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How to Choose a Hotel (and why it's still a great accommodation option)

Women on the Road

How to choose a hotel is always a challenge, because the right accommodation can make or break your entire trip.

Where we stay matters, and that’s why we spend so much time searching for the perfect accommodation. With the multitude of choices available, it’s hard to decide where to even begin.

Our most common choice when we travel tends to be a hotel room. In fact, until recently, that’s pretty much all there was, other than the occasional small family bed and breakfast or in the UK, pub inn (things like homestays, couchsurfing and Airbnb are relative newcomers).

What follows is a crash course in how to choose the right hotel.

how to find good hotels - and why you would want to

With so many different accommodation options available, hotels now have to defend their turf.

These days, you can housesit in a coastal Croatian village, rest in a quiet Venetian monastery, or crash in an adult-friendly hostel, why would you choose the traditional hotel route?

  • Because it’s still the norm. While you do have many emerging choices, hotels are still the “standard” accommodation. 
  • Because it’s easy. The more unusual types of accommodation tend to require more research. You need to check reviews, double-check the amenities list, go on multiple house-sitting/couch-surfing/room-letting sites to find the right spot – and the overwhelming number of options can distract you from planning the actual trip. Hotels, particularly chain hotels, are fairly simple to compare and book. Yes, you’ll still have to read reviews and see if wifi is free, but the process is streamlined.
  • Because you know what to expect. Although boutique hotels or B&Bs may have plenty of individuality, your garden variety chain hotel is usually predictable.
  • Because it feels safe. Although hotels are no more or less safe than anywhere else, they can “feel” safer than sleeping in a stranger’s home or a small out-of-the-way apartment. There is also staff, usually 24/7, who can intervene in an emergency.
  • Because there are some wonderful hotels out there. Let's face it, some hotel rentals are memorable – fabulous decor, welcoming staff, a homey feeling...
Le Clair de la Plume - a lovely place to stay in southern France with cool hotel roomsHere's a perfect example of a cozy, luxurious and delightful hotel - one of the best I've ever stayed in. It's in southern France, in the Drôme Provençale (visit Le Clair de la Plume and say Hi from Women on the Road!)

what to look for in a hotel and the most common types of hotels

The terms “hotel” covers a large spectrum of choices, from big chains (think Marriott, Hilton and the like) to boutique hotels and everything in-between. Let’s look at the most common.

Chain hotels

Travel is wildly unpredictable, which is part of why I love it. There is a certain comfort in showing up at big hotel names and knowing exactly what to expect: a safe, clean and comfortable room, (often) free breakfast and possibly a pool. If you travel often, especially for business, chains offer loyalty programs so you can save money by staying in a chain even if you’re headed to 20 different cities on your trip.

Because these are large corporations, they can afford to “give away” rooms with killer deals that will benefit your pocketbook. And you’ll spot them a mile away because of the familiar logos.

Pros of staying in a hotel chain

Brand recognition
 Predictability
 Loyalty program 
 Easy to find deals and discounts

Cons of staying in a hotel chain

 Might have very little character (cookie-cutter feel)
✗ Run by large corporations rather than local businesses 
✗ Profits don't stay in the community
 Can feel isolated from local culture

Family-owned or Boutique hotels

The very antithesis of chains, you'll often have no idea what to expect in a boutique hotel.

Some independently-run establishments feature amazing cultural connections, brilliant locations and cozy hotel accommodations. Others are less than adequate and lack the corporate oversight that sets standards. (That said, I'll sacrifice standards for originality any day.) You’ll have to rely heavily on hotel review sites to know what to expect, and even then you might be in for surprises. Staying in boutique hotels, however, offers a unique experience – because each hotel will be different.

Also, do consider the emerging range of sustainable hotels that care about their environmental footprints.

These smaller operations are often run by locals, so you’re supporting the community and economy. Also, in most cases you’ll get superior customer service from a mom-and-pop spot. You won’t usually find a loyalty program and deals are harder to come by, but your surroundings may well be more agreeable.

The beauty of boutique hotels like this one in Morocco is their uniqueness ©WOTR

Pros of staying in an independent hotel

 Unique and more personal experience
 Support the local economy
 Better customer service (generally) 

Cons of staying in a boutique hotel

 No idea what to expect
 No corporate management to appeal to
✗ Fewer deals
 No loyalty programs

Bed and breakfasts (B&B)

Sometimes the line between boutique hotel and B&Bs are blurred and they may have similar pros and cons: no loyalty programs, but a unique experience. No corporate regulations may result in poor cleanliness, but also in special treatment and upgrades at the discretion of the owner (who is likely on site). Because B&Bs are locally run, you’ll enjoy local flavor (literally) and you’ll give back to the community.

