Do It Right: Hotel Room Essentials
“Bed, sweet bed.”
I’ve been known to utter this appreciation for my absolute favorite place in the house on any ordinary Saturday, or stressful Wednesday night. But I am particularly prone to repetitive hosannas upon returning from my frequent business trips. Nothing beams forth the comforting waves of home like your own sheets, your own pillows, your own mattress.
It’s a trade-off, travel. We open ourselves to the experience of new places, new people, culture, food, landscape, smells, everything, but worry at the sacrifice of our peaceful routine. The known, the nurturing. That’s bound to happen, anyway, with what we go through just to get there: airplanes, bag fees, currency exchange, taxis, accents (ha). So why can’t hotels be more part of the solution, than the problem?
Spend enough time on the road and you see enough of the good, and the bad, and the ugly, to enumerate what you favor, what you cringe at, what you, even, savor. A night at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong after a week at the Traveler’s Rest in Beijing tends to bring the whole hospitality experience into focus. The Ritz equals the right way. But from Indianapolis to Barcelona to Amsterdam to New York to Singapore, the Ritz way isn’t the only way.
So here’s my enumeration of what tires me and what tickles me. In my travels, I certainly hope for the latter. It’s where I want more hoteliers to aim. And make bed, sweet bed more of a sweet reality than a dream.
Hotel Must-Haves (non-negotiable)
1. Godlike control over the room’s temperature
This is number 1 for me. If I’ve got to truck my butt through swampy airports with their floor-to-ceiling-window glare, then cram myself into stuffy planes, then bump around in crusty taxis, by the time I grin through check-in and huff my bags up to the room, I want to thumb the temp down to, oh, 62 or so (a keen 18 for my Celsius friends) and literally chill out. Nothing ruins an already foreign sleep like hot breath through a musty room vent (I’m remembering YOU, Shelburne Hotel, New York). No, the cure for what broils me is an accessible room thermostat that goes down as far as I could want (think 60) with no smarmy, plastic-card reminder about energy conservation, or limit engineered to somebody’s idea of reasonable comfort, or, in Europe, room controls that only operate when your key is in the wall slot (hint: always ask for two keys). At bedtime I want to pile on the covers and drift away in cozy comfort, forgetting it’s 98 in Singapore, or (seemingly) 160 in Miami come morning. Conversely, if you want your room at 76, go right ahead. What I don’t appreciate is some penny-pincher at, say, Affinia corporate applying their fanciful notions of the economics of human biology to my paid stay at their property. Viva la difference!
2. Blackout curtains
Nothing stops the successful denouement of a nightly struggle to find sleep on the road than the sudden intrusion of light — whether it’s from the sun or the local ambiance, say, of a blinking all-night seafood place across the street. Let’s keep it dark, as in pitch. Some of the more forward-thinking hotels, especially in Asia, have this nailed with bedside controls for just about any source of twinkle or spark in the room, from the bathroom to the nightlights to the blinds. Best to crank them all tight, I say, and emerge in the new day.
3. Ample pillows and a soft bed
Spending a night tossing and turning as if to avoid kidney blows in a boxing match is not my idea of satisfying slumber. And yet some beds at so-called luxury hotels seem akin to the canvas in a big bout — so hard and tight you could bounce a coin off ’em. So here’s my two cents of wisdom: until that day when every bed everywhere is adjustable to our whims (like the thermostat), let’s err on the softer side — or, maybe, provide an optional mattress pad roll, in addition to the extra comforter stashed in the closet. And please — please, please — don’t skimp on the pillows. After weeks crushed under all manner of noggins, the in-room stash takes on a thickness approaching paper currency. And to make it through the night you’ve got to stack-stack-stack your way to a position more dignified than upside down in a dentist’s chair. The best places are changing these out so often their pillows retain springy comfort. But again, one person’s ideal headrest is another’s towering podium: better to throw a mess of them on the bedspread and stuff a cache more in the closet, the better to mix and match.
4. (Free) High-Speed Wireless Internet
Uh, duh. When is this, 2004, with hotel Ethernet cables snaking out from under the desk? Or, 2011, and the Chicago Hyatt charging upwards of $20 a night for what should be a God-given, Congress-guaranteed right when you’re on the road and far from home? Honestly, the nickel-and-dimers who pretend that not everyone and their children have devices that need connecting in order to stay connected need to just close the doors and start up their cleansing cult now. We work from our rooms. We talk to our lonely families from our rooms. And yeah, we carry on as we do at home and ignore the Cable TV and stream our favorite shows from our rooms, the better to nurture that tender spark of contentment in a place alien and strange. So, wise up, already, and absorb it in the rate if you must. We need it free, we need it fast. We needs it, Precious.
