October 19 2015

Staybridge Suites Birmingham Hotel Review

After a regrettable stay at another hotel, I was happy to be moving on.

The Staybridge Suites Birmingham had been open barely a year when I arrived – I hoped that meant they were old enough to have worked out the initial bugs yet new enough that the rooms were nice and clean.

Staybridge Suites is InterContinental Hotels Group’s extended-stay brand, and since I was in the middle of a month-long trip I also looked forward to the extended-stay amenities.

In the end it was a great stay and a phenomenal deal – only 4,500 IHG points per night (5,000/night for those without the co-branded credit card) as the hotel was a PointBreaks offering at the time.

Pic-exterior
The hotel’s main entrance

The location

Location is almost always the most important attribute of a hotel to me, and as a city girl I found this location ideal.

It is right in the city center, easily reachable by and accessible to all kinds of transportation (including my favorite kind – walking).

There are restaurants right outside the front door and a Sainsbury’s supermarket around the corner. Shopping, banking, and most other services are but a few minutes away on foot.

That said, I believe a location closer to the canals (such as that of the Hyatt Regency) would be more picturesque yet still easily walkable, so I suggest considering staying closer to the canals if you prefer a less hectic environment.

 

The room

As you’d expect at a new property, furnishings were new and modern.

My L-shaped room had a sleeping alcove on one end and the kitchen on the other. The design is space-efficient, but a little awkward as there’s not much clearance on either side of the bed.

Pic-sleeping alcove
Sleeping alcove

In addition to ample closet space, a basket is provided in case you plan to use the laundry facilities.

SS closet
The closet area area, kitchen (left background), and bathroom (right background)

The kitchen had dishware, flatware, basic cooking supplies, a stovetop with two burners, a small refrigerator, a microwave/convection oven, and a dishwasher.

Pic-kitchen

Since the hotel caters to mostly business travelers it lacked a few small details that would’ve made it more comfortable for double occupancy.

There was no sofa; only a single upholstered armchair – so it wouldn’t be a great place for relaxing conversation. Likewise, there’s just one chair at the desk/dining table – not brilliant for two-person meals.

I think the table in the corner was supposed to be a desk, but the TV occupied most of its surface so I always worked at the kitchen counter, which was comfortable enough with the padded desk chair.

Pic-desk

The bathroom was clean and functional, but again pretty cozy (space-wise).

Pic-bathroom

 

The service

The service was always polite and friendly.

I arrived at 7:30 AM and they couldn’t check me into a room until 11:00 (which is totally within their right since the published check-in time is 3:00 PM). I told the agent I’d traveled through the night, thanked her for finding me a room early, and said I was looking forward to taking a nap as soon as I got to the room.

A few minutes after I got in the room, she called to say they’d planned to test the fire alarm at noon but could reschedule if that would bother my nap. I told her not to worry and that they should proceed as planned, but I very much appreciated the gesture.

Housekeeping is provided every weekday, but if you want it on the weekends you have to request it 24 hours beforehand. I didn’t mind this policy (I often decline daily housekeeping anyway) and in fact liked knowing I wouldn’t be disturbed on the weekend.

The only snafu was that I’d checked in on a Friday so by Monday I was out of supplies. Yet when housekeeping came on Monday they did not replenish some supplies. I had to call down for toilet paper and soap. It actually took several hours to arrive and I had to call several times. Not a huge problem, but I’m just saying it wasn’t a flawless experience.

 

The amenities

I swear I took pictures of the amenities, but the dog must’ve eaten them?

Daily breakfast is included in the room rate, but after a few days I realized the hot-food menu only varied by one item: eggs were scrambled one day and omelet-style the next. The only other hot items were sausage and baked beans, both prepared the same way every day. However, there’s a nice selection of breads, pastries, yogurt, fruit, and beverages.

There is also an evening reception Tuesdays through Thursdays. It’s a nice touch, but again don’t plan your life around it and definitely don’t expect to make a meal of it. For the primary clientele – business travelers – these receptions are a convenient way to congregate with colleagues in the evening.

The laundry room had maybe 5 or 6 washers and the same number of dryers. The one time I used it, machines were readily available.

The fitness room was bigger and nicer than I expected, but I’d rather just go outside for exercise (weather permitting – this is England 🙂 ).

 

Summary

Overall I enjoyed the stay and the location is ideal if you like being right in the city. I wouldn’t hesitate to say here again if the price were right.

Pros

  • Central location
  • New, clean, and modern
  • Friendly service
  • Amenities for long-term travelers

Cons

  • Just some nits as described above

Cost

  • 4,500 IHG points/night. Since I value an IHG point at $0.007, I equate the cost to $32/night all in. A great deal for the quality!

Link to hotel website.

June 20 2015

Crowne Plaza Fredericton – Lord Beaverbrook Hotel Review

In decades of hotel stays, I can remember only one other occasion when I intentionally did not tip housekeeping. (At times I have unintentionally omitted a tip.)

But let me start at the beginning.

