Choosing a hotel or a place to stay can be a challenge, especially if you’ve never been to the area before. Basically every tourist destination will have numerous options to choose from from the basic hostel to the luxury resort and everything in between. With all the choices, choosing a hotel can be just as tough as choosing the location to go on vacation. Oddly, I think hotels overall are in a lose/lose situation most of the time. If you have a decent experience, it’s pretty forgettable and you think it’s nothing exciting. However, if it’s a terrible experience, it can really ruin your trip overall and it’s probably the first and last thing you talk about as soon as you get back and share your experience. Your hotel has to really surpass all expectations for you to really think “wow, what an amazing hotel” and the more you pay, the higher that bar is.
So how do you choose the right accommodation? Here are 8 things to keep in mind as you try to navigate the myriad of choices and options to get the most bang for your buck.
- Figure out what’s important to you
- Choose the right location
- Pick the right price
- Important amenities
- Near public transport
- Special needs and requests
- Read recent negative posts
- Try to be loyal
Figure Out What’s Important to You
Before you even choose a location or price point, figure out what’s important to you. Do you see a hotel as an extension of your vacation where you can fully relax? Or do you view a hotel as nothing more than a place to sleep and keep you safe from the elements? Do you want to stay right in the middle of all the action or are you willing to take a taxi into town? Is an English speaking staff important or are you ok with just miming and using Google translate to hopefully get your point across? These are all things you want to consider before you choose a place because you don’t want to get to the hotel without thinking about this.
Obviously if you find a hotel that checks all the boxes, then it basically comes down to price. However, most times it won’t be that easy. You’re basically going to have to compromise to choose what you can and can’t live without and prioritize what is most important.
Start with a wish list of all the things you want in a hotel without looking at what options are even available. Don’t even look at the price. After you make that list, start looking at what hotels and accommodations are available. You’ll probably then start looking at location and price points and slowly understand what you can and can’t live without. Then, you’ll be able to whittle down a list of fifty hotels to hopefully five or ten.
One thing to note is that although some may not want to stay at hotel chains and prefer a more local experience, remember that staying at a chain hotel comes with certain advantages. Mainly, you get a semi-standard level of professionalism and expectations. Basically, you’ll have a good idea of what to expect before you get to the hotel. For example, regardless of which country you’re visiting, a JW Marriott is going to provide a certain level of service and standard. You’re going to expect an English speaking staff, room service, in room wifi, etc. Those may not even be advertised on the hotel website because they’re expected as normal or standard amenities.
A local hotel or bed and breakfast might provide excellent service but it’ll be of the local flavor. Meaning, you may not know exactly what to expect once you’re there. You might expect a bathroom in your room but that may not be something that’s common in that area. Same with in room wifi. Maybe it’s only in the common area because that’s normal for that area.
Figuring out what’s important to you when you travel is important so you can figure out what you absolutely need to have. It’ll also help you to understand what isn’t important and what you can do without if pushed.
Choose the Location
Once you’ve figured out your wish list, start by researching your ideal location. As a solo traveler, choosing a safe location is important to me so I try to research which areas are considered safe and which areas should be avoided. There will always be times where you just won’t know until you get there though so I don’t try to spend too much time on this. I care about my safety but I also ask the front desk if it’s a safe neighborhood. Oftentimes, they’ll me that the area is perfectly fine during the day but warn me not to walk around at night for safety concerns. There really is no way of knowing that before you get to the hotel especially if you’re just looking at a map.
I remember when I was in Quito I chose a hotel that was along a busy street and looked like it was in a fairly central location. It was a busy street during the day but oddly empty at night when I checked in and arrived. I hadn’t eaten dinner yet so I asked the front desk if there were any good eateries around the hotel that served a quick meal. They said there was really nothing open around the hotel at that hour within walking distance that was open (since it was around 9pm) that they would recommend. My Spanish isn’t that good so I asked if there were any taxis around that I could take to go anywhere. That’s when they told me that the area is perfectly safe during the day but it wasn’t safe at night. They explained that was the reason for the security guard at the front door and that in that area of Quito, even taxi drivers don’t stop on that street to pick up or drop off passengers past 10pm. They said the hotel was perfectly safe but they didn’t advise me to walk around until the sun was up and people were out and about. I decided to order room service instead.
