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The best and worst hotels I stayed in during the pandemic

Hotel selection became clear on a trip to Los Angeles. Check out who made the cut and what hotels you should avoid.

Walking into Newark’s airport jarred me. The noise. The masked. The unmasked. The masks hanging under the nose. The groups of 30 to 50 people coming from somewhere in the world, huddled tightly, figuring out how to get to their hotels. Eff social distancing.

What grabbed me instantly with the visuals was the sound. The noise of the ebb-and-flow thumped in my ears, while the normal chaos of jumping into a cab, a shuttle or a train brought back a familiar rhythm. It was as if life did not stop in New Jersey because of the novel coronavirus. However, my existence since February 2020 was completely different.

I had been living in a quiet, almost idyllic Florence, Italy for a year where mask mandates and social distancing was the norm. During the shutdown, Italy earned every bit of its reputation to impose one of the strictest quarantine rules. The millions of tourists that flooded Florence for decades had cleared out in a week by March 2020—leaving the 250,000 residents to the truly provincial city that it was. But it was still a shell of itself. Your travel was limited to the respective district you lived, and life for me had become this intimate interaction of locals within about a mile or two of my home.

At first, the utter quietness in Florence followed by a low hum of life became my normal, so when I walked out of Terminal C, my senses were shocked. What I discovered was that this was just the beginning of a radical shift of adjusting to the US at the tail end of quarantine. Jersey gave me a Garden state pimp slap saying, “Welcome to America.”

My trip back to the US was for business and personal. I had to pick up some equipment in New York then flew out to Los Angeles with one goal—to see my parents who had been shut-ins like most seniors. In the process, I stayed in three hotels, one hotel I stayed in twice. Here’s my review. With a simple rating of better, best and worst on a scale of 1 to 5, hotels were measured from cleanliness to room comfort.

Worst: LAX Hilton Airport

Let me get to it. I was absolutely floored at how this hotel degraded. As a high schooler, it was a prominent venue. We went to the Hilton next to the Los Angeles airport for a lot of conferences. There were proms and weddings, and even sometimes basketball teams stayed there. So when I got this booking for cheap on Hotwire, I thought it was a steal. As we say in the hood, “I got stole on.” It has been one of the worst hotel stays in Los Angeles, and pretty much ever, with the exception of the Crowne Plaza in San Pedro a few years back.

Because of the pandemic, check in was different. You couldn’t park your car in the front then run in to get situated. You had to park in their deck then check in. Their underground parking space was a hybrid of a construction site and a hot, dirty mess. 

My mouth dropped when I drove several levels down. There was trash and piles of dirt in certain areas, and uncleaned pavement. You know when people drop their coffee on the ground or piss in the corner and those streams are left there? Well, that was most of the parking deck. Old stains and piles of dirt. It was such a health hazard in a pandemic where cleanliness will save your life, the scene placed me back into the contradictions of USA idealism. You know where money comes first and the people’s health is a distant last place.

Because this Hilton has been around for decades, the elevators leading to the lobby showed it. Rickety and slow, I made my way out to the massive marble first floor. This hotel was all the rage as a young woman, but now it was like a South Beach Miami has-been. You could see its opulence, but the dated carpeting and older fixtures killed the vibe. But that was not a problem for me. It had character. The issue came with the rooms.

Check in was a well-oiled machine. I balked when they told me parking was $40 or $45 a night. I opted to move my car to a parking structure next door for $18 a night. The issue would be lugging my luggage when I checked out. But, that was Los Angeles, everything was overpriced, even the raggedy lodging.

As I made my way to the elevators that worked, the buttons were worn and old. Yuck. But, I pressed and waited like all the other folk with bags of food from different restaurants in the area—another sign of a great location. I jumped on the “el,” and tapped my fingers as it slowly crept up to my floor. The doors opened and I am so underwhelmed. The hallways were in desperate need of some paint and five deep cleanings. The mood was foreboding.

According to a Nerd Wallet report, the Hyatt, Hilton and Marriott hotel franchises received the highest scores from customers during COVID-19 shutdown. Photo credit: Naim Benjelloun of Pexels.

This hotel had not been upgraded in about 20 years, so it still had that thick carpet that you’d trip over when you wore high heel shoes. It was this floor covering that saturated the hallways of the rooms, and the rooms themselves. In the corners of the hallways and along the wall sat dust that had been there for such a while that it began to blend into the hints of brown in the carpet.

I struggled with my luggage on the thick carpet until a man who exited the elevator offered help. Sweating profusely, I took it. We exchanged small talk until he told me that he just came from the funeral of a friend who died from COVID. I wanted to snatch my luggage and spray myself down immediately. Ugh. I’m glad I had on my mask.

