A white-gloved doorman in a braid-trimmed jacket opens the heavy door. Music from a string quartet wafts across the vast Oriental carpet and through the lobby. Thick garlands of fragrant...

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A white-gloved doorman in a braid-trimmed jacket opens the heavy door.

Music from a string quartet wafts across the vast Oriental carpet and through the lobby. Thick garlands of fragrant white blossoms are draped at the reception desk.

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We are greeted by name and whisked to our room. There, we are feted with fresh juice and a melange of exotic fruits. An orchid blossom floats in the finger bowl.

But it is not the starched staff uniforms, the elegant lobby, the spectacular views of the Chaophrya River or celebrity history that have made Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel a legend. It is the service.

We have barely mentioned our plans before the concierge has pulled out the appropriate visa forms, saving us a long wait in a small, unair-conditioned embassy.

While we take a free yoga class and refresh with strawberry sorbet and cold towels by the pool, the Oriental Hotel staff will make our onward hotel reservations and confirm seats for our flight.

Any first-class hotel should have the basics down to perfection: a firm mattress and 300-thread-count linens; huge down pillow; and a spacious (usually marbled) bath. At $250 and up per night, brand-name shampoo, bathrobes, slippers and a hair dryer — not attached to the wall — should be standard.

But whether you’re a Midas-wallet regular or on a special-occasion splurge, it’s the hotel staff attitude and those little, unexpected extras that make a luxury hotel-stay memorable.


True luxury

JOE RAEDLE / GETTY IMAGES
Michael Sheehan, the “tanning butler” at The Ritz-Carlton South Beach, strolls by the Florida hotel’s pool with tanning products and applies them at guests’ requests.



“The difference between a luxury hotel and a superior hotel is better amenities, more sophisticated spas, state-of-the-art fitness centers, very dedicated and experienced concierge desk that can solve anything,” says upscale-retreat guru Andrew Harper, editor and publisher of Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report.

“Often, the centerpiece is a restaurant that is very highly rated.”

“But the real soul of a luxury hotel is a well-trained staff,” he says. “They know what hospitality is about … ”

If you’re simply going for a night or two in a city you know well, you may be more interested in the fluffy pillows and duvet, the pool and the spa than in the concierge’s ability to track down tickets to the hottest show in town. Still, you want a staff that is friendly and welcoming. After all, you’re paying for it.

“If the first thing you see is a gregarious, helpful doorman, you’ll instantly feel good, setting the stage for service you can expect,” says Harper.

But if you’re investing significant dollars, you should also consult with a travel agent that specializes in luxury travel, such as one belonging to the Virtuoso network (www.virtuoso.com) or an agent specializing in a specific region.

You can also check publications that cover luxury travel, including magazines like Conde Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure; books such as Pamela Lanier’s Elegant Small Hotels, the Michelin guides and Zagat’s guide to hotels, resorts and spas; and Harper’s Hideaway Report newsletter (www.AndrewHarperTravel.com).


Paying the price


A word to the budgetwise: At luxury hotels, it’s not just the room rate that can tax the wallet.

Juice, coffee and a croissant will often cost you $15 (though increasingly, luxury hotels offer bed-and-breakfast packages that include a solid meal for a reasonable upcharge).

You’ll be expected to shell out an 18-20 percent gratuity to room service waiters (that’s above the delivery charge), with hefty tips to bellmen, valet parkers and concierges who perform services for you.

Parking can also set you back the price of a hearty lunch.

The good news: Many luxury hotels offer value-oriented packages, and in the off-season, a room even at the best hotel can be a steal.