I chose the Crowne Plaza for a stay spanning several nights as it was a PointBreaks property that happened to work with my travel plans. (PointBreaks, for those unfamiliar, is one of the best deals in hotel loyalty programs.)

The hotel exterior
The hotel exterior

 

The location

The location is perfect for this city girl – right in the city center and easily walkable to restaurants and visitor attractions.

The town’s main street (King Street) is a block away, Officers Square (with its beautiful public skating rink) is down the street, the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is next door, and the Fredericton Playhouse is across the street.

The hotel is also set on the banks of the Saint John River, affording lovely views – even in the middle of winter:

View from my room
View from my room

 

The room

When a property describes itself as “historic,” that’s usually marketing code for “old.” The hotel may be historic in the traditional sense of the word, but it is also indeed historic in the marketing sense. However, its upkeep was good – albeit not impeccable.

Furnishings included a lot of dark wood. I’m not usually a fan of old-world design, but it works here. I wouldn’t expect a hip property at this location (that feels semi-remote, even if Fredericton is the capital of the province New Brunswick).

Room
My suite

I was given what the hotel described as a suite, although it was all one room so not a suite by definition. However, I typically prefer having everything in one room so the setup worked for me.

It was definitely spacious. I had a Jacuzzi Suite which, intuitively, had an in-room Jacuzzi tub.

The fireplace added much coziness to the room, especially during my winter stay.

Fireplace and sitting area
Fireplace and sitting area

The bed was very comfortable (if you like beds with soft fluffy mattress toppers).

I did notice the absence of an in-room safe. The guest booklet said they’re available at the front desk, but I never used them given the inconvenience that would have entailed.

 

The service

This was the hotel’s epic fail.

I generally like the service at Crowne Plazas – much friendlier and less stuffy than at the same chain’s luxury brand, InterContinental. Many of the staff here were great, but there are clearly bad apples and they unfortunately left a sour taste.

Internet was complimentary, but not reliable. It was also incorrectly described as “high speed” – I tested it several times and always got below 5 Mbps. I work when I travel so I’m sensitive to Internet functionality.

On a particularly bad Internet day – when it was completely out for several hours – I called the front desk. And the agent who answered basically told me to fix it myself.

I kid you not.

First she said maybe I’m using the wrong code. (Um…I did manage to graduate junior high. Besides, I couldn’t even get a signal to access the code-input page.) Then she said “you’re the third call I’ve had about this so let me give you the number of our Internet provider and they can help you figure it out.”

Yes, she told me to deal with the hotel’s outside Internet provider.

And since I’m the third call, shouldn’t that indicate the problem isn’t me?

After I said it is not my place to deal with the hotel’s contractors, to get rid of me she finally just said snapped “well then let me call you back.” (She never did.)

The worst part, though, was the housekeeping. OMG, the housekeeping.

On arrival, I found literally over a dozen hairs (that I am certain belonged to a stranger) on the bed. I picked off the first few but pulled back the sheets and kept seeing more and finally concluded the linens hadn’t been changed after the last guest. The lack of creasing on the sheets suggested the same.

Revolted, I picked up the phone and requested housekeeping, specifically telling the operator I was checked into a room with unchanged linens. She offered no apology; just a rote “I’ll send housekeeping right away.” (The “right away” turned out to be an exaggeration.)

The housekeeper came, took one look, and immediately acknowledged the linens hadn’t been changed. She said she didn’t service the room that day but would have a “private conversation” with her supervisor about it. Unlike the operator, she seemed sincerely apologetic, was (or at least acted) concerned about the situation, and thanked me for letting them know. She then changed the linens.

The next day a different housekeeper came. This housekeeper sniffled heavily the entire time and could barely speak. So, the person who made the bed I slept in and folded the towels I used was sick and possibly contagious.

I actually don’t blame the housekeeper; lots of people feel they need to work even when they’re not feeling well. However, I believe management should not have let her work in a guest-facing role that day given her obvious health condition.

Unfortunately the housekeeping issues only worsened. On yet another day, there were brown stains on the (supposedly newly-changed) sheets.

Not-chocolate stains on the sheets
Stained linens

I want to think it was chocolate.

But chocolate comes out in the wash, no?

If you’re a housekeeper and your job is to ensure guests have clean rooms, how do you miss a noticeably brown, dried-blood-like stain on white sheets? Either you overlooked the stain (in which case you’re incompetent) or saw it and used the sheet anyway (in which case you’re…let me find a polite word…indifferent?).

I mean, this is an upscale hotel. If there’s a big brown stain, take the sheet out of service! Even a mediocre hotel would do that (I hope). By now I was utterly disgusted, but in the end it is only a hotel stay so I just called down to have someone come change the sheets. Again.

End of rant. 🙂

 

The amenities

The indoor pool area had a saltwater pool, hot tub, and steam room. Though the area was mostly deserted when I took pictures, it was full of guests most evenings.

Pool area
Pool area

There’s also a small fitness room in the corner…

Gym
Fitness center

…and a business center whose printer came in handy as I had to work during my trip.