5. A pristine bathroom, with a working vent fan (please)
I wouldn’t say I’m stinkier, or messier, our fouler than other travelers. Well… hell yes, I would, in so much as this can be measured. Let’s chart it up on the Traveler’s Empathy Scale, a thing I just invented: I am me, and you are, well, you. (Bless you.) And when it comes down to it, I don’t care if Suzy Sunshine or Bernie Better Dresser toot daisies and sweat rainbows, when I am on the road, in and out of airports, planes, taxis, the sweltering funk of your dear city, I am a prisoner to my own hygiene only. And my refuge is an amply-stocked, impeccably-cared-for bathroom where the water is hot (or cold) at my command, I can spread out all the salves and ointments and remedies that keep me a presentable person, and I can feel, well, clean after a good stint there. No fungus in the bathtub. No showers that run to cold or scalding when the next room over starts to morning yodeling. Ample towels, and soft. That smell clean. Oh, and a workhorse of a bathroom vent fan to diffuse the most orc-like of oppressive days and restore me to innocence. That it can whir through the night and send me off to slumber is a kind, kind bonus.
1. Ample dresser and closet space
Even when you’re just to and from a city for a client meeting and overnight, it’s just better not to live from your well-traveled carry-on, unzip and get the clothes out for the time you’re there. This wasn’t something I always paid as much attention to. I started to think about it more when packing the night before 3 a.m. wake-up calls for 6 a.m. flights. All your nice stuff — the suit coats, the dress shirts, the pressed pants, the polished shoes — get crammed in a bag, essentially, for 6 or 8 hours they don’t necessarily have to, except you’ve got to get up at the butt crack of dawn when you’re likely to forget even your butt crack, never mind that tie tack. So wrinkles and the crush of even clean clothes start to weigh upon me, so that when I finally arrive, I want to get them into a space approximating the order of home (never mind the times when my clothes sit in the laundry basket, or on the chest at the end of the bed), the better to keep things tidy for that all-important meeting or dinner out. So, it’s surprising when a place like the Kew Green hotel in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, features a closet with barely enough hangers for their unnecessary bathrobes and not a dresser or chest of drawers in sight. Even the drawer-like protrusions on the attached nightstands were non-functional. Just for show. Which meant the centerpiece of the room became the luggage stand and my giant suitcase packed for a week of wear. Not a deal-breaker, but c’mon.
2. (FREE?) Mini-bar or reliable room service
I’ve always got at least one or two trips a year where, despite my desire to get out and explore and be part of the place I’ll hang my hat for a few days, I’m either too jet-lagged or tied to the laptop with a work emergency to emerge from the room. And in those situations, being able to punch in a few numbers and have a sustaining meal brought to the door, or dip into a varied mini-bar stash means the difference between a cranky, hungry day or night stuck in the hotel, and a shrugging approximation of what we endure at home. I don’t feel so bad about not taking in the local flavor, at least for one meal, when I get reliable room service tapas in Barcelona, or a proper English breakfast at my desk in Hong Kong. And some places even include free forays into an albeit limited mini-bar, but still, in my experience, reliably stocked with a couple beers and sodas, some chips, nuts or chocolate. Especially internationally, our schedules and bodies are off. It’s nice to have guilt-free nourishment nearby. What flips over to the unconscionable is when hotels charge for bottles of water — water. Get over yourselves and give us something more for the high nightly fee plus tax, plus tax, plus tax, plus tax.
3. A Quality On-Site Breakfast and Dinner Restaurant
A big part of the fun of travel is taking up your colleagues or local pals on a recommended breakfast joint or dinner place, or stumbling upon a gem yourself. But when you’re caught in a work routine away from home, it helps to not go exploring for every meal, particularly when you’re juggling a commute and strange office and hours. So hotels really hit the next level, for me, when they offer not just the usual Holiday Inn (and its ilk) waffle makers and Continental breakfasts in a dingy little corner downstairs but a proper buffet that caters to local and exotic tastes, and all gratis. This is the case in Europe and Asia quite often, where the main restaurant or a designated breakfast space is open and free to travelers, or else, ala the Amoy in Singapore, you get a generous coupon for a full breakfast at an adjacent gourmet eatery. Hustling for breakfast at Starbuck’s is OK with me, and bound to happen. But just being able to bop downstairs and get my daily sustenance, without ponying up (Aloft hotels, shame!) here in the USA is damn nice.
4. A Room With a View
Nice to have, but not necessary. And never guaranteed. Some of the most well-appointed quarters in uber-urban New York, Seoul, Hong Kong, Beijing, Boston, London, et al. happen to open their curtains on a back alley view, or an adjacent six or a dozen skyscrapers. For me, during a work jaunt, it’s more what’s inside that counts. But when you happen to luck into a tantalizing bird’s-eye view of the ocean, or the mountains, or a broader breadth of cityscape, it can be invigorating. An invitation to step outside. And an affirmation that, for a moment after your refreshing morning shower, moments before you descend into the unfamiliar, that you are master of all you survey.
