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STAY SMART / SAN FRANCISCO HOTELS

Cents and an S.F. sensibility

Two Ben Franklins will buy you a stay at a stylish boutique hotel, but don't expect a pool.

September 03, 2006|Beverly Beyette | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — AH, San Francisco -- where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars and so have hotel prices.

Hotel occupancy rates in this tourist and business magnet remain high -- almost 73% this year through June -- and prices reflect that. The average cost of a room in the city proper in the first five months was $165.84 a night before the 14% tax (which pushes the total over $189), according to the San Francisco office of PFK Consulting, which tracks industry trends. That figure includes lower-end places and cookie-cutter chains but excludes bed-and-breakfasts of fewer than 20 rooms. (By contrast, the L.A. average was $20 a night cheaper.)

For many travelers, the hotel is just a place to rest one's head. For others, the hotel enriches the experience, but as experienced travelers know, charm comes at a price. My challenge: to find hotels with character and class without ballooning the budget.

In late July, I set out to find a dozen or so places where the rooms may cost the average price but are anything but average. We set $200 as the upper limit, including the 14% room tax. I excluded B&Bs and extended-stay accommodations and avoided the chain hotels.

I stayed in six boutique hotels, chosen to include different areas of the city as well as a variety of styles, traditional as well as contemporary. I visited 13 others, including a few super-budget hotels with rooms well under the $200 limit. And I also checked out some hotels that are being renovated and should emerge as particularly attractive $200-and-under choices.

Quoting exact prices is futile because, like airline tickets, hotel prices fluctuate according to demand; some hotels no longer print cards that show "rack" or "brochure" rates. The variables include special packages, AARP or AAA rates, Internet rates and so on. But this story will list the price I paid, which includes the tax.

In my booking experience, I found that hotel websites generally had the best prices, although smart shoppers know it pays to call too.

Here's what you can generally expect for about $200: a clean room with a comfortable bed, Internet access, elevator, cable TV, radio and clock, telephone, bath amenities and iron and board.

What you may not get: free continental-plus breakfast, room service, CD player, fitness center, wireless Internet in-room, robes and an on-site restaurant.

What you probably will not get: swimming pool, flat-screen TV and air conditioning. Although A/C is not usually a necessity here, it was on my visit because of a heat wave.

In setting our $200 limit, we did not include parking, which, with tax, can cost as much as $57 for 24 hours. But the city is compact and has good public transportation. My advice: Forgo the car.

*

Hotel Rex

THE 94-room Hotel Rex, which underwent a million-dollar renovation in 2003, was my favorite.

My queen-bed room, No. 609, was not huge, but it was inviting, with its green and gold Provencal colors, hand-painted jug lamps and dark woods. Amenities included Aveda toiletries, a pillow-top mattress, cable TV and CD player, robe, iron and ironing board. The bath had a single sink, tub-shower combination, a lighted makeup mirror and good counter space. I loved the lobby bar, inspired by the literary salons of the '30s, and enjoyed a post-theater dinner in Cafe Andree with its little bistro tables and red bentwood chairs.

Price paid: $181.26

Parking: $34. (Unless noted, all parking prices listed are for 24-hour valet parking and do not include 14% tax. Most rates include in-and-out privileges.)

Amenities: Room service. Restaurant. Free wireless Internet in guest rooms. Business center with free high-speed Internet. Free morning coffee and evening wine hour. Bellman and concierge. Guest privileges for $15 a day at nearby Club One health club center and pool. No pets. Nonsmoking.

Pros: Close to shopping, dining, theaters, cable car. Friendly staff.

Cons: No air conditioning, but windows open. One small, slow elevator.

562 Sutter St.; (415) 433-4434 or (800) 433-4434, www.thehotelrex.com.

*

Orchard Hotel

THIS hotel was built in 2000, and although the lobby is unimposing, my king-bedded room, No. 605, was large and well appointed with teak-like Balinese furniture. The decor was bland -- taupe, gray and ivory -- but there were feather pillows, robes, a safe, cable TV with surround sound and a coffee maker.

The tiled bath was large, with ample counter space, a magnifying mirror, Aveda toiletries and tub-shower combination. The front desk lends CDs.

My view was of a rooftop, but the inside room was quiet. I had a good dinner in the hotel's Vignette restaurant, where entrees were $20 to $29. The complimentary breakfast in the Vignette is generous and served on proper china.

Price paid: $182

Parking: $34

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