What Makes A Good Hotel Stay?

What makes a good hotel stay? Lots of things. Summer is almost here, and since we are hoping places are opening up more, travel is on lots of people’s minds…including mine. I’m always researching hotels.

Over the course of my 53 years of life, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels. When I was a kid, a couple of things were important for me at hotels: a swimming pool and good vending machines. But times change. My wish list is different now. If you ever visit a city I’ve visited in recent years, I’m happy to give you my own review of hotels where I’ve stayed, and here are some of the things I will mention:

  • Friendly Staff. I love outstanding customer service. Our favorite hotel in the Los Angeles area knows how to do it, and I love it. A hotel can have beautiful facilities, but if the staff isn’t friendly and helpful, I don’t want to return. There’s a reason I listed this first…because it is important to me. When I visit a hotel, I like for the staff to smile and look like they enjoy being there. I like to feel like they are my friends. If I get that vibe in a hotel, I’m likely to remember it, and I’m going to return. I write dozens of complimentary letters a year, because I appreciate great service, and I love when someone gives me a reason to write one.
  • Large rooms. I simply like to feel comfortable. I don’t want to feel like I’m living in a closet for days. When I’m booking hotel rooms, I always look at the square footage. Unless the hotel has something special to offer, the size of the rooms is very important to me. For example, if I’m looking at two hotels in New York, and they have similar pricing and quality, the size of the rooms can be the tie-breaker. One is 350 square feet and the other is 550 square feet? You know which one I pick.
  • Air Conditioning. In the United States, most hotels are air conditioned, but they don’t all have good air conditioning. For me, it means the difference in a fabulous stay and a terrible stay. I need air conditioning to sleep at night, and that’s a fact…and it needs to be good air conditioning that actually keeps me cool. Preferably, it needs to be a relatively quiet air conditioner, but I can always cover that noise with white noise from my smartphone. So if a hotel room can’t reach a nighttime temperature of 67 degrees, I don’t want to stay there…and I won’t return. I also carry a small, folding fan in my luggage. I put it directly on my face. You can purchase one here.
  • Room Service (preferably 24 hours). Nobody loves room service more than I do. If I’m traveling for my daughter’s sports, I can suffer through a night or two with no room service, but traveling for pleasure? I want room service. It makes a big difference. I love to wake up to delivery of a pot of hot coffee and sometimes, a light breakfast. And if I’m going to have late nights, I like to know I can order a late night snack delivered to my room. When we are at hotels for my daughter’s sports teams, though, the hotels are rarely luxurious. But all the Marriott properties (Fairfield Inn and Suites, Towne Place Suites, Springhill Suites, etc.) have had market shops near the front desk, so we can get snacks or necessities 24/7. That helps. See the Marriott website here.
  • Location, location, location. In bigger cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, the location of the hotel is crucial. I like to be where I feel safe. I like to be close to the places I want to visit…or centrally located between them. In New York, I prefer to be near Central Park. In the LA area, I prefer Beverly Hills, and in Chicago, I prefer the Magnificent Mile. In addition to location, if the hotel offers a courtesy car for nearby restaurants/shops/attractions, that’s a big plus. On islands or in beachy resort areas, unless a hotel is in a remote area for a reason, I prefer to book hotels/resorts that are relatively easy to get to. I don’t want to waste two or three hours on the front end or back end of the trip getting to and from the resort and airport. It ruins it for me. 
  • Good restaurant(s). Ideally, a hotel has a restaurant where I want to eat, and ideally, the people who work there are friendly. I love knowing I can walk right down the hall to enjoy a great meal or snack. And I love knowing I will feel comfortable there.
  • Good bar. This mostly refers to vacation hotels for me. I don’t really care about a bar when I’m traveling with my daughter’s sports teams, but when I’m on vacation, I want my hotel to have a good bar. I want some people-watching. I want good drinks and friendly servers. I want a bar menu. I want a place to relax with friends over a cocktail…or two. I want to want to spend an afternoon there, and I want to have a nightcap after dinner.
  • Private Outdoor Space. No one loves private outdoor space at a hotel more than I do, and it’s likely no one uses it more than I do. Of course, in some cities, it’s not as feasible, but in places where the climate is mild, it’s a fabulous addition to a hotel room. I love ordering room service and having breakfast on a patio or balcony first thing in the morning. Coffee tastes better outdoors. Am I right? For me, a private patio or balcony is just an extension of the room. And cocktails on the patio in late afternoon are pretty great too! When we went to Cancun for spring break last year, I loved sitting on our gigantic patio overlooking the water, watching the people on the beach and the clouds in the distance.
  • Comfortable beds. We’ve all stayed in hotels with uncomfortable mattresses. We suffer through it and pay for it the next day. If a hotel has comfortable beds, I remember. I love to wake up thinking, “I slept better than I sleep at home!”

