There you are, stuck in a Days Inn in downtown Wilmington or a Motel 6 on I-80 halfway to Nebraska, and you’re dying for a decent cup of coffee before you get back in the car. It’s happened to anyone who spends appreciable time on the road. But not everyone is willing to capitulate to the hotel coffee maker.
For the sake of every weary traveler who’s ever stared down a packet of instant Taster's Choice, I’ve gathered hotel coffee hacks from fellow road veterans.
But first, my personal favorite. I developed this trick as a reporter in Eastern Europe, where the best coffee was something called “Turkish.” Toss a spoonful of ground coffee into a mug of water and plunk in an immersion coil heater. When the water boils, give it a stir and let the grounds settle. It’s not pretty, but it works.
These days, I travel with a portable French press from Bodum. I rip open those Starbucks single-serve filter packs that sit next to the hotel-room Mr. Coffee and create my own serviceable sludge.
Amy Holbrook, a needlepoint designer, prefers her mother's latte hack. She keeps a pint of fresh milk in the minibar and heats up a mugful in the in-room microwave. Then she stirs in a spoonful of Medaglia d'Oro instant espresso.
Jeff Bercovici, the San Francisco-based media columnist for Forbes, is partial to Starbucks Via instant coffee packets, at least the last time he went to a rustic summer camp, where the only alternative was Sanka.
Some people go to great lengths for the perfect cup. Anthony Ramirez, a Phoenix-based cyclist and prolific commentator, packs a 30-year old glass-bowled Aldo Rossi French press and a sack of Peets French Roast in a small tea tin. He only washes the press every four weeks, which he says has helped preserve it.
“A change in cabin pressure, an abrupt shift in temperature, like going from desert to snow, or other extreme conditions can introduce micro-fracture to the glass,” he warns. To complete the experience, he also brings a Francois et Mimi white espresso cup and saucer. “After all, I’m not a savage.”
Nina Wolfe, a New York-based general contractor travels with a bag of Fairway Italian Roast blend, locked in a ziplock to keep from spilling coffee in her luggage, and a Faberware superfast percolator that can make two to four cups and keep them warm.
Craig Pyes, a retired investigative journalist, carries his own two-cup filter, filter papers and 1/4-pound bag of ground coffee. When he needs a cup, he heads down to the hotel restaurant for a teapot or cup of boiling water — and presto. “Coffee is great. Can't beat the price,” he writes from California. For safety, Pyes packs his paraphernalia inside the clothes in his suitcase.
When asked for her favorite hotel coffee hack, environmentalist Miranda Spencer wrote back, with an audible snort, “#Firstworldproblem.” Still, she brings her own favorite dark roast in a lightweight aluminum bag and some filters; she substitutes them for the Starbucks or Folgers filter-pad packs offered in most traveler hotels. If the room only has a Keurig, she hits Starbuck's the night before and nukes it in the hotel room microwave the next morning.
Photographer Ari Mintz doesn't even bother with the microwave. He packs a bottle of homemade overnight cold brew Gorilla coffee in a jar and keeps it in the minibar, giving him iced coffee on demand.
Jack Beredjick, president of Jack's Meats, a wholesale butcher in Tampa, Florida, always travels with a mini French press stored “lovingly” in his carry-on and a zip-lock of Dunkin’ Donuts original ground. His most important tip: Only book rooms with microwave ovens. His biggest challenge: sourcing soy milk. “Creamer is nasty,” he writes.
For the ultimate in high-tech, Andrea Woodhouse, a former international development worker now living in Burma, travels with a hand-held, vacuum pump Aeropress espresso machine. The Aeropress has its own suitcase’s worth of filters, pumps, spoons and holders, and it’s the top-rated portable coffee maker for backpackers. (Aeropress aficionados have perfected "recipes" for coffee making, that include such actions as mixing 20 grams of coffee and 60 grams of water at 79 degrees Celsius and giving the mix 15 seconds of “turbulent wiggle.”)
Other travelers prefer to see what the locals are doing for their morning brew. Development banker Michael Gold, who's based in Kosovo, hits the streets as the city starts to stir. “I search for the place that has been open all night or that’s just starting the day — being the first customer and smelling that first coffee.”
Katya Heller, an owner of New York’s Heller Gallery, gave up hotel coffee years ago and, instead, searches the Internet for specialty coffee outlets wherever she's headed. It’s part of her morning travel routine, and she’s discovered Panther Coffee in Miami, Sunergos in Louisville, Intelligentsia in Chicago and LaColombe in Philadelphia.
When there are no options, she brings her own beans and grinder.
“Even the most rickety hotel room coffee-maker makes reasonable coffee if you start with good beans,” she says.