By Joe Brancatelli

Summer 2001

Wander the Modern Lodging Landscape

When you travel, do you stay in a hotel or a motel?

Sorry, that's the wrong answer.

In fairness, that's a trick question because it has been years since you've had so simple a choice. The days of two clearly defined lodging options -- the traditional, full-service big-city hotel or the suburban roadside motel -- are long gone.

Nowadays, travelers must sift through a myriad of lodging choices. This so-called "segmentation" of the lodging landscape requires you to pay a lot more attention before booking a room. That's because there are services you can't have in exchange for every desirable special amenity offered by a property in a particular lodging segment.

Here's what to look for as you wander the modern lodging landscape.

ALL SUITE HOTELS such as Embassy Suites offer a well-appointed two-room suite, a free breakfast and evening cocktails for about the same price traditional hotels charge for a standard guest room. But you sacrifice room service, on-site restaurants and bars, and banquet and meeting space. All-suites are best to book when you're spending several consecutive nights in a hotel and want more space and comfort than traditional hotel guest rooms offer. Women traveling alone on business also like all-suite hotels because they can have friends and clients up to the room without having to work or entertain on the bed.

EXTENDED-STAY HOTELS such as Residence Inn are an extension of the all-suite concept. They offer fully equipped apartments with kitchens, often in the style of a suburban townhouse development. But you sacrifice on-site restaurants and bars, most hotel amenities, and a traditional hotel lobby. Extended-stay properties are best to book for longer stays in one city when you'd like to live as close to a "normal" life as possible. They are also great when you have kids in tow. Condo rentals, a staple of resort destinations, are essentially a type of extended-stay hotel.

LIMITED-SERVICE HOTELS such as Courtyard by Marriott or Four Points by Sheraton offer simply furnished guest rooms with large work desks and other business-related perks. They are priced at about a third below traditional hotel rates, but you sacrifice around-the-clock attention from the front desk, bellmen, fancy dining facilities and elegant public rooms and meeting space. The limited-service segment is growing fast and that means many of the properties are newly built and in tip-top physical shape. There are also many new ideas bubbling up in the limited-service area. Hilton Garden Inn hotels, for example, offer guest rooms outfitted with coffee makers, microwave ovens and small refrigerators. And their lobby area shares space with a small convenience shop that sells microwavable meals and an array of beverages and snacks.

ECONOMY HOTELS such as Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express offer good beds, pleasant enough surroundings, and often a free continental breakfast. The cost is about half the price of the nightly rate at a traditional hotel. What you sacrifice is all the special services and amenities of a full-service hotel. Economy properties are best to book on an overnight stay when all you need is a comfortable place to sleep, a shower the next morning and a quick bite before moving on.

BUDGET HOTELS like Motel 6 offer a place to sleep and free local calls at rock-bottom rates, but you sacrifice everything else. They almost always are motel-style accommodations, which means the room corridors are on the outside of the building, which is a safety concern in isolated or dangerous neighborhoods. They're worth booking only when it's stay on the cheap or cancel the trip. The upgrade to an economy hotel is usually only a few dollars more.

BED & BREAKFASTS are the modern-day equivalent of the roadside inns and taverns that once dotted the nation's mostly rural highways and byways. These days, a B&B can be anything from a lovingly restored Victorian mansion or a meticulously maintained country inn to a few guest bedrooms in a big-city apartment complex or a converted rumpus room over some suburbanite's garage. There are no standards and no B&B chains, so an individual property's quality, amenities and room rates are completely dependent on the owner's whims.

All of which brings us back to traditional, full-service hotels like Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt. For all their drawbacks -- high prices for smallish guest rooms -- they still have their place in the segmented lodging firmament. After all, full-service hotels are still the only places where you can order a club sandwich from room service at 2 a.m., get a pair of slacks pressed in 20 minutes, or plan a rubber-chicken awards banquet for 500 guests.

One last caveat: The more complicated the lodging scene has become, the more fudging and hair-splitting on the part of the hotel companies. It isn't beyond the imagination of some hotel marketers to "convert" their traditional hotel into an "all-suite" property by putting up a screen between the bed and the desk. And there is nothing so meaningless in the hotel world as the term "boutique." No one on the planet can define the word as it applies to lodging, yet literally hundreds of pricey "boutique hotels"-- and even several chains of boutique hotels -- have sprung up in recent years.

So do yourself a favor: Ask a lot of questions before booking any accommodation. Want a suite? Ask to make sure the hotel's concept of a suite is the same as yours. Want round-the-clock room service? Ask to make sure the hotel's clock has the same number of hours as yours. Want a room with a high-speed Internet access work desk? Ask to make sure the hotel doesn't consider a fold-away bridge table a desk.

Asking hotel or motel not only isn't the right question any more, it's just the first of dozens of queries you need to answer. Deal is the price that logically balances a reasonable expenditure of your money and your time.

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