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Check out your hotel before you check in

Hip shape: the lobby of the Weinmeister, Berlin (Simon Calder)
Hip shape: the lobby of the Weinmeister, Berlin (Simon Calder)

Choosing a hotel? I prefer the old-school method of walking along the street. You can check a place out before you check in. And, with no internet intermediaries to take a slice of the transaction, possibly grab a bargain too.

On Saturday 2 March, I embarked on a five-day journey to Poland and Germany. The only elements I had booked: a Ryanair flight from London Stansted to Lodz in the heart of Poland, and a flight back from Berlin. In between, it was a matter of making it up as I went along. In Lodz’s handsome main boulevard, the Hotel Grand lived up to its name: a magnificent marble staircase led to a well-appointed room with weapons-grade WiFi and a Baltic-sized bath. Entering the breakfast room was like wandering into a grand middle-European ballroom – which it is, with the added morning bonus of a buffet piled high with imperial dishes. And all for the price of a decent budget hotel in the UK.

Poznan offered similarly outstanding value. I needed reliable communications for some broadcasting. Experience shows that quaint historical properties do not always excel in delivering internet connectivity, so I opted for the Hampton by Hilton on the edge of the lovely Old Town. Four-star quality at two-star prices, with friendly staff who let me linger in the lobby long after check-out time.

Next stop: Eisenhüttenstadt, just across the River Oder, which marks the Polish-German border. (This city is the home for the world’s only Utopia Museum, if you’re wondering what I was doing there). With places to stay thin on the ground, I phoned ahead to book the Hotel Fürstenberg. This is the one “attractively embedded in the Oder landscape”. A few hours later, when I turned up to check in, the place was locked and deserted. After several attempts to call again, the proprietor gave me a code for the key box – where the key to room nine was waiting. “Breakfast is at 7.30am,” she instructed in a manner that invited no further discussion.

At 7.28am, after a night in a room whose thin curtains and tired decor shared some DNA with youth hostels, I walked with trepidation down to breakfast. The well-appointed ground floor filled with cheerful, chatty fellow guests and the proprietor herself: generously tattooed and delighted to make scrambled eggs to order, as well as delivering extra coffee well after 9am.

Final stop: the German capital, during ITB Berlin. This is the world’s biggest travel trade fair, attracting tens of thousands of delegates. It all happens in the Messe fairgrounds five miles west of the city centre. So I hopped off the train at Warschauer Strasse station, five miles east. I figured the further from the main event, the better. This is a district where I have stayed before and which I know has plenty of budget beds. But not that night: a huge music gig at the nearby Arena Berlin had filled them all.

Last resort: an internet search. All sites pointed towards the Weinmeister Berlin, which promises it is “nestled in the pulsating heart of Berlin” and specifies: “Adults only.”

On arrival, there were indeed no kids to disrupt the sense of style. I liked the reception desk, which comprised a helpful soul with a laptop perched at the end of a long wooden table. Art, books and arty books were distributed liberally along with half-a-dozen hipsters (I do not include myself in that count). Above the bar, a neon sign glowed: “Apokalypse”.

The philosophy of the hotel’s founder, Thomas Tänzer, is stencilled on the glass doors: “We don’t do hotels; we are in the entertainment industry.” When I walked into the assigned room, 509, I was surprised to find a rumpled bed, casually strewn towels and half-consumed bottles. I wondered if some unexpected entertainment, possibly of an adult nature, was about to commence. I didn’t wait to find out, and instead asked to be moved to a room without signs of very recent occupation.

The final tally: £549. Almost half of this went on the final night in Berlin, a dynamically priced £271. Perhaps I should have shared with the mystery occupant of 509 after all.

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.