Battle of the Chicago W Hotels: W Lakeshore vs. W City Center
With a whopping 30 or so brands in the combined Marriott-Starwood portfolio, it can be difficult to tell what really sets them apart. (I couldn't tell you the differences between a Renaissance and a Le Méridien if my life depended on it.) But outside of the ultra-luxe brands like Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis, there's always been one brand with an unmistakable identity: W Hotels. From my first stay with them, at the W Retreat & Spa - Vieques in Puerto Rico, I was instantly hooked on the brand's brazen blend of modern luxury finishes and psychedelic lights and sounds.
So I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I didn't know that my hometown of Chicago was home to not one but two Ws, the W Chicago - City Center and W Chicago - Lakeshore. To make up for lost time, I stayed a night at each of them, with the aim of deciding which of the Windy City's Ws reigns supreme.
I took advantage of a little-known program called Starwood Luxury Privileges to book my stays. This program is similar to American Express' Fine Hotels & Resorts or Chase's Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection, except it's not limited to certain cardholders. Luxury Privileges covers many W, St. Regis, Westin, and Luxury Collection properties, although the benefits vary by property. Generally speaking, they include one $100 food or spa credit per stay, a room upgrade (subject to availability), free breakfast and an early check-in or late check-out (also subject to availability).
Luxury Privileges rates will usually correspond with the SPG flexible rate, not the lowest prepaid rate. The one downside is that unlike FHR or the LHRC, which can be booked online, only certain licensed travel agents have access to Luxury Privileges bookings. After a few fruitless calls, I stumbled upon Vancouver-based Renshaw Travel, who happily completed my booking for me in a matter of minutes. My total came out to about $190 per night after taxes, and my confirmation reflected the luxury benefits, most importantly a $100 food credit at each property. It's worth noting that while alcohol was technically excluded from the $100 credit, the W Lakeshore happily applied part of our credit to drinks at the Living Room Bar.
A lot of the benefits listed were similar to those offered to elite members, so it makes sense to question why you should book a Luxury Privileges rate. If you don't have elite status and want perks like breakfast and a room upgrade, this is a great way to get them for a small premium. Alternatively, on short stays of one or two nights, the food or spa credits become an even better value. If I'd booked directly through the SPG website, the rate after taxes for each night would've been around $160. By paying an extra $30 a night, I ended up with $200 in free food. Alternatively, I could've booked each of these Category 5 properties for 12,000 SPG points a night. Given that TPG values this at about $324, I came out ahead paying cash even before accounting for the free food.
Both hotels had comparably low rates.
As the name suggests, the W Chicago - Lakeshore is located on iconic Lake Shore Drive, overlooking Lake Michigan and Navy Pier. It's just a short walk from the Magnificent Mile, and some of the best shopping and dining the city has to offer. By contrast, the W Chicago - City Center is located farther south, in Chicago's business district. It's much closer to attractions like Millennium Park and the Art Institute of Chicago. Both hotels are about equidistant from the city's two airports, O'Hare (ORD) and Midway (MDW), but the W City Center is better connected to public transit, only three blocks away from the CTA Blue Line at Monroe Station, which is the only reliable way to avoid traffic getting to or from O'Hare.
With locations that catered to two different types of travelers, it was a tie.
We arrived at the W Lakeshore on the first day of a winter storm that dumped about 10 inches of snow on the city. Although the entrance to the hotel was covered, there was still a decent amount of slush and no bellman anywhere to help with our bags.
The lobby was inviting, with warm wooden floors and plenty of seating. Behind the check-in desks were shelves lined with empty paint cans, with different colored overhead lights constantly changing the mood.
There was no line, so we were helped immediately by a friendly agent who acknowledged my status booking and gave me a $100 voucher to use at the hotel's restaurant or for room service. She also offered to upgrade us to a Marvelous Suite, but said that it wouldn't be ready for an hour or two, so we decided to grab a quick lunch before completing our check-in process.
On the other hand, when we arrived at the W City Center, they looked wildly unprepared to receive any guests. As we exited our Uber, we were met by a number of signs announcing that the hotel was undergoing major renovations, something that was never communicated to us before our stay.
I went back and checked the hotel's website later on. The only mention of the construction was hidden on the page for the IPO restaurant, which was closed until the renovation is complete. While the construction itself didn't bother us, the lack of communication about the closure of many hotel amenities ended up causing a few problems (Editor's note: As of mid-February, the construction at the W Chicago - City Center is expected to be completed in mid-March, with the reveal party scheduled for early April.)
Once inside, we were checked in quickly and told we'd been given a Fabulous Room With a City View. That was not much of an upgrade over the Spectacular Room we'd been booked into, so I asked about the possibility of a suite upgrade. Luckily, there was a Fantastic Suite available, which we were quickly switched over to.
