Renting an Apartment vs. Booking a Hotel

As websites offering private residences for temporary rental to travelers becomes more mainstream, more people are opting to spend their vacations staying in homes versus going the regular hotel route.

One of the main factors inspiring this switch is the low cost of apartments over pricy hotels.  But money isn’t the only factor to consider.  Here are some things to think about when considering renting an apartment vs. booking a hotel while traveling.

The king sized bed and red headboard at the Rouge Hotel in Washington DC.

Spacious, artistic and comfortable: the Rouge Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Apartment Pro: Space, and lots of it.
The biggest perk of private rentals tends to be the amount of space for the price.  Entire apartments are often offered for the amount of a tiny hotel room, or sometimes even at a fraction of the price.  Thanks to AirBNB, my friend and I rented a entire apartment in Paris across the street from the Louvre for 6 days for the same price as the hotel we had in Madrid for only 3 days.

Hotel Pro: Cleaning Crews.
Never underestimate how awesome it is when you leave your hotel room and return hours later to a sparkling clean bathroom, empty garbage cans, clean towels and perfectly made beds.  When you rent someone’s house, the cleaning crew doesn’t exist.  Actually, it does exist and that cleaning crew is you.  Remember that if you’re staying for a long time, have a messy travel companion, or just like a perfectly organized living space (like me).

The patio outside the cottage we rented in Sonoma.

Added amenities like a spacious patio and bikes were free with the cottage we rented in Sonoma.

Apartment Pro: Home Amenities.
Our Parisian apartment came with a kitchen, a washer and dryer, and a separate bedroom–all welcome amenities after practically living on top of each other in tiny hotel rooms in Spain.  Washing our clothes, having a fridge and our own space were very appreciated, even if the dryer took hours to complete and the fridge was smaller than a dorm room one.

Hotel Pro: Concierge Amenities.
I didn’t realize how much I relied on the knowledge of the hotel front desk until I stayed at an apartment without one.  We got used to asking for directions, suggestions on what to do or where to eat, and requesting a cab from the concierge in our Spain hotels and it required a bit more work without them in Paris.  The biggest obstacle was realizing that you can’t hail cabs in Paris like you can in New York City–something we discovered when already late to the opera.  We panicked, luckily found a cab stand, and made it on time, but only barely.

The Park South Hotel in New York City.

Nothing like returning to a clean hotel room. The Park South Hotel in New York City.

Apartment Pro: Staying Among Locals.
Staying in the home of an actual local puts you in the neighborhood of other actual locals, taking you away from the often over-priced, touristy places.  In Paris, that meant deliciously authentic French food for a fraction of what other tourists were paying.

Hotel Pro: Proximity to Touristy Sites.
While being among the locals is a desired asset at times, there was definitely a convenience for being steps away from the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

The owner's belongings in the Paris apartment we rented.

The owner’s belongings in the Paris apartment we rented.

Apartment Con: You’re in Someone’s House.
The Paris apartment was really clean, but the owner lived there so her stuff was everywhere.  Because we didn’t know her, it was weird to be among her clothing, toiletries in her shower, and miscellaneous stuff everywhere.  I was worried if I unpacked my suitcase, my stuff would mix among hers and I’d forget it.

When my friends and I rented a cottage in Sonoma, it was purely a rental property so all the closets were empty, making it feel more like a hotel and less like we broke into someone’s place and were staying among their stuff.  This is obviously a personal preference whether that sort of thing bugs you, but if it does, it’s a good thing to think about.

The premier room in the Grand America in Salt Lake City.

In some hotels all the rooms are huge, like the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

Hotel Con: Front Desk = Babysitter.
Do you ever feel like the front desk watches every time you leave the hotel and every time you come back and notes what time it is and how long you’ve been gone and, hey, who is that with you? and wow, did she just stumble on those stairs?  Ok, so maybe I’m paranoid but sometimes I feel like I have to greet the front desk every time I pass go and it gets a little awkward.  Plus many European hotels require you to leave the room key with them, so you definitely have to check in every time you come and go.

