Russian Hotel Roulette

The 2016 Great American Escape

In a recent post, I mentioned the sticker shock that my wife and I experienced upon searching for a reasonably priced hotel in Manhattan.  It did not take us long to realize that, at least in terms to which we are accustomed, there is no such thing.  Three hundred dollars a night appears to be the bellwether, with more chic accommodations going for many times that price.

At The Library Hotel, for example, a “petite room” with one full bed, not at all appropriate for two very large people (the website indicates “most suitable for one person”) goes for $305.15 per night, plus taxes and fees.  While I was intrigued by the hotel’s large book collection for which it is named (and from which guests may borrow for bedtime reading) and its midtown location right by the world-famous main branch of the New York Public Library, I must remind myself that this is considered a luxury hotel and far outside my budget.

So we started thinking about another really nice place that’s not in Midtown, the Bentley Hotel.  What’s that they say about location, location, location?  The farther away from Times Square, the cheaper, right?  It’s not like we wanted to stay in the Bronx or anything, but this hotel is in a decent upper east side neighborhood hard by the Queensborough Bridge.  We can deal with it!  Let’s check availability and rates.  (Gasp, gag)  $375.50 per night!

Clearly, this is not working.  Another approach is in order.  A friend of ours from the Central Valley who often ferries out of town tour groups around Manhattan tells me she either stays in New Jersey or uses the Hotel Tonight app to catch a same-day reservation on the cheap for an in-town room that would otherwise go vacant.  The latter choice will not work for us, as we want to have advance reservations, not wander around Manhattan wondering where we’re lay our heads for the night.  New Jersey is starting to look better and better.

I made a last ditch effort to stay in Manhattan by furiously clicking around until I found a hotel room on the Lower East Side that went for about $120 per night once tax and fees were added on.  “Only one room left!” the website warned.

“Quick, look at this!” I implored my wife.  She called up the place on her own laptop while I yanked my credit card out of my wallet and hurriedly entered my information.  After all, the web page said that eight others were looking at the room.  “I don’t know if I can do this fast enough,” I confessed as I harbored images of the screen flashing a laughing message:  “You lose, sucker!  Room booked by someone else 1.5 seconds ago.  Better luck next time!”

But that’s not what happened.  I successfully booked the room before it was gone.  “Whew!” I proclaimed in relief, congratulating myself on snagging such a good deal.  “Walking distance to Katz’s Deli,” the site assured me as the reservation confirmation hit my email box.  Great!  My wife wants to try out Katz’s (or at least gawk at the place) while we’re in town.

Only then did I take a look at the online reviews.  There were many of them, which I hoped would present me with a balanced picture.  Unfortunately, most of them said the same thing, in the most exclamatory of tones.  “Bedbugs!  Bedbugs!  Do not stay here!  Shitty sheets!  Blood on the sheets!  Bedbugs, bedbugs!”

I was crestfallen.  Oh, my God, how could I have been so stupid!  Of course, you’re going to get what you pay for.  (Or at least you won’t get what you don’t pay for.)  As if that weren’t bad enough, my wife could not believe the depth of my imbecility in having reserved through booking.com.  “You never go through those services!” she informed me.

Obviously, I am way out of my depth here.  I have to learn not to mess with things I so clearly do not understand.

The next evening, when I arrived home from work, I accessed the reservation and cancelled it.   Luckily for me, the screen assured me that there was no charge for cancellations at least 48 hours in advance.  It was still a month in advance, so I was good.

So where are we going to stay in New York?  Well, it looks like Manhattan is out, so New Jersey it is.  I found a trucker motel for $60 a night plus tax near the Pulaski Skyway.  Memories returned of my father’s old Rambler breaking down there one night when I was about ten years old, with the trucks whizzing by while Dad cursed and tried to figure out what was wrong with that piece of crap car this time. Let’s see, there’s Tonnele Avenue to Routes 1 and 9, that’s close to the Turnpike, right?  Near the Holland Tunnel?  I’m sure I can figure it out.

Ultimately, my wife found us a better answer.  We booked into a very nice chain hotel in my hometown in Rockland County, about 40 minutes from Midtown and right by the New York Thruway.  Hot breakfast included, even a refrigerator and a microwave in the room.  Decidedly lacking in some of the finer New York amenities, such as bedbugs.