Winner: W Chicago - Lakeshore
The construction at the W City Center made this a no-brainer. While that hotel was limping by with a makeshift lobby, the W Lakeshore welcomed us with a personalized and professional check-in experience.
Our 550-square-foot Marvelous Suite at the W Lakeshore was at the end of a hypnotic hallway on the 20th floor.
There was a small bathroom on the right just inside the door. Past that was the living room, with a comfy L-shaped couch and large windows looking over Lake Michigan and Navy Pier.
There were no actual doors in the room; instead, the bedroom was separated by a curtain that could be closed.
The bed had a funky tiled mirror behind it, as well as a giant reading light on the side. While I appreciated the unique design, the light kept falling dangerously close to our heads.
To the left of the bed was the main bathroom, including a waterfall shower.
I really appreciated the multitude of mirrors and the odd splashes of color, like the yellow chair, that kept the room feeling bright and happy while the snowstorm raged outside. One thing that was obviously missing from this room was a coffee machine. I don't think I've ever stayed in a hotel, let alone a suite, that didn't have a coffee machine in the room. We called downstairs to order two cappuccinos, but since the hotel's espresso machine was broken they sent up two coffees free of charge. Interestingly we ran into the same problem at the W City Center, which also was missing a coffee machine. When we asked the concierge about it, they sent one up to our room and said they were by request only.
Although our Fantastic Suite at the W City Center was technically smaller (450 square feet vs. 550), the room felt much larger. It also opened to a half bathroom right inside the door. Inside was a desk and TV, and a wall separating the bedroom from the living room.
The bed was on the other side, along with a white-noise machine.
The bathroom was down a short hall and around the corner and, unlike the W Lakeshore, featured a bathtub as well as a shower.
After we dropped our bags and settled in, we tried to connect to the Wi-Fi, but we got an error message that my name and room number combination was invalid. The hotel's IT team had absolutely no idea what hotel or even city I was calling from and took 10 minutes or so on hold to manually add my computer. My girlfriend wasn't as lucky — it took the IT team a solid 20 minutes digging through her network settings before they could get her connected.
Other than the Wi-Fi and the fact that the bathtub wouldn't get any more than half full, I felt right at home in this room. While there was less natural light and eccentric W colors than at the W Lakeshore, the half-wall layout felt like it would have been much more comfortable for a longer stay.
Winner: W Chicago - City Center
This is one area where the W City Center really excelled. They used space very efficiently and made the smaller room feel bigger and more inviting.
Food and Beverage
While we waited for our Marvelous Suite to be cleaned at the W Lakeshore, we decided to get an early start on using our $100 food and beverage credit at the hotel's one and only restaurant, Current. We ordered a lobster roll and fish tacos, which, with tax and tip, came out to $45.
While the lobster roll was really more like garlic bread with a bit of lobster spooned on top, the heavy dose of Old Bay was more than enough to win this native Marylander over.
The tacos were delicious and surprisingly light given that the fish was fried.
With $55 left on our food credit, we came back to Current for dinner later that night. We started with a grilled-octopus salad, which tasted incredibly fresh.
For our main courses, we split a perfectly cooked hanger steak and squid-ink pappardelle with lobster.
The next morning, we came back down to Current for a continental breakfast, which was complimentary both to Platinum Elite members and those booking a luxury privileges rate.
This meal was the lowest point of our stay. Given how much effort the W Lakeshore put into every other element of their design, service, and even food, it felt like they just gave up on breakfast. The pastries and fruit were restocked infrequently, and what little food there was was far from inspiring.
Out of the limited hot options, which included eggs, potatoes, oatmeal and a tray for bacon and sausage that sat empty most of the time we were there, I settled on a plate of scrambled eggs and fruit. The eggs were runny and incredibly undercooked, but thankfully the fruit was edible.
When we arrived at the W City Center the next day, we planned to repeat our meal strategy using our $100 food voucher for lunch and dinner and enjoying a complimentary breakfast the next morning. Unfortunately, with both the IPO Restaurant and Living Room Bar were closed for the duration of our stay, and the only option we had for spending the voucher was to order room service. We ordered up a grilled cheese and tomato soup and salmon with Thai sticky rice.
The food took a good 45 minutes to get to our room, but was delivered along with a little cup of gummy bears to sweeten the meal. Room service is always expensive, and while this meal was absolutely delicious, it felt like a complete rip-off. The salmon and grilled cheese came out to $45 total, but after adding tax, delivery charge and a poorly advertised 19% service charge, our lunch ended up costing $70. If we'd wanted room service all along, I wouldn't complain about the pricing, but I was not happy being forced to waste essentially 25% of our food credit on room-service delivery fees.
