So you’re probably wondering, why Kentucky and why Bowling Green? Four words; Mammoth Cave National Park. As summer drew to a close and fall swung into full gear, a few friends and I decided to go have one last outdoor adventure that far enough from home that we could disconnect, close enough we could drive, and impressive enough that it was worth it. Thus we pre-booked our cave access tickets, planned our route, and bought a lot of snacks for a 6-hour long journey of I-spy and Abba karaoke.
The Tru by Hilton brand launched in 2016 and is aimed at the economical young traveler with a trendier aesthetic - read: millennial - with furniture and amenity spaces that are skewed toward matching this demographic while still fitting within the select service arm of the industry. For comparison among Hilton Brands, Tru is similar in offerings to a Hampton Inn - which Melanie & Tom reviewed over the summer - albeit in a trendier outfit. For this new concept, Hilton redesigned their room standards - shrinking the size by removing elements like desks and closets - to fit more rooms per building and offer economics that could lower the cost per night. This formula aims at carving out a new trendier niche in the select service market.
The quaint city of Bowling Green, Kentucky’s 3rd largest city and where our hotel was located, is home to the Corvette Factory and the National Corvette Museum - a great site to check out while in town. The hotel itself is located right off I-65 in a sea of gas stations, chain restaurants, and next to a dying mall with a Cinnabon. The area left a bit to be desired, but was within a 10 minute drive to downtown Bowling Green through some residential streets. Downtown had some cute dining spots as well like Mellow Mushroom Pizza, which was our favorite, and is filled with some interesting vintage buildings and automotive history. But the real star is around 20 minutes away: Mammoth Cave National Park. Established in 1941 and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site - as well as an international Biosphere Reserve. Within its boundaries are only a small amount of a jaw dropping 400+ miles of the world’s longest cave system, not to mention some beautiful hiking trails and campgrounds.
I booked this hotel directly on the Hilton website and reserved a 2 Queen Room for $77/night with fees and taxes totaling $175 for our two nights and earning 2,772 Hilton Honors points. Paying with my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns double points on travel, I also earned 350 Ultimate Rewards Points for my stay.
Arrival, Check In & Lobby
After hours of screaming Mamma Mia at the top of our lungs on the drive from Chicago, we pulled off into a quintessential highway off-ramp neighborhood to start our vacation. Check-in was a breeze, it took under 5 minutes, and the staff were all extremely courteous and masked up which we appreciated as we did not see much of that around the area. We were handed our room keys and told a bit about the hotel procedures including the limited breakfast options and hours.
After a summer of COVID, and sensing the pandemic would continue to rage on, my friend Julian and I felt the desire to get out of Chicago before being cooped up for the winter. Given that we’re both in the unfortunate state of unemployment, we found ourselves fairly flexible on the scheduling front, so we decided to save some money and book a road trip out of town for a few week days. After thinking through some options, we landed on Grand Rapids for its proximity to fall color hiking, outdoor food and drink scene, and - then - lower rates of COVID infection. After looking at a few options, we landed on the AC Hotel, a brand I quite enjoy, due to its upscale feel and affordable price.
The AC Hotel brand is a relatively new Marriott concept on the shores of the US. With its roots across the Atlantic in Europe, the hotels offer an upscale refined vibe to the select service sphere - hotels that offer reduced amenities and smaller footprints. One of the moments I enjoy most about the brand is it’s activated lobbies: the bar really becomes a social centerpiece where people gather. The design and furnishings of the hotel are another key selling feature for me. In my mind, AC’s are more of a compact full-service hotel rather than select for this reason.
The Grand Rapids property fits the mold of what I’ve come to expect, but this time packaged in a restored industrial brick building that had an awful 1980’s facade covering its charm. The hotel is quite cool from the street and leaves a good impression. It’s location didn’t hurt either - located right downtown, it was a scenic walk or a quick car ride to anywhere we’d wanted to go, and just steps away from one of my favorite coffee shops: Madcap.
As part of our booking process, Julian and I knew we wanted to keep costs low, so we explored hotels where I had a Free Night Certificate available. In this case, I had an outstanding certificate from when I’d had the Marriott Bonvoy American Express Card, which I’d closed when I opened my American Express Platinum Card. By booking directly with the hotel, and using a free night certificate, our total for two nights came to $173.65 - not too shabby. This netted me 522 Ultimate Rewards Points by booking with my Chase Sapphire Reserve and 1,685 Base + 421 Elite + 250 Extra Bonvoy Points with my Gold Status.
Arrival, Check In & Lobby
After an easy drive in from Chicago, but one in which we’d forgotten about the time change, we were glad to pull up to the generous loading area in front of the hotel to get our vacation started! Upon entering, both of us were immediately struck by the moody elegance of the entry space, especially the show stopping front desk, but then we hit a hiccup… The front desk agent was a bit odd, and didn’t seem to want to be there. Dressed in a yellow t-shirt, she was quite robotic and not very talkative. She didn’t ask any questions, thank me for my loyalty, or mention any information about the hotel. She was also unable to answer most of our questions and seemed to just want us to move on. Luckily, when we returned down a few moments later, a super friendly suited agent was at the desk, and Julian spent a great deal of time getting answers to his questions and inquiring about upgrades while I waited in the lounge.
Like many of the people that we know, our summer travel itineraries look very different than years prior. While last year was filled with road trips, conferences and weekend adventures, this summer has a little less of that and a lot more creative at-home shenanigans. Of course in the midst of a global pandemic, life doesn’t stop entirely, but the travel experience looks a little different. For us, our family is relocating to North Carolina in less than a year, which means that finding a place to live is a necessity. With that, we travelled to Kernersville, North Carolina to explore the area and find the Standish family a lot to build a house on.
