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The 5-Star, 2-Star Conundrum, part one

I recently visited two travel shows south of the border. One event was located in Mexico City for the newly created FITA, which invites tourism professionals from around the globe to showcase their products, services and destinations to other tourism professionals and the general public. The other conference was in Antigua, Guatemala for the more established, but smaller, CATM, which services the seven nations that make up Central America. I was glad to help promote both events and genuinely enjoyed both cities. There were also a few differences, mainly in accommodations.

In Mexico, I stayed in the Westin, a well-established hotel brand in Santa Fe (known as the financial district), an area in Mexico City. The hotel had black marble and a highly polished corporate appeal with numerous options for just about anything a traveler could possibly want. The staff at the Westin was bi-lingual and stylishly sleek. They were also very nice. My room door magically opened when my thin plastic key card waved before my door’s sensor pad.

In Antigua, Guatemala, I stayed at Posado Don Rodrigo, which had wagon wheel décor and thick Guatemalan ladies milling about that spoke only Spanish, but were also very nice. My room key was a clumsy skeleton key with a giant phallic fob that, when sitting in my pocket, suggested to all who noticed that I was “happy to see” them.

Both hotels were memorable, but for different reasons. One was a schwanky five-star place with layers of amenities and a sharp, efficient staff. The other was a creaky two-star (maybe three-star) hotel with a performing ten-man xylophone team (with a drummer) and fairly reliable Internet.

This is the part where I guess I am supposed to tell you about the value of five-star treatment and getting what you pay for. I discovered how true this was when I asked for an aspirin at the front desk of the Westin.

For my headache (likely due to Mexico City’s altitude), I was given Westin’s corporate policy of not offering medicine of any kind, but that they could offer pharmacy service in about an hour or so, but this would be at an additional expense. They could not give me an idea how expensive it would be. There was no gift shop to buy my own aspirin and it was recommended that I not walk to the pharmacy on my own. Later, I asked about Internet and was invited to use the business center for 190 pesos (about $15.50US) an hour.

I ventured out on my own anyway; I never found the pharmacy. I found mostly other huge hotels and construction sites for future hotels with bi-lingual staff and more corporate policies. I could not find a market, a restaurant, a mall or anything to do. I walked alone. Santa Fe did not even look (or sound) like Mexico. For a moment, I wondered if I was in Mexico. I still had a headache.

That night, I returned to my room to discover a carefully typed note letting me know that the breakfast coupons I had be given by the Westin would not be honored for undisclosed reasons. Instead I was invited to their $25 a day breakfast for the final three days of my visit at my expense (I eventually discovered that the Westin was arguing my host company over money. The Westin thought better of their decision the following day after some discussion). I knew I was just a writer on assignment and should be grateful for staying in such lavish accommodations, but I only felt like a means to turn a profit for a big company.

The Entrance at Don Rodrigo

Of course, the Posada de Don Rodrigo had far fewer amenities, but I was given the Internet password upon check in. I stood a few doors from a twenty-four hour pharmacy, but the lady at reception looked in her purse first to see what she had before sending me there. I was smack in the middle of town and walking distance to shops, restaurants, stores and people. I knew I was in Guatemala.

By the time I left the Westin, I felt dejected and my main purpose as a guest was to tip and present reasons to be charged more. I left the Posada at Don Rodrigo feeling like I hoped to return and bring my family one day.

In the world of star listings, the Westin remains a popular five-star hotel with rooms filled with $6 Snickers bars, $9 bottled waters, Internet costing 190 pesos an hour through their business center and numerous costly luxuries waiting to be sold. The Posada Don Rodrigo does not carry the same airs, but is smack in the middle of town, affordable and far and away a better, more interesting value and experience.

The point of my article is not to trash the Westin, although the experience was not a good one. The enclave of five-star luxury drowned out all the things I like about Mexico: food, people, and rapidly spoken Spanish. My Westin experience was about not having choices and a corporate policy to ensure safety, and it drained the culture. In the end, it is about choice. It is fine to be offered an overpriced Snickers bar when there are other choices available. It is this type of experience that makes me think about how important a hotel and its location can be toward making a trip good — or bad.

