Includes the review of Agra’s popular Friend’s Paying Guest House and a contemplation on where the online travel world is heading
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for the immense good the big sharks of the online travel industry did to travel planning. Lonely Planet has made sure our remotest destinations are not so lonely anymore, Frommer’s until recently was fiercely independent, and Trip Advisor is still (sadly so) the premiere go-to stop for any travel planning task. That was me, like most other travel lovers, a couple of years ago. That was before I became a travel snob. But I was brought down to the ground quite rudely. They do say that once you are the bottom, you can only go up. So here’s to going up!
And this is how Trip Advisor almost killed my trip
Let’s cut the long story short. For whatever reasons, I found myself scouring through the mentioned websites for an inexpensive (do not read cheap), clean and cheerful hostel to stay in for two nights while I was in Agra. As usual, I read through blogs, articles, and sources which are considered to have the right kind of niche. That is when the pretty well talked about “Friend’s Paying Guest House” propped up.
It seemed perfect. Low cost rooms, lots of backpackers from around the word leaving golden comments, cool photos for communal breakfasts, bicycle rentals, free wifi, you know, the works. I call up the folks, they take only full payment in advance, and I pay Rs. 3400 ($62) for two double-bed rooms, two nights. A snippet from their own website:
What’s with Trip Advisor and others:
I read the reviews. Great ones! Everyone seemed so happy with the place. I always read the bad reviews too. And the owners answering them always meant sincerity for me. There seemed to be an explanation for all the bad reviews. For instance, check this one out (the review is here):
You might recall I paid Rs. 850 per night for the double room. More than what the management quotes above and way more than what they quote on their website. So we paid for their best double room. No questions asked.
Fast forward to when I arrived at the place: It was approaching around 10 in the night, Agra completely shrouded in the winter fog and the cold was pretty intense. The train was delayed by 8 hours, we had missed dinner and the taxi driver talked way more than necessary. There was that pretty annoying drone to his voice which sometimes bordered on sleaze.
The guesthouse had a big board out on the road proclaiming its name, an attendant came out even before our car stopped. Full marks! I was looking forward to a bath and a sleep. But this is where the nightmare began:
On the Service:
Looks like the bloke came out to examine who was stopping at their gates. Not to offer a cordial welcome. The entrance was dark, no lights flipped on, the guy could have at least told me something before asking us all to follow him to the second floor. Turns out that was just for signing in the details. We need not have lugged the darn luggage. The manager comes out, feigns an accent (come on, we are Indians too, you really don’t need to sound that bad!) and does small talk. Okay so the manager knows to speak! “Is your kitchen closed for the day?” I ask. Yes was the response. The website says something around 11 PM in the winters. Gives us our room keys, the mute (I doubt) bloke shows us to our ground floor rooms. Begin nightmare!
Pictures speak a thousand words:
If the welcome was not enough, we were taken to something I can only draw a comparison to a jail cell. The bathroom lights, plug points, fans did not work. There were no power connections. I asked the guy about it and he had no clue whatsoever. Probing and prodding and finally we have a hunch that there are two power lines to the property and one was switched off. I’ll let the photos do the talking now:
But the world disagrees:
Here’s the part where I felt the most cheated. As a hardened traveler, I am used to occasional disappointments. What I did not expect was to find hostelword “sleep well” stickers, Rough Guides endorsements plastered on their doors and tripadvisor “Bravo” badges on their website. What I do not trust anymore are these below:
So how come the title of the post has “almost” and what about inspiration?
The next morning, I told the guy I am checking out of this place. I asked for a refund for the next day which was already paid for. Of course, that was not possible under the circumstances. As they are “heavily booked” throughout the year and it would mean “unacceptable losses”.
The trip was still saved because the previous stop was New Delhi where I backpacked like it was meant to backpack. No internet, no pre-bookings, just me, the backpack, and one golden tool – talking to the locals.
There comes the inspiration. A stronger belief on a really neat locals initiative I am working on. Locals, real people, real experiences, authentic advice. Do check!