Hotel report: What to expect at NYC’s luxury hotels in the time of COVID-19
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As the COVID-19 pandemic roared into the United States in the spring, New York City was among the hardest-hit spots. The closure of hotels and the pausing of international flights turned its tourism industry upside down. Now, many of its hotels and restaurants have reopened, but it’s a new world.
Outdoor dining is the norm, even in colder weather. Mask-wearing and temperature checks are ubiquitous. It’s not how it was, but it’s still possible to find a haven of respite and relaxation in New York City’s hotels. This is especially true for travelers coming from within the state of New York — or those who live in the city itself and want a change. Most others will need to follow strict testing and quarantine protocols upon arrival that could seriously impact a stay. Be sure to carefully read up on this before you book, and to weigh your risks. This is not the right time for everyone to travel, and it’s up to you to determine your comfort level and health considerations when planning any kind of trip.
For those considering a stay, we recently spent a series of overnights at some of the city’s best hotels. Here’s what we saw, what’s different, and what you can expect.
This high-end flagship of the Denihan Hospitality Group sits amidst a slew of fancy hotels just east of Times Square. The recently-sold Waldorf-Astoria — currently closed and under renovation — is just across the street. This isn’t the flawless luxury that you’ll find at the Peninsula or the Park Hyatt, but The Benjamin offers a solid, spotless stay in central Manhattan at rates that will almost never stretch into four figures per night.
Rate: A low $160-$200 per night in cooler weather, especially around the winter holidays. Expect higher rates — $250-$400 on weekends and in spring and summer. The hotel charges a $40 per night facility fee. Even with the fee, this hotel offers solid value for a high-end property in this location.
Points and loyalty programs: No loyalty program is available, but this property is bookable through Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection, which includes perks like a complimentary upgrade (when available), breakfast and WiFi.
Location: At the corner of 50th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, an eight-minute walk to Rockefeller Plaza, and a 17-minute walk to Times Square. The 51st Street subway station, where you’ll find the 4 and 6 trains (on the green line that traverses Manhattan’s East Side) is one block away.
Who should stay here: Those in search of a 4-star property that doesn’t come at an outlandish price will do well here, including fans of big-brand properties like Marriott and Grand Hyatt. You’ll find no eccentric decor or doting service at The Benjamin. A stay here is straightforward and without frills, though the upgraded suites feel luxuriously large by New York City standards. In non-pandemic times, this is also a great hotel for attending an event in Midtown. It puts you close to the action without being directly in the chaos of Times Square.
COVID-19 safety precautions: The property displayed clear signage in the lobby about distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing. Front desk staff were situated behind a plastic divider and took my temperature upon arrival, but did not ask specific questions pertaining to health or contact tracing. (I live locally and the property already had this information.) Still, I encountered a couple in the hallway just outside of the room that was not wearing masks.
Closures and off-limits spaces: The hotel’s restaurant — The National Bar & Dining Rooms, which is helmed by chef Jeffrey Zakarian — was closed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and during my stay. (It remains that way at the time of publication.) That meant there was no food and beverage available at the property — including room service. This was disappointing given that I booked through the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection, which typically would have included a $25 food and beverage credit and complimentary breakfast for two. The hotel did arrange for a bagged continental breakfast, but I had to forgo the $25 credit as there was nowhere to spend it. On the bright side, I was upgraded to an excellent one-bedroom suite thanks to the Visa Signature booking.
Related: A love letter to New York City
Soho Grand Hotel
Dark and discreet, this longtime celebrity haunt flies so far under the radar that my Lyft driver — following the directions on his GPS — dropped me off at the back of the building, where there isn’t a pubic entrance. Though most New York City hotels have changed their low-lit ways in recent years — the trends toward more lighting, more plants and overtly smiling staff have been lasting — the Soho Grand remains a plush, moody classic.
Rates: $170-$400 per night, with higher rates on weekends, holidays and in warmer weather. Base rates do not include a “guest amenity fee” of $40 per night.
Points and loyalty programs: None.
Location: Situated on tony West Broadway in lower Manhattan, this neighborhood is known for its parade of fashionistas and young executives. A short walk west takes you to Hudson River Park — a favorite with families, joggers and dog owners — and views of the Statue of Liberty and the downtown skyline.
Who should stay here: If you’re looking for a stay that both blocks out the city and lets its most stylish elements seep through, this is the place for you.
COVID-19 safety precautions: Signage throughout the property advised social distancing; mask-wearing was required in all public spaces. At the front desk, I filled out a lengthy health questionnaire and verified I lived in the city, and did not need to quarantine. I also overheard the desk staff ask another guest to remain in their room for the duration of their stay due to the state’s quarantine requirements. It’s unclear whether the hotel would or could enforce such a request. Instructions for social distancing were also present on elevators, restrooms and throughout the lobby. Hand sanitizer was available in public spaces.
Closures and off-limits spaces: None. Room service was available via the hotel’s house menu and that of the on-site Soho Diner, a posh version of an NYC greasy spoon that’s anything but. I opted for the former and selected standard hotel fare, including a cheese plate, burger and craft beer. I was surprised — and slightly alarmed — to see the hotel’s Grand Bar and Lounge filled with unmasked guests during our visit. It’s a beautiful space with tall pillars, handsome leather couches and dramatic flower displays, so the appeal is strong. But I wasn’t tempted to take the risk. New York State’s current COVID-19 regulations allow indoor dining during, with capacity limits.
