When Service Can Make or Break a Hotel Stay: Sleeping in Austin, Texas

Posted by Krista on May 28, 2016

The other week, I had to go to Austin, Texas for work. Because it was my birthday and a friend of mine was in town from Chicago for the weekend, I booked two hotels: a fun hotel to kick things off, and then the work hotel because I had to.

It’s hard not to have expectations when you check into a hotel. Let’s play a game. If I I say “brand new Kimpton hotel,” what do you think? It’s not hard. You think “brand new” and “Kimpton” (they of the free cocktail parties every evening at 5 pm as well as the leopard print robes). You probably get a teeny bit excited.

Now if I say “AT&T Executive Education Center on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin,” don’t you just want to yawn and change the channel? Who wants to stay at an Executive Education Center? BORING.

But as your parents probably told you growing up, never ever ever judge a book by its cover. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t stay at the Hotel Van Zandt, the brand new Kimpton in Austin, Texas. While the place was Instagram-worthy, the staff were poorly trained and a bit all over the place — from the bellboy to room service to the front desk. My stay was hard work, which is the last thing you want when you are traveling. Compare that to the AT&T Executive Education Center and, well, there is no comparison.

Things started off well at the Hotel Van Zandt. I arrived just when the happy hour was in full swing, and was quickly offered a glass of wine to take up to my room. Great! But then the bell boy did that thing that hotels are not supposed to do. He asked me for my room number. I know the drill in hotels…staff are never supposed to say your room number out loud. So I showed him my hotel room key, and then he proceed to loudly announce my room number for anyone in the vicinity of the hotel lifts to hear. As a female traveling alone, this just didn’t jive with me. Training, people. Training.

Contrast this with my check-in at the AT&T Executive Education Center. Bellhop Larry asked to see my room key folder. I showed it to him, he nodded. That was all. I said something like “Larry, thank you for not announcing my room number for any and all to hear” and Larry quickly responded, “Oh no, we’re never supposed to do that. That’s the first law of working as a bellhop.”

Some of you might be shaking your heads and asking me why I am making such a big deal about this. It comes down to price. I paid a lot more for the Hotel Van Zandt than the AT&T Center, and at that Kimpton-level, I expect certain behaviors. I’ve also staying in quite a few Kimptons over the years. And well, it wasn’t just this one incident in Austin. It was a string of incidents.

Moving on…the hotel restaurant. At Hotel Van Zandt, I had to wave my arms around to get my server’s attention and then my food took forever to arrive and be removed afterwards. At The AT&T Executive Education Center, it was like I was the restaurant’s only patron. I was graciously tended to and treated like an old friend.

Lastly…check-out. At the AT&T Executive Education Center, they seemed genuinely sad to see me go, they helped me with my luggage, and patiently waited for me as I changed for my flight. At the Hotel Van Zandt, I kinda got in a fight with the check-out desk! My room service bill the night before had been incorrect, and room service promised me “Don’t worry, it will all be taken care of when you check out.” I’m always wary of these sorts of promises, and of course it wasn’t taken care of when I checked out. The check-out person had a little attitude about my request that the item be removed — we’re talking like $18 here people — and told me they would need to “investigate” and that the finance team was all “in a meeting.” I totally understand that they needed to confirm it, but it was all in the delivery. Then, I had to keep spelling my surname and the check-out person totally wasn’t listening and kept getting it wrong, to which I would say politely, “No please, slow down. Let me spell it again.” And we ended up in a vicious cycle of me spelling, the check-out person misspelling, me asking them to slow down, them insisting they “had it,” grrrrr.

So in this case, service broke my experience with the Hotel Van Zandt. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth and no desire to return. But the AT&T Executive Education Center? I will gladly return anytime!

Has a hotel service experience ever ruined your stay at an otherwise wonderful property? Please tell me I’m not alone!

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Eating in Austin, Texas

Posted by Krista on May 24, 2016

I flew to Austin the other week for a quick work trip. Did you know that British Airways flies direct from London to Austin? That made my life significantly easier, let me tell you. Also easier…I was upgraded to business class at the gate, which was especially awesome because I was flying on my birthday!! (Long ago, I vowed never to do anything for work on my birthday. It is a sign of the times that I have not been able to hold myself to this vow in 2015 or in 2016.)