We went out with a few friends at night, knowing we'd be using up the little bit of our credit that remained on more room service when we got back. Feeling very much in the Chicago mood, we opted for a deep-dish pizza with sausage, pineapple and onions, and a small plate of veggies and hummus. Thankfully, these were delivered along with another bowl of gummy bears.
The food was once again delicious, but somehow even more outrageously expensive than lunch, clocking in at $75. Over the course of our stay, the closure of the restaurant essentially halved the value of our $100 food credit, as we were forced to spend some $50 of it on room-service fees.
We were unsure what to expect for breakfast the next morning. There had been no mention at check-in of how breakfast worked for Platinum Elite members, and when we asked the concierge how late breakfast ran, we were told, "12 or 1, kind of all day," which seemed a little off. Thankfully, while we were sleeping, someone slipped an envelope under our door with a welcome letter explaining the benefits of luxury privileges, as well as two $20 breakfast vouchers.
With the hotel restaurant closed, breakfast was served in a makeshift space that appeared to normally be used for events. My girlfriend really enjoyed her French toast with candied peaches, while I opted to play it safe with an omelet.
Winner: W Chicago - Lakeshore
The food at both hotels was quite enjoyable, but the W Lakeshore won for providing real ambience and variety at their restaurant. While breakfast was nothing memorable, I'd take soggy eggs over paying twice as much for room service any day.
Although my girlfriend and I had planned on being especially lazy this snowy weekend, we were happy to take full advantage of the gyms at both hotels. The gym at the W Lakeshore was well equipped with multiple machines, free weights and a separate cardio room with treadmills and ellipticals.
My one complaint was that the hotel's WET pool, which looked out directly over Navy Pier, was only accessible through the gym. This meant guests were constantly dripping water all over the gym as they left the pool and the entire area smelled like chlorine.
By comparison, the gym at the W City Center was a little bit smaller, though it certainly had all the basics.
That's all there is to say about the W City Center. With a closed bar and restaurant and no pool or spa, this average sized gym amounted to the only amenity, and only real public space, anywhere on the property.
The W Lakeshore had much more to offer, including the signature W Bliss Spa (which we didn't get a chance to check out), and what could only be described as a classically W amenity: next-level detoxing.
Waiting on our bed was a pamphlet explaining the hotel's partnership with local medical company IVme, which offered customized IV cocktails they said would treat hangovers or reduce the length of colds.
The service at the two hotels was as disparate as the amenities. When we checked into the W Lakeshore, not only were we proactively offered a suite upgrade, but the agent acknowledged the preferences in my SPG profile for the largest room available. That personal touch was present throughout, as our server at Current repeatedly stopped to talk to us about the dogs frolicking in the snow just outside the windows. Everyone was professional without being too formal or distant.
City Center was a different story. As I mentioned above, I had to specifically ask about suite availability to receive any kind of upgrade. There was no explanation of my membership benefits or the amenities (probably because there were none), and when we did ask about things like breakfast, it took pushing to get a clear answer. When I'd emailed the general managers to ask for help making this stay special (it was to be a romantic getaway for my girlfriend and me), I only heard back from the W City Center. I got the following email from the concierge.
When we checked in, none of the things he mentioned were in our room. I certainly don't fault the hotel for this, as they are under absolutely no obligation to offer over-the-top gifts like this, but them creating an expectation and then not following through was a letdown.
We did have one funny interaction that restored my faith in the W City Center. When we called to order our deep dish around midnight, the woman who answered the phone asked what toppings we wanted. My girlfriend said "sausage, onions, pineapple," and the woman cut her off.
"Pineapple on a pizza?" she said. "I was just starting to like you guys, but not anymore!"
Winner: W Chicago - Lakeshore
You can't compare apples and oranges, and you can't compare a hotel with a gym to one with a gym, pool, spa and luxury medical services. The warm treatment we received was just icing on the cake. The W Lakeshore was the clear winner here.
The W Chicago Lakeshore was everything you'd expect from a W. A loud and quirky design, personalized service at every turn, and yummy and reasonably priced food. I wouldn't hesitate to stay here again.
The W City Center had a much harder time meeting the high standards set by its crosstown rival. The truth is we caught it at a bad time, which we were reminded of often by the many posters saying, "No, actually, we didn't wake up like this. We'll be ready to show off in early 2018." While the room was cozy and very well-designed, the service we received felt amateur and unrehearsed. Every interaction felt like staff was withholding information about the hotel to distract from the construction that was going on, instead of being forthcoming so we could plan our stay better.
Winner: W Chicago - Lakeshore
I hope to make it back after the W City Center's "big reveal" to experience the hotel when it's fully operational, but for now the winner is obvious. The W Lakeshore won this weekend and reminded me why this is my favorite hotel brand.