to Swansea for a few days, which meant finding somewhere to stay, and I ended up at the Holiday Inn Express, Swansea East, located just off junction 43 of the M4 motorway. I have stayed here once before with Lucy, a couple of months before we got married (I think it was when we were sorting out her hair and make-up trial for the wedding), and knew what to expect normally, but not what to expect during the pandemic.

The first thing to note as I drove down was the difference in policy on face coverings between England and Wales. England requires face coverings in public indoor spaces, but Wales does not. However, on the front door of the HI, there was a prominent sign to say that face coverings are required in public spaces in the hotel.

I donned my mask and entered to check-in.

As I checked in, the changes to service were explained to me. Firstly, there is no housekeeping except by request the day before it is required. Secondly, there was no sit-down breakfast, but a ‘grab and go’ to take back up to the room to eat (or take away).

I made my way up to the room which was the same as pretty much every other Holiday Inn Express room I’ve seen, but with one exception. There was no chair at the desk. I assumed this was also due to COVID-cleaning, but in retrospect I should have checked as it meant any writing, work on my laptop, or eating would have to be done either standing up or on the bed, and who likes crumbs in the bed?

The enhanced cleaning hadn’t extended to the thick layer of dust behind the support for the LED lamp over the bed, but a wipe soon sorted that out.

The grab and go breakfast was just an average breakfast buffet. There were croissants, yoghurt, fruit, cereal and either bacon or sausage baps (one or the other each day, not both) as the only hot option. There was no vegetarian hot option. Not a problem for me, but if I’d been travelling with Lucy there would have been comments.

In the evening the restaurant area was open with a limited menu and was participating in the “Eat Out to Help Out” programme, which provides 50% off food and soft drinks up to a limit of £10 on Mondays to Wednesdays in August. Last time Lucy and I stayed here we had eaten in the restaurant, and I did the same again with a pizza.

That’s pretty much it. I was there for three nights so I managed without housekeeping, but bought a tin of coffee from a supermarket as the instant coffee in the room didn’t last long. It was an uneventful stay and I slept well in the bed (there is no air conditioning in the rooms, so I had to leave the window open overnight as it was rather humid in mid-August). Though I am left wondering how much “enhanced cleaning” the rooms actually get (and I’m sceptical of that at most places that claim they are doing it).

The Independent Hotel, Philadelphia

As part of a weekend trip to Philadelphia in September, using flights booked during the #BA100 sale, Lucy and I stayed in The Independent Hotel. Whilst we were planning the trip, it had reasonable reviews and wasn’t badly priced.

We had taken the train from the airport, and walked down to the hotel from City Hall Station. In retrospect, not the best choice given we each had a suitcase, but it wasn’t too bad.

The entrance to the hotel is no more than that — a doorway that leads into a lobby about 6ft square with a lift (elevator) that takes you to reception, which is one floor above. There are no obvious stairs (as someone that prefers to take the stairs for a floor or two).

Reception is a large wooden desk, and it took a little while to find someone to check us in, but as we were being checked in it was explained to us that there was cheese and wine in reception every evening, and that breakfast was delivered to the rooms in baskets every morning, we just had to fill in the card the night before.

The first impression of the room was favourable. It was reasonably large and had a high ceiling, even if the floors were a bit worn.

There was a small selection of books to read from, though the title of the top one was curious!

The bathroom was slightly odd, being an ‘L’ shape with the sink at one end of the L, close to the door, and the shower at the far end of the L, in what I guess might originally have been a different building given what appears to be a keystone in the lintel. As you can see from the photo above, the ceiling was a little uneven.

There was also the usual in-room coffee machine (which leaked whilst in operation). When we arrived there were two ‘normal’ coffee capsules and two decaffeinated. However, even though I was leaving out a tip for housekeeping, it obviously wasn’t enough, as one day when we arrived back (for a second time, when we got back at 4pm the room hadn’t yet been serviced), this is what was waiting:

WHY?!?!

We only had the in-room breakfast once, and it was a bit of a disaster. This is what we ordered (for two people):

A bagel and two hard-boiled eggs each, plus some juice and milk. This is what was delivered:

A croissant and a snack bar, with butter and jam each. There were also two small bottles of orange juice, not pictured. No bagels, and no eggs. Looking at other reviews, this doesn’t seem to be an uncommon occurrence, and as we had plans for the day, we didn’t bother asking them to rectify it, we just nibbled on the croissants, put the snack bars in our bags and headed out.

