I stayed in a 5-star hotel for the first time after years of booking cheap Airbnbs. Here are 10 things that surprised me.

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The author spotted some surprising parts about staying in five-star hotels in Colorado and Canada.Monica Humphries/Insider
  • I recently stayed in five-star hotels for the first time in Canada and Colorado.

  • Before, I only ever booked cheap Airbnbs or motels.

  • My first time in luxury hotels came with surprise perks like free minibars, town cars, and hiking gear.

I love to travel, but until recently, when it came to planning trips, accommodations took a back seat.

The fairmont at lake louise in banff, canada.

The Fairmont at Lake Louise in Banff, Canada.Monica Humphries/Insider

I travel for experiences. Some of my fondest memories on the road include visiting Banff National Park to see some of the world’s most beautiful mountainscapes, traveling to Missouri every year to spend time with family, and embarking with friends to new cities to discover local foods, bands, and history.

And when it comes to planning these trips, accommodations take the back seat. I’ve always opted to save my money for activities and food and instead book the cheapest Airbnbs, budget hotels, or even crash on my friends’ air mattresses. Five-star hotels were never on my radar since they weren’t ever attainable for my price point.

But then in the span of two weeks, I stayed in three luxury, five-star hotels. And I was blown away by what these hotels offer, if you can afford it.

The author on the balcony at the little nell hotel in aspen, colorado.

The author on the balcony at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

But that changed this fall. After a trip to South Africa was canceled, my friend and I rerouted to Banff, Canada. With a large travel fund saved, we decided to splurge on a room at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Louise. It cost us about $500 a night and was by far the most expensive room I’ve ever booked for a single night.

Two weeks later, I was in Aspen, Colorado, for work, where I spent $848 for a night in The Little Nell and $700 for a room at The St. Regis Aspen Resort, two of Aspen’s famous high-end hotels. Insider paid for these hotels per our reporting standards.

I felt like a celebrity throughout all three stays. My friend and I eagerly bought prosecco to celebrate the ritzy Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, and in Aspen, I felt like I fit in with the town’s rich vacationers each time I told someone I was staying at The Little Nell.

While high-end hotels won’t be likely to make my itinerary — or budget — for each (okay, most) trip, I certainly will never look at lodgings the same way again. If you’ve ever flown first class, and then had to make the long walk back to coach the next time, you’ll understand what I mean.

Here are the things I found to be the most surprising about trading cheap motels for five-star luxury hotels for the first time.

Five-star hotels have the best locations. Much of the premium you pay is for that front-row view.

The view from our window at the fairmont lake louise hotel.

The view from our window at the Fairmont Lake Louise hotel.Monica Humphries/Insider

I recently stayed in an affordable Airbnb to go snowboarding in Keystone, Colorado. The condo was about 20 minutes from the slopes, so my group drafted carpool groups, navigated the town’s bus schedule, and embraced cold walks to get to the lifts. It was a hassle.

But in Aspen, I stayed at The Little Nell, which is Aspen’s only true ski-in/ski-out hotel. The hotel has one of the best locations in the town with ski slopes right outside the hotel’s exit, and the town’s best restaurants all within walking distance. This convenience is the hotel’s major selling point, and why it commands several hundred dollars per night.

Similarly, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is the only hotel on the lake. So the region’s hikes, trails, ice skating, and other activities were right outside my hotel door, giving me premier access over other people visiting this region of Banff National Park.

Not having to waste time in cars or chitchat with Uber drivers was a huge plus during these trips, and the luxury of convenience was my favorite part of staying in five-star hotels.

The concept of a concierge desk was completely new to me.

Concierge desk at the little nell hotel in aspen, colorado.

The concierge desk at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

I’ve had plenty of Airbnb hosts happily help me decide on a restaurant for dinner or offer recommendations on nearby hikes. But until my recent travels, I had never stayed in a hotel with a concierge desk.

At high-end hotels, there’s an entire team willing to create your vacation itinerary. I initially feared a concierge desk would be outdated, but the staff I met at both the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and The Little Nell were seasonal workers my age with great local suggestions and advice targeted for young travelers like me.

Even before arriving at The Little Nell, the concierge desk scheduled a week’s worth of dinner reservations for me. All I had to do was pick the restaurants and the times, and they did the rest. When my plans changed, I simply stopped at the desk, told them what I needed to be updated, and they made the calls.

