Pomp and Circumstance at the Westin O’Hare

I recently had the misfortune of staying at the Westin Chicago O’Hare. I don’t know that I have ever seen a hotel more inflated than this. Read on for the most outrageous prices for the most ordinary and basic things.

When I entered my room

The first thing I noticed was a pair of water bottles, 750ml each. I’ve been to lots of hotels, and I’ve found the occasional free bottle of water in my room. Most often that’s occurred at longer-term places, like Residence Inns or Oakwood corporate apartments. Not here at the Westin. A tag on the bottle notes that if I drink it, I will see a $5.00 charge on my bill. I’ll pass, thanks.

The Mini-Bar

The Mini-Bar is a common feature in upscale hotels. You have a small refrigerator in your room. It works on sensors built into the fridge. Touch anything in it and you immediately incur charges. They could figure out what you ate by doing inventory and noting what they had to restock. Of course, that’s absurd. It would be correct. When my oldest son was a toddler, he went with us to Belgium and we stayed in a fine hotel. Toddlers can do a number on mini-bars. Thankfully, that hotel was gracious about understanding what had happened.

The Westin lists all the prices on a small card near the bar. Sadly, the prices aren’t the prices. What’s the point of putting prices down and then saying “15% stocking fee will be added”“? We’re all accustomed to tax being added onto the price of things, so when it says “10% tax will be added” I realize that it’s not the Westin’s fault and that Chicago is just taxing me. But the Westin is making up this 15% stocking fee. Look at the prices in Table 1. The Westin charges me $2.88 (before tax) for a 12oz can of Pepsi. That can should cost in the neighborhood of 50 cents. Even $1.00 is within reason. But $2.50 plus a 15% stocking fee? Wny not say 75 cents plus 383% stocking fee? Or, for crying out loud, why not just say “$2.88” and be done with it? If you think this is bad, wait until you see room service.

Table 1

Mini-Bar: 15% stocking fee, 10% tax
Item List Price Actual Charge Comparable Price Markup
Absolut Vodka (50ml) $6.00 $7.50 $3.00 $4.50 60.0%
Bombay Sapphire (50ml) $6.00 $7.50 $4.00 $3.50 46.7%
Jim Beam Bourbon (50ml) $6.00 $7.50 $3.00 $4.50 60.0%
Bicardi Superior (50ml) $6.00 $7.50 $3.00 $4.50 60.0%
Chivas Regal Scotch (50ml) $6.00 $7.50 $3.00 $4.50 60.0%
Starbucks Cream Liqueur (50ml) $6.25 $7.81 $3.00 $4.81 61.6%
Meridian Vineyard Chardonnay $15.00 $18.75 $10.00 $8.75 46.7%
Meridian Vineyard Merlot $16.00 $20.00 $10.00 $10.00 50.0%
Bottled Water (dasani, 300ml) $3.25 $4.06 $0.30 $3.76 92.6%
Soda (Pepsi products, 12oz can) $2.50 $3.13 $0.50 $2.63 84.0%
Juice (Campbell's Tomato, 10oz bottle) $3.00 $3.75 $1.05 $2.70 72.0%
Propel $4.00 $5.00 $1.00 $4.00 80.0%
Gatorade (10oz bottle) $3.00 $3.75 $1.00 $2.75 73.3%
Import Beer (Stella Artois, 12oz (bottle) $5.25 $6.56 $4.00 $2.56 39.0%
Domestic Beer (MGD, 12oz bottle) $4.75 $5.94 $3.00 $2.94 49.5%
Honey Roasted Peanuts (Banana Moon) $4.00 $5.00 $3.00 $2.00 40.0%
Salted Pretzels (Banana Moon) $2.00 $2.50 $0.51 $1.99 79.6%
Jumbo Roasted Cashews (Banana Moon) $6.00 $7.50 $2.45 $5.05 67.3%
Cranny Banany Nut Dried Fruit (Banana Moon brand, 3.5oz) $4.00 $5.00 $1.27 $3.73 74.6%
Hot and Spicy Cajun Mix (Banana Moon) $3.00 $3.75 $1.14 $2.61 69.6%
Gummy Bears (Banana Moon) $6.00 $7.50 $2.29 $5.21 69.5%
M&Ms (Banana Moon) $4.00 $5.00 $1.69 $3.31 66.2%

Source Pricing

For most of the groceries, I just checked Peapod. I often rounded up, and I factored in a 5% sales tax, which makes the comparison a bit more fair. For prices on liquor, I used a random store online called Randalls.

Awesome. I did a little research into the whole “Banana Moon” brand snacks that the Westin offers. It turns out their products from a company called In-Room Plus You can get their entire price list off their web site. That’s what I did for the comparison prices above. I expect that Westin, being big and all that, negotiates a better rate than what is published here. However, I used the worst (i.e., most expensive) price in my comparison table, just to show how much mark-up there is, even if Westin pays list price.