However, I think the hotel’s best attribute is its location – next to the river yet right in downtown. In winter the weather constrains river activities, but I’m sure in warmer weather the jogging path behind the hotel makes for a great amenity.

And I imagine the scenery would be stunning during Fall foliage season.

 

Summary

Overall, I’m ambivalent about this hotel. I did stay at another hotel – the Delta Fredericton – on this trip and had a much better experience in terms of service.

But the Crowne Plaza is best-located of all hotels in Fredericton. Despite its issues, for the location alone I might still stay here if I were in Fredericton again.

Upon checkout when I was asked how my stay was, I said I did have something to bring to a manager’s attention. The agent called a manager right away and when I conveyed my experiences about housekeeping she was (or at least acted) concerned and thanked me for letting her know. Hopefully they have addressed it by now.

Cost: 4,500 IHG points per night (5,000 PointBreaks rate minus a 10% rebate for holding the co-branded credit card). Since I value an IHG point at 0.7 cents, I equate the cost to $32/night.

Link to hotel website.

 

March 15 2015

Delta Fredericton Hotel Review

This was my first-ever stay at a Delta Hotels and Resorts property and it might also prove to be my last. Shortly after my stay, it was announced the Canadian hotel chain would be acquired by Marriott International.

I haven’t heard whether Delta properties will be rebranded as Marriotts, but this particular property is fairly recently renovated so I’d be surprised to see it undergo a huge physical overhaul any time soon.

Overall I enjoyed the stay.

Exterior
Hotel exterior


The location

A city girl, I almost always prefer hotels in the city center. Walking strolling to restaurants and other services is more relaxing than driving/cabbing/public transiting, I think.

Unfortunately, the Delta’s location is just the opposite. There was a grand total of three eating options in walking distance: (1) the hotel’s own offerings – a restaurant, pub, and room service, (2) a 24-hour restaurant next door, and (3) a diner/convenience store across the street which closes at 7:00 pm on weeknights and earlier on weekends.

The rest of the surroundings is residential.

View from Room
View from my room

That said, it is not far from the city center so a taxi ride downtown is not expensive. I vaguely remember paying around $6 (Canadian) each way. And if you are coming with a car then the location is probably even less consequential.

Furthermore, the hotel’s setting – next to the Saint John River – is picturesque. I just don’t happen to have any pictures of it – sorry!

But here’s one (clearly not taken in winter) from the hotel’s website:

Photo from the hotel's website
Photo from the hotel’s website

In the middle of winter (it was -17°C the day of my stay) there wasn’t much opportunity to enjoy the adjacent trails and other outdoor activities, but I imagine it would be very nice in more agreeable weather. In fact, if I were reviewing the hotel after a summer stay this “location” section might sound totally different.

 

The room

Assessing décor is so subjective, but this particular hotel’s design is nicely aligned with my personal taste. Sleek and uncluttered – yet with just enough coziness to not feel sterile. But for the rustic-y twist, I might have described the décor here as W Hotels-esque.

Overall
My room

Having booked through a third party (Orbitz), I expected no special treatment. Indeed, I was given what I presume to be a basic room…with a view of the parking lot.

Nevertheless, I was happy with the room and perfectly comfortable in it. Square footage-wise it was not large, but being efficiently designed and functionally furnished it felt spacious.

The bathroom also afforded plenty of space, including a countertop that must have been 6 feet long.

Bathroom

The HVAC worked well (very important given the weather), a mini-fridge was included (albeit hard to find, concealed behind a drawer under the desk), and the desk area was well-equipped.

As one who needs to stay connected when traveling, I have a pet peeve about hotel rooms with insufficient power outlets. Worse yet when I have to crawl under a desk to reach the few outlets that are there.

No such problem in this room. There were plenty of outlets, including a power strip built into the desktop.

Plugs
“Smart desk” features

Internet was complimentary and the speed was decent (~12 Mbps when I tested), but I was dropped a handful of times which is always frustrating.

 

The service

I showed up well before noon while the hotel’s check-in time is 3:00 pm. Despite having made no prior request for early check in, I was cheerfully given a room immediately. The agent was very nice – and forthcoming with (non-hotel) dining and general suggestions.

Beyond check in, check out, and requesting a taxi, I had little interaction with the staff but I felt the service was overall friendly yet professional.

 

The amenities

The gym was clean and well equipped.

Gym

The gym overlooked the indoor pool, which had big windows and plenty of lounge chairs. Both the gym and pool were open 24 hours.

The pool, in turn, overlooked the grounds.

Pool
Indoor pool

The hotel’s website also shows an outdoor pool, but I’m sure it was snowed over at the time.

The lobby was also well done. Two stories high, it had the right balance of rustic, cozy, and luxurious. The type of look it’d expect in, say, an upscale ski resort property. (I think all that snow influenced my perception.)

Lobby
Lobby

There is also a business center upstairs.

 

Summary

But for the location, I enjoyed everything about this hotel.

