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Big Apple on a budget: My underwhelming stay at the Graduate in New York City

September 4 2022
21 min read
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Pardon me, Charles Dickens. I know the “Tale of two…” anything trope has been done before, but two nights at the Graduate Roosevelt Island in New York City left me with a couple of takeaways. Yes, this is going to be a little like a tale of two hotel stays.

On the one hand, this Graduate location is one way to beat sky-high hotel rates across the East River in Manhattan. The summer of 2022 isn’t exactly known for decent deals on hotels in New York City (and beyond), and I was happy to get a suite in a safe neighborhood for less than what I paid the week prior for paltry accommodations at the Element in Times Square.

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On the other hand: The team behind the rapidly expanding Graduate Hotels chain — typically known for creative flair and a strong attention to details that blend in with the surrounding neighborhood — really phoned it in with this hotel compared to their other properties. That is, unless a bland office park hotel with hit-or-miss food and beverage offerings was their desired goal.

In that case: Job well done.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

Booking details

Graduate isn’t part of a major loyalty program, so I booked directly off the hotel website and paid out of pocket. The hotel had me sold on a junior suite with a $339 average daily rate — a bargain compared to New York City hotel rates for regular guest rooms.

My stay at the Graduate came amid a flurry of work trips to New York, and my visit the week prior at the Element in Times Square (next to the Port Authority bus terminal, not exactly the most glamorous location) was slightly more at $342 a night. Two weeks earlier, a stay in a cramped room at the Westin in Times Square got as high as $587 a night.

The Graduate also offered an upgrade to a premium junior suite (which has a separate living area compared to the more studio feel of a junior suite) for an extra $8 a night, which I requested. I found out at check-in my upgrade had cleared, and I was now in a premium junior suite on the hotel’s 15th floor.

Before arriving the hotel sent a text message requesting I notify staff of my anticipated arrival time. There also was an option to download the Graduate app for contactless check-in. I know this is all pretty standard fare these days in the hotel orbit, but it was good to see even smaller chains like Graduate offering these conveniences.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

Location

Roosevelt Island is in the East River between Manhattan to the west and Queens to the east. The Queensboro Bridge slices across the island, and features prominently in the view from many Graduate Roosevelt Island hotel rooms.

The Graduate Roosevelt Island is next to the Cornell Tech campus, which opened in 2017. While the campus features a few modern buildings with sharp angles and glass, the repetitive gray boxes of many of the buildings on the island give the neighborhood a similar vibe to a suburban office park. However, it also provides Graduate with its brand standard of hotels typically being in the vicinity of (and inspired by) a college or university.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

I flew in from Boston to LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and got to the hotel via a 24-minute Uber ride that cost $34. Otherwise, I used the subway for the duration of my stay. The New York City subway system is connected to the island by the F train at the Roosevelt Island station a few blocks from the hotel.

The famous Roosevelt Island tramway, featured in movies like “Spider-Man,” is the best-known (and most scenic) way to get to and from the island and is just a four-minute walk from the hotel. At its other end, the tram drops off in Midtown at 59th Street and Second Avenue.

The tramway is a fun way to get to and from Manhattan (It took four minutes to cross the East River, and trams run every seven minutes). Alternatively, it’s a seven-minute subway ride from Roosevelt Island to Rockefeller Center.

As for vehicles, roadway access to and from the island is sparse. The Queensboro Bridge passes over it, but there’s no way on or off it from Roosevelt Island. Rather, drivers need to head to Queens via the Roosevelt Island Bridge.

There aren’t a ton of amenities or attractions on Roosevelt Island, which is technically part of the borough of Manhattan. You’re going to have to commute to Manhattan Island, Queens or beyond for almost anything you want to do.

That said, the views of the city's skyscrapers are stunning.

Check-in

The buildings of the Cornell Tech campus — as well as the Graduate — comprise the southernmost spurt of development on Roosevelt Island. But the real eye-catching attraction at the hotel is the 13-foot “Flyboy” sculpture from artist Hebru Brantley. His goggles-wearing, sculpted character is part of a series of works inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American World War II pilots — and keeps an inquisitive eye (and lightbulb) over the check-in counter inside the hotel.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

The lobby was both studious and youthful: well-stocked bookcases lined the walls and the check-in desk itself resembled a library’s card catalog cabinet. Along with “Flyboy,” a neon sign with the hotel’s brand name offered flashy pops of color amid the open-concept ground level.

Check-in was easy enough, but the front desk attendant let me know both the rooftop bar and ground-floor restaurant were closed for private events that evening. When I asked if room service was still an option (I didn’t disclose what I was there to do, but I did have a hotel to review, after all), the front desk attendant recommended I try Uber Eats.

