All about the challenges of Midlife Finance

Finding the Best Hotel

For the past week, California’s been the place to be while I finish up some work commitments. Long hours teaching (and trudging) were easier because I came back to a pleasant hotel every evening. Staying at the Ayres Suites in Ontario definitely made life easier.

   But what if I’d picked the wrong place?

   Smelly rooms…and carpet that doesn’t feel quite clean. (Or worse yet, a heater that won’t turn off, even when it’s 90 degrees outside.) Stiff, scratchy towels. Surly front desk staff, who sneer at your beat-up luggage, refuse to replace your room key, or even worse, don’t have any cookies left! (Now, that’s punishment.) Stale Danish and lukewarm coffee, competing with the flies on an unwashed table for breakfast.

   Ewww.

   Fortunately, the Ayres Suites feature friendly staff, a hot breakfast (sausage links and eggs with salsa and cheese this morning, with a side bowl of yogurt-topped melon) and comfortable beds. (The pillows are especially soft.) I’m even typing by a cheerful, crackling fire, classical music drifting through the lobby as I write.

   Oh, the sacrifice.

   If you’re watching your pennies (and you should be), it’s tempting to pick the cheapest hotel on the list, and call it good. That seems like a wise decision — until you’re staring at a 3 a.m. ceiling, trying to find a comfortable sleeping position while you listen to the air conditioner drip. Not exactly the best way to wake up rested for the next day. Would a little extra money have made the difference? Possibly, if you did some things ahead of time.

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*Do a general check of hotels in the area you’re traveling to. Do you have plenty of choices, or just a few? Do they range all over in price? What’s actually available?

*Read the reviews. Trip Advisor is especially helpful for this. Pay special attention to when the reviews were written; the hotel may have cleaned up its act, literally, after the last crappy review. Or maybe not.

*Pay attention to extras. Is a hot breakfast included? (That’s anywhere from $5-15 added gratis that you would normally have to pay.) What about coffee in the lobby, or your room? Does the hotel offer cookies  in the afternoon, or a free ride to the airport or nearby attractions? All these save  money and time, it’s true. But even better, they add to your general comfort.

      Once you see what others are saying, and have a chance to review what else is out there, it’s time to book your stay. (Or maybe wait until you get there!) Although booking sites like Expedia and Hotwire are good for pricing, don’t go there right away. Check out your favorite rewards program, like Swagbucks. Often these will give you extra discounts and points earned, just for starting the process from their site. Don’t miss out on Hotels.com’s ‘tenfer’ program — ten nights booked over a period of time earn you a free night’s stay. Hopefully, you’re also using a credit card that gives you cash back, or miles you can redeem for free travel. (Like these.)

      Now you’re at the site — and clicking. Keep the stars designations in mind — less than two stars, and you’re probably looking at spartan accomodations. That’s ok for a night or two, but not exactly conducive to comfort, especially for a working trip that promises to be both mentally and physically taxing.

Good — a three-star hotel’s coming up, and the price is only a few bucks more than the economy version. It’s got a free airport shuttle, and the pool in the photos looks cool and refreshing. (The reviews are good, too.) You book — only to get there, and find out that the shuttle van hasn’t been working for a few weeks now. Oh, and the pool and hot tub are empty.

So much for the moonlight photos.

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     Now’s the time to visit the front desk and enquire — politely. Did the hotel know about these inequities before you booked? Obviously, they did. You were counting on these extras, not only to keep from paying for a cab, but also to enjoy that starlit poolside some warm night. Would the hotel compensate you for not being able to use these promised items?

     Often they do, with coupons for free meals, special services — and even credit toward a future stay. But they’re not going to bring it up if you don’t ask.

     Our daughter found this out the hard way when she planned a recent hotel stop, seduced by the photos of pool, hot tub and well-appointed workout room that the hotel featured. The reality was less than exciting. Although the room was comfortable, the pool and hot tub were being painted — and the equipment room barely adequate.

     A quiet mention to the front desk clerk, and five minutes later, she had an $80 credit for a future stay… and a little more peace of mind. (Complaining letters come in handy, too.)

     Have a good time — send us a postcard.

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