Look, I had a wonderful time in Quito and think it’s a great city to visit. But I also had no clue about the area and quickly looking through reviews still doesn’t say anything about safety at night. It might be something that’s understood by locals. Location is important and obviously use some common sense when choosing a place to stay. But there will be times when you just have no clue about the area until you get there and ask real locals.
Another thing to consider is that the more central location, the louder it’ll tend to be because of all the traffic. This isn’t limited to just vehicle traffic but also to pedestrian traffic as well as clubs and bars that might have loud music well into the night. Also, if know that being that close to the action will probably attract the type of people who enjoy that. Basically, if you want to go to bed at 10pm, don’t stay in a hotel across the street from a popular nightclub because not only will there be noise coming from the club, the hotel will probably have guests who will be out partying until dawn as well and a group of drunk partiers isn’t going to tiptoe through the hotel hallways.
Pick the Right Price
Figure out what your budget is and see if you can stick to it. However, you may realize that your budget may not meet your desired wish list and the area you want to stay. You’ll then realize what (if anything) needs to change and what you’re willing to give up.
If you’re coming to San Diego, your wishlist may be to have an ocean view room that’s near downtown with free parking. That’s certainly possible. But don’t expect to get that room for $50/night. Sure, you might be able to stay in a hostel that’s in downtown for that price but you’ll quickly find out that prices are pretty high here so your expectations aren’t going to meet your budget. Now you can still get a perfectly good room that’s outside of the area that might have some the amenities you want but you’ll have to pay for the transportation to get around.
The right price means you take into account not only your budget but also whatever expenses that come with staying there. It might be cheaper overall to pay a slightly higher price for the hotel in the location you want if you don’t have to spend as much on an Uber, taxi, or parking fees if you’re renting a car. But, if you think you’ll only want to visit a site vs. staying at the site, you may want to spend less.
The price also means you’ll want to take into account taxes and the dreaded resort fees (which is a rant I could write a book about). Remember that a lot of hotels use sneaky tactics of hiding or adding resort fees at the end so the overall price looks cheaper than it really is.
There are other ways to save on hotels. Hotels.com will give you a free night after ten paid nights. You might even be eligible for special discounts through your work or even as a AAA member so make sure you look around! Finally, consider Airbnbs if you like it (but make sure you do your due diligence on who is actually posting the space or rent).
Are Amenities Important to You?
Figure out which amenities in a hotel are important to you. I absolutely need wifi and strongly prefer (almost need) air conditioning (depending on where I am). However, if I know I’m going to be driving, I’ll also make sure there is parking that’s included or isn’t too expensive as well. But figure out if there are any amenities that are important to you. Is it shuttle service to/from the airport? Gym? Pool? If you’re staying for an extended period of time, do you need a kitchen or kitchenette? There are a ton of amenities that hotels offer for a price but you need to figure out what is important for you. I couldn’t care less if there is a gym at the hotel. To be honest, maybe I should. But I don’t at the moment. Pool? I so rarely use it I don’t even notice it (probably because I don’t go to the gym). So those amenities aren’t important to me. But that isn’t to say that they’re not important to you or anyone else.
I think a big amenity most people love is a free breakfast. Again, free breakfast can mean packaged pastries, watery eggs, and coffee. Is that really worth spending an extra $10 a night when you can buy something much better at the cafe around the corner for half that? If you like having lazy mornings and don’t want to leave the hotel before you get your coffee and some food, it might be totally worth it. To others, it may seem like a waste of money.
Check the amenities of a hotel and make sure the basic amenities you need (or really want) are there. If you want AC, you need to pick a hotel with AC because complaining about how hot the hotel is once you’re there isn’t going to fix the problem and the hotel won’t be inclined to give you a refund if they feel like you should have known that before you made your booking.
Is It Near Public Transportation?