One of these days, I will learn to trust my wife’s judgment in all practical matters and stay the heck away from expensive, messy errors.

I may have learned this lesson a little too late, however.  This evening, our Visa bill turned up with a charge for a two-night stay at Bedbug Heaven.

And that, my dears, is the reason that mistakes are so painful.  No matter how hard you try, they can never be fully corrected.

 

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Sticker Shock

When my wife and I were first married (17 years ago), she was surprised that I did not look at prices in the supermarket, at Target or at Walmart.  My philosophy had always been “if you want it, buy it” and, as for the price, “it is what it is.”  Should I deny myself a mass produced cherry pie just because it costs six dollars?  I figured that I had no control over prices, so why should I be concerned about them?  If I refused to buy an item due to my objection that the price was too high, would that change anything?  Would I teach the store a lesson (“So there!  Take that!”) so that, on my next visit, the price would be slashed?  I think not.

Things have changed a bit for me in the past couple of decades.  I do look at prices now, although they confuse me.  I rarely do any shopping without my wife.  This is probably a good thing because I have no clue whether something is expensive or not.

Until now.

In the course of planning a trip to New York, we have been checking hotel prices with the goal of making a reservation.  Now, as a charter member of the Motel 6 and Red Roof Inn club, even I can tell you that $400 to $500 or more a night is expensive.

Let’s be real about this:  All I am looking for is a place to lay my head and take a hot shower.  The word “amenities” doesn’t mean anything to me.  I simply am not looking for anything fancy.  If that’s the case, I’m told, then don’t go to New York.  It’s all about location.  Just being in Manhattan is itself “fancy.”

Indeed, we have been able to find (somewhat) reasonable prices out in the suburbs.  We considered taking advantage of that fact until we realized that it would mean not only paying for gas and fighting the bridge and tunnel commuters to get into and out of the city every day of our visit, but also paying for a parking garage in Manhattan ($50 a day!) and then paying taxicab fares to get to the attractions we’d like to see.  When you add it all up, it would be almost as much as staying in the city.

Sure, we could save some money by taking the subway or staying at a fleabag (some of which are notorious for bedbugs).  But that’s not what we’re looking for in a vacation.

We were originally thinking of spending five days in Manhattan.  With the prohibitive cost, however, we settled on four days.  Then we began figuring out how we can do most of what we hope to accomplish in three days.  And lately, we’ve been considering paring it down to just two days.

After all, we’re already going to be spending a lot of money driving cross-country to get to New York, then driving back to California.  True, we’ll see a lot of our great nation on the way, but our hotel costs for the entire 6,000 mile round trip will be about the same as the cost of staying just three nights in Manhattan.  Even a dunderhead like myself knows that this is way too expensive for the likes of us.

I realize that the costs of maintaining a hotel in Manhattan are exorbitant and that these costs have to be passed on to the consumer.  I am also aware that Manhattan hotels increase their profits by raising prices for visitors and businessmen who want to stay in a convenient location.  Something tells me that I should “just say no” and let the New York hotels make their money off the suckers who are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars per night.

But then we wouldn’t be able to stay in New York.  Perhaps we should just go somewhere else.  Prices are more reasonable almost every other place you can think of, so why New York?  Because there’s no place like it.  It is this very uniqueness that leads tens of thousands of travelers to the Big Apple every year, prices be damned.

Perhaps my former way of thinking was the right one after all.  If you want it, buy it.  Take out your credit card and don’t think about the price.

Just try not to wince when the Visa bill comes in.

 

Gift of the Magi

Dad
My dad has always been a loner. With a house full of family to celebrate his birthday, I found him sitting out in the back yard, alone with his thoughts.

After five days away, we were very happy to arrive back at home this evening.

