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What Is a Luxury Hotel?

Guests have the right to expect all this from a hotel that calls itself "luxury"

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Today, the word "luxury" has been degraded by overuse. Everything has its "luxury" component nowadays…from coffee blends to detergents. But in the view of experienced, demanding luxury travelers, "luxury hotel" has to mean something specific.

Who Decides Whether a Hotel Is Luxury or Not?

The hospitality industry generally accepts hotel star ratings designated by Forbes (formerly Mobil), AAA, and other critically-minded organizations. But there are no set standards for "luxury hotels," and both four-star and five-star hotels generally describe themselves as "luxury."

Hotel guests paying high luxury-hotel rates have a right to expect certain luxury hotel standards, in service, in rooms, in dining, and in everything else a good hotel offers.

The luxury hotel "musts" below are mine. See if you agree with me.

What to Expect from a Luxury Hotel...

Easy, Intelligent, Respectful Planning

Man using a laptop in a hotel room
ONOKY - Eric Audras/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

The reservation process – whether online, by phone, via a travel agent or another party such as LuxuryLink -- should be simple, and you should get all the help you need.

Fast, Easy, Discreet Checkin and Checkout

Checkin at The Pierre New York is smiling and swift. © Karen Tina Harrison.

Nothing's more frustrating than waiting on a long checkin line when you've spent the day just getting to the hotel. Luxury travelers hate to wait!

Something can be learned from the Apple Store, which has no checkin or checkout line, but roving salespeople who do it all on iPads.

Your luggage should take no more than 10 minutes to arrive in your room.

A luxury hotel should offer video or express checkout. And discrepancies on your bill should be settled swiftly.

The Room You Wanted

Santa Fe hotel suite at © Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi.

The room you're assigned to should be exactly the kind of room you want. A true luxury hotel will accommodate your request regarding:

  • Room category or level
  • Physical location in the hotel (Near the lobby or secluded? City or water view? Ground floor? High floor? Near the elevator? Away from A/C generators and ice machines?)
  • Special room classification: Pet-friendly? Handicapped?
  • A king bed, if that's what you want
  • A plunge pool, if some rooms have and some don't

See how to get the hotel room you want >>

Luxury Hotel Room Features

Junior Suite at The Dolder Grand, Zurich, Switzerland. © Sara Liss.

I have a long list of enhanced room features that must be present for a hotel to be considered luxury. This covers most of them:

  • A room that strikes you as lovely as soon as you walk in: with consistent design, high-quality furnishings, and no cheap touches such as rickety reading lamps
  • A room with no odors, such as old smoke, aggressive room freshener, or strong cleanser
  • Real plaster (or adobe, stucco, wooden) walls; if wallpapered, not the plastic wipe-down kind
  • Original art on the walls, whether paintings, numbered prints, or art photos (not generic Paris café shots, posters, or cheap prints)
  • A king bed – the default luxury travel bed
  • A reasonably firm mattress
  • High-quality, all-cotton sheets and a natural-fiber bedspread
  • And nothing synthetic covering the mattress
  • A variety of pillow types in the room or a phone call away
  • Robes and slippers
  • At least one window you can actually open
  • Pleasant fabric window curtains, with a layer that block the light
  • Adequate storage: tabletop, counter, drawer, and closet space
  • Sufficient hangers, and not the kind attached to the rod
  • A reading chair chosen for comfort, not artiness
  • A desk of some kind
  • A room safe
  • A good-size flatscreen TV
  • An iPod dock so you can hear your own music
  • A coffee maker and bottled water, on the house
  • A full-length mirror, perhaps in the closet
  • A effective and reasonably quiet heating/AC system that you can control
  • A (quiet) clock – and please, not a 70s-era clock-radio
  • Overall attention to aesthetic detail (my bête noire is visible jungles of electric cords)

Don't let your hotel get away with cheap corner-cutting! >>

Luxury Hotel Bathroom Features

Bathroom of the Regent Suite at © The Langham, London.

