Friday, January 26, 2007

How do you find a good place to stay? Guess.

When I don't sleep well, I'm a horrible, grumpy person. Just ask the multitude of people who have worked with me in times of insomnia. So finding a good place to stay when traveling is at the top of my list. That, and dressing like a sexy European (see below).

So how do you find a good hotel when you’re traveling to another location for the first time? I’ve taken friends and relative’s advice – with mixed success. One’s “quiet and homey” and “convenient” is another’s dump and strip club.

Today I talked with a guy planning a two-day trip to Rome, tacked onto his trip to Sicily. He wanted to know where we were staying on our upcoming trip. We swapped notes, but, really, we don't have a magical formula on how or where we decide to stay. But I get great joy and hours of entertainment out of reading the online hotel reviews on sites like Expedia.

Like these, all reveiws of the same not-so-Roman-Holiday hotel:

The exterior, pool and entrance are all lovely. However, the rooms are an entirely different story as they clearly haven’t been renovated in 30 years. Worn, dirty looking carpet, dark musty curtains. Desk staff less than friendly. I travel a bunch in europe (weekly for my job) and this has been one of the worst.

And this one, written by someone too upset to use capitals:

not impressed
hotel beds have a very uncofortable matresses

Oh, and this one, clearly written by someone highly upset about his/her stay here and who obviously just wanted a tour bus to cart them around town:

If possible, skip this hotel
We stayed at this hotel while we were in Italy for our honeymoon. While the hotel is clean enough, the room was old and the hotel was very far away from the airport. It had cost us over 50 euros to take the taxi to the hotel. Although there are busses that goes to the hotel, one would need to be familiar with the Rome metro system in order to find this place. Even if one does know their way around with the bus system, it would still be hard to find the hotel as it is tucked away from the major bus route. My other complaint about this hotel is that the front desk offers absolutely no help with us getting around the city. When asked, they gave us a barely visible map that has been over copied and does not really show the location of bus routes or the hotel for that matter. We had to find our way out of the hotel and out to the bus stops. Then we had to ask numerous people to finally figure out how to get to the tourist sites. Our room was not particularly comfortable either. Our reservation specifically asked for a non-smoking room, but we were given a smoking room regardless. Our room stunk of cigarette. We did notice that there were rooms with the no smoking signs, but when asked, we were told that all they had for us was the smoking room. Needless to say, I would not want to stay at this hotel again.

OK. So so we're not staying at this hotel. We get it!

I also read the guidebooks. Then, accounting for the fact that most Americans I meet overseas are wearing velour or bejeweled track suits, I do the opposite.

That doesn’t mean I’ve had any real success, because, really, the maybe velour = great value and super accommodations. Take, for example, the place we stayed on the outskirts of Prague. It was really close to the subway, filled with Russians (How did I know they were Russian? Tall fur hats and long fur coats, of course.) and had the Prague-ean (is that a word) version of Westin’s Heavenly Bed. Awesome. Then we stayed at a place highly recommended in the center of Madrid where a street performer sang all day and all night. Under our window. I don’t think she slept. Neither did we.

Pat saw this picture and said, "That's the prison we stayed in at Bilbao." Yes, indeed.

So here’s what we prioritize our hotel choices on:

Price: We go for the moderate prices that include breakfast. Spending a little bit more on hotels is OK by me. I can scrimp on food, and if I have a good breakfast I can usually get by on coffee and something light until dinner.

Location: We are walkers. Boy, do we walk. We figure out the must-see sights and stay within a mile or two from those sights. Too close and you get nothing but tourists. Too far away and you spend all your time figuring out the transportation system and getting lost and, well, that can be fun, too. By in large, though, we stay away from the center of cities and opt, instead, for a neighborhood.

Size: The hotel in Prague was huge and was great. The hotel in Bilbao, Spain was huge and looked and felt like a warmed over Holiday Inn. There are no guarantees, but when we can, we try to go smaller. That way we the chances are higher that we’ll meet some cool people, too.

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