July 11 2015

Finishing My Fredericton Trip Report and Pondering the Wisdom of Off-Season Travel

Posts from this trip:

 

For many, travel decisions are mainly driven by the destination. People decide where they want to go, then book flights and lodging accordingly.

That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, but it doesn’t work as well for me. Because my travel list is long. Basically, I want to go (almost) everywhere.

When “everywhere” is your preferred destination, specific locations are somewhat irrelevant.

Combine that with my other favorite sport – deal hunting – and much of my travel decisions are driven by economics. Where can I go cost-efficiently at this time? (To clarify, “cost-efficient” and “cheap” are not synonymous.)

With this strategy, I’ve had some fantastic travel experiences for nearly-negligible costs.

I jetted off to Amsterdam on a whim, staying in one of the finest hotels in the world, for a total cash cost of about $200 (flights, hotels, and sightseeing included).

I took a 12-day, luxury tour of Egypt for a fraction of the typical price.

Recently I stayed at – to name a few – the very nice Delta Fredericton for $25/night, the 4.5-star InterContinental San Francisco for under $50/night, and the new Staybridge Suites Birmingham (in England, not Alabama) for about $32/night.

 

But bargains occasionally entail compromise

For example, an award flight might not be available on my preferred date.  So I have to adjust my schedule.

Or – to the point of this post – I end up visiting a place during the off-season. Like the arid desert that is Egypt in the peak of summer.

Or Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, in the middle of winter.

My week-long Fredericton trip was almost entirely economics-based, with a total cash cost of about $100 – flights and hotels included. (I don’t typically count meals and ground transportation since I incur those regardless of whether I’m traveling.)

  • The flights were free. I didn’t even spend frequent flyer miles because I added Fredericton as a stopover en route to Birmingham, England. (On a round-trip international award ticket, United allows one free stopover.) I probably paid incremental airline fees and taxes, but I don’t have the breakdown for the Fredericton portion so let’s just say $25.
  • One night at an airport hotel for an overnight layover was $56.
  • One night at the Delta Fredericton Hotel was $25.
  • A week at the Crowne Plaza Fredericton cost $0 in cash. A PointBreaks hotel at the time, it cost 4,500 IHG points/night (the 5,000 PointBreaks rate minus a 10% rebate from my IHG credit card). I have a six-figure IHG point balance – earned through reimbursed business travel or other low-cost means – so this stay hardly made a dent.

In the on-season, my hotel costs would have been much higher as I doubt the Crowne Plaza would have been offered on PointBreaks.

 

So what’s Fredericton like in the off-season?

In a word: cold.

For those unfamiliar with Fredericton’s location, it is in eastern Canada, above the US state of Maine. So it’s basically like going to Maine in January. Except colder.

This was Fredericton’s town square when I visited:

Officers Square
Officers Square in Fredericton. Cold, eh?

Ideal for ice skating – if that’s what you’re there for.

Alas, I didn’t bring my skates. And everything else there is to do outdoors was severely constrained by weather.

Not that I had a bad time. In fact, it was a nice – if not optimal – trip.

I toured the Beaverbrook Art Gallery when it was otherwise devoid of visitors. While paying the entrance fee, the cashier made small talk and I mentioned I was visiting from California.

A few of the rooms were closed for renovation so he charged me half price, then left me to roam the exhibits. The collection was okay. For a small gallery in a remote-ish part of the world, you can’t expect The Louvre.

As I was about to leave, a staff member approached and said, “They told me you’re visiting from California. I’m sorry some of the rooms are closed to the public but if you like I can take you to see them.”  While I didn’t think much of the collection at that point, I did not want to refuse the gracious offer so I accepted.

Turns out, the non-public rooms held all the gems. There were some stunning paintings and tapestries. This person not only escorted me through them, but took time to explain many of the pieces and the general history of the museum, including how some of its treasured pieces were acquired.

It’s unlikely I would’ve been offered this very detailed tour of the museum’s restricted areas during peak season.

Beaverbrook Art Gallery Sculpture
On the grounds of Beaverbrook Art Gallery

The museum has several famous works, including three Salvador Dali pieces and one by Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund). Of course, with my impeccable timing, all were on tour at the time.

