Mark (mhaithaca) wrote,

Travelogue - Royal National Hotel, London

I would never have chosen it, especially after reading some of the online reviews, but the folks I was going to be hanging out with in London had picked the Royal National Hotel, and thus, so did I. £72/night for a single room feels like a lot of money, but it's not for nothing that London is called the most expensive city in the world. There wasn't much below £100/night, and the sorts of places I'd start to consider decent economy options in the US were £150 and up. A Marriott? More. The rate is much lower per-person with two or more people in the room; I think a "twin" room (two small beds instead of one) was £92.

Honestly, I have no serious complaints about the Royal National. It's a budget hotel, and it shows. It's huge, with 1,600 rooms if I understood correctly, arranged in three massive squares with a main courtyard and two other courtyards that you can't get into. The rooms are teensy by American hotel room standards, reminding me more of the cheaper cruise ship cabins than anything else. A narrow twin bed, a desk and chair, a bathroom you and the door can barely fit in at the same time, and a few square feet of floor space beyond that. Everything's functional and relatively clean, but well-used and old-looking. The place reminds me of the mental images I have of '50s Soviet apartment blocks, aging but serviceable and with little space per person.

I actually asked to switch rooms because I couldn't stand up in the shower. The bottom of the tub was above floor level, and there was a beam or something that shortened the ceiling right above the tub. They couldn't on Wednesday because they were full of loud Croatian football fans, but they let me switch on Thursday to a room that had a higher ceiling, and were very friendly about it.

That £ includes a continental breakfast, in one of two massive breakfast rooms that remind me of nothing so much as the cruise ship breakfast rooms. Trays and lines and generic food and cafeteria-style drink dispensers and almost but not quite enough tables. The continental breakfast was actually pretty shabby, featuring white toast and rolls and packets of marmalade and jam, sectioned oranges and grapefruit, and big plastic cereal dispensers. For £4.50 more, you could upgrade to the English breakfast, which added pre-fab-looking fried eggs, rashers of bacon, breakfast sausages, baked beans, stewed tomatoes, and porridge. For some reason I never figured out, though I certainly didn't ask anyone, my hotel room slip was rubber-stamped "English Breakfast," so I got to eat those and didn't have to pay extra. My travel buddies stuck to the continental breakfast, though I shared my bacon. Eggs and bacon and a big bowl of fruit seemed like a good way to start each day with some protein and the right kind of carbs, so that's pretty much what I did every day, except yesterday, when I got up too late and just had a granola bar. Lunch was at noon anyway.

The hotel's free wireless Internet connection in the lobby worked about as advertised, though the ladies told me it was offline late one night when they tried to use it. Access in the rooms would have been nice, but big, old buildings are really hard to get wireless throughout. The lobby seating around the bar was often full or close to it, between folks getting online and folks drinking, not to mention folks waiting for check-in time or waiting after checking out to head to the airport. It was easy to grab a pint of beer while sitting down with the laptop, so I did that a lot. (Mm, beer.)

There was an odd little semi-circular enclosed-but-outdoor area with glass walls and metal furniture next to the bar, available from noon to 9pm daily. It must have been a pseudo-outdoor smoking lounge, or something, before tightening smoking regulations in London presumably made that illegal. I sat out there when I could; the weather was pretty much invariably good for our visit, and that area offered a respite from the din of the lobby. The massive building had several clusters of aging elevators, though it was hard to find stairs I could use rather than wait for the elevators.

The guestrooms themselves were spare but functional, offering European-style light switches with a block of them by the bed for ease of turning everything off as you turn in for the night. An electric water heater pot on the desk was accompanied by a packet offering instant coffee (that wasn't all that bad), a tea bag, sugar, and even little tubes of ultra-pasteurized milk that doesn't need refrigeration. Much better idea than powdered creamer, not that I need either when I have coffee.

The windows could be opened several inches to allow fresh air in, which I took advantage of a few times. There were no screens, but as far as I could tell, also no insects to worry about. Other than the relatively cramped quarters, the bathrooms were functional, with a shaver outlet that lets visitors plug in most electric razors without using adapters. My only complaint is that the old-fashioned sinks with separate cold and hot faucets make it harder to wash up; I've never been into filling the basin in order to wash my hands or face. Soap and towels are provided, and other toiletries were reportedly available from housekeeping. I'd brought some shampoo with me, so didn't need to bother.

The Royal National's housekeeping office also kindly made hair dryers and electrical adapters available for a deposit that's returned when you return the item. I had an electric adapter with me, but since it turned out to be shaped wrong to fit my plugs, I was grateful for the loan. I tried to give her a £10 note for the requested £5 deposit, but since she couldn't make change and didn't want that much, she let me give her a $5 bill instead. I got it back this morning without incident when I returned the adapter. Apparently you could also request a refrigerator; my friends did that, and kept some drinks and leftovers cold that way.

Other than some brusque behavior from some of the breakfast-room staff trying to manage mobs of people after their free breakfasts, and the concierge desk giving me bad advice for getting to the photo opening on the Underground the other night, I found the hotel's staff to be friendly and professional. Many of them are probably young and inexperienced, but that's also often true of staff at Marriott hotels, since they often bring young staff members from foreign countries to expose them to new places early in their careers.

If you're booking online, look for the "BOGO," or "Be Our Guest Offer," which provides a voucher for a free dinner the night of your arrival. I managed to miss that I had to enter a code on the booking form to request that, and sent an e-mail to ask if they'd let me have it anyway. They sent back a friendly note saying they'd added the code to my reservation. The voucher lets you pick one of the four restaurants that's affiliated with their hotel chain, including the English-style carvery buffet right in the Royal National, and the Indian buffet on the corner. The ladies and I ate at Papadom, the Indian buffet, on Tuesday night so I could take advantage of that. The food was very good, with lots of variety, and downright outstanding for a steam-table buffet meal. I think it was £11 per person for the others, quite reasonable judging by how much we spent on all the rest of our food this week, plus drinks. I just had to pay for my beer. (Thayer seemed surprised they charged me for it; I would've been astonished if a free meal offer had included alcohol.)

I'm not going to recommend the Royal National to people with high lodging standards and high expectations, but I can certainly say I felt I got what I'd been promised for an amount of money that was reasonable for the world's most expensive city. If you can afford more, by all means try a higher-end place, or if you really want to economize, consider I'll gladly vouch for folks I know who are setting up new accounts there to try to find places to stay.

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