Apartment Con: No Babysitter.
Sometimes the feeling of the front desk as a babysitter becomes a headache, but in the back of my mind, it’s also kind of nice.  In Paris, we only had one key to the apartment and if it got lost, the owner was out of the country so essentially we were out of luck.  Plus, the door automatically locked when we shut it.  (That didn’t make us paranoid about losing the key at all.)  In Sonoma, the owners lived on the property so we could call them in an emergency.  Make sure to ask about extra keys and the owners’ availability before renting.

Another note for young, solo or female travelers: I like the safety of knowing the front desk is stationed around the clock in case I am being followed or have any issues with creepy people.  When I travel alone this is a nice, warm fuzzy feeling I like to have in the back of my mind.

The Upham Bed & Breakfast in Santa Barbara, California.

The Upham Bed & Breakfast in Santa Barbara, California.

So: Apartment vs. Hotel?
When it comes down to it, deciding between an apartment rental or a hotel depends on a lot of factors.  I’ve done both and, personally, when I’m staying in one place for a long time and want a lot of space (like Paris) or when I’m traveling with a group of people (like Sonoma), rentals are the way to go.  When I’m only in town for a few days (like Madrid) or traveling alone (like New York City or Washington DC) I lean toward hotels.

But as the popularity of rentals grows, it’ll be interesting to see if–and how–the tide will change with amenities and trends of expectations in both apartments and hotels.  And when you just can’t decide, it seems like bed & breakfasts tend to fall right in the middle, so maybe that’s your best bet.

Tip :: For temporary rentals check AirBnb, VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) and GoWithOh (for rentals in Europe).

Staycation at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City

It has reached that point in the summer when schedules are packed full of barbecues, warm get-aways, weddings and family reunions.  Indeed these are the high points of summer that we look forward to all year long, especially during those long winter nights when we’re craving sunny days and starry nights, but sometimes it all gets a little exhausting.

My girlfriends and I planned to go on a trip hoping to repeat last year’s Sonoma vacation, but finding a week when four women are simultaneously free is no easy task.  With all of our busy schedules, it was impossible.  So we decided on a staycation.  But not just any staycation, a staycation at The Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, the city’s most luxurious hotel.

The impressive lobby of the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The impressive lobby of the Grand America Hotel.

What was most appealing about The Grand America, besides its beauty, was that we could spend the entire time without ever leaving the hotel—nor would we get cabin fever with the endless amount of things to do.

The key to the Grand America Hotel room in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The key is electronic but still shaped like a regular key.

The Grand America has a luxurious spa, an amazing pool, a classic bar, a lounge, restaurant and an award-winning bakery.  Not to mention shopping, a fitness center, numerous ballrooms and enough unique art to constitute an actual art tour.

We checked in on Friday evening after another stressful week and as soon as I walked into its gorgeously elaborate lobby I felt the tension slip away from my shoulders.

The Premier Room with two queen beds at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

Our premier room with two queen beds was huge!

Our huge room had the biggest bathroom I’ve ever seen in a hotel—with two full sinks and mirrors.  (They were really handy when we all got ready at the same time.)  Our room was so massive I wondered if we’d somehow booked a suite but later learned it was just a standard premier room at the Grand.  Grand, indeed.

The Lobby Lounge in the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The bar in the Lobby Lounge serves cocktails and coffee.

We started our staycation with wine in the Lobby Lounge, where a jazz trio serenades guests on Friday and Saturday evenings.  The space is adorned with a large mirror, rumored to have been recovered from the ruins of a century-old Chicago hotel, with large paintings hanging nearby and comfy chairs and couches dotting the floor.  During the day the lobby hosts afternoon tea and light fare is available all day.

La Bonne Vie patisserie in the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The brightly colored La Bonne Vie, with its incredible pastries, is like heaven.

We made a quick stop at La Bonne Vie, the Grand’s award-winning pastry shop, a brightly colorful patisserie modeled after the finest bakeries in Paris.  The shop serves gelato and house-made pastries wrapped in cute boxes.  Not only are the pastries absolutely to die for, they are as beautiful as works of art.

