Hotel chains are spending millions of dollars and countless hours of market research to enhance your "sleep experience," but does that necessarily mean you'll rest easier?To find out whether these efforts are actually working, I checked into six properties in New York and Miami, pitting newcomers in the luxury-bed world (Crowne Plaza, Marriott, Grand Hyatt) against the original branded bed (Westin) and two luxury gold standards (Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons). Keeping to a consistent regimen every evening—no caffeine after 5 p.m., no drinks after dinner, no snacks after 9 p.m. —I compared my sleep at each, factoring in the duration of my slumber, the comfort of the bed itself, and, not least, how I felt the next morning. I also considered the temptation factor: How inviting does the bed look?
I also wanted some hard evidence. So I paid a visit to the Chronobiology Lab at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where Dr. Mila Macchi and her assistant, Krisna Sricharoon, study sleep for a living. Here I was issued a wrist-mounted device called the Mini Mitter Actiwatch-L, which, by recording a subject's muscle tension and slightest toss, turn, or twitch, evaluates actual restfulness during the night. Weighing my impressions against the Actiwatch data, I got a clear sense of the payoff at each hotel. The results follow.
THE HOTEL Crowne Plaza Hotel White Plains
THE EXPERIENCE Crowne Plaza's new Sleep Advantage program leaves no stone unturned in the quest for a peaceful night. On weeknights, certain floors are designated "Quiet Zones," from which families and groups are banished. Doors have spring hinges so they don't slam. Blackout curtains ensure your cocoon is pitch-dark. Guests also receive aromatherapy spray, earplugs, an eye mask—even a "Sleep Disc" to play on the bedside CD player.
After dousing myself with lavender spray and hermetically sealing my curtains, I climbed into my plush, white duvetclad bed. Crowne Plaza's new mattress was blissfully firm (for all I could tell, I was its first user). I flicked off the lamp and started the CD. For 15 minutes, a soothing male voice instructed me first to tense, then relax (in succession) my toes, ankles, calves, thighs, lower back, abdomen, chest, arms, neck, forehead, and jaw. Pleasant enough. Then came a New Age sound track. By track four I was fast asleep, which was convenient, since I hate pan flutes.
I rose at 8:15 a.m. feeling refreshed and alert. The Actiwatch registered a "sleep efficiency" score of 89.6, meaning I was actually inert for nearly 90 percent of my time in bed. During five nights at home, the highest I'd scored was an 88—and I've got a nice bed, with a Serta Perfect Sleeper mattress and 300-thread-count sheets of pima cotton. The Crowne Plaza's sheets were 60-40 cotton-polyester—a tad scratchy at first touch but after a while not noticeably so— and the down pillows a bit bulky for my taste, but, judging by the Actiwatch and my chipper morning mood, I should probably move in.
THE VERDICT Actiwatch Score 89.6 Lindberg Grade B
THE HOTEL Ritz-Carlton, South Beach
THE EXPERIENCE The Ritz-Carlton's all-cotton Frette sheets are wonderfully soft, and the bed itself is an insomniac's fantasy: big, billowy, and blindingly white. I'd been eyeing it all evening from the desk where I was working, until, just after 11 p.m., I finally gave in. The expression cloudlike popped to mind.
The Ritz-Carlton bed was the only one I tested that had a mattress topped by a feather bed, which feels great when you first lie down, yet, to my mind, makes the bed too soft. (Some experts say that a too-soft or too-firm sleeping surface is bad for your back.) Had I known the feather bed was removable—I confirmed this the next morning—I would have taken it off. As it was, I suffered the effects of a squishy night's sleep: in the morning my body ached. But I slept for nine hours, something I never do at home. And the Actiwatch belied my back's complaints, registering the highest score of our test.
THE VERDICT Actiwatch Score 92.7 Lindberg Grade B+
THE HOTEL Four Seaso ns Miami
THE EXPERIENCE Like Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons swathes its beds in luscious Frette linens. But the latter's thick mattresses—filled with 40 to 50 pounds of cotton, as opposed to synthetic stuffing—are firmer, with a pleasingly buoyant two-inch-thick pillow top.
Fact is, the beds at all six properties looked very much alike. Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton do have a trump card, however, and it's called turndown. Although sultry mood lighting, soft jazz on the clock radio, and Ghirardelli chocolates may not make you sleep better, they sure make going to bed a pleasure.
