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I've been philosophizing about what constitutes a rational goal when creating a day-by-day itinerary as an independent traveler. I've sketched out the following for inclusion into my book "Take the High Road - A Primer for the Independent Traveler". I am curious what y'all think and am prepared to take the slings and arrows to get it right.

Jeff


The concept of “The Hotel” vs. “The Environment”

Frequently, travel, for us, becomes a philosophical series of dozens of decisions as we structure an itinerary. While budget is not the major objective, there is no limit to what may be spent on travel, so our objective is to find the best “value” as we find the best places and routes to travel.

While the choice of hotel can certainly affect the level of enjoyment of the environment, the choice of location can also affect the entirety of the enjoyment of a trip.

Innumerable times, as we structure itineraries, we find ourselves weighing the benefits of “places” vs. “things”, and then deciding on what we will use as a “hotel” when we get there. We find that thinking of the experience as two separate components – the “hotel” and the “environment” is helpful when creating a “trip”.

First, I’ll give you my two cents (or more) on the places/things comment. There are iconic “things” scattered around the world which are wonderful to see, but never change much and re-seeing them a second or third time may not bring back the thrill of the first. It’s not that they are not worth the effort to reach the first time, but may not be worth the effort to revisit (unless your first experience was incomplete or unsatisfactory). Examples would include Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat, the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, Iguassu Falls, etc.

“Places”, on the other hand, frequently change over time, as well as frequently being large and complex, and revisiting them multiple times can create different experience sets. Large cities frequently fall into this type of experience (N.Y.C., Kyoto, Paris, Shanghai, etc. are examples.

Both types of experiences can be enhanced by paying attention to the type of hotel chosen.

“Hotels” run the gamut of “standard” Western style hotels, local business hotels, local traditional hotels and luxury properties that attempt to integrate into the local environment. They also include both ocean-based and river-based ships/boats as well as long-distance trains (I’m going to go on a limb and say few consider long airplane flights to be comfortable hotel accommodations).

Let’s look at cruise ships first, from the standpoint of them being hotels.

First of all, size really does matter.

Larger ocean going cruise ships try to “BE” the resort. The fact that they stop in various ports is a necessary evil from the standpoint of management, as, except for excursions sold by the ship, the stops do not generate revenue. On the other hand, keeping the passengers spending money aboard is a major win for the cruise management. The business model of the mega-ship has been finely tuned to attract families with kids and young adults, with a focus on extracting as much revenue as possible during their time aboard.

Smaller cruise ships do not have the economies of scale that larger ones do, so they tend to be more expensive on a per-passenger/per-day basis. This means they do not attract as many families with children. They raise revenue by charging for excursions, liquor/wine and boutique products at extremely high margins – or alternatively by including some in the price as very expensive “all-inclusive” structures. Here, the “hotel” is not as elaborate, so the “compensation” tends to be in better, more elaborate, food as well as the ability of smaller ships to dock at more convenient and exotic locations than larger ones.

River cruise companies have a rougher challenge to differentiate. The relatively small locks and the low bridges found on European rivers limits the physical size of the boats/ships used. The tours of the villages along the river tend to be nearly identical between lines and the physical routes are limited to the same rivers. That means the main differentiation between lines is the variety/presentation of the food, the level of service and the potential of free booze. In the case of the more exclusive (meaning expensive) of these lines, the price itself is a sort of demographic filter (one is tempted to say for the snobbish).

A few years ago, as an experiment, we booked three different lodges (at three different prices) from the same safari company at the same game reserve (Sabi Sands), just to see what the effect would be if we kept the environment constant (same area, same animals). What we found was all were excellent, with the most expensive being a bit “too exclusive” for our tastes (but, I guess, if you are a big-wig or potentate of some sort, you might prefer the individual privacy it offered). So the environment “made” the safari – but saying that, if we would have stayed at a standard hotel, but taken the same game drives – well, it just would not have been the same – so the hotel DOES matter. On a parallel note, we stayed at HillsNek Lodge in South Africa’s Amakhala Reserve which was every bit as wonderful, from a hotel standpoint (at about half the price) of the lodges in Sabi Sand, but the animals in its game reserve were not as varied or in as large a population as at Sabi Sand. It’s not a matter of getting what you are paying for as much as getting a great value if the hotel experience is your emphasis.

Similarly, when we have stayed at Japanese ryokan traditional inns, in lovely countryside locals, where the hotel experience blended so well that it “made” the experience. Our election, while traveling in India, of staying in maharaja palaces (managed by Taj) and their modern proxies (owned by Oberoi) dramatically enhanced the experience. This was emphasized by our staying at each one for a few days so that we could actually enjoy the hotels (verses most packaged trips which only stay overnight at each). If we had stayed at ashrams, for example, we would have had a completely different Indian experience – no less authentic, but certainly different.

Unfortunately, most big city hotels depend on the local city for a supporting role to give them relevance, but eclectic boutique hotels, such as the Castello di Sinio as well as eclectic resorts such as the Relais San Maurizio (both in Piedmont, Italy) can make the hotel itself the destination, requiring only minimal support from the local.

The bottom line is that both the hotel and the itinerary play a role in the enjoyment of a trip. While there are arguments that a small amount of compromise can create large savings, it is important to at least give a try to, by using best practices of trip creation – or at least a bit of imagination – getting a better value without making any significant concessions to either the hotel or the itinerary experience.
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