The Post-Pandemic
Hotel Survival Guide
THURSDAY, MAY 28, 2022 -- Several months ago I explained that we had to stop considering ourselves the airlines' best customers because they consider us skin sacks in service to banks who issue their credit cards.

Here's a corollary: We're not the hotel industry's best customers, either. As the largest chains now number their properties by the thousand, they are increasingly forced to kowtow to the real best customers: The hotel owners who are the franchisees of their multiverse of brands.

These powerful hotel owners with obscure corporate names have one singular post-Covid obsession: reducing costs. They want the chains to let them spend less on breakfast, less on housekeeping, less on elite perks, less on in-room amenities and less on, well, anything and everything. Claiming the need to claw back profits lost during the pandemic, hotel owners want less interference from the hotel chains, less fidelity to "brand standards" and the option to keep cutting corners wherever and however those corners can be cut.

Because owners are the hotel chains' best customers and think nothing of defecting to other brands if they do not get their way--consider the hundreds of former Marriotts, InterContinentals and Hyatts shifted to Sonesta by a penny-pinching owner called Service Properties Trust--the hotel chains are all aboard the cost-cutting bandwagon. Some gleefully (Marriott) and some reluctantly (Hyatt), the chains are essentially giving hotel owners free rein to cheapen the lodging experience.

It goes without saying that this is bad for us. We check into a property expecting certain standards only to be told you cannot have what you were promised. As you may have learned in the months since you got back on road, you're getting less of everything. It frankly does not matter what a hotel chain's brand standards specify. If the local hotel owner decides not to give it to you, you ain't getting it. Bitching to the hotel chain yields virtually nothing. It will shrug its metaphoric shoulders and reflexively blame the "supply chain" or "staff shortages" or that new favorite: "the challenges of operating during a pandemic."

How are we to survive this deplorable state of lodging affairs? It won't be with complaint letters, vague threats to take your loyalty elsewhere or raging at the blank-eyed front-desk clerk, who may be doing double or triple duty as a breakfast monitor, all-day barista or evening bartender.

The only way to survive hotels now is to take things into your own hands: assume nothing, triple check everything before you travel--and, wherever practical, bring what you absolutely can't live without.

Hotels pay so poorly that staffing is a genuine crisis. The front line of the crisis? Housekeeping. Hilton already has officially eliminated nightly cleaning during your stay and most other chains have also cut "in-stay" service unless you specifically request it. Even then you may not get it.

This normally wouldn't be a problem--Do you really clean your bedroom every day and swap out bath towels daily at home?--except for two issues: We're generating more trash as we take more meals in our rooms and there are circumstances when you do need extra towels and such.

The trash problem isn't as difficult to manage as you think. Just slip a few trash bags into your carry-on bag and deploy as needed. When one fills up, put it outside your room and start on the next. Elegant? No. Practical? Yes. And it's much easier than trying to get housekeeping to empty your trash cans.

The bathroom situation requires a little more finesse. Even if you think you won't need them, request extra towels at check-in. If possible, don't leave the desk until you have them in hand. Otherwise, insist they be delivered to you before the end of the first day.

Bath amenities? Even before Covid, hotels were switching to common-use pumps for soap, shampoo and conditioner. If you find that icky, bring your own. Buy a supply of cheap or stylish reusable bottles and fill them with your preferred products. And maybe throw a small bar of soap in your kit bag, too. Just in case.

If little things mean a lot, nothing means more to travelers than coffee--and hotels can't even be trusted to provide a flow of joe anymore.

Prefer limited-service chains that promise 24/7 coffee in the lobby? You often find those urns now go unfilled for hours as put-upon staffers do other tasks. Expect your full-service hotel to have a morning coffee service in the lobby and room-service delivery at other times? Many of those very simple, uh, perks, have disappeared.

More than ever you'll have to rely on the coffeemaker in your room for a reliable fix. And that's a scary thought, both from the supply side and the hygiene side.

Let's take hygiene first. Assume the in-room coffeemaker hasn't been cleaned since the pandemic began. My advice: Throw a small bottle of distilled white vinegar in your kit bag and run a cleaning cycle before using the coffeemaker. If you don't want to tote vinegar, at least run a full cycle of water (with no coffee) through the machine before you use it.

Supply? Don't assume hotels have left a sufficient number of pods--or will heed your call for extras. Solution: Bring your own. How will you know which pods to bring? Call ahead and ask what type of capsule the in-room coffeemakers use. Then pick up a supply before you arrive at the hotel. And don't sweat the extras. There aren't that many types of pods and capsules in the market these days. Chances are you'll use them at one of the next hotels you visit.

Want to brew your own? A collapsible Melitta filter packs down small and costs less than $10. An extremely clever collapsible water kettle costs less than $30 and weighs about a pound. The kettle serves other purposes, too. You can boil eggs in it. You can use it for instant ramen, soup or oatmeal.

I'm a tea drinker, so I carry the kettle and my preferred blend from Sheffield Spice & Tea. Sheffield also sells fabulous Japanese roll-your-own teabags.

Do not expect even full-service hotels that boast fancy restaurants to deliver on their promises. Many hotel restaurants remain closed--or operate on very limited hours. But this is why UberEats, DoorDash and Grubhub exist. Do some homework on the dining scene at your destination. If you're gonna order in, at least order the good stuff.

Which raises the question of leftovers. You will have them. Most hotels leave their mini-fridges empty now, but don't assume that. Call ahead to the hotel and check. But that is the easy part. What do you do if your hotel room doesn't have a microwave to reheat those leftovers when you get peckish? This hack may sound hideous, but it does work: Use the hair dryer in your room. Put it on full blast and direct the hot air at your leftover container.

In a room without even a mini-fridge? Fill the bathroom sink with ice and keep beverages cold that way. Or redeploy one of the in-room trash cans, line it with a bag and fill it with ice.

Know those bags you get from airlines as amenity kits on international business class flights? Grab one and turn it into a personal condiment carrier. Mini-salt and pepper grinders retail for around $10. Then add whatever else you like: tiny Tabasco bottles; packets of ketchup and mustard; small vials of olive oil and balsamic vinegar; or whatever you cannot live without. My condiment kit also has a corkscrew and plastic utensils. Depending on the trip (and what I think security is thinking), I also add a short-bladed ceramic knife. These were once items we didn't have to think about because hotels could provide them. Don't make that assumption today. Better to carry your own.

Some final tips to ease your life on the road right now:
        Walmart and Target are our friends. They open early and close late, they sell everything from food to housewares and are great sources to fill the gaps left by recalcitrant hotels. Google the stores near where you're staying in advance.
        Don't be foiled. Carry some aluminum foil, either in sheets or on a small roll. You can make a credible panini or quesadilla with some foil and the in-room clothes iron.
        Change your hotel. Extended-stay hotel chains are equipped with kitchens--some rudimentary, others fairly extensive--and seem much better-suited to today's stripped-down lodging lifestyle. They have washers and dryers and staffers familiar with odd requests from long-stay guests. Even for short stays, extended-stay places are better bets than supposedly full-service hotels that long ago stopped offering full service. Plus you'll get more space for a lower nightly rate.