A great hotel room can spell the difference between a great vacation and a mediocre one. If you have a roomy, quiet, corner suite with a great view, chances are that you’ll enjoy your stay. If you’re in the teeny space over the disco with no air conditioning, not so much.
But it isn’t always easy to find the perfect hotel room. In fact, we do tons of research before we travel, both on- and off-line, and we still end up in some disappointing hotels, and rooms. Sites with user-generated content like Tripadvisor can help. But they can also mislead you. Unless you know who’s giving the hotel rave reviews, you don’t really know if you’ll agree. And hotel web sites are famous for their puffery. Almost all of us have checked into a hotel room that looked nothing like the one on the hotel’s web site,
There are several things you can do to make sure that you end up with a room that you’ll love at a price you think is fair. Here’s our advice for how to find the perfect hotel room:
1) Do some research about the destination first. Figure out what things you’ll want to see and do there. Travel websites like Fodors, Frommers, or Tripaddiction are good places to start. Are there restaurants you want to try? Shops you’ve heard about? Or places to go after dark? Include them on your list.
2) Highlight those places on a map of the city. You’ll probably find that many of them are clustered together. If you love to walk, are comfortable taking public transportation, or you don’t mind paying for taxis, you can be flexible. Otherwise, you should choose a hotel that’s close to the places you want to visit. The closer in you stay, the more expensive the hotel will be, but the less you’ll spend on transportation. And remember, if you have two days in Paris, you won’t want to spend two hours every day getting to and from your hotel. So stay someplace central.
3) Once you have identified one or two neighborhoods that would be convenient for you, start looking for hotels there. Most travel sites will lets you search by location, so it shouldn’t be too hard. When you’re comparing hotels, bear in mind the first price listed is for the cheapest hotel room, and that’s usually not a room that you want. In Europe especially, standard rooms are cramped, in a bad location, and generally undesirable. Book a superior room or better.
Also, be aware that the star-rating system is different in every country and it doesn’t always reflect how nice a place is. The number of stars awarded often just denotes which facilities a hotel has. A really charming hotel with no restaurant and no elevator may only have two star, while an awful place that has both may be a three-star property.
If there are any services or facilities that you need to be happy, don’t assume the hotel will have them — send an email to make sure they do. Many hotels abroad lack some of the amenities we take for granted, like clocks and English-language television. If it takes CNN, a cocktail, or breakfast in bed to make you happy, confirm it in advance.
4) By now, you should have two or three hotels in your price range in neighborhoods that will be convenient for you. The next step is finding the best price. Travel sites like hotelscombined compare prices in an instant. Just be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Sometimes a better price is for a less expensive room. If the hotel has the same price on their web site, book directly with them. If you do have a problem, it’s their problem, not someone else’s. And when you book directly, you’re more likely to get an upgrade. If there’s a better rate available through one of the travel sites, ask the hotel if they will honor it.
Be careful about saving money by choosing a nonrefundable rate that must be paid in full at the time of booking. Unless you’re traveling very soon or purchasing travel insurance, the money you’ll save isn’t usually worth the risk.
5) Always take written confirmation of your reservations with you to the hotel. It’s also not a bad idea to reconfirm your reservation in writing a week or so before your arrival. If the hotel has somehow misplaced your reservation, it’s easier to make other arrangements from home than it is once you’re there. When you check in, go over any special requests with the front desk. Then when you get to your room, make sure it has everything you need and that it’s acceptable. The best time to change rooms is before you open your bags.
6) Last year was a tough one for hotels. And so far, this one isn’t much better. Occupancy rates are way off. So if you’re traveling off season, consider going without reservations. If a hotel has more than enough vacant rooms, it can give walk-ins incredible deals.
7) Another strategy is to make reservations well in advance that can be cancelled without any penalty and then visit travel sites that specialize in last-minute travel about a week before you leave. You can sometimes find really great deals. These days, even sites like Travelocity have last-minute specials.