Sightseeing without ever leaving the hotel

By Geri Dreiling

June 2011

“It’s not like the movies,” I warned my Spanish friend once he decided to make his first trip to the United States to visit me in St. Louis.

“This isn’t Baywatch. You won’t see Pamela Anderson look-a-likes running around in bathing suits — most certainly not in the Midwest,” I emphasized repeatedly.

Of course, I would eventually be wrong. But first, we had to figure out what an international visitor needed to do to enter the U.S. as a tourist.

International Travel Documents

International travelers who want to visit the United States need more than a passport. To enter the country, the traveler also needs some type of visa or visa waiver. As a citizen of Spain, my visitor was eligible for a travel visa waiver with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.  Officially known as the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or ESTA, the waiver is available for citizens of certain countries who plan to visit for 90 days or less.  It is an online application process that charges $14 and, once approved, remains valid for two years.

Once the ESTA was secured, a flight had to be booked. Unfortunately, there are no longer any direct international flights coming into St. Louis. E’s flight would stop at Chicago O’Hare. And since Chicago is only a five-hour drive from St. Louis, I decided to meet him in the Windy City. I could show him around Chicago before heading back.

Booking a Chicago Hotel

Downtown Chicago hotels are not cheap. Parking is also pricey. You won’t pay New York prices but, on a St. Louis budget, it can be a little steep. While not nearly so scenic – or so I thought – hotel prices near the airport can be more affordable.

I decided to book a hotel near the airport. You still pay for parking – but not as much. A hotel near the “L,” Chicago’s metro line, also allows you to skip the sometimes nightmarish drive downtown and the hunt for another expensive parking place for your car.

I used Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” feature, limiting the results to the airport area and a minimum four-star quality, and picked up a room at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare Hotel. Although the rooms are listed for $150 a night, I successfully bid to pay nearly one-third of that price.

Bronzed Bodybuilders

“Are you here for the convention?” the Hyatt’s parking lot attendant asked when we first arrived at the hotel.

“No,” I replied, not giving the question too much thought. After all, there are a lot of conventions in Chicago.

We parked. We grabbed our bags. We walked into the hotel.

The Hyatt Regency O’Hare has an enormous open atrium. We were on the bottom floor and needed to take the escalator up to the main lobby. As we approached the escalator, I thought driving fatigue must be getting to me.

“Did you see that?” I asked E as we approached the escalator.

With a straight face and a serious tone, he answered, “Did I just see a very blonde, very tan, very fit woman in a blue bikini going up an escalator? No.”

But yes, it was true. There was a woman with Loni Anderson-blonde hair, a George Hamilton-tan, and young Arnold Schwarzenegger muscles, clad in a shiny, tiny blue bikini calmly going up the escalator.

And then we noticed more of them: Very muscular and extremely tan men and women in small swimsuits.

Our stay coincided with a body builder competition and convention. As we approached the check-in desk, we learned from a large display that that one of the sponsors was a company called Pro Tan.

I recalled the parking attendant’s question.  Even though he is a Spaniard, E has a fair complexion. I could disappear into a vat of Elmer’s glue. We are both scrawny. Perhaps the parking lot attendant thought we were competition judges. Perhaps the parking lot attendant thought we were the “before” models used in promotional PR campaigns.

But we were certainly not bronzed bodybuilders.

After check-in, we ditched our luggage and decided to grab lunch in the hotel lobby restaurant. And yes, while we ate, we watched extremely fit men and women run around in tiny bathing suits.