I just got back from a few weeks of being an active travel writer, which is in contrast to being an active traveler. For one thing, I stayed in some very swanky hotels in the line of work, while staying at some not-so-swanky ones at other times. In contrast, I have to admit that the swanky ones were very comfortable. Reliable hot water, toilets that flush properly, and comfy beds are just a start. The top-end places also seduced us with twice-a-day cleaning, very nice sheets, and grounds or views meant for lingering. What’s not to like?
Well, a few things actually. Although I can stay at these kinds of places almost at will while on assignment, my wife is only willing to put up with so many nights of this. Don’t get me wrong–she is quick to ask for a facial, massage, or some other pampering when it’s time for a birthday or anniversary–but she is also very social. Ironically, luxury hotels are some of the loneliest places in the world, no matter where you are. As Rob Sangster, author of Travelers’ Tool Kit said in the latest edition of Transitions Abroad, “These places appeal to English-speaking guests who, oddly, don’t tend to talk much with one another.” While most guesthouses around the world that cost $2 to $40 feature a central meeting and talking area, most luxury hotels are built around the idea of seclusion and privacy.
Plus in many cases, they just don’t have all that much character. There are exceptions. I just stayed at the amazing and awe-inspiring Hotel Monasterio in Cusco, which deserves every flattering thing ever said about it. But I have also stayed in so many boring, cookie-cutter chain hotels that I have lost count.
The Luxury Tax
I’ve had a fabulous time in lots of luxury hotels, and there’s no denying that the best ones are experts at meeting and even anticipating your every need. If you can afford the best service and are willing to pay for it, by all means sign up for weeks of stays with someone like Four Seasons, Oberoi, Aman Resorts, or Orient-Express.
If you don’t have more money than you know what to do with, however, there is a price to pay. If you have even a hint of frugality in your bones, here’s what to look out for. All of these contribute to “the luxury tax.”
1) You’ve lost bargaining power.
If you are at one of the most expensive hotels in town, you are rich. Forget trying to convince any taxi driver, guide, or shopkeeper in the hotel otherwise. You will pay more, end of story.
2) Only deluxe taxis wait at your hotel.
In New York, you may pay a few extra dollars if you have to take a car service instead of a yellow taxi. Internationally, however, you will pay several times the local price. In Lima, Peru, when I stayed at a hostel a ride across town cost me $3. When I took a ride on almost the same itinerary from the nearby luxury hotel, it was $18. OK, the car was nicer, but a $15 difference? I’ve seen this over and over again, from Amman to Anguilla.
3) You will not get advice on local transportation.
If you are staying in a luxury hotel, here’s a little game for you. No matter what city you are staying in, it will probably work. Ask the question, “How do I take the subway/bus/tram to (fill in the blank)?” About 99 times out of 100, even if there is a subway stop outside the hotel, the answer you will hear will be, “You should take a taxi.” Ask the same question at a budget hotel and they’ll talk for five minutes and then hand you a schedule.
4) Any money you spend in the hotel will correspond to the price level of the hotel.
It is common practice in the hotel industry to base prices of all goods on the class of the hotel. So whether you are buying a beer in the bar, a driver for the day, or a chocolate bar in the gift shop, the price will coincide with the average room rate. (If you don’t believe me, walk from the 5-star to the 2-star in any town, buy a few items in each, and then send me a report.)
5) The cheaper the hotel, the more you get for free.
Yes, this seems counter-intuitive, but the cheaper hotels often throw in far more goodies than the most expensive ones. This is especially true with high-speed Internet access, which is often free and wireless at many hotels, even cheap ones, while the luxury ones charge a fee for every few minutes. “Our guests can afford the extra fees,” commented one hotel exec in a recent Wall Street Journal article. You won’t get the nice body scrubs and lotions however. Spend a few bucks on your own if this is important to you.
6) You’re paying for the public areas.
Most hotel managers don’t want to admit it, but the money you spend on your room each night mostly goes into the costs of maintaining the whole property. You are paying for the lobby, the fancy bar, and the celebrity chef in the restauarant, whether you eat there or not.
7) You may not be treated equally.
In an inexpensive hotel, they’re glad to have you as a customer. In a luxury hotel, they’re only glad to have some of you as a customer. If you are a frequent guest or belong to their loyalty program, they will be very happy to see you. If you booked through Priceline, Hotwire, or some promotional deal, you are likely to find yourself being a second-class citizen. “You looked for a discount? Bad form!” In several US travel magazines, luxury hotel managers have bragged about giving discounted customers the worst rooms in the hotel or scaling back amenities. Do they deserve your hard-earned money?
In the end, it’s your money and your value decision. I have a 10-year wedding anniversary coming up next year and something tells me I’ll be blowing a lot of money on a fancy hotel. But I will certainly be be doing my homework ahead of time, finding out who is taking care of the customer and who is letting their average room rate go to their head. Do you homework and make sure your money is getting you the experience you are paying for.