I have some secrets to share. For hacks like me, holidays divide into ‘freebies’ and ‘paybies’ (© Rachel Johnson 2016). A ‘paybie’ is what it sounds like — a holiday that you have booked and paid for yourself, for that is what most normal people do.
With press freebies, by contrast, almost everything is comped, apart from getting to the airport and a few optional extras, which one hopes are red-lined at the off to prevent unwelcome surprises.
‘In a hotel you can eat the fruit platter and you can drink the complimentary prosecco, but don’t go -anywhere near the minibar — if you go off-piste it can be very dangerous,’ says editor and travel writer Lucinda Bredin. ‘We once left a baby’s vest on the floor of our room in the Cipriani and it was whisked away. The cost of laundering that one item was the same as the flight to Venice.’
On a freebie, old hands with only freelance earnings know that the only thing they will be able to order on room service is ice. Still, most freebies are free parking — except, of course, for the quid pro quo of the uncritical five-star puff piece that has to be produced afterwards as payback.
There is a third category of holidays, however, which fall somewhat awkwardly between the two. Sometimes one is lucky enough to be invited to stay somewhere grand and/or exotic by friends who are considerably richer and better stabled than you — hence my name for this inbetweenie holiday, the ‘staybie’. This is what concerns me here.
I have just returned from a ‘staybie’ in a château in France. We were five and it was a five-night stay. There were 22 in the château and four meals a day were served by liveried staff. The fine wines flowed.
But on day three, we all went out to lunch to the local auberge. The convention here is that the hosts, naturally, do not pick up the bill. For them, it is Mum’s night off down at KFC. Someone else, in recognition of their unstinting hospitality, has to take it for the team. My husband whispered: ‘Let’s at least offer to do the drink…’ This was a good shout, because it was lunchtime and nobody was really caning it, but I sensed it was not quite the futile, wallet-busting gesture that the occasion demanded. ‘No,’ I said, grandly. ‘I’ll shove it on my euro Visa card.’
As the coffees and brandies were slipping down I made a scribble gesture to the waiter, and tried to hand it over — it was declined; they didn’t take Visa — while mine host did not even appear to notice.
To cut a long story short, my husband had to drive into the local town to a cashpoint, and drive all the way back to the auberge the next day loaded up with so much cash to settle the bill that I am ashamed to admit I started doing the mental math.
Five return flights to France. Car hire. A €600 lunch that nobody thanked me for. And then, of course, the vexed question of tips. A horrible thought dawned. Were the pecuniary expectations placed on guests sponging off hosts now too steep for those of more slender means? Was the cost-of-ligging index unfeasibly high?
It all brought back to mind the time we were invited to stay in the Caribbean for Christmas, which sounded like a steal until we worked out on our return to London that the five BA flights to St Lucia, the private air transfers to the island on a small propeller plane, the one dinner out we manfully paid for in a hotel and the tips we left afterwards amounted to one year’s boarding school fees at Marlborough. And all to spend ten days with people we didn’t really even know.
To answer the question ‘Is the cost of ligging too high?’ we have to examine our own hearts.
Yes, if you think it behoves you as a guest to give. No, if you think it is better to receive.
Giles Coren, like me, is an inveterate sponger, but occasionally feels the need to ‘reciprocate’. (At this juncture I must veer off-topic to explain that reciprocating is non-negotiable among the shooting fraternity. At some point, even the sluttiest ‘shooting whores’ have to offer some sport in return, even though each day will cost about as much as a new car.)
Anyway, Giles once made the mistake of offering to take his hosts and a friend to dinner at a local fancy wedding-cake hotel in Switzerland which his friends claimed to use ‘like a canteen’ and then proceeded to order the caviar starters at €700 a pop. There were only five around the table. The bill was a mere €2,500.
Hardened liggers, who are receivers rather than givers, scoff at such noble efforts to give back. Pros like the Gogglebox stars and much sought-after ‘jesters’ — i.e. amusing, reliable guests — Giles Wood and Mary -Killen will never, ever put their hands in their -pockets on the good grounds that a) the host doesn’t notice your generosity, and b) you get far more brownie points for banter at mealtimes and being a chirpy joiner-inner. As Dear Mary says: ‘Your hosts don’t want your money. They want you to provide the wind that fills the sails of a ship called fun.’
Ah. Mention of a ship brings us to a key spoiler alert. As Lucinda Bredin warns: ‘The one thing you must never ever do is set foot on a boat. For one thing, they are floating dungeons. But the main problem is you that have to pay 15–20 per cent of the cost of the charter in tips.’
Indeed. Giles Coren tells me the story of a mate who got married for the second time and what with alimony and maintenance couldn’t afford to splash out on a flash honeymoon. Instead, he accepted the offer of a week on a friend’s yacht (the sort that came with 30 crew and two helicopters). This turned out to be a bad call, because at the end he asked what was right to tip and was told: ‘Oh, not too much. Just a token amount. Fifty, sixty thousand should do it.’
‘The rich have no idea how poor the poor are,’ says Giles. ‘That was my friend’s entire salary for the year.’
So here are my tips for surviving the ‘staybie’ -without needing a second mortgage, and managing the cost of ligging.
Don’t offer to pay for any meals out. Take a clever present. Make a speech, preferably in rhyme, in honour of your hosts at the captain’s dinner, that they can frame in the gents later. Look presentable. Always be prompt and smiley at breakfast, however badly you’ve slept. And, finally, be honest. We have a humble hovel on Exmoor which appeals only to ‘very special’ people — i.e., the criminally insane — as it’s primitive and damp and has a single, tragic bathroom.
So I always tell my grand friends: ‘Thank you so much for having me. The best way I can ever repay you — and you will have to trust me on this — is by never inviting you to stay with us in return.’
Illustrations by Janne Livonen