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Don't unpack my bag

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaFrom butlers to work desks and hairdryers, what do frequent travellers really want? We polled our readers. And what exactly do hotels mean by 'free use of swimming pool'?


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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Why not have a butler do your unpacking?

The butlers of Downton Abbey: too classy or imposing for an average Joe? We asked travellers what they thought.

SO THERE I sat in business class, having just been upgraded by Cathay, Hong Kong to Manila, a hop of one-and-a-half hours, not quite in the same league as the 17-hour 14,500km Perth-to-London Qantas non-stop - with its monstrous swag bag of frequent flyer points - but with respectable street cred nonetheless.

We were on time. Hurrah! I settled back and waited. And waited. Then waited some more. The plane lifted off 45 minutes late. I groaned. There went all my finely calibrated appointments.

Then, amazingly, we touched down, early. Is it my addled math or is this the miracle of flight? Elon Musk, eat my dust. I was convinced had the flight been an hour longer we could have reached Mars. Does business class just fly faster than economy? Or had someone fiddled the flight schedules? I wrestled with these imponderables in Manila traffic. But thank you CX. The same miracle occurred on the way back, sans upgrade.

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Yet sometimes all you wish for is a serious downgrade. I recall in Hawaii being upgraded to a vast stretch self-drive limo that would have made the QE2 blush and I feared I'd never make it out of the car park without spectacularly wrecking everything in sight like a Die Hard climax and without a stunt double. "Please downgrade me at once," I demanded, knees weak with fear. The Hertz guy rolled his eyes, and grumpily obliged. Sniffy Asian.

{No unpacking for me by the butler. With just a single piece of underwear and one hanky in my cabin bag, I would be exposed as a luxe pretender...

Nowadays with hotels upgrading you to a city view room (facing a wall for greater privacy) with FREE welcome cocktail (festooned with a dinky nose-tickling umbrella), FREE access to the spa (NO charge for that marbled corridor), and FREE use of the swimming pool, it's time to stand up and say as one, "Spoil us no more." So what all do you really get? Or, maybe it's time to figure out what you really need.

It is interesting that public relations managers love to list 'free use of pool' as a benefit with unmatched sybaritic appeal though the only hotel I know of that ever charged guests was the Palace Hotel Tokyo (Y2,000 for a dip) and even there I suspect this stuffy practice, at an otherwise stunning property overlooking the Imperial Palace, has died a terrible death.

So what are the things you simply cannot do without at your humble hotel, apart from the free oxygen, free pillow, and free selfies? We posed this question to our worldwide frequent traveller readers, listing 10 items to pick from – butler, spa, fitness centre, swimming pool, free WiFi, work desk, free mineral water, bathtub, good hairdryer, and fine dining.

We all love butlers, especially when they do in some toff with the candlestick, but what do you suppose our readers said?

In an age of hi-tech connectivity it is perhaps unsurprising that the No.1 pick (for 73% of the respondents) was free WiFi. Now that's a freebie that genuinely entices. It is deemed a necessity by many travellers and most will make do with standard speeds, avoiding the charges for upgrading to a faster connection.

Bottom of the heap alas in No.10 position was the aforementioned butler who had to make do with just 3.75% of the votes (mainly from India, Saudi Arabia and Brunei) despite his obviously superior unpacking skills and the ability to twirl a tap to run the bath. Pity. Ever since the wry and artful interventions of Reginald Jeeves who saved Bertie from many a blushing snafu, butlers have been an endangered species. Various luxury brands wheel them out still, but they are fewer and harder worked. Perhaps that candlestick will come in handy soon.

Having never used a butler in my life and not sure how to handle that overwhelming erudite presence, I looked for a suitable opportunity at the Raffles Makati, averting my gaze anytime one glided by. No unpacking for me. With just a single piece of underwear, one vest and one hanky in my cabin bag, and nary a Bally or Gucci label in sight, I would be exposed as a luxe pretender. Ironing my socks was not a sufficiently heroic task either. In the end my coat button fell off and I asked my butler to deal with it. "I'll be back in an hour," I said, "no need for unpacking." Sure enough, an hour later, there was my coat, neatly laid out on the bed as instructed, button sewn to perfection. But I digress…

The No.2 item on the list (picked by 50% of respondents) was free mineral water. This is as much an indicator of the trend towards good health as it is rank fear of untreated water and the prospect of Delhi Belly. Health and fitness emerged as a strongly influential factor both for millennials and older travellers who ranked swimming pools No.3 (35% of respondents) though spas weighed in a rather modest No.9 (with 17.5% respondents selecting it as essential), just behind the fitness centre (No.8).

Ahead of these seemingly big-ticket items were the humble bathtub (No.4) and hairdryer (No.5). Bathtubs rated high with Europeans, Singaporeans, Malaysians and Filipinos. Despite my rapidly thinning pate I am a big fan of hairdryers – the kind that can knock a grown man at 20 paces – and am always disturbed by baby blowers that at most tickle the eye-lashes. Then there are the machines affixed to a wall with nary a mirror in sight. This involves interesting early morning contortions not unlike yoga with the whine of the blowers pitched just right to mask the red-eye invective and vocabulary stretch to round out the workout.

The once vaunted work desk – so favoured by executive travellers of yore – wobbled in at No.6 (picked by Australians, Brits, Singaporeans, Saudis, and Hongkongers), respectably ahead of fine dining (No.7), fitness centres and spas. Who really uses work desks these days? People are too busy caressing their iPads in bed or finding the right pillow for their iPhone.

But desks do offer reassuring heft and a smart location for a business-like selfie to prove to your boss, or wife, that you are indeed hard at work and not on some tropical boondoggle. Don't forget to dab off the sweat and use the baby blower to line up the eyebrows. And do remove that dinky umbrella stuffed up your left nostril. It's simply not kosher.

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