Many are likely familiar with Hampton Inn - a staple of many cross country road trips or visits near and far - so it's likely that no introduction is needed! Hampton by Hilton is a select service brand that offers warm hospitality - or "Hamptonality" as the hotel has branded it, free breakfast, complimentary wifi and other amenities based on a property's specific location. We love them for their signature waffle irons at breakfast and their consistent quality and service - regardless of where in the country you choose to stay in one. For this stay, a relatively new Hampton Inn in Kernersville was our home base!
Truthfully, Kernersville itself is not much of a tourist destination. Tucked away between Greensboro and Winston-Salem (two larger cities in North Carolina) the town itself is reminiscent of a traditional suburban town, and our hotel, the Hampton Inn Kernersville, was located right off of I-40. With each city about 20 minutes away, and our house hunting location about 15 minutes down the road, the hotel was perfectly located for us. Better yet, the North Carolina equivalent of Chicago’s Portillos - Dairi-O - was located right outside the hotel.
Our family booked through the Hampton Inn directly. Our family reports that the process was mediocre at best. When purchasing our rooms at a discounted price, the checkout timed out and the rate was no longer available. When calling the general Hampton Inn number, they could no longer honor the rate. The rate later became available online, but the process was nonetheless unnecessarily complicated.
Arrival, Check In & Lobby
We flew into Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which was conveniently located between the first portion of our destination - Wilmington, N.C. - and Kernersville. We arrived at the Hampton Inn after spending some time in Wilmington assisting another member of our family relocating, and were easily able to access the hotel from the highway. After docking our land yacht (our Chevy Suburban rental, which these tips can help you snag too), we were pleasantly greeted and quickly checked in to our rooms for the night. When walking into the hotel, the front desk was situated immediately to the left with a snack bar situated directly to the right of the check-in. To the right of the main lobby was a large sitting and dining area, where breakfast would normally be served. The lobby was very pleasant, with blue and orange accented furnishing throughout. Walking forward through the space, the elevators were on the left hand side and situated adjacent to access for the fitness center and pool.
Located in Toronto’s annex neighborhood, the Annex Hotel, is thought of as a reimagination of what a modern day hotel could be like. Designed by Toronto’s StudioAC, the hotel is chic, fresh, and inherently local - which is increasingly becoming a key driver in the hotel industry, and something that’s of high importance to me when I travel. With a philosophy of guests all of what matters and none of what doesn’t, this property is a standout among others in the city, likely a more comfortable competitor of Airbnb than, say, Hilton.
First described to me as the “un-hotel,” I was excited to get a feel for what this rethinking would look and feel like, and - as you’ll see - it had both it’s ups and downs.
As this is an independent hotel, we booked directly with the property at www.theannex.com - rooms in the hotel are also available on Airbnb and other sites. Given that we had a brief one night stay, we opted for a Medium room with one queen bed as we intended on being out and about in the neighborhood for the duration of our stay. Our total for one night, with taxes and fees, came out to a reasonable $135.98 US which we charged to my colleague’s Hilton Honors American Express Surpass Card.
Arrival, Check In & Lobby
After landing at Toronto’s Billy Bishop Airport from a flight in on Porter Airlines, we attempted to take public transit, but after getting on the wrong train and subsequently realizing they were cash or token only, we opted to call an Uber given its affordability and speed. Arriving at the hotel was a bit of a confusing process as the hotel’s address is off of what is essentially an alley - causing our driver to get lost. It was clean, and in the evening well lit, and also had a great sequence of street art leading up to it which we would spend time exploring later.
I usually spend about 2-3 weekends a year down in Springfield as a part of my involvement in AIA - our offices for AIA Illinois are in Springfield - which usually means an overnight at the Statehouse Inn. This has quickly become our go to due to it’s affordable rates, friendly staff, and prime location which I’ll discuss below. At the time of this stay, it was co branded as part of the Red Collection by Red Roof Inn - an effort by Red Roof to enter the boutique market with midscale to upper midscale urban properties. At the time of publishing though, it is now branded as a part of the Trademark Collection by Wyndham, a slightly more upscale take on the strategy of the Red Collection.
The Statehouse Inn is aptly named due to its location directly across from the State Capitol and just a few blocks from the historic Old State Capitol. It’s also positioned perfectly within the most walkable portions of downtown Springfield, which is filled with great shopping, dining, and drinking! Some of our favorites: Buzzbomb Brewing, Obed & Isaac’s, JP Kelley’s and Custom Cup. Springfield often gets a bad rap, but there really is a lot to see and do - Abraham Lincoln’s Home, the Dana Thomas House and the Lincoln Presidential Library to name a few. It’s also conveniently located just off of the Amtrak Station should that be your method of transportation.
The hotel occupies a handsome midcentury modern building with an attractive teal and blue glass facade with buff brick - it was recently restored alongside the conversion to the Red Collection brand.
Given that I was travelling as a part of a Board of Directors Meeting, my room was booked within a block by our lovely staff at AIA Illinois. As such, I paid nothing out of pocket. Given that I don’t frequent Red Roof properties, I’m not a member of any loyalty program, and thus didn’t earn any points.
Arrival, Check In & Lobby
As is usual with my trips to Springfield, I arrived via a rental car, and National handed me a sweet upgrade on this trip, which you can get too. I also could have taken the Amtrak which drops off just outside the parking lot had it fit my schedule. Speaking of parking, there is an abundance of spaces and they are included with your nights stay. I parked and took a quick walk into the lobby, although I should note that signage is confusing and I accidentally strolled through the event center first.