Cheap hotels are no bargain

Consumer Reports has the lowdown on which hotels offer the most for your money.

Published: May 24, 2014 09:00 AM

As you plan you summer vacation, it’s nice to know that more and more hotels want to become your home away from home.

Many are transforming lobbies into cozy living rooms with plush seating, informal gathering areas, coffee stations, big-screen TVs, computers, and serve-yourself kitchens. They are providing wireless Internet in public spaces, offering complimentary hot breakfasts cooked to order and evening munchies, delivering groceries to your door, and readying your room with extra towels, a favorite snack or drink, or particularly plump pillow in advance of your arrival. Many have taken service to a whole new level, vowing to let you stay free if you have a problem they cannot resolve.

The lodging industry uses the term “amenities creep” to describe the trickle down of niceties from expensive properties to cheaper ones. At the bottom rung, chains such as Red Roof Inn and America’s Best Value Inn, expect to find at least the basics—hair dryer, alarm clock/radio, safe, TV with a few premium channels, exercise room. Furnishings, lighting, and linens are usually more functional than fashionable (for example, plastic drinking cups instead of glass), but the chains often accept pets, allow children as old as 19 to stay free with adults, have a pool and small space with public computer and printer, and high-speed wireless Internet, for which there might be a charge.

Since we began surveying readers decades ago about their hotel experiences, one finding remains constant. Budget hotels may be inexpensive, but they are unexceptional. Or worse. Aside from Microtel, our top-rated chain in the segment, others in the category tend to earn subpar scores for value, comfort, service, and upkeep. The most frequent complaints: outdated décor, noise, lousy lighting, or balky heating or air conditioning. A key reason why Microtel shines is that unlike most other hotels in its class, the chain typically builds new accommodations instead of buying and converting old properties from other chains.

Trading up to a moderate price level (for example, Wingate by Wyndham, Drury Hotels, Hampton Inn & Suites,  Comfort Suites, Country Inn & Suites) typically adds fluffier bedding and linens, more stylish furnishings, two-line speakerphone, bigger work area, ironing board, coffee maker, better-equipped fitness and business centers, and free hot breakfast buffet. Internet service is often free and may be available in the lobby and other public areas, too. Holiday Inn Express has showers with curved rods for extra elbowroom. Hampton Inn advertises plush comforters and choice of either feather or foam pillows, and a “crisp white duvet cover laundered fresh for every guest.” Many chains in this class are suites with separate eating and sleeping areas.

Upscale hotels (Residence Inn, SpringHill Suites, Homewood Suites) are popular among business travelers, and many of the accommodations reflect the clientele, with ergonomic chairs, oversized desks, large bathrooms, and enhanced lighting. Free Internet in public areas is more common, as are food pantries, on-site laundry and dry-cleaning services, minibars, private meeting spaces, multibedroom suites, full kitchens, complimentary evening snacks/meals along with free hot breakfast. Hyatt Place has a gallery kitchen where you can order fresh-prepared food 24/7. Crowne Plaza offers aromatherapy to help weary travelers unwind, and has designated “quiet zones” that ban room attendants, housekeepers, and other worker activity Sunday through Thursday from 9 p.m. to 10 a.m. At Courtyard by Marriott, there are outdoor firepits with spaces to meet and relax, business libraries, flexible workstations in the lobby where you’ll also find large interactive television sets with touch screens to get the latest flight information or weather.

The sky’s the limit to what you’ll find at the top-tier end of the hotel strata. Often situated in large cities, resort communities, and exotic locales, hotels such as Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons specialize in round-the-clock white-glove service. Expect spas, personal trainers, massage therapists, babysitting, and fancy restaurants sometimes run by celebrity chefs. There may be golf courses, tennis courts, walking trails, and other activities. The guestrooms are elegant, often featuring original art and mahogany, marble, or crystal appointments, and toiletries. The bathrooms have telephones.

At some Ritz-Carlton hotels, there’s twice daily housekeeping and nightly turndown service, complimentary shoeshine, 24-hour in-room dining, technology concierges, butlers to draw your bath, marble soaking tubs and separate showers, and other jaw-dropping extras. Not all chains in this class rise to the lavishness of the Ritz, but still offer indulgent services and classy décor. Ironically, luxury hotels are most likely to nickel-and-dime guests on basics such as Internet access.

Bottom line: If you can do without the trappings of luxury and super-luxe hotels, you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck at moderate and upscale brands such at those mentioned above. Survey respondents often paid less than $100 per night at such chains, many of which ranked high for clean, comfortable rooms, well-maintained property, solicitous service, and outstanding value. 

Tod Marks

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