When I booked hotel accommodations for my family of four for a mad dash of college tours across America’s vast landscape over Spring Break (our son is a high school Junior), I did not intentionally select five different hotel brands, but that’s the way it worked out.
We were away more than five nights; however, thanks to relatives in the Los Angeles area and friends in New Hampshire who hosted us, I was able to limit our out-of-pocket costs to just five nights in hotels. It was a marathon run to one university and college after another, so exhausting that even our seventh grade daughter grew weary. Given our breakneck pace trying to cover so much ground, we needed our hotels to give us shelter and peace for at least a few hours each night. They all delivered. Here’s how they stacked up.
ROOM RATES: AS EXPECTED
Five nights, five hotel groups: Springhill Suites (Marriott group); Holiday Inn (IHG); Hyatt Regency (Hyatt); Travelodge (Wyndham); and Embassy Suites (Hilton). I was frankly amazed that all proved very good places to stay by a number of standards, while the cost differentials matched up predictably to each brand and location:
Springhill Suites (Marriott group), Hagerstown, MD – $127 (all room rates stated before taxes)
Holiday Inn (IHG), Middletown, NY – $94
Hyatt Regency (Hyatt), Cambridge, MA – $239
Travelodge (Wyndham), LAX Airport, CA – $119
Embassy Suites (Hilton), SFO Airport, CA – $171
All rates were the lowest I could find online testing several booking services and using a variety of possible discounts, such as AAA, AARP, etc.
PARKING: TO BE (FREE), OR NOT TO BE (FREE)
Parking was (still) free at the Springhill Suites, Holiday Inn, and the Travelodge LAX, though spots were scarce at the Travelodge. The Hyatt Regency Cambridge charged $38/day for self-parking in an adjacent and very tight structured parking garage, a rate to be expected in such a major and densely-crowded urban environment as central Boston.
The big parking surprise was the Embassy Suites SFO, sited on the bay at Burlingame. The property has the usual acres of surface lots surrounding the typical blocky hotel building, and it does not sit in a major urban area. One has to squint to see the most distant lot, and many of the spaces were vacant. Yet the Embassy wanted $22 per day to park and issued special mirror hangers to thwart cheaters, threatening to tow vehicles that were not so validated. I managed to talk them out of my one night charge because we didn’t arrive to check in until 10:30 PM, and I had to turn the Hertz car in at SFO before eight o’clock the following morning. So the staff took pity on me and comped the parking.
Though I appreciated the gesture, I had to beg and whine and chew my lip to avoid what is essentially an extra room rate charge, much like the a la carte pricing model the airlines have so well perfected. The way of the future, I’m sure. Maybe next time even the humble Holiday Inn in dinky Middeltown, NY will want a fin or a ten for overnight parking.
BREAKFAST: COMPLIMENTARY, BUT VARIED
The modest brands of Holiday Inn, Travelodge, and Springhill Suites all offered the same tired breakfast buffet we’ve become inured to; that is, bad coffee; sugary cereals and skim milk; penitentiary-quality muffins frozen for 6 months before being served with freezer burns ice cold and tasteless; stale bread and bagel-shaped wannabees; tiny packets of grape jelly impossible to scour out; cook-your-own waffles and insipid corn syrup flavored vaguely suggestive of maple; and a few containers of pretty good yogurt swimming in melted ice. Sometimes some institutional eggs and bad sausage links are also on display. You know what I mean. Gives me heartburn just describing it.
But my kids loved it every place we went, so who’s complaining?
The Embassy served up its usual cooked-to-order breakfast, which was very good, except that several hundred (no exaggeration) high school kids had beat me to the breakfast lines at 7:00 AM, forcing me to gobble what I could when finally I got my omelette before splitting for SFO to return the rental car to Hertz before the deadline.
Saving the best for last, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge had a magnificent breakfast buffet set out to the tune of some twenty-odd dollars per person, and our rate included the full buffet breakfast for four. We pigged out because the choices were so many and so good: fresh-cooked eggs; mounds of applewood bacon and savory sausage; huge trays of fresh fruit; bottomless juice glasses; fresh-baked cakes, muffins, breads, and bagels; cold meats and cheeses; and any hot tea one could think of. Unlike most hotel breakfasts, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge was memorable, made more so by the gracious and ever-helpful wait staff and attendants watching to instantly replenish any food item that was running low. No patron was rushed, either. We were encouraged to linger, which was easy to do since the Hyatt Cambridge restaurant is perfectly positioned for a grand view of crews out sculling on the Charles River with downtown Boston in the distance. The entire breakfast experience justified the higher Hyatt room rate in my mind.