These are just a few things I look for in a hotel. Like I said, some hotels we stay in for sports tournaments are purely functional, but if they have the extras, well, that’s a bonus. But when I’m on vacation, I look for the extras. And a friendly staff might mean I’ll overlook imperfections in a hotel. A few years ago, in Chicago, we stayed in a hotel (in a great location) that was in need of a facelift. The rooms were comfortable, but they looked tired…as did the public areas. But you know what? From the moment we arrived, we were greeted warmly. The bellman rushed out in the rain to help us with our bags…and he was smiling! The front desk staff chatted us up at check in, and when we had some questions for them later that evening, they acted like old friends! Everyone there was so friendly, and though I haven’t had the opportunity to stay there again, I wrote a complimentary letter to the manager. I also gave a glowing review on TripAdvisor, and I’ve told friends to stay there when they were traveling.

My favorite resource for researching hotels is TripAdvisor. I can weed through the reviews that are “outliers”..like the ones someone wrote when they were angry about something. I also look at the profiles of the people who write the reviews and try to get a feel for the person who wrote them.  I look at where they have stayed before to see if we have similar taste. My own profile on TripAdvisor tells my story…I’m a 50+ mom who often travels with my teenage daughter…sometimes we take luxury vacations, and sometimes we have to travel with sports teams. I give a lot of outstanding reviews, because I do my homework before I travel, so I know what to expect. I recommend TripAdvisor to everyone I know. See it here.

Happy travels!

 

I Visited A Cult

Oh, yes, I did.

I visited the international training center of a cult, and on the surface, everything looked great.

But I’m going to try to refer to it as a “community” instead of a “cult.” I won’t say which “community” it was, but my 21-year-old nephew came into town with a friend over the weekend, and on Friday night, he announced to me that they wanted to visit a cult (he used the word “cult”) on Saturday…and he wanted me to go with them. I had questions, of course. “You don’t want to join the cult, right?” “Why do you want to go?” “How far away is it?” “Is it scary?”

He showed me the group’s website. It looked pretty benign, And it said they welcome visitors, so I agreed to go, and we made plans to leave the next day. I should mention my husband thinks we are all nuts.

Early Saturday afternoon, we got into the SUV and drove over an hour to the address listed on the website. We were excited to see what we would find! Upon arrival, we drove into the parking lot at the front of the group of houses and got out. We walked around looking for people, but all we saw were sheep out front eating hay. One of the sheep had a penchant for magnolia leaves, so we watched them for a while and discussed what we should do.

Ultimately, we decided to go to another road and approach from the back. When we drove into a back parking lot, we saw a woman stick her head around a fence. I asked my nephew’s friend to put down her passenger-side window, and in my best sweet southern voice, I said, “Hey! We read on your website that y’all welcome visitors! We’re just curious and would like to find out what y’all are all about!” Once she decided we were friendly, she offered to show us around. She explained we weren’t seeing many people because Saturday is the Sabbath, and most people were resting.

We followed her into the dining hall/meeting room, which was lovely…clean and nicely decorated. We ran into a couple more friendly people inside who readily introduced themselves. From there, she showed us the barn area, where they had goats and cows. And after that, we walked over to one of the community’s houses, where members of the “community” had gathered outside for music. We were offered tea, and we all took a cup. I thought it was delicious, and my nephew did too, but I noticed his friend was holding hers…not drinking it. I knew she was thinking about Jonestown, so I took the tea off her hands and drank it myself.