I could have been happier with a room overlooking something other than the parking lot, but I did not expect anything beyond a base room. Normally I might have gently inquired about a complimentary upgrade (it never hurts to ask) but did not on this occasion as:

  • The alternative view would have been of the river, which at the time was blanketed in snow. I didn’t need to see any more snow at that point.
  • I had booked through a third party. That usually lowers you on the guest totem pole, reducing the chances of a free upgrade.
  • I paid a fraction of the normal rate to begin with and didn’t need to further feel as if I was robbing someone.
  • The rest of my time in Fredericton was spent at the Crowne Plaza, where I did have a river-view room (actually a suite, again for a fraction of the price; review here).

Cost: $25 (before tax) thanks to the Orbitz Cyber Monday offer.

Link to hotel website.

January 22 2015

Hotel Review: Quality Hotel Dorval (Montreal)

I had an overnight layover in Montreal. In the dead of winter, with a nighttime temperature of around -5°F, little discretionary time, and an early flight out in the morning, there was no point going into the city.

In such circumstances, my ideal accommodation is not only an airport-area hotel but an airport-connected hotel. In Montreal, that would be the Montreal Airport Marriott In-Terminal Hotel. Alas, I was light on Marriott points and paid rates for that night were more than I wanted to pay.

None of my award redemption options elsewhere provided great value either, and I ultimately decided to just get the cheapest airport-area hotel I could that was at least 3 stars.

That’s how I ended up at the Quality Hotel Dorval.

Main room
My room

If you don’t want to read the rest of this post, let me summarize by saying it was – to be polite – a dump. I had read the TripAdvisor reviews – which cautioned as much – but booked it anyway, reasoning that it’s just one night and I’ll not even be awake for 85% of it.

The room was gross, the service bordered on unethical, and the complimentary shuttle was a disaster.

(Note: there are several other airport-area hotels with the word “Quality” in their name. Don’t confuse them with this one, located at 7700 Cote de Liesse.)

Bath

Location

Arriving after dark and departing the next morning in a very tired state, I couldn’t discern much about the surrounding area. All I can say is the location indeed seemed airport-close (about 3.8 miles away, per Google Maps).

The shuttle service to the location, however, was a fiasco.

At Montreal airport, all hotel shuttles seem to pick up from just one location. So there were hordes of arriving travelers and lots of shuttles jostling around. This is nothing new, but it’s chaotic.

You never know where along the curb your hotel’s shuttle will stop – if you’re lucky it stops right where you’re standing and you get on right away. If you’re unlucky it stops like 30 yards away and you hope that by the time you make your way to it there’ll still be seats.

It’s problematic when a hotel doesn’t provide a shuttle with enough seats. Not everyone can get on, and the unlucky are left to wait another 15+ minutes for the next shuttle.

At the next round, it’s luck of the draw again. And if you’re unlucky again, you wait again. Your odds don’t improve with each round because in the interim new passengers arrive with whom to compete for spots.

Several guests complained they waited several cycles for a seat. Remember, it’s nighttime and -5°F outside.

A well-managed hotel would provide bigger and/or more frequent shuttles to accommodate the volume. They should know how many reservations they have for a given night, so I don’t see why they couldn’t plan properly.

The shuttle back to the airport in the morning was less chaotic, but every last seat was occupied (at 5:30 AM). If just one more person had turned up he/she would’ve been refused – not ideal when one is negotiating a tight schedule to catch a flight.

Room

Good: The HVAC. Well-functioning heat is much appreciated in winter.

Bad: Almost everything else. I’ll just mention a few.

Water stains (and mold?) all over the bathroom:

Water stains

Chunks of paint – they’d apparently flaked off the walls/ceiling – were sprinkled throughout the room:

Paint
Paint that had flaked off the ceiling

Defective, potentially past-their-expiration-date toiletries. The soap broke into pieces right out of the bag:

Soap
The soap self-destructed on contact with oxygen

Service & amenities 

To be fair, most employees I encountered were either friendly or at least polite. But one should expect that of any service establishment.

So let me tell you the unexpected.

I had just arrived in Canada and had no Canadian currency on hand. Since the in-room guest binder implied currency exchange was available at the front desk (technically, it said “inquire at front desk”), I went down hoping to change money.

The desk agent (who seemed new) simply said “no” when I asked to change money. I mentioned what the in-room binder said. So he called out a manager-like person and asked if they change money for guests.

The manager said “yes we do,” but only after belittling this colleague – in front of me – for ineptitude.

Hall
Hallway

He said their exchange rate is 1 USD for 1 CAD. That’s significantly worse than the market rate (84 US cents for one Canadian dollar) at the time. Since I had zero local currency on me, I changed $40 just to have cash in case of an emergency.

When a business provides a service, I think it’s fine to mark it up so the business can make a profit. I mean, if we don’t allow businesses to be profitable then no business could afford to stay in business.

But gouging hotel guests with a 16% markup for simply reaching into your wallet to make change is absurd.

Which brings up my next point: this manager made the exchange with money from a wallet he pulled out of his own pocket. I don’t know if he had a “side business” changing currency for his employer’s guests, but I thought the whole thing distasteful and possibly borderline unethical. (I do understand I could have simply declined the currency exchange.)

