When Service Matters: Choosing the Right Hotel

Four Seasons Manele Bay

In my spare time I read a lot about travel. Not only do I enjoy it, but I’m always looking for tip and tricks to enhance my travel experience and to make it more affordable. At the Travel and Adventure Show in Washington, DC, I had the pleasure of listening to several great travel experts offer their own opinions on budget travel, and most had a lot of useful and practical tips. When it came to the topic of hotels though, I feel like some of them didn’t hit their mark.

The overall message from the experts, and they really were experts, was that hotels are a travel category where it’s important to scrimp, to cheap out. They made the point that a bed is a bed and as long as it’s safe and clean, then that is all that matters. I agree that hotels are an area to scrimp, but not to the degree of finding the cheapest bed in the city.

Let me preface this by saying there are some people who could care less about where they sleep while on a trip, and that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that at all. There are still others who expect white glove service when they travel. There is no one, correct way to travel but I think a lot of people are like me, comfortably in the middle.

In 2003, my partner and I decided to take our vacation in Central Europe. We both had previous backpacking experience and we were certain that we could save some money by staying in hostels. We had done it for months when we were younger and surely we could do it again.

We were wrong.

The first hostel in Prague was not bad, just a bit spartan. It wasn’t until we arrived in Munich that our travel lessons began.

Prague Views - Vltava River

We were at a backpacker’s hostel, but in a private room. Once again the room was utilitarian, but fine and more importantly cheap. The troubles began when we turned off the lights and attempted to go to sleep. I say attempted because the people in the adjoining room, which was separated by a wall in name only, were presumably madly in love and sincerely wanted to express that physically. Then the drunk students entered the hostel and started playing soccer in the hallway. I got up to use the shared restroom only to find someone being sick, obviously from one too many beers in the Hofbrauhaus. I had reached a breaking point, we packed up that very second and left the hostel, leaving behind both the drunk kids as well as a lifestyle.

That single experience taught us that we had changed as travelers, no longer content with just a bed, we had become accustomed to a certain level of comfort, like a bathroom devoid of puking students. We weren’t at the five-star hotel level, but we had moved beyond the hostel experience.

Where one chooses to spend the night while traveling is an important decision, and is much more detailed than just seeking a clean and safe bed. A hotel becomes part of our travel experience, intentionally or not. For a period of a few days or even a couple of weeks, it is our home, a place of relaxation after a long day of travel. It’s important to choose well when selecting a hotel, but that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank.

In my opinion, choosing the right hotel is one of the most difficult travel decisions one has to make. That’s because no one tells you the truth about potential lodgings. The hotel web sites employ liberal and expert use of Photoshop in order to transform what may in reality be a shack into the most grand of hotels. Obviously most hotel websites are useless. Try to use TripAdvisor or another “ratings and reviews” site and one is confronted only by the very happy or very angry consumer. When someone has a pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable, hotel experience, they are not usually motivated to leave reviews. It is only after a hotel has failed miserably that we as consumers seek revenge through a ratings and review site. Therefore they too are mostly useless. In light of these failings of the modern age, we instead need to have a set of general criteria to use each time a hotel decision has to be made.

Hotel Melia, Madrid

1. Determine your location – Where you choose to stay on your trip can many times dictate the financial repercussions of the entire travel experience. However, it is important to also look at the location when booking your hotel. It may be tempting to book a cheaper hotel on the outskirts of the city, but what little money you save in lodging, you will more than pay in transportation costs and your time. Do not underestimate the value of your time. Most people don’t take long vacations, a week is the average. If it takes you thirty minutes each way to reach areas of interest, that is a considerable waste. Instead, look for well-priced hotels in or very near the city center or where you want to spend your time exploring.