We were welcomed with open arms by everyone gathered outside, and we asked any questions we could think of. Are people free to come and go as they please? Yes. If someone leaves the community, are they shunned? No. Do y’all drink alcohol? No. What are your beliefs? How do you support yourselves? I wanted my nephew to ask if they used cannabis, but none of us had the nerve to ask that. I thought I smelled it wafting out of a house at one point, but I couldn’t be sure. And this group believes everyone should work together for the greater good of the community. Every person contributes by working…like bees in a hive. Children are educated onsite. We weren’t bashful…we asked questions. We didn’t ask in a threatening way…we asked in a curious way, which is exactly what we were…curious.

We left after a couple of hours thinking, “This isn’t a cult at all! They’re just a religious commune!” Everyone was so friendly. They were very reserved, but they were friendly. We had no reason to believe they were anything but good folks.

And then, after we got home, we googled the name of their “community,” and that’s when things got weird!

Unbeknownst to us, just last week, the FBI had released from their vault information from a 2013 investigation into this particular group. At the top of the report, it says, “Open investigation based on allegations that children are being sexually exploited.” And somehow, we decided to visit right after the report was released from the vault? We had no idea! In the report, there is testimony from former members of the community with allegations of child labor, sexual abuse, sexual orgies, and drug use. That led us to look at other websites, where we found allegations of community members being held against their will…and more. And honestly, it frightened us. Is any of the “testimony” true? I don’t know, but it was enough to make my hair stand on end.

And it made me a little sad. I thought of the sweet people we had met. Most of them were friendly, but some of them were looking at us wide-eyed, and one of them appeared a little unstable, but we chalked it up to dementia. But after reading everything, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the wide-eyed ones were desperate to leave. Were they unhappy? Were they being abused? Did they want us to take them with us? Did they want to pass us notes asking us to send help? Of course, that’s all my imagination. No one, at any time, indicated they were unhappy. In fact, most of them appeared very happy.

In hindsight, I’m glad we didn’t google the community before we went, because we never would have gone. I believe there are some good people in that group. Are there bad folks? I don’t know. But I’m guessing that will be my only visit to their commune. We went unannounced, but didn’t see anything suspicious. Of course, my nephew’s friend pointed out that we were really only shown the animals and the interior of one building, which was almost unoccupied at the time, so there wasn’t much opportunity for us to see anything nefarious.

Giving them the benefit of the doubt, they seemed like nice people. Of course, someone else pointed out to me that “of course they were nice! They wanted y’all to join!” Yeah…they probably didn’t want me. I’m way beyond child-bearing years, and I’m sure they could take one look at me and tell I’m way too high maintenance. My nephew, on the other hand, is low maintenance, strong, hardworking, good-looking, musically talented, and artistic. Any cult would love to have him. His friend is pretty and outgoing…they’d love to have a young lady join up, I’m sure. But I would have been a total drain on their system.

And in their defense, the FBI closed the 2013 investigation. Since I never read anything about any arrests, and they didn’t invade the place like they did with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, I’m guessing they didn’t uncover enough evidence to support the allegations.

Either way, we got out unscathed. If anyone ever tries to hold me at a commune, they will run me off as soon as they figure out I don’t even know how to mop very well!

On our way home, I thought of how happy my parents would be that my nephew was hanging out with me in North Carolina. And I wished I could call them to tell them about the experience…they would have loved hearing about it.

 

My Favorite Social Experiment

The American South and Midwest have reputations as friendly places, while the West and Northeast have reputations of being less so. On another note, people in the West are perceived as creative, and people in the Northeast are perceived as less inhibited. A 2013 study by the University of Cambridge supports that. You can see the results of the study here. After reading that today, I started thinking about our own little social experiment we conducted in Beverly Hills a few years ago.

