So, I’m off on holiday, giving me the chance to test out some of the things we sell and, hopefully, share a few tips with all you travellers out there.
Amanda – my wife – and I are escaping work and children for ten days, flying with Virgin to Grenada for some holiday sun. Early March is a great time to avoid the rush; the airports are quiet, with a few people with ski equipment knocking about the terminal, a few people on their way home, but mostly those with time on their hands – couples bound by neither work nor children.
It’s Sunday; I’m packing; I’m packing a huge amount. We’re joining a sailing boat headed from Grenada to Bequia. Packing five bags, one of them a windsurfer, one a kite and kiteboard, one more provisions and even a toaster for the crew. Getting the weight right is important. We’re flying Virgin, who are pretty accommodating when it comes to sporting kit.
When British Airways announced their policy on sports kit, Branson was quick to call a press conference. Standing on the wing of a plane, holding his surf board, he proclaimed every passenger could fly with a sports bag free. Good man, Richard. I know he’s a keen kite surfer. My wife, mother, father, brother, sister and all our children moved across to Virgin.
For those of you that don’t know – I’m not sure the secret is out yet – Holiday Extras can arrange a chauffeur to meet you at the airport. An Airparks chauffeur met my wife and me at Gatwick’s South terminal. The check-in desks are a momentary lift ride and stroll away. It’s about £30 more for the service, but once you’ve done it, it’s hard to go back from.
Virgin offer a twilight check-in service until 9pm, the night before you fly, so we avoid the crowds once more. Drop our bags off, all 60kg of it, and head to our hotel for dinner.
I’ve not stayed at the Gatwick Hilton for a good few years, as the Sofitel at the North terminal had me hooked, so to speak. So, tonight was a bit of a friendly competition. Check in was easy. 821 rooms in the hotel, only 300 arrivals tonight; it’s busy when there are 500. No offer to take my bags to the room like the Sofitel (you can see where this is headed). Drop bags in room and head to Amy’s restaurant.
Last time I was here, it was a burger-and-fries kind of place. This time we were seated by a lovely French maitre d’ and well looked after by a new recruit, just three months into the job. A simple but tasty soup to start, followed by a crispy sea bass, washed down with a Chablis Premier Cru. Lovely. Anyone would think we were splashing out. £120 for dinner, it quickly adds up.
Bed time. I dive onto the double bed. Not what I’m expecting. Are those springs!? The bed creaks as I move about in it. If you’ve stayed at the Sofitel, you’ll know they have what they call “MyBed”, a trademark name to indicate how much they care about lying down. 1000 pocket springs missing from our room at the Hilton. Sleep. Work and children occupy my mind.
Screaming! My wife is screaming at the top of her lungs. Don’t panic! My brain takes a while to figure out what’s going on. The clock says 3am. It’s the fire alarm and, man, is it loud. We can barely hear each other. We head for the door, grabbing jumpers as we go.
Downstairs, fire engines arrive instantly. The scene is one I won’t forget for a while. My feet are freezing. Schoolboy error starting to bite. Everyone is gathered in front of the hotel wearing silver blankets handed out by hotel staff. The flashing blue lights bounce off the silver foil. Some have brought their luggage and are standing with it, others have managed to get fully dressed, have boots and woolly hats and rucksacks on. I’m in my PJs.
Back to bed. It’s 3.30. As I lie there, I’m wondering if the guy who set the alarm off by overloading a plug socket in his room has had his door marked with a red cross by the hotel manager yet.
7am: the hotel lift is full of excited holidaymakers. They all see the funny side. An airport hotel, the night before you fly, is a great way to start your holiday early but avoid an early start! They’ve not had the alarm go off for two years. Doh! Why does this always happen to me?
Gatwick’s South terminal has had some serious cash spent on it. Luggage trolleys may cost £1 to set free, but they glide across the floor. It’s not busy. Security is a sinch. You beep the bar code on your boarding pass and wander through to security. Removing people from the equation is great, but something’s missing: there’s no friendly welcome or good morning.
On to the shops and breakfast. Cafe Rouge do an awesome English breakfast. The practically all-male team of waiters are genuinely happy to serve us. The view is great too. Breakfast is £22.90 for two English, tea and juice. I note the table behind us are having beer with their breakfast.
Three pairs of Havaianas flip flops from JD Sports – great shop – cost £67.51. Mine were just £16.67. Amanda bought two pairs, one of them leather.
Headphones from Dixons. Time is running out, boarding has started. I ask for help. I get it and it’s good. Janis was her name. She talks me through the huge array of noise-cancelling headphones. £54.54 buys a pair of JVC monsters.
Onward. We hit Boots. Love Boots.
Last on the plane. Some people are in our seats and some people are in their seats and some people in theirs. The Virgin attendant detangles the mess with style and authority.
Up, up and away.
Insurance – we’ve got it. Holiday Extras cover, of course, annual multi-trip – underwritten by MAPFRE, and five years winner of best insurance provider to the travel trade. We’re doing something very right. I have additional kiteboarding cover with the BKSA. It’s a dangerous sport and commands an additional £25 premium.
Now, where’s that drinks trolley? Time for a Bloody Mary.
Matthew Pack is the CEO of Holiday Extras, a customer champion and hassle-free ambassador.