Deals on Luxury Hotels of Germany, Austria & Switzerland

Now that a weak economy has created worldwide glut of empty hotel rooms, what kind of deals are being offered by the very best, most expensive, most exclusive hotels in Germany, Austria and Switzerland?

Several years of a feeble dollar sent most North American travelers toward more affordable, often less luxurious, hotels. But now that a lack of demand has hotels everywhere slashing prices, is it time to start thinking about the occasional five-star splurge? Before we try to answer that question, let’s define terms. There are five-star hotels, and there are five-star hotels. For example, though European hotels such as Marriott (and I’m a Marriott fan) and InterContinental are rated five-star, they are not “grand” hotels. Hotel classification is usually done by a country’s hotel association or tourist authority. The star rating is determined by the level of services offered—a five-star may have to have 24-hour room service, doormen, elaborate spas, fitness facilities, and a variety of other amenities. More stars does not necessarily signify quality, and the classification is not subjective. In other words no matter how much the assigner of stars likes a hotel, if there’s no 24-hour room service, a five-star rating isn’t in the cards. There are three-star hotels in the countries we cover whose staff services and spacious, luxurious guestrooms are better than at many five-stars, such hotels just don’t offer the same range of facilities.

The five-stars I’m talking about are the truly “grand” hotels; the “old-world” temples of aristocracy and old money; of soaring public rooms, great art, masses of fresh flowers, formal gardens, unflappable staffs with decades of experience, and of thin, elderly women carrying small dogs. In the 23 years of publishing this newsletter we’ve been fortunate to lay our heads on the pillows of most of the best hotels in our three countries—among them Baden-Baden’s Brenner’s Park, Zürich’s Dolder Grand, the Sacher in Vienna, the Bayerischerhof in Munich, Le Montreux Palace, Interlaken’s Victoria Jungfrau, and Le Beau Rivage Palace in Lausanne. Until a few years ago, three or four nights each trip at a “grand” was a usual part of our itinerary. Then two things happened: you told us you don’t stay in five-star hotels, and prices at top-level hotels skyrocketed. Though I’ve done no definitive research on this, my sense is the “grands” are much more expensive in relation to ordinary hotels than they used to be. For example, in 1998 one could book a double room at Munich’s Bayerischer Hof for $190. The fine little Hotel Exquisit, a four-star, was $121. Today, you can get a double room at the Exquisit for about $193 but the Bayerischer Hof has jumped to $588 (though I did see a last-minute “deal” for $504). In 1998 there was a 57-percent premium to stay at the Bayerischer Hof versus the Exquisit. Today it’s three times as much. In 1993, Interlaken’s Victoria-Jungfrau had double rooms for just over $200. If you try to book it on Orbitz now, the quote is a tidy $744, though I found a price at the VJ’s website for CHF 400, or about $352, not bad for a “grand.”

So: are there any deals among these super hotels? Depends on how you define “deal.” While the previously mentioned chains like Marriott are selling inventory in large chunks to discounters such as priceline.com/ and Hotwire.com, a look at Biddingfortravel.com, a website that keeps up with the prices of successful bids on Priceline, yields virtually no mention of the “grands.” (One exception: Salzburg’s storied Goldener Hirsch recently accepted a bid for a room at $170 per night.

In the belief that doing so will destroy rate structure credibility, management at Europe’s top-tier hotels would rather eat worms than cut prices. (They may be right. Take business class airfares: who pays $10,000 these days when one can almost always find a ticket for $4,000? And “discount” phobia is not limited to the best hotels. I am told that during hard times in the ‘90s, some family hotels in Switzerland failed without ever having cut a single franc off room rates.)

Another reason rates aren’t being pared to the bone at top-end hotels is that while the past year may have lightened portfolios among the clientèle of Europe’s “grands,” the damage hasn’t been lifestyle altering. Just because Herr Schmidt’s net worth went from 30 to 20 million euros doesn’t mean he’s checking in to a Best Western instead of the Brenner’s Park.

Luxurylink.com seems to support that theory. This is a website used by luxury properties to market excess inventory. Out of 76 properties “approved” by Luxurylink throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, only four were on offer at press time, and one was a six-night ballooning package at three good-but-not-grand Swiss hotels for just under $10,000 per person.

There is yet another element at work in keeping rates up at the “grands;” one I doubt hoteliers are willing to discuss, but which undoubtedly trumps all others. While it would seem to make sense to sell those 20 empty rooms for $150 per night on Priceline rather than get zero income from them (after all, that’s $3,000 per night and $21,000 per week), to do so opens the door to a completely different clientèle, one with the potential to drastically change a hotel’s carefully orchestrated ambiance. The reasoning probably goes something like this: one or two wide-eyed, Volkswagen Golf-driving, Timex-wearing guests can create an amusing diversity, but a hotel full of them changes everything.

