Unless you’re traveling to a home you own or to visit a friend or relative, you’ll probably be staying at a hotel when you reach your destination. And the good news is that, across the board, hotels are better than ever. They have to be, because competition is intense—especially among the major chains that dominate the industry—thanks partly to the growing popularity of Airbnb options. This year, 468 hotels will open in the top 20 U.S. markets, including 76 in New York City alone, according to Smith Travel Research.
I’ve written about domestic and international travel for almost 20 years, giving me wide exposure to the lodging industry, at precisely the time when it was undergoing enormous expansion, and hotels all were upping their games. Lucky me, I’ve had the opportunity to experience some great high-end international hotels, such as Claridges and the Dorchester in London; the (Marriott) Ritz-Carltons in Berlin and Pudong Shanghai; the Four Seasons George V in Paris; the Taj Mahal in Mumbai; the Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica; La Mamounia in Marrakesh; the Peninsula in Hong Kong; and the Grand Hyatt in Tokyo.
One of my most memorable experiences came during a business trip to Japan, when I stayed at the Tokyo Grand Hyatt. Richard White, then Hyatt’s marketing director for Asia, met me in the lobby and, rather than put me in the standard room I’d booked, insisted that I experience the elegant, 850-square-foot presidential suite. Located on the top floor of the 21-story hotel, it featured a private 10-by-40-foot swimming pool under a retractable roof.
“So how’s the hotel?” asked my wife when I phoned home. “Nice. It has a pool,” I replied. “Hmm?” she said. “In my room!” I said.
Most of the luxury hotels I’ve stayed in belong to major chains, and those chains also manage many midlevel properties, such as the Hilton Garden Inn, Marriott Courtyard, Comfort Suites, and Best Western Plus. Those chains have all improved amenities to the point where you can often expect an excellent breakfast, Wi-Fi, and the kind of quality bedding that used to be found only in the swanky hotels.
In fact, at least some of the most well-heeled travelers actually prefer the midlevel properties, which they consider just as reliable and also less pretentious than the top-of-the-line establishments. For example, I know an entrepreneur who owns a Gulfstream IV and stays at Hilton Hampton Inns whenever one’s available. (There are over 2,000 in North America, Europe, and India.)
“Except on vacation with my wife, I’m not usually comfortable in five-star hotels,” he says. “Too much fussing. And at a place like a Hampton, I always know exactly what I’m going to get in terms of service and quality. No surprises.”
That’s usually the case if you stick to the major brands. It’s not so true when you wander, as I learned last July, after a business meeting in Huntington, West Virginia. Since I was traveling on my own nickel and hotel rates in Huntington seemed exorbitant, I went onto Orbitz.com and found a bargain just across the river in South Point, Ohio.
The description and photos looked fine, so I booked it for one night, at a mere $66.80. When I arrived, I passed two men and a woman smoking and drinking beer in the parking lot. At the check-in desk, the clerk handed me my room key—and a small rolled-up bundle. “What’s this?” I asked. “Your towel,” she said.
With my rollaboard in tow and my towel tucked under my arm as if I was in a seashore bathhouse, I made it past a broken elevator and down a littered hallway to my room, where at least the Wi-Fi worked. Belatedly, I checked the user reviews for the hotel, and the first one I saw said, “Run!! The place is Norman Bates Psycho scary!”
I quickly booked a room at the Marriott Fairfield Inn in Huntington, and fled back across the Ohio River. The cost for the night at the Fairfield was about a hundred bucks more. But at least the towels were in the bathroom.