Next we moved onto dinner at the Garden Café, the Grand’s main restaurant serving American cuisine all day.  It’s classy, yet casual atmosphere makes guests feel welcome in whatever attire they happen to be wearing.  The floral-patterned carpet combined with flower-covered walls feel a bit like being stuck in the Secret Garden, but it’s not called the Garden Café for nothing.  The food is well-executed home-style dishes like pot roast, pork osso bucco and roasted chicken; comforting food in a comfortable setting.

The cozy Gibson Lounge at the Grand America Hotel.

The cozy Gibson Lounge.

After dinner we finished our night with cocktails at the Gibson Lounge, modeled after the classic golden age hotel bars.  The menu of handcrafted cocktails is inspired from the same era, where many classic cocktails got their start, designed by Salt Lake City expert mixologist Amy Eldridge.  The Astoria, a classic dry gin martini, is deliciously refreshing (and this is coming from a whiskey lover!).

The next day we started out with a relaxing morning in the Grand Spa getting pedicures designed to pamper queens.  The spa is like stepping into a modern oasis, with a completely different feel than the rest of the hotel.  Trickling fountains and soft ambient music float through the several-story spa, creating an atmosphere capable of transporting even the most stressed person to peace.

The Grand America Hotel is the only place with a pool and a liquor license in Salt Lake City.

The Grand America is the only pool with a liquor license in Salt Lake City.

We refueled with lunch back at the Garden Café, then headed outside to the pool, snagging a cabana and lounge chairs for a perfect mix of shade and sun.  The best part about the Grand America’s pool?  It’s the only pool in the city with a liquor license!  It’s also surprisingly quiet considering two of the city’s busiest streets surround the hotel—you don’t hear any traffic while sitting outside!

While I could have lounged at the pool until sunset, we had a wedding to attend, so we vowed to return for a full weekend when we could finish exploring the rest of the hotel and participate in some of their weekday activities, like free yoga in the courtyard, movie nights at the pool and afternoon tea.

Poolside lounge chairs at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.

The poolside lounge chairs.

Not only does the lavish decor at the Grand America Hotel make you feel like you’re far from Salt Lake City, the service and selection of amenities is something you won’t find anywhere else, making it a perfect pick for a staycation.

Note :: Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, events like yoga, afternoon tea, live jazz and access to the spa, shops, restaurants and bakery are open to the public.  (Access to the pool requires staying at the hotel or a service at the spa.)

Related :: Tulips & Tea at the Grand America and a look at La Bonne Vie Bakery.

Disclaimer :: I was graciously treated to my hotel stay by The Grand America Hotel, however, everything else was personally paid for.  As usual, all thoughts and opinions are my own. 

The Big Picture of New York City

There are few cities I know like I know New York City.  I am fortunate enough to return to the Big Apple time and time again, creating a familiarity with her streets that I don’t have with any other place besides my hometown.

Sure, there was a time when I traveled to San Francisco every month but we all know I only went there for the lemon tarts.  (I’m only half joking.)

New York City.

New York City.

One of the beautiful things about visiting a city so many times is the ability to view it with a proverbial magnifying glass, instead of only observing the big picture of it in its entirety.  The familiarity allows me to look beyond the infinite rows of skyscrapers, the millions upon millions of people, the gridlock of concrete and traffic and noise, and see the intimate moments that a city as massive as New York can actually have.

A bridge in Central Park, New York City.

Details of Central Park.

A flower stand on the street in New York City.

I love the flower stands throughout big cities; they always brighten my day just strolling by.

Every single time I’ve traveled to New York City I’ve done so with a different purpose.  Sometimes it’s been to see friends or introduce someone new to the city.  Other times I’ve gone to see people that live there or, simply, gone in search of escape from life in Salt Lake City.

A bike with a basket full of flowers in NYC.

Even though this is a prop for a shop, I still appreciated the flowers in the bike basket.

But this trip I went for one reason and one reason only: because it’s New York City and it was early summer and she’s a hell of a beaut that time of year.

A red door in New York City.

Of course, a door picture (because I’m obsessed).

Oh, who am I kidding: New York City is beautiful any time of year.

Related :: A weekend of gastronomy & girlfriends in NYC and a weekend of arts & eating in NYC.

Totto Ramen in New York City

There are only two ingredients required for ramen to be qualified as ramen: broth and noodles.  Which, when broken down to its basics, qualifies a lot of soups as ramen.  But we all know better, don’t we?

