I’ve been researching guidebooks for almost two decades and have learned something about how to choose a great hotel. No matter where you are going, what your age or price range is, you can always find a place to sleep that will work well, as long as you don’t mind putting in a bit of time researching. Obviously, a shortcut is buying a great guidebook (like Rick Steves!) where the work has already been done for you. But if those hotels are booked or you’re going off the grid, the following are some strategies I’ve learned the hard way.
What are YOU Looking For?
Not every hotel can please every traveler. The first thing to consider is what you need in a hotel and neighborhood. Do you like lively areas where you can walk everywhere? Are you a light sleeper that needs silence? Will you have a car? These criteria will shape which type of neighborhood you choose.
Start with the Neighborhood
Where you stay in a city will impact your visit almost as much as the specific hotel you’re in. A perfect example is in Paris– I’d take a barebones budget place near the Eiffel Tower any day over a nicer place in the red light district.
Start by looking into which neighborhoods are most convenient for sightseeing. Staying reasonably close to big museums or attractions will cut your commute time, but also may save you money. Big attractions typically have more hotels near by, meaning more competition.
If you need peace and quiet, or you prefer staying away from the touristy areas, you’ll want to evaluate the public transit situation. Find a quiet neighborhood that is well served by a rapid transit line. Take a look at maps to find out if your neighborhood has an unusual number of bars, which tend to be noisy at night.
If you’ll have a car, you’ll need to focus on hotels that offer parking. Make sure to ask if that parking is included. Public transit will also be important in this case, as many hotels that offer parking are away from the center of cities, and it will likely be easier to park and bus into town.
Choose Your Price Range
Make an overall budget of what you plan to spend for your whole trip and come up with a per day average. My personal strategy is to hit that range most days, spend less a few days, and then splash out once or twice.
If you’re a backpacker, you could aim to stay in hostels most nights, then save up your money a bit and throw in a cheap hotel occasionally for a bit of privacy.
If you’re a mid-range traveler, go cheap where it makes sense. I never spend lots on my arrival hotel, since I’m just going to be sleeping and recovering. Big cities are often overpriced in the mid to upper-mid ranges, save money there by staying somewhere basic or renting an apartment. I like to spend where the extra money will get me much more, like a luxurious countryside hotel.
Look at a Map
Once you’ve identified a neighborhood you want to stay in, bring up that zone on Google Maps. Make a list of hotels that are in a good location for you. It’s smart to start here, because not every hotel is listed on the big booking sites, like booking.com. Looking at maps may bring up something you would not have seen otherwise. Make a list of hotels that look interesting to you based on the map.
Now Go to Booking Engines
Once you are informed about your choices, then go look at the booking sites. Compare the list you made on Google Maps to what is available, and narrow your choices based on what is in your price range.
Have a look at the amenities of each property. Do they have everything you need? Are there things you’ll be paying for that you don’t need? For instance, hotels that have a restaurant are often given more stars and can be more expensive. Do you need a restaurant in your hotel? Likewise, some hotels may not be able to offer breakfast. I don’t actually eat breakfast, so that’s not a priority for me. (Please don’t send me well-meaning notes on how I should eat breakfast, I’ve become too Italian for my own good!)
Ignore the Star System, a Great Hotel Can Have None
I’ve stayed in five-star hotels and I’ve stayed in zero star hotels. The star system is bogus. It doesn’t have anything to do with the level of quality, only the amenities offered, such as restaurants, 24-hour concierge, and minibars.
I once stayed in a four star hotel called Hotel Ritz. Boy, was I deceived. It was no better than a fleabag hotel…but it had safes in the closets! One of my favorite hotels in Venice will always be a one star hotel because the owner refuses to put TVs in the rooms. He says that you don’t need a TV in Venice, and I can’t argue with that. The number of stars has nothing to do with cleanliness or how well run a hotel is.
Read Review Scores, BUT Don’t Believe Them
The booking sites will tell you that they know how to choose a great hotel. I will admit, I do look at review scores when evaluating places for guidebooks. But I have some rules:
- TripAdvisor is off the table. I don’t even look at it, as anyone can comment even if they haven’t stayed there. I have stories on this one. Competing hotels can poison each other’s ratings. I have seen entire towns turn against each other over Tripadvisor ratings. It’s infuriating.
- Booking.com, Expedia.com and Hotels.com are more reliable. Their ratings are based on reviews by people who have actually stayed. I find Booking.com to be the most truthful.
- Overly positive reviews are suspicious. Consider that some hotels practically force their guests to submit positive reviews. I stayed in a hotel last year where the staff hovered over me at breakfast to make sure I was happy, and then they badgered me to review them. It was so irritating. I respect hotels that don’t go hunting for good reviews, they simply earn them.
- Look at reviews of people from the country the hotel is in. Let’s say you’re going to Germany. Look at the German language reviews first. Germans may have different standards and priorities than you would, but they have a better sense of what is normal and standard for their country.
- Look for the grain of truth. Really good reviews and really bad reviews are not going to tell you anything other than about the reviewer. Mediocre reviews are usually the most truthful, even of great places.
- Don’t count out the hotels with bad scores. A great hotel can have bad reviews. In my years in the travel industry I’ve learned that people tend to turn in evaluations way more often when they are unhappy than when they are happy. Read the reviews and find out why they got bad scores. Maybe they just don’t care about online scores and don’t encourage happy customers to write. Maybe the manager is grumpy. If the hotel is clean, well located and cheap, I can live with that.
- The key phrases to look for are “clean” and “good value”. Also look for the deal breakers, like complaints about noise level if you’re a light sleeper, or “skimpy breakfast” if you need more to eat in the morning.
Google the Hotel Name
Once you’ve picked your top choices, Google them. Go to “Images” and look at the photos of the hotel. I look for pictures taken by customers, not the hotel glamor shots, with the roses scattered on the bed and the lighting just so. I want the ugly version, with suitcases scattered all over and the bed unmade. That’s what the room will actually look like when I’m in it, so we may as well know the truth.
If you’re not in a hurry, try emailing the hotel to ask for the best price. If you’ve done your homework, you can tell them what you’re finding online and see if they can match it or give you a better deal.
Booking directly with the hotel is much nicer, even if it is more work, because the booking sites take huge commissions. That’s ok for bigger hotel chains, but it kills the small, family owned hotels. When you book directly, many smaller hotels will thank you in some way, either by upgrading you, giving you a welcome glass of wine or giving a discount. If they don’t seem to offer anything for booking directly, ask. If you’re staying three or more nights, almost every hotel I know will give you some kind of discount if you ask for it. Some will give further discounts for cash.
Hotels are a Personal Thing
Above all, the best strategy on how to choose a great hotel is understanding your needs. Your opinion is the most important one, and every hotel has pluses and minuses. Decide what you can live with, and what you can’t live without. Do you need character? Do you need charm and friendly hosts? I have basic needs, am most happy in a safe neighborhood with a spotlessly clean room. My biggest pet peeve is smell, especially man smell in the sheets (Blech!). Know what you can live with and what you can’t do, that will shape your best experience.
For more on lessons learned while inspecting hotels for guidebooks, see https://adventureswithsarah.net/what-makes-a-great-hotel/