So, as with everything else in life, off-season travel has its pros and cons.

 

Is off-season travel worth it?

On the balance, I’d say yes – in moderation.

At the extremes, it’s not worth it if you can’t at all enjoy the destination’s intrinsic appeal. To point out the obvious:

  • You can’t snow ski in summer when there’s no snow.
  • You can’t go sailing in winter when the water is frozen.
  • I wouldn’t try to hike the Inca Trail, which requires long days of trekking and several nights of camping, during rainy season.

Conversely, other destinations are only mildly inconvenient in the off season. In those cases, I’m willing to go if the cost-benefit analysis is favorable.

I didn’t mind Egypt in the summer. While it was hot, most of what I wanted to do didn’t require extended outdoor exposure or high physical exertion.

I was driven to the Pyramids and other sites in air-conditioned vehicles; I only had to get out and walk around a little once there, and that was tolerable with good sunscreen and proper hydration.

The remainder of the trip was spent gorging myself on gourmet food while sailing the Nile on an air-conditioned luxury boat. Do-able.

Sunboat
Outdoor dining patio on Nile River cruise boat

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

 

June 20 2015

Crowne Plaza Fredericton – Lord Beaverbrook Hotel Review

In decades of hotel stays, I can remember only one other occasion when I intentionally did not tip housekeeping. (At times I have unintentionally omitted a tip.)

But let me start at the beginning.

I chose the Crowne Plaza for a stay spanning several nights as it was a PointBreaks property that happened to work with my travel plans. (PointBreaks, for those unfamiliar, is one of the best deals in hotel loyalty programs.)

The hotel exterior
The hotel exterior

 

The location

The location is perfect for this city girl – right in the city center and easily walkable to restaurants and visitor attractions.

The town’s main street (King Street) is a block away, Officers Square (with its beautiful public skating rink) is down the street, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is next door, and the Fredericton Playhouse is across the street.

The hotel is also set on the banks of the Saint John River, affording lovely views – even in the middle of winter:

View from my room
View from my room

 

The room

When a property describes itself as “historic,” that’s usually marketing code for “old.” The hotel may be historic in the traditional sense of the word, but it is also indeed historic in the marketing sense. However, its upkeep was good – albeit not impeccable.

Furnishings included a lot of dark wood. I’m not usually a fan of old-world design, but it works here. I wouldn’t expect a hip property at this location (that feels semi-remote, even if Fredericton is the capital of the province New Brunswick).

Room
My suite

I was given what the hotel described as a suite, although it was all one room so not a suite by definition. However, I typically prefer having everything in one room so the setup worked for me.

It was definitely spacious. I had a Jacuzzi Suite which, intuitively, had an in-room Jacuzzi tub.

The fireplace added much coziness to the room, especially during my winter stay.

Fireplace and sitting area
Fireplace and sitting area

The bed was very comfortable (if you like beds with soft fluffy mattress toppers).

I did notice the absence of an in-room safe. The guest booklet said they’re available at the front desk, but I never used them given the inconvenience that would have entailed.

 

The service

This was the hotel’s epic fail.

I generally like the service at Crowne Plazas – much friendlier and less stuffy than at the same chain’s luxury brand, InterContinental. Many of the staff here were great, but there are clearly bad apples and they unfortunately left a sour taste.

Internet was complimentary, but not reliable. It was also incorrectly described as “high speed” – I tested it several times and always got below 5 Mbps. I work when I travel so I’m sensitive to Internet functionality.

On a particularly bad Internet day – when it was completely out for several hours – I called the front desk. And the agent who answered basically told me to fix it myself.

I kid you not.

First she said maybe I’m using the wrong code. (Um…I did manage to graduate junior high. Besides, I couldn’t even get a signal to access the code-input page.) Then she said “you’re the third call I’ve had about this so let me give you the number of our Internet provider and they can help you figure it out.”

Yes, she told me to deal with the hotel’s outside Internet provider.

And since I’m the third call, shouldn’t that indicate the problem isn’t me?