In Japan, what else joins the ramen bowl varies widely depending on the region and even the basis of the broth and the noodles themselves change with geography.  The variables of ramen include broth-base (like pork, chicken, beef or fish), noodle width and length, seasoning (from salt to miso to shoyu), and toppings (everything from eggs, bean sprouts, pork, pork belly, onions, fish cake, seaweed and mussels–you name it).  Suddenly the original qualification of ramen’s basics—broth and noodles—is starting to make sense, isn’t it?

So if ramen varies widely by region in Japan, why should it be any different outside of Japan?

Totto Ramen in New York City.

Totto Ramen is tiny, but worth the wait.

Having tried a bowl of ramen in almost every city I’ve traveled to over the past few years, it was time for a ramen repeat in New York City.  Only this time, I wanted try a different ramen shop to see how it compared (or likely, contrasted) to the first bowl of ramen I had in NYC.

After riding bikes in Central Park, my friends and I walked to Totto Ramen, rumored to be one of the best ramen restaurants in New York City (and the country).  There was a 45 minute wait at 3 in the afternoon, which was no surprise after peeking inside the teeny-tiny restaurant.  It’s small even for Manhattan standards, with bar seating and only a couple of tables.  There isn’t a waiting area, so people hover on the entryway stairs and on the surrounding street.

Totto Ramen's Miso Ramen.

Totto Ramen’s Miso Ramen.

Once we were seated, service was quick and efficient.  We were greeted instantly, had drinks in a flash and our bowls of ramen arrived in minutes.  (It’s like the server could tell I was hangry!)  The main ramen at Totto is Paitan ramen, a chicken-based broth named after the Chinese word for its opaque, white broth.  The rest of the menu consists of variations of the Paitan ramen, including a spicy spin-off, one with miso and one with a mound of meat called Mega.

Paitan ramen at Totto Ramen in New York City.

Paitan ramen at Totto Ramen in New York City.

The rich, creamy broth is heavy on the chicken flavor, that to me has a tendency to take me back to my mom’s homemade chicken soup.   (Ironic considering my dad is Japanese-American, but childhood memories are what they are…)  However, it was still savory in a satisfactory way and the chili pepper oil added a spicy kick that kept me from wandering memory lane for too long, especially when I got bites of green onions and the incredibly fatty pork belly (drool).

Another fun twist: Totto browns their pork with a blow torch.  How can you not be a fan when there’s a fire hazard involved?

Totto Ramen browns pork with a blow torch.

Cooking with blow torches.

So back to answering the my original question: does ramen vary outside of Japan just like it does within it?  Absolutely.  While Totto ramen focuses on chicken-based broth, my previous NYC ramen experience was based around a pork broth.  There were other variations too, like the hard boiled egg.  I tend to favor pork broth over chicken, but I thoroughly enjoyed my ramen at Totto.  It was my second time tasting chicken-based ramen (after my bowl in Paris) and it blew Paris’s ramen out of the water!

Go to Totto Ramen for :: a comforting, delicious bowl of ramen.  Notes :: Be prepared: the restaurant is cash only and is tiny, so be ready for a wait.  There are two locations relatively close to each other and neither accept reservations or allow take out.  Hours and locations are here.

Totto Ramen on Urbanspoon

A Weekend of Gastronomy & Girlfriends in New York City

At what point does an obsession become an addiction?  I’ve long been obsessed with New York City, returning to the city year after year, time after time, sometimes going there in a spur of the moment after being unable to deny the desire–no, the urge–to walk along her crowded, noisy streets.

In February I returned to New York City for my 11th time, marking the 10-year anniversary of my first trip to the city.  And after returning home from Spain and France, bummed by the familiarity of Salt Lake City’s streets, I was compelled yet again to go to New York City.  So I enlisted two of my friends and not a month after being home from Europe, the three of us ventured to my favorite city for my 12th time.

Fire Engine 23 in New York City.

It’s the subtle buildings of New York City that I found strikingly beautiful.

