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London is a favorite destination for many Americans, especially those venturing off to Europe for the first time, but it has never much appealed to me. I had been there just once -- 14 years ago, on my own first trip abroad -- and I found it boring and bland. But recently I made a return trip to London, enticed by a highly discounted business class fare on Delta Air Lines, and now my opinion of the city has changed completely.
What was different about this trip? The hotel.
I spend probably 210 days a year traveling and I know my choice of hotel can affect everything from my mood to my ability to recover from travel fatigue. To my mind, there is no better place to bed down than at a Four Seasons hotel, and this certainly proved true in London.
The first thing I noticed about the Four Seasons Hotel in London was the warm welcome I received from the staff. Now, "warm" and "welcoming" are not qualities I usually associate with London (in fact, "stuffy" and "pretentious" more readily come to mind), but I felt like the royal red carpet had been laid out for my arrival -- and I'm no prince, just a regular traveler.
I especially appreciated the nice welcome on this trip, because I was squiring my daughter, who was celebrating her 18th birthday at the hotel. And what a celebration it was! The hotel manager really made her feel special. He filled her room with birthday balloons and sent up a delicious chocolate cake with a nice card. In fact, this is one of the most enthusiastic GMs I've ever met. He loves his hotel and truly believes in his product and the employees who deliver it. His passion for service fairly radiated through the halls.
The Four Seasons' cachet carries outside the hotel, too. For example, when we went out to dine at the trendy Nobu restaurant on a very busy Saturday night, I mentioned that I was a guest of the Four Seasons; those magic words moved me to the head of the queue. When I wanted tickets to a sold-out play, the concierge pulled a few strings and got me fourth-row, center-aisle seats -- not bad! Now, I did pay a $30 surcharge, but it was worth it. Even the sometimes-jaded drivers of the ubiquitous black cabs perked up when I jumped in and said, "The Four Seasons, please." My experience at the Four Seasons completely changed my experience of London.
It isn't only the Four Seasons that comes through with service like this. Last year I got exceptional, maybe lifesaving service at the Grand Hyatt Santiago in Santiago, Chile. In the middle of my visit to that wonderful city, I fell seriously ill. The Hyatt immediately provided me with an in-room nurse, who stayed with me until the crisis passed. This year, after several busy days in neighboring Mendoza, Argentina, I had nothing more on my mind than getting a few spa treatments, sitting by a beautiful pool and dining on some wonderful cuisine. So where did I decide to stay? The Grand Hyatt Santiago, of course. Santiago has several other exceptional hotels, including a Ritz Carlton, a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel and a Marriott, but after taking such good care of me last year, the Hyatt has earned my lifetime loyalty.
This year did not disappoint, either. In fact, for the first time in my hotel-staying life, I could find absolutely nothing to complain about (and those who know my high standards for service will know this is saying a lot). Everything was perfect -- from the three-story view of the Andes on the club floor to the food in the Italian, Thai and sushi restaurants.
Here are some tips for booking the best hotels.
* Book direct. Booking direct gets you the best rates and gives you the opportunity to learn about off-the-radar discounts.
* Stay within your favorite hotel group(s). Loyalty reaps rewards. When it came to getting extra service, it didn't hurt that I was a past guest of both the Four Seasons and Hyatt hotels.
* Get to know the hotel before you get there. Call the hotel and see how its agents respond to your questions. If they are hasty or dismissive, consider it a red flag. When I called the Four Seasons, the clerk was responsive and enthusiastic -- even though it was 3 a.m. in London.
* Send an advance e-mail. Bang out a quick note to the hotel's guest relations staff and mention any special needs you have.
In today's world of travel, the most distinguished experience travelers receive is from their hotels; don't cheat yourself by choosing the wrong place to hang your hat.
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