18 July 2018

My best new travel kit

I've written about my packing, top gadgets and travel tips before, including a list of really useful travel stuff for Italy, and a sample packing list.

This year I've made a few new purchases which I've found very successful for travel so I'll share them here.

Please note that Amazon links are to Amazon.co.uk and are affiliate links - that means Amazon will pay a tiny percentage commission to Italy Heaven, helping to support the website.

Portable charger


I got fed up with my phone dying two-thirds of the way through a day of sight-seeing. When travelling I'm out for long days and use my phone for photos, videos, to share images on social media, keep up to date with emails, check maps and sometimes consult guidebooks and webpages. My battery can't cope, and I'm left having to ration my usage, which can have a big impact on travel. So although I hate carrying additional weight, a few months ago I bought a portable charger. There are others available and I took a guess on the choice, but I'm very pleased with the purchase so far. On a long day of travel I carry it with me, fully-charged and ready to re-charge my phone when necessary. On my latest island trip I'd carry it whenever I was out for more than a few hours, and then leave it in my hotel room to charge it from a wall socket during the evening when out at dinner, using my phone charging cable/adaptor. Then put it back in its little bag, and charge my phone overnight, so I'm ready to go in the morning with full battery life on my phone, and then at least one full charge (generally more) available on the charger. It provides reassurance that I can use my phone as much as I want, and on a recent 17-hour delayed journey it was invaluable - I arrived back in the UK with enough phone battery to check my onward journey and train times (I ran for a train and avoided a two-hour overnight wait, which I might not have known to do if my phone was dead). Small, portable and easy to use, and a real game-changer.
> Anker Astro power bank





Suitcase: 4 wheels, medium size


Caveat: I have only taken this case on four flights so far so can't vouch for its long-term durability.

It's quite stressful changing suitcases when you travel a lot; you get used to the packing space, volume, maneuverability and handle action of  familiar luggage. But my old 'larger' case had wheel issues, so I took on the search for a new version. I stuck to fabric rather than a hard case, as there is some debate about whether hard cases are actually more durable or secure, and I like having an external pocket, and the option of squeezing extra stuff in with an expansion zip. This John Lewis case was the most suitable I found without breaking my budget. I very impressed by how light it is, and the smooth four-wheel action is a big help when rolling it over a smooth surface without having to take any weight myself. On rough surfaces or on narrow pavements I've switched over to two wheels; the case isn't designed for this but I've had no problems so far. Other four-wheel cases I tried were designed so they simply couldn't be pulled on two wheels; I had no idea of this until I tried them out in the store. In Italy, where surfaces are often rough or cobbled, the ability to switch the method of pulling is really essential.

I have had to rescue the suitcase after an accidental skate down the aisle of a train - that's the problem with a heavier case and the four-wheel style - but in every other way this has been a great upgrade from my previous two-wheeler. The volume and shape is good, there are a couple of internal and one external pocket, there's an expansion zip, which doesn't offer a great deal of extra space but could make all the difference after a spending spree, and the size is good for a longer stay, while still being highly portable. My typical load for travel of 5+ days is 13-15kg of hold luggage (I find more than that is unnecessary and too heavy for me to manage) and this case holds that amount easily, with some space to spare. It's great so far, though time will tell how tough it is. The fabric feels thin, but seems to be strong enough. It picks up dirt easily and transfers in onto clothing, which is a mild annoyance but not ususual. I do have reservations about the colour choice - the dark blue is almost indistinguishable from black, and I'd have preferred a bigger range of distinctive colours for baggage reclaim - a grey option or a bluer blue would have been better.  It comes with a 10-year guarantee.

> John Lewis X'Air III 66cm suitcase



USB sonic toothbrush



I had to buy a toothbrush at an airport, and was tempted by this stylish sonic toothbrush into spending more than I needed to. The head is quite small, and the action feels softer than a standard electric toothbrush, but it actually turns out to be quite effective. It looks cool, which is unnecessary but nice, and is very useful for travel as it is compact, has a protective case for the brush, and charges via a USB socket. It now lives in my travel washkit so I won't forget a toothbrush again. I don't need to pack a charging cable or worry about charging it before travel; if the power runs down I can use any standard USB charger to charge it rapidly. I've only had to do that once or twice though; a full charge seems to last more than ten days (and still counting). I don't think it's for everyone (read the reviews), but I'm very pleased with it. Another step towards the perfect optimised travel kit.

