On choosing a hotel

The process of choosing lodging for a work trip begins with building your own personal set of criteria — the things you value about a place to stay, like amenities, location and points accrual — and choosing how important each of them are. Then, depending on your company’s travel policy, you have to either book the thing yourself or ask someone to do it for you, often via a bad web portal like Concur.

This is an account of how I personally go through both of these processes. My criteria may be a little different from yours, but hopefully it’ll give you a good template to work from.

Part one: criteria

In my mind, there are only four important criteria: location, amenities, brand, and price. This is also the order in which I rank them — location is most important by far, followed by amenities (although perhaps not the ones you might expect), followed by brand (which is really a proxy for status and points accrual), followed by price.

Location, Location, Location

The most important thing about a hotel, before any specific amenity or even the siren song of points, is its location.

If at all possible, I try to stay where I’ll be able to do the least driving. A perfect location is a 5-15 minute walk to anywhere I want to go1By distance, this is a max of about a mile., including the office, and no driving at all, but this is often impossible in suburban locales.

The most important things to be close to are the things I use in my daily life, whether or not I’m traveling: healthy food options, gyms, and work. Healthy food options can just mean restaurants, but don’t forget about grocery stores too, especially one with a good hot food selection like Whole Foods.

This may mean picking a place near where I’ll be working, but if that’s in an office park or campus, I normally prefer staying in a nearby urban or suburban center and making a short drive as my only car trip of the day. To that same point, staying near the airport is almost always unadvisable.

In terms of where your room should be within the hotel, I like staying between the third and sixth floor2Inclusive., facing a parking lot or alley. The parking lot view isn’t the most scenic, but it helps avoid most street noise (and therefore helps maximize sleep); the height also reduces noise while still being low enough to be able to take the stairs.

I don’t just recommend the stairs as a way to add activity to your routine. Hotel elevators are notoriously bad — they’re slow, there are rarely enough for the hotel’s size, and in my experience, they get stuck more than any elevator in any office I’ve ever been to. So, even in the event you do want to use the elevator (eg: you have a suitcase, a mobility problem, you’re just tired), it’s often better be staying on a lower floor and not have to go to the very top.

You can always request where your room is in a “special requests” box at the time of booking and/or remind the person at the desk when you check in, they may not always honor that request.

Don’t pick the fanciest hotel possible

Hotel amenities are not exactly what they seem. “Most expensive” or “fanciest” is rarely a direct translation to “best”, because the amenities that come with fancy hotels are geared towards leisure travelers and event guests, not business travelers. A stocked minibar and ornate lobby are not nearly as useful as an empty fridge and a decent fitness center.

Within the large chains, the offerings are stratified by brand-name, and there are normally a few brands that specifically cater to business travelers, with amenities fairly well-geared towards this target market. As an example, Marriott’s are Courtyard, SpringHill, and Residence Inn.

The most desirable amenities are ultimately the ones that will make you the most comfortable and productive and save the most time and effort while on the road. Your list may look a little different from mine based on what you value, but here are my big ones, roughly in priority order:

  • a good, large, clean room (naturally)
  • a good fitness center
  • reliable, fast wifi
  • a fridge
  • a kitchen
  • some sort of in-room desk (ideally with a hardwired internet connection)
  • the ability to check in and check out without talking to a human
  • washing machines on-premise
  • shuttle service

Amenities that you can comfortably not care too much about include the view, a minibar, the size of or channels on the TV3Especially if the internet is good — hello, Hulu. , the restaurant/bar/room service, and the size or decor of the lobby. A business center with a printer can be nice, but if you’re anything like me, you rarely print anything anymore, and you can always ask the front desk to print something for you in a pinch. I also don’t really care about a kitchen in the room because with the exception of the fridge, it’s normally not worth using anyway.

Yelp and Tripadvisor reviews will mention all of these things, plus some of the less “do you have this thing y/n” amenities like quality of service, cleanliness, and age of the hotel.4In almost all cases, newer is better.

Don’t worry too much about brand or status (unless you’re a points hacker)

Staying in a hotel where I have points and accrue status is nice, but not as important as general quality of life. Unlike with airlines, having elite status at a hotel doesn’t actually get you much — the room is often identical, and the perks are things like free breakfast (which I rarely eat), free minibar snacks or drinks (which I rarely partake in), and late check-out (which I don’t need when traveling for work).

That said, if you are the points hacking type, you may value this a little more than I do. If you do, be sure to look into brands’ and even sub-brands’ specific accrual, rates—the fancier sub-brands within a chain (Marriott flagship, Renaissance, JW Marriott, Ritz-Carlton) often accrue points for staying there at a higher rate than their business-traveler-geared counterparts, often without a major (or any) price difference. The tradeoffs you’re willing to make between amenities and points is something that you’ll have to do the math on — I normally go for location and amenities first, but feel free to optimize for free vacations if that’s your jam.

Price is relative

Price is at the bottom of the list for two reasons:

  1. Assuming you’re being a responsible steward of your client or employer’s money, it doesn’t much matter what the cost is. Like choosing flights, this is a scenario where you should be shopping for value, not just price, and if a room that is an extra $30 –$50 a night will make you considerably happier, healthier, more well-rested, and more productive, that should be considered well worth it, assuming that extra $50 doesn’t put you over whatever maximum daily rate your expense policy might have set.
  2. Even if it is over that maximum, hotel prices can be negotiated.

It’s completely possible to upgrade the quality of your accommodations and still stay within your expense budget by negotiating a place that’s too expensive down into your price range with one or two simple phone calls.