The weather in Austin was particularly weird while I was there. Blazing hot on Day 1, cloudy and cool on the next day, and then warm and then hot again for the rest of my visit. And while I was primarily there for work, the beauty of a work conference is work dinners! So while I didn’t hit the Salt Lick or any of the other famous barbecue places — not enough time — here’s where I ate while I was in town:

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Jacoby’s. Image borrowed from Jacoby’s Instagram feed.

Jacoby’s Restaurant: This peaceful little general mercantile-like restaurant has a lovely outdoor area on the river. We enjoyed heaping platters of particularly good brisket while we were eaten alive by mosquitos the size of, well, Texas. (This was my first trip back to the US since December and let me tell you…Zika fears are at a high.) Loaded with atmosphere and with a sweet little gift shop attached, this is a pretty little slice of Texas. Visit their website.

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Yellow Jacket Social Club. Image borrowed from GirlsonFood.net

Yellow Jacket Social Club: In a sign that the world is more connected than ever before, I got off my flight at Austin airport, picked up my luggage, walked through the customs doors, and an old London friend saw me! Her sister-in-law was on the same flight. A few days later, Steffi and Stuart picked me up from Jacoby’s and took me to the supremely atmospheric Yellow Jacket Social Club, were we sat outside under the trees and solved all the world’s technology problems. Visit their website.

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El Naranjo. Image borrowed from El Naranjo’s Facebook page

El Naranjo: Within one hour of arriving at my hotel, I was at El Naranjo to meet my friend Amy, who just happened to be in town that weekend for a wedding. We stuffed our faces with nachos and delicious tacos and then I passed out with jet lag. The end. Note: The servers here are really friendly and nice. Visit their website.

La Condesa – Austin, TX

La Condesa. Image borrowed from Starchefs.com

La Condesa: While El Naranjo offered a more traditional, homey version of Mexican food, La Condesa was all hot, hip, modern and buzzy. A bit more of the west coast of Mexico perhaps because at La Condesa, it’s all about the ceviche. A few of my colleagues had never had ceviche before, if you can image that. No worries, that just meant more for me! The staff here were a little too busy for their own good — and ours — but it was an enjoyable meal nonetheless. Good if you need a scene. Visit their website.

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The pool deck outside Geraldine’s. Image borrowed from Hotel Van Zandt. We sat in the first row of pool deck chairs.

Geraldine’s: OK, somewhat cheating. I was staying at the Hotel Van Zandt for my birthday and Geraldine’s is the restaurant in the hotel. I met up with my friend Amy to hang by the pool and read trashy magazines. And have brunch! Some short rib, some poached eggs. Done. The restaurant at the Hotel Van Zandt was always buzzing during my stay — popular with both hotel guests and locals. Definitely a destination. There was also live music on Sunday while we relaxed by the pool, which was great. Visit their website.

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Gabriel’s Cafe at the AT&T Executive Education Center

Gabriel’s Cafe: This was the surprise of my stay. For the last few nights of my visit, I moved into the AT&T Executive Education Center for my work conference. I was starving when I checked in, so I dropped into Gabriel’s Cafe. My server heartily recommended the smoked brisket sandwich with homemade potato chips so that’s what I had and it was really, truly melt-in-the-mouth amazing. This is a pretty soulless hotel restaurant really, but whoever is in the kitchen knows what they are doing. I liked it so much, I went back on my last day before my flight. Visit their website.

Not enough time for all that I wanted to do, as always. It was a super quick trip, so being in a jetlagged fog for the first two days didn’t help either. Austin is a fun city, and the fact that you can get there directly from London is a huge bonus. Go visit! Have some brisket for me.

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{Sponsored Post}: 9 Great Attractions in Orlando

Posted by Krista on September 17, 2015
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Lake Eola Orlando

Florida is a destination full of sun, fun and rum, but Orlando is where the state gets truly magical. If you’re looking for a place where you can find everything from alligators to acrobats, it’s definitely the city for you! Here are just a few stops you should make during your trip to Orlando.

1. La Nouba
Home to the Cirque du Soleil show, La Nouba will offer you an unforgettable night filled with lights, music, gymnastics and gravity-defying stunts. There’s nothing else on Earth quite like a Cirque du Soleil show.