SONIC Chic DELUXE Rechargeable Travel Toothbrush


Packing cubes

I wrote about these last year, and I've been increasingly pleased with them over subsequent trips. A range of sizes is very convenient for arranging everything in my case in an optimal  space-saving fashion, and keeping things apart makes packing, unpacking and onward travel convenient. When clothes don't need to be hung up, I often keep them organised in their packing cube even during my stay, transferring it to a drawer or surface as required. Cables, underwear, tops and bottoms (for example) can all be kept apart. I find one or two of the cubes useful in my hand-luggage rucksack too, to keep colder weather layers in for when they're required during night or UK travel.

> Amazon packing cubes


Soap and soap case



I've switched from using shower gel to using soap and this has had some unintended benefits for travel.  One is that it cuts down on liquids to carry. Most hotels supply soap, but since some budget B&Bs/apartments only have dispensers, I tend to carry a small piece of soap with me, cut off a larger bar, and stored in this compact soap case. Another benefit of using soap instead of shower gel is its impact on sweat levels (I read this tip online, and it's true). My travel clothing stays fresh much longer in hot weather; I can now hope for more wears from each garment, even in the hot Italian climate. 

My favourite soaps, incidentally, are from Nesti Dante (available from Amazon and TK Maxx), who produce some good Italian scented soaps including lovely destination-inspired fragrances e.g. Capri. Soaps also make good, functional souvenirs to bring home from Italy: look out for olive soap and home-made soaps created from local ingredients.

> Travel soap case
> Nesti Dante soaps


Flip-flop sandals


I love my Havaianas flip-flops, which have been a summer travel staple for a long time - I reckon they must be about a decade old and still comfortable. This summer I bought a  'sandal' version and I've been delighted with their usefulness. I'm on a permanent quest to hone and optimise the perfect minimal packing for travel and I've found these a great addition. They're not as swift to slip on as flip-flops, and they're not quite as smart as 'proper' sandals. But they cover most of the functions of both of those shoe-types, and I could have done without my old sandals altogether on my recent trip to the Aeolian islands, where the style is relaxed. These are secure enough to walk in for long distances and on more uneven terrain than regular flip-flops. They've been completely comfortable from the start. They look quite acceptable and come in a range of colours so you can co-ordinate with your holiday wardrobe. And the best thing is that you can simply walk from hotel room to road to footpath to stony beach and into the sea without thinking twice or pausing to change your footwear. For a seaside destination this versatility is absolutely great.

I walked around the hotel, across hot sand, clambered over a pebbly beach, and hiked along a footpath to ruins in these. When they got a bit of volcanic sand stuck to them, I rinsed them off. They cover more functions than any other footwear I've had, and I'll be taking them on every seaside trip from now on. Havaianas make at least three different 'sandal' styles and do versions for women and children, though apparently not for men.

I ordered two styles from Amazon; when I tried them on one sandal had a slightly uncomfortable toe post, so I returned that pair for a refund - I'd recommend checking for free returns and allowing time to try on and exchange before your holiday.

> Havaianas sandals





> My sample packing list from last year
> Really useful travel stuff

3 May 2018

iQ Hotel Roma - Rome hotel review: Impressive 4-star in convenient location

iQ Hotel Roma is a modern hotel in the centre of Rome, with good, comfortable rooms. Customer service is of an international standard rather than traditionally Italian, which will be a benefit for overseas visitors, and a nice luxury for those used to Italy. If you're looking for something characterful and quirky, this might not be the best choice, but if you want the relief of collapsing in a comfortable room after a stressful journey and knowing all kinds of facilities and assistance are on hand, this is a real treat. 

I wrote this hotel review after a two-night stay in April.



Hotel booking, location and basics


I booked a small double room at the hotel a couple of weeks before my travel, at a cost of  €460, including Rome's city tax (prices vary considerably throughout the year). While it is possible to find accommodation in the city at a much lower price, this is usually at smaller, more idiosyncratic B&Bs, and in locations outside the centre. I wanted somewhere efficient and safe, where I could leave my suitcase before check-in and after check-out. And most importantly, I wanted a convenient location.

The hotel is just off the shopping street Via Nazionale, in the same square as the Teatro dell'Opera, Rome's opera house. It's five minutes' walk from Repubblica Metro stop and only about ten minutes' walk from Stazione Termini, Rome's central railway station. The neighbourhood is respectable and well-connected. It's not as charming or romantic as the centro storico, the historic centre, about a mile away, but it is hugely more convenient if you're planning to use public transport, to travel to different areas of the city, or to take day trips. It's possible to walk to most of the city's central landmarks, though for a few longer walks, and the centro storico, I would generally choose to take a bus from Via Nazionale to save energy and skip the duller part of the walk.