I can report seeing a few unexpected things on this trip to California’s Central Valley:

  • More than twenty members of a motorcycle club roaring down Blackstone Avenue in Fresno on Black Friday.  A few cyclists had passengers with them, one of which was a child.   One bike came about an inch from rear-ending a car and likely going flying over the handlebars.  The lead biker was a reckless dude who annoyed the crap out of drivers when he showed off by popping front and rear wheelies in heavy traffic.  Lucky for him that cop didn’t see the guy flip him off.
  • Trader Joe’s with nearly empty bakery shelves.  We had hoped to purchase a challah for Hanukkah Kiddush on Friday, but no dice.  The staff said they received no deliveries “due to a misunderstanding” that had something to do with the store being closed on Thanksgiving Day.  What, they expected the store to be open on Thanksgiving?  Please!
  • Motel 6 with a giant electronic sign out on the road that quoted a price more than ten dollars less than the price actually charged for a room.  A flyer was posted in the office indicating that the electronic sign is broken.  Again, please!  Cover the damned thing up then, will ya?
  • Restaurant Wars!  Many customers were seated on the benches outside Outback Steakhouse waiting for a table to become available.  Meanwhile, employees from Tahoe Joe’s across the street walked over and began handing out coupons for free appetizers, stating that there is no wait at their nice, warm restaurant, so why wait out in the cold here?  Um, do you think there might just be a reason why a couple dozen people were willing to wait patiently out in the cold evening for a table at Outback while its competitor had no wait?  You’d better believe we told the manager what was going on right in front of her nose.

Other things were more expected.  Like my sister arguing with my mother about the former’s cat vomiting in multiple corners of the latter’s pretty pink carpet.  And arguing with my mother about who is permitted to keep her soy milk in which refrigerator.  And arguing with my mother over the choice of restaurant for my father’s birthday dinner.  And bringing up forty year old childhood slights, real and imagined.  That’s my sister for you.

I am glad we all managed to make it for my father’s eightieth birthday.  My mother says he had been dropping hints for the past year about wanting to do something special for this landmark occasion.  Turning eighty really means something to him, she told me.  For example, she says, he likes to mention to grocery clerks that he can still carry his own bags out to the car.  “After all, I’m only eighty.”

My father, on the other hand, denies it all.  He says that celebrating his birthday was nothing but a smokescreen of my mother’s, designed to get the kids and grandkids together for Thanksgiving dinner.

If it weren’t Hanukkah, I’d call it the gift of the magi.

 

On the Road: TPMS, a Wet Carpet and a Fake Tornado

Northern California to Southern California.  Wobbling down the I-5.

A three-day turnaround and we’re back at the motel in Buttonwillow again.  When the servers at a Denny’s 300 miles from home recognize you, you know you’ve done this trip a few too many times.  My horse ought to know the way home by now.

Unfortunately, the ol’ pony developed a little blacksmithing problem the second day down the trail.  Now, it isn’t as if we don’t take care of our trusty steed.  With the amount of driving we’ve been doing, we take it in to the local dealer for maintenance nearly every month.  The last time around, we were assured that the tires still have a good five thousand miles on them.

Perhaps the traction control system indicator light should have been a clue.  You know, the one that looks like little skid marks.  Finding nothing wrong, our local Ford dealer reset the indicator lamp.  Then it came on again and was reset again.  But like the cat who came back the very next day or some sort of electronic jack-in-the-box, it’s just a matter of time before the light comes on again.  As maddeningly frustrating as this situation is, we’ve learned to live with it.  But when, while whizzing down the back side of the Grapevine at 70 mph, the TPMS light came on to join its comrade in arms, we knew we were in trouble.

“What the heck is TPMS?” my wife asked, “tire pressure means shit?”  Pretty much, my dear, pretty much.

In the name of full disclosure, let me say that I know exactly zero about cars or their internal workings.  I drive it, I take it in for maintenance, and when it breaks down, I get it repaired.  And I pay for it every month.  That’s about it.  I wouldn’t know the difference between the guts of a car and the guts of a pig.  You get the picture.  As far as I’m concerned, TP is toilet paper and MS is either a manuscript or multiple sclerosis. Our owner’s manual, however, insists that these initials stand for something called a “tire pressure management system.” Whatever that is.

We took the next exit and pulled into a service station/espresso shop in Castaic.  My wife aired up the tires (the guy at the station was a good egg who turned on the air pump without making us deposit endless quarters) and we prepared to hit the road.  As we were about to pull out of the lot, she asked me to get out and check the front passenger side tire.

