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.
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.