Pretentious luxury on the cheap at the Drake

July 7, 2009 | By | 2 Replies More

What gives with these fancy hotels?  [Warning: Rant thinly disguised as objective information]

My wife and I live in St. Louis Missouri. Yesterday, we decided that I should take my two daughters to Chicago in early August, so today  I made some arrangements. Now time is money–I don’t want to be driving into downtown Chicago from a cheaper suburban hotel every day, wasting time sitting in traffic, when we should be spending every waking moment at Chicago’s world-class museums and aquarium. Therefore, I set out to get accommodations right in the heart of Chicago. Knowing that this could be quite expensive, however, I did a bit of shopping through some frugal travel websites. I ended up at Priceline.com, the site where William Shatner’s puffy image beckons me to come on in and save money (here I am being judgmental because Captain Kirk let himself go to pot).

At Priceline, I saw that one could pick a hotel in downtown Chicago and pay anywhere from $150 to $500 per night. None of that for me! I decided to bid on a hotel room. For those of you who have never bid on a hotel room, the Priceline system offers substantial savings to you if you’re willing to bid on a hotel room in a specific region of a city without knowing the name of the hotel that you will be assigned (assuming that your bid is high enough to purchase any hotel room at all).  I indicated that I was willing to pay $100 per night for a 3 1/2 star hotel room in “zone five” of downtown Chicago. I figured that my modest bid would probably be rejected, but I was wrong.

I had successfully purchased several nights at the Drake Hotel, which is just north of the Water Tower on The Magnificent Mile.  Before placing the winning bid, I didn’t know anything at all about the Drake Hotel, so I visited the Drake’s site.  You’ll see lots of images of the kinds of carefree and well-to-do people who burn their money at the Drake. Many of the pictures at Drake website made me think of politicians hanging around with their mistresses.

I saw that rooms typically range in price from $250-$350 per night. Sounds like I got quite a deal, right?  Actually, the Drake is doing us all a service by charging a such outrageous prices (well, charging every body else such outrageous prices). They are making sure that when we stay there, that we are safely secluded from the riffraff, because the riffraff cannot afford to stay there. Extremely clever.

It turns out that the Drake markets itself as

the preferred Chicago destination of Heads of State and the world’s most discerning travelers, to include American Presidents, Elizabeth the 2nd, Queen of England, Diana, Princess of Wales, Emperor Hirohito of Japan, A-list celebrities and entertainers, and the Champions of Commerce and Industry.

Hmmm.  It seems to me that it would be hard to think of a more dysfunctional group of people. Think of royally dysfunctional Princess Diana, for instance. Or think about her equally dysfunctional ex-husband Charles. Or consider American Presidents such as Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. And think back. Emperor Hirohito presided over Japan while atrocities where authorized against the Chinese and when Japan decided to wage war against the United States.  “A-list entertainers?” I would think the highly dysfunctional (though supremely talented) Michael Jackson would fall into that category. I could go on and on, of course.  The point is that the Drake’s marketers assume that numerous potential customers would be attracted to their hotel because people of power and fame stay there.

I wondered how the Drake treats all of those powerful and famous people. For instance, for the exorbitant price but they charge for a room, I assumed that they would throw in calm entry Internet service. I looked at the website, which indicates:

High-speed Internet access in all guest rooms and meeting spac.

Read the above phrase carefully and I will translate it for you: At this hotel where royalty stay, we will screw you royally. I called the Drake and confirmed that it actually planned to charge me for dollars $12.95 for each day that I wanted to use the Internet. The Internet is not complementary. Doesn’t this mean that the above phrase is highly misleading? I think so too. And perhaps you and I are both thinking that you can get free Internet when you stay at La Quinta or any of the other reasonably priced business hotels.  If the $70 hotels can give it away free, why does the $250 hotel need to gouge you.  But this is a hotel that really doesn’t get it.   How else can you explain the prominent use of the phrase “family planning” to describe things you can do with your family?   Maybe that’s just how rich and famous people talk.

But, ouch.  I was still smarting about that internet fee, except that I was assigned a smartphone for work and it doubles as a modem for my laptop. Screw you fancy hotels and you greedy airports (and thank you, Kansas City International Airport, for giving it away for free).  That internet fee reminded me that I still needed to know how much it would cost to park the car. I called the Drake again and asked how much it would cost for one day of parking. The woman told me it would be $45 per day for valet parking. “How much if it’s not valet parking?”   “$35 per day.”

Easy solution. I logged onto Amtrak’s site and picked up three round-trip tickets for a total of $100.
How do you know what kind of hotel the Drake is?  One way is to log onto Tripadviser.com, where travelers send in their own evaluations.    I noticed that lots of people loved and lots of other people hated the Drake.  That’s pretty typical when reading the opinions of travelers–you need to read these evaluations between the lines.   Some of these seasoned travelers have never ever stayed at a hotel they found acceptable.   Whenever there is dust in the far corner of the hotel room, they turn into wild raging harpies while writing their reviews.  Because my priority is a safe place to sleep in a geographically convenient area, I often don’t have much to learn from hotel ratings.

You have to be careful when going on vacation in a big city, especially when staying at pretentious hotels that charge you right and left.  Since I planned to be in Chicago for parts of four days, the Internet and the parking alone could have cost me about $200.

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

I haven’t even broken it to my kids that there’s no swimming pool at the Drake. Luckily, we are going to make use of our membership to the Shedd Aquarium. I’m kind of bragging here. Last year, we went to the Shedd Aquarium and we were rather surprised by the admission fees.  $25 for each adult and $18 for each child. It would cost upwards of $100 for a day at the aquarium. I’m not really complaining, because I know that it must be extraordinarily expensive to run the place, and it is a spectacular place to visit. Nonetheless, we decided to become members of the aquarium for $115,  which is tax-deductible.  We bought that membership planning to return within the year of buying that membership and walking through the incredible exhibits for free. Take that, Drake!

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Category: advertising, Fraud, ignorance, travel

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, before my honeymoon I bought a discount card called "Passport Gold." It cost like $120.00 for the year.

    The card gets you discounts at hotels and motels around the world, including some really nice ones in Chicago. The other benefit is the 2 for 1 deal at restaurants, locally and around the world.

    My new wife and I stayed on Rodeo Drive, in the beautiful Dolphin Inn in Carmel, in a great resort near Yosemite, as well as a Holiday Inn in Ventura and others in LA on our 14 day trip. The rates are restricted but, if you book in advance (we did 6 mos!) available at many great places. We saved thousands on our honeymoon. Two years ago, we stayed in Clearwater Beach right on the beach. Last year we got discounts in Destin, too. There are several dozen restaurants in St. Louis which allow the use of the card.

    Sorry about the commercial but, if you do a lot of business travel, as I do, the card can even be tax deductible.

    Have a blast in Chicago!

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Maybe the explanation for people's willingness to pay these outrageous charges is simple. Anyone willing to pay $300 per night for a hotel room will be too proud to fight about that $13 internet usage fee or that $35 parking fee.

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