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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 5, 2006

Why are small-town hotels so expensive?

By Thomas Swick
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Are you tired of paying too much for your hotel?

Yeah, me too.

For years, my goal has been the same: to find a place that has a central location, perhaps a little history or character, and rooms for less than $100 a night.

There are cities where I know I'll have to give in: London, Hong Kong, New York (to name but three). Sure, there are affordable alternatives hostels, YMCAs, private apartments but I like hotels. And I like being able to choose my hotel (so online bidding on Priceline is out).

This past February, my wife and I went to Orlando, Fla., for the weekend and found practically every hotel downtown full. This was the first surprise. The second was how much the rooms we couldn't get would have cost us.

The Eo Inn & Urban Spa in Thornton Park was and still is charging $139 to $229 a night. In downtown Orlando. Not Los Angeles, or Chicago, or even Philadelphia. Orlando. If not for a wedding, we could have gotten into the Veranda Bed & Breakfast for $99, but we could also have paid, in the same establishment, $239. In downtown Orlando.

Orlando is not unique. This spring in Beaufort, S.C., I stopped by the Rhett House Inn, a beautiful Southern mansion with an exceptionally gracious staff. They made calls around town to try to find me a room because they were all booked and didn't know that I wouldn't have paid the $190 to $290 to sleep in one of their beds if they hadn't been. (Or maybe they did know.) Across the street, the Best Western was asking $125. The Best Western. Yes, it was in the heart of downtown. Downtown Beaufort.

You could call me cheap and old-fashioned, and I'd agree with you if not for the fact that I usually don't have this problem abroad. And I don't mean just in Mexico, South America and Asia.

Last fall, in Italy's Piedmont region, I never broke the century mark and had nothing but pleasant, attractive, centrally-located lodgings. My most expensive room, coming in at just under $100, was at the Dogana Vecchia, a historic hotel (Mozart and Verdi slept there) in the lively old quarter of the then soon-to-be-Olympic city of Turin.

Which is why I balk at paying $125 at a Beaufort Best Western.

Last month I was in Munich (not a slouch when it comes to cities) during Oktoberfest (sometimes called the world's biggest party), and my hotel, a four-minute walk from Marienplatz, just off the colorful Viktualienmarkt, cost me 80 euros, or about $100, a night. The room was tiny but clean, and when there's Oktoberfest you don't spend a lot of time in your room. When there's no Oktoberfest, the rates at the friendly, family-run Hotel am Viktualienmarkt drop considerably. Oh, and the price includes a hearty breakfast buffet.

I've wondered why in Europe where almost everything costs more than in the States it's relatively easy to find charming, reasonably-priced hotels.

Perhaps it's due to a different philosophy about lodging. In most of Europe, there's still a feeling that a hotel is a place to lay one's head, a functional way station for weary travelers (like a motel here). A single room on the Continent is a compact space containing something a little grander than a cot for a solo boarder; it's not a small meeting hall with two queen beds.

In this country, the hotel has transcended its humble origins and become a multi-purpose retreat, a hipness camp, a destination in itself. Prices have followed the same grandiose path. And as these souped-up hostelries raise their rates, so does everyone else.