ROOM APPEARANCE, COMFORT & AMENITIES
Once again the Hyatt Regency Cambridge was several steps above the rest in style and comfort. Our room was not a suite, but was plenty large, amply commodious for four, with the Hyatt’s usual Frank Lloyd Wright-ish look about its decor and furnishings, which is ageless and in good taste. I admit to a strong bias for Hyatt properties for that reason alone, though in this case we had chosen the location for its proximity to MIT, where we had a tour and info session lined up the next morning. I was happy that our seventeen year old son noticed the stylish modern touches and appreciated them.
Beyond that, of course the Hyatt had bath amenities far superior to the other four hotels, though, truth be told, even the Travelodge and Holiday Inn boasted much better soaps and other stuff nestled by the wash basin than my memory of the plebeian brand of accommodation joints they have always represented in my mind.
Towels in the five hotels were roughly equivalent and measured up well: big and thirsty. Water pressure was good everywhere as well. That can be a problem in some hotels, as we all know. No vacillation of water temps, either, was experienced. Thus all the properties got high marks for decent showers.
The biggest eye-opener for me, in retrospect, was that all five hotels provided extremely comfortable beds that aided in a good night’s rest. All five rooms were quiet, too, which I grant could have been luck–I have stayed in some pretty snazzy places, like the Waldorf, where noisy neighbors were a problem..
The HVAC systems in four of the rooms were not obtrusive and kept the temperature in a narrow range according to our settings, the sole exception being the Travelodge LAX. There an archaic A/C window unit blasted sounds akin to a DC-3 taking off (for those who remember that far back). The arrangement seemed a throwback to a 1960s notion of environmental comfort.
Lighting in hotel rooms has become a carp of some travel writers recently because hotel chains are dimming down their room interior illumination. God knows why they would be so stupid and insensitive, but it is, I read, a growing trend. Perhaps a dumbing down of hotel executives out of touch with the reality of what it means to actually be a guest has led to the dimming down of guest room lights. I am happy to report none of the five hotel rooms we occupied suffered from this new phenomenon; all were sufficiently bright for our purposes.
STAFF: “PRACTICALLY PERFECT IN EVERY WAY” (WITH APOLOGIES TO MARY POPPINS)
No discernible contrast can be drawn among the staff qualities we encountered at any of the five properties. Not that I expected the cheaper Holiday Inn front desk folks to be rude or stupid just because I paid the least amount to stay there, any more than I expected a haughty arrogance to be exuded among the staff at the Hyatt Regency Cambridge just because it’s the premier hotel nearest MIT. All front desk, restaurant, and housekeeping employees we ran into were friendly, kind, genuinely interested in ensuring our stay was pleasant and enjoyable, and competent. We liked all the people at every hotel, which amazes me as much as the uniform room comfort.
Some examples of going above and beyond:
The Springhill Suites front desk staff insisted that we take breakfast items with us on the road, even though we had already eaten our fill.
The Holiday Inn front desk clerk when we checked in late on a rainy night went out of her way to locate a luggage trolley for us that was inside and therefore dry.
The Hyatt Regency front desk clerk who checked me out adjusted several items off the bill on the basis of my word even though I didn’t have the written proof with me (my wife had taken that bag to the car already).
The Travelodge LAX courtesy bus driver insisted on following me to Hertz after I checked in to bring me back to the hotel to avoid a long walk or doubling back to the airport for a ride. He gave me his number and instructed me to call once I had closed out my contract. I did, and he was there to pick me on the street by the massive Hertz facility at LAX in 8 minutes.
The Embassy Suites front desk clerk who checked me in at 10:30 PM apologized for not having a bayview room available and deducted $50 from the room rate, which dropped it to $121. He then gave us a room on a high floor (which Hilton now charges extra for) “so it will be quiet for you,” he said. As mentioned above, I was able to negotiate off the parking charge as well, saving another $22 plus tax.
The four of us did not anticipate how tough the college visit trips would be. Our days started very early, sometimes at 5:00 AM, and often went until 11:00 PM. It was altogether exhausting, mentally and physically. We were all very glad that the five hotels provided us with just exactly what we needed each of the five nights: tranquility and comfort. Each of the five very different hotels, operated by five competing hotel chains, met our expectations and often exceeded them. How often does that happen?