In a rather bizarre blue-painted modern building, the hotel faces out over the side and forecourt of the Teatro dell'Opera. When I arrived, and throughout my stay, there was always more than one member of staff on duty at the reception desk, so I never had a long wait for attention. Arriving early in the morning, my room wasn't ready but I was able to leave my luggage securely in the hotel, and walk ten minutes to Termini station to catch the Metro for a day out at Ostia Antica. On my return, tired and hungry, I stopped off in the food hall at the station - Mercato Centrale - where commuters can choose from a range of food and drink throughout the day (excellent ice cream). The improvements in the station area, including the opening of this food hall, add another convenient feature to the hotel's location; if you can't be bothered with heading to a restaurant or want to eat/drink/shop out of hours, Termini offers many customer-friendly options. Another good quality 'convenience' food option is the small branch of Eataly in Piazza Esedra next to Repubblica metro station. Read on to the foot of this page for more tips for taking advantage of this handy hotel location.


Bedroom


On checking in I was given a larger room than I'd anticipated, a generous-sized double with a divan that could have been made into an extra single bed - ideal for families. On the fourth floor, it had a window opening onto the quiet internal courtyard. 



A highlight for British visitors in particular will be the very un-Italian tea tray provided, complete with kettle, tea and coffee sachets, little biscuits, milk substitute, and free bottles of mineral water, all of which were replenished daily.

Facilities in the room also included a desk, a small fridge with more free bottles of water and an invitation to use the spare shelf for my own provisions, a wide-screen TV, a large mirror (not quite full-length), and a big wardrobe with its own lighting. There was also a suitcase stand, a laptop-sized safe, autonomous air-conditioning, notes offering a choice of pillows or more toiletries, a range of lighting options and convenient electricity sockets. Even coat-hooks, so rare in hotels, were provided. With carpeting, neutral decor and Rome-themed artwork, the room felt tranquil, and was generally very quiet, although I could hear other guests talking as they passed in the corridor. The bed was comfortable and I slept well, except for the time I was woken in the night by other guests talking outside my door.


The bathroom was a decent size, with lots of space for toiletries, and a hook. There was a good make-up/shaving mirror, and a typical hotel hair-dryer. The hand towel rail was a little inconveniently sited under the basin (I needed to bend down to access). Instead of a shower cubicle, the bathroom had a bath with a shower overhead- not my preference, but may have been better for some guests. It would have benefitted from a safety rail to help climbing in and out, and a better shower-head,  and it was awkward that the glass shower screen couldn't be moved out of the way. Hand towels were the flimsy Italian kind, but bath towels were large and fluffy. Toiletries were provided: shower cap, tissues, shower gel/shampoo and conditioner. Another of the hotel's helpful touches was an extendable washing line over the bath; ideal for when you want to wash small items in the basin.



Bedroom: the wardrobe door is on the left, and bathroom on the right.

Roof terrace, public spaces and breakfast


The roof terrace on the fifth floor had been decorated and equipped well: a pleasant and stylish space with greenery, a variety of seating areas and the option of shady awnings. Visitors won't find much in the way of views, due to high buildings, rooftop tanks, satellite dishes etc, though you can admire the shallow dome of the Teatro dell’Opera alongside. As well as tables and chairs, there were also a few sun-loungers and a jacuzzi too. The terrace is popular with international guests, who always seem to want to spend a surprising (to me) amount of time in their hotel bar. Sitting in the afternoon sunshine with some work, I enjoyed a free welcome drink of Prosecco with nibbles; a very nice touch. The only drawback of the roof terrace is that smoking is allowed here, unlike the rest of the hotel, so when a guest lit up a cigar, the smell drove other guests away.

A corner of the roof terrace, with the dome of the opera house

The indoors bar-dining-working area ("co-living space") is also on the top floor, opening onto the roof terrace, and would be a good place to while away some time on a cold or rainy day. A selection of board games are on offer for additional entertainment, along with table football outside on the terrace. The bar offered reasonably priced food and drinks, with wine from about €3.50 a glass.


"Co-living space"

Thoughtful extra facilities provided by the hotel include a microwave for guests and snack/drink vending machines.There’s a small gym, secure luggage storage, a self-service laundry (tokens on sale at reception), a sauna, ice available, computer terminals, free wifi, and in the courtyard/light well is a slide and swings for small children. Two lifts served all hotel floors, so there was never a long wait, and stairs were also open and accessible.

This hotel has most of the services I’ve always imagined offering in my imaginary hotel, as I've travelled around Italy and been frustrated at accommodation standards, and it is obvious that guests, and their needs, have been thought about carefully and effectively, from the friendly and helpful English-speaking staff to a shower for the use of guests arriving early or leaving late when their own room isn’t available. Offering a free welcome drink and bottles of water doesn't cost a hotel much but it makes a big difference to guests.


