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Why you should never book a hotel that gets only five-star reviews

One travel hacker’s guide to the perfect trip.
Image: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At Bloomberg Pursuits, we love to travel. And when we can again, we want to make sure we’re doing it right. So we’re talking to globe-trotters in all of our luxury fields—food, wine, fashion, cars, real estate—to learn about their high-end hacks, time-saving tips, and off-the-wall experiences. These are the Distinguished Travel Hackers.

Brandon Presser is an award-winning travel writer—for regular readers of Bloomberg Pursuits, you might recognise him from the times he’s gone undercover to report what it’s like to be a butler at the Plaza, a costumed character at Disney, or  a flight attendant on a busy transatlantic airline.

Now, he’s also author of The Far Land (published on March 8 by Public Affairs), a thriller inspired by history and his own travels to the inordinately remote South Pacific island of Pitcairn, where the saga of many of the HMS Bounty’s mutineers continued.

Over the course of his travel writing career, Presser has visited some 130 countries around the world—almost always with an eye toward uncovering great and underrated adventures, whether choppering across far-flung corners of Australia, eagle hunting in Kyrgyzstan, or hiking Slovenia’s craggiest peaks. He’s also lived in such drastically different places as Tokyo, Paris, and New York.

One of the things that makes Presser such a memorable writer and explorer is his ability to relate to and build relationships with the people he meets on the ground, a quality that’s made it easy for him to earn the trust of respected hospitality professionals around the world. Besides making for some of Bloomberg’s most beloved long reads, the task has also given Presser an unrivalled inside scoop on how to travel like the actual pros.

Presser, who is Ottawa-born and Indiana-based, is just as comfortable in five-star hotels as when he goes totally off the grid. Pitcairn, the subject of his book, is a British Overseas Territory so inaccessible that it took Presser a month of nonstop traveling to arrive—by cargo ship. The true stories of tribalism, colonialism, and mutiny that he learned there form the backbone of his riveting and obsessively-reported new book.

Here are his best travel hacks.

The best way to strike connections abroad is extremely analog.

I know we’re well into the digital era, and business cards are basically obsolete, but I like to go even more old-school and hand-write mine. Whenever I travel, I bring a stack of thick-stock blank cards; they have a little cartoon whale wearing a cardigan on the front, and plenty of room below to customise a sentence or two. Filling them out on the spot with my name, WhatsApp number, and email address—along with a quick, kind word—has become my go-to way to befriend people that can help me crack open a new destination.

The key is not being shy about who you hand them out to. I’ve given hand-written cards to industry acquaintances at conferences, a particularly savvy server at a restaurant to learn more about a city’s food scene, concierges at hotels, tour guides, and friends of friends. There’s something sincere and unique about them that piques a person’s interest; they’ve helped me make stronger connections with plugged-in people wherever I go. (Of course you need to carry a decent pen with you, too.)

Want to know you’re getting your money’s worth at a fancy hotel? Look at the Q-tips.

If I do the rough math, I’ve stayed at around 3,000 hotels, and tacitly sizing up hotel rooms is a work vice I can’t help, even when I’m supposed to be on vacation. The first thing I look for is the ergonomics of a hotel room: Does the placement of power outlets, light switches, and other amenities make intuitive sense? Then I go for the minutiae. You can tell a lot about the standard of care by the quality of the Q-tips in the vanity kit. Are they cheap and flimsy or a nice sturdy stem with a floofy bud?

There’s one sandwich that speaks volumes

When ordering room service, I always go for the club sandwich. It carries well from the kitchen up to the room, and practically every single hotel in the world has it on their menu—another good way to cross-compare between lodging options.

Never trust the New York subway—to get you to the airport.

I was heading from my apartment in Manhattan to JFK Airport for a night flight to Europe, for work. With only a piece of rolling luggage and plenty of time to waste in the lounge, I decided to take the subway. But as we went through the tunnel under the East River, the subway got into some sort of terrible accident—a collision—and I was stuck in the subway car with no electricity or cell phone reception for over two hours until the Jaws of Life came to get the passengers off the train. We were escorted along the filthy tracks and had to climb up and onto the subway platform.

By some sort of magic, I was able to make it onto the flight just as they were closing the jet bridge door. The flight attendant looked at me with a puzzled, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be here?” look as I took my seat in business class. Later, I went to the lavatory and noticed tar slicks across my face and clothing from having to negotiate the underbelly of the New York subway system. I looked like Oliver Twist. I’ve never taken the subway to the airport again. (And I do always carry a little oshibori towel with me, the washcloths you get at Japanese onsens, in case of emergency.)

If you want a great hotel, skip anything with 10/10 reviews.

Personally, when I’m booking a hotel based on reviews and intel, I’m looking for a bit of controversy. I want a property that’s garnered praise from nine out of 10 people, and I want that 10th person to absolutely hate it. That’s how I know that it’s not a staid, could-be-anywhere hotel, but is taking a risk and making a statement instead—memorable.

The best example I can think of is Jade Mountain in Saint Lucia: Most people swear by the open concept design, with built-in plunge pools and a missing fourth wall that looks out onto the island’s Piton Mountains (count me as a devotee), but there’s always someone that prefers air conditioning to island breezes, or doesn’t care for the dark teak furnishings.

The Great Barrier Reef isn’t Australia’s best place to scuba dive.

I think oftentimes we get stuck in these travel paradigms, all flocking to the same specific destinations to fulfil certain fantasies when there are 20 different variations on the theme, and usually the lesser-known places are even better. Australia holds some really great examples. Most people spend a lot of their time in Queensland, but I’d encourage them to explore the west coast instead. It’s where the orange sands of Uluru meet the country’s quintessentially turquoise beaches. The Unesco-protected Shark Bay area is particularly compelling, with reefs full of friendly sea turtles. I’ve been a PADI Divemaster for roughly 15 years; some of the best scuba diving can be found on the Ningaloo Coast, a straight (but 700-mile-long) shot north from Perth.

Your most memorable travel experiences will always be the ones you didn’t plan for.

At age 19, I took my first proper trip on my own and backpacked solo around southern Vietnam. My fourth-grade teacher Madame Nguyen had fled the country in the 1970s during the fall of Saigon and found her way to French-speaking Canada. Her story had stayed with me ever since. I enmeshed myself in the circuit of Southeast Asia backpackers taking trips to hidden beaches and going on market tours in the bustling capitals.

One evening, alone, I saw a sign “Bill Clinton ate here” and took a seat at a half-collapsed plastic picnic table in an unassuming noodle house. A young Vietnamese couple—both in university, too—sat down beside me, and we soon struck up a conversation about our mutual studies. They quickly slapped my hands away from the bread-y appetisers on the table that had, they guessed, been sitting out for days. We slurped our pho, shared more stories, and they soon had to leave. When I motioned to the server to pay our bill, she told me the departed couple had already covered it. I was touched. It remains one of my most memorable meals, not because it was “local” or “authentic”—but because it was kind.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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I realised, to my cost, a few years back of following ratings and so called ‘perceived demand’ when in San Sebastian in mid summer. The Booking.com system works against customers when their is a certain level of demand and when there is a low level of demand. They only work for themselves, including the ratings.

If customers knew the actual vacancy rates, the system would collapse. But the online booking agencies keep that info secret, just to boost prices and perceived demand.

End of comments.

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