Hotel Chains Compared | T+L Family

Hotel Chains Compared | T+L Family

Jeff Harris The Chain Gang Jeff Harris
Jeff Harris The Chain Gang
Jeff Harris
Their luminous signs beckon from the highway. But which midmarket hotel chains are worth pulling over for?T+L Family checked out the field—so you know where to check in.

Tried out a chain hotel lately?You might be pleasantly surprised. In the past few years lodging companies have been busy opening and upgrading properties in the moderately priced range—those for which you’ll shell out about $100 a night. Some of the improvements, such as better bedding, first showed up at high-priced chains, then trickled down; other perks, like free Internet access, have long been a signature of midmarket brands—eat your heart out, upscale-hotel guests. Meanwhile, the industry’s current emphasis on design is turning once-stodgy lobbies and guest rooms practically hip, a trend especially evident in new well-priced, style-minded chains—Starwood’s Aloft and Hyatt’s Hyatt Place, for example—that blur the line between vanilla-box and boutique property.

Still, for traveling families the very predictability of chains has always been part of their appeal. After all, when you’re goggle-eyed from nonstop driving, satin-steel doorknobs and exposed-brick walls are beside the point. What you want are a convenient location and some well-thought-out basics. At the best of the bland hotels these days, you’ll find all of that, along with a number of welcome enticements.

Faster Check-In

They’re not yet the self-serve hotels that are increasingly popular in Europe, but U.S. chains are automating. More and more properties feature check-in kiosks—no need to line up at the front desk for your room number and key card.

Quarters that Won’t Cramp Your Style

All-suite properties have proliferated; they now account for 11 percent of the hotel market. And apartment-style, extended-stay setups—an 80’s invention conceived for business travelers—are a bonanza for families who’ve learned you can duck in for just a night and spread out (suites at such properties are more spacious than the standard 325-square-foot room). Hungry?Throw a frozen pizza in the oven. Some chains will do grocery shopping for free, though nightly receptions for guests (barbecued chicken at Residence Inn, Swedish meatballs at Homewood Suites) are sometimes substantial enough to double as dinner.

A Decent Night’s Sleep

The bed wars among upscale chains that began in 1999, when Westin introduced its Heavenly Bed, have resulted in a more comfy “sleep experience” all over. Those tired, old, rarely washed polyester bedspreads are finally being replaced with duvets whose covers are laundered between guests. Chains now tout the thread count of their sheets (though we’re talking 200-count cotton-poly blends) and offer pillow menus and triple sheeting (the third sheet covers the blanket—so you never have to touch it). Mattresses have plumped up (from four inches to nine at Residence Inn and Fairfield Inn), and pillow-tops are surfacing. Hey, the kids just might sleep in.

Jazzy New Features

Holiday Inn is one of many chains converting to flat-screen TV’s and expanding programming. The long-reviled bedside clock has also been revamped. Hampton Hotels’ idiot-proof clock radio has proved so popular that 197,652 have been sold at $60 each. And then there’s the curious case of the curved shower curtain. Designed to give ever pudgier guests more lathering room, these bowed rods are now everywhere. Keep your distance, wet nylon!

Breakfast on the House

Forget cellophane-wrapped Danishes made who-knows-when. Buffets of scrambled eggs, sausages, yogurt, fresh fruit, and make-your-own waffles are gratis at many limited-service hotels—a boon for families and another way moderately priced properties outdo more expensive ones. Embassy Suites, whose rates are a tad higher than hotels in the mid-scale range, has cooks in toques at its buffets whipping up omelettes (more than 9,000 each day). Even if your hotel doesn’t include the morning meal in the rate, it may offer special room-and-breakfast deals. At Holiday Inn, children who order from the kids’ menu eat free—and sometimes get SpongeBob activity booklets.


