How to proceed when planning a short-stay in a city

Best hotels & restaurants do not come easy

Travel formerly

At the time, when you wanted to spend a few days in a city you bought a travel guide, you went to a travel agency and you asked friends for tips. Nowadays, it is much easier to get a hold of information of your chosen destination but be aware of the fact that this is a rather time-consuming matter.

Last year, I planned a short trip to London and one to Paris; the last few weeks I have been busy arranging a trip of four days to New York City and one of three days to Washington DC. The former city I know rather good, the latter one is virgin territory for me.

Always looking for the best

First, I have to make clear that we i.e. my family (my husband, our teenage son and me) are demanding travelers. We go for the best on condition that it is affordable, we are ready to spend quite a lot of money but there has to be an equivalent, we do not go for prohibitive offers! We do like modern, trendy hotels and restaurants but we do not have anything against classically styled establishments when the course is stayed. As far as restaurants are concerned, we are very much into European food but when we have the chance to try more exotic cuisines, we take it! Hence we do like great ethnic food but we are no purists, we also like the so-called fusion cuisine!

Finding best hotels

After this short introduction more practical aspects shall be looked into. First to New York City … We are quite familiar with this city as we have already visited it several times, the last time five years ago. Then we stayed at the Four Seasons. We did appreciate this hotel very much but – of course – it is very expensive, but back then we got an attractive internet rate. Among other restaurants we dined at Eleven Madison Park (New American food) and at Tabla (Indian food). The Four Seasons lost since then, the two restaurants are still judged as very good. Why do I know this?

Best hotels: check on Tripadvisor

Concerning hotels I check them on TripAdvisor, where I am a reviewer myself, see my profileYou fill in „hotels New York City“ and then you get a ranking of all the hotels reviewed. It is important to have a look at the „half pyramid“ i.e. the number of reviews and how many of the reviewers vote for “excellent”, “very good”, “average”, “poor” and “terrible”, also a glance to the recommendation (percentage of reviewers that would recommend the hotel to their friends) is essential. Depending on the price you are willing to pay for a hotel you can refine your search. I think that at least ten reviews are necessary to get a picture of the establishment and you have to read all of them, and that completely, otherwise you will not be able to get a feeling for the reviewer and the hotel reviewed. I usually read the twenty most recent reviews of a hotel that I am interested in and have an additional look at the bad reviews. This helps to learn about the possible drawbacks of a hotel.

Best hotels: check on other online guides 

Furthermore, a countercheck with ViaMichelin – they publish the famous Michelin Guide – is advisable. Unfortunately the homepage is not that easy to work with. You cannot fail when filling in the name of a hotel and its location. Then you get a description of the hotel and its rating ranking from six (the best) to no stars. When trying to find a hotel in New York City let us say in Soho then the search is much more complicated. Finally I managed to receive a selection of hotels in this area when adding the zip code (in this case “10012”). But you cannot be sure that you shall be told all the hotels reviewed. I gave it a try with the Crosby Street Hotel – my top priority hotel from my search with Tripadvisor – and I had no problem to get a hit by name but when looking for hotels in the Soho area it was not listed (Maybe because it is a newly opened hotel?).

Apart form checking on TripAdvisor and ViaMichelin it is always useful to have a look at the recommendations of Frommer’s. This is probably the most popular American travel guide but it is not only suitable for the USA but covers most destinations worldwide. Through Frommer’s our family found our most favoured ski in and ski out hotel in Austria e.g. (by the way Zuerserhof in Zuers). On its homepage a list of recommended hotels (and restaurants) is published.

Best hotels: summary

Once you have your priority list with hotels it is recommendable to check prices and special offers on their homepages, sometimes it may be worth the effort to call or e-mail them to learn about getting breakfast and/or additional beds included. In my case (upcoming stay in NYC) a call to the first hotel on the list (Crosby Street Hotel in Soho) resulted in getting the rate listed on the homepage but with a free breakfast for the three of us and the inclusion of a third bed for our son.

To sum up as far as our family’s NYC project is concerned, we came to the decision to choose the Crosby Street Hotel as we want to be in the Soho area, because it only has good reviews in Tripadvisor and by reason that ViaMichelin’s rating is not against this choice. In addition, it is supposed to be a modern, trendy styled establishment that suits us very much. My research regarding the hotel we had stayed at five year ago (Four Seasons) showed that there were a lot of recent negative reviews of this hotel in Tripadvisor. Also Frommer’s rated it with „only“ two stars, that is very unusual as this hotel chain normally only gets the best rates (three stars) by this travel guide.

Finding best restaurants

Once you have found your hotel you may be interested in making reservations for restaurants. Perhaps you think that this matter can be postponed to the time when you are on site. Certainly this may be a possibility. Say you arrive at your hotel and there is a concierge. He or she may be able to inform you of good restaurants nearby and maybe reservations can be made. But be aware of the fact that with real hot spots reservations have to be made weeks or even months ahead. Maybe in case you should be a celebrity or a patron of the hotel the concierge may be able to get you a table in such a hip restaurant but otherwise I do not think your chances are intact. So it is advisable to prearrange when you want to be sure to have reservations for the „right“ restaurants. What is the procedure in this case? In my opinion it is slightly different from the one concerning hotels.