This is one I always look for since I don’t always drive. It’s almost a necessity for the hotel I choose to be near public transportation if it’s available. That may not always be possible depending on the city but I try to choose a hotel that’s easy to get to with public transportation.
Not only do I choose a hotel near public transportation but I prefer to stay in hotels near subways or metro stations over bus stations if possible. This is for two reasons. First, you usually need to have a ticket in order to get on the subway platform which means you’ll probably be safer from any crazies out there. Second, it’s tougher to get lost since the metro only goes in two directions and you’ll know immediately if you’re going the wrong way by seeing the next stop. A nice plus is that regardless of whether people get on or off at the next stop, the subway will stop there. If you’re on a bus, if you don’t notify the driver to stop, it won’t stop automatically and if you don’t know where the bus stop is, you won’t know when to let the driver know. I’ve missed my stop countless times because I didn’t know where the correct stop was and had no way of really knowing.
If you’re going to drive or the type of person who always takes an Uber or a taxi, this won’t matter at all. But I find that learning the public transportation system is part of the fun of exploring and learning a new city so I like to take the time to figure it out. It doesn’t take too much time and it’s a much cheaper option.
Special Requests or Needs
Are you physically handicapped and need a wheelchair accessible room? Do you have bad knees and need a room on the first floor or need an elevator? What about a hotel that’s pet friendly? These are things that are unique to the traveler but certainly important to know.
In the US, we have laws to make sure a certain number of rooms are ADA compliant depending on the size of the hotel. However, that law doesn’t apply to the rest of the world. Now, a lot of facilities will certainly have accommodations that will support ADA compliance but that isn’t necessarily a given. And it doesn’t have anything to do with what country you’re in either. I was in a hotel in London that not only wouldn’t have been considered ADA compliant but it was downright unsafe.
Now if you need an elevator for physical reasons or if you travel with a lot of luggage (for tips on how to pack light, read my post HERE), you’ll want to make sure you have an elevator. This is also not a given. I’ve stayed at nice hotels where the city didn’t have the infrastructure to have enough electricity to support elevators. When I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the hotel itself was beautiful and newly built. However, it was a three story building and it didn’t have an elevator. Now I didn’t care but I could easily see that being an issue for someone who may not be able to walk up stairs as easily.
There will be times when you’ll have to dig a little deeper to see if it’s going to meet certain requirements for your stay. Obviously if you’re handicaped, staying on the second floor without an elevator is not an option for you. It’s a necessity. But you may find that a lot of hotels may not have that information easily available.
Read the Most Recent Reviews and Don’t Always Trust Photos
I would say to get a real feel for the hotel, try and read the negative reviews. Look, the only time someone actually leaves a review is when they either had such a terrible experience they feel like they need to air out their dirty laundry in public, or if their experience was so great they want to really show their appreciation. The negative reviews are helpful because they’re probably going to complain about EVERYTHING they can. It might start off with how the hotel staff didn’t help them with their bags and end with how they weren’t given extra shampoo bottles to take home. Whatever it is, they’ll probably make a list of things to complain about.
I read the negative comments not because I really care about what other people thing, but they might actually pick up on something that matters to me. They might pick up on a smell in the room like a strong perfume or cologne scent. That may seem trivial to most but if you’re sensitive to smells, that might be a problem. They might mention the street noise at night. If you’re over 6 feet tall, you’ll pretty much be a giant in most Asian countries and the shower head may not be high enough for you to stand under without semi squatting. Well again, that isn’t something the hotel would advertise and it might be important. The negative reviews, in my opinion, are certainly more descriptive than the positive ones so I read those first.
Another thing I do is try to find photos of the property that are recent or at least taken by actual people who’ve stayed there and not by the property owner or by some professional photographer. I’m convinced a professional photographer can make a haunted house look like a 5 star resort. But I’m also convinced a person using their cell phone to just blindly take photos of the hotel to share with their friends isn’t going to go through the trouble of staging the room with just the right lighting to make it perfect.
