Travel: Cut-price luxury Manhattan style
A top-class suite in the Waldorf Astoria for a fraction of the four-figure sum you'd normally pay? It can be done.
The room-rate at the Commodore was subsidised by the English Speaking Union and Bradford City Council, and that metropolitan beneficence means that it would be impossible to equal the value-for-money. But ever since then I've played the game we all play in hotels, of trying to get the best possible room at the lowest possible cost, which may sound like a tough job in a city as hard-nosed as New York. Strangely, though, Manhattan has been a happy hunting ground.
What's more, you can do it without recourse to the hotels which are better in reputation than reality. I was never fond of the Algonquin, at least before its refurbishment, because small rooms and creaky plumbing aren't what America's about: the whole point is to have a room the size of a football pitch, a shower that knocks you over with its power and 160 channels on the TV. I had equally little sympathy for a colleague who asked his travel company to book him into the Chelsea Hotel because of its rock'n'roll connections - and was shocked by a location and standard of in-room insect life which out-grunged everything he'd expected. It may have been because the agent had booked him into its near-namesake the Chelsea Motel; but in my book it served him right, anyway.
First suggestion, then, is not to be snobby about hotel chains. If the purpose is to get a nice room in a convenient location, think about the Sheratons and Hiltons. But if you're going to do the job properly, you need to become equipped with hotel loyalty cards and learn the vocabulary of US Hotel Speak. You can tell you're making progress when words like "Towers" and "Club" resonate, and when you can convert airline miles to Hyatt points in your head.
There are real benefits, though. The Westin chain used to give free membership of its loyalty programme, which entitled guests to a range of "privileges": upgrades, complimentary breakfasts, access to the Health Club. Similarly, the otherwise rather average New York Sheraton has a Club level with spacious rooms looking out over Manhattan, and extras ranging from a Bose sound system to a fleecy dressing gown you like but never wear.
In virtually all Club or Tower rooms there's free access to a breakfast room, which could save at least $20 a head on New York hotel prices. And loyalty programmes send you a couple of upgrade vouchers each year, which you can save for later.
But even if you don't want to jam your wallet with more plastic cards, there are bargains to be had near the top of the range. The UN Plaza Hotel starts on the 27th floor of two skyscrapers just across from the United Nations headquarters on the East River, and it has my favourite swimming pool, in which you can splash up and down at the same level as the top of some of the city's buildings.
When the UN is in session, it's crowded and very expensive, but the location, away from the mainstream, means it drops its rates dramatically when the diplomats are away. You can get a first-class room with a breathtaking view of the Chrysler Building for less than a corporate overnight stay in a concrete box in Manchester. The best place to find the special offers advertised is in the classified travel section of The Washington Post or The New York Times.
It's impossible to say what's the ultimate New York hotel experience. I've never stayed in the Four Seasons because it starts at stratospheric price levels; and I wouldn't want to stay at The Plaza because it deserves to be punished for the amount of product placement in bad movies. But I did end up in a suite at the Waldorf Towers, and it was the best return so far for a comparatively small investment.
The Waldorf Astoria is a massive hotel, part of the Hilton Group, on Park Lane; and the Towers' wing has a private entrance down the side. A plaque marks distinguished former residents, ranging from Herbert Hoover to Madeline Albright; but the word "upgrade" can also be whispered within its distinguished portals. On a holiday at the end of last year I'd booked two standard rooms with the backing of a Hilton loyalty card, but the clerk at check-in offered to consolidate them into a suite.
It would have been ill-advised to have said "no" and stormed out. At the risk of sounding like an over-excited teenager from Bradford, the suite comprised: two large bedrooms with triple-size beds; two marble bathrooms; a dressing area; a gallery kitchen; and a living room with a dining table, a fireplace, two sofas and an array of easy chairs. It was on the 31st floor, with windows looking west, north and east. There were four televisions, six phones, a fax machine and two computer ports; and the floor was so highly polished that you ran a risk of personal injury if you walked on it in your socks. I could have done without the uniformed lift attendant in his white gloves, but overall it was incredibly comfortable and unintimidating.
Was it cheap? No, though in a city where the average room rate is now $200 a night, I was still paying "only" $279 plus tax. Was it good value? Unquestionably, yes. It was for a special occasion and the price of the suite would have been well into four figures at anything other than the lowest of the low season. How do you guarantee you get it? You can't. Short of coming up with the dosh, it's probably a combination of luck; not frightening the reservations personnel; and a track-record of loyalty to a particular hotel brand.
Of course, the game with plastic cards and points has its limits. My god-daughter's family cashed some airline miles for a "luxury" weekend in New York and found all five of them shoe-horned into one below-average size room in Midtown; and even if you fill in your VIP preference card as a fan of suites on the 50th floor you can still end up in a cubby-hole on a low, dark corridor next to the lifts. But the joy of New York is it doesn't really matter. If you win, you win; if you lose, you're still in the world's greatest city, you don't really need 160 channels or six phones and you can certainly get by without the white-gloved lift attendant.
Roger Mosey is controller of Radio 5 Live. The trips he describes here were pleasure, not business, and at his own expense (apart from a bit of help from the English Speaking Union and Bradford City Council for the first one).
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