New York may be the city that never sleeps, but you still have to.
Unfortunately, due to record tourism (39.6 million visitors last year, up 4.8 percent from 2003), the budget-conscious are finding it harder to book cheap lodging in the Big Apple, at least by New York standards. The result: While an indulgent stay at Ian Schrager's latest boutique is always an option, today more and more travelers are opting for practicality over style at the city's low-frills chain options. The Hampton Inns and Best Westerns may not have the spa robes and marble bathrooms of the Ws and the Westins, but they do have a legion of fans.
While these hotels are often less expensive than other neighborhood options (and can be found citywide, from Times Square and Midtown to the Upper West Side and Lower Manhattan), you can still pay a hefty price. Blame the high occupancy rates of these "limited-service hotels" -- industry parlance for hotels generally without on-site restaurants and the designation for chains like La Quinta, Comfort Inn and Howard Johnson.
According to Vijay Dandapani, chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City and chief operating officer of Apple Core Hotels, the occupancy figures "track the rest of the city," currently at about 83 percent. (Average occupancy nationwide is 64.2 percent, according to PKF Consulting, a firm that follows industry trends.) The high demand results in some surprising prices, like a recent pretax quote of $189.99 for a double at the Comfort Inn Midtown at 129 W. 46th St.
Still, if you were to stay the same night at the new Westin just a few blocks away at 270 W. 43rd St., a double would set you back $299.
The city's limited-service hotels, more commonly associated with I-95 than Broadway, are a mix of old and new properties. Hampton Inn, which debuted in Chelsea in 2003, is opening a branch in Lower Manhattan and by summer's end will be flying its flag at the Howard Johnson Plaza (now under renovation). The Comfort Inn on West 35th Street, on the other hand, has been around for more than 20 years, though it was recently renovated.
Apple Core Hotels has taken a different route: It buys mixed-use buildings and refurbishes them in conjunction with chains such as Red Roof Inn and Super 8. (It operates five Manhattan properties; its La Quinta Inn Islip is set to open on Long Island by year's end.)
Big Apple visitors are booking these roadside-chains-gone-urban for a number of reasons.
* Lower prices . . . if you can get them. According to the most recent figures provided by NYC & Co., the city's tourism bureau, the average daily rate for a hotel room is $216. "I've stayed in $200 to $300 rooms that were claustrophobic," said Anthony Frontera, a frequent visitor from Newburgh, N.Y. He recently booked the La Quinta Inn at 17 W. 32nd St. for $89.99. "[There] I had a room with a view. It's homey, nothing extravagant. . . . They were really accommodating. I'm very glad I found it."
Sometimes, though, you have to forget any preconceived notions of what a budget hotel should cost: In New York, prices are often supersized. On a recent busy summer weekend, for example, a standard double at the Best Western Eastern Shore in Exmore, Va., went for $104 at the Best Western Web site. A comparable room at New York's Best Western Seaport Inn Downtown the same day? $219.
* Loyalty benefits. Affinity programs reward those who stick with a particular brand. A stay can earn points redeemable for airline miles, magazine subscriptions or a hotel room with no blackout dates. The TripRewards program includes, among others, properties owned by Howard Johnson, Ramada and Super 8 hotels. Hilton HHonors members can rack up points at Hampton Inn properties; Gold Crown Club International members earn free stays at Best Western. Choice Privileges earn points for Comfort Inn guests. All of those brands have Manhattan locations.
* On-site amenities. While you may not get a personal butler or find a chocolate on your pillow, limited-service hotels have gained strides in the amenities department, with many offering valet service, fitness rooms, business centers and free local calls. A complimentary breakfast, though perhaps not a high priority for the business traveler with a per diem, is always welcome -- and it's offered at all Comfort Inns and Apple Core Hotels.
The $89.99 Room
At the vanguard is Apple Core, which introduced several limited-service brands to Manhattan; its Super 8 (which opened in 2002), Red Roof Inn (2000) and La Quinta Inn (2002) are currently those chains' only locations on the island.
