Hungry business travelers headed for Tampa, Fla., on AirTran Airways flight 131 might want to grab a bite before boarding the 11:20 p.m. flight in Atlanta. It might be their last meal until the next morning, especially if they pick the wrong hotel.
While most airlines now sell food, AirTran (AAI) remains an exception. A few pretzels are all you'll get on board. And while the flight is short, you can't assume that a late-night dinner or even a snack at your Tampa hotel will be an option.
The city may have hosted the Super Bowl, and it will be the site of the next Republican National Convention, but late-night food is still a new concept there. Most hotel restaurants in Tampa close at 10 p.m. and room service after midnight is hard to find.
Most hotels don't offer late-night food. The few restaurants that do -- chain establishments like Denny's (DENN) or The Village Inn -- don't have franchises near most lodgings. So if you don't have a rental car, you could easily be talking about a $40 round-trip cab fare to grab a hamburger at Denny's.
Sadly, It's Not Just Tampa
You can use Tampa as a proxy for most major U.S. cities. Outside of New York and Chicago, late-night dinning options are not a given, even if you're staying at the top hotel in town.
The ironic twist to this is that often, the more luxurious hotels offer fewer late night dinning choices than the more modest establishments.
Take the restaurants in Tampa's largest hotel, The Marriott Waterside. They're usually closed by 10 p.m. and room service stops at midnight. In addition, the hotel is located in Tampa's downtown district, which shut down after 5 p.m. "If you're lucky, maybe you can call out for pizza, if they're still open," explained a hotel operator about the late night dinning options.
At least the Marriott (MAR) has one vending machine for snacks, assuming it works.
The Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay (H), considered Tampa's top resort hotel, offers room service until 2 a.m. But without even a soda machine in the entire hotel, you'll pay $7 for a soft drink. After 2 a.m., however, you would be out of luck. There are neither mini-bars in the rooms, nor snack machines in the corridors.
The hotel sits on an isolated causeway, nice for viewing the waters of Tampa Bay, but miles away from even a Denny's.
Less Luxury, More Menu
Several notches down, the mid-priced Hyatt Place brand (two locations in Tampa) offers hamburgers, pizza, turkey wraps and grab-and-go items like salads, 24 hours a day. The desk clerks do the kitchen duty, but the food isn't half bad.
The Courtyard by Marriott brand is a step below Hyatt Place in the late-night food department. Its pantry features sandwiches, frozen entrees and candy bars. But there are microwaves in the rooms, and it's quick and easy.
However, you're not entirely out of luck when it comes to food at luxury hotels, even in medium sized cities like Tampa. A little spade work in making your reservation can amount to the difference between going hungry and being satisfied.
For example, across the multilane causeway from the Hyatt, the Westin Tampa Bay (HOT) offers sandwiches and salads in its 24-hour gift shop. It may not be gourmet, but it's something. Hyatt guests without a car, may find it difficult to just hop the street to get a Westin sandwich. Sidewalks in most parts of Tampa are as rare as its late-night restaurants.
Follow the Money ... to the Kitchen
The best choice in Tampa for late night snack in your hotel is Renaissance Tampa Hotel International Plaza. At the Renaissance, you could be feasting on steak at 3 a.m. with its 24-hour room service menu.
The InterContinental Tampa (IHG) also has a 24-hour room service menu, but steak from Shula's, the hotel's steak restaurant isn't served. Still, shrimp cocktails, turkey club sandwiches, Caesar salads and hamburgers are all available.
Hotels base their choice about offering late night food service on whether they can turn a profit, explained Joe McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. "They track their demand, and decide whether they can afford to do it or not," he said.
McInerney said it's feasible for the smaller limited-service hotels to offer food service that their bigger brothers cannot because their staff is trained to wear many hats. "The front desk clerk can man the convenience store,'' he said.
Too bad more front desk clerks in luxurious hotels can't learn how to multitask. We might have more satisfied bellies. Until then, late-night business travelers should do their research and follow their noses.
Travel Maze: Hungry Nights in Luxury Hotels