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Chain, Chain, Chain: Hotels for Recessionary Times

Hilton8_2 What are the basic requirements for a good, affordable hotel room? "A clean, well-lit place," to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway. But if the novelist were traveling to Miami or Chicago today, he might well have demanded an adjustable Garden Sleep System king size bed, yoga equipment and free WiFi. Not to mention an ergonomic Herman Miller MirraTM chair to lounge in while he watched matadors or sportfishing on a 26" Philips high-definition LCD television. But we’re not talking Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton here. These are the amenities now on offer at many Hilton Garden Inn hotels( see photo), a group of moderately priced properties that is part of the Hilton family. And you’ll pay 50% less than at a luxe hotel.Hiltongarden

Not so long ago, a stay at a less expensive chain hotel was something few people looked forward to. Why should they? Who wants a lumpy mattress, paper-thin walls and free watery coffee served in plastic cups in the lobby? Well, there’s been a sea change in the world of these midpriced hotels in the past couple of years. Much of it has to do with protracted grumbling from business travelers. Exposed to such comforts and perks as Westin’s Heavenly Beds and free WiFi at most Kimpton Hotels, these road warriors complained mightily about having to make do with a lot less at the chain properties.

Companies like Hampton Inn, Hilton Garden Inn, Courtyard and Holiday Inn Express listened. They improved the quality of their mattresses, realized that free WiFi was an inexpensive giveaway, and expanded breakfast offerings. The irony is that WiFi and breakfast are perks that you’re typically charged for at a full-service hotel. The Hilton Chicago, for example, gets $12.95 per day for Internet access, and the bill for even a simple breakfast at its Pavilion restaurant can come to about $15.

The upshot is that the experience of staying at these properties is much improved. And even in prime locations such as midtown Manhattan, downtown Chicago or Washington, DC, or within a mile or so of the downtown core, they’re still priced substantially below their parents.

Here’s a look at what you’ll find at some of these forward-thinking hotels. But keep this essential caveat in mind: No matter how good the chain may be, an individual property is only as good as its management. So check out the current reputation of any hotel you’re considering by looking at the reviews posted on tripadvisor.com.

WHICH HOTELS MAKE THE GRADE?

For the most part, the midpriced properties offering amenities that are a cut above what you’d expect are the offspring of major hotel brands.Hiltonhampton  Hilton is the parent of Hampton Inn (see right), Hampton Inn & Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, Doubletree, Homewood Suites by Hilton and Embassy Suites Hotels. Marriott owns Courtyard (see photo below),Hilton4courtyard_3   Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn and SpringHill Suites, among others. InterContinental, the parent of Holiday Inn, also runs Holiday Inn Express, Staybridge Suites and Candlewood Suites. Starwood, owner of the W Hotels and Westin, is developing an extended-stay chain called Element (due to debut in early 2008), promising flat-screen TVs, upscale kitchens and overall sleek design and modern style. Hyatt has Hyatt Summerfield Suites, which provides spacious bedrooms and bathrooms.

But not all these brands are the same; you’ll find differences in comfort, amenities and price. A Marriott Residence Inn is an extended-stay hotel with the kind of space that can be perfect for families. A Hilton Garden Inn, on the other hand, is a conventional overnight hotel. And while Comfort Inn and Comfort Suites can be included among hotels with more upmarket offerings, other properties from the same parent company (Choice Hotels), such as Sleep Inn, Econo Lodge and Rodeway Inn, cannot. Chains like La Quinta and Howard Johnson are also a notch below these new, improved properties.

WHAT YOU CAN EXPECT

Look for value at most of these hotels. At a Hampton Inn, in most cases, you’ll find self-parking, cable TV and nonsmoking rooms. Many have swimming pools. Breakfast, though far from gourmet levels, is usually a casual buffet laden with cereals, bagels and coffee.

At Holiday Inn Express, you’ll get the chain’s signature SimplySmart bedding, which means better sheets and duvets instead of bedspreads. Comfort Suites gives you a hot breakfast, free high-speed Internet access, a free copy of USA Today or The Wall Street Journal and access to either a swimming pool or an exercise facility.

At all-suite properties aimed at business travelers on extended stays, such as Residence Inn, space is the great appeal, with rooms that are 50% larger than standard. While business travelers flock here on weekdays, there can be good weekend deals that appeal to families. And talk about added value: You get a kitchen, complete with refrigerator and microwave, which delivers additional savings because you won’t have to eat every meal out at a restaurant. The hotel will even stock your refrigerator without charging for the service. You pay only for the groceries.

Hiltongarden_3 A chain such as Hilton Garden Inn (photo) offers the kind of amenities that upscale boutique hotels like to brag about, for example, a complimentary Stay Fit Kit that you can borrow for working out in your room or in the fitness center, if there’s one available. It includes a Pilates band, an abs ball, hand weights and a resistance rope, plus a yoga mat, strap and bricks. But it’s important to note that not every member of a given hotel chain will have exactly the same amenities check with the individual property.

WHAT YOU WON’T GET

The industry phrase for these properties is "limited-service hotels." So think self-service. There’s usually no restaurant or room service of any kind. If you’re hungry for lunch or dinner, or want a cocktail, you’ll have to go elsewhere. If the hotel is a city version of a particular brand, the rooms are often smaller than at their suburban cousins. There’s no gift shop or spa facility. As for a gym or business center, it’s usually minimal if it exists at all. And forget about nightly turndown service, concierges and fashionable toiletries.

WHAT YOU WON’T MISS

Paying for breakfast. Okay, you don’t stay at a Hampton Inn or a Courtyard for the buffet. But if it saves you $10 to $20 per person, which is what a full-service hotel would charge, you’re ahead of the game.

You won’t miss paying the 18% delivery charge for room service, and you’ll be glad these properties don’t charge "resort fees," which can range from $15 to $25 a day at major vacation hotels. Then there’s parking. With the exception of some city locales, you park your car yourself and save on overnight parking fees, which can be north of $30 a day in many locations. As for tipping, keep your bills where they belong, in your wallet. With no room service, parking valet, doorman or bellboy, you won’t need to use your greenbacks to grease any palms.

WHAT YOU’LL PAY

Rates are all over the place, of course. But look at a city and do some comparisons. I checked TripAdvisor in April for the average hotel rates in Atlanta. The Hampton Inn & Suites Atlanta Downtown not only averaged $165 per night, but it was the number one ranked hotel for that city, above the eighth-ranked Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta, in fact. The Residence Inn Atlanta Midtown/17th Street cost $169 a night. Rooms at Homewood Suites by Hilton Atlanta Galleria/Cumberland were $146. All ranked within the top 15 hotels in town (out of 192).

Compare these reasonable rates with those at the better-known hotels, such as Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead ($292), The Westin Buckhead Atlanta ($311), InterContinental Buckhead ($375) and Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta ($471), all ranked among the top 15 properties.

The story is the same in most American cities and towns. For up to half of what a top hotel charges, you can get considerable comfort and even a few small luxuries when staying at a limited-service property. And you will save even more on amenities like breakfast and parking (see chart). Okay, I’ll admit that you won’t get a mint on your pillow. But with these savings, you can buy a case of mints and still have plenty of money left over.

This story first appeared in Diversion.

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