As for amenities, there is a business center and an on-site restaurant. The restaurant was closed when I arrived, but there is also a small concession shop with frozen meals (and a microwave nearby) if you are desperate.

Summary

Pros: Beats sleeping at the airport (possibly).

Cons: Poorly-maintained room and poorly-delivered service.

Cost: I booked through TravelPony. The $77 room rate was reduced by 15% with a promo code and $25 from a referral credit. Net cost was $40 pre-tax, $56 post-tax.

Link to hotel website.

October 27 2014

Reno: Brief Thoughts and Hotel Review of Harrah’s

I seldom talk about my domestic travel, but last month I spent a few days in Reno and found it so unremarkable that, ironically, I thought it was worth a few words. Just in case anyone is on the fence about visiting.

And while I’m at it I figured I’d review the hotel I stayed at too.

Please note this post is only about downtown Reno. My thoughts do not apply to surrounding areas (such as Lake Tahoe) or even areas within Reno but outside the downtown core (such as the Peppermill Resort’s location).

Thoughts about the city

My only prior first-hand experience of Reno was transiting its airport on the way to and from ski trips to Lake Tahoe, never spending any meaningful time in Reno itself. From that narrow perspective I assumed Reno would have a Tahoe “feel” and draw a similar crowd. In reality, not so much.

(To be fair, this stay was in September, skiing’s off season.)

Reno calls itself “the biggest little city in the world.”

Reno Arch
Reno Arch

I’d say “little” is the more fitting adjective of the two.

Downtown Reno is literally three blocks long (from 2nd Street to 5th Street) by one street wide (North Sierra Street) – in practice if not in legal terms.

If you keep within that bubble, the area has some appeal. A few of the casinos are pretty nice (though there are no mega-properties as in Las Vegas). And if you’re the type who gambles for entertainment – rather than with designs on actually winning – you can place relatively smaller bets, meaning it takes longer to lose the same amount of money and therefore you can be entertained for a greater length of time.

Inside the Eldorado Resort Casino
Inside the Eldorado Resort Casino

Wander outside the bubble – even by just a block or two – and the ambience changes entirely, ranging from deserted to dodgy.

Deserted yet less than a block from North Sierra Street
Deserted yet less than a block from North Sierra Street

Although I did not feel particularly unsafe downtown, I would not have liked walking around alone at night (while don’t hesitate to do so, for example, almost anywhere in Manhattan or on the Las Vegas strip).

Unless you’re into gambling (in which case I think Las Vegas holds more allure – and is cheaper to fly into with LAS being a larger airport), I simply don’t see the appeal of visiting Reno other than passing through for a day or two enroute to or from Lake Tahoe. If even then.

Harrah’s Reno Hotel and Casino

I stayed at Harrah’s. Compared to (the small universe of) other hotel-casino properties in Reno, I’d say the hotel is probably mid-range.

Most sources rate it 3.5 stars, and I think that’s accurate to slightly generous.

The complimentary airport shuttle was great – it arrived early, departed at the exact posted time, and had complimentary bottled water on hand.

Check in was efficient and cordial but not super friendly.

The location

The location is good, with the property’s main entrance next to the Reno Arch (pictured above). Again, downtown Reno is only three blocks long by one block wide, and Harrah’s sits at the southern end of that stretch.

The room

The room was spacious with plenty of space for two queen beds, a sitting area and coffee table, mini-fridge, dresser, and desk.

Main

Main 2

Things were somewhat clean, but not at all spotless. For example, the linens had numerous small tears and a few stains. Not enough to call housekeeping for replacements, but enough that I feel it should be mentioned in a review.

Two other glaring cleanliness issues were that the shower curtain smelled moldy/sweaty and the tub was dicey-looking enough that I wore flip flops while showering.

Bathroom

Speaking of housekeeping, there were envelopes [plural] in the room for tips. I know tip envelopes are controversial; Marriott recently introduced them – to much criticism. But I usually don’t mind finding a [singular] tip envelope in the room. I tip housekeeping anyway and a dedicated envelope eliminates ambiguity. (Otherwise, housekeepers sometimes don’t take the tip I leave, probably unsure whether it’s a tip or money I just happen to have in the room.)

But two envelopes was tacky; the equivalent of holding your hand out.

Tip envelope #1: on desk
Tip envelope #1: on desk
Tip envelope #2: strategically propping open the safe deposit box (you know, where people place their money)
Tip envelope #2: strategically propping open the safe deposit box (you know, so you can’t miss it when putting away your money)

On the other hand, the HVAC system was great. It was cold the day I arrived so I cranked up the heat and the room got toasty quickly.

If you need to get work done from the room, power outlets are scarce. There were two under the desk (though one had a lamp plugged into it), two on a wall (though one had the mini-fridge plugged into it, as seen below), and two in the bathroom. Remaining outlets were either behind heavy furniture I didn’t want to move or otherwise not reasonably reachable.

