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Everything you never cared to know about hotels

I sat down last week at a local restaurant and ordered the pancakes, eager to expand my waistline and foster a future case of diabetes. When the waitress brought the starchy goodness, my mouth was already watering. Then she asked if I wanted utensils. I glanced at the pat of butter melting on top and the plastic portion cup of maple syrup teetering on the edge of the plate and back to her, unsure if she was codding. Except that she wasn’t. “Yes, please,” I replied.

Until that moment, it hadn’t ever dawned on me that a fork wasn’t a prerequisite for flapjacks. And to boot, this was in the U.S. of A., not some backwards place like Alaska, where the only recognized utensil is a knife and everyone supplies his or her own… and has a spare.

It turns out there weren’t any clean utensils, so they had to wash some by hand and when she returned… well, what the pancakes lacked in warmth, the fork more than made up for in its sheer utility.

Anyway, I mention this only in way of introduction to our latest topic: hotels. “How’s he going to segue from pancakes to hotels?” you ask. Allow me to add another anecdote. I was staying at a hotel for the Pittsburgh Irish Festival in 2003 and outside of the hotel was a large public park, which just happened to be the staging point for the biggest emergency drill you’ve ever seen. Thousands of emergency personnel were training for possible terrorist scenarios (in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks). The FBI was there, mobs of firemen, police, military, you name it. There were mock victims on stretchers, men and women with radios. You get the picture.

So anyway, I had just finished a breakfast of, you guessed it, pancakes, in the hotel restaurant, and I’d run into an acquaintance who was part of a Civil War reenactors group. He’d just come down from his room and informed me that one of the elevators was stuck and there was someone in it. So, we turned around to the man at the reception desk, who countered that he’d taken care of it by calling the elevator repair company. “How long has it been stuck?” my friend asked. “Not sure the employee replied, “a couple hours maybe.” As far as the clerk was concerned, he’d done his part.

Incredulous, my friend marched to the front glass doors, opened them and shouted to a pair of firemen in full gear walking by, “Do you guys know there’s someone stuck in an elevator in here?” One of the firemen asked if he was serious, and he responded that he was. So after a comment into a radio, the firemen entered the building and had the elevator open in the neighborhood of fifteen seconds. The front desk clerk didn’t seem moved. I’m wondering now if he has any relations in the food service industry.

So that’s how I chose to segue into hotels, when all I really wanted to do was complain about my breakfast.

A hotel room is a bit like the lottery, isn’t it, especially when you’re abroad. Sure, there are national chains, which—like McDonald’s burgers—are disturbingly alike, but I consider hotels to be part of traveling’s allure and want one as unique as the destination. I’m almost always happier with the personal touches missing from the chains—the character, if you will.

So let’s dive right in to my likes and dislikes and feel free to make up your own list for fun.

First the bad (in no particular order)

Those tiny metal garbage cans with lids. Why? Because you have to step on a pedal to open it and the thing inevitably slides back against the wall and clangs into it. Then whatever scrap of tissue you’re trying to throw in catches a gust of air and misses the four-inch opening, meaning you have to bend over and grab it off the ground and gingerly place it into the can.

Liquid soap in the shower. I’m looking at you, Europe.

Stiff 70s and 80s style bedspreads. These aren’t so common anymore, but they’re still out there.

Remotes with dead batteries. I don’t know how many buttons I’ve completely crushed by pressing harder in hopes that physical pressure on the remote control will make the channel change, perhaps with kinetic energy. And while I’m on the subject, if you’re in Europe and you can’t get the TV to turn on, try hitting the channel up button on the remote. No kidding.

Those “smart” fridges that inform the front desk when you’ve removed an item. I mean, come on. The fridge has to narc on us so we pay $6 for a packet of Pringles and not pick up a replacement for a buck and change at the convenience store the next time we’re out?

Straight shower curtain rods. Does anyone else recall the old days when the shower curtain would spend most of its time attached to your skin before some godsend of a designer asked why nobody curved the rod?

A lack of sound insulation. This is a particular problem in Spain, where they make hotel walls out of cray paper. It’s not that any of our neighbors were particularly loud, it’s that the walls doubled as microphones. I’d swear that we could hear people breathing.

And now the good (I’m running out of room)

I’ll often judge a room based on the shower: clean, glass enclosed, good, steady stream of water with a constant, reliable temperature. Sometimes it’s the most enjoyable thing in town.

A good bed. Here’s a tip I learned in Romania: Buy regular fitted sheets for your bed, but then buy two sets of smaller top sheets and small individual comforters for you and your partner. You can be close, if you like, but when it’s time for sleep, everyone has their own set of sheets, and no one will inadvertently pull the covers off of the other. I can’t believe this isn’t common practice now. We put a man on the moon for cripes sake.

The rest (because I really am out of space): Location. Light switches by the bed (individual reading lamps are great). Fridges that don’t rat on you. Coffee and tea making facilities. Modern thermostats (enough of turning a knob on the radiator already). Easily accessible outlets. No one wants to reach behind the bed to plug in their phone. Eco-friendly practices. Free on-site parking.

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