You also want to see the most recent photographs because a hotel can easily put photos of the hotel when it first opened that make the property look amazing only to find out that they’re from twenty plus years ago. When I went to Saigon for the first time, I had chosen a hotel that looked fine from the pictures and looked like it was in a great location overall at a great price. However, when I got there, it was obvious that the pictures online were taken at least 20 years ago (if not more) and the hotel looked nothing like it did online. To be honest, the hotel gave me such an uneasy feeling I would have moved to another hotel if I had the money. It was a lesson learned for sure.
Hotel operators are in the business to make money so they’re obviously going to put their best food forward. That’s fine and I would certainly do the same. I also understand that not everyone can be happy and if you look at any review, you’ll always see negative comments for some reason. You could have a business that just allows you to pet puppies and someone will give it a one star rating for some stupid reason. But a lot of time, the negative comments are there because the hotel didn’t think of it. Maybe you didn’t like your stay because they didn’t have a shuttle to take guests downtown. That might be a valid comment especially if the hotel is marketing itself as the premier hotel in the area. But it might also be something they never considered. Reading the negative comments gives you an idea of some valid concerns. Looking at candid photos taken by travelers makes it tougher for the hotel to market itself as something it isn’t.
Extra Points for Loyalty
Regardless of what accommodation you choose, try to pick a specific hotel chain and remain loyal. Much like any loyalty program, the more you stay at a specific chain hotel, the more perks you’ll get. If you want, you can even get specific credit cards that will give you the highest status for that hotel chain. Hilton has an Amex card called the Hilton Aspire card that will automatically give you Diamond status (although it carries a $450 annual fee). Marriott has the Bonvoy Brilliant Card (also with a $450 annual fee) which comes with Gold Status (although I’d argue that gold status isn’t really worth that much). Hyatt also has the World of Hyatt credit card that comes with automatic Discoverist status (with an annual fee of $95). IHG also has the IHG Rewards Club Premier credit card (with an annual fee of $85) and it comes with Platinum Elite status (even though I have no clue what those perks actually entail…maybe an upgraded room?).
By being loyal to a specific brand, you’ll get certain perks like free nights, free breakfast, free high speed internet, late checkout, etc. However, you’ll have to do the math to make sure the perks are worth the annual fees, especially if you’re going to pay the annual fees for the premium cards.
Also, depending on your travel habits, you’ll want to make sure you choose the correct hotel chain. If most of your travel is going to be in the US, Hyatt is a great choice because they have an extensive footprint here. However, if you travel internationally, Hyatt won’t be as useful because they don’t have as large a footprint at Marriott or Hilton. So worldwide, you’ll get more use out of being loyal to Marriott or Hilton (or I should say it’s easier to remain loyal). All this is up to you especially because hotels are competing with each other. For example, Hyatt is expanding their global footprint and although it still has a ways to go to catch Marriott and Hilton, it’s certainly getting better.
Another thing to consider when choosing a hotel brand is knowing which brands fall under the main umbrella. If you prefer luxury brands, Marriott may be your choice since they have the JW Marriott, Ritz Carlton, and St. Regis brands under their corporate umbrella. IHG has the Intercontinental. Hilton has the Conrad and the Waldorf Astoria brands. Hyatt has the Park Hyatt. So, if prefer a certain luxury brand over the other or if you’ve always wanted to stay at a certain type of property, you may want to keep this in mind when choosing your loyalty program.
Choosing the right hotel is more of a science than a strict numbers game. Now if you’re looking for the cheapest option, then none of this really matters because your only determining factor is going to be price. However, if you’re like me who is a working professional and don’t want to stay in hostels and willing to fork over a little more cash for a nicer place, you may want to think about what is important to you and figure out ways to get there. You’ll be amazed at how much you can get if you’re willing to compromise and push a few “needs” down to the “wants” portion of your list.
Also, if you have special needs, make sure you do your research to make sure overseas hotels can accommodate you. It isn’t always a given and you may find the hotel you choose is grossly inadequate to meet your basic needs.
As you travel, you’ll start to figure out your style and your habits. You may even find certain aspects are really important to you that don’t matter to someone else. By understanding what you like and absolutely must have, you’ll be able to whittle down the list of contenders pretty quickly. Eventually you’ll find that Goldilocks hotel that meets your needs and your budget.