The less said about the cheese and wine reception the better. The cheese was cubes of American-style cheddar, accompanied by some rather bland plonk. We only partook once.

The rooms are single-glazed, and being towards the bottom of the busy bits of 13th Street let in quite a bit of noise at night. However, perhaps that’s a sign that we should just have been staying out later.

All in all, I was mildly disappointed with the hotel. We had paid over £800 (including tax) for four nights, but the room we had was nothing like the bright, airy rooms portrayed on the website. The power sockets were almost hanging out of the wall, and the breakfast experience was poor.

ibis Budget Whitechapel

I wasn’t going to review the ibis Budget Whitechapel as I was only there for a night, but the check-out experience tipped my hand, and here we are.

My brief stay here followed a night in the rather more upmarket Park Plaza London Riverbank, but I was prepared for what it was supposed to be — a budget hotel (even though the night I was there was costing £120).

On walking in, the reception is on the first floor (for our American friends, that’s the floor above ground level), and I was momentarily confused as there’s a table tennis table to your left, and a surprisingly similar table to the right, but with a couple of screens and no net. It may not surprise you to learn that this is the check-in desk.

The staff were friendly and check-in was swift, and I was soon on my way to my room.

Bags top bunk!

As I was expecting from a budget hotel, the room was basic. A double bed with a single bunk above it. A small desk, no separate bathroom, but a student-digs style shower and a loo. No toiletries other than a couple of bars of ibis Budget soap. The view was nothing to speak of, but I’m not sure what else to expect.

Please ignore the man in the mirror!

I settled down to do a bit of work, then headed out to meet up with some friends. I noticed the battery on my laptop hadn’t charged whilst I’d been working, but I know there’s a dodgy connector unless it’s plugged firmly in, so I put it down to that.

Later that evening, I got back and put all the things on charge — except they wouldn’t. All the sockets in the room were dead, as was the TV and the air-conditioning (which has a note on the wall that it isn’t air conditioning, it’s just a fan). I had a look around the room for circuit breakers, but it was late by this point, and I had my travel battery, so I didn’t bother telling reception, I just planned to mention it on the way out.

In the morning the shower did its job, though washing your hair with a bar of soap is less than ideal, and at this point I noticed that even if I’d had power, there was no kettle, tea, or coffee.

On checkout I mentioned about the lack of power and was told “you should have told us!” I politely replied that I was telling them now, and they insisted that I should have told them last night. I didn’t want to get into a long conversation about time, etc, all I’d been hoping for was “sorry about that, thanks for letting us know, we’ll get it fixed,” so I bade the hotel farewell.

I’ll not be rushing to return.

Hilton Garden Inn, London Heathrow Terminal 2

Whilst we were still living in South-West London I booked a return for my wife and myself to Philadelphia as part of BA’s 100th anniversary sale.  These were tickets that cost £100 each way in economy, including taxes.  Since then we’ve moved to Manchester, and so to avoid problems with missed connections for the 12:40pm BA67 to Philadelphia, we flew down the evening before and stayed at the relatively new Hilton Garden Inn at Terminal 2.

Why a hotel at Terminal 2 when the Manchester flight arrived into T5 and the Philadelphia flight would leave from the same terminal? Well, predominantly cost.  The Sofitel at T5 was substantially more expensive than the HGI, I didn’t want the hassle of buses or taxis from outside the airport, and it’s not too difficult to get from T5 to T2.

Previously living close to the airport, I’d never taken the Heathrow Express to travel between terminals, so after pausing to wonder if I needed a free transfer ticket at T5, I decided to pick one up to be on the safe side — just as well, as I’d have had to make my excuses at the T2 ticket barrier without it.

The next step was finding the hotel itself.  T2 is a reasonable walk from the train station along several moving walkways, and then you need to find the right level to get to the hotel.  For reference, you want to walk to the hotel across the car-park, and then a walk-way, from the arrivals level (level 1) of T2.  Whilst you can see it clearly from the departures level, there is no obvious way to get there from across the drop-off zone, as we found out whilst hauling our cases!

There are four check-in desks, and no queues when we arrived.  I was somewhat disconcerted when the young lad said he paused because I looked like his best friend’s Dad, but at some point I have to realise I’m getting older.  At least it wasn’t his friend’s grandfather, and a suggestion that my wife reminded him of his friend’s mother might have gone down even worse.

