Hotel's $19 luxury room has empty feel

Rancho Bernardo Inn

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: Lots of folks are doing whatever possible to save some cash in this recession. Cutting expenses is a good way to do it. Pass on that expensive meal. Opt for a used car instead of one off the showroom floor.

When you're on vacation, forgo a comfy bed and sleep on the hotel floor. Wait, what? Yes, that's the frill-free package awaiting some guests at a San Diego resort. No bed. No toilet paper. All for 19 bucks a night.

Our intrepid Cash Peters booked a room and lived, if you can call it that, to tell about it.


Cash Peters: You see the trouble Twitter can get you into? For a lark, John Gates, general manager of the Rancho Bernardo Inn, thought he'd try to attract more business to his lovely four-star resort near San Diego, with a simple tweeted offer for a bargain room.

John Gates: I said it's $219 with breakfast. No one tweeted back. "OK, $209 without breakfast." And I kept going down. "Alright, no towels in the room. $189." And I got down to $59 or $39, if memory serves. Finally I said, "OK, nothing in the room. No bed. You sleep on the floor." And a lot of people said, "We'll do it."

Peters: For five bucks, we nail down the toilet seat.

Gates: That's not going to work.

Nah, but I bet they considered it. Point is, it began as a gag. Let's charge guests next to nothing, then instead of a bed, have them sleep on the floor in a tent. But let's make it sound way less horrifying by giving it a special name.

Linsday Koop: It's urban camping. Camping on carpet.

Yes, bright-sounding PR person, that's exactly what it is. Camping indoors -- what could be more fun than that? Well, everything, it turns out. Mary Anderson is their marketing whiz.

Mary Anderson: For $19, there's no electricity, no TV, no sheets, toilet paper, toiletries. So...

Peters: It's like a Dickensian orphanage, is what it is now.

Anderson: Not really. No, not really.

Yes it is. But hey, in a faltering economy, you do what you can. Many of these sprawling luxury resorts and spas are operating at only 20 percent capacity right now. Which is sad for them, but great for us. Which means there is all kinds of amazing deals to be had, like the $19 a night Survivor Package.

Lindsay Koop gave me a tour of my luxury-yet-somehow-not room.

Koop: So the honor bar's empty.

Peters: So there's nothing in there.

Koop: Nothing in there. Bare, bare pantry -- nothing. And then this is the bathroom with...

Peters: Nothing.

Koop: No lights, so it's really hard to see, but...

Peters: But I can miss the toilet in the dark.

Koop: I know, you need a flashlight.

Oh great. Now they tell me. Even the music they're playing in the room when you arrive has notes taken out of it.

Brian Sciutto's a former guest. He owns a bank, yet he's also incredibly cheap, I'm guessing because he slept in a tent, too.

Brian Sciutto: For $19 I thought I'd give it a shot. And you know, if it didn't work, I'm out 19 bucks. If it worked, I found a really cool place that I can refer all my friends.

Peters: And did it work?

Sciutto: No.

No. Basically it's the Vegas principle. Get people into your hotel at all costs. And once they are there, well they have to eat and drink, right, and be entertained. That's how you make your money.

Sciutto: I spent a fair amount of money on alcohol in the pool. I spent a fair amount of money for dinner. And I spent, you know, quite a bit of money on breakfast. So, you know, the fact that I got here and that I didn't spend any money on the room wasn't the point.

Exactly. Anyway, after a hard day relaxing -- gourmet meals, massages, golf -- it's back to your room and then it hits you: You are sleeping in a tent.

One thing to note here, if you do choose a novelty package like this, be sure to read the small print. You know, like I didn't. See what you are getting yourself into. That way you don't end up walking into a wall in the dark.

Peters: Ow, ow, ow!

Or suffocating in a hot, stifling, enclosed place.

Peters: There's no windows in here. . . . Agh!

Or opening a tent flap and getting a faceful of dirt and bugs.

Brian Sciutto:

Sciutto: I didn't have any problem falling asleep. It was halfway during the night at some point when my body kind of hurt.

Oh yeah, I bet it did. Luckily, if you do wimp out and decide you need to use the bathroom, say -- then for five bucks the guy at the front desk will sell you an emergency bag of toiletries. The one you used to steal and take home when they were free. Honestly, it's shocking how much comfort people are willing to give up just to get a good deal.

Lindsey Koop again.

Koop: No one has changed their mind, a couple of people have forgot their toilet paper and they've paid for toilet paper at the front desk.

Peters: But people could survive, you think, if they had to.

Koop: Of course, that's The whole thing. The Survivor package.

That's right and I did survive. Well you know, almost.

In San Diego, I'm Cash Peters for Marketplace Money.

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