Road Trip

How a 10-Hour Stay in a $125-a-Night Best Western in Upstate New York Restored My Faith in America’s Economy

The air conditioning worked. The cable TV channels were abundant. And that king-size bed! Screw the skeptics—this is what makes America great, writes a wide-eyed Daniel Gross.

Aladdin Color, Inc./Corbis

I wouldn’t recommend the Best Western in Monticello, New York, for a relaxing weekend getaway. But if you want to have your faith in America restored, you might want to check it out.

Those of us who work in the media, cover finance and politics, and live in and around New York City are constantly presented with systems and things that don’t work. Over the weekend, the Metro-North train system literally went off the rails. Cellphone services drop calls like they’re hot potatoes. The banking system and Wall Street, when they’re not screwing things up or violating regulations, are prone to hacking. Politics? Forget about it. The cumulative effect makes people feel pessimistic about America and its prospects.

But New York and Washington aren’t the totality of the U.S. economy. There are plenty of systems in the U.S. that work fantastically well. They quietly deliver efficiency, excellent service, and a high standard of living—to a degree that many developed economies can’t match. That was the epiphany I had Sunday night during a 10-hour stay at a roadside hotel.

I was heading on a brief reporting trip to rural New York, so it made sense to drive about halfway there Sunday night, wake up early, and go the rest of the route in the morning. Friday afternoon, I went online and with a few clicks made a reservation at the Best Western in Monticello, just off Highway 17. Within a minute, the system generated an email confirming the reservation.

After two hours on the road, my head grew heavy and my sight grew dim. I was ready to stop for the night. Right off the highway, in a charmless parking lot, it gave off no hint of luxury. I walked past the flowerpots into the well-lit lobby. Within two minutes, the clerk on duty located my reservation—king bed, no smoking—issued me a card and a (free!) Wi-Fi access code, and sent me up to room 222.

It was exactly as advertised.The room was huge—bigger than my first two New York City apartments—and spotless. It held a collection of amenities that would be the envy of a typical human and would fit anybody’s description of the good life: a king-size bed with four pillows; a big LG, flat-screen television with dozens of channels; climate control that I could control; a refrigerator; a microwave; a coffeemaker; a blow-dryer; a table with chairs. I watched the increasingly inscrutable Mad Men and tried to make sense of it by looking through my Twitter feed—which I accessed via the free, functioning Wi-Fi.

At precisely 5:30 a.m. the next morning, as requested, the wake-up call buzzed. The shower had plentiful hot water and powerful water pressure, more than equivalent to what I get at home. At precisely 6 a.m., the free, all-you-can-eat breakfast was ready: hard-boiled eggs, fresh fruit, oatmeal, cereal, and waffles. Ten minutes later, caffeinated, hydrated, and fed, I went to check out—two minutes later, accurate receipt in hand, I was back on the highway. The total cost: $141, including tax.

There’s nothing very noteworthy about this. Except that in most countries in the world, such an experience would seem alien and impossible. I’ve spent plenty of time in hotels in countries that are allegedly better functioning than the U.S. At the $500-per-night hotels in Davos, Switzerland, there’s no Wi-Fi whatsoever. The Marriott in Zurich, where I stayed in January, lost our reservation; it took 35 minutes to convince them that we belonged there. I’ve stayed in closet-size hotels in London where the beds are more appropriate for 10-year-olds than for 30-year-olds. In April checking in and out of a succession of hotels in Italy was the hospitality equivalent of the Slow Food movement. Everybody has a comical French-shower story. And just try using the Internet at a hotel in China.

The Best Western is not a high-end luxury experience. But by global standards, it delivers a five-star lifestyle. The systems here—from the reservations to the cleaning service, from the check-in to the wake-up call, from the plumbing to the breakfast—all worked exactly as advertised. No glitches. The result was an extremely high level of consumer comfort at a very low price. And this is in an anonymous, low-profile hotel. It wasn’t like they were making a special effort for VIPs or offering special dispensation because this was a premium product. The Best Western (and many of its analogues around the country) unpretentiously provides a level of comfort, functionality, and value that we generally take for granted and would be available only to the well off and well connected in many other parts of the world.

What a country!