Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Surprising Contrasts Among Five Recent Hotel Experiences

These last few weeks of travel have taken me to York, Pennsylvania, to suburban Pittsburgh, to Nashville (twice), to downtown Cleveland, and to the heart of the CBD (Central Business District) on the riverfront back in Pittsburgh (locals refer to the area as "The Triangle").  I was in and out of five very different hotels.  Some of the properties were my choices (the cheapest ones), and some hotels were dictated by the folks who planned the travel in support of the business trips.  

My stays were limited to just one or two nights in each property in fairly quick succession.  This gave me a chance to reflect and contrast hotel experiences derived from those recent trips at a humble Holiday Inn Express in York, an even more modest Comfort Inn in suburban Pittsburgh, a fancy Hyatt in downtown Cleveland, an even fancier Renaissance in downtown Pittsburgh, and an airport Radisson in Nashville.  It was surprising to me which hotel’s service and value for money came out on top.

Before getting started, I have to hang my head in shame and admit that, for the first time since hotel chains began their loyalty programs, I am not an elite member of any.  My fall from grace as a perennial Hilton Diamond, for instance, was painful; alas, I am just a peon now when I step into a hotel lobby.  No one turns on a radiant smile any more for me at the elite check-in front desk counter and exclaims, "Welcome back, Mr. Allen!  Your upgraded room, free Internet, and complimentary lounge access are all ready for you!"  Instead, they scrutinize my credit card and driver's license closely before squinting up at me to be sure the person standing in front of them is the old balding fat guy in the photo.

Point being, the impressions I am about to describe don't include any elite perks or freebies.  I am Joe Everyman now.


Three of the hotels charged at or just above $100 per night (before tax): The Nashville Airport Radisson and the suburban Pittsburgh Comfort Inn wanted $99 per night, while the brand spanking new Holiday Inn Express on the western edge of York, PA was $109.  Both the Hyatt in Cleveland (at the Arcade) and the Renaissance on the river in Pittsburgh demanded almost three times as much at $279-289 per night (again, before tax).  Value for money WINNER: Holiday Inn Express in York, PA.


Parking was free at the Radisson, Comfort Inn, and Holiday Inn Express.  Not so at the Hyatt and the Renaissance; however, nearby parking garages charged a modest $10/day.  No winners or losers.

Internet Access

Free at every hotel except the Hyatt at the Arcade in downtown Cleveland, which wanted about $10 per day for it.  However, when I politely complained to the front desk, they discretely handed me a code for gratis Internet access for my entire stay.  I was happy to note that the Renaissance on the riverfront in downtown Pittsburgh, a premier Marriott property, did not charge for Internet access.  LOSER: Hyatt Cleveland at the Arcade.

Complimentary Breakfast?

I encountered the standard, unimaginative, el cheapo complimentary "breakfast buffet" at the Holiday Inn Express and the Comfort Inn where the safest bet is always cold cereal and yogurt.  Nothing to write home about.  

At the Hyatt and at the Renaissance they never heard of any "complimentary" meal, breakfast or otherwise, but they were darned polite refuting the possibility when I inquired.  It was obviously an alien concept to staff at those two properties; my question elicited puzzled expressions as if I had asked them to provide me with a handful of free money.  

WINNER: Breakfast at the Radisson at the Nashville Airport proved, however, to be a bonanza, topping the other hotels by a mile!  Not only was it complimentary, but the food was really good, and the selections on the buffet were real breakfast food items to boot: two versions of cooked eggs, bacon, sausage, lots of fresh-cut fruit, biscuits that tasted homemade with sausage gravy, good coffee, hot tea, pitchers of several types of juice, cold cereal with milk, and pancakes with maple syrup.  Truly a hearty breakfast fit for a king.

Hotel Property Appearance and Feel (from grungiest/gaudiest to newest/fanciest)  

OK but humble - The Comfort Inn in suburban Pittsburgh was dowdy and showing its age. There's not much you can do to spruce up the standard Comfort Inn look and make it appealing, and at least this one didn't pretend to be anything other than a value-priced, family-focused hotel.

Fancy but not welcoming - The Hyatt in downtown Cleveland was built into the old Arcade there, with the eclectic feel Hyatt likes to effect when merging its hotel features into an historic edifice.  It was done as well as such a graft could be realized, yet it wasn't able to hide or overcome the cold, inert, almost museum-like feel of the contemporary uses of the old Arcade.  This made the experience memorable in its way, but I wouldn't choose to stay there again.  It was not warm or inviting or inclusive.