2. Determine your price point – Personally, I think it’s important to set a specific price range you are willing to spend on a night’s lodgings. It’s easy to let your budget slide though when looking for hotel rooms. Rather than be swayed impulsively by a hotel that is only marginally more expensive, stand firm. That rate, once extrapolated over the course of your stay, can add up to a lot of money. Don’t just think about the upper level, also consider your lowest price point. This may sound odd, but a hotel that is below what you would expect to spend is probably cheap for a reason. I fell into this trap on a trip to Jerusalem. I found a great deal on a hotel, it was in my desired location but I made the mistake of trusting online reviews. My gut instinct said that it was too good to be true, but I went ahead with the booking anyway. That was a mistake. The hotel was awful and I felt clearly duped by the hotel and everyone who had the gall to say that it was a decent place to stay. Jail cells are clean too, that doesn’t mean I want to spend the night in one. Once you have a general range of prices, start looking through the various web sites to find that one hotel which meets all of your needs. Dohop.com and Priceline.com are both excellent online services for finding affordable hotels.

3. Determine your needs – Everyone is different and we all have various expectations when it comes to hotels. Some people are perfectly content with a clean bed and bathroom, while others get cranky when their suite only has three rooms. What we expect is dependent on our own specific needs and wants, but it’s important to recognize what those are before you booking a hotel. We’re all different, we all live different lives, have different budgets and require different things. Whether it’s a business center or a pool, keep your needs in mind when booking and try to match them as much as possible. If you don’t meet them, then the experience won’t be as pleasant and if you try to go too far over what is comfortable, it’s a fair bet your budget will feel the repercussions.

Choosing the right hotel can be a frustrating experience, many of us are usually unsure of our choices until the moment when we arrive. Hotels are a great area to save money on your total travel budget, but for most people it doesn’t make sense to go to extremes. Don’t underestimate the value of having an enjoyable hotel experience. In most cases, hotels are much more than just a place to sleep, they are an integral part of the travel experience.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

7 thoughts on “When Service Matters: Choosing the Right Hotel”

  1. I think the right hotel can make a holiday. We can now afford to spend more on our holidays and tend to try and scrimp on a budget airline for short haul European trips and splurge at bit on the hotel where memories are made. We have used TripAdvisor – reading between the lines and taking the middle ground, and have chosen some great ones – recently Hotel Urban in Madrid and Kong Arthur in Copenhagen. Often it is how a hotel deals with a problem that makes all the difference. The hotel in Copenhagen messed up our request for connecting rooms – they did their best to put it right and got my thanks for that.

    Enjoying your travel posts such a lot – you pop up on my facebook page now – great stuff!

    1. Thank you and you’re right, how a hotel approaches service is key. I’ve been at some really nice hotels with horrible service that put a damper on things, but have been at average hotels with amazing customer service.

  2. Very insightful and honest look at lodging. I too am way to old to put up with hostels or even couchsurfing. Wish I could say my budget allowed me to stay at 5* hotels but alas my oil well hasn’t come in yet. There is a lot of pressure on hotels because they really can make or break a trip.

    1. Same with us, no five star hotels unless I can get a once in a lifetime deal or something, but mid-range hotels can be great too. But they are definitely not all made the same.

    2. Definitely, but a nicely run moderately priced hotel can be a great experience. The Hotel Lanai in Hawaii is one we recently discovered.

  3. Hostels are a hard one to pick. I have never stayed in a dorm because I like my space, but I have stayed in private rooms (with and without private bathrooms) because I like the value for money.

    In one hostel, the walls were like you described, thin and basically useless. We had been out all day and had a really long day, and had gone to bed early. Then at 10pm we got woken up by a loudspeaker announcement. We panicked, thinking it was an evacuation or something! Nope, it was a pub crawl about to start, and they didn’t want anyone to miss it. Then we were woken up in the middle of the night by people who had lost keys and were banging on all doors to be let in.

    And on the flip side, we’ve stayed in some hostels where you never hear a peep from anyone else. The only time you see people is in the common areas.

    My tip for those wanting to stay in a private room hostel: research the night life areas, and pick a hostel just outside of that area. It also helps if the hostel advertises themselves as suitable for families.

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