A Breath of Fresh Air

More and more midmarket chains are joining the crusade to make hotel rooms safe for the environmentally sensitive, or just plain germ-phobic. Marriott and Westin properties are now smoke-free. Courtyard by Marriott supplies allergen-resistant pillows on request. And hypoallergenic rooms are no longer a rarity. At Hampton Inn in Sarasota, a specially sanitized room with, among other things, an air purifier and a chlorine-removing showerhead is just $15 extra a night.

Green Efforts

Asking guests to reuse their towels was just the start. These days hotels are choosing compact fluorescent lightbulbs and installing low-flow faucets, toilets, and showers, all in the name of helping the environment (though reducing energy and water use certainly doesn’t hurt the companies’ bottom line).

Options Galore

Among the chains cropping up: “lifestyle” brands that aim to reel in customers with smart designs. Hyatt Place has living room–like lobbies, Hotel Indigo wears primary colors, Aloft features flat-screen TV’s that connect to your laptop, and Nylo boasts staff uniforms by a Project Runway finalist. And now Ian Schrager, the boutique hotelier, and Marriott are teaming up on a new kind of “chain”: each property will have its own look. Which is about as far from cookie-cutter as you can get.


1908

Gideon Bibles appear at the Superior Hotel, in Superior, Montana. The Gideons currently distribute 1 million Bibles a week.

1919

Conrad Hilton starts his empire by buying the Mobley Hotel, in Cisco, Texas, a crash pad for local oil-field workers.

1929

The first airport hotel arrives— at Oakland International.

1952

Kemmens Wilson introduces the Holiday Inn, in Memphis. Family perks: pools, cribs, and free TV.

1956

Eisenhower’s federal highways program is inaugurated, eventually adding more than 46,000 miles of asphalt. The motor hotel, or motel, takes off.

1962

The original budget chain, Motel 6, opens—with rooms that cost $6 a night.

1969

Westin begins providing room service—hot soup is 85 cents; ham and cheese on rye, $2.75. Care for Sanka with that?

1970’s

Four Seasons sets a trend by offering terry robes, hair dryers, and multiple-line, in-room telephones.

1973

In-room movies premiere at Sheraton; they require engineers to cue the tapes.

1979

The key card is born, at the Westin Peach-tree Plaza, in Atlanta, Georgia.

1987

The polyester bedspread— fade-resistant and flame-retardant— is unfurled and quickly becomes the cover of choice for affordable hotels.

2008

This year, 143,900 hotel rooms will be added to the 3 million already out there. How’s that for a chain reaction?


Comparison-shop on the Web

Browse hotels by price, location, and amenities on sites like hotels.com—but don’t pay up just yet. Most hotel chains now promise to match (and sometimes undercut) Web rates that are lower than their own.

Call Directly

Dial the hotel’s local number to make the reservation—off-site operators don’t have the authority to nego-tiate, but those on-site do, especially when they’re facing vacancies. Mention the rate you found online, and ask about added costs, such as city, state, and occupancy taxes. Reservationists just might cut you a deal.

Seek Special Rates

Part of an association like AAA?Traveling en masse?Staying for more than one night?You probably qualify for a discount.

Migrate By Date

Avoid inflated rates by staying at hotels in tourist- trodden locales on weekdays, when the crowds are thinner, and in business hotels (near convention centers) on weekends.

Don’t Get Gouged

Before you hand your car keys to the valet, ask where else you can park. There’s likely a spot nearby that’s cheaper—or free.

Join Rewards Programs

They don’t cost anything, and perks include smoother check-in (no need to dig out your credit card), later checkout, and room upgrades (how about that view?!). As the points rack up, you’ll earn free nights—and sometimes even flights.


Reservationist, Ramada

“Online descriptions can be misleading. Our Web site says we’re centrally located, but we’re about four miles north of downtown.”

Head Housekeeper, Holiday Inn

“The average housekeeping tip is maybe one or two dollars. If a housekeeper cleans seventeen rooms, often she’ll make only $17 in tips the whole day.”

