Sanity staycation in Austin: How I did it safely and affordably
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As many of you can relate, sheltering in place has been a real challenge for me this year. While I’m intensely grateful for my safe haven and good health, the abrupt transition from globetrotting to staying home indefinitely has been harder than I thought.
After traversing a combined 350,000 miles over the past two years, all of my travel came to an abrupt halt in mid-March after I completed a reporting assignment for TPG right before lockdown. Factoring in additional surprises, including a multi-month extended family visit, I’ve been very nostalgic for my bygone days of travel.
So a few weeks ago, I decided to play tourist in my own city by booking a spontaneous one-night staycation at a hotel in downtown Austin. Here’s how my experience went, how it differed from my usual travels — and why I would definitely do it again.
What’s new: Over the last 16 years, I’ve only spent one other night in an Austin hotel
I began feeling the effects of quarantine burnout in June, and began brainstorming creative ways to spark joy in my life without endangering myself or others. I decided to book my staycation for a Monday night: Part of me liked the idea of extending my weekend by 24 hours, while another part of me thought that the day of the week might mean less fellow guests at my hotel.
I wrote up a short list of hotels I thought would be fun to visit, and began doing my due diligence to find the best deal for my one-night stay. I had several Hotels.com Rewards Nights to use, as well as a stash of Marriott and Hilton points that have been languishing in my accounts; I also had points on Chase and Capital One credit cards I could use to “erase” my cash purchase. (Cash back app Dosh is also offering up to 40% off local stays.)
After evaluating Austin Proper (Marriott), South Congress Hotel (privately owned), the Arrive Hotel (privately owned, and closed over my staycation dates), I ended up going with Hotel Van Zandt, a Kimpton IHG property on popular Rainey Street downtown.
Before booking online, I did my due diligence and called the reservations hotline ahead of time to see if the property was offering any slow-season discounts. It was not, so I booked my stay through Hotels.com, using one of my reward night credits to offset the cost and picking up an extra 4% cash back along the way by using an online shopping portal. The total out of pocket came to $80.69 after taxes and discount, but before factoring in cash back.
I paid the remainder of my bill using my beloved Chase Sapphire Reserve for 3x points on travel. (In case you missed the memo, Chase issued a $100 statement credit this year to offset the hike in annual fee, and also increased earnings on bonus categories up to 10x for CSR card holders.)
What’s new: I rarely ever drive to hotels!
I debated between driving myself to my hotel, and booking a Lyft ride (for 10x on my CSR) — another everyday service I haven’t patronized since mid-March, when lockdown began.
Ultimately, I decided to drive for a little bit more mobility as well as a little bit more social distance. I also wanted to find out if I could find nearby options that didn’t cost the $49 plus tax that Hotel Van Zandt charges for valet parking.
I zipped my way downtown without hitting any traffic, thanks to the empty roads, and found street parking right on Rainey St., a one-minute walk from the hotel at $2/hour (free after 6 p.m. on Mondays through Wednesdays).
What’s new: Clear dividers between guests and staff; social distancing and mask requirements in all public spaces; I think about germs a lot.
At the time of my visit, Texas had been under lockdown for nearly three months. The normally bustling hotel was eerily quiet, even during the complimentary cocktail hour from 4-6 p.m., when half a dozen guests milled about aimlessly in the lobby with masks on.
The friendly agent quietly upgraded me to a top-floor room overlooking Lady Bird Lake — a thoughtful gesture I appreciated very much. She also offered me a glass of red wine to enjoy in my room, and assured me that the hotel maintains a 72-hour “rest period” for rooms between each guest stay in order to minimize potential COVID spread.
I felt undeniably giddy holding my room key and taking the elevator to my room. Upon opening the door, I automatically kicked into hotel review mode, photographing every corner of the room before unpacking my bags. I didn’t have to — but I wanted to.
I have never been so happy to see a hotel bed in my life. But even under normal circumstances, I’d give the Van Zandt 4.5 stars for a tasteful room set-up.