Mini-fridge
Mini-fridge

Internet came with a fee, even for a Total Rewards member (although I’m just a base-level member; elites might get complimentary Internet). In-room Internet was $10.95/day, but there is a Starbucks inside the hotel if you just need minimal Internet.

The amenities

After forgetting to take pictures of the amenities on three hotel reviews in a row, I was determined not to screw up this time.

I made a deliberate effort to get pictures of the gym and pool.

And, in my always-impeccable timing, I got there after both were closed.

So this is all I have of the gym and pool 🙁

Gym & Pool Hrs

But I did manage to snap pictures of the lobby/casino and hallway. (Yay me!!!)

Lobby & Casino

Hallway

Trip cost

Since I booked it for next-to-nothing, my stay at Harrah’s was a very good deal. Using a Travelocity offer, I paid $88 for three nights ($82 for room and tax, $6 in city fees). Unlike most of its competitors, the hotel did not assess a resort fee.

Deducting the $20 food and beverage credit I received, my net cost was $23/night.

For flights, I used British Airways (whose distance-based award chart is great for short flights) miles to book award flights on American Airlines for 4,500 miles each way. Cash outlay was a combined $8 for taxes/fees on the flights.

Link to hotel website.

 

July 1 2014

Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam-Schiphol

Trip report index:

 

I had an early flight the next morning that required waking up at the butt crack of dawn. Since I didn’t fancy complicating the ordeal with a city-to-airport commute (and waking up even earlier to allow buffer time for mishaps) I stayed at an airport hotel my final night of this trip.

To me, airport hotels are mostly utilitarian – all I need is for them to be clean, safe, comfortable, and easily accessible to/from the airport.

By that standard, the Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam-Schiphol easily beat expectations and I would definitely consider this property again in the future.

The location

Google Maps says the hotel is 8.2 km from the airport, and that’s more or less how far it felt.

The surroundings looked semi-industrial, but I was told there are a few restaurants in walking distance. I didn’t venture out as I’d already had dinner in the city and just wanted to pass out early at that point.

HIE AMS view

The hotel operates a complimentary shuttle, which I used twice. The first time was on arrival – I took the train from the city to Schiphol Airport, then took the hotel shuttle from the airport to the property. It did take a while, but I cannot complain as the hotel says the shuttle comes every 30 minutes and that’s basically how long I waited. My timing was impeccable as always.

(If you’d rather go directly between the hotel and the city, without using the airport shuttle, there is a train stop about ten minutes from the hotel on foot. I didn’t check it out so I can’t comment on whether the walk is safe or pleasant, however.)

I took the shuttle again the next morning to the airport. The shuttle starts running at 5:45 AM (I’m not sure what time it stops at night) and I had a 7:30 flight so I felt I was cutting it close for an international flight, but it worked out fine.

I went downstairs at 5:35 to allow time to check out, and the driver was already waiting in the lobby. We left at 5:45 on the dot.

The room

It was clean and comfortable, which again is basically all I expect from a budget airport hotel.

HIE AMS beds

The interior had a modern but minimalist look.

HIE AMS desk

The shower was roomy.

HIE AMS Shower

The bathroom had no individual toiletries; just a liquid soap dispenser by the sink and a shampoo/bath gel dispenser in the shower.

HIE AMS sink

There was no closet per se; only an exposed bar with a few hangers. I liked that setup as it was easy to get to my stuff without needing to open and close a closet door.

HIE AMS closet

The service & amenities

The hotel restaurant only serves breakfast (included in the room rate). If you get hungry outside of breakfast hours, there is a small selection of drinks and snacks (including a few hot snacks) available for purchase in the lobby and from a vending machine. Also, as mentioned above, I was told there are a few restaurants in walking distance.

Since breakfast service doesn’t start until 6:30 and I had to leave earlier, during check-in I asked if there would at least be a few bagels I could grab in the morning. They said they would pack a breakfast bag for me instead.

When I showed up to check out in the morning, the agent automatically handed me the bag. I’ve had to-go breakfasts from all kinds of hotels – including 5-star properties where the bag itself was like embossed in gold or something – and none were as substantial in content as this.

There were two varieties of bread, a croissant, several types of cold cuts (individually sealed), cheese, jam, yogurt, and fresh fruit. I was a happy camper.

Summary

Solid choice for an airport-close, budget hotel.

Pros:

  • Clean and modern.
  • Great service – see my comment about breakfast. 🙂

Cons:

  • No on-site restaurant aside from breakfast service.

Cost:

  • I redeemed 20,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. Received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card for a net cost of 18,000 points.

Link to hotel website.

June 23 2014

Hotel Review: InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam

Trip report index:

 

I have stayed in all kinds of accommodations – from sleeping bags in flimsy tents, to fleabag motels next to freeways, to mid-range business hotels when traveling for work, to luxury resorts with nightly room rates exceeding most mortgage payments.

When forming an opinion of an accommodation, I try to bear in mind the kind of property it is. At a St. Regis, it takes much more for me to say I had a good stay than it would at a Ramada Inn. After all, the latter costs far less (whether in cash or points).