Breakfast in the sunshine

Breakfast was served as a buffet in the bar, with tables indoors and outside on the roof terrace. For me, the highlight was the constantly-replenished freshly-squeezed orange juice - really rare in a hotel breakfast in Italy. The food was also generous, with a wide range of foodstuffs to suit different tastes and cultures: frittata, roast potatoes, fried bread, cold meats, mozzarella, cucumber, fried and scrambled eggs, fresh bread, cereals, fresh and tinned fruit salad, croissants and pastries. The price of breakfast may vary: during my visit it cost €9.90 (if not included in room rate). I thought it was good value, but also liked the fact it was an optional extra; before a busy day out I preferred a quick cereal bar in my room and an early start. 


As a note on payment - my booking of €460 was a non-refundable rate and didn't include breakfast. The price of breakfast was quoted on the booking page, and I could see it would be cheaper to pay separately at the hotel than to opt for a higher rate. However the quoted price did include Rome's city tax, assuming two room occupants paying €6 per person per night. Although the room costs were charged against my credit card at once, the city tax was payable on check-out - and as I was travelling alone, I of course only paid for one person. So I actually paid €459 for two nights, one breakfast, and tax. All of this was dealt with very efficiently at check-out without any prompting from me, and proper receipts were issued even though I forgot to ask (not always the case in Italy).



Recommendation


I chose the hotel for its location and because of the very positive reviews I'd read. It was above my usual price range, but for a couple of nights of comfort and convenience I thought it was a very worthwhile expense. Rome is a busy and chaotic city and to have a calm, well-organised retreat is a real blessing when you're sightseeing all day.

My free 'welcome drink' on the roof terrace
If you're looking for a more quirky and historic atmosphere, and you don't mind trickier travel, I'd suggest looking at the smaller hotels and B&Bs in the centro storico. But if clean, modern convenience is a priority, I think it would be hard to do better than the iQ Hotel Roma. In particular, I'd judge it ideal for: busy sightseers who want to travel around the city and beyond; international travellers who want the reassurance of high-standard service and facilities; holiday-makers touring Italy looking for a base where they can recuperate, catch up with the gym, laundry, and enjoy a bit of relaxation in the heart of a not-very-relaxing city. And of course, culture-lovers with tickets for the Teatro dell'Opera. Much as I enjoy historic character and Italian idiosyncracies, I found the orderliness and convenience of this hotel very seductive, and would probably save up to return to the hotel. This attention to detail and generosity of services provided is rare in Italy.




Small print: I paid for my own stay and travelled anonymously. If you make a booking at any hotel through my affiliate links on this page, your booking will be through booking.com who offer a price guarantee. They also share a small percentage of commission with Italy Heaven, which supports the website and keeps it online. Thank you!


BONUS: Tips for taking advantage of the location

  • Go shopping on Via Nazionale - this busy shopping street offers a range of high-street shops and boutiques, including some local Roman and Italian brands. Some of my favourite local shoe shops are here. I popped out from the iQ Hotel and bought a dress, a scarf and three pairs of shoes (!) all within a five-minute walk.
  • Catch the Metro at Repubblica: about five minutes away, the underground Metro Linea A will take you to Spagna (for the Spanish Steps) and Flamino (for Piazza del Popolo) more quickly than walking, or carry you further afield to visit the Vatican Museums or the film studios of Cinecittà.
  • Take the bus from Via Nazionale - loads of useful buses stop on Via Nazionale including the H to Trastevere and several routes to the centro storico. While walking can be enjoyable, at the end of the day many will want to save effort by catching a bus back.
  • Attend an opera or ballet - the Teatro dell'Opera is literally right opposite the hotel, so this is a perfect hassle-free location for enjoying some fine music or dance.
  • Walk to Termini - it's one stop on the Metro from Repubblica, but it's probably easier to walk to Termini. Even with suitcases it's only about ten minutes of trundling along pavements to/from the station. Handy on arrival/departures, and also for making an early start for day trips by train, or catching Metro Linea B.
  • Walk through Rione Monti to the Colosseum or Forum - Rione Monti, a few minutes away, is a quirkier historic area where you'll find bars, restaurants, hip boutiques and my favourite chocolate shop. Appealing in its own right, it's also a pleasant walking route to the sights of Ancient Rome.
  • Convenient eats: the hotel offers simple meals in its bar. Other options nearby, if you don't want to visit a restaurant, are the informal food halls of Eataly and Mercato Centrale.