By definition, an obsession is the domination of one’s thoughts and feelings by a persistent idea or desire.  An addiction, on the other hand, is the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice to the point of being physically habit-forming.  It seems at this point New York City has surpassed the obsession stage and was well on its way to being a habit-forming addiction.

What can I say?  I just can’t resist New York City.

Little Italy in New York City.

Walking through Little Italy.

My two friends and I explored our way through the city together back in 2008 (I believe that was NYC Trip #6 for me), so this trip was less about sightseeing and more about spending time together.  We focused our time eating and drinking like we did last year while in Sonoma together.

In fact, while we made sure to hit one of New York City’s most famous bagelries (and rumored best), Ess-a-Bagel, had wine and small plates at Stanton Social, and returned to Juni for an explosive tasting menu, we didn’t do much else besides eat.  Unless you count drinking.

The view of Manhattan from the Roof at Park South.

The view of Manhattan from the Roof at Park South.

We stayed at the Goldilocks of hotels, The Park South, with large luxurious rooms and an amazing rooftop bar overlooking Midtown, with perfect proximity to the best discovery I made during my last trip: The Flatiron Room, with its 750 whiskeys.  My girlfriends are fellow whiskey drinkers and echoed my feelings of euphoria being there.

The Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

The Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

The one and only touristy activity we did, one that’s been on my New York City to do list for years, was ride bikes through Central Park.  It was a perfect summer Saturday and the park was full of people soaking up the sun.  What a contrast to the snow and cold I experienced in the city in February.

We followed our bike ride with a ramen lunch, in what has become somewhat of a tradition during my travels, before ending the trip with an extravagant dinner full of molecular gastronomy (and way too much wine) at Juni.

Kelli Nakagama in New York City.

Drinking on the rooftop on the last night in the city.

And then, in a blink of an eye, as it always happens with New York City, the trip was over and we were on our way back to Salt Lake City.  Now, to contemplate where to go next.  Which makes me wonder: perhaps I’m not so much addicted to New York City as I am addicted to traveling.

Or maybe… I’m addicted to both.

Which is perfectly fine by me.

Stay tuned for more posts from New York City, including a ramen lunch, snapshots from around the city and more.

Doors of Spain and France

I’ve long been obsessed with doors.  It’s silly, I know, but have you ever stopped to really look at the seemingly simple barriers?  Some are extraordinarily stunning.

It all started during my trip to Japan in 2012 when every surface of every structure was decorated with a classic Japanese flair, even the doors.  I found myself taking photos of the doors and loved the pictures when I returned home.

Slowly, a travel trend started.  With each trip I returned with more pictures of doors.  Now I go out of my way to snap a photo of a beautiful or strange door, sometimes crossing the street or backtracking from a cab ride just for a photo of one that catches my eye.

As you can imagine, Spain and France provided unlimited amounts of doors and doorways that I adored.  For my final post on my trip, here are some of my favorite doors of Spain and France.


A colorful door in the La Salut neighborhood of Barcelona.

A colorful door in the La Salut neighborhood of Barcelona.

A decorative door in the La Ribera neighborhood of Barcelona.

A decorative door in the La Ribera neighborhood of Barcelona.

Madrid & Toledo:

A door in the Royal Palace of Madrid.

A door inside the Royal Palace of Madrid (right before I learned photography was banned in the palace).

One of the many church doors in Toledo.

One of the many church doors in Toledo.

Paris & Champagne:

A stairway leading to a door in the Palace of Versailles, France.

I also love photos of stairs so this door in the Palace of Versailles was a double wammy!

A door with ancient Egyptians in Champagne, France.

Falling under the strange category is this door found in Champagne with ancient Egyptians on it.

I’m not sure what it is I find so intriguing about doors.  Maybe it’s their concept: what is behind them?  Where do they lead?  Who could be beyond them and what possibilities could happen when they open?

That may be a little abstract and perhaps far-fetched, but you can’t deny that some of these doors truly are beautiful.

A wisteria-covered door in Paris, France.

My favorite door photo of all the hundreds I’ve ever taken: this wisteria-covered one in Paris.

Thank you for allowing me to share my trip to Spain and France with you.  For a look back, here are all my Barcelona posts, Madrid posts, Toledo posts, Paris posts and Champagne posts.

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