It would have been nice to have been notified — along with all the other pre-arrival communication from Graduate — that all on-site food and beverage outlets were closed for the evening. Food delivery was the only option (and not exactly quick, based on when I checked my Uber Eats app to see how many restaurants could possibly deliver to there).

One design flaw in how the lobby is set up is that you round the check-in desk to head up a hallway to the bank of elevators waiting to whisk you up to your room. But the Graduate staff also was using this area to hold luggage of guests who checked out earlier in the day or were waiting on a room. This area behind the check-in desk was heavily congested both days of my visit (perhaps due to the private events that shut down the bar and restaurant), and it felt like shuffling around an airport baggage claim just to get to an elevator.

Something I did like was the total lunacy of the Graduate’s elevator design. The elevator featured images of Franklin D. Roosevelt (the island’s namesake) as well as the tramway. But there were also images of pigs, cats, King Kong and women in early 1900s fashion. It was a lot to take in and certainly made the elevator ride up to the 15th floor fly by.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

I got the significance of FDR and the tramway (and even King Kong), but later research helped out with the significance of the swine and felines. The Dutch governor of the Hudson in 1633 convinced the Canarsee Native American tribe to sell land that included what is now Roosevelt Island. The island was initially used as a farm with hogs — and was even known as Varckens Eylandt or "hog island."

As for the kitty taking a ride on the tram, that's a nod to the island's reputation as a cat sanctuary. It isn't quite clear where they came from, but feral cats in the mid-1900s moved into an abandoned hospital that had formerly been used to treat patients during a smallpox outbreak in the city in the 1800s. Volunteers now provide these "island cats" with veterinary care, food, blankets and whatever else might be necessary to make life easy in this de facto cat country.

The room

I walked into my premium junior suite and immediately noticed how spacious it was, particularly by New York City standards. The Graduate website notes junior suites get as large as 488 square feet compared to my significantly more expensive room earlier in the month at the Westin Times Square, where a standard room sits at 310 square feet.

My junior suite at the Graduate was a corner room (the rounded shape made it flow like a bean) and had impressive views.

First impressions matter, and this suite at the Graduate Roosevelt Island immediately conjured feelings of stepping back quite a few years to freshman orientation, new roommates with a mishmash of furnishings, and icebreakers of “So, what’s your major?” The incohesive, at-times juvenile design scheme certainly felt like I was back in college — though I doubt it was meant to.

There was a living area complete with a dark blue velvet couch and deep blue rug. Next to that was a hanging print featuring a DeLorean car — practically the star of the “Back to the Future” franchise. A television rested on an average-looking piece of hotel cabinetry that could be in any mid-level hotel room, and there was a pretty bench (with some impressive-looking upholstery of a Dutch windmill scene) tucked underneath. Light fixtures, from the wall-mounted desk lamp nowhere near a desk to a circular overhead piece with a tubular bulb, seemed like something out of an IKEA catalog.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

The randomness of the room’s aesthetic — throw in a case of beer and some anxiety about a pending midterm, and it would have been a true college flashback — was a little jarring, and I hadn't even seen the bedroom yet. Given the Graduate chain’s reputation of leaning into a theme and executing it well, this room seemed like a design misfire.

There wasn't much in the way of storage elsewhere in the suite, so the living room basically served as a dressing room and place to stow my luggage for the duration of my stay.

I rounded the suite (with a great view of the Queensboro Bridge on one side) and reached the bathroom to my right. It was, again, spacious for a city hotel and featured a walk-in shower but no tub, which is becoming the norm in hotels. The wallpaper stood out, as the lobby's “Flyboy” sculpture made a reappearance, but otherwise, the bathroom had a simple, clean design.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

As some of you may have figured out by now, I’m quite the connoisseur of hotel toiletries — and sometimes a great leftover hotel soap or small bottle of shampoo makes the vibe in one’s guest bathroom back home really pop. Thankfully, the Graduate offers Malin + Goetz shampoo, conditioner and body wash — a posh way to clean off the residue of sweltering summer humidity in New York during a stay.

Alas, they were in larger bottles mounted to the shower wall — also in keeping with growing sustainability norms in the hotel industry. My guest bathroom will have to wait for the next hotel review assignment to get its fix.

Continuing further into the suite, I finally reached the bedroom, which was largely decorated with muted linens and furniture, though multi-hued curtains added a touch of color. There was a simple desk with a writing pad, a cozy-looking, king-sized bed and two nightstands with a similar card catalog vibe to the check-in desk downstairs.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

The main draw of the entire room was the view of Manhattan out the bedroom window. The United Nations, the World Trade Center and the Empire State Building were all within sight, and I even got to AvGeek out a bit watching Tailwind seaplanes land in the East River.

