Author & Photo credits: Beth Pollock
Think back to the best hotel you’ve ever visited. Chances are, you remember it clearly, and whatever made it special – the staff, the rooms, the size of the pool – made it one of the high points of your holiday. Now think about a disappointing hotel experience. You probably remember it just as clearly.
Booking the right hotel (or inn, or B&B) can make or break your holiday. And the decision is very personal – what matters to one person doesn’t even register with another traveller. But no matter what you’re looking for, I can share some tips on finding the accommodations that work best for you. Here are eight suggestions to follow when you want to book the room of your dreams:
- Set a price range
This sounds like common sense, but you should start with a budget. Part of this comes down to how much you want to spend overall, and whether you travel in luxury or frugally.
But part of it depends on what kind of holiday you’re taking. If you’ll be on the go all day, and just come back to sleep before repeating the next day, don’t blow your budget on accommodations. It’s just a place to rest and keep your luggage. However, if you’re staying at an all-inclusive resort, or you just want to relax in beautiful surroundings, then your hotel choice is important, and you may want to devote a bigger part of your budget to it.
I’ve stayed at both styles, sometimes on the same trip. On a recent visit to India, I loved the peaceful Bansi Home Stay in Agra, an inexpensive and comfortable choice in a busy city. I also adored the regal Samode Haveli in Jaipur.
- Pick your priorities
Once you’ve set a budget, think about what’s important to you. There’s no right or wrong here – one person’s “hip and edgy” is another person’s “why isn’t there a door on the bathroom?”
Broadly speaking, think about your must-haves, which may include some of the following:
- Size of hotel
- Amenities (pool, spa, free breakfast, free WiFi, gym, A/C, parking)
- Degree of personalization (Staff at smaller properties are more likely to recognize you and remember your name. Is that important to you?)
- Adult-only vs. family-friendly
- Pet-friendly (not so great if you suffer from allergies)
One of the most interesting places I’ve stayed was a small lodge in rural China. It wasn’t accessible by car, so the women of the village met us in the parking area and carried our luggage up the hill in laundry baskets on their backs. The hotel, located in Ping An, offered lovely views over the terraced fields. The hot water was less than reliable, but because the accommodations were so unique, I didn’t mind.
On the flip side, if I’d been staying in Chicago, a lack of hot water would have been a serious problem.
- Make the location work for you
There’s no doubt about it – location is everything when it comes to a hotel. But a good location might mean “close to all the sights,” or it might mean “in a quiet neighbourhood.” Bear in mind that if you’re in the middle of all the action, it may be noisy. If you’re looking for a good night’s sleep, it may be worth it to be further from restaurants and bars. On the other hand, if you’re energized by the excitement of good nightlife (and don’t want to go far when the bars close), central is key.
Other things to consider when deciding on hotel location:
- How are you getting around? Walking, taking transit, hiring a taxi, or driving? If you’re travelling mostly by foot and transit, look for accommodations near the subway or train to minimize your travel time.
- How will you spend your time: eating, sightseeing, shopping, or culture? Think about the areas of town you’ll be visiting, and your choice of accommodations may become much clearer.
- Chains vs. independents
Do you collect points? Do you like to know what to expect when you walk into a new property? If so, chains are for you. Independents are best if you like to experience something different each time. Typically (but not always) independents are smaller properties.
- When to book
If your heart is set on a specific property, book it right away to make sure you get in. Same goes if you’re travelling at a busy time of year. When my family and I visited New York City between Christmas and New Years, we booked a family hotel room six months in advance. Extreme, but it’s a popular destination and a popular time. I knew prices would only go up, and availability would certainly go down.
You’ve got more flexibility if you’re travelling during off-season, and if you’re open to where you stay. Wait until closer to trip time, and you might pick up a last-minute deal.
- Type of accommodation
- Hotels and resorts – Bigger and often less personal, hotels and resorts usually offer the most amenities. If having an on-property spa is more important than having staff know your name, this option is for you.
- B&Bs and inns – Often independently owned and offering a personal touch, these accommodations are a great way to meet locals and other travelers. Usually breakfast is included.
- Apartment-style/self-catering – This is another alternative that offers more privacy. Especially good for longer stays, these accommodations help you save money by cooking in.
- Airbnb – I hadn’t stayed in an Airbnb until a month-long trip to New Zealand had me looking for alternatives. I spent a week in a lovely studio in the close suburbs of Auckland, for $60 a night. But after travelling around the north island, I wanted to stay near my daughter before flying home. I found a gorgeous art deco apartment that was a two-minute walk from her university residence.
- Yurts, glamping, houseboats and other alternative accommodations. Hey, you’re on holidays! When else can you sleep in a converted lighthouse?
- Research, research, research
Check tripadvisor.com and other ranking sites for hotel reviews, and read the comments. You’re checking for overall opinions – one bad opinion among a bunch of good ones might just mean someone had a bad day.
And ask friends and colleagues who have already been for their suggestions.
- Perfect is the enemy of fun
The title of this article is a misnomer – no hotel is perfect. You’ll never actually find the perfect room, lobby or restaurant, but if you follow these guidelines, you should find accommodations that you love.
Only once have I booked into a hotel that was so bad, we left after we met the owner (rude) and saw the room (dirty). We drove around for over an hour looking for another place to stay, and finally found a charming and comfortable room that was a little outside our budget. At that point, we were happy to take it.
Otherwise, a quirky hotel stay at least makes a good story, and at best makes a great memory. A lodge in Guatemala where the power shuts off every night … A villa in rural India, where I sat on the front porch and watched a crocodile on the other side of the lake … A room in Taos where we gathered our own eggs to make breakfast … Great memories, all.