After I said it is not my place to deal with the hotel’s contractors, to get rid of me she finally just said snapped “well then let me call you back.” (She never did.)

The worst part, though, was the housekeeping. OMG, the housekeeping.

On arrival, I found literally over a dozen hairs (that I am certain belonged to a stranger) on the bed. I picked off the first few but pulled back the sheets and kept seeing more and finally concluded the linens hadn’t been changed after the last guest. The lack of creasing on the sheets suggested the same.

Revolted, I picked up the phone and requested housekeeping, specifically telling the operator I was checked into a room with unchanged linens. She offered no apology; just a rote “I’ll send housekeeping right away.” (The “right away” turned out to be an exaggeration.)

The housekeeper came, took one look, and immediately acknowledged the linens hadn’t been changed. She said she didn’t service the room that day but would have a “private conversation” with her supervisor about it. Unlike the operator, she seemed sincerely apologetic, was (or at least acted) concerned about the situation, and thanked me for letting them know. She then changed the linens.

The next day a different housekeeper came. This housekeeper sniffled heavily the entire time and could barely speak. So, the person who made the bed I slept in and folded the towels I used was sick and possibly contagious.

I actually don’t blame the housekeeper; lots of people feel they need to work even when they’re not feeling well. However, I believe management should not have let her work in a guest-facing role that day given her obvious health condition.

Unfortunately the housekeeping issues only worsened. On yet another day, there were brown stains on the (supposedly newly-changed) sheets.

Not-chocolate stains on the sheets
Stained linens

I want to think it was chocolate.

But chocolate comes out in the wash, no?

If you’re a housekeeper and your job is to ensure guests have clean rooms, how do you miss a noticeably brown, dried-blood-like stain on white sheets? Either you overlooked the stain (in which case you’re incompetent) or saw it and used the sheet anyway (in which case you’re…let me find a polite word…indifferent?).

I mean, this is an upscale hotel. If there’s a big brown stain, take the sheet out of service! Even a mediocre hotel would do that (I hope). By now I was utterly disgusted, but in the end it is only a hotel stay so I just called down to have someone come change the sheets. Again.

End of rant. 🙂

 

The amenities

The indoor pool area had a saltwater pool, hot tub, and steam room. Though the area was mostly deserted when I took pictures, it was full of guests most evenings.

Pool area
Pool area

There’s also a small fitness room in the corner…

Gym
Fitness center

…and a business center whose printer came in handy as I had to work during my trip.

However, I think the hotel’s best attribute is its location – next to the river yet right in downtown. In winter the weather constrains river activities, but I’m sure in warmer weather the jogging path behind the hotel makes for a great amenity.

And I imagine the scenery would be stunning during Fall foliage season.

 

Summary

Overall, I’m ambivalent about this hotel. I did stay at another hotel – the Delta Fredericton – on this trip and had a much better experience in terms of service.

But the Crowne Plaza is best-located of all hotels in Fredericton. Despite its issues, for the location alone I might still stay here if I were in Fredericton again.

Upon checkout when I was asked how my stay was, I said I did have something to bring to a manager’s attention. The agent called a manager right away and when I conveyed my experiences about housekeeping she was (or at least acted) concerned and thanked me for letting her know. Hopefully they have addressed it by now.

Cost: 4,500 IHG points per night (5,000 PointBreaks rate minus a 10% rebate for holding the co-branded credit card). Since I value an IHG point at 0.7 cents, I equate the cost to $32/night.

Link to hotel website.

 

March 15 2015

Delta Fredericton Hotel Review

This was my first-ever stay at a Delta Hotels and Resorts property and it might also prove to be my last. Shortly after my stay, it was announced the Canadian hotel chain would be acquired by Marriott International.

I haven’t heard whether Delta properties will be rebranded as Marriotts, but this particular property is fairly recently renovated so I’d be surprised to see it undergo a huge physical overhaul any time soon.

Overall I enjoyed the stay.

Exterior
Hotel exterior


The location

A city girl, I almost always prefer hotels in the city center. Walking strolling to restaurants and other services is more relaxing than driving/cabbing/public transiting, I think.