So when I say my stay at the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam was “okay,” it is a relative assessment. In absolute terms, the hotel is top notch.

But if someone is considering spending €500/night (more for some dates, less on others) – plus tax – for a room, I believe they’ll want an opinion on whether it’s worth the expense and not simply whether it’s nice. So let me approach this review from that perspective.

The location

Compared to the other IHG property in town (which I loved, by the way), the Amstel is not as centrally located. It is by no means totally out of the way – in fact I could walk to Museumplein (the Museum Quarter) in about 20 minutes – but certainly farther from the city center than other options.

So if you are seeking a hotel that is convenient for seeing the city on foot (which I think is the best way to see Amsterdam, by far) then this one isn’t ideal.

On the other hand if you’re looking for a more tranquil location outside the bustle of the city center but still close to it, this would be perfect.

The hotel isn’t just near the Amstel River, it’s on it. In fact, it almost looks like a floating hotel given how close to the water it is.

The hotel exterior
The hotel exterior

Walking up and down the Amstel River is as pleasant as can be. It’s also a quick way to reach the Hermitage Museum, the Jewish Historical Museum, and Waterlooplein. And the photogenic Skinny Bridge is en route.

While the true city center is not close enough to be a comfortable walk in my opinion, there are metro and tram stops only a block away – although I have a feeling most hotel guests don’t use public transport. (When I declined the bellman’s offer to arrange a car to the airport saying I’d take the metro instead, he looked at me as if I was nuts.)

The room

The view from my room was divine. Now, this is Amsterdam – pretty much everything is next to water. Even then, the view from this hotel must be one of the best in the city.

View of the Amstel River from my room
View of the Amstel River from my room

Not all rooms face the river so be sure to get a river-view room if that is important to you.

The Dutch décor isn’t my personal style, but that is purely a matter of taste (and I don’t think I’m the target demographic for this property).

Dutch decor
Dutch decor

The bathroom was large and luxurious with a tub, separate rain shower, and water closet. Bath amenities included robes, slippers, and even a nice jogging map for exercise-minded guests.

IC-AMS bathroom
Bathroom

Of note, this particular room featured a step-down bedroom with several steps between the bathroom and bedroom.

Steps from bedroom to bathroom
Steps from bedroom to bathroom

While it added character, I thought about the safety implications. It is one thing to have character in your own home, where everything is familiar to you, but in a hotel this can be a hazard if you forget it’s there when you make a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom while half asleep.

While I don’t think the hotel can do much to remedy this, I do think it’s worth mentioning. And if you have trouble negotiating steps in general, then I would be sure to get a room without them.

The service

As you might imagine, the service was most polished. It’s not the more laid-back, friendly type of service I described at the sister property across town, but there was no fault to be found with the service here either.

Check-in was seated at a desk, with the agent accompanying you to your room after completing the paperwork. Although I can appreciate that some guests like this extra touch, personally I have never been a fan of having an agent stand inside my hotel room droning on about its features. I find it awkward and unnecessary (I already know how to work a light switch, and I’m tired so please leave already).

Since I also dislike evening turn-down service, I hung up the do-not-disturb sign when leaving for dinner. I removed it as soon as I returned and, within 60 seconds of the sign coming down, a housekeeper knocked and offered turndown service. Maybe she was already nearby, but I thought that was very attentive and observant and I almost felt bad declining the service.

By the way, the embossed leather-like sign was so nice I wanted to steal it thinking it would’ve been a fun decorative piece for my home. (But I didn’t.)

IC-AMS DND sign
Do not disturb sign (looks much cooler in person)

The amenities

As with my review of the Crowne Plaza across town, I completely neglected to take pictures of any hotel amenities on this trip. I will blame it on a senior moment (or more like a senior week), but please excuse the oversight and fire up your imagination as I describe them without visuals.

The lobby was decorated in the same old-world style as the guest rooms, with a grand staircase in the center making for a great photo spot. However, I never saw guests actually sitting in the lobby (the environment felt more uppity than cozy) and the view isn’t that interesting (the river is not visible).

There’s a fitness center with a heated indoor pool overlooking the river – which you must see even if you don’t intend to work out or swim – and an outdoor terrace with lounge chairs.

The two restaurants looked marvelous in terms of setting, and one of them – La Rive – is very well regarded. But as a general rule I prefer eating around town to eating in hotels so I cannot comment on the food except to say I’m sure it would have been great, albeit priced to match. (In fact I’ve heard exactly that from acquaintances who stayed on another occasion.) 24-hour room service is also available.

Summary

Overall this is a very elegant, classic hotel as you would expect from its reputation of being the best hotel in Amsterdam and one of the best in the world. However, I personally would not pay “retail” to stay here as (1) I like to explore on foot and the location is not ideal for that, and (2) the old-world style and décor are not my thing.

If you intend to use private transportation for your stay then the location is not an issue; it is certainly close enough to be a quick car ride to the city center.

