Living It Up

After taking hundreds of business trips, I have a pretty clear idea of what matters to me in a hotel. Most people would probably say cleanliness is the most important thing, but I disagree. Number one is a comfortable bed. Number two is the heating/cooling system: it has to be able to keep the room at the right temperature, without making noises that will wake me up. If I can have those two things, I can sleep well, which is pretty much all that matters. (Number three, if there is a number three, is a hot, reasonably high-pressure shower. I can live without just about anything else.)

This past week we went to New York to visit my father (and my sister’s family, who were also visiting), and we decided to stay in a hotel. We booked a room in the Hampton Inn (in Elmsford), which is generally my favorite chain (cheap, everything free, newly remodeled, predictable). But we had a terrible time sleeping, because the heater didn’t have a constant fan setting, meaning that it kicked on periodically, and it also blew out extremely hot, dry air when it was on. So we checked out after the first night and switched to . . . the Ritz-Carlton (in White Plains).

So, at the age of forty-one, I stayed in a Ritz for the first time — and that only because it was extremely cheap for a Ritz. (The Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco was the first place I paid over $4 for a cup of coffee, back in 1997, but I was just there for a McKinsey interview.) The base rate was $229, and for $269 you could get a $40 breakfast credit and valet parking (the only kind available, I think) included. Before we checked in, my niece (age seven) said, “The Ritz is usually pretty nice.” (Note the words “usually” and “pretty.”) Anyway, it was worth it. The bed was comfortable, the heating was constant and quiet, the service was both perfect and friendly, the raisin brioche French toast was to die for (the Belgian waffle was just pretty good), and the nice people gave my daughter not one but two stuffed lions. I give it three stars.

One thing behavioral science has shown is that we are bad at estimating the marginal utility of money. For example, if you want to buy a suitcase and you go to a store and it costs $250, and you know it costs $150 on the other side of town, you will drive across town to save $100. But most people, when buying a $25,000 car, won’t drive across town to another dealer where it costs $24,900. Another example is that we’re bad at comparing the utility we will get from different purchases. That is, we are not that bad at deciding between a $50 frying pan and a $100 frying pan (because we can compare their attributes), but we’re terrible at deciding what between a $100 frying pan or a $100 ticket to a concert or $100 in pilates classes will give us the most utility, because they’re completely dissimilar goods.

Anyway, this is something I try to think about in my everyday life, and it helps explain the Christmas gifts in my family. For most of a decade, I have been complaining about living in New England rather than California, mainly because of the winter. Finally, two years ago, I realized that anything that would keep me warm in the winter would give me a great deal of utility and would probably be worth the money, and I asked my wife to give me the warmest pair of mittens she could find. (This was when our dog was still alive, which meant an hour or more per day out in the cold with him.) So now, if I ever want to climb Mt. Everest, I have the right mittens. Last year I asked for an extremely warm jacket and fleece-lined jeans, which I got. This year she gave me hand warmers and a heated car seat cover. My sister gave me hand warmers and toe warmers. I gave my wife slippers with microwaveable inserts. My sister gave her a hot water bottle. Because in the New England winter, there are few things more valuable than warmth.