The concierge desk was an extravagance I wasn’t familiar with. There was no waiting on hold with the restaurant or dealing with confusing reservation schedules and it felt like I had a personal assistant.

I incorrectly assumed microwaves were a standard in every hotel — no matter the rating.

An open closet at the little nell hotel in aspen, colorado.

A closet at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

I grew up staying in budget hotels and motels. Plastic cups wrapped in plastic were the norm, cheap ice buckets were expected, and there was always a microwave.

Fast forward to staying at The Little Nell and it felt like something was missing. It wasn’t until my friend got cold tomato soup from a restaurant that we realized there wasn’t a microwave in sight.

All three luxury hotels lacked a microwave, which felt surprising considering other appliances like coffee machines and dehumidifiers were provided.

I later learned that most hotels have microwaves available, you just have to request one from the front desk.

Bathroom essentials in five-star hotels go far beyond shampoo and conditioner.

An arrow points to a tray with a sowing kit, nail file, mouthwash, and cotton swabs at the st. Regis aspen.

An arrow points to a tray with a sewing kit, nail file, mouthwash, and cotton swabs at The St. Regis Aspen.Monica Humphries/Insider

Floortoceiling marble filled my bathroom at The St. Regis Aspen Resort, but what excited me more than the grandeur, was a little tray of extras.

In the bathroom at The St. Regis Aspen was a miniature sewing kit, lotion, and nail file waiting for me, and at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, guests like me were also given cotton balls, a shower cap, and mouthwash. Forgot toothpaste? Call the front desk and they’ll bring it right up.

I even spotted a sewing kit during my trip to Aspen, that no, I did not need, but I still eagerly stashed it in my bag for the next time I need to repair a button or hole.

The thoughtful items only added to the feeling of opulence — grand tubs and incredible showers certainly didn’t hurt.

Fancy hotels sometimes offer free gifts and perks that make you feel extra special.

Free snacks and a free silver leaf at the little nell hotel in aspen, colorado.

Free snacks and a free silver leaf at The Little Nell hotel in Aspen, Colorado.Monica Humphries/Insider

At The Little Nell, a bellhop escorted us and our luggage to our room. Once there, he gave a rundown of the hotel and its amenities. He made sure to point out that the snack bar and non-alcoholic drinks were all complimentary.

Before staying at The Little Nell, I had sworn off minibars. To me, they’re overpriced and not worth the convenience, so having access to a minibar without checking prices was absolutely thrilling. I grabbed a Coca-Cola and pack of Oreos and stashed the Snickers in my purse for the next day.

That wasn’t the only free thing inside my hotel room at The Little Nell. Waiting for me was a silver leaf — a gift for guests to signify Aspen’s silver-mining history. It could’ve been strung on a necklace or tied to a bag, but I used it as a Christmas-tree ornament.

I was confused to find phones in the bathroom at two of the hotels.

Phones were next to the toilets in both the little nell and the st. Regis aspen.

Phones were next to the toilets in both The Little Nell and The St. Regis Aspen.Monica Humphries/Insider

Dial phones often feel out of place in 2022, but I was even more surprised to find phones next to the toilet in both Aspen hotels.

According to The Telegraph, this is a common item many hotels added to indicate luxury in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Originally phones in hotel bathrooms were installed for the convenience of guests who might be expecting a call, but the safety aspect of having a hotel bathroom phone was also very apparent and this remains the case today,” Jonathan Toni, CEO of London-based Hotel Technology International Ltd, which makes and supplies hotels with toilet telephones, told The Telegraph.

The telephone in The Little Nell’s bathroom was the only one I could figure out how to work. So when I had a question about the hotel’s valet service, I embarked to the bathroom for my call.

Robes started to feel like a guarantee by the third hotel.

All three hotels provided robes for guests.

All three hotels provided robes for guests.Monica Humphries/Insider

Before five-star hotels, the only time I remember expecting a fluffy robe was inside a cruise ship cabin.

But by the time I got to The St. Regis Aspen Resort, my third five-star hotel, I had expectations to find a robe in my room’s closet.

And sure enough, two robes were waiting.

On my recent trip to Keystone, I was crushed (but not surprised) to learn that there weren’t any robes for guests in the 16-person condo. Instead, my friends and I had to make a mad dash to and from the hot tub in 20-degree weather with our beach towels from home.