“Ssssssssss!”  Uh-oh.  That is not a good sound, not at all.  Not only did the tire appear as low as it was before it was aired up, the telltale noise indicated that it had sprung a leak, and not a slow one either.  Time to pull into a spot out of the way and call Triple A.

The idea was that we’d use our AAA roadside service and someone would come out to loosen the lugs, remove the tire and put on the spare.  I provided the exact address and cross streets of our location; the helpful call center lady informed me that someone would be along within the next 40 minutes.  Should we keep you updated by text or by phone?  Text, please.

Outdoor temperature:  109 degrees.  We had plenty of gas, so we kept the engine running and blasted the A/C.  We hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch and we were getting hungry.  10 minutes.  20 minutes.  Half an hour.  Do they have to use up the entire forty minutes?  After waiting 38 minutes, I receive a call (not a text).  The tire guy is just a mile away giving someone a jump.  He should be there within ten minutes.  We rolled our eyes.  Ten minutes later:  No tire guy.  15 minutes.  20 minutes.  Oh, here he comes.

“Do we have a regular sized spare or just one of those little donuts?”  I asked my wife.  “The donut,” she reassured me.  Unless we’re talking about maple bars and Boston crème, I knew we were in trouble.  Tire Guy confirmed my worst fears.

“Where you headed?” he asked.  “Indio.”

“Well, this tire will take you about 100 to 200 miles, but you can’t do more than 50 to 55 miles per hour.”

At that rate, it would take us more than four hours to get to our hotel.  Oh well, we can get the tire replaced in the morning.  Our priority:  Food. 

As we lunched in Santa Clarita, we realized that this was not going to work.  Hobbling along in the slow lane while tractor trailers whizz past us doing seventy?  We knew we’d have to get the tire replaced right where we were.  Anyone around who would like to sell and install a tire on a Sunday afternoon?  A few calls and we found a local Firestone dealer who could do it if we got over there in the next hour.

The tire shop recommended replacing all four tires.  We were planning on doing this a few thousand miles down the road anyway, so we asked the young man to write us a quote.  We gulped when we saw the numbers.  They had the right model tires on hand, but with installation and alignment, the total was just shy of a thousand dollars.  Can you say “unanticipated, unavoidable expense?”

After an hour and a half of sitting in the waiting room watching the Back to the Future movies, we were finally on our way.  Now, we typically stay at the cheapest motel available in a convenient location.  But this time, we decided to treat ourselves to one night in a suite at a more upscale hotel that we had visited on business several years ago.  We had planned to arrive well before dinner so that we could enjoy the facilities for several hours.  Instead, we hit town at 10 pm and went to sleep immediately.

Well, not exactly immediately.  The living room and the kitchen of the suite were lovely, but for some odd reason, the carpet in the bedroom was damp.  And what was that trickling of water that kept waking us up?  It seemed to emanate from the air conditioning unit.  Condensation maybe?  Next thing we knew, the carpet was positively sopping, and it stank.  But still we couldn’t see any water, only hear it.  We called the front desk and they offered to have us change rooms.  By now it was midnight, we had already unpacked, and I had to work in the morning.  So we politely declined.

After my wife dropped me off at work, she returned to the hotel and had a little chat with the manager.  We ought to have at least a few dollars taken off of our bill, she suggested.  To our pleasant surprise, the hotel completely comped the room.  Now that’s what I call class.  You know we’ll be back.

A day of work out of town was followed by the last leg of our trip, the drive across the desert.  As I hit the freeway, the gathering clouds began to look positively menacing.  Half an hour down the road, the billowing fluffies turned black and the first spattering of drops began.  What scared the heck out of me was that, not too far in the distance, the dark clouds seemed to be pulled straight down to the earth in the shape of the infamous funnel.  By now, it was pouring and I had the wipers working overtime.  Thirty more miles to go.  Could I outrun a tornado?  Not a chance.  Dear Lord, please grant us traveling mercies and get me the hell out of here before our SUV gets blown into a cactus.

Donna pointed out that I was overreacting.  The cloud wasn’t moving, so it couldn’t be a twister.

I am happy to say that we arrived home in one piece, if a bit lighter in the wallet.  Even better, we don’t have to make this trip again for another three weeks.  By then, I know, I’ll be itching to hit the road again.