Luxury hotel bathrooms – like luxury home bathrooms – have become an area of scrutiny and pride. I look for:

  • A ventilation source, even a fan
  • His-and-hers sinks
  • A partitioned john
  • Sufficient counter space for your stuff
  • Unstained, unchipped counters, whether marble or tile
  • A tub built for two
  • And that is not too high to step into unless you're a Rockette
  • Good water pressure in the shower
  • Prestige or artisan toiletries that smell neither too flowery nor masculine, and that, for now, are not made in China
  • Bath gel as well as bar soap
  • Plenty of fluffy, high-quality terry towels
  • A makeup mirror that lights
  • Enough racks or hooks for you to dry hand laundry
  • In Europe and many other places, you should expect a bidet
  • And in Asian luxury hotels, a TOTO toilet

Enlightened Service Features

Staff greeting guests at Fenisia Hotel in Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan. © Karen Tina Harrison.

Luxury hotel guests should get the feeling that they are known and valued. I once profiled a Tahiti resort that resembled Paradise, but the staff's haughty, cold, derisive manner made it feel like Alcatraz.

Luxury hotel guests should expect hotel personnel who greet guests with at least a smile at every encounter. And they should greet you by name if there's no one else to overhear.

Hotel housekeeping should be quiet, thorough, and dependable. A maid should never remove anything of yours, including empty shopping bags, half-drunk water bottles, and wet shower caps. Nightly turndown service is essential.

Housekeeping should not use heavily ammoniated or other other highly chemical-smelling cleaners, or cheaply perfumed cleaning products. This applies not just to your room but to the hotel's common areas and restaurants. Non-irritating, more natural products are readily available to hotels that care.

Maintenance personnel and handymen should appear at your room within minutes to attend to your locked safe, jammed coffee maker, or what ails you.

Gardeners and outdoor workers cannot interfere with a guest's enjoyment of the property. They should not criss-cross the lawn in front of your lounger, or work near your pool chaise. And leaf-blowers and the like have no place in a luxury hotel.

See what hospitality guru Eric Weiss says hotels must do for guests >>

Outstanding Hotel Dining

America's ultimate hotel restaurant, Joel Robuchon Las Vegas in © MGM Grand.

Even a small boutique hotel should offer its guests a place to eat and, ideally, another place to drink. The restaurant and bar should be attractive, with good food.

Room service must be offered. In urban hubs, it should be available 24 hours.

Many hotels, especially in Europe, include breakfast with the room rate. These breakfasts are usually excellent buffets.

But American hotels that offer complimentary breakfast too often supply only packaged cereals, cottony bagels, and the like. My feeling: do breakfast right, or don't do it at all.

Guest Activities and Amenities

Lap pool at Loews Hotel Philadelphia. © VRX.

A luxury hotel should offer its guests these serives. And not just guests who have ungraded to club-floor status.

  • A 24-hour fitness center with at least a range of basic equipment: a Stairmaster, a treadmill, a stationary bike, free weights, and floor mats
  • A pool, if at all possible given the hotel's space
  • Round-the-clock room service
  • A social lobby area away from the drafty entrance, with couches, wifi, and (non-mandatory) bar service
  • Unpacking and packing services
  • Laundry service
  • Babysitting, petsitting, and dogwalking referrals
  • A concierge who knows more than you do, and does not push tourist traps onto guests

Complimentary Touches

Guest transportation at Four Seasons Bora Bora in Tahiti. ©Karen Tina Harrison.

A luxury hotel should offer its guests these services at no charge:

  • Bottled water and coffee in the room
  • Room wifi (all together now: this is not the place for a hotel to profiteer)
  • Fitness center use
  • Morning coffee served in the lobby is a rare but very welcome touch
  • Local phone calls (especially important overseas, when you might not want to use your mobile phone)

Examples of True Luxury Hotels

Verdi Suite of Grand Hotel Majestic in Bologna,Italy. ©Eric Levin.

These gracious hotels have been scrutinized by your Guide to Luxury Travel and various Guest Authors, and have been deemed no-doubt-about-it luxury hotels

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