Nightly turn-down service is a signature perk of a luxury stay.

The bed at the st. Regis aspen resort.

The bed at The St. Regis Aspen Resort.Monica Humphries/Insider

At all three hotels, the staff asked if we wanted turn-down service. Turn-down service simply involves prepping your room for sleep.

Typically, the staff will pull down blankets, fluff pillows, clear out trash, replace towels, and hopefully leave a chocolate or two.

When the staff stopped by and asked about turn-down service, I opted out since I didn’t want unnecessary contact during the COVID-19 pandemic. I did, however, opt-in for the chocolate the staff offered.

Personally, turn-down service feels superfluous for a single-night stay, but if my hotel reservations had been longer, I would have opted in.

The hotels included lots of extra amenities like free car rentals and hiking gear.

My friend holds a pair of microspikes, which we didn't end up using on our snow hike.

My friend holds a pair of microspikes, which we didn’t end up using on our snow hike.Monica Humphries/Insider

The luxuries of five-star hotels often extended outside of the hotel room.

At the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, my friend and I headed down to the concierge desk to ask for hike recommendations. While there, a staff member let us know that we could rent microspikes, which are helpful for hiking in the snow, for free.

We grabbed two pairs and headed out. The hotel also had free s’mores each night by a fire, its own ski-rental shop, and an indoor pool.

In Aspen, both The Little Nell and The St. Regis Aspen advertised free car rentals for guests. Although I didn’t take advantage of the perk, I realized I could’ve saved money during my trip to the ski town by not bringing my car. The Little Nell also offered amenities like oxygen rentals to combat altitude sickness, local newspaper delivery, unpacking services, and an on-call physician. At The St. Regis, guests had access to babysitters, an electric vehicle charging station, and shoe shines.

While the services and amenities felt “free,” I was, of course, paying for them. Many hotels have mandatory resort fees. For instance, at The Little Nell, I paid a $42 resort fee on top of my $719 room charge.

Five-star hotels often have many lauded restaurants and shops attached to their buildings.

A shopping area in the st. Regis aspen resort.

A shopping area in The St. Regis Aspen Resort.Monica Humphries/Insider

In theory, I never needed to leave any of the hotels during my stays.

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, The Little Nell, and The St. Regis all had multiple dining options inside their buildings. And, the restaurants were recognized as some of the best in each respective town. For example, multiple people urged me to order the truffle fries at Ajax Tavern, a restaurant connected to The Little Nell. In Lake Louise, my friend and I dined at the Alpine Social, one of the hotel’s six restaurants, and had no regrets about our choice.

Outside of the restaurant, there was also shopping in all three hotels. The St. Regis Aspen Resort had jewelry stores, The Little Nell had an art gallery, and the Fairmont had its own little book store.

While the concept of a hotel bar was familiar, I had never stayed in a hotel that had an entire shopping mall inside. I was shocked to find high-end goods and foods that matched each hotel’s extravagant reputation.

The price of high-end hotels doesn’t stop once you’ve paid for your room.

The entrance to the little nell hotel.

The entrance to The Little Nell hotel.James D. Morgan/Getty Images

Compared to budget hotels, I interacted with many more staff members during five-star hotel stays.

From the moment I arrived in my car, there was a valet worker eager to grab my car keys, a bellhop to grab my bags, a staff member to check me in, and house-cleaning staff for turn-down service.

At luxury hotels, you’re expected to tip staff, which can quickly add up when there are so many people helping you. Before my five-star stays, I had never budgeted for tip money at hotels.

If you can afford it, staying in a luxury hotel is likely to feel more like a destination instead of just accommodations.

The author in front of the st. Regis aspen resort.

The author in front of The St. Regis Aspen Resort.Monica Humphries/Insider

Prior to exploring Lake Louise and Aspen, hotels had one purpose — a place to sleep.

But my mindset changed after staying in high-end hotels. Whether it’s soaking in a hot tub, chowing down on truffle fries at a hotel restaurant, or popping prosecco in your room, I realized that a hotel can be a destination on its own.

By no means are five-star hotels accessible to most travelers — including myself. They’re reserved for those who can afford $60 valet fees, $150 meals, and luxury spa services.

I’ll stick to affordable Airbnbs for most future trips, but I do plan to save up for the occasional splurge on a five-star experience in an incredible destination — I’m looking forward to cozying up in one of those robes again, after all.

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