2. SeaWorld
Home to literally thousands of species of aquatic life, SeaWorld is perhaps most famous for its whale shows, but it also has everything from sharks to dolphins. It’s a great place for your kids to get a little education with their entertainment!

3. Orlando International Premium Outlets
Shop ’til you drop at Orlando International Premium Outlets. If your money is burning a hole in your pocket, this is the perfect place to load up on souvenirs for your trip home. Just make sure you have enough room in your bags for all of them!

4. Wakoola Springs
Wakoola Springs is one of the biggest water parks in Florida, housing all kinds of pools, slides and hot tubs across a staggering 75,000 square feet. Many luxury resorts are located nearby, as well. You’ll never be far from a bed in any direction!

5. Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate this gorgeous, spiritual shrine. It’s a wonderful piece of architecture and an even greater place to get away from the bustle of the city, so stop by when you need a break from all the chaos of your vacation.

6. Discovery Cove
If you’ve ever wanted to swim with dolphins, this is your chance. Just be prepared for colorful fish, coral, seals and sting rays to also join the party! When you go diving in Discovery Cove, there’s no telling what marine life will want to say hello.

7. Walt Disney World
You didn’t think there would be a list of famous Orlando attractions without Disney World, right? One of the most popular tourist destinations on the planet, Disney World offers light-hearted fun for the whole family. It doesn’t matter how old you are as long as you’re still young at heart.

8. Gatorland
Like the name implies, Gatorland is full of alligators! The good news is that you’ll be quite protected by the marshes, and you can also throw them hot dogs under the careful supervision of the guides. How many times in life do you get the chance to feed an alligator hot dogs?

9. Paddleboard Orlando
Get your heart pumping with Paddleboard Orlando. In addition to the promised paddleboarding, you’ll also have the chance to swim, dive and jump off small cliffs into the water below. It’s perfect for both the athlete and the couch potato who just wants to try something new.

These are just a few of the attractions you won’t want to miss in Orlando. To really take advantage of your trip, consider researching attractions online. Many vacation companies, such as Bluegreen Resorts, for instance, offer information available online that can help travelers choose their favorite destinations. Whether you’re there for the thrilling adventures or the relaxing beaches, Orlando is a city that has a little something for everyone, so all travelers should enjoy it.

A note about sponsored posts: Occasionally, to cover my hosting, domain and back-up costs, I accept sponsored posts that fit within the context of my site. Running a self-hosted blog is not cheap. Given my annual pilgrimage to Orlando every Christmas, I was okay with this accepting this post.

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Sleeping in New York Part II: The Viceroy

Posted by Krista on September 7, 2015

After some time out in the suburbs with my cousin and her husband, I headed back into the city for the final few nights of my stay. Do you know what I noticed about the New York City subway system? There are barely any escalators and the stairs are very steep. Now of course, London’s underground is much further underground, so escalators are necessary. But the steepness of the stairs? As I schlepped my fairly large suitcase around New York City, I nearly broke both legs a number of times. We are talking stairs that are seriously on a 45 degree angle. London does a better job at planning for volume.

The Viceroy is on W 57th street, just two blocks south of Central Park. There’s a Duane Reade right on the corner in case you need to stock up on essentials. (I always do.) And most importantly, The Viceroy has an awesome rooftop bar with a great view northwards across Central Park.

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I liked my room here A LOT. The cabinetry alone was gorgeous. The tilework in the bathroom was also gorgeous. In short, this is a gorgeous, gorgeous hotel, and it smells gorgeous too. (Although there are many people online who complain about the signature scent, I kinda liked it.) Here’s what else I liked and disliked:

What I liked…

  1. I liked the doormen and the chilly blast of AC that greeted you when you stepped within 10 feet of the hotel entrance.
  2. I liked the gym a lot. It is a great, fully equipped hotel gym.
  3. I loved the rooftop bar.
  4. I loved the room decor.
  5. I really loved the location and the proximity to the subway.

