Now that commencements are back in the traditional sense — in person with a mostly mask-free audience — degree chasers stressing over exams and papers will pull all-nighters, as out-of-towners do overnighters. And like the grad candidates, family and friends have some homework to do — that is, unless they enjoy throwing money away and caution to the wind.
College graduations are a cap and gown-wearing cash cow for hotels in close proximity to commencement venues, and heaven help the Type-B traveler coming in for the ceremony and usual obligatory family events. Procrastinators run the risk of seeing “no vacancy” signs on even low-rated properties, and if by some miracle, there’s room at the inn at the 11th hour, chances are good that the rate is bad.
It doesn’t take a degree in microeconomics to know it’s all about supply and demand. Not enough of the former and too much of the latter is how hotels in prime locations can often charge two to four times the regular rate during graduation days.
“Most hotels utilize a revenue management system that suggests rates based on supply and demand,” says Robert Rauch, CEO of R.A. Rauch & Associates, a San Diego-based hotel management and consulting firm. “So when, say, 3,000 room requests come in for 1,000 total units in a market, two things happen. One, rates at hotels of closest proximity to the event raise their prices because their booking pace is unusually fast. Two, rates at properties nearby catch on and raise their rates.”
Take Palo Alto’s el Prado Hotel, for example. Being a desirable property about a mile’s walk from Stanford University can justify a “Stanford Graduation Rate” that is more than double what a room in the lowest category goes for on regular weekends. Citing standard industry practice, hotel management doesn’t see it as a Cardinal sin to command premiums of nearly 120% from Stanford families during grad week.
“We see a big spike in demand during Stanford graduation week, and to adjust, our pre-paid room rates start at $799,” says Brayton Gosling, el Prado’s general manager. “We will likely sell out several months in advance and need to start a wait list.”
It’s even more of a seller’s market in college towns, such as San Luis Obispo, Chico, Davis and, in a bit of a stretch, UCLA’s Westwood neighborhood. At graduation time, it’s not atypical for even three-star properties to charge for a weekend what a grad’s grandparent might have paid for a year’s tuition back in the day. True college towns are typically shy on ample beds, often requiring a visitor to widen the radius. In South Bend, Indiana, home of Notre Dame, it’s not unusual for families to stay in Chicago — more than an hour’s drive away.
You’ll have an easier time avoiding sticker shock if you book a hotel early and lock in the lowest rate.
Where to stay for the big day
Here are our tips for those in need of temporary grad housing near most major California universities. The list runs south to north; check with universities and properties for the latest information.
San Diego State: Viejas Arena is a terrific venue for the university’s commencement exercises, but it’s slim pickings for adequate lodging within 10 minutes of the place. A slew of mid-range hotels, including SpringHill Suites by Marriott San Diego Mission Valley (springhillsuites.com), is farther west along I-8, and having a mall and good restaurants next door is great for emergency shopping and family meals.
UC San Diego: La Jolla’s draw as a seaside vacation destination can make finding acceptable rates difficult in late May. Some relief could be available from a university-promoted discount program that has participating hotels offering better rates when UCSD is name dropped. Participants in past years have included the Sheraton La Jolla Hotel (sheraton.com), Embassy Suites by Hilton San Diego La Jolla (hilton.com/en/embassy), Estancia La Jolla Hotel & Spa (estancialajolla.com), Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine (lajollahyatt.com) and Hotel La Jolla (hotellajolla.com).
UC Irvine: The Irvine-Newport Beach area that surrounds UCI has one of the highest concentrations of hotels in Orange County, and some of the most desirable — and least affordable — are those adjacent to Fashion Island. Anteater families might consider instead the Irvine Spectrum Center, less than 15 minutes away from the Bren Events Center. With 20 full-service restaurants able to host graduation dinners and a dozen mid-range hotels within a mile radius, including the Marriott Irvine Spectrum and its rooftop Hive & Honey bar and restaurant, this complex should more than meet the needs of the hungry, tired and proud.
Cal State Fullerton, Chapman University and Cal State Long Beach: Lodging at or near the Disneyland Resort makes sense for out-of-town relatives planning to add a theme park or two during their grad visit, but better rates can be found along the hotel-dotted 91 corridor (north of 57 or south of 55) for Fullerton and Chapman families, as well as those supporting Long Beach State, which is back at Angel Stadium.
UC Riverside, Cal State San Bernardino and University of Redlands: Diplomas for UCR graduate candidates will be handed out this June about a half-hour’s drive from campus. Because the venue of choice is air-conditioned Toyota Arena in Ontario, which also is used by CSUSB in May, the wise should fly in and out of Ontario International Airport. Same with Redlands families coming for on-campus commencements in April. The DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Ontario Airport (hilton.com) is a mile away and at press time was one of the largest full-service family hotels not showing significantly jacked-up rates during grad season.
UCLA and Loyola Marymount University: Rather than stay in West L.A. near campus, out-of-towners headed to UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion or the likely venue of LMU’s Sunken Garden might consider a hotel that offers free shuttles to and from LAX. This not only makes life easier at the very beginning and end of their trip, but nearly all the major hotels on the Century Corridor have stepped up their gastronomic game of late, including the LAX Marriott with its JW’s Steakhouse. The nod goes to the new Hyatt Place LAX/Century Blvd. (hyatt.com), a 272-unit former high-rise office building whose rates are often much lower than the competition. The penthouse ShoresLAX restaurant has patio dining and amazing views.
