Until last week, the last time I stayed at a hotel was back in March. Since the pandemic began, I spent months locked down alone in my D.C. apartment, then with family in Upstate New York. I took bike trips and road trips to go camping, but I avoided hotels completely.

In the meantime, hotels, like the rest of the travel industry, were suffering. According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, hotels are facing a debt crisis and a historic wave of foreclosures as the pandemic’s economic impact on the industry is estimated to be nine times greater than that of 9/11. As a result, they’ve been doing everything they can to attract business.

For some, that means promoting packages for remote workers or encouraging families to take remote-school vacations. For most, it means amplifying their new coronavirus precautions so that customers feel safe booking (and staying at) hotels again.

Once the pandemic revealed its severity, hotel brands began developing and promoting new cleaning procedures. Hotels knew that “hygiene theater” would show customers that the services were taking coronavirus sanitation seriously. Hand-sanitizing stations and sneeze-guards were installed in lobbies, masks became mandatory for staff and guests, and Hilton began placing seals on room doors to show they had been cleaned and left vacant since.

With the pandemic wearing on and travel beginning to increase, I wanted to venture out and see how hotels have adapted. So I booked the cheapest room option at a budget hotel, a mid-level hotel and a luxury hotel in New York City to investigate firsthand how hotels are handling the situation eight months into the covid-19 era.

The lobby at the Holiday Inn Express in New York City. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

Budget: Holiday Inn Express

Lobby and check-in

When I travel on my own dime, I book the cheapest accommodation 80 percent of the time, from motels to hostels to a space on the floor of a shared Airbnb. The corporate-beige lobby of the Holiday Inn Express was familiar to me from the moment I walked through the automatic doors (a comforting feature during the pandemic when we’re supposed to be mindful about touching public surfaces).

There were stickers on the floor noting appropriate social distancing for guests — although I was the only guest checking in — and hand sanitizer dispensers were readily available. The front desk was barricaded with tables from the kitchen area to create more distance between guests and staff, and plexiglass panels propped up to further separate staff and guests. On those panels were stickers reminding guests that face masks were required in the hotel’s public areas and of the IHG Clean Promise, referring to InterContinental Hotels Group, which owns Holiday Inn Express.

Before I could hole up in my room, I had to check in. This would be the most direct contact I had with others during the stay. The friendly front-desk attendant wore a mask, but it kept slipping down below his nose as he spoke (a problem I’ve personally had when wearing a fabric mask). It didn’t directly make me feel unsafe, but it didn’t quell the uneasiness I had about staying in a hotel during the pandemic, either.

To complete the check-in process, I had to physically hand him my ID and use my credit card in the terminal on the table in front of me. Before I went up to my room, the attendant explained there was no complimentary breakfast — a hallmark of Holiday Inn Express — but there were to-go bags of breakfast available for guests upon request.

Natalie Compton stopped at a convenience store to buy sanitizing wipes before checking into the Holiday Inn Express on Oct. 4. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

The room

When I got to my room, I felt like a detective showing up to a crime scene ready to look for clues. Pre-pandemic, I would barrel through the door and flop onto my hotel bed immediately. This time, I crept around while scrutinizing the cleaning job. There was no indication of special cleaning measures. It looked like any other budget hotel room: dingy and worn in general, but the bed seemed bright and clean.

There were stray hairs around the bathroom that weren’t mine, and the mirror behind the front door was covered in fingerprints, both details that made me wonder about the thoroughness of the room’s cleaning. Because some experts say “the evidence for [coronavirus] transmission from objects remains close to nonexistent,” the minor cleaning oversights didn’t worry me too much. That being said, I still washed my hands thoroughly, then disinfected hot spots in my hotel room with sanitizing wipes.

Service and amenities

You don’t stay at the Holiday Inn Express for the amenities, so I was pleasantly surprised by nice touches like having coffee in the room and having a staff member wearing a face mask quickly bring up some additional coffee packets after I called and requested them (using the grimy-looking hotel room phone I sanitized before touching).

Total: $123.24

Checking into the Hyatt Union Square in New York City. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

Midrange: The Hyatt

Lobby and check in

There was no automatic door to get into the Hyatt Union Square, but there was easily accessible hand sanitizer to make up for having to touch the entrance handle. Coming in from the bright, bustling street, the swanky lobby felt like entering a private library. Even though it was a Monday afternoon, it was hushed and empty inside. One guest passed through to grab a takeout order, then left me to have the place to myself.

The hotel had done an excellent job of blending coronavirus precautions into the decor. For example, the plexiglass shields on the front desk rested on stacks of books to fit the rest of the sultry den vibe of the lobby. There were also big poster boards to welcome guests and explain that things have changed.