The In-Hotel Restaurant

Naturally, the in-hotel restaurant (“The Benchmark”) is pretentious. Since I’m a vegetarian, that means it’ll have slim pickins for me. I enquired about the two potentially vegetarian soups (corn chowder and butternut squash bisque). The waiter is sure the corn chowder is made with chicken stock, since it’s made by the Westin staff. They “don’t know” about the squash soup because they don’t make it. (I guess the cans it comes in aren’t labeled either?)

I decide to order a salad that says something about greens over “crisp, shaved potatoes.” I get some greens (spinach, arugula, etc.) with a nice vinaigrette, and Lays potato chips sprinkled in. I swear I am not making this up. There was no difference between these potato chips and Lays (or any similar brand) of basic potato chips. For $9.00 I get spinach and potato chips with oil and vinegar.

Then I ordered the “Pizza Toscano blah blah blah.” It was appealing because it mentioned artichoke hearts and spinach. I’ve had those on pizza. Yum. This was listed under what was effectively second courses, not main courses (because main courses are only meat, right?). It turned out to be a full pizza, maybe 16 inches in diameter. Not exactly something I’d call a second course. And it was a cheese pizza. A singularly uninspired cheese pizza, with spinach and artichoke hearts dumped on top of it, in the middle of it. So I basically got a better salad than the one I ordered as an appetizer, and I got it delivered with a bland cheese pizza underneath it. Gaah!

Room Service

This is the granddaddy of all pretentiousness. Rather than have the Westin staff deliver food to your room, why not just shred some twenty-dollar bills and pour vinaigrette over them? I can’t imagine that the food will be extraordinary (given my other experiences at the hotel), but I can assure you that the price will be. Take a look at Table 2 for what it costs to get basic breakfast items. It seems to me that you’d be a fool to order orange juice, for example, because you have a 10oz bottle of it in your mini-bar. That bottle will only cost you about $3.75 after title, taxes, tags, and destination charges. Do it by room service and a glass of orange juice (presumably less than 10oz) will cost you around $10. TEN dollars!?

Table 2

Room Service Breakfast: 20% service charge, 10% tax,
$3.50 delivery charge
2 eggs, meat, bread, juice, coffee $19.00 $28.20 $6.50 $21.70 77.0%
Continental, juice, coffee $14.00 $21.70 $5.00 $16.70 77.0%
Berries, yogurt, juice, coffee $16.00 $24.30 $5.00 $19.30 79.4%
Orange Juice $5.00 $10.00 $1.00 $9.00 90.0%
Grapefruit Juice $5.00 $10.00 $1.00 $9.00 90.0%
Apple Juice $5.00 $10.00 $1.00 $9.00 90.0%
Cranberry Juice $5.00 $10.00 $1.00 $9.00 90.0%
V8® $5.00 $10.00 $1.00 $9.00 90.0%
Milk $4.00 $8.70 $1.00 $7.70 88.5%
Coffee (small pot) $5.50 $10.65 $1.50 $9.15 85.9%
Coffee (large pot) $9.50 $15.85 $3.00 $12.85 81.1%
Tea $5.00 $10.00 $1.00 $9.00 90.0%
Panna Bottled Watter (750ml) $5.00 5 $2.50 $2.50 50.0%

Internet

Right. Depending on where you are in the hotel, this can cost you $10 or it can cost you nothing. I’m blogging this from the bottom floor of the hotel, where the meeting rooms are. There’s free wireless internet down here. The wired internet in my room costs $10 per day. It’s nice and quiet down here. There are comfy chairs and convenient power outlets. It’s just not my room. I’m not going to dignify their scheme by paying for it.

I’m offended

I travel a lot and I see a lot of hotels. It’s the fancy ones like the Westin that do this nickel-and-dime crap. They charge you a lot for a room (more than, say, the Marriott across the street) and then they charge you for every little thing, too. The value just isn’t there.

What makes me so angry is that I feel like my whole experience is sorta booby-trapped. It’s everywhere. My room is full of little things that, if I’m not careful, will cost me extra money. The water is out, offering itself to me. There’s a room service menu in a fancy folder on the desk. There’s a room service card on the bed. There is no piece of furniture in the main room that does not have some product offering on it.

And it’s not an inconsequential amount of money, either. Grab one of these things or order off the menu, and you can increase the cost of a night’s stay by 10%, 20% or more.

And it’s not like the prices are justified by some unusual or unique quality. Quite the opposite, in fact. The can of Pepsi they will bring me for $10 is the same can of Pepsi I can get at a grocery store for about 50 cents. The orange juice, the Campbell’s tomato juice, the gin, bourbon, and scotch are all commodity brands.

Only the bathroom is sacred, it seems. Nothing in the bathroom is for sale. Thank goodness.

And I’m not even ranting about the usual ways that hotels annoy. I am not discussing phone charges, pay-per-view TV, or outrageous prices on dry cleaning.