Pros:

  • Fabulous views of the Amstel River.
  • Elegant atmosphere.

Cons:

  • Not within easy walking distance of the city center (but only one block to tram and metro stations).

Cost:

  • I redeemed 36,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. (It is actually 40,000 points, but I received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card.)

Link to hotel website.

June 16 2014

Hotel Review: Crowne Plaza Amsterdam City Centre

Trip report index:

 

The Crowne Plaza Amsterdam City Centre was my “Plan B” hotel. I actually wanted – in fact partially built my trip around – the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam. But the latter did not have award availability for my first night in town, so I booked that night at the Crowne Plaza instead.

As it turned out, I much preferred the Crowne Plaza over the InterContinental. However, both were very nice properties; a preference for one over the other comes down to a matter of personal taste.

I’ll review the InterContinental in a separate post in case you find yourself debating between the two, but the rest of this post focuses on the Crowne Plaza.

The location

This was the hotel’s best attribute in my opinion. It is just two blocks from Central Station, Amsterdam’s main transportation hub (and where I first arrived in the city upon leaving the airport).

I easily walked from the hotel to everything on my to-do list: the Anne Frank House, Westerkerk, Dam Square, the Royal Palace (unfortunately closed to visitors during my trip), The Spui, the Red Light District, and of course the maze of canals for which the city is famous.

(The only exception was Museumplein, home of the city’s main museums. But that was walkable from the InterContinental so I just saved it for my InterContinental stay.)

CP exterior
The facade on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal

That said, the property fronts one of Amsterdam’s larger streets, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. While that’s great for people-watching, it also means traffic noise. Furthermore, trams run literally yards away from some of the rooms.

Tram by CP
The tram just outside my window

The tram was quieter than I would have thought, but if you’re noise-sensitive I recommend requesting a room away from the big street. The tradeoff is that you’ll likely get less natural light (due to facing a narrower street) and an inferior view (of the adjacent building’s wall rather than the interesting street life). But it’s better than losing sleep if street noise affects your sleep.

The room

Since I’m not sensitive to street noise, I loved the location of my room on Level 1 (which is actually one level above street level; Level 0 is street level) facing the big street. With a floor-to-ceiling window, it provided a front-row view of the city outside – although after sunset I dimmed my lights as I didn’t want the people-watching reciprocated.

Peoplewatching view
People-watching from the room

The bed was comfortable, I think. I hadn’t slept the night before due to being in flight so I probably would’ve slept like the dead either way.

Bed & door

There was a small desk next to the window. Perfect for people-watching while you work.

Bed & window

The bathroom was modern albeit on the small side for an upscale hotel, with only one sink. The stand-up shower was roomy but there was no tub.

Sink
Bathroom sink (stand-up shower reflected in the mirror)
Bath amenities
Bath amenities

There were robes, slippers, and an in-room safe in the closet. There was also a coffee selection on the counter.

Coffee
In-room coffee selection

The service

Here’s my thing about the service at some upscale hotels: often it seems fake, sometimes to the point of being bizarre. As in, I’ll be asked “how may I have the honor of serving you today?”

I mean, no one talks that way in real life, right? That kind of “service” just weirds me out.

And should one respond in kind? “Why yes, if you would process my check-out I will be forever grateful for your capable service.”

Instead, to me service stands out when it’s genuinely friendly.

That’s my long-winded way of saying I really liked the service at this hotel. Everyone was friendly and helpful – in a genuine way. Polite but not stiff; eager to help without seeming to linger for a tip afterwards.

My only nit about the service is that, 15 minutes after arriving in my room, there was a knock at the door. It was someone delivering my IHG Rewards member amenity (chocolates). The amenity was appreciated, but I would have preferred that it were left in the room ahead of time or given during check-in. It’s not ideal to disturb hotel guests in their room unnecessarily.

The amenities

As a complete oversight on my part, I neglected to take pictures of any common areas or amenities (sorry!!). But if my written description fails, you can always see photos on the hotel’s website. 🙂

For a hotel of 270 rooms, the lobby might have been a smidge too small. But it was nicely done – looked modern yet felt cozy. The lit fireplace was particularly nice given the chilly weather outside.

The hotel was hosting a business conference during my stay, and during conference breaks the lobby was overrun with folks socializing or talking on cell phones. At those times it felt crowded and noisy, but most hotel guests probably don’t use the lobby much in the middle of the day anyway.

In addition to 24-hour room service, there is an onsite restaurant and bar. However, being close to so many other walkable options in the city, I never took advantage of the on-site dining so can’t comment on it.

There is also a business center and small fitness room, but again I preferred to get my exercise from walking the city rather than being on an indoor treadmill.

Summary

Pros:

  • Very central location.
  • Fantastic people watching (with the right room).
  • Friendly, helpful staff.

Cons:

  • Some rooms face the big street and can be noisy, especially with the tram line just yards away. I recommend specifically requesting a quieter room if you’re noise sensitive.

Cost:

  • 36,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. (A normal redemption is 40,000 points but I received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card.)

Link to hotel website.