The magic tool for the job is a special rate. Special rates are sales tactic used by hotels where they offer a consistent, time-independent and capacity-independent5Like airline seats, most hotel rooms go up in price as fewer are available or it’s closer to your travel date. Standard supply and demand. price for hotel rooms to draw companies, organizations, or events that need hotel rooms and as such can provide them with extra and/or long-term predictable business. They get rooms that may otherwise go unfilled filled, you get cheaper lodging, everyone wins.

But, you don’t need to be a multinational corporation or planning a wedding to try and get one. Just call the corporate concierge or general manager directly, and put your negotiating hat on.

The opening request goes something like this:

You: Hello, I’m calling about trying to establish a corporate rate with your location — I work for {employer name} and we have a {consultant/sales person/trainer/your role} working with {client name} who needs lodging in {city} on a semi-regular basis starting {first stay dates}. Is there anything you can do in terms of a guaranteed or discounted rate?

Some notes on negotiating your own corporate rate:

  • After you give the little spiel above and they offer you a rate (or say no), ask two more times if they can do any better. I’ve found that two doesn’t often lead to anything else but an annoyed person on the other end of the line, and less than two leaves things on the table.
  • Do not call an 800 number to do this — dial the hotel directly, and ask for whoever is in charge of corporate rates for that specific location.
  • In my experience, calling on behalf of your company (instead of as yourself) seems to help legitimize the request as a “big, legitimate business dealing” rather than “a person looking for a discount.”
  • Mentioning your client is useful, because it can often get you matched to their corporate rate, which, as a local, will often be better than what they’d offer you.
  • If it’s only you that will be going to this city, say that, but if there are multiple people in your team, tell the manager the entire team size. Even if you don’t ultimately convince them to stay with you, you can use this possibility of more business to drive a better rate.
  • This is probably only worth your time and effort if you are actually going to be in a city more than once, as it does take 15-30+ minutes.

Also, before you try negotiating for your own special rate, check with your employer and/or client, and any other travel-oriented groups you might belong to, like AAA. They may have already done this legwork for you.

Bonus tip: There is also the not-strictly-above-board practice of guessing the corporate rate codes for major businesses that have offices in the city you’re staying in. I’ve never had much success with (or interest in) this game, but it’s discussed regularly on frequent flyer message boards, so I might as well mention it. Starwood’s rate codes are impossible-to-guess numbers, but Marriott’s and a few other chains’ are just three letter abbreviations of the company’s name. Do your own googling on this if you want to learn more.

A different option: corporate apartments and AirBnB

Hotels are most likely where you’ll be staying on the road, but they’re not the only option. Corporate apartments and AirBnB are also viable choices, especially if you’re commuting back and forth to the same city for more than a month in a row.

The main value of both of these is a real living space and a usable kitchen in a location where people actually live. You don’t get the status, points or comfortable regularity that you’d get from a hotel, and you may or may not get a cleaning service (if you do, it certainly won’t be every day) but it’s often much homier and more comfortable.

With AirBnB, I really only look at whole apartments, not stay-in-someone’s-spare room situations. Also unless I’m renting an apartment for several weeks at a time without checking out, I’m only interested in places where I don’t have to interact with a human to check in or check out — it’s not super advisable to have to rely on someone whose job isn’t giving you keys at a certain time (like a hotel desk clerk) to give you keys at a certain time, and you don’t need that headache when traveling for work.

In both cases, because you’re often paying a cheaper block rate for entire weeks or months, the price normally works out be to the same or cheaper per week as four or five nights in a hotel. This is the standard tradeoff of a corporate apartment, so don’t worry about the fact that it goes empty for 2-3 days a week, especially considering the massive benefit that is leaving your stuff — or even yourself — in that city over the weekend.

Part two: find and book it

The point of developing a criteria list first is that it makes actually finding and booking a place a breeze. If I’m going to a place that already has a team on the ground, my first step is to ask the team where they stay, and if it more-or-less meets my criteria, I just stay there.

If the team hotel doesn’t work for me or doesn’t exist, I use the website of my preferred hotel provider to plug in some dates and see if anything works for my preferred location/amenities/price criteria.6Starting with only my preferred hotel might seem backward, but it normally works out, because there are often several lodging options in a city that meet my basic criteria — all other things being equal, the status and points are a good thing for me, and booking is faster because they have my information saved.

If nothing works for that, I repeat the process on an ‘aggregator’ search site that will look across all hotels. Depending on what comes up, I’ll do a quick search on AirBnB too, but I normally only bother if hotel options are suboptimal or I’m going to be there for more than a week.

Then, I make a reservation. If only if necessary for the client’s expense policy, I go to Concur to do this. Otherwise I just book it where I first found it and submit the receipt for reimbursement.

There is almost no downside to booking whatever you find as soon as you find it — hotel rates vary by availability, and tend to go up in price as travel gets closer, but most hotels also have extremely generous cancellation policies (sometimes up to 6PM on the same day you’re supposed to be checking in with no penalty). There’s no reason not to book extremely far in advance, even if you think your plans might change or you might find a better lodging situation later.

The ultimate goal here is to automate the decision-making process as much as possible — by having a strict, predetermined set of criteria, I’m able to avoid waffling and making on the fly trade-off decisions —do I care more about staying at a Starwood property or being walking distance from a whole foods? Kitchen or five minutes closer to the office?— which makes me happier with my choices (no second guessing or regret) and faster in booking the travel and on to more interesting fulfilling parts of my life or job.

The first time you do this whole process, it might take a little while, but once you get used to it, a batch booking of an entire month of travel (I normally like batching things like this) should only take 15 minutes or so.

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