David Usborne: Our Man in New York

Be quick if you want a hotel with no name
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Close your eyes in Bloomingdales and you might think yourself at a Waitrose in Godalming. With the dollar in the dumps and the airlines advertising weekend specials from Heath-row, who can blame the Brits for their Apple Store-in-the-Big-Apple assault? New York beckons like a high-rise discount warehouse. Yet, I wonder how much they really save, especially if they need to find a hotel.

My sister-in-law, Gilly, and partner, Ian, succumbed to the siren calls of Gap on Fifth Avenue recently and asked for advice on hotels. It's tricky. I used to direct everyone to the Gramercy Park Hotel until the developer Ian Schrager bought it and turned it into a palace of cooler-than-thou snobbery with room rates to match. ($1,112.50 that's 550.80 a night for this weekend just gone.)

If I sound down on the Gramercy, it is because I am. The other night we had dinner in one of its restaurants with other friends who had, in fact, broken the bank for a room there. The bill paid, we crossed the lobby to have a drink in the hotel bar. Or tried to. It is a reservations-only bar, if you can believe it. We had booked for four but were five. Would the twerp in the black suit let us in? He would not.

"But we are guests at the hotel," our friends protested. To no avail. I am not going back. For Gilly and Ian I selected The Marcel, a pleasant place with boutique-design envy close to my home. But at four o'clock on the first morning they were woken by a woman outside their room, first mewing slightly, then screaming her head off and finally attempting with great force to knock down their door. Security eventually led her away.

You expect a little street drama in New York cursing cabbies, shrieking sirens but having it unfold on your hotel landing in the middle of the night is a bit much.

The irony is that I had considered sending them to dodgier accommodation but thought better of it for fear of just such an incident. They could have gone underground, black-market and illegitimate. It would have been much cheaper and, in the circumstances, possibly more peaceful.

What I had had in mind was one of the roughly 200 hotels in Manhattan that mostly have no name. Calling them hotels is a stretch. Instead, these are residential buildings, most commonly in the Upper West Side, with apartments that have been illegally converted into hotel rooms.

For the owners of these buildings, the attraction is obvious. Many of the apartments are governed by New York's rent-control laws, meaning that from regular tenants they might be lucky to get $1,000 a month. Sneak a tourist in there and they can charge at least $125 a night. Good money for them, great value for the visitor. Never mind that room service might be slow.

Of course it helps to be in the know, because these establishments will not appear on www.hotels.com or in your travel agent's Rolodex. The best way to find them is on sites such as www.craigslist.com and www.woogo.com. A few, however, have websites.

Take a look, for example, at www.imperialcourthotel.com, advertising a plush-looking joint on West 79th Street. Who could tell it wasn't the real deal, plugging itself as an alternative for the traveller not keen to "stay amid the hustle and bustle of congested midtown yet expects 24-hour front desk service, room service, maid service, two elevators, laundry room, baggage storage, and 24-hour security"?

But if you fancy braving any of these off-the-books establishments you need to be quick. The city, already in dispute with Imperial Court, is looking to crack down on them after being besieged by complaints from the permanent residents of the buildings who are sick of coming home to find gaggles of foreigners in their lobbies looking to check in or check out. New regulations now being debated at City Hall would fine landlords-cum-hoteliers as much as $20,000 for each illegally converted room.

The purge is probably overdue, but it does mean that hotel rooms in New York will only be harder to find and even more expensive. But at least, the late-night improv on your landing is free.