Clean and honest - The Radisson at the Nashville Airport was nicely maintained, with a polished and clean look and feel inside and out.  Notwithstanding the well-scrubbed appearance, it was the standard stolid rectangular box with all the predictable, unimaginative features of an airport hotel.  Like the Comfort Inn, it is what it is, and is nothing more than that.  At least it was honest in presenting itself as a no-nonsense place to hang one's hat.

Modest yet inviting - The brand new Holiday Inn Express on the west side of York, PA acquitted itself admirable for such a modest brand.  True, it had some of the plastic feel of an airport bar in 1962, yet the warmth of its earth-tone and green decor raised the feel of the hotel up several notches in its public spaces in and near the lobby.  Somehow it seemed better than what I knew it to be, a neat trick of design and execution which was nicely carried through to the rooms themselves.  Stated differently, the subtle promise of the lobby areas were fulfilled when entering one's room, about which more below.

WINNER: Magnificence realized - The Renaissance Hotel on the riverfront in Pittsburgh bills itself as a boutique luxury hotel in the iconic Fulton Building.  In this case the claim isn't hype; this place rocks!  the architecture is stunning, and the interior public space is reminiscent of grand old hotels like Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria.  

Room Size, Condition, and Amenities

To their credit, all five hotels had installed large flatscreen HDTV monitors.  However, only the Holiday Inn Express and the Radisson had true HD cable available, and of those two, the Holiday Inn Express had by far the clearest signal and most channels.  The screen fairly popped with crystal clarity and bright colors.  I was disappointed to find the cable quality in the two most expensive properties, the Hyatt and the Renaissance, to be grainy and poor.

The Holiday Inn Express also had by far the largest bathroom, and it was chock full of high-end hotel bath amenities and lots and lots of big fluffy towels.  Holiday Inn has really upped its game in the hotel bathroom marathon race.  The Radisson also had a roomy bathroom with plenty of big towels and nice stuff on the counter, including fancy soap.  The Comfort Inn and Hyatt bathrooms were cramped and austere by comparison.  The Renaissance was somewhere in-between in size, but made up for it with a fine array of luxurious soaps and bathroom gewgaws, impressive enough to wow even the most jaded of travelers. 

Only the Holiday Inn Express and the Comfort Inn provided in-room refrigerators.  It's always struck me as odd that the cheaper hotel brands almost always throw in a small fridge for guests, a family-friendly perk.

Of the five hotels, only one, the Comfort Inn, showed real signs of wear.  All the rest were in tip-top, shiny condition.

Room size varied considerably.  No room was tiny, but the clear winner was the Renaissance in Pittsburgh.  Perhaps I just lucked out in my room assignment, but it was enormous (but not a suite), made even more awesome by the high ceiling and very large windows that looked out onto the river.    The smallish bathroom seemed anomalous in its juxtaposition to the gigantic room it served.  

A very close second in providing a roomy room was the Holiday Inn Express in York, PA.  All the rooms were configured as mini-suites, with a small but comfortable sitting area complete with microwave and fridge between the bathroom and the large bedroom area.  It reminded me of Hilton Garden Inns, but the room and bathroom were larger.

Third in size was the Comfort Inn room, which was large and, well, as their name implies, comfortable.  Sure, it had a well-worn feel to it and needed some refreshment, but it was big enough not to seem like a prison cell.

Fourth and fifth in size were the Radisson and the Hyatt.  Rooms in those properties were perfectly adequate (not cramped, like some Marriott rooms tend to be), just nothing special.

WINNER:  Tie between the Renaissance and the Holiday In  Express.

Restaurants and Bars

Except for the breakfasts, I didn't try the restaurants.  The bars in the Hyatt and Renaissance properties were fine, but very pricey, with no special qualities that made them memorable.


Here they were all winners!  I must admit that the staff I encountered in all five properties were genuine, helpful, and gracious.  They got every request right (except when I asked to call the police on some very loud 2:00 AM drunks on my floor at the Radisson), and my bills were correct on check-out.  My calls to housekeeping were answered promptly, and my wake-up calls all worked.  At the Radisson they even comped my room for the night the drunks woke me up (see reference above).  Reflecting on each experience, I can't pick a clear favorite among the many employees I met in each hotel.

Overall Winners

The Renaissance Pittsburgh and the Holiday Inn Express in western York, PA provided great service by almost every measure.  I guess I'd give the nod to the Holiday Inn Express simply because it was such a price bargain by comparison to the Renaissance.  But considering how many poor or mediocre hotels I've encountered over forty years, it was a pleasant surprise to discover that all five properties yielded good experiences.


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