How a choose a hotel? The Five-Star, Two-Star Conundrum, part two

24 Comments

  1. 5 star, we disdain them. The few that we have stayed in, I cannot remember their names, or anthing that actually happened to enhance our travel memories.
    2 star/3 or 4 star, yeah we remember them. OK sometimes the all the toilet fittings may have been cracked, the shower not working, the water even non-existent,…but they live on in our memories. And tavel to us is building up that store of memories and experiences. Why else do we travel?
    I still love the memory of that hotel in Madras, where we needed to go to the toilet in the middle of the night, turned on the light….and all we could see or hear was the cochroaches scuttling for cover across the floor!

    5 star, ahh forget them. Never any memories.
    Jim recently posted..Why Im still a handsome guy

    • Hi Jim,

      I agree with you. I tend to remember the flaws. I think a lot of people like five-star digs because they are safer and more familiar feeling than other places, but I am not sure this is actually true.
      Devin the Travel Writer recently posted..Free Trip- Where to Go When- Italy

  2. We had a very similar experience in Mexico City. When we arrived, we stayed at the Four Seasons, which of course was gorgeous. Our room was lavish to say the least. To be clear, for the Four Seasons, the rate was a CRAZY value, which is why we chose to stay there a few nights. Despite the luxury, we decided we would not make a similar choice again. The internet was 15.00 a day, the on-site dining was shockingly expensive and the service was uncomfortably attentive.

    After returning from Oaxaca, we stayed at the Red TRee House in Condessa. This is more of a Bed and Breakfast / Inn kind of arrangement, with a central dining and living room and individual rooms stacked around a central courtyard. The service was attentive but casual. The internet was included, as was a made-to-order breakfast. The place had a house dog that you could walk to the park. Our experience there was warm and inviting – very memorable. While the place isn’t inexpensive, it is an unbelievable value. We are allready looking forward to returning.

    So we are with you. We LOVE nice hotels, but we also LOVE the Residence Inn. Fo us it comes down to value and experience.
    The NVR Guys recently posted..No Vacation Required – The Lowdown

  3. Totally agree with you.
    It think the stay helps make the experience. in general, I have had some wonderful moments in five-star hotels. I hope to have some at a five-star I am staying at this week, but sometimes the money-making structure gets in the way of having a good time. That’s when it can ruin a trip.
    Devin the Travel Writer recently posted..Paid for Travel Writing — All Those Dollars

  4. I expect so much of 5-star hotels that they can never live up to my standards as I’m constantly thinking that I could spend 10 days in a hostel for the price of the room. Whereas in hostels if they are disappointing I can console myself in the inexpensiveness and buy myself a drink.
    ayngelina recently posted..Why I broke my backpacking rule

    • Hi Ayngelina,

      Personally, my youth hostel days are over, but knowing that I could do so much more with my money makes complete sense. However, I do not want to dismiss all five-star places. As there is value — more on this later.
      Devin Galaudet recently posted..Paid for Travel Writing — All Those Dollars

  5. gday devin! couldnt agree more. although to be honest, the closest i have got to staying in a 5 star hotel is sneaking in to a few to use their pools. the internet thing really pisses me off. seriously, $15 an hour? what do they think this is? i know in the hostel world it is pretty much a necessity to be offering wifi for free. it can make or break a business.
    the other thing is about where the money goes to. presumably the staff see next to nothing of it. hell, i wouldnt even expect they make $15 per day!
    cheers, jamie

  6. Hi Devin,

    Unlike your singing 🙂 this is a really good article. As I have gotten older, I have stayed a nicer hotels, a few were five star. But some of my best hotel memories comes from some of the worst. Most of the really nice hotels do stop feeling like the country.

  7. Great article, Devin. I think a distinction needs to be made, though, between a 5 star cookie-cutter chain hotel and a 5 star locally-owned hotel. I’ve had similar experiences to yours at the corporate chains, but I think of a hotel like El Convento in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, a small luxury hotel which still retains the history (it’s in a renovated Spanish convent), the charm of the culture, the central location (where everything you need or want is within easy walking distance), and the willingness to go above and beyond for guests. Expensive? You bet. But worth it. Bland chain hotels that seek to recreate a homogeneous luxury experience to the point where you can’t even tell what city or country you’re in–all at ridiculous prices? Not so interesting to me any more.
    Gray recently posted..Paris Trip Planning- Fait Accompli

  8. I have to say that was pretty low class of the Westin to renege on your breakfast coupon. That was an issue between them and your sponsor. When I was in corporate Canada I almost always stayed in 5 star hotels. However, over the years I found smaller properties in the cities where I was a frequent visitor. Those were always my favorites.