The bed itself was very comfortable, and it was easy to get some work done from the designated workstation (Wi-Fi was complimentary). There were plenty of outlets to charge my phone and watch by the bed and keep my laptop powered over at the desk. There were televisions in both the bedroom and living room of the suite with a full line-up of cable TV.

But it was a little annoying to see the guest room didn’t have a coffee maker (again, since food and beverage offerings were sparse, you’d think this would be an easy stopgap offering) or even a notepad (though a Graduate-branded pencil was available). There were bottles of water available for $5.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

Food and beverage

The morning after check-in, I went down to the main hotel restaurant, Anything At All, for breakfast. Even before I sat down, it was clear the staff was struggling to keep up with the minimally crowded dining room. I overheard multiple tables grumbling about slow service, and the restaurant wasn’t even halfway full.

The bright dining area had a very trendy vibe, if you overlooked the disgruntled faces on many patrons, and featured wooden tables flanked with indigo-upholstered chairs. Stocked bookshelves lined the upper half of the walls. Otherwise, it was a bright white throughout the room. Large windows looked out on an outdoor seating area, but it was too humid that morning to dine al fresco.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

I waited a long time for someone to swing by my table, but that at least gave me ample opportunity to peruse the menu several times over. Prices were very affordable at this American restaurant focused on “seasonality, locality, sustainability and most of all, delicious food.”

I went with a $14 vegetarian omelet and a cup of coffee as well as some orange juice. Service was extremely slow, and it appeared the staff was having trouble keeping track of who arrived first and who had already ordered.

I didn’t get my coffee (served with a loud slam on the table) until my meal arrived ... and I’m still waiting on that orange juice. The food itself was unremarkable, but I don’t think anyone is staying at the Graduate for its meal service. The omelet's slick patina bordered on too oily with each bite and the hash browns, billed as house-made, seemed a little too perfectly square ... as in maybe by house-made they meant house-made in a factory and frozen before getting shipped to Roosevelt Island?

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

I asked for a coffee to go and the waiter told me they were still waiting on to-go cups. I assured him I was a trustworthy person, and he let me take my mug with a refill back to my room (I promise y’all I brought the mug back on my way out for work that day).

I did wonder how this team had been able to handle an event like the one the evening prior that shut down both food outlets at the hotel. There were three people working the dining room, and several people working away in the kitchen were also visible from my seat. All appeared frazzled.

Admittedly, I could be a little tough here. Not to sound like a grandpa shaking his cane at the youth with a "back in my day" tale, but I spent three years working the Sunday brunch shift at a small restaurant next to an arena-sized church in Memphis, so I’d like to think I know how to serve a demanding breakfast crowd.

I overheard another guest in the lobby that morning ask about room service, like I did the day before, and the staff member working the check-in desk said the hotel doesn’t offer any. When the guest asked why, the staff member responded with, “Well, the hotel industry is still recovering from the pandemic.”

Even though I think the Graduate’s going room rates were pretty good by New York standards, this isn’t just some cheap motel. It’s supposed to be a full-service hotel with amenities. I wish the guest had replied, “Well, you charge room rates as though the industry has recovered and then some.”

Later in the day, I made it back for an after-work libation and shrimp cocktail at the Panorama Room, the Graduate’s rooftop bar and lounge. It was a 180-degree turn as far as experience goes.

The Panorama Room team was attentive and quick to offer recommendations. For the first time in my entire stay, I had found a part of the hotel that had a cohesive design scheme, from the dark entry off the elevator to the host stand and then into the expansive room of floor-to-ceiling windows, maroon velvet booths and a sleek bar with a mix of neon lights and hanging bulbs overhead. The bar was various shades of pink, purple and orange — not my go-to colors, but it all worked very well.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

This bar managed to work both as a great after-work spot to unwind as well as the perfect spot to grab a cool-as-a-cucumber nightcap before bed (I was covering the opening of The Ned earlier in the night and wanted to keep up the trendy pace of the evening). The outdoor deck, complete with incredible views of Manhattan, was spacious and handled an impressive crowd later in the evening without ever feeling overwhelming.

The Panorama Room differed from downstairs in experience as well as cost: Bar bites ranged from $18 to $38 (my shrimp cocktail was $24), and cocktails were all $18 except for a $21 rum-based concoction. My mezcal-based “Sunset Swizzle” was the perfect mix of smoky and sweet with pineapple and poblano verde. I could have easily stayed for another round if I didn't have another event to get to right after.

It was a fun place to be late in the afternoon, but it was incredible later in the evening when the Panorama Room had a much larger crowd. The house music was cranked up, and you could tell this is likely the leading destination for people venturing to the hotel. My Uber driver back to LaGuardia the following morning even asked about it, as he lived in Queens and had heard from a few friends it was worth dropping by.

