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« Distracting technologies | Main | Disheartened »

Why 5-star hotels suck

OK, a little rant that has nothing to do with libraries or education. Just life.

One of the great ironies when I travel is that the kind hearted, well-intentioned people who ask me to come speak and consult usually put me up in very, very nice hotels. You know the kind. Giant foyers. Lot's o' marble. Fountains in the lobby. Valet parking. Glass elevators.

For, I suppose, 99% of travelers, staying in these places is something of a dream - luxury at its finest. But, at the real risk of sounding like a terrible ingrate, I have to say that unless the conference is right in the hotel itself, I'd just as soon stay in something a little more downscale.

The alarm clock in my room this morning at a Crowne Plaza woke me twice - first with beeping and then again 15 minutes later with a very loud radio program. Not that I wasn't already awake, but it did scare the beejezus out of me. I had not set the alarm. It would probably have taken me 15 minutes to figure out how to operate this "dream machine" that sports 21 separate buttons. Yes, 21. This is what it looks like. It is now unplugged.

Like most regular travelers, I bring my own small, easy to set alarm clock with me. Sometimes I ask for a wake up call, but these tend to be undependable even in the best hotels. What I never do is use the alarm clock in the room itself. I don't have the patience to learn a new programming language each place I stay.

Fancy hotels have other downsides as well:

  • Expensive room service and restaurants. The cost of the room is just the tip of the expense iceberg. Most food and other services are very high priced and rarely of the quality to justify the cost. To add insult to injury, some hotels do NOT have in-room coffee makers so one is forced to buy the expensive stuff. $12 for a pot of room service java. What a rip-off!
  • No free Internet. Even the lowest cost hotel chains now offer free wireless. To pay between $10 and $20 a day for wireless is just plain nuts. And for someone who works a lot in hotel rooms (as I am doing now), not having Internet is not an option.
  • Complicated alarm clocks that it takes a PHD to understand. See above.
  • Poor configuration of rooms for working and reading. Too many fancy hotels (and granted, lots of cheap ones) don't provide good desks or desk chairs, convenient electrical outlets, or adequate lights. I also like a comfortable reading chair, not art deco.
  • USA Today. No local paper.
  • No flavor of the country. When I travel internationally on my own, I love staying in small, independent hotels. A Hilton/Radisson/Hyatt in Istabul is pretty much like a Hilton/Radisson/Hyatt
    in Beijing is pretty much like a Hilton/Radisson/Hyatt in Kansas City. Ya want a Starbucks coffee? You got it. So what's even the point of traveling if the place you are going to is just like the place you left? Give me a small room, winding stairs, a creepy desk clerk, and weird stuff on the breakfast buffet. Oh wait, that DOES sound like a place I stayed right here in Minnesota once.

I think I have that out of my system. I am genuinely grateful to the nice people who install me in nice hotels. Really I am. But given the choice, save your money. Put me in a Motel 6.

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Reader Comments (16)

Hey Doug - you beat me to it!
I am working on a ratio that will describe the inverse proportion between the cost of the hotel room and the likelihood of free internet. Like you say...Motel 6 for $39.99 will get me free wireless but the Hilton...forget about it. Come on!

October 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Grose

I never use the hotel alarm - but now I use my iPhone's alarm rather than bring one more piece of equipment with me. And the Internet cost? One of these days someone will explain to me why Super 8/Motel 6/the no-brand-name motel in St. J, VT has free Internet but the the Hilton in DC doesn't.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLazygal

One more thing to look for in fancy hotels. Bedbugs. Since many of them cater to International travelers they are having issues with the little hitchhikers. An exterminator shared with me that almost all hotels have fake headboards that sit on a shelf on the wall. You can easily lift them off the shelf to inspect behind them. If you see any little black spots call the management and get out of that room or hotel and be very careful when you get home.

Are you scratching just reading this:)

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

I couldn't agree more! Also, most Super 8's, Howard Johnson's, etc. offer free breakfast, including freshly made waffles and fresh fruit. I recently stayed at the Hilton at O'Hare in Chicago and had to pay $45 per day just to park...this was above the room rate. The Hilton charged $8/hour for internet, the in-room refrigerator charged $4 for a small carton of milk, and there was no free breakfast. I won't be staying there again!

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSZSRocks

I also think that service in those five star hotels are not as good as the other ones. They act like we should be thankful they let us stay there rather than the other way around!

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPat

You nailed it! The best part of traveling to another country is getting the "flavor" or where you are. You can't do that in a big chain hotel. I also hate the fact that you have to pay to use their workout room. I've never understood why the smaller (cheaper) hotels offer free Internet, free breakfast, and free workout space, but the ones that cost more charge you for EVERYTHING! There is something wrong there, somewhere!