In my search for good deals at “grand” hotels, the best I found was at Berlin’s elegant Schlosshotel, sumptuously refurbished a few years ago under the guidance of Karl Lagerfeld. At the hotel’s website I found a last-minute, two-night stay for 175 euros per night. The Schlosshotel is in the posh suburb of Grunewald, about 20-minutes by public transport from the Mitte. The more central Hotel de Rome has doubles for 235 euros.

The great Brenner’s Park in Baden-Baden, where the Obamas relaxed for a day during a 2009 NATO Summit, has two-night bed and breakfast packages in a double room for 1,040 euros or about $1,360. The best rate I saw on the hotel’s website was 320 euros ($416), no breakfast.

Interlaken’s Grand Hotel Victoria Jungfrau, a place of many fond memories (watching the sunlight fade on the Jungfrau from the elegant La Terressa Restaurant) used to have a “special offers” calendar on its website that identified nights on which discounts were available. Click the date and book; great for the flexible vacationer. Seven years ago Gemütlichkeit reported the site listed 18 nights in a single month in which a double room could be had for CHF 260, about $154 at the time. The best deal now there now is found under “Special Offers & Events/Internet Special,” and is for a double room at CHF 400 or about $352, not bad for a hotel of this caliber and a far cry from the $744 Orbitz price.

Though it’s not a “grand” hotel, Luxurylink.com offers five nights for two people (plus kids under 12 stay free), including breakfast and dinner, at the five-star, family-owned Hotel Grüner Baum in Bad Gastein for a “buy it now” price of $1,600. The minimum bid price is $1,092 but I suspect a bid of $1,100 will win the day. The food was a disappointment on our last visit (off-season), but the accommodations were fine and the national park setting is spectacular. Though there are some negative posts on Tripadvisor, this would be a great bargain for a couple traveling with two children under 12.

Once thought to be Germany’s finest hotel, Hamburg’s Vier Jahreszeiten has gone from family-owned, old-world service of the very highest quality, to a string a corporate managers, the latest being Fairmont, a Canadian firm which seems to specialize in historic “grand” hotels. I haven’t been there for several years but those who have report a wide variance in room quality. At the Fairmont website I found a price of 192 euros, about $250. I guess whether that’s a good deal depends on whether you get one of the musty closets some complain about or one of the bright, luxurious chambers that gets raves. The Jahreszeiten Grill has to be one of the most beautiful dining rooms in Europe.

Le Montreux Palace, another Fairmont, offers doubles for CHF 469 but if you stay four nights you get a fifth free, which works out to about $330 per night.

A better deal at a better hotel is CHF 348 (about $306) at Lausanne’s Le Beau Rivage Palace overlooking Lac Léman. Vienna’s Hotel Sacher will put you up for four nights for the price of three at 888 euros or about $290 per night. The Sacher’s regular double room rates start at 385 euros. Of course you can rent the Madama Butterfly suite for two nights for 4,380 euros, about $5,700.

Three hundred dollars a night in the best hotels in our three countries may be a better deal than we realize. In Paris, the George V wants 770 euros, the Cipriani in Venice charges 609 euros. On the other hand, London’s old-line Claridge’s has a spring special for about $328 per night.

While shopping the websites of these transcendent purveyors of bed and board, be prepared for a few annoying features. Words such as “rates” and “prices” are not generally used. “Arrangements” is popular but terms such as “deals,” “specials,” and “discounts” are simply not done, old boy. To get a price you’re going to have to find the site’s booking engine—try “availability”— and punch in some dates. Then there’s the excruciatingly bothersome music, which can only be extinguished by locating some link in four-point type well-hidden on the page.

Though we enjoy occasional stays at the best hotels, you really don’t need a newsletter to tell you about the Sachers and Brenner’s Parks of Europe—except when they don’t measure up. No, the trick is to find exceptional hotels at good prices, and over the last 23 years we’ve gotten far greater satisfaction in spotting places like the Hotel Art Nouveau in Berlin, the Hirschen in Langnau Switzerland, and the Petrisberg in Trier, than we have in reporting on hotel rooms that cost more per night than the average family’s monthly grocery bill. Small town Nebraska/Oregon upbringing dictates that I’ll always be more comfortable with a late night cold beer from the Art Nouveau’s honor bar than with a Grand Marnier in the leather and dark wood of the Beau Rivage Palace’s English Bar. —RHB