Unfortunately, the Delta’s location is just the opposite. There was a grand total of three eating options in walking distance: (1) the hotel’s own offerings – a restaurant, pub, and room service, (2) a 24-hour restaurant next door, and (3) a diner/convenience store across the street which closes at 7:00 pm on weeknights and earlier on weekends.

The rest of the surroundings is residential.

View from Room
View from my room

That said, it is not far from the city center so a taxi ride downtown is not expensive. I vaguely remember paying around $6 (Canadian) each way. And if you are coming with a car then the location is probably even less consequential.

Furthermore, the hotel’s setting – next to the Saint John River – is picturesque. I just don’t happen to have any pictures of it – sorry!

But here’s one (clearly not taken in winter) from the hotel’s website:

Photo from the hotel's website
Photo from the hotel’s website

In the middle of winter (it was -17°C the day of my stay) there wasn’t much opportunity to enjoy the adjacent trails and other outdoor activities, but I imagine it would be very nice in more agreeable weather. In fact, if I were reviewing the hotel after a summer stay this “location” section might sound totally different.

 

The room

Assessing décor is so subjective, but this particular hotel’s design is nicely aligned with my personal taste. Sleek and uncluttered – yet with just enough coziness to not feel sterile. But for the rustic-y twist, I might have described the décor here as W Hotels-esque.

Overall
My room

Having booked through a third party (Orbitz), I expected no special treatment. Indeed, I was given what I presume to be a basic room…with a view of the parking lot.

Nevertheless, I was happy with the room and perfectly comfortable in it. Square footage-wise it was not large, but being efficiently designed and functionally furnished it felt spacious.

The bathroom also afforded plenty of space, including a countertop that must have been 6 feet long.

Bathroom

The HVAC worked well (very important given the weather), a mini-fridge was included (albeit hard to find, concealed behind a drawer under the desk), and the desk area was well-equipped.

As one who needs to stay connected when traveling, I have a pet peeve about hotel rooms with insufficient power outlets. Worse yet when I have to crawl under a desk to reach the few outlets that are there.

No such problem in this room. There were plenty of outlets, including a power strip built into the desktop.

Plugs
“Smart desk” features

Internet was complimentary and the speed was decent (~12 Mbps when I tested), but I was dropped a handful of times which is always frustrating.

 

The service

I showed up well before noon while the hotel’s check-in time is 3:00 pm. Despite having made no prior request for early check in, I was cheerfully given a room immediately. The agent was very nice – and forthcoming with (non-hotel) dining and general suggestions.

Beyond check in, check out, and requesting a taxi, I had little interaction with the staff but I felt the service was overall friendly yet professional.

 

The amenities

The gym was clean and well equipped.

Gym

The gym overlooked the indoor pool, which had big windows and plenty of lounge chairs. Both the gym and pool were open 24 hours.

The pool, in turn, overlooked the grounds.

Pool
Indoor pool

The hotel’s website also shows an outdoor pool, but I’m sure it was snowed over at the time.

The lobby was also well done. Two stories high, it had the right balance of rustic, cozy, and luxurious. The type of look it’d expect in, say, an upscale ski resort property. (I think all that snow influenced my perception.)

Lobby
Lobby

There is also a business center upstairs.

 

Summary

But for the location, I enjoyed everything about this hotel.

I could have been happier with a room overlooking something other than the parking lot, but I did not expect anything beyond a base room. Normally I might have gently inquired about a complimentary upgrade (it never hurts to ask) but did not on this occasion as:

  • The alternative view would have been of the river, which at the time was blanketed in snow. I didn’t need to see any more snow at that point.
  • I had booked through a third party. That usually lowers you on the guest totem pole, reducing the chances of a free upgrade.
  • I paid a fraction of the normal rate to begin with and didn’t need to further feel as if I was robbing someone.
  • The rest of my time in Fredericton was spent at the Crowne Plaza, where I did have a river-view room (actually a suite, again for a fraction of the price; review here).

Cost: $25 (before tax) thanks to the Orbitz Cyber Monday offer.

Link to hotel website.