    These days it’s almost all budget. Once in a while I’ll be seduced by a room sale and I’ll stay somewhere more up-class. Almost always I end up annoyed. Usually it has something to with an Internet connection that I have to pay a fortune for, or a swimming pool that ends up being a jacuzzi. Both have their good and not so good points. What I love about cheaper properties is when you end up with so much more than you expected.
    Nancie recently posted..Wanderfood Wednesday &8212 Sampling a Local Bejing Dish

  9. Great post and it definitely reflects my experience – the more you pay, the more they nickel and dime you. I generally find budget hotels are just as comfortable and they tend to offer free internet and a range of other services as part of the package. My pet peeve is hotels that charge for wifi because it’s so cheap for them to offer it to their guests for free – especially hotels that claim to be geared towards the business traveller.
    Amy recently posted..Australia- A Few Things Oprah Probably Won’t Tell You

  10. I like to alternate. I also walk out if one or the other doesn’t live up to my expectations. I avoid making in advance payments, so I’m free to leave. A 5star hotel tells me I can’t have an aspirin…I’m out of there in 2 seconds flat.
    inka recently posted..Maralyn B Hill – a traveling glamourgran par excellence!

  11. Love the article. I have heard so much about Mexico that I now must visit this place. And regarding hotels, I’m happy with a budget-boutique hotel as they are always trying harder than the 4-5 star hotels.

    David
    David @ Malaysia Asia recently posted..Sandakan Market with Lumix GF1 Camera

  12. I totally agree. I travel to experience the culture of the people and country I’m visiting. So many 5 star hotels and resorts sterilize themselves of that culture and then assume if you can afford to pay for the room, you won’t mind overpaying for everything else.
    Erika recently posted..17 Gift Ideas for Adventurous Women – From ‘Biners to Bags

  13. I have to admit, at first I was expecting you to say how amazing it was to stay in a 5 star hotel. I think the only time I’ve stayed in a super nice hotel was in Hoi An, Vietnam. We must have gotten lucky because the staff was still friendly and helpful. But now that I think about it, the cheaper hotels usually do have a friendlier feel, especially because a lot of times they have a smaller staff and it gives you the chance to get to know them. Great post!
    Christy @ Ordinary Traveler recently posted..Biweekly Round-Up of Favorite Blog Posts – 11072010 3

  14. Very nice comparison of the two hotels and the overall travel experience. I often end up in the 3-4 star range which can still be pretty unpredictable, but are generally chosen for location, price and amenities. My experiences at the top end have actually been pretty good as far as service and quality accommodations, but the fees for wifi and other charges are outrageous. However, the worst part of any hotel stay is if you are left feeling like you could be anywhere, not experiencing a special place and culture.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Three Months in a New York Minute

  15. The law of hotel amenities goes like this:

    The more swanky the hotel, the more often they nickel and dime you. The less swanky the hotel more often amenities are free.

  16. I generally find that the staff found in budget accomodation try very hard to be helpful and supportive. That said, sometimes it’s nice to break away and indulge in a little luxury 🙂
    Andrew Murray recently posted..Volunteer Opportunities at Wildlife Sanctuaries Abroad

  17. I’m also not a fan of 5 Star hotels. I don’t see the point of spending all that money for a room I’m barely in. For me the point of travel is to go out and explore, not stay in your hotel room. Also, many 5 star hotels pride themselves on their sameness, the fact that you could be anywhere in the world and the hotel will feel the same. For me this defeats the purpose of travel.

  18. Ahh, that’s why I always stay in hostels or small local hotels. I want to feel the culture I am visiting and immerse into it. Hard to do in a plastic, overpriced, sanitized chain hotel.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..Help Passports with Purpose Build a Village in India

  19. Thank you for relating your experience so clearly. We have stayed at 5 star hotels and have had similar feelings as you expressed here.
    The thing that we have always liked is the service!

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