Hip-yet-affordable hotels: What makes Aloft special

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— Courtesy Aloft

Yesterday, I had a fun conversation with the folks from Aloft, one of the new offshoot brands from Starwood. Brian McGuinness, the SVP, Global Brand Leader for both Aloft and Element (as well as Four Points by Sheraton), started by trying to help me understand how all these groups are different. It seems every chain has decided to expand into the hip/affordable niche—and I don't know about you but as a consumer, it's pretty hard to know how the Andazs differ from the Alofts; the Indigos from the Elements.

So let me help you…Aloft has opened 20 properties already, and they have 22 more coming through the end of this year. They're focusing on airports and places like the DC area. They are all about style and design (done by David Rockwell) and things like "vibe" (DJs in the lobby). A couple things Brian told me that I got particularly, geekily, excited by:

• You actually get to choose your own room when you check in, which is done at a kiosk. Want to be close to the elevator, but on the northern side of the building (for whatever reason…)? The choice is yours. Apparently, they did some studies that showed that travelers are happier with the end product when they get to make all the decisions. As someone who always wants to switch my seat on a plane before checking in, I can see how that works.

• They don't charge you for every little thing. There are free bikes on site. Wi-Fi is free. The gym is free. These things aren't hard for a hotel to do, but they're just the kind of thoughtful touches that earn my loyalty.

• Oh, and yes, rooms start at $125 a night, on average.

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