Based on my experience sipping a whiskey nightcap while overlooking the Manhattan skyline the night prior, I’d say his friends weren’t wrong in their assessment.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

Other amenities

I checked out the Graduate’s fitness center both mornings of my stay. It was maybe a notch or two above what you’d find in a Courtyard or Comfort Inn in terms of size but had better equipment — there was a Peloton alongside the standard hotel line-up of treadmills, ellipticals and some free weights. There were small windows in the gym looking out at the Queensboro Bridge.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

The hotel was still requiring proof of vaccine status to access the gym, and I was happy to offer that up. What was annoying was that you had to go down to the front desk every day to get a new keycard to access the gym instead of just using your room key like, well, practically every other hotel gym I’ve ever encountered.

Given that the gym is supposedly open 24/7, it made me feel bad that I had to go looking for a Graduate employee at 6 a.m. the morning of check-out to get that day’s gym key to get a workout in before heading to TPG headquarters. This was an unnecessary friction point that could have been easy for the Graduate team to overcome. When I called the hotel before publication, a Graduate employee let me know this is no longer the policy.

My other gripe came shortly after check-in. The Roosevelt Island waterfront has stunning walking trails with those Manhattan views I’ve mentioned a few times throughout this review. Since the restaurant and bar were closed my first night at the hotel, the only thing really to do was go for a walk.

It was beginning to rain, so I stopped by the front desk to see if there was an umbrella I could use. The front desk attendant said they offered them for sale for $10 — kind of annoying since I’ve stayed at lower-quality chain hotels that still offered up basics like umbrellas to borrow. I paid for the umbrella and went on my walk, but when I got my final bill, I noticed the charge was listed as an “umbrella rental.” If this was actually just a rental, it would have been nice to know and get my $10 back in exchange for returning their property.

That said — I am still using the umbrella, so it's my little Roosevelt Island souvenir.

Accessibility

When my Uber from the airport first dropped me off, I immediately noticed the accessible ramp entrance to the Graduate Roosevelt Island. The registration desk and the restaurant entrance are also accessible.

Per the hotel website, the elevator is near accessible rooms and hallways are accessible-width. Service animals are allowed in public areas, and signage throughout the property and emergency information is also in braille. Accessible guest rooms (which also include some junior suites and the presidential suite) feature raised toilet seats, built-in chairs, handheld shower equipment and telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDD).

Some of these features and amenities may only be provided upon request.

Checking out

With the exception of my two visits to the Panorama Room, there wasn’t any point during my stay where I was exactly gobsmacked by the experience or the service here. The nicest person I encountered working at the Graduate during my stay happened to be at check-out. She was extremely courteous to guests in line ahead of me, offered to store bags for the day or arrange airport transportation and made a point of asking about everyone’s stay.

I wouldn’t say I’m going to go out of my way to return to this hotel when I’m back in New York. Further, I wouldn’t even recommend diehard Graduate Hotels fans bother with the Roosevelt Island location. I’ve previously been to the Oxford, Mississippi, location and stayed at the Graduate in New Haven, Connecticut, two weeks after my New York trip. Both hotels had a better feel in terms of thoughtful design that didn’t feel so cookie-cutter.

CAMERON SPERANCE/THE POINTS GUY

If you're intrigued by this chain, you should also check out my colleague, Tanner Saunders’, review of the Graduate in Nashville, where the country music vibes and consistent aura of Dolly Parton made for a very fun and memorable stay. That may have raised my expectations of what the Roosevelt Island outpost could do. Sadly, it fell well short of the boot-scootin', boogie good time Tanner had at the Graduate down south.

The Graduate Roosevelt Island does rack up some points for being a new, clean place to stay with large guest rooms at affordable prices (relatively speaking). While $339 a night isn’t cheap, meh-at-best hotels in Manhattan the week I was there were going for hundreds of dollars more.

Don’t make the Graduate Roosevelt Island the center of your trip to New York City, but if you want a clean place to stay without breaking the bank — and don’t mind a little subway or tram commute to get anywhere — this is worth a consideration.

Featured photo by (Photo by Cameron Sperance/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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The Marriott Bonvoy Business Amex is a stacked card with a rewards rate that will help you earn bonus points on everyday and business-related purchases. You'll earn 15 elite night credits each calendar year, and receive automatic Gold elite status. Finally, the free night award certificate with a redemption level of 35,000 points or less can get you hundreds of dollars in potential value each year.

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  • Receive a 7% discount off standard rates for reservations of standard guest rooms at hotels that participate in the Marriott Bonvoy program when you book directly. Terms and Conditions Apply.
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