Monday, April 25, 2016

What we like in apartments and missed in hotels in Spain



Apartment in Granada, Spain
The explosion of new spaces for overnight stays has given travelers many more options.  While the large hotel industry is not yet worried, local municipalities are starting to rethink how their hotel/motel tax is collected.  They should.  Over 30 million people have used Airbnb since it started six years ago.  VRBO and Homeaway have been stealing customers from hotels for even longer, causing a dip in tax revenues. 

Over the last 5 years, I’ve used VRBO and Airbnb on numerous occasions – New Orleans shotgun house, recently renovated apartment in Siracusa, Italy, farmhouse in Tuscany, attic apartment in Paris, France, and a small garage apartment in Albuquerque.  They have been positive experiences with only a few surprises. We recently explored Spain and decided in advance to only use VRBO and Airbnbs, rather than a mix of both.  It was a hard decision as I do love the small, charming hotels in Europe which are very difficult to locate in the U.S.  But we needed at least two bedrooms and the apartment scenario seemed more appropriate.  Here’s our take from our trip.

Observations of Apartment Stays -
           Space, space and more space - separate bedrooms and baths plus living areas.  Suites in a hotel with the kind of space an apartment offers would be cost prohibitive to most travelers

           Allowed possibility for bringing in food for breakfast and other meals.  All had coffee makers and most provided coffee and tea. We ate breakfast in almost every morning and brought dinner in twice.  And that cheese and crackers with a bottle of wine was great in the late afternoon.

           Hosts were helpful – some more than others.  It was nice to get one who spent time pouring over a map to be sure we were oriented and could make restaurant suggestions, etc. 

           Felt more a part of the city and neighborhood.

           Easier communication among us traveling.  With 2 or three hotel rooms, we would have had to use phones or go the rooms to communicate.

           Washing machines were available in two apartments which was helpful.

           We had balconies in three of the four apartments – a lovely addition.

           Wifi was available in all.

           Had booking fees but am not sure if the stay was subject to local taxes. 

           Had some issues with neighboring apartment noise and street chatter.

What we missed in not having a hotel.

           Always someone there to check you in.  For the apartment, you have to coordinate arrival times which can be tricky in a foreign country, especially if you can’t use your phone easily.  Whatsapp was a very popular app for communicating with landlords.

           Extra keys are available if you lose yours or leave them inside.  Most apartments had two sets of keys which was enough for this trip.

           Has regular maid service with clean towels, extra pillows, etc.

           Local telephone in room

           More likely to have lots of TV stations.

           Could change rooms if your room were loud. 

Suggestions in the Future

           Stay in a hotel the first and last stop for easy check-in and to be assured of a good night of sleep.

           Use the apartment route if you are more than 2 or 3 persons.

           Use the hotel for one night stays and apartments for 3 or more nights.  For two nights, it depends.


           Be prepared for communication with landlords.  It should be worked out in advance.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Day Our Flight was Canceled in Lalibela, Ethiopia


View from Lalibela Airport, Ethiopia





On a beautiful, fall morning, our guide, Muchaw Derebe, picked us up for the thirty minute drive to the Lalibela Airport.  Seven stops were made along the road to take pictures – of farmers using oxen to plow the fields, distinctive circular Orthodox churches, Chinese working on the roads, and children eager to be photographed.  It was a leisurely drive and we arrived with time to spare.

Our next stop was Axum where the acclaimed Ark of the Covenant resides in a chapel, accompanied only by a solitary priest. We were also looking forward to meeting up with some fellow travelers,  seeing obelisks and stelae from ancient Aksum, and attending a local wedding, all followed by a drive through the back mountains of Ethiopia.  The long awaited plans were coming together.

The Lalibela Airport is modest in size but spectacular in location.  A large plateau hosts the runways and in the distance mountains and valleys lie in shadows.   Only one couple waited with us for the flight to Axum.  Departure time of 9:35 am came and went.  A new group of travelers filled the waiting room and left on their plane.  Inquiries yielded limited information.  Our plane had mechanical difficulties and needed a mechanic and part flown to Gondar, where the plane waited.  Two to three hour delay expected.  Anxiety set in.

Muchaw Derebe, Betty Swasko, Tina Smith waiting
One small cafĂ© upstairs offered minimal food and drink with most listed on the menu unavailable, including milk.  Our guide surprised us when he returned upon hearing of our delay and had four large bottle of water in tow.  We settled in for the wait.  I reviewed my pictures with Muchaw in order to correctly identify the various churches in Lalibela.  We took a couple of walks outside the airport, noting recent plantings along the driveway.  Guards waved us in as we returned, recognizing our faces by now.
  
Pasta served by airline in airport lobby
In the lobby, CNN played on a very small television next to a dead palm tree.  At 3 p.m., the airline served us pasta with a spicy red sauce.  More stranded travelers had filled the lobby throughout the day, an international group from the United Kingdom, the United States, Israel, and Japan.  With English as our common language, we visited across country lines. 

At 4 p.m., a rumor circulated that the plane was in the air but at 5:20, the flight was officially canceled due to bad weather at our destination – eight hours after our scheduled take-off.   Our now enlarged group climbed into a waiting van and more visiting took place.  The British couple lived apart – the husband measured public opinion in Baghdad while the wife lived in London.  Two young Israeli girls were traveling for seven months after serving in the military, an accepted practice in many families.  My Japanese chemical engineer seatmate wanted to know how many countries I had been to.  And across the aisle, I talked with the other Japanese, a woman who worked in their embassy.  The return trip to Lalibela passed quickly. Each of us got our own hotel room in a round thatched roof building.  Dinner was also on the airline.  Many of our travelers gathered for a drink before eating and continued the visiting. 

Our guide had other plans for us.  Muchaw wanted a happy ending to such a long day.  At 8 p.m., he picked us up and we drove to the Torpido for a true Ethiopian culture experience in a part bar, part dance hall. We entered the incense infused gathering place found down an alley.  Red Christmas lights dimly lit the space while small tables circled an open area.  Honey wine with three levels of alcohol was served.  All smiled at us as we followed Muchaw to a table and sat facing the center.  Soon, a beautiful singer and the accompanist on a one string masenquo entered and began singing, circling the room and incorporating funny comments into the music about the familiar clientele – a kind of Ethiopian rap.  All laughed and clapped.  Muchaw translated for us but sometimes was laughing too hard to do so.  The singer even stopped at our table and sang about our beautiful country and how much she loved America.  Many stood to dance the shoulder shaking Ethiopian style called the eskusta.  We couldn’t stop smiling. 

The next morning, we gathered with our new friends for breakfast, drove the now familiar road to the airport and held our breath until our plane took off.  Because of time constraints, we had to rearrange our itinerary. At the Gondar Airport, we hugged the Israeli girls and the American couple and waved at the rest before entering a waiting taxi. 

  Yes, we missed Axum and the wedding and the drive through the mountains but we passed a unique and unscripted day with new friends and experiences.  It fit my long held belief that the worst travel experiences can result in the best travel stories.  This was one of the best.





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