The conventional wisdom is that the less money you pay for a trip, the better you'll feel about it.
The conventional wisdom is wrong.
How can you put a price on avoiding a long check-in or security line? Or sidestepping employees who are indifferent to your needs? How about uncomfortable airline seats, miles that can't be used, and dirty or noisy hotel rooms?
These are the real issues that can make or break a trip. And when you let your pocketbook dictate how you book, you're far more likely to run into problems.
Here's what the conventional wisdom should be: You get what you pay for.
On a recent trip to Santiago Chile, I stayed at the Hyatt Hotel, Santiago's premier property. I woke up one morning feeling weak, with a horrible fever, chills, and persistent cough. Mustering what was left of my drained energy, I walked down the hallway to get some coffee and orange juice from the concierge-level lounge.
When I told the floor's concierge how I was feeling, she immediately knew from my pale appearance that I was not right. She helped me back to my room and called a nurse, who came to my room, took my vital signs and applied a cold compress on my forehead. Room service delivered bottled water and a special herbal lemonade remedy.
Two hours later she returned to my room with a full plate of fresh fruit and more lemonade. By that evening, I felt much better. Besides nurse Amalia's diligent care, the hotel's concierge rearranged my flight to depart that evening.
The warmth and generosity of the hotel was priceless. To my great surprise, the hotel did not charge me a dime for all this added service and pampering. Even more unbelievable was that I was only paying $125 a night for a concierge-level room. I could have stayed at a lesser hotel and saved $30 a night, but I doubt they would have provided a comparable level of cuddling when I needed it most.
Luxury resorts have a reputation to uphold, and knowing that can ensure you will have a better stay.
A recent visit to the Lodge Hotel at Rancho Mirage in Rancho Mirage, Calif., comes to mind. The property is a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, and when I checked in, I was looking forward to a few days of rest and pampering.
As I drove up to the hotel's grand driveway, my excitement grew. I popped the trunk open at the valet parking area and waited ten minutes admiring the beautiful view. When I finally realized no one was going to assist me with my luggage, I carried my belongings into the hotel by myself but made a comment to the front desk representative.
Once I checked in, I asked an employee to bring me ice. Twenty minutes later I got the clue that he wasn't retuning. Later that evening I dined in the hotel's main restaurant. The mediocre meal made things even worse.
But what came next put the Lodge over the top.
My dining companion had a headache and asked our server if he could bring some aspirin.
"No," our waiter snapped. "The gift shop is closed."
If I had been in his position I would have pacified the guest by going back to the kitchen kibitzing a minute or two, returning to apologize that I couldn't find any aspirin.
After leaving the restaurant I went to the front desk, and told the manger what had happened. He immediately called security to open the gift shop and offered me a free dose of aspirin. His kindness was reciprocated with a nice tip.
We then ventured into the hotel's lounge for an after-dinner drink. Fifteen minutes later, a server acknowledged us and took our drink order. After requesting drinks and a dessert menu, another 15 minutes elapsed before our drinks arrived -- minus a dessert menu. Our second request for the menu also went unanswered. Leaving the lounge without paying, I went to my room and ordered dessert from room service, which they provided without charge when I told them my story.
Feeling that my quest for premium service was futile, I decided to check out the next day. Before I left, I asked to speak to the front-desk manager. I wasn't even halfway through my litany of disappointments when she agreed to cancel all of my charges.
Not necessary, I said.
She disagreed. "We value our reputation," she told me. "We would like to have you visit us again and experience our first-class service."
Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage offer a plethora of resort hotels ranging from the $19-a-nighter to the high-end Lodge. If I would have chosen a sub-par hotel, I would have been stuck with inferior service which would have marred my entire trip. Even when the Lodge failed to meet its customer-service obligations, it ultimately showed that it was dedicated to quality.
How far will a first-rate hotel go to protect its reputation? I found out on a recent visit to Buenos Aires. After my long flight from Atlanta, I was met by my driver to escort me from The Ministro Pistarini Airport to the Four Seasons Buenos Aires.
The vehicle was not up to the Four Seasons-level. It was a noisy van, emitting a diesel smell. The ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. While checking into the Four Seasons, I told the front-desk employee that I thought that the ride wasn't what I expected. Without any questions, he reversed the charges for the trip from the airport and did not charge me for my transport back to the airport.
On another trip to the same hotel, I had the opportunity to visit a sister property, the Four Seasons Carmelo in Uruguay. I had to take a ferry across the Rio de la Plata. On my return to Buenos Aires, I was expecting a driver to pick me up at the ferry terminal, located 15 minutes from the hotel. Due to a misunderstanding, a driver was not waiting for me. I took a taxi back to the hotel and again, I expressed my disappointment to the same front-desk representative. He arranged for me to freshen up in the spa, bought me a drink in the lounge and escorted me back to the airport in a beautiful Mercedes Benz.
I could have stayed in a less expensive hotel than the Four Seasons. In fact, in all of these examples, I could have saved money. But what is often missed by budget-minded travelers is the added cost of when you run into difficulties or inferior service.
I once made the mistake of making a reservation at the Hilton in San Francisco for the wrong date. When I called the hotel a week before my intended arrival they told me that my reservation was for a few weeks past. Wanting to offer the best service possible, the hotel's agent reversed the no-show charges and honored the original rate which was $100 lower than the current rate.
It's true that quality providers work hard to maintain their reputation. But that doesn't mean they can be taken advantage of. Sure, you might get away with concocting a tale of mishaps, but make no mistake, companies have the capability to track customer behavior and patterns.
An essential aspect of a penny-pincher's strategy is to seek the best value, so on those occasions when your choice is between a rock-bottom price or quality, quality will always save you money in the long run.