Like the Canopy, there was a sticky seal on the door of my room. I opened my door. Viola, there was a small refrigerator on the carpet at the entrance. Why was the refrigerator on the carpeted floor? The bathroom tub had scum and old streaks in it. The room smelled. No ma’am, we were not doing this today. So, I immediately went back to the lobby and requested another room, which the front desk obliged and quickly worked on. I noticed that I was not the only one requesting another room.

As the receptionist, a nice man, taps-taps the keys to look for other lodging, I told him that I was surprised that the place was so dated. He explained that they were supposed to renovate just before the pandemic, but it was on hold. That was odd because a lot of businesses used the time to upgrade. Then I asked him about the refrigerator on the floor. He paused. “We haven’t had refrigerators in our rooms for years.”

I relocated to another room that was slightly better. It was a corner room with a view of the airplanes arriving and departing, which tells you of the convenience of location. Along with the vista, you saw the grid of the city streets that led to the picturesque mountains. The panorama was stunning. As well, the restaurant had some decent breakfast, but it was severely overpriced as hotels often do. Yet, it pissed me off that their parking and food was exorbitant with such shitty rooms.

In my relocated room, I was still very uncomfortable. The old heating system made me sneeze and I developed another headache because my sinuses dried up. I bought a humidifier to help out. 

On the first night, I got some stronger grade of cleaner and sprayed and washed down everything that I could. I had to lift up the glass on the desk to get the old dirt and food from the corners. It kind of matched the un-vacuumed corners of the hallways. It took a couple of hours to clean and I was tired from the six hour flight. Really, I wanted my money back and to go somewhere else, but Hotwire has a strict no-refund policy, and Los Angeles was still expensive, even in a pandemic.

One area I chose not to clean in the room was the tub because I decided to take bird baths. The previous tub encouraged me to avoid it all together, so I never looked in there. I wish I looked in that tub because the night before I left, as I did a check to see if I left anything, I discovered there was a douching nozzle in there.

I cannot tell you the level of disgust I have in this experience, and will never stay there again. If you decide to then wait until they renovate.

Better: Canopy by Hilton in Jersey City

Santea, the night manager, greeted me with the warmth that I needed on a cold, early January evening. I’d booked two nights at the Canopy by Hilton in Jersey City. He saw my exhaustion and the 11 million bags I lugged. Instantly, he offered a hand after seeing my travel weariness, and the promise to get me situated swiftly.

Santea was methodical with check in, and gave me an unusual interaction in the NYC area—genuinely warm conversation in the dead of winter. As he hit the various keys of the computer, we talked about how the hotel had a consistent flow of guests despite the novel virus. Like him, staff were putting in long hours as essential workers.

Santea was down-to-earth, and a genuinely cool person. It was what I needed as I scanned the massive, yet beautiful lobby of the hotel. People sat by the fireplace and at the bar of the restaurant. I hadn’t seen that in a long time, and did not know how much I needed to witness people interacting again. In Italy, breaking social distancing was a curse.

While Santea was masked, the guests were about 50-50 for their facial coverings. Who wasn’t masked were young adults walking by in groups of four or five. I thought that was interesting and nerve-wracking as Santea finished checking me in. By the way, check-in was a breeze. He’d also given me a room where I could see as much of the city as possible. As well, he gave me a complimentary drink as a nightcap. I needed it.

At the entry of the room, a label stuck on the door and the door jamb. It indicated the room had been sanitized according to COVID-19 cleaning regulations. The breaking of the label meant someone had entered. That was an excellent reassurance for someone like me who had become more conscientious, even borderline compulsive regarding sanitation and hygiene, like most of the world.

I looked around the room which was a modern take on standard lodging. When you entered, there was a suitcase rack then a small refrigerator with a coffee-pod machine and drinking glasses on the top. On the other side of the entrance was a substantially-sized bathroom; especially in comparison to Europe’s small facilities I’d become accustomed to. 

The bedroom was situated on the other side of a wall with a pocket door. Hanging across from the bed was. television. The floor to ceiling windows allowed me to see a portion of the city just as Santea promised.

| Watch: Education in a COVID-19 world

On the outside, I was pleased. I put some fruit and a smoothie in the refrigerator then checked the drawers, the bathroom and the corners of the place. It was clean. I sighed and sat on the bed for a break. “‘Oh,’ I thought. ‘Let me look over the bed.’” I pulled the sheet back and there it was, staring at me like the boogeyman. A long strand of hair just under the pillow.