But B&Bs are different from boutique hotels in that your experience is even more personal and you’re likely to enjoy  more connections with your host. A boutique hotel may have between 20 and 100 rooms, while a bed & breakfast is typically run out of a home (or near one) and may have fewer than 10 beds.

Plus, the B&B experience is often tailored to the individual guest, rather than to walk-ins or large groups. If you want to feel special, B&Bs may be the way to go.

Breakfast buffets are a mainstay of many B&Bs

Pros of staying in a bed and breakfast

 Locally run
 Tailored and unique guest experience
 Fewer rooms and cozier feel 

Cons of staying in a B&B

 No idea what to expect
 No corporate management to appeal to
 No loyalty programs
 Smaller, so may have fewer amenities

There are also reasons you might avoid hotels altogether

Yes, hotels are easier to book and predictable but that doesn’t mean they should always be your accommodation of choice.

They can be too expensive
Hostels, Airbnb accommodations, couchsurfing and even some B&Bs can be cheaper than your standard chain hotel room, not to mention boutique hotels and luxury B&Bs. If you're looking for an inexpensive place to sleep, hotels aren’t always your best bet.

There are so many other options
Hotels are the norm – but why be normal when you could have a totally unique experience elsewhere?

They’re isolating
If you plan on never leaving poolside because you want time to yourself in the sun, then yes, go for the hotel resort. Otherwise get out there and meet people. It’s much easier to do that while staying with a host in their home or hanging around the common room in a hostel.

How to choose a hotel

There are techniques to picking the right hotel.

Start with your most important variable: Are you on a strict budget and need to spend as little as possible? Is location the most important factor? Do you care about amenities, like a pool or the best breakfast buffet in town?

There’s no right or wrong answer here, but this would be a good time to make a list with what you want the most. These questions might help narrow down what to look for when booking a hotel:

  • How much would you like to spend? 
  • What about the location? Are you renting a car at the airport or do you need to be close to public transit? Do you want to be within walking distance of all the best sights?
  • Do you want something in the beating heart of the city or on a quiet back street? 
  • What about a free breakfast? Or do you prefer the local café? 
  • Do you need a pool? Gym? Hot tub? Spa? Bar? A shuttle to the airport? 
  • What kind of “vibe” are you looking for? Someplace with character? Something modern and chic? Anywhere with a bed? 
  • Are you trying to use your points or travel miles?

how to find good hotels

Whatever the size and shape of your eventual hotel, you’ll have two options when booking a room: go through aggregator accommodation sites or book directly through the hotel’s website (a third option is to call the hotel, but online accommodation booking is standard).

Using third-party sites

Even if you eventually decide to make your final hotel room reservation directly with the hotel itself, there are perks to at least looking through a third-party website. You can use these sites as a helpful research tool. Yes, you can always Google “hotels near the Trevi Fountain” and examine each hotel’s site separately and draw up your own comparison chart. But why would you bother?

There are plenty of hotel search engines (such as Expedia, for example) but I’m partial to Booking.com, which I use when I’m first starting to search for hotels (or hostels or apartments because they have those too). I can put in a city name and get back a long selection of hotels will come back. Or, I can put in the name of a specific hotel to find out more about it. What I like about booking.com is their liberal cancellation policy, which often allows you to cancel a day or two before.

Additionally, some third party sites like LastMinute or HotelTonight have special last-minute, “mystery,” bidding and even pick-your-price hotel deals, where you can get an incredible price on a day-of hotel room or get a steep discount if you’re willing to find out the name of the hotel after you pay. Those hotel bargains can be worth the risk, although I prefer to pay a bit more and know what I'm getting.

Some of these sites also give you the ability to create travel packages: you can reserve a rental car, airline ticket and hotel room all at once. While this isn’t always a good deal, it can be a way to get discount hotel deals you can’t get through the hotel’s website.

To search one of these sites, simply type in your travel dates and destination. Typically you'll have filters you can apply (such as only 3-star accommodation, wifi included, breakfast included, and more). Then you can sift through the listings and follow the prompts to “order” your stay. Make sure to print your confirmation.

Sometimes we all need a bit of pampering ©WOTR

Booking directly with the hotel

There are definite benefits to booking with the hotel directly. You can get hotel special offers (for example, hotel packages that includes free wifi and parking) and nicer accommodations. Rumor has it that hotels save the best rooms for the guests that make their bookings directly. In Spain once I was told by a small hotel that had I reserved directly, I would have had a cheaper rate because they pay a commission to the booking site.

You may also have to book through the hotel’s site if you’re using points or want to earn points through a hotel loyalty program.

Also, a word of caution: if you book through a third party site, getting a room refund can be a challenge, and a lot harder than if you’d booked directly with the hotel. A friend of mine learned this the hard way when her room had bedbugs: the hotel couldn’t reimburse her because she’d booked the room through Priceline, whom she then had to convince to pay her back.