Using the Hilton app on my phone, I’d already booked a room on the 11th floor (out of 13) with a runway view — try and claim you’re surprised by that.  The runway-facing rooms look south-west onto 27L/9R, which was on easterly take-offs whilst I was there.  The soundproofing is good, so it allowed a view of the runway without airplane noise being noticeable.

Apologies for the room reflections!

The bed was fairly standard, with a large screen TV and a desk.  The bathroom was spotless, although the waterfall shower was relatively weak, with Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries.

The room.

Having some time to kill, we went downstairs to the bar, one floor down from the lobby.  I had a beer, my wife had a white wine, and we shared a (small) bowl of chips (“hot chips” or “fries” for those that use a different variant of English).  This came to £20, so we made our way back to the terminal, and to The Flying Chariot, the Wetherspoons on the departure level of T2 for a couple more drinks.  It’s not a bargain compared to other Spoons, but it was cheaper than the Hilton, and had a wider selection of drinks — plus you can still get the drinks delivered to your table using the Wetherspoons app.

It was quite an enjoyable couple of hours people-watching at the airport as passengers arrived to fly off somewhere, some more prepared than others.  There were a few groups obviously heading off to Japan on JAL for the Rugby World Cup.

Instead of eating there, we picked up some sandwiches from the Marks and Spencer on the arrivals level and headed back to the hotel room.

After a sound sleep, blissfully unaware of the planes taking off not far from our eardrums, the following morning check-out was easy enough, again with no queue, and from there it was just the walk to T2, then the walk to the Heathrow Express and onwards to Terminal 5 for the flight to Philly.

This was the first time I’d spent about 24 hours within an airport perimeter, as most other times I’ve stayed at an airport hotel, I’ve either been arriving late, departing early, or the hotel itself has been just outside the airport.  I’d happily stay in the Hilton Garden Inn T2 again, even if my flights were based in T5.

Hampton by Hilton, Belfast City Centre

This is a little review of the Hampton by Hilton Belfast City Centre, where I stayed for a couple of nights for work at the start of September 2019.

I’d flown into Belfast City airport (BHD) and caught bus 600 into the city centre, which dropped me off at the Europa Bus Centre, a journey costing the total of £2.60 (though I felt sorry for the driver who had to arrange a lot of large suitcases from students starting to arrive for the start of the new University year at Queen’s University), and handily on the same block as the Hampton and indeed the massive Europa Hotel itself.

The reception desks are straight in front of the door, and lead onto the bar and breakfast area.

Reception

Check-in was easy, and the pre-payment arranged by the travel agent was on file, which doesn’t always happen.  I had a room on the fifth floor out of eight.  As an aside, why does the sign in the lift (elevator) correctly refer to ‘G’ for ground floor, but the button is marked ‘0’?

Zero G

When I got to the room it was almost entirely made of bed.  For some reason they appear to have been expecting me to arrive en-masse and the sofa-bed was also made up.  I momentarily worried that a colleague from work had been booked into the same room too.  I could, and perhaps should, have called reception to ask them to stow the bed, but I wanted to get a couple of things done before heading out for dinner, so I didn’t bother (and so no fault lies with Hampton, though I was surprised to still see it there when I got back on the second day, but by that point it was too late to say anything — he said, Britishly).

I remember when this were nothing but Hilton bedding…

There was a large TV in the room which I could see well whilst lying on the bed, but as it was mounted on a narrow shelf could only be swivelled a small amount and so didn’t have a great angle to see from the desk.  It was the usual (for the UK) Freeview channels.  There were double sockets with a USB outlet either side of the bed, which is good news.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

As a minor issue, there was some tape that was flaking in one corner of the room.

The same door covers the bathroom and wardrobe in an interesting space-saving arrangement — if the door is closed to the bathroom then the wardrobe is open, and vice versa.  The shower is easy to operate, not something you can always say, especially in cases when hot water takes a little while to reach the shower head.  Toiletries are large pump-bottles mounted on the wall, but there was shampoo, shower gel and conditioner, plus a hand-wash next to the sink, all of which were full, and all of the pumps were working!