Mortified, I walked like Miss Sophia in the Color Purple to the desk. As I made my way out of the elevator, I was greeted by another group of young folk, easily in their early 20s, smelling like kush and haze cannabis. I was masked, they were not. They quickly covered their noses when they saw me. I don’t know if it was out of respect or they thought I was infected, but I had a strand of hair on my mind.

I informed Santea of my discovery. He apologized profusely and relocated me. He offered me some more accommodations for the error. But, I was on edge by then. I hauled my luggage to another room then went to a CVS and bought every type of cleaner I could carry. Parking is right across from the hotel, but it is very expensive—at $27 a day. Huffing and puffing,  I went back to the room and sprayed and wiped down the place like a drill sergeant.

Although I was satisfied that I sanitized the place, the closed quarters in the middle of the winter with the heater blasting had trapped the cleaning fumes. So I developed a slight headache and a sneeze, which is quite common for me due to allergies. But, who in the hell wants to sneeze, cough or even pass gas in a pandemic? Somewhat irritated, I remembered that I had a complimentary drink waiting for me at the bar, so I threw on something and went to the hotel’s drinking dive before it closed.

Due to the restrictions of everything, the food menu was paired down to simple dishes. I passed on the dinner. But, in true form of a northeast establishment, the bar was popping with all types of spirits and alcoholic selections. The mixologist was busy, and moved through me and a counter of travelers talking about our experiences in the pandemic. The bartender was also cool until I showed her the comp ticket. When I put it next to my second glass of wine, she rolled her eyes and kind of snatched up the ticket.

As a standard, I committed to giving any essential worker a tip to express my gratitude for them putting themselves on the line as many of us enjoyed being home during the hardest part of the quarantine. That generous tip that I had in mind was re-evaluated. But I committed to it so she got her tip, but I made sure she saw my long and exaggerated eye roll and heard the loudest smack that I could do as I walked away.

Walking back to my room, I asked someone from the maintenance staff about the unusual number of young folk in the hotel, and during a pandemic. I was told that the closing of clubs and other places to meet up had been replaced with hotels. Because hotels like the Canopy were giving great rates, it had, in a sense, become the club. All I could think about was them also being super-spreaders. But at some point, you’ve got to mask up, protect yourself and keep it pushing. I had a plane to catch in 24 hours to go see my mama and daddy, and I couldn’t go in there sneezing.

It was Santea’s signature professionalism that led to me booking the Canopy again when I returned back to New Jersey 12 days later. When I arrived, the manager was Andre, who was also very generous. When I commended Santea and the overall hotel, Andre also gave me two complimentary tickets at the bar. Why did he do that? You think the bartender was sassy on my first visit? She was a complete ass on the second round.

The server took my tickets to the front desk to verify them. As if I could not be given two complimentary tickets. Boo, bye. Even, she told me I couldn’t use two tickets in one sitting like she’d become the bar police. Her attitude was outrageous as she poured my wine with a stank face. I had to tap my leg to remain calm. My tongue can be swift, but I did not want any spit in my drink, so I sipped my cocktail and kept it pushing. Her funky attitude did not kill the vibe, but it disappointed the stellar customer service I received from the front desk and maintenance.

Best: Hotel Indigo Baltimore

 

It was the day before the inauguration that I checked into the Hotel Indigo in downtown Bmore. There were tanks and military up-and-down the 95 highway and leading up to Washington DC, so like the rest of the country I was on high-alert from the Capital insurrection just weeks before.

By the time I made it to Baltimore, I was exhausted by my Los Angeles stay and just wanted to go back to Italy. To my surprise, it was the best hotel on my trip. Walking in, the place was absolutely spotless. The lounge was beautiful and spacious, and the receptionist provided excellent service. Like Santea at the Canopy, she was warm and very helpful.

Exhausted from 11 days of travel, I kept my conversation to a minimum and went to my room. I do not remember if it had a seal because I was so tired. However, when I walked into my room, the angels of clean heaven sang. It was immaculate. Not a scratch. Not a hair. Not a pile of dust or some gross feature. It was updated, neat and smartly decorated. Just as an extra precaution, I wiped over everything before I settled in, and slept hard.

I slept so hard that it was later in the evening when I woke up from what was supposed to be a one hour nap. There wasn’t much open, but the snack shop they had. So for dinner, I had nuts, chips and water. I was deflated, but I chose cleanliness over an unsatisfying meal, any day. Another win was the lounge area. With its bookshelves and fireplace, and great internet, I worked there the whole day undisturbed. The hotel was just what I needed before I hopped back on a plane to Italy, and will book a room there again.

Kaia Shivers covers news, features and the diaspora.

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