At the same time, it raised expectations for this class of hotel. All five locations, which have more than a 90 percent occupancy rate, offer rooms with hair dryers, coffeepots, irons, business and fitness centers (albeit hamster-size ones at two hotels), continental breakfasts and Internet access. Four are within one subway stop of the Port Authority bus terminal or Penn Station, the city's public transportation entry points from the south. (The Ramada Inn Eastside is a subway stop from Grand Central train station.)
Tempted by a news release claiming that "If you think an $89 hotel rate in New York City is an urban myth, you've never stayed with Apple Core Hotels," we tried to find that tariff online (www.applecorehotels.com) for any of its properties. But after supplying eight different dates, both weekends and weekdays, the best rate we could find was the Super 8 at $179.99 (with tax, that's $207).
A few weeks later, we again searched the Web site for a room for one night for two people, at any Apple Core location. Looking from two weeks to three months out, the cheapest we found was an August weeknight at the La Quinta for $139.99 (before tax); the most expensive was a weeknight at the Comfort Inn, for $219.99. Then we tried an earlier date, and came closest with a weeknight just six days away at the Ramada for $99.99.
We asked Apple Core to find us a room using the same criteria. According to Dandapani, rates can change hourly. "I wish I could say there was a particular algorithm" to the process, he said. "It depends on availability and the season -- book in January and you will get it." The same day we were searching, he said, Apple Core booked 30 rooms at the Super 8 and 20 at the La Quinta for $89.99, albeit for a variety of different dates. Frontera, the Upstate New Yorker, got his online that day.
"Usually it's through calling in that you get a better rate," said Kara Schnabel, account supervisor at Apple Core Hotels' public relations firm. "$89, you can't find that all the time." Future news releases, according to Schnabel, will list a $99 starting rate.
Rates for these and other limited-service hotels do vary widely. As with any chain, while calling directly won't always result in a cheaper fare -- we were given a phone quote that matched the Internet price when booking the Super 8 -- there may be rooms available at locations that, according to the Web site, are completely booked. And don't forget to ask about AAA discounts, government rates and current promotions.
Times Square Test
The quality of hotels in the low-frills realm can vary dramatically from one location to the next. In other words, not all HoJos, Best Westerns and Super 8s are created equal.
With that in mind, we visited limited-service chain hotels within a seven-block radius of the TKTS booth at 47th Street and Seventh Avenue, in the heart of Times Square. We examined lobbies and inspected rooms, weeding out the not-so-hot properties in favor of hotels we'd feel comfortable staying in. (See above chart for our low-frills picks.)
Among others, we checked out the Best Western President (234 W. 48th St.), recently listed for $142 on hotel booking site Quikbook.com; we'd happily stay at this 360-room offering. Then there was the sawdust-filled-yet-somehow-still-occupied Howard Johnson Plaza (851 Eighth Ave., with doubles from $149 on Hojo.com). It's midway through its transformation into a Hampton Inn, and we'd hold off before booking. Though its Web site had noted that renovations were ongoing, we weren't prepared for the musty smell or the hard hats in the lobby.
Our room at the Super 8 (59 W. 46th St., $179.99 plus tax) was spotless and comfortable, if snug. When you're staying on the 12th floor of a hotel with a small elevator -- a reminder that this 206-room hotel is on the island of Manhattan and not a roadside split-level -- you get to know your fellow guests very well. On the multiple rides up and down, we shared the skinny space with two European backpackers, a father and his two kids, and an older Korean couple.
For a full hotel with narrow hallways, we were surprised not to hear more commotion during the night. After oatmeal and cappuccino the next morning, we shared the elevator with a ponytailed woman and her young daughter who were breaking the hotel's cardinal rule ("Help keep your hotel #1 for hygiene. Please do not take breakfast items to your room"). For the record, our room was shipshape.
For more information on the hotel chains mentioned in this story: Apple Core Hotels (800-567-7720, www.applecorehotels.com), Best Western (800-780-7234, www.bestwestern.com), Comfort Inn (877-424-6423, www.comfortinn.com), Days Inn (800-329-7466, www.daysinn.com), Hampton Inn (800-426-7866, www.hamptoninn.com), Howard Johnson (800-446-4656, www.hojo.com), Quality Hotel (877-424-6423, www.choicehotels.com) and Ramada (800-272-6232, www.ramada.com).
Anne McDonough will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.