Front Desk, Hampton Inn

“When people come to me with complaints about their stay—the fire-alarm battery went low and kept them up all night— I have the authority to refund all their money.”

Assistant Manager, Marriott

“It’s okay to send your kids to the front desk for toothpaste and toothbrushes, but please don’t let them run around the lobby by themselves. I’m not a babysitter.”

Front Desk, Hilton Garden Inn

“We have leeway on the rate if we’re not at high occupancy. On a slow weekend I’ll sometimes take off $20.”

Bellhop, Marriott

“We usually get tipped three to five dollars for a full cart—I think a dollar a bag is fair.”


Best Western

Average Daily Rate
$78
U.S. Locations
2,400
Room
Rooms and suites
Breakfast
Hot or cold buffet (free only at some locations)
Pool
Most locations, plus water parks at 12 properties
No Extra Charge
Internet access; newspaper; and, at some properties, nighttime milk and cookies
Standout Features
Has more locations worldwide than any other chain
Contact Info
bestwestern.com; 800/780-7234

Comfort Inn (Choice Hotels)

Average Daily Rate
$72
U.S. Locations
1,429
Room
Rooms and suites
Breakfast
Free hot and cold buffet
Pool
Most locations
No Extra Charge
Internet access; USA Today or the Wall Street Journal
Standout Features
15 percent off if you have a child in Little League
Contact Info
comfortinn.com; 877/424-6423

Embassy Suites (Hilton)

Average Daily Rate
$123
U.S. Locations
181
Room
Suites with kitchenettes
Breakfast
Free hot and cold buffet, plus cooked-to-order omelettes
Pool
Most locations; Myrtle Beach, S.C., has a water park
No Extra Charge
USA Today; nightly receptions with appetizers and cocktails
Standout Features
Kids’ guide written by local youngsters (at 100-plus locations); two TV’s in every suite; atriums with glass elevators
Contact Info
embassysuites.com; 800/445-8667

Hampton Inn & Suites (Hilton)

Average Daily Rate
$90
U.S. Locations
318
Room
Rooms and suites with kitchenettes
Breakfast
Free hot and cold buffet; to-go breakfast bags
Pool
Most locations; Rapid City, S.D., has a 102-foot waterslide
No Extra Charge
Internet access; USA Today; coffee, tea, and water always available in the lobby
Standout Features
Foolproof alarm clocks; in-room video games at some locations
Contact Info
hamptoninn.com; 800/560-7809

Holiday Inn (Inter-Continental)

Average Daily Rate
$98
U.S. Locations
828
Room
Rooms and suites
Breakfast
On-site diner (children 12 and under eat free from the kids’ menu)
Pool
All locations, plus water parks at 13 properties
No Extra Charge
Internet access; USA Today; a check-in gift, such as baseball cards, at some properties
Standout Features
Motor lodges are giving way to hotels with hallways and expanded lobbies; even the starburst sign is being overhauled
Contact Info
holidayinn.com; 800/315-2621

Residence Inn (Marriott)

Average Daily Rate
$112
U.S. Locations
534
Room
Suites with full kitchens
Breakfast
Free hot and cold buffet
Pool
Most locations
No Extra Charge
Internet access; USA Today; grocery-shopping service; weeknight appetizers
Standout Features
The extended-stay pioneer: spacious rooms; on-site washer–dryers; and outdoor sport courts at most locations
Contact Info
residence-inn.com; 888/236-2427

SpringHill Suites (Marriott)

Average Daily Rate
$100
U.S. Locations
166
Room
Suites with kitchenettes
Breakfast
Free hot and cold buffet
Pool
All locations
No Extra Charge
Internet access; USA Today; Chupa Chups lollies at check-in
Standout Features
New guest-room design this year, featuring a lighter palette and spa-inspired bathrooms
Contact Info
springhillsuites.com; 888/236-2427

Did you enjoy this article?

Share it.

Explore More