More tourists choosing apartments over hotel rooms

Smith Travel Research, a firm that tracks travel trends, recently reported that although annual hotel room occupancy fell 1.5% industry-wide through November 2008, for extended stay hotels, occupancy rose by 3.5%.

Sure enough, press releases from the apartment hotel companies keep crossing my desk, claiming their niche of the travel market isn't doing as badly as the other ones. The luxury extended stay brand AKA bragged about a 30% leap in revenue in January compared to a year before. I've even been seeing word spreading in newspapers as far away as Indonesia.

The trend makes sense to me. Contrary to their name, not all extended stay hotels require extended stays. Some will let you hang out for just a few days, and most of them cost about the same as a four-star hotel room does -- and often less. They're usually bigger than standard hotel rooms, which enable you to fit more people if you're not alone. And since they come with a kitchen and often laundry facilities, they allow tourists to settle in and experience destinations a lot better than if they had to rely on high-priced hotel laundry services and restaurants. In addition to enriching a travel experience, that saves money.

When you stay in a Citadines in Paris, for example, you can actually hit the markets and enjoy some of that game meat and runny cheese that U.S. Customs wouldn't let you bring home. When you stay at a Medina in Australia, you can sear a kangaroo steak in your own pan and crack open an affordable Yarra Valley chardonnay that's not being exported. On a recent trip to Tokyo, I found that one of the only affordable accommodations options was, in fact, a little-known serviced apartment hotel chain, Tokyu Stay. The rooms were small, but I could cook soup and wash my socks.

Because Americans aren't allowed by employers to take very long vacations, we've been late to the "serviced apartment" game, and hotel chains that are accustomed to bleeding expense accounts with optional charges have been reticent to jump in. But gradually, American hotels are catching onto the concept.

Marriott, Hyatt, Hilton, Sheraton, and Holiday Inn's parent company are all coming forth with more "suite" hotel rooms, which have gone from something business travelers favor to something that families are getting into. The immense popularity of the Hyatt Place chain, which doesn't supply full kitchens but does approach a home-like atmosphere, testifies to Americans' hunger for something better than staying in a boxy room with only a bed and a bathroom.

A few weeks ago, I stayed at the Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, where my room included a full kitchen with cooking utensils. When I was growing up, the only people who rented lodging with cooking facilities were evictees and ramblin' grandparents. Now, even the concierge set is availing themselves of them. Self-catering is chic.
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