Then there were Four Seasons' pillows. You can keep your buckwheat, your water-filled, your jelly neck roll, your Swedish memory gel ; just give me an old-school rectangle of down. I also prefer two medium-sized pillows to just one that's overstuffed—all the more cool sides to flip over. Four Seasons got it just right on both counts. What's more, at most hotels I find that two pillows stack too high, and here they were a perfect fit. When I woke up, after another nine-hour slumber, my joints and lower back were fine, and I felt entirely replenished. The Actiwatch, however, gave my sleep a lower-than-expected score.
THE VERDICT Actiwatch Score 88.1 Lindberg Grade A-
THE HOTEL Miami Airport Marriott
THE EXPERIENCE Marriott's new bed is a dramatic improvement : a sumptuous, seriously substantial mattress (the king-sized version looks like a white elephant in an undersized room), outfitted with masses of pillows and 300-thread-count cotton-polyester sheets. The downside is that the fancy beds now make the rest of the room seem drab by comparison. At least the world did look (or feel) a lot better from the bed. For one thing, I could rest assured that the bedding was actually clean. Marriott now guarantees that its new, bright-white duvet covers will be laundered for each new guest.
Comfortable as I was in bed, I woke up at 8 a.m. —another nine-hour night!—feeling rather logy. My Actiwatch score was low. I'd slept fitfully. It could have been the noise: after counting sheep, I'd switched to counting the number of times my neighbor guffawed at Conan O'Brien. A great bed is a step in the right direction, but it can't beat a solid set of walls.
THE VERDICT Actiwatch Score 85.5 Lindberg Grade B-
THE HOTEL Grand Hyatt New York
THE EXPERIENCE Rolling out at Hyatt, Hyatt Regency, and Grand Hyatt properties, the Grand Bed does away with the customary raised frame and bed skirt in favor of a base that sits directly on the floor, lending the bed a more contemporary look. On this base is a pillow-top mattress and 250-thread-count cotton-polyester sheets, two of which are wrapped around a down-filled duvet. Frankly, I'd prefer a proper cover: by morning the sheets had slipped and my duvet was exposed—and how often do they clean that?My king-sized bed came with only three pillows, not counting the two decorative silk bolsters that I'd also rather not get too intimate with. (Fine, call me a germophobe.) Worst of all, one of the actual pillows had a visible smudge mark.
That aside, said pillows had the right heft, and the mattress proved firm and resilient. Apart from the stain, the bed looked good, framed by a sleek headboard and two handsome consoles I'd consider buying for home. Thanks to blackout curtains, the room was nice and dark—it was also quieter than you could expect any Manhattan hotel room to be. And I slept like a bear in January, registering a very good reading on the Actiwatch.
THE VERDICT Actiwatch Score 89.5 Lindberg Grade B
THE HOTEL Westin New York at Times Square
THE EXPERIENCE The Heavenly Bed was the first high-end bed to be installed at a non-luxury hotel chain, and its success delivered a wake-up call to the industry—or was it a sleeping pill?On my visit, I found the mattress to be terrific: firm, with a substantial pillow top, and set on a sturdy box spring and metal frame. The bedding, however, wasn't perfect. The sheets were perfectly good (200-thread-count and 100 percent cotton, better than at some of Westin's competitors), but the poly-filled duvet had a scratchy-feeling polyester cover. Swank as it looked—with vaguely shiny white-on-white stripes—it felt cheap to the touch, like a Naugahyde sofa.
Still, there's no denying that the Heavenly Bed is incredibly comfortable: my Actiwatch score was impressively high. I didn't wake up once—at least not until 7:43 a.m., when the couple in the next room let their door slam as loud as a thunderclap, jolting me out of bed in a panic. Suddenly, Crowne Plaza's spring-hinged doors sounded like a great idea.
THE VERDICT Actiwatch Score 91.9 Lindberg Grade A-
And the Winner Is...
Surprisingly, neither the Actiwatch data nor my own evaluations uncovered great disparity among the six tested beds. I say "surprisingly" because I wasn't sure the upstarts would get it right, and I definitely expected the luxury chains to throttle the lower-priced contenders. Considering both my own impressions and the Actiwatch scores (which, as at the Ritz-Carlton, occasionally contradicted each other), I found the field to be remarkably consistent, with no obvious losers. The clear winner, in this case, is you. If you're simply after a good night's sleep—and surveys show that is travelers' number-one priority—well, your bed is being made as we speak.
PETER JON LINDBERG is a T+L editor-at-large