To book with the hotel, you can either call or go online and fill in your travel dates. Pick your preferred room (read the fine print!) and follow the prompts to pay. Again, make sure to print off your confirmation and take it with you.

how to choose the best hotel: the star system

Did you know that prior to the 1950s, the star system for evaluating hotels (as we now know it) was nonexistent? The Forbes Travel Guide was the first to assign stars, but now you’ll find everyone from AAA to Travelocity to your neighbor giving out stars (or taking them away).

Unfortunately, there isn’t an official star system – the entire star-assigning system is arbitrary and while things are a bit more structured in Europe (where 4 stars is actually the best rating), you’ll have a hard time finding a standard star rating system.

Some ratings come from respected third parties but others are determined by guests. It’s best to pick a ratings system you respect and then check a hotel you know. That will help you understand the system and apply it to other hotels.

Booking.com, for example, rates hotels based on their own sophisticated algorithm.

Red flags, scams and dangers

Don’t be fooled by the millions of pictures of beautiful hotel rooms scattered across the web. There are many factors to consider when choosing a hotel and some may be easier to determine than others.

Read the fine print

It’s tempting: you find a great deal and you want to nab it quickly. Don’t do it, not before you read everything. Does the hotel reserve the right to downgrade your room? Give you one without a window? Turn you away if they are overbooked? Charge you for the “free” airport shuttle? In fact, it’s a great idea to ask for a list of all fees you could be charged when you check in so you are completely aware. While great deals do exist, things like incredibly cheap luxury hotels are hard to come by, so be wary if things seem too good to be true.

Examine pictures closely

In a world of Instagram filters, please don’t trust your eyes. If a hotel has more photos of the beach than of its rooms, beware. That glorious view could be photoshopped! Does the space look incredibly large? Perhaps the shot was taken with a fancy wide-angle lens. Always note what’s missing from the photos: no picture of the bathroom? Why? I also like to examine the hotel room layout best I can – pictures can make it look like the bed is miles away from everything else, but it may just be fancy photography.

Talk to a real person

If anything about the hotel’s rooms seems sketchy online, why not give the hotel a call? You can ask about the missing bathroom pictures and the view, and it’s much harder for hotel staff to lie in person than it is for them to write a beautiful description of an inferior spot.

Use Google Maps

Never trust the location description on website. “Near the heart of the city” could mean miles away from anything interesting, and “close to public transportation” might mean you’re walking half a mile to the bus stop. Always, always look at the street view and big picture on Google Maps and make sure the hotel is where you really want it to be.

Check for bedbugs

This is only good if you’re travelling in the US or Canada, but this website allows people to report bedbug situations in hotels in those countries. I highly recommend taking a look at it because no one wants to bring those nasty critters home.

Always print off your confirmation

Or at the very least, scan it and keep it safely on your phone. You’ll be glad you did when that free breakfast turns out to be a plain cup of coffee. Or when you can’t even breathe in your non-smoking room. Websites change all the time and what’s online today won’t necessarily be there tomorrow (or in an hour). If your hotel was falsely advertised, you’ll need proof.

Hacking: how to use loyalty programs to save big

If you haven’t heard of travel hacking before, it’s essentially about using loyalty programs to save on your travels, like mileage or hotel points. While some are available in Europe and other countries, the vast majority of programs are designed for US-based customers, with a sprinkling of Canadian and UK visitors.

There are many different programs that come with their own specific perks and discounts. But are they worth it?

If most of your travels are for business and you tend to stay in hotel chains, then probably, yes. If you’re a boutique hotel lover and your Hilton stay is exception and due only to a special deal, then probably not. Hotel loyalty programs are designed to work best for frequent travelers.

Nearly every major hotel chain has a loyalty program, and many of them are linked to a specific credit card. When you use that credit card, you can earn extra points and get that free night’s stay sooner. Already affordable hotels become even more affordable if you join their rewards programs.

Additionally, some credit cards let you turn your card points into hotel loyalty points for a number of hotel chains, so this is a way to avoid needing to commit yourself to one brand.

Do take care to read all the fine print: make sure there aren’t blackout dates or expiration dates, and check if your points are valid if you get a room through a third-party website like Expedia or HotelsCombined. 

If you happen to be traveling with a companion, check if you can pool your points. Hilton Honors, for example, allows members to do just that.

Finally, if you’re having trouble choosing a chain, use AwardMapper.com to see which hotels are located at your dream destination. You can then join that program and save points for a big stay.

Overwhelmed? Check out this guide and infographic from The Globetrotting Teacher for beginner travel hacking. 

So despite the many accommodation types available to travelers today, the hotel is still a mainstay, the bedrock of our plans, and it’s rare we won’t spend at least one night in a hotel – even if it’s at the airport – when we travel.

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