My mother had helpfully prepped a little sanitation kit for me, and suggested that I bring my own sheets to the hotel as an extra safety precaution. I declined the extra packing, but did wipe down all major surfaces, just in case.
I’ve never been a germophobe, but it’s hard not to think about bacteria and viruses this year. As I explored the built-in cabinetry in my room, I couldn’t help but wonder: Will most of the world ever use all of these drawers again?
And under normal circumstances, I would’ve immediately poured my happy hour wine into the provided glass. Because #COVID, I opted for an artsy photo instead and stuck with the plastic cup.
The bathroom was open and well appointed, with a large walk-in shower and big bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash dispensers. While I’m all for eliminating excess waste, I couldn’t help but think of my colleague Richard Kerr’s impassioned defense of single-use hotel toiletries.
After settling in to my room, I decided to make my way to the pool. As with the lobby, tasteful stickers on the floor courteously reminded me to maintain safe distance from other guests.
I’ve been shopping for patio furniture lately, so this cabana caught my eye. My immediate second thought was, “How long will it be before we can have parties of this size again?” Oh, 2020.
Food and drink
What’s new: Researching local restaurants — not because I didn’t know what was available nearby, but because I didn’t know their COVID policies and hours
I naively thought that I wouldn’t have to look up local restaurants for dinner options, since Hotel Van Zandt has a great restaurant, Geraldine’s, on site. But Geraldine’s was closed, as was Emmer & Rye, one of my favorite restaurants in the neighborhood.
So I found myself browsing Yelp and OpenTable to find dinner options nearby which were still open for socially distanced dining on the patio. The list was a lot shorter than I thought, so I ended up driving to East Austin for Fly-Rite, a local fast food chain of chicken sandwiches. (You can find them in the Austin airport!)
The following morning, I awoke at 6 a.m. to a rumbling thunderstorm:
The hotel’s coffee shop is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, so I snuck downstairs (with my mask on) for a chai latte. The check-in counter is also surrounded by clear plexiglas to protect patrons and employees alike. My tacos weren’t very good, but my chai latte was delicious, albeit on the sweet side.
I chose the “slept 8-10 hours” option for my drink size.
After ordering, I hung out for a while at the focal point table in the coffee shop: A giant live-edge wood table that seats 16 people. Of course, I then thought of social distancing policies again, despite the lack of other guests, and took my breakfast back upstairs to my room. As I left, I saw an employee bustling up to wipe down my seat.
I called the front desk to ask for late check-out, and was offered a complimentary extension to 1 p.m. This was plenty of time for the sun to re-emerge, and Austin returned to its sunny self. I enjoyed the view while working from the small desk in my room overlooking the plate-glass window.
What’s new: Attitude of gratitude
One of my biggest takeaways for 2020 is that I will never take travel for granted again. It’s funny how excited I got about packing my overnight bag, and how I deliberately overpacked in a way I usually never do. When I fly, I almost always travel light without check-in luggage. So this time, I had fun bringing all the shoes, hair tools and extra outfits I usually opt to leave behind. It wasn’t so much about the destination this time as it was about the experience — and it was exactly what I needed.
When it comes to food, I believe that the best meal you’ll ever eat is when you can get exactly what you want, exactly how you want it, exactly when you want it. After this staycation experience, I feel like travel follows the same principle. My Hotel Van Zandt visit wasn’t perfect, and I didn’t get as far from home as I usually do. But I needed a getaway to reset, and I was able to book my stay when I needed it, without jeopardizing anyone’s health.
For the time being, I’ve chosen to play it safe again for my sake as well as for those around me. Even though I tested negative for COVID-19 this past weekend, cases are spiking sharply throughout the nation, and the quickest way to flatten the curve and get back to normal is for everyone to limit non-essential activity as much as possible. But once things ease up once more, you’ll definitely see me playing tourist in my own city again — whether at Hotel Van Zandt or somewhere else around town.
All photos by Katherine Fan.
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