|By Chris Jones, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 18, 2008 - NEW YORK--An American theater critic must cover Broadway. Here at the Tribune, the bosses like you to do so on the cheap. Thus, from the Shoreham to the Gorham, the Quality to the Hampton, the Best Western to the hotel of last resort, I've stayed at almost every tourist-class joint the theater district has to offer.
I've booked through Quikbook, Hilton, Orbitz, Hotels.com, the old-fashioned telephone and, once, a Web site aimed at South Americans. And having done this now for some years--and coupled with a travel nerd's love of getting the lowest possible price--I've learned some useful strategies.
If you're headed to Manhattan this spring to see some shows or the tourist sights, here are 10 of my personal rules about Midtown hotels. And the first thing you have to know is that most of the usual rules don't apply in Manhattan.
Rule No. 1: In New York, the chains are your friend
Many frequent travelers abhor the standardization of chain hotels. Well, save that love of the quirky hostelry for your next trip to Napa Valley. In Midtown, boutique is mostly code for smaller rooms, bigger attitudes and higher prices.
But chains have national standards to which even New York franchisees must adhere. And thus they tend to have bigger rooms, better service and more amenities. There's one caveat: The hotels have to be new, and you have to snag a room on a high floor for noise reasons.
But take the Hilton Garden Inn Times Square (790 8th Ave.; 212-581-7000; www.stayhgi.com)--my favorite Midtown Hotel and the place where I am typing these words. The rooms have refrigerators, microwaves, flat-screen TVs. There's room to work. Almost every Broadway theater is within five blocks. And it's cheap. Relatively.
Rule No. 2: In New York, brand status means nothing
The Hampton Inn at 50th Street and 8th Avenue (212-581-4100; www.hamptoninn.com), another of my favorite New York hotels, has a concierge, a terrific staff and quite luxurious rooms. A Hampton Inn, you say? That's the cheapest of the Hilton brands and best known for sitting on the exit of a freeway. True. But in New York, it's got better service than the Sheraton. Which brings us to:
Rule No. 3: In New York, prices depend on timing, not quality
That Hampton Inn I just mentioned often charges well over $350 a night. You have to adjust your expectations in Midtown; a room under $250 is a cheap room. Everyone knows hotels vary pricing based on sophisticated predictors of demand. But in New York, the contrasts are eye-popping. The difference between pricing on different dates far eclipses the difference in pricing between hotels. In other words, the Waldorf Astoria on a low-demand night will charge less than the Four Points by Sheraton on a high-demand night. So what should you do?
Rule No. 4: Sundays are your friend
Try to stay on a Sunday night. Midtown hotels are the cheapest on that night; you can stay most Sundays for less than $200. In general, the most expensive nights are Wednesdays and Thursdays, although weekend rates don't drop significantly. At certain times of year--the spring-break weeks in March and weekends in the fall--hotel rates in Midtown are stratospheric as hotels fill with school groups and shopping Europeans. You can easily pay $400 a night for the crummiest joint. Best to stay in Chicago and go to New York instead in January, February, late April and May. The summer isn't bad either. And Thanksgiving weekend is a bargain.
Rule No. 5: Prices usually drop nearer the stay
Don't assume advance booking serves you well. Using chain Web sites, I recheck prices right up to cancellation deadlines. I switch hotels as prices drop nearer the night. Except for those peak times, room rates tend to fall. By significant amounts.
Rule No. 6: If you want an independent, use Quikbook
Most of the big hotel booking sites churn out the same rates in Midtown. And using the so-called opaque sites such as priceline.com is a sure way to get stuck with a room on the second floor--or, once, in my experience, the basement. For chains, use their own Web sites for the best deals. But Quikbook.com, a site that works with independent hotels, offers genuinely lower rates and a high degree of service and reliability.
I use Quikbook at high-demand times. I ended up recently at the Duane Street Hotel in Tribeca (130 Duane St.; 212-964-4600; www.duanestreethotel.com) for about $260 a night. Although the staffers were friendly, it was a classic boutique--trendy, tiny and noisy. Better independent choices in Midtown include the sedate, renovated Belvedere Hotel (319 W. 48th St.; 212-245-7000; www.belvederehotelnyc.com) and the hipper-than-thou but oft-cheap Time Hotel (224 W. 49th St.; 877-846 3692; www.thetimeny.com)
Rule No. 7: Ignore Trip Advisor
Many travelers base their choices on the comments at tripadvisor.com, a site that lets guests review hotels. It's mostly useless for New York. The vast bulk of the comments come from people who are in various states of shock at New York prices and concepts of space.
Rule No. 8: Consider Chelsea
A lot of new hotels have opened near 8th Avenue in Chelsea. There is a decent new Holiday Inn Express (232 W. 29th St.; 212-695-7200; www.hiexpress.com), a Hilton Garden (121 W. 28th St.; 212 564 2181212 564 2181; www.stayhgi.com) and a Four Points by Sheraton (160 W. 25th St.; 212-627-1888; www.starwoodhotels.com). They're all less than 10 minutes by train from Broadway theaters, and Chelsea now is a terrific neighborhood in which to shop, eat and stroll.
Rule No. 9: Corporate rates probably won't help
The company you work for may have negotiated set rates--the Tribune, for example, has a deal with the frayed New York Helmsley (212 E. 42nd St.; 212-490-8900; www.helmsleyhotels.com) on the East Side. I can almost always beat that price on my own. And when I can't, it's usually not available.
Rule No. 10: Forget the cab from LaGuardia
No point in saving money if you blow $45 on a cab from LaGuardia Airport, where most Chicagoans arrive. Instead, walk past the cab line and take the Q33 bus from right outside the terminal (you'll need $2 in change, but there's a machine right by the bus stop). Ride 20 minutes, get off at the last stop in Jackson Heights and hop an express E train to Midtown. You'll often get there quicker and for only $2 (a metrocard gets you a free transfer to the subway, or if you don't have one, it's still only $4). That's almost enough of a saving to buy a ticket to a Broadway show at the TKTS booth, temporarily located at the Marriott Marquis Hotel, which is always beyond my budget.
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