Related: New York City — a beginner’s guide
The Beekman, a Thompson Hotel
With its dramatic design, this beaux-arts former office building in New York’s Financial District became an instant classic when it opened in 2016. The wedding cake tiers of its open central atrium are an Instagram favorite, and its turret penthouses are the stuff of honeymoon bucket lists. The Beekman‘s humbler standard rooms, too, are filled with antiques and plush textures.
Rate: $200-$400 per night for basic rooms; turret penthouses can go up to $6,000 per night and beyond, depending on the season.
Points and loyalty programs: Thompson Hotels are part of World of Hyatt and you can use your points here. Rooms start at 25,000 points per night, or 12,500 and $300 for cash and points redemptions.
Location: A few steps from City Hall Park, this historic part of Manhattan is among the oldest sections of the city. A quick walk from The Beekman takes you to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian and the Wall Street bull statue.
Who should stay here: Those who appreciate evocative design and high comfort will fall in love with this property, especially because it manages to be as comfortable as it is stylish.
COVID-19 safety precautions: This property managed to keep signage to a minimum, but the point was clear — masks are required in public spaces and staff at the front desk were behind a plastic divider. I was asked to verify that I lived locally and did not need to quarantine during my stay, and the doorman took my temperature upon entry. The hotel’s room service, too, was delivered in plastic disposable containers instead of on the typical china. I expected to be disappointed by this, but there was a practical upside: food that’s packed away in a single bag means that hotel staff doesn’t have to enter your room to deliver it. And that’s safer for everyone. Plus, the property has managed to keep the quality of its in-room dining high, even in atypical times. I loved the hummus, avocado toast, coffee and caesar salad — especially because it was all made fresh and delivered within 20 minutes.
Closures and off-limits spaces: None. The hotel’s indoor restaurant spaces were open for business and relatively quiet during our stay. No outdoor dining was available. I opted for room service instead.
The Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue
Built in an Art Deco-style high-rise tower in the Midtown neighborhood, The Langham, New York, Fifth Avenue opened in 2013 and is all about modern luxury. This property may be best known for its stellar collection of art by New York native Alex Katz. The hotel houses more than two million dollars’ worth of Katz’s work, including 11 original paintings. You’ll see them in the lobby and in the hotel’s 234 rooms.
The hotels provide residence-like amenities, including kitchens in some of the rooms. All feature Swedish Duxiana beds, big bathtubs, and separate rainfall showers. Most have views of the Manhattan skyline. Some even have close-up views of the Empire State Building (just two blocks away), and all have oversized glass windows.
Related: Langham Sydney hotel review
Rate: $400 per night for basic rooms. $1,049 for a junior suite with views of the Empire State Building.
Points and loyalty programs: Langham’s loyalty program is called 1865 Privilege, but instead of earning a Langham-specific points currency, you earn points in the airline program of your choice.
The property is available via the Fine Hotels & Resorts program from American Express. I found a great deal in December for $473 a night that includes a third night free, and a $100 property credit per stay. That’s a great value.
Location: The Langham is in Midtown Manhattan, but it’s right on the border of the buzzy NoMad neighborhood. It’s a great location with easy access to Grand Central Station, and Times Square is an easy walk. It’s also a short walk to the high-end shopping on Fifth Avenue (literally up the street) and to Bryant Park and the New York Public Library. Just two blocks down the street is the Empire State Building.
Who should stay here: The Langham is a great option for business travelers looking for a convenient location in a high-luxury building. It’s also a great spot for leisure travelers who want easy access to Times Square, Herald Square and the East side of Manhattan. Art lovers will also enjoy the amazing collection of Alex Katz artworks.
Related: Langham Chicago hotel review
COVID-19 safety precautions: The Langham requires that all guests fill out a health questionnaire at check-in verifying they are healthy. Guest temperatures are taken at the Michelin-starred Ai Fiori restaurant as well. Rooms are cleaned and aired out between guests, and the hotel has frequent disinfecting of all high-touch surfaces. There are hand sanitizer stations all over the place including at the check-in counter and near the elevator. Masks are required.
Closures and off-limits spaces: The gym and spa are closed for safety, but some rooms are being converted temporarily into workout spots, so ask for a special discount on your very own workout suite. The conference rooms and a few other public spaces are also closed for the time being. Room service was available via the hotel’s private kitchen.
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The best news during my stay is that the famous Ai Fiori had just reopened after being closed for many months during the worst of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. Ai Fiori means “among the flowers” in Italian and the Instagram-perfect restaurant lives up to the name. It’s part of the world-renowned Altamarea Group and is led by Chef Michael White. It’s pricy but well worth the splurge. I tried several varieties of ravioli pasta dishes and left very satisfied. They are seating at only 25% capacity and doing temperature checks of all guests.
Additional reporting by Clint Henderson.
Featured photo courtesy of The Beekman/Hyatt.
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