How to avoid booking a bad hotel
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A disappointing hotel stay stinks, whether you’re on the road a dozen nights a month or you only travel a few times a year. Anyone that values travel — and their dollars and points — will bristle at being subjected to a night or more in a hotel that doesn’t check the boxes. Here are our tips to make sure you do everything you can to book the right hotel for every stay.
What’s a ‘bad’ hotel?
We can rant and rave about a bad hotel experience but ‘bad’ can mean different things to different people. We can all agree that straight-up terrible hotel stays are the ones where we hear nightmarish stories of bedbug infestations, large hidden resort fees and lax security.
But sometimes ‘bad’ just means the hotel wasn’t well suited to you. The location wasn’t right, the available room type didn’t meet your needs, the view wasn’t what you had hoped for or the hotel lacked a certain amenity you were expecting and greatly missed (like a closed pool). A hotel may even leave a bad impression if you find out later that you overpaid for the stay or if the staff simply were unkind.
So how can you avoid choosing the wrong hotel for your stay? Here are some basic tips to employ every time you research a property for an upcoming trip.
Research the options
Even if you don’t have a ton of time on your hands, try to carve out a few minutes to do some basic research on hotel choices for your destination. Consider the following factors:
- hotel brand
- price (cash or points)
- room type
- cancellation policy
Narrow down your pick of hotel brands
Generally speaking, you’ll usually have an idea of the hotel chain or chains to consider based on your elite status (or status that you’re working to attain) or your rewards points balance with those programs, assuming those things matter to you. You may ultimately select a hotel outside of your usual brand loyalties, but looking at what’s available under the umbrella of your favorite chain(s) is always a good place to begin.
Set a budget
Whether you plan to pay with cash or points, set the budget you’d like to stick to. It will help rule out hotels so you don’t waste time researching a spot that’s beyond your budget. Once you pick a hotel, it pays to be aware of any Best Rate Guarantee program so you can get take advantage of the best rate possible.
Location, location, location
Next, focus on location. Being in a vibrant or charming neighborhood can go a long way toward improving your opinion of any hotel. Staying close to the sights you wish to visit means you aren’t wasting time commuting from one part of the city to another. Being further out of a city center can work to your advantage on the pricing side, but make sure you can easily get from the hotel to all the spots on your trip agenda. Is the hotel near public transportation or are there ride-sharing services to call upon?
Also make sure the hotel is where you think it is. It may have ‘beach’ in its name, but is it right on the beach or just nearby, necessitating getting in and out a car while you are all wet and sandy? It pays to double-check the specifics.
Once you have a shortlist of hotels, pop the addresses into Google Maps to see what else is in the immediate area. A hotel down the street from a grocery store, for example, will make it easy to stock up on drinks and food for the room. A quick glance at the map can also show if the hotel really is in the middle of nowhere and not your best choice for this particular stay.
What room types are available?
Do a quick search of your dates to see which room types are available. Do they match your requirements? If you’re traveling on business and need to work in the room, you’ll probably want a room with a desk. Visiting the hotel with your kids? You’re probably looking for a spacious room with two queen-size beds or even a two-room suite.
If the view from the room matters to you, be sure to select the category that punches that button. In other words, if you have your heart set on a mountain-view or ocean-view room, book that. Don’t book an entry-level ‘no view’ room and hope to be upgraded — that can be a recipe for disappointment.
A hotel might appear perfect in all other aspects but you might need to cross it off your shortlist if it doesn’t have an available room that meets your core requirements.
Do the amenities match your needs?
Finally, does the property offer the amenities that you want and need? Plenty of hotel chains offer free breakfast. If that’s important to you, be sure it’s included in the room rate. If you’re traveling with your family and a kids club is important, make sure one is on site and find out if it’s free of charge or fee-based.
Book hotels with service standards that match your expectations. Note that if your expectations are high, you may need to pay more — via cash or points — for that level of service.
Book hotels with the amenities you want and will actually use. If you always have a glass of wine at the bar before heading out for dinner, make sure your chosen property has a bar with hours that match when you want to be there. (Or choose Kimpton which has a free evening wine hour.) At the same time, don’t be lured by benefits that won’t help you. If you always sleep late on vacation, that “free” breakfast that the hotel stops serving at 9:30 a.m. won’t help you at all.
What’s the cancellation policy?
Make a note of the cancellation policy — whether you’re on a paid or points rate. (And make sure to ask the question: Are hotel stays booked with points refundable?) Hopefully your trip will happen as scheduled, but life also happens and it’s good to understand what your options are if you end up having to cancel your stay. Some hotels have a big cash penalty for a cancelled award stay (ahem, some St. Regis ski properties), so read the fine print carefully.
Seek out firsthand reviews
Once you’ve got a list of two or three hotels you’re considering for your trip, the easiest way to avoid picking a bad option is to talk with other travelers who’ve stayed there recently.
Ask your circle of friends first — preferably the ones who share your travel philosophy. Then extend that to posting a question either at the TPG Lounge or TPG Family Facebook groups. Members of these private groups are hard-core travelers who are happy to share their thoughts on the hotels they’ve loved and the ones they wish they had taken a pass on.
You can also check to see if a site you trust (like The Points Guy) has done a recent review, so you can get detailed first-hand info.
There are also plenty of sites that publish traveler reviews. TripAdvisor is a major player in that arena. The best way to use that platform, and steer clear of any less-than-helpful reviews, is to follow your friends and trusted travel writers there. Then, when you’re researching hotels and restaurants at the site, reviews written by people you follow will be called out so you can see what they think about the venue.
Next, consider reviews at hotel websites like Marriott. When you search for a hotel and click on the “Reviews” link, you’re reading comments from travelers who actually stayed at the property and responded to Marriott’s online satisfaction survey after their visit. For that reason, the comments are pretty candid and talk about real-world issues encountered at the hotel, like wonky air-conditioning, a long wait at check-in or an underwhelming breakfast buffet.
Weigh the pros and cons, then book
Once you’ve got a handle on all of these factors, weigh the pros and cons of each hotel, choose one and book. Doing even just a little bit of research and getting the opinion of someone who’s visited the property will go a long way to ensure you don’t pick a bad apple in the bunch.
Have you ever ended up in a terrible hotel despite all your efforts to pick the best option for the trip? What was the hotel’s issue(s) and how do you avoid a repeat of that scenario in the future? We’d love to hear your hotel selection tips in the comments.
Featured image by Kyle Monk/Getty Images
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