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What's the Key to a Good Hotel? / The Philadelphia Inquirer Philly Road Warrior Column
y Tom Belden, The Philadelphia InquirerMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Oct. 15, 2007 - We've spent multiple nights in hotel rooms recently, more than we normally do. The experience has been a reminder that finding the right accommodations, often in unfamiliar cities, is as important to frequent business travelers as what we harp on most of the time: finding an airline that has reasonable fares, operates on time, and doesn't lose your bags.

At larger companies, travel policies usually dictate the hotel chains employees must use, with senior executives ensconced at a Four Seasons and lesser mortals down the street at more modest places. But more than half of all business travelers and most vacationers these days are choosing their own hotels after shopping online.

Our first impression of the landscape is how often you can count on getting a good value for your money when you choose a hotel. On the airlines, you get the same legroom and snack whether you paid $100 or $300 for your coach ticket. No hotel worth $100 a night can get away with charging $300.

Hotel room rates have risen steadily the last five years and especially in the last year or two, after the post-9/11 slump in travel depressed them.

As one example, from January through July, average rates rose 7 percent in the Philadelphia metro area and 8 percent in Center City from the same period in 2006, according to Smith Travel Research and PKF Consulting. Other cities have seen similar rate increases.

The demand is so strong that rates of $200 to $300 a night are common at many full-service, four-star hotels in major cities. Even mid-grade hotels without restaurants or room service command close to $200 a night during big conventions or other events.

As you move out to suburban areas, where you usually need to figure in rental-car costs, rates can drop by half or more compared with downtown. But $200 a night still isn't unusual at newer hotels. We've learned to be wary when the price is less than $100 a night in an urban area.

In a valiant effort to save the company money, we stayed at one $98-a-night full-service chain hotel, with its own restaurant and a conference center, that was truly dismal: lukewarm water in the shower, worn and stained carpet everywhere, cigarette burns on the bathroom sink, and grease spots on the ironing board.

We've done most of our room shopping at www.hotels. com, www.quikbook.com, and the Web sites of major lodging chains. Unlike a few years ago, there is normally little or no difference in the rates available from the multi-hotel and the individual chains' sites. You may find lower rates by calling a hotel directly, but we recently found the opposite true in a Washington hotel, where the rate online was half what we were quoted over the phone.

We've learned to pay attention to the unedited customer reviews of hotels available online at www.tripadvisor.com, www.hotels.com, and other travel Web sites, including www.orbitz.com and www. travelocity.com. Guests rate hotels on a 1-to-5 scale. We stay away from anywhere with less than a 3.5-out-of-5 rating.

Once we've chosen a hotel, we have certain requirements that will keep us from being repeat customers if they're not met. Free high-speed wireless Internet access in the room is a must. A decent breakfast included in the rate helps but is not a necessity. Both amenities seem more common these days in mid-priced, limited-service hotels than in pricier places.

Beyond that, we need rooms with these features: little or no noise from the street, hallway or pool area; a good desk and desk chair; bathrooms with good mirror lights, ample counter space, and an adjustable shower head; strong lighting throughout the room; and a good bed. On the last item, fortunately the major chains that operate three- and four-star hotels are in fierce competition these days to see which can offer the most comfortable bed.

Your turn now. Tell us what you've experienced recently while staying in hotels and what's important to you in choosing one over another. We will use some of your comments in a future column.

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-845-2454 or tbelden@phillynews.com.

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