I slept well overnight, and headed down to the buffet breakfast in the morning.  There is the choice of a cooked breakfast (bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, baked beans, small potato bites, etc), toast, pastries, cereals, and a new one on me, DIY waffles, along with tea, coffee and fruit juices.  It was a reasonable way to set me up for the day, and after that I checked out and headed on home.

Breakfast time!

I’d be perfectly happy to stay there again, plus it means earning HHonors points if that’s your thing.

Dragon Hotel, Swansea

According to the hotel’s own website, the Dragon Hotel is “…this fully airconditioned lesisure [sic] hotel was featured as South West Wales’ premier 4-star hotel.”

As someone that was brought up with frequent trips to Swansea to visit family, the Dragon Hotel has always been around, though I’ve never had need to stay there, as I was always staying with family. The road outside the hotel has changed substantially since I was a child, it used to be a roundabout with pedestrian underpasses leading to an open area in the centre of the roundabout. That was filled in a couple of decades ago to make it more friendly to bendy buses, but it is in the middle of yet another regeneration as Swansea City Council tries another traffic management plan along The Kingsway.

As time has moved on, I’ve had more reason to find nearby hotels and my wife and I have stayed at the Dragon a few times. Most recently, towards the end of August 2019, I stayed in three different rooms on the sixth and seventh (out of seven) floors (due to three different bookings) during a week as I wasn’t sure how long I was staying around.

During the week there were some good deals to be had, between £50 and £60 per night, but that rose substantially for the weekend. The best deals were on twin rooms rather than doubles, but as I was staying by myself, that wasn’t a problem.

The rooms are functional, two single beds, a large TV with Freeview channels, a hospitality tray with the usual selection of teabags, instant coffee sachets and UHT milk. There are no in-room safes, nor a mini-bar.

Most of the rooms appear to have a mobile phone for complimentary use around the city, provided by “Handy.” I have no idea what sort of personal information those things hoovered up, which I assume they must to pay for themselves, so I haven’t used one, but it also looks like they might not be around for much longer.

The bathrooms are surfaced with white ceramic tiles, with a large illuminated mirror that has two vertical fluorescent tubes (though in one of the bathrooms, one of the tubes flickered). Toiletries are large pump-action soap dispensers.

One evening, as I got back to my room, I was greeted by a gentleman, wearing only his shorts, laying across the corridor on a speakerphone, but the hotel didn’t provide entertainment the other nights.

There is a comfortable bar on the ground floor with a few local beers, though I’ve tended to head into town for a drink when the urge takes me (particularly to “Copper” or “No Sign Wine Bar”).

All in all, it’s clean, slightly tired, and I wouldn’t describe it as South-West Wales’ Premier Four-Star Hotel, though I don’t know what would fit that description, but it’s very convenient for the centre of Swansea, as opposed to some of the others that are closer to the Marina, or slightly out of town, and what are you expecting for that sort of price?

Hotel Indigo, Cardiff

This will be a brief review, as I was only there for one night and didn’t take any photographs.

Hotel Indigo is part of the IHG chain (Holiday Inn etc), but as I type this, the Cardiff hotel is currently rated the #1 hotel in Cardiff on TripAdvisor. [Hotel’s website here.]

From Cardiff Central train station the hotel was about a 10 minute walk (not trailing any suitcases). The entry is quite well disguised in an arcade off Queen Street, which is in the pedestrianised shopping area in Cardiff, and within that the reception is quite small, just 2-3 desks in a cosy lobby, but the staff were friendly. There is a single lift (“elevator”) to the guest rooms and the hotel’s restaurant/bar — a Marco Pierre White Steakhouse and Bar. When I checked in we were offered a 15% discount voucher for the restaurant, but that is a limited time offer.

My room had frosted windows with no view, but the room and bathroom (with monsoon shower) were obviously relatively new and well-decorated. The hospitality tray had a selection of Welsh teas and coffees (as an aside, I grew up in Wales and don’t remember many tea tree and coffee plantations, but that must be global warming for you), and a small fridge.

A nice touch was the rocking chair with a “nos da” (“good night”) cushion, and Welsh decorations on the wall. A tea pot and tea cosy would have topped that image off to perfection!

The bed was firm, and quite high off the ground, which may or may not be to your preference. Whilst it was a busy weekend in Cardiff, and I could hear the occasional voice of someone walking down the corridor outside, it didn’t disturb my sleep.

All in all it was a nice hotel, in a very good location, and not too badly priced. Worth a shot.