The wrong town for bargain hunting (National Post, March 09, 2005)

NEW YORK - We were to go to Hollywood Beach for our annual week of winter respite. But I had been housebound with flu for two weeks. Instead of boring sunshine, I needed cultural liveliness, and proposed New York. Although keen for sun and sand himself, my husband, Ronny, magnanimously agreed.

Ronny is a late but enthusiastic convert to the magic of the Internet. What rocks his world is easy access to fluid, last-minute discounts on hotel and airline bookings. Once he scored a comfortable Marriott Courtyard room in Toronto for only $49. Ronny's glow in ferreting out this deal was touching to observe. Less touching was his Ancient Mariner-like insistence on recounting his triumph to all and sundry. For a bargain addict like my husband -- he once bought the contents of a bankrupt toy store, seduced by the rock bottom price, and to justify it spent an entire winter merging all the plastic farm sets into one gigantic plantation -- the Internet is just a big old electronic jumble sale.

Everyone knows you can't expect to get a decent hotel room in Manhattan for much less than US$200 a night. But, emboldened by beginner's luck, Ronny took on New York with swagger. So what was I thinking when Ronny excitedly announced he had found us a "boutique hotel" on the Upper West Side -- Seinfeld territory, good address -- at only US$100 a night for a suite -- and I agreed to try it?

You must understand I am no hotel prima donna. I have stoically accompanied my athlete daughter to countless hick towns for horse shows and triathlons, where the motels are so crummy you can see daylight through the towels. Once, having booked late for The Ironman in Penticton, B.C., we were forced to stay in such a dump that, for a memento of how low we'd sunk in accommodation hell, I snapped a picture of my daughter sitting hostage style on the cracked linoleum floor, dolefully holding up a newspaper to date her continuing survival.

Nothing in the New York building's exterior warned of the horrors within. The hotel -- let's call it "The Caveat Emptor Palace" -- was a solid red-brick edifice. The lobby was tiny and nondescript, but the reception clerk was pretty and cheerful. I noticed with some disquiet, however, as her eyes swept our wool-coated bourgeois shininess, that she seemed to be suppressing some quaking inner mirth. Ronny paid in advance for three nights. The clerk lingered at rather embarrassing length over his gold Visa card, like an archaeologist who's unearthed a postdiluvian potsherd at an antediluvian site. This does not bode well, I thought, but said nothing.

The elevator door behind us creaked open. Out stepped a fellow "guest," a scowling, unshaven young man in low-slung jeans with Medusa-like dreadlocks and a do-rag, who glared at us with a distinctly noli me tangere air. We backed self-consciously into the tiny elevator and directed our gaze to the unexplained stains on the musty carpet as the car groaned slowly aloft. Apprehensively we walked to the "suite" under the bewildered gaze of a maid wearing jeans and flip-flops.

The first room, coffinesque in size, featured an unmade daybed (I averted my eyes from the sheets), and nothing else. We peeked through the connecting "bathroom" -- a prison-issue metal shower, two feet square, separated by no more than six inches from a rust-streaked toilet -- into the second room, in which there appeared to be only a larger unmade bed, a Lilliputian sink and a closet.

You know how the Law and Order cops burst into the flop house to arrest the crack-addled perp sprawled in the corner of the syringe-strewn room? Apart from the syringes (at least none I could see), the Caveat Emptor Palace was that flop house.

We looked at the floor, upon which no power on Earth could have made us walk barefoot, then at each other. Words were unnecessary. Silently we boarded the ailing elevator and held our breath until the main floor. The clerk refunded my husband's money without demur. Silently, we schlepped our bags over to Broadway and hailed a cab. "The Marriott Marquis," Ronny muttered to the driver.

Lucky lucky lucky. The glittering Marriott Marquis, smack amidst the theatres, boasting big, newly renovated rooms, duvets soft and puffy as meringue, gleaming bathrooms, a fabulous restaurant with fawning staff, a sushi bar and two Starbucks, had a room for us! At -- what's that you say? Only US$300 a night? A mere bagatelle! O thank you!

A lesson learned? For me, yes. Money, lots of it, is what buys happiness in New York City, and woe to those who fail to heed this elementary truth. Ronny? I fear he is too far gone in his affliction, and will continue to be easy prey for the next pop-up ad that screams "Dominican Republic bargains!! Gorgeous beachfront hotel!! Pool!! Breakfast!! Only $49 a night!!"

And then, in the fine print, "Guests will be required to return home with a small package ..."
© National Post 2005