Best restaurants: check on TripAdvisor vs. other sources

Personally I think that TripAdvisor is not of such an importance regarding restaurants as this is the case of hotels. Whether you like a restaurant or not is often the result of certain moods, the impression of a restaurant bases in many cases on a snap-shot. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that you spend less time in restaurant than in a hotel, I am not sure … After several years of checking on TripAdvisor I came to the conclusion that this source is not that reliable as far as restaurants are concerned.

I would suggest that for restaurants in NYC you should rely on the already mentioned ViaMichelin. Its homepage is easier to use for restaurants than it is for hotels as all the localities are listed when filling in “New York” and not only the ones near a certain address as this is with hotels. In a big city like NYC ViaMichelin recommends hundreds of restaurants, therefore I suggest that you go for the Michelin starred ones, at least for the one star restaurants, the ones with two or thee stars can be exorbitantly expensive.

Another source to check restaurants in NYC is The New York Times, and this in the dining section. There you click on “Go”, then sort by “NYT Rating” and then you receive a ranking of restaurants from the top to bottom (four stars means “extraordinary”, three stars “excellent”, two stars “very good”, one star “good”). As thousands of restaurants in NCY are rated by the NYT I would recommend choosing restaurants from the ones with three stars. When cross-checking Michelin starred restaurants with the ones receiving stars from NYT you should succeed in finding establishments guaranteeing an extraordinary culinary experience! Also other restaurant guides may be taken into account as ZagatFor certain European countries the use of the Gault Millau guide makes sense, too (not available for NYC).

Reservations for restaurants

Once you have found your favourite restaurants you have to make reservations. You can do this either by phone but that is not everybody’s cup of tea – I, personally, do not like this very much for reservations abroad – or you can check the restaurant’s homepage for a reservation form or an e-mail address. But there is also a third – as I think – really brilliant possibility and that is booking a table through OpenTable. This is an organization offering – as they say on their homepage – “make restaurant reservations the easy way”. You fill in “New York” and for Manhattan 881 restaurants are listed. When you already know the restaurant you want to go to you write its name and indicate the date, time and size of party of your desired reservation. Then you either book a table right away (you can directly see the availabilities of the concrete day) or you check the restaurant’s page first. There you will find all the necessary information concerning this locality (short description, menus, dress code, reviews a.s.o.). When you have not decided yet where to go you have a look at the different rankings (best food, most booked, best overall a.s.o.). 

Once you have done your bookings you get a reminder when the day of the reservation in question approaches. You may also send invitations to guests when needed and so forth. A real smasher, this homepage! There are 12,000 restaurants affiliated worldwide. In NYC and Washington DC almost every restaurant is listed on OpenTable. This organization exists especially in English-spoken countries as in the United States, in Canada and in the United Kingdom (there are 364 restaurants affiliated e.g. in London), even in Switzerland about 10 restaurants joined this reservation network. Maybe you ask yourself whether this system works reliably and I can confirm this. So far we have booked about 10 restaurants via OpenTable and there was never any problem with the reservations. It would be nice when this really great reservation networks could be established in other than English-spoken countries as well!

Conclusions for our trips to NYC/Washington DC

As far as my family’s upcoming trip to NYC is concerned, the check of the restaurants visited five years ago showed still good ratings. Tabla (Indian Fusion) was judged as “excellent” from NYT and ViaMichelin listed it among recommended restaurants as well. Eleven Madison Park (New American) was even rated as “extraordinary” by NYT and had one Michelin star. As we decided to go to other restaurants we selected the following ones, all in walking distance of our hotel: Public (Australian Fusion, Michelin one star, NYT one star), wd-50 (New American/molecular gastronomy, Michelin one star, NYT three stars), Gotham Bar and Grill (New American, Michelin one star, NYT tree stars) and Veritas (New American, Michelin one star, NYT three stars).

Concerning the second stop of our trip – Washington DC – I spare the details. The main difference to NYC in my case was that I had to get to know the city first and for this purpose I still rely on the good old travel guides in book-form. The family’s decision lead to a hotel in Georgetown, the Four Seasons, and we booked tables in nearby restaurants – based on the 100 very best restaurants of the Washingtonian Magazine and Frommer’s restaurant recommendations: Four Season’s restaurant Bourbon Steak (New American/steaks, No 35), Rasika (Indian, No 8) and Komi (Greek Fusion, No 1).

As you can imagine this whole research is a time-consuming affair! But it is worthwhile as you can be almost entirely sure to spend a wonderful stay at least as far as the hotel and the restaurants are concerned. I made this experience when staying last year in Paris and London for a few days, and also for longer trips as we did in Canada and Morocco. As this procedure for planning vacations really offers great reward I even think of offering such a personalized service to other people!

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