USC and Cal State Los Angeles: Hotels in the shadow of Tommy Trojan charge exorbitant rates during grad week, making downtown L.A. a logical alternative. A solid bet there is the clean, comfortable and cool Freehand Hotel (freehandhotels.com/los-angeles). This retro gem is housed in the historic Commercial Exchange Building, and a quick rideshare trip to Alumni Memorial Park on the USC campus. Same for families attending exercises at Cal State L.A.
Caltech and Cal State Northridge: Bob Hope Airport, aka Hollywood Burbank Airport, aka Burbank Airport, is a time-saving alternative to frenetic LAX. Think BUR for ceremonies at USC and UCLA, too, as we happily did for a son’s Bruin bash a year ago. For a place to stay near the airport, and a free shuttle to boot, there’s the luxurious and newly renovated Hotel Amarano (hotelamarano.com), a 132-unit hidden gem inspired by the glamor of vintage Hollywood. The onsite FYC Bar + Kitchen offers a fresh take on California cuisine.
“While Hotel Amarano anticipates and traditionally hosts many families for local graduations, we typically keep rates this far out relatively stable to the shoulder weeks and months, says general manager Peter Kolla. “For the savvy traveler, booking now is the way to go. As we near actual graduation dates, you’ll typically see rates increase.”
UC Santa Barbara: Courtyard Santa Barbara Goleta (courtyard.com) is closer to the Commencement Green on campus, but likely better rates and complimentary breakfast are found east of campus at the Hampton Inn Santa Barbara/Goleta (hilton.com).
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo: For Mustang pride, it’s hard to top the Embassy Suites by Hilton San Luis Obispo (hilton.com). Love the banner that typically welcomes Cal Poly families and that the kitchen uses eggs from the university’s farm. Sure, it’s dated and located in an equally aging shopping center, and it’s not even the closest decent hotel to Cal Poly’s Spanos Stadium. But based on personal experience when our oldest graduated from Cal Poly, we appreciated being away from the late-night downtown ruckus. A boutique alternative is the millennial-chic Kinney SLO (thekinneyslo.com), a re-do of a former Holiday Inn Express. It’s a 25-minute walk to the stadium from there and the a.m. eats are complimentary.
Fresno State University: Ceremonies will likely be held again at Save Mart Center on the Bulldog campus. Solid options for in-coming families, all within an easy walk, are the TownePlace Suites by Marriott Fresno Clovis (towneplacesuites.marriott.com) and Hilton Garden Inn Clovis (hilton.com).
University of the Pacific: The main Stockton campus is planning an all-university commencement ceremony on May 13 at Knoles Lawn. While we can’t recommend a hotel within walking distance of the festivities, the full-service Hilton Stockton is two miles away. Good news for UoP families: The hotel’s sales department doesn’t expect rates to be jacked up for commencement weekend.
San Jose State: Provident Credit Union Event Center will likely host the big day in May for many Spartans. The recently renovated Westin San Jose (westinsanjose.com) is half a mile away. The lowest-priced room during graduation week was going for as high as $586 at press time; the same unit one week earlier was priced at $362. But the downtown area has dozens more three- and four-star properties of varying rates.
Stanford University: Central downtown digs, proximity to the Cardinal campus and the newly renovated Tapas Bar, make el Prado Hotel (elpradopaloalto.com) an ideal place to relax and reset between ceremonies and family gatherings. Another option is the downtown Graduate Palo Alto (graduatehotels.com), providing that the metamorphosed Hotel President, circa 1929, is ready in time. Scheduled to be completed this winter, the property promises to be decked out in Stanford spirit with insane views from the rooftop bar.
UC Berkeley: Graduate Hotels is a relatively new chain catering to families of college students, with each property — including the Graduate Berkeley — decorated as a nod to the university just steps away. The hotel next to Cal is clean, friendly and convenient.
UC Davis: Locations for UC Davis’ 2023 commencement exercises were TBD at press time, but Hyatt Place UC Davis (hyatt.com), the only hotel on the Aggie campus, is already sold out for the June graduation dates at about three times the normal rate. Barring cancellations and great timing on the booker’s part, less convenient lodging around this college town is the ticket.
Sacramento State University: Several hotels have sprung up around campus over the past few years, including the Hampton Inn & Suites at CSUS (hilton.com) that’s been sold out during commencement week despite ceremonies having been held at Golden 1 Center downtown. A planned May opening for the Home 2 Suites next door might be overly ambitious, according to its sales department, but having these sister properties operating during graduation season will be convenient for dorm move-outs.
Chico State University: Chico innkeepers can charge astronomical rates during graduation week. Three-star hotels are pretty much the best you can get in Wildcat country. Our picks are the Courtyard by Marriott (courtyard.com) and neighboring Residence Inn (residenceinn.com).
Cal Poly Humboldt: The first spring commencement exercises since Humboldt State University officially became Cal Poly Humboldt take place on May 14. Historic and charming Hotel Arcata (hotelarcata.com), a short stroll from campus, had barely raised its rates for graduation weekend at press time, and that’s by design. A manager said that unlike other properties in the Arcata-Eureka area, his “doesn’t want to take advantage of the lack of accommodations within proximity of the campus.” At last check, the Hampton Inn about a five-minute drive from the ceremonies, was charging about three times the normal rate over graduation weekend with a two-night minimum.