The front-desk clerk ran through all of the hotel’s covid-19 tweaks, of which there were many, then offered me a small bag of water bottles. She didn’t take my ID; instead, she asked me to hold it up to see, which reduced our physical contact. My credit card was already on file, so I didn’t have to hand it over either.

The room

Walking into my room at the Hyatt felt like a breath of fresh air. The room was big and bright and appeared sparkling clean. On the nightstand, the remote control had been wrapped with a notecard that said “Rest Assured,” which another notecard on the other nightstand explained: “With your health, well-being and safety top of mind, our REST ASSURED program protocols have been followed when cleaning your room.”

According to the paper, that meant frequently touched areas of the room had been extra disinfected, among other changes. There was even a REST ASSURED sticker on the toilet paper. I still disinfected parts of the room, although it didn’t feel necessary.

Service and amenities

When the front desk told me the gym was open to guests who made an appointment during the limited hours, I jumped at the opportunity to go. (It would be my first gym visit in more than seven months.) During my time slot the next morning, I felt safe and joyful about having a sprawling fitness center to myself.

To request forgotten toiletries, I used the Hyatt app on my phone, which allows guests to request a range of items and services. One thing not available for request: breakfast. I had planned to order room service in the morning, but learned then that room service was only available after 4 p.m. because of the pandemic.

Total: $292.73

Luxury: JW Marriott

Lobby and check-in

While some hotel industry insiders predicted that luxury travel would recover faster than budget, most of the premier luxury hotels in New York City were still closed when I booked this portion of my trip. The JW Marriott Essex House, located steps from Central Park, was one of the few exceptions.

I had high expectations for the stay, particularly after reading how other luxury hotels have been handling the pandemic in style. The JW Marriott had sent me emails about my upcoming reservation with extensive fine print about the “variety of new protocols and elevated practices, keeping with our high standards of cleanliness and luxury service.”

But the nicest touch of the check-in process was receiving a packet of PPE. To create more space between guests and staff, the hotel had set up what looked like hallway tables in front of the front desk. Flowers and vases decorated the tables, where there were worn credit-card terminals for guests to use at check-in. The hand-sanitizer dispensers looked like they belonged in a movie theater, not in the gold-adorned JW Marriott lobby charging more than $700 per night.

The reporter received a packet with a mask and sanitizing wipes when she checked into the JW Marriott on Oct. 6. (Natalie Compton/The Washington Post)

The room

My room felt clean, calm and stately; disinfecting the surfaces didn’t cross my mind immediately. I started poking around, and I happily discovered robes and slippers in the closet, toiletries like bath salts, and some sanitizing wipes on the nightstand. While the drawers at the other hotels had been completely empty, there were still Bibles and an international power adapter here.

Trying to be a good pandemic traveler, I did give the desk a quick swipe with a disinfecting cloth, and then unpacked my laptop. Soon after, I opted to work from the comfortable bed instead of the desk.

Service and amenities

With room service unavailable, and the mini bar and the coffee maker removed from the room, the closest caffeine was around the block at a Starbucks. I decided to try out the new normal, instead: ordering food delivery to the hotel. When I went downstairs to get my order, the front desk staff offered me cold or room-temperature water to go with my delivery.

The hotel spa was closed, but the gym was open. I didn’t feel comfortable working out next to the three people who were inside — particularly because guests can take off their mask when they’re on a machine. I was surprised that 10 guests were allowed inside the small gym at one time.

Total: $725.27

Final thoughts

As with everything during the pandemic, hotel stays are going to vary widely depending on where you’re staying and when, no matter what the price range. You could find yourself at a hotel that is nearly empty or nearly full, down a housekeeper or scrambling to catch up with new government regulations.

But the good news for budget-conscious travelers: It’s clear that you don’t need to stay at the most expensive hotel during the pandemic to feel safe.

The budget hotel wasn’t perfect, but it felt clean where it counted: the lobby, towels, combination shower/tub and bed. The extra efforts made at the midrange hotel made me completely forget about the pandemic from time to time. And perhaps because this hotel seemed geared toward business travelers, and business travel is down considerably, I felt like the only guest in the place. The luxury hotel may have cost the most, but I was slightly surprised to discover that I didn’t feel more safe there than at the midrange option.

Staying in hotels again felt like a forbidden indulgence. I felt guilty and confused at times, but also happy and excited. Before you book a stay, think about what’s important to you in terms of amenities or safety precautions, and do your homework to see which hotel has what you need at your desired price range.

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