What’s that word? Well, the truly memorable hotels know it by heart. And have their own, distinctive approach. From the minute details — knowing who you are when you call the desk, and calling you by name, and in a friendly, do-anything-that’s required tone — to the unique. At the Hotel Amoy in Singapore, your room has its own Chinese symbol, and you receive hand-written cards each night with a friendly saying to power through your day. At Napa’s Hotel Bardessano in Yountville, Calif., in addition to your bottle of wine at check-in, there are nightly treats, fresh water, slippers, turn-down service, and ample touches of refinery that make you wonder, just for a moment, if you could somehow live there instead of returning to an your humdrum utilitarian existence. And everyone on staff is friendly, and polite, and right there when you need them.
Nice, Maybe, But Not Necessary
1. Those hotel bathrobes
Is it just me, or are these more akin to rental bowling shoes, or borrowing your brother-in-law’s swimming trunks? I can only remember once slipping into a sumptuous terry cloth robe with floor-length drape, and feeling I could lounge all afternoon in it, sipping wine, watching football, rethinking my life, ha ha ha. But that was after the mother of all hourlong massage sessions in Napa, and after a good steam besides at the world-class Hotel Bardessano. At the Comfort Inn Pittsburgh on a Tuesday night after a spritz in the the shower? Not so much. And as evidenced by the paucity of hangers at a joint like the Kew Green in Hong Kong these dust and dirt magnets take up space. Better to chuck em, or have them by handy by request.
2. Phones, Tablets, E-Readers, Personal Assistants….
Like the rapid proliferation of flatscreen TVs at your favorite bar, these devices have sprouted in many hotel rooms, mushrooming away valuable space at the power outlets and on desks, blinking their way annoyingly through the night. Kew Green featured a huge, radiator-sized flat screen, with an accompanying tablet, that promised free downloads from newspapers daily. If only I could tote it with me 14 floors down to breakfast, right? Other hotels overseas offer free phone calls home, or personal navigation assistants, and that ilk. Honestly, most of us are accustomed to the apps and personalization inherent in our own devices, and I end up unplugging these things and stashing them in a drawer, or flipping their annoyingly bright screens upside down, anyway.
3. That in-room TV
I suppose, when stuck in a room far away, and with only my encores, post-shower-singing, to fill my otherwise silent room, I’ve caught myself flipping on ESPN or HGTV or something like that for some background chatter. But actually settling in and watching TV? Unless there are complimentary HDMI cables lying about, or instructions on how to pair the devices we stream from daily, I don’t see the in-room TV being much use these days. The overseas lineup is sometimes amusingly incomprehensible, but I’m getting my news, sports, entertainment and even reading from my own device now anyway. And too often these TVs are presented as some sort of WOW welcome factor when you first walk into the room, playing some awful muzak and sporting your name or a faux aquarium on-screen while the first thing that strikes me is how hot the room is, and how god-awful bright with every light in the place switched on. That I’ve often resorted to yanking the plug from the wall to kill the beast is reason enough. That fish screen savers were the province of 1994, and the WOW factor faded about 2010 is reason enough: let’s kill the in-room TV.
4. Giant lotion dispensers in the shower
That we’re sparing the environment from countless tiny plastic shampoo bottles is a noble thing, I’ll allow. That I hadn’t given much thought to what hotels even do with the gazillions of partially-used soaps I’ll also blinkingly acknowledge. But my cynicism kicks right back in when I encounter the huge, awkward contraptions bolted to the walls of more and more hotel showers these days, dispensing glops of body wash and shampoo and conditioner or — gasp — some cut-rate combination of all three at the command of my hammering hands. I’m still a bar soap guy, I know, I know, philistine that I am. And I’m likely to come out looking like half-boiled weevil when I travel without my usual shampoo. So I just bring them with. The utilitarian scents and forced practicality just don’t make a refreshing shower for me, don’t know about you. So I recommend saving the dough — or, yes, giving up the cosmetic company payola — and cutting these out altogether.
5. The Notion of a Perfect Stay, Anywhere
Napa and Park City, Utah, and Maui notwithstanding, work travel is not a vacation. And time away from home just isn’t altogether homey. So while our inner critics may find some satisfaction in calling downstairs to the desk to yawp about the broken hotel safe, or angrily return that spoonful of cold scrambled eggs, in the end any trek from home is going to be bumpy with the unfamiliar, the uncomfortable, the puzzling. That we leave at all is a privilege, in the first place. That we encounter a bit of challenge is what invites us to grow in the experience. Better, then, to collect our varied and entertaining experiences in a travelogue memorable for its disappointments as well as its delights.
But, hey listen, the room thermostat better obey my EVERY whim.