Southern California: beautiful weather, beautiful people, good food, creativity, and good people-watching. My daugher and I love to go. We’ve been, as my mother used to say, “umpteen times.” That means we’ve been a lot. Today, we are embarking on another adventure to the Los Angeles area. We love visiting. Is it different than other parts of the country? Yes, and that’s part of what we love. Different parts of the country have different cultures and different attitudes, and that’s a good thing. How boring would our country be if there weren’t differences? Why bother visiting another place if that’s the case?

We love visiting the LA area, but would we want to live there? The bloom might fall right off the rose if we lived there. I’ve had to explain to my daughter on more than one occasion that living there isn’t the same as visiting. If you live there, real life gets in the way. Plus, you don’t live in a hotel with fantastic room service, and really, that’s part of the charm.

The first time I took her to LA, we were standing in line at a coffee shop, and my then 7-yr-old daughter looked up and said, “I want to live here, Mom.” The lady behind us heard her and leaned up to say, “Oh, honey. You don’t want to live here. People aren’t nice here like they are where you’re from.” Maybe she heard the southern accent? I had to take a few minutes after we sat down to explain that there are lots of nice people in LA, but I thought the lady meant they don’t wave to everybody and speak to everyone on sidewalks like we often do.

My friend, Mary Ann, who lives in Mobile, Alabama, and her son went with us on our next trip to the area. One day, as we were walking to breakfast at a restaurant about a mile from our hotel, we decided to conduct a social experiment by saying “good morning” to everyone we met on the sidewalk. We got all sorts of responses. Some people gave us sideways glances and moved farther away on the sidewalk, clutching their bags more tightly as if they thought we were trying to mug them. Others ignored us altogether. But there were three who were thrilled. One said how refreshing it was. Another hugged us and thanked us. And yet another had an entire conversation with us, starting with, “You’re not from around here, are you?”

We felt pretty sure we would get different results in the South.

We came home to Charlotte and tried the same Good Morning Experiment at our local Neiman Marcus, thinking the socioeconomics would be closest to Beverly Hills. About two weeks after the initial “experiment,” my daughter and I strolled through Neiman’s, and I greeted everyone we encountered with “Good morning!” My daughter didn’t even notice, because I do it all the time. Here’s what happened: no one looked at me like I was going to mug them. Every single person smiled, and most responded with a pleasant “good morning” in return. One had two gifts in her hand for her young daughter and stopped my daughter to ask which one was better for a young girl. Two or three complimented my shoes. And not one person looked at me like I was strange for greeting them.

I considered trying it in my favorite Target store in Charlotte but realized it wasn’t necessary. I speak to everyone in there every time I go anyway. I’ve even made friends in Target!

On our next visit to LA, we were with friends from the Northeast. We hadn’t discussed the social experiment. We were having breakfast in a restaurant one morning when a gentleman walked past our table on his way to the deli case and smiled. I smiled back and kept talking. When he passed again, he smiled again. I smiled and gave a little wave…it’s what I do. Apparently, he walked past two more times, and I smiled back without even realizing it. As we were leaving, he stopped me at the door. He told me he and his wife were dining in the back of the restaurant and decided to see how many people smiled back when he walked to the deli case. He said, “I smiled at every person at every table I passed, and you were the only one who smiled back. Not only did you smile every time, you waved!” I told him about our previous social experiment, and we all had a good laugh.

I’m not saying I’m always friendly and in a happy mood, and everybody in Charlotte isn’t always friendly either. The “results” of our “experiments” were interesting, though.

That’s not to say there aren’t friendly people in LA. I know some fabulous, friendly people who live there, and I hope to see them when we are there this time. Every time we go, we meet delightful people…every time…LOTS of great people. We’ve met people who treated us like old friends or family. We’ve met people who have welcomed us to their city with open arms…lots of fantastic people.

I can hardly wait to introduce our “newbies” to the places and people we love, and I’m looking forward to spending time with this fun group. We won’t be the most beautiful, skinniest, or most wealthy people in the city, but we can try to be the happiest and most friendly!

Maybe we will conduct another social experiment of some kind on this trip. Ideas?