What I didn’t like…

  1. I did not get the warm fuzzies from the hotel staff at all, unlike The Thompson where they seemed like hip, interesting people that I’d like to hang out with.
  2. I didn’t like the hotel restaurant. I had a late lunch there one afternoon and my pasta dish was distinctly unmemorable.
  3. I didn’t like the nightclub atmosphere with the separate entrance for the rooftop bar.

All in all though, this was a high quality hotel and I would be delighted to stay here again. I would just make sure I ate elsewhere!

I booked my stay at The Viceroy New York on Booking.com, which is rapidly becoming my new favorite place to book hotels. (The information seems better organized than what you find on Expedia.) This was an all-in price of $285 USD, which again is a great value for Manhattan. Note that this was one of those non-refundable rates. 

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Sleeping in New York Part I: The Thompson Guildhall

Posted by Krista on September 6, 2015

I had a couple of things to do inside and outside of New York City back in July during my stay, so I spread my visit across two different hotels, one downtown and one uptown. You might know that I’m also quite in love with hotels and struggle with more than four or five nights in the same one — I get bored — so variety is key!

My first hotel was The Thompson Guiildhall, down on Wall Street, which turned out to be very convenient to the Women’s World Cup Parade. (Yey Team USA!) It was also convenient to the World Trade Center Memorial, where I spent a couple of hours one morning. (And then returned to the hotel and had a glass of wine.)

Although The Thompson was a tiny bit worn around the edges and the bathroom wasn’t my favorite — it was super small — I loved the decor of my room and the huge ass TV. I don’t normally watch a lot of TV when I travel (or at all, really), but I am totally in love with the Property Brothers and was eager to do a little gorging.  (The amount of HGTV I watch when I’m in the States suggests that maybe I should get into property.)

What I liked and didn’t like:

  1. The glass of prosecco they poured me upon arrival.
  2. The location and the little coffee shop on the corner.
  3. The proximity to multiple bagel shops.
  4. The convivial bar.

What I didn’t like:

  1. The bathroom was a tad basic for my tastes. I like a bit more space. I know this is NYC but…
  2. They do this thing where they have mini gyms on each floor. One treadmill and one elliptical and some free weights. I like how they are trying to maximize their space, but it’s a little weird to be in such a small room with one other person. I felt like I was invading on their workout.
  3. In general, everything was a little run down and worn and torn. Not by a huge amount, but dings on the walls, scratches on the furniture, etc.
  4. Wine at the bar was not cheap. (This may be a greater New York City problem, of course.)
  5. It was practically impossible to get a taxi to Penn Station when I left the hotel on a Sunday afternoon, and I made my train by the skin of my teeth. The doorman and I were both at our wits’ end. He promised it’s never normally like that but…

Would I stay here again? Maybe…while the hotel was convenient for my needs at the time, I probably would stay more in Greenwich Village/Soho next time or more midtown. It’s definitely a quality property though so if you have a lot of business to conduct in the Wall Street area, I’d give it a go.

I booked the Thompson Hotel on Hotwire at the bargain price of $183 USD before taxes. With fees, it was $232 USD, which I think is extremely reasonable for a hotel of this quality in Manhattan. Read my post on how I save money on hotels using Hotwire

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My Week in New York City

Posted by Krista on August 22, 2015

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I am the most disappointing New York tourist. “Where are you from?” they ask me at the beginning of every tour and every interaction where I haven’t had to say the word DAWN. (The only word that still give me away.) “Long Island,” I say. And then they look away because they know I won’t spend any money!!! They’d rather that I was from Omaha. They want me to buy a t-shirt. Or a key ring. Or something.

But I don’t care. Because I LOVE NEW YORK. And I am in it! And I am LEGIT. It’s a always a little weird when I go back. Because I know where I’m going. Even though I really don’t know where I am going because I haven’t spent much time in New York since like 1992, I still know that Penn Station and Macy’s are at 34th Street. I still know that Grand Central is on 42nd. I still know that Central Park starts at 59th.  These are small things to know, but they are important landmarks on your mostly north/south traverso of Manhattan Island.

One week was not enough time! I need to go back Here’s where I ate and drank and cried while I was in town:

Where I ate and drank…

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Long Island Bagels, Wall Street: OK, these weren’t my favorite bagels — Lou’s were better — but their jet-lag friendly opening hours and relative proximity to my hotel, The Thompson, made Long Island Bagels a no brainer. (And, well, I’m from Long Island so there’s that.) Free wifi too! I went here twice for salt bagels with veggie cream cheese. The Verdict: Good. But not the best.

