June 14, 2015

Our Bargain, Senior Friendly, Four Months in Europe

Hotel Imperial, Vienna
Our Room
Last year, we cashed in on our points and miles to take an extended tour of Europe. We went to (in order): Barcelona, Vienna, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig, Nantes, Galway, Limerick, Dublin, Bath, Cardiff, just outside Newport, Solihull (near Birmingham), London, Nether Heyford, London, Bath, Ennis, Limerick, Bath, Madrid, and back to Ecuador.

As I have a mobility issue (not wheelchair bound, but not good for a lot of walking), we began to pay close attention to traveling in a “senior friendly” manner. While I have a patented rant on this subject, and am happy to go into this in the future, in this post I want to highlight how these two hotels successfully meet the challenge of accommodating this demographic. One hotel is a total splurge ($500 per night minimum — we used points), the other is a bargain, considering it is in the heart of a major European city (around €100).

Hotel Imperial Vienna
Kaerntner Ring 16, Vienna A-1015, Austria

From the moment we were greeted at check-in (where the concierge immediately acknowledged our SPG Gold status) to the time we checked out, we were treated with professionalism and friendliness, a combination rarely achieved in the hotel industry.

The room itself was stunning, and the marble bathroom was the height of luxury. For those in the theatrical professions —  everything in the hotel is detailed to the farthest corner of the room and in the entire hotel. You couldn't see into the wings. Not in the room, not in the hotel. Beautiful fabric on the walls, comfortable furniture throughout the hotel, and even when a door opened to the back of the house, there was no break.

There were also some pleasant surprises: For example, one night as we were having a drink and enjoying the piano music in the bar, it was announced that there would be a concert. An attractive and talented quintet played for almost an hour and a half. Two guitars, cello, flute, and soprano -- lovely. 
A great unexpected bonus!

And if you like apple strudel, make sure you pay a visit to the café. I know the Imperial Torte is the house specialty, and it is excellent, but don't miss the strudel.

A special mention must be made regarding the concierge staff. They helped us so much, whether it was restaurant advice, tour information, general directions, and just about anything else. M. Grassauer, the concierge with whom we worked most often, arranged to get us tickets for a performance art piece and even helped us purchase our train tickets for our next destination (which I totally forgot to do before we left home). He is incredibly well-informed about the Vienna performing arts scene, and I recommend working with him whether you are interested in the classical performing arts or are looking for something a bit more adventurous.

Shower Bench
Hotel Imperial, Vienna

Senior friendly observation on the bathroom in our room: Many of us as we get older need some adaptation in facilities —  not the full-on handicapped access, but just some few changes to make life easier. The free-standing shower had a roomy marble seat as part of the over-all design (not just a pull-down perch) and a hand-held shower attachment. It was stable, it was easy to use, and still luxurious. Instead of merely an orthopedic adaptation, it just seemed to be an added bit of luxury.

Bottom line: Would we stay here again? Absolutely! I wouldn't hesitate for a minute — well, as long as I was in splurge mode.

Intur Palacio San Martin
‪Plaza San Martin, 5‬, Madrid ‪28013‬

Our budget room at
Intur Palacio San Martin
We stayed in this hotel during our 2013 trip, but we talk about it frequently as on of the nicest, affordable in-a-major-city hotels we have experienced. 

First, the hotel is so conveniently located! Only a few minutes walk from Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, El Callao, and La Gran Via (a good spot to catch the Madrid hop-on tour bus). But the big highlight for me was the proximity to El Corte Ingles, perhaps the best department store in the known universe. Besides the high-end stuff, it also has "regular" toiletries and clothing, a terrific supermarket, an ATM, and a Starbucks. Very convenient. Walking distance to Arenal and the Opera, too. 

The building formerly housed the U.S. Embassy and has been retrofitted for use as a hotel. Located on Plaza San Martin, next to a convent (Descalzas Reales), the hotel and its outdoor cafe were pretty quiet, yet central. One night we had dinner in the restaurant. A bit pricey, but the tortilla (Spanish egg and potato omelette) and the salads just hit the spot. One lovely afternoon I spent a couple of warm autumn hours sitting at the umbrella tables on the plaza drinking cappuccinos and reading magazines. 

Our first budget ground floor room was bright, and the air conditioning was quiet and efficient, which made up for the fact that the window didn't open for safety reasons. Our king bed was two twin beds joined together (fine with us), had a nice closet fitted with a safe and drawers. In addition, the modern bathroom had a brilliant shower and a very good hair dryer. The WiFi access was sufficient for us, but our friends needed a better download stream as he was to participate in a conference over the Internet.

While I realize that to some the starkness of the budget rooms might be a bit jarring, I personally thought the simple decor was a break from all the over-decorated hotel rooms in most of Europe.

The shower in the wheelchair
accessible room

Intur Palacio San Martin
Another thing about the budget rooms: I have a mobility issue (walk with a cane) so some hotel rooms can be challenging with access steps, luggage and elevator issues, etc. These ground level rooms are fantastic. Just a tiny wide slope down and a nip around the corner to the room. For those with walkers and other devices, there are no rugs or carpets to get in your way, even in the room. Bathrooms in these accommodations are shower only, and have only a low tile barrier, so access is relatively easy. There is a metal stool that can be moved into the shower if a person finds it difficult to stand the whole shower time. In addition, one budget room is completely wheelchair accessible, including stability bars around the toilet. The shower is completely roll-in with a sturdy seat attached to the shower wall; the water spills down a drain in the floor covered by a smooth metal grill. While I didn't need all this, it was certainly nice to know it was available as I have friends for whom this is an important issue.

The staff was at all times pleasant and professional. Between their English and my limited Spanish, everything worked out nicely. They were also helpful when it came time to printing out our boarding passes (the computer in the lobby wasn't hooked up to a printer).

We liked the hotel so much that for our return to Madrid on our way home to South America, we booked there again. For the foreseeable future, unless I have some magical points option, this will be our hotel in Madrid.

* * *
Lest anyone think we are totally made of cash — we aren’t. But I have spent a ton of time trying to maximize the points and miles options that are out there for the taking. Some of it is pretty complicated, but I think it is totally worth the time and effort. For example, Iberia has a cash and points option which allowed for us to have deeply discounted air fares to and from South America. We used trains, buses, and bargain airlines throughout Europe (some of which was reimbursed by the Nantes festival). 

In addition, I won a pretty good prize from the Westin and SPG hotel group, which accounted for a good portion of our hotel stays, and the week in Nantes was courtesy of Utopiales (a futurist conference) as K. W. was one of the guests. I also bought hotel points from the IHG group during their summer sale. I spent about $300, $150 of which turned into 9 days at the Holiday Inn in Solihull (no extra fees) and a cash and points option for several days in London. The Wales visit was courtesy of Hilton Honors points and an incredible bargain rate of 5,000 points per night, and cash and points options in Prague, London, and Bath (which saved a bundle). And the three weeks in Nether Heyford over the holidays was a house/pet sit so the owners could go to South Africa. Those three weeks were free. 

While we did our fair share of restaurant eating, we also did a ton of in-room picnics. Two of our paid stays in Bath and Galway were self-catering — which means kitchens and laundry facilities. And, of course, the three weeks in Nether Heyford were in a fully equipped house.

Total bill for FOUR months:  Approximately $5,500, including food, hotels, travel. As we spend on average around $400 to $450 a month on food and dining out at home, I could deduct that from the cash spend. So, the total for the trip really cost around $4,000.

If you ever wondered if putting in the time to learn and implement the points thing was worth it — Yup. It is.