Simon Calder: Four-star comfort for a fleapit price

The Man Who Pay His Way
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The Independent Travel

The Hotel Astoria on Rue Royale in Brussels is a sumptuous, belle époque palace sparkling with crystal chandeliers and stained-glass panels. The "rack rate" that walk-in guests pay is about £150 a night. So it is exactly the sort of place where I would get no closer than the front door before scampering off to a no-star dive.

But a funny thing happened when I called in at the first hostel I could find after leaving Central Station. It was peeling and shabby, but with the going rate for a basic Brussels bed around £12 a night I thought it would be a safe bet, perhaps enlivened by an interesting assortment of humans and other animals. But the proprietor quoted a price three times higher than I had expected.

I thanked him, turned left out of the door and stumbled upon the tourist office. On the basis that their English was bound to be better than my French, and anyway in Brussels you never know if the person is Flemish and therefore might prefer not be addressed in French, I asked: "Any cheap hotels around here?"

Because I happened to be wearing a jacket and tie, in readiness for a meeting, the staff looked a bit surprised at my emphasis on economy. Then one leaned forward conspiratorially. "We can do you a very good price on a very nice hotel."

That is the sort of phrase a traveller gets weary of being told by touts all over the world. But you rarely hear it in a tourist office. So I, too, leaned and conspired. "Tell me more."

The Brussels tourist office does more than just dish out maps ­ it sells rooms for a fraction of normal prices. As business bookings fall, it appears that smart hotels in the capital of Europe are looking for ways to fill beds without "cannibalising" the remaining few high-spending customers who will still pay proper rates. And they're turning to the tourist office to supply leisure travellers who would not usually stay at upmarket places. At this point I was leaning so conspiratorially that I could read, upside down and in bad French, an under-the-counter fax from the four-star Hotel Astoria. It said, approximately, that people sent by the tourist office could get a room for barely a quarter of the rack rate ­ just £40 ­ and the hotel would throw in a breakfast that normally costs £15.

Recalling that Monsieur le Fleapit's best price was only a few pounds less, I accepted. The process became even more cloak-and-dagger. I paid 5 per cent of the cost as a "deposit" (in fact, that £2 is the tourist office's commission, and is deducted from the final bill) and was given a voucher and strict instructions to report to reception within one hour ­ be there by 1.56pm or the deal's off, pal, was the message.

Navigating around a room stuffed with an unfamiliar collection of antique chairs, soft pillows and a minibar, I deduced that the jacket and tie helped; if I were a hotel manager, I would ask the tourist office to send guests who look as though they would fit in at a smart hotel. But at the moment, from the hotel's point of view, (almost) anybody is better than nobody.

¿ Sleep was all the sweeter that night because of the wickedly early start I had made to reach Stansted airport on time. Since airport security was stepped up, everyone is more cautious, and airlines are asking passengers to get to the airport two hours ahead, because of the more intensive check-in procedures. Has the self-styled Stansted Express responded by adding earlier trains? Not a bit: the rail service to the Essex airport, with fares so high that many travellers spend more on the train than the plane, is getting worse.

On my previous trip to Stansted, I turned up in good time for the 5am departure. A train wandered along about 10 past the appointed hour, delayed because, "It's been raining".

Unscheduled stops included Cheshunt and Sawbridgeworth. When one anxious traveller enquired about the arrival time, he was asked what airline he was flying with. "Ryanair," was the reply. "You'll be all right because usually they're late as well."

So on my next trip to Stansted, for the flight to Belgium, I took the 4.30am Airbus from Victoria station in London, in the fond belief that it could not be worse.

For travellers during the hours of daylight, and in no hurry, this journey is a delight ­ a tour of some of London's most popular tourist attractions: the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner, Park Lane, Marble Arch, Lord's Cricket Ground...

A bus with this trajectory is heading for Birmingham airport, not Stansted. This uneasy feeling continues to Golders Green Tube station, where the driver takes a cigarette break, then sets off around the North Circular in the direction of Southend. One hour after leaving Victoria, the bus is still orbiting the capital.

How is anyone to reach Britain's leading no-frills airport from the city it is supposed to serve? Any solutions, apart from "stop flying", "take Eurostar" or "get a life", will be appreciated.

¿ No one knows how long it took to create Stonehenge, but surely it happened faster than the Department of Culture's attempt to sort out the unholy mess surrounding this sacred site.

You may have heard the Arts Minister, Baroness Blackstone, on the Today programme on Saturday: "I am really delighted that we have a set of proposals," she said, before setting off for the Wiltshire World Heritage Site that is hemmed in by a shambles of roads, car parks and clutter.

Exactly the same sight greeted Chris Smith in 1997, when we were told that the then Culture Secretary wanted "to press ahead with a solution to the Stonehenge problem in time for the Millennium." As in "Dome".

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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