Lou’s Bagels, Wall Street: One morning, when I had a little more time on my hands, I went to Lou’s Bagels. The queue was out the door and down the street. Great sign! I had — surprise — a salt bagel with veggie cream cheese. (I sweated the salt out while I was in town, I promise.) The Verdict: Very, very good.

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Grand Central Oyster Bar, Grand Central: My first time. Totally not what I expected. It’s like one big dive bar. The staff fights with each other in front of you, for real. It’s WEIRD. I should have remembered what it was like to hang around Grand Central when I was a kid. Slightly scary. (It’s really much improved now.) BUT! I still stuffed my face with oysters and wine, although I wanted it all to be a little more — how shall we say — neat and tidy and calm? The Verdict: You should probably go here and maybe you’ll like it here and maybe I’ll like it more the next time I go.

La Villetta, Midtown East: My friend Monica knows the owner so we caught up over low-carb entrees while Monica told us about her upcoming triathlons and her 3rd child, born just a few months earlier. I mean, I know I’m pretty lazy, but I felt really lazy after this meal because I do not plan on running any triathlons anytime soon and I haven’t even had one child yet, forget about three. So I ran for 20 minutes on the treadmill the next morning and went clothing shopping for my cousin’s kids later in the day. That’s about as close as I will get.

Five Senses, K-Town: Kristin was in town from LA so Shin and I met up for lunch with her in K-town. Korean pancakes…they get me every time. And this was an excellent version thereof. Stuffed — and I mean stuffed — with seafood. I was going to order a main dish but decided instead just to eat all the pancake. The Verdict: Loved it.

Bar at Bergforfs, Midtown West: On a hot day, I needed some cool shopping. I popped into Bergdorfs, conveniently located around the corner from my 2nd hotel, The Viceroy, and massaged the expensive candles that Leonid from Bob Bob Ricard loves. (I like them too but the budget right now sadly does not allow.) Given my “Summer of Krista” financial situation, I did not buy anything except one glass of Albarino in the very pleasant bar upstairs. (With free wifi.) The Verdict: Expensive, but good if you need a breather.

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Gramercy Tavern, Flatiron District: After stocking up at, uh, all the same stores they have in London, I dropped into The Gramercy Tavern for a late lunch. The staff were awesome. My food was good and the vibe was good but…I don’t know. I had higher expectations of the food and the atmosphere. I expected there to be more flowers? The Verdict: It’s nice.

Excellent Dumpling House, Chinatown: Heh heh heh. After my foot massage (keep reading), I wanted a snack so I got some pretty excellent dumplings from the aptly named Excellent Dumpling House. I ate them back at my hotel while watching reruns of The Property Brothers. Bliss. The Verdict: Cheap. Not so cheerful. But I liked my dumplings.

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John’s of Bleeker Street: My college friend Doug and his wife met me for the real deal New York pizza at John’s of Bleeker Street. This place is a little scuzzy — I really can’t recommend the loos at all — but the pizza did the trick. Terrible beer and wine selection. Cash only. Totally suspect ATM in the back. The Verdict: Great pizza. Just wish it was nicer.

Where I cried…

9/11 Memorial: I organized a tour of the facility through the official 9/11 memorial museum and I cried. They do a great job with negative space. Negative space I think says it all. The Verdict: You should go here and you should take the tour but be ready to be overwhelmed by all the things left behind. And the negative space.

Renew Bowery Foot Massage: Because I can’t write about 9/11 and leave things on a sad note, I also cried when I went to Chinatown for a foot massage after a long day of walking. William — apparently the teacher — realigned my spine but only touched my feet. It HURT so bad — I cried — but it hurt oh so good I felt like a new person the next day. I was bummed when a regular came in and William left me with his student to do my other foot. The student did a good job, but William was much more awesome. The Verdict: Go, but be ready to cry if you ask for and get William. (Who you really should ask for.)

I love New York! I feel like I am among my people there…when I don’t feel like my people are in London, that is. I need to get back more often! Much more often!

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