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterlibrarianmarn

So... where are they putting you up at AASL next week ??! I agree about the hotels, plus fancy ones are above my station (value wise as well as everyday financially) so I tend to feel pretty out of place in them. 20+ years later, I still tend toward the backpacker/local flavor mode of travel. Makes my kids (and sometimes colleagues) a little nuts!

See you in Charlotte! Anna

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPiLibrarian

Doug: Just wanted you to know that I enjoyed your Friday afternoon presentation at ISLMA. Quotes were great!


October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPam Bart

Hi Matt,

Share you ratio with me when you have it developed! I wonder if there is greater competition among the modest-low end chains that leads to free wireless, breakfasts, etc???

All the best,


Hi Lazy,

I tried using my iPod Touch as an alarm clock (perhaps at an earlier suggestion from you!), but found the alarm too soft and it seemed to drain the battery. I know I also have an alarm setting on both my cell phone and computer should I chose to finger them out. The irony is that I don't remember the last time any alarm has woken me up - my internal alarm clock seems to always work. But I am nervous about relying on it!

All the best,


Hi Dottie,

Oh, THANK YOU very much for that tidbit! I'm not lifting off any headboards or using a black light on the bedspread either. When it comes to hotels, I'm thinking ignorance is bliss!

All the best,


Hi Pat,

I've experienced this as well that the people working in fancy hotels can be pretty snotty - and always have a hand out for tips. I am a good tipper, but sometimes it gets a little old!

All the best,


HI Anna,

Oh, I think AASL is putting me up in the Westin - "the" conference hotel. Do remember that I had a disclaimer that I did mind fancy hotels if they were the ones where the event was actually being held. Before I knew that the conference people were giving me a night and thought I'd be in Charlotte longer, I had a reservation at a Super8 or something similar through Priceline.

I am at the point where I appreciate a bathroom "en suite" rather than sharing in the backpacker hostels. But I do like small and local accommodations when I can get them (although I detest B&Bs for some reason.)

All the best,


Thanks, Pam, for your kind comment. I had a great time in Springfield and really enjoy the Illinois librarians!

All the best,


November 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I'm with you pal! I recently stayed in a nice 3 star hotel in Paris, with the tiniest elevator and medieval decor. I met my girlfriend who stayed in the extravagant 5 star 2 rue scribe (Le Grand -Intercontinental). I went to her hotel and we waited ONE HOUR for a glass of wine each in the lobby bar. I asked the bartender (in French) what took so long - and he honestly said that he's off work in one hour and is already on vacation. WHAT??? That's the service you get when you pay $600 a room???? My hotel was so much better! The creepy Turkish desk clerk offered to buy me a beer after he got off work. Now that would have been service, had I wanted it...

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Hi Amy,

I think I stayed in the same place in Paris - medieval decor and all. I didn't get the same offer from the desk clerk however.

And don't these experiences make great stories!

Thanks for leaving a comment,


November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I have the same alarm clock. It really works good. Thanks for this nice article.

November 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commentervitamin d

Amen! Especially about the food at internet. One time we also stayed at a 5 star because we were traveling with a our dog and were assured they would not charge us. When we got to the hotel they decided to charge us $100 anyway. Needless to say, I did not feel so bad when my dog went to the bathroom in the room. I'm sure they used our $100 to clean it spotlessly for the next guest.

November 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter5* Hater

Hi 5* Hater,

And if you didn't have a dog, I suppose you could do the deed yourself.


November 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Funny. I just spent a night at a Crowne Plaza (in Rodondo Beach, CA) and I really liked their alarm clock.... so much that now I'm shopping on the internet, trying to find the "dream machine" to purchase - I've come to your blog by following the picture. Yes, it took me quite a few minutes to figure it out, but then, I really liked it. There's a little button to set what kind of alarms you can have - radio only, buzzer only, cd only, or a combination of any of the two or three..... crazy, but this is exactly a kind of alarm clock I want to have at home. There's also a 'nap time' button.

But I agree, the alarm clock confusion in hotels can be deadly. An alarm clock you haven't set can wake you up way too early, or, sometimes it won't ring at all.... Like another morning, at a different hotel - somebody set the time as "PM" while it was really AM - and my 7 AM buzzer didn't ring.... But I don't bring an alarm clock with me - after I've heard about an anti-terrorist team delaying a plane looking for 'a suspicious item' (yes, an alarm clock) buzzing in somebody's luggage...... :&

March 11, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterela

That's quite unfortunate, I have always enjoyed my stays. Maybe it was just a fluke, has it happened many times at different hotels?

December 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Puzo

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