Hotels 101

In my lifetime I have never had to book a hotel. Like ever. Every single time I have traveled domestically someone else did the bookings and I just showed up. In the past five years, I haven't went anywhere that required a stay other than camping; which is camping. I don't even like online shopping. That notion is a huge indicator that online bookings are not my forte. I didn't even bother booking accommodations for myself until about three weeks before my trip. I made so many mistakes. I booked hotels on the edge of town. I booked hotels that were the definition of sketch. Sadly, I was just competing with my friend who was well-versed on booking shit. Every time we sat down to eat or got online the boxing round began on who booked what. I just didn't want to admit how bored I was of it and how I just didn't know my resources.

When booking in the states I was faced with two major problems. I don't have any credit cards for obvious modern reasons. I also had no access to a printer. So at times I was processing large amounts online with my personal debit card and hoping that an email would suffice at check-in. For these simple mistakes I had issues. I experienced a major banking snafu thanks to an unwanted stay. My a-ha moment was realizing I didn't map things out around my stay. That was probably my weakest link. I've probably stayed in the best hole in the walls in France. I pretty much chose hotels based on images versus location or amenities. So at times I had a decent room just in the middle of skid row. The only one to blame for that was me. I failed to remember that I was doing this and no travel agent or booking company was involved. Duly noted - only you have to live with yourself in whatever crypt you paid for - for as long as your stay. So here are a few tips to avoid what I went through with vivid detail....

0. Book With Credit Only (NON NEGOTIABLE)

If you have a credit card with a logo i.e. Visa, Master Card or American Express you are in luck. When making bookings for things like car rentals, hotel rooms, travel arrangements and attractions a credit card works to your advantage. Surely, these days you can use a debit card with logo most anywhere but there are no real benefits. The reality is you are spending cash on something that isn't tangible. At least, it isn't tangible until you show up. When you do there is no way to retract your cash when the deal isn't official. Also, a bank is not going to be there for disputes and prompt refunds like a credit card company. What I generally found is that most booking sites won't even take a debit card to complete a transaction. When traveling abroad this can cause issues getting from point A to point B. Imagine being in one place by means of your debit card and the next place not accepting of it. If you have company maybe they can pay or you can phone someone at home. Yet then you have to pay people back, concern yourself with depositing funds to that person, exchange rates etc. It is just a hassle. My friend was steadily booking with ease, resolving issues with a simple call and I was stuck most of the time dealing with Bank of America. I implore you to book all travel expenses on a credit card and/or make alternative arrangements before you leave.

1. Check Multiple Places

Sometimes you have your heart set on a specific area, attraction or brand hotel. In example, you might be after a Lourve area hotel in Paris preferably an American brand like Holiday Inn or Best Western. This is a strange example but if it were so you would probably begin with a web search or a direct click to Holiday Inn's website. You may stop there or continue on with a reputable booking site like hotels.com or orbitz.com. The trick is to look at every single option. The booking sites, the close-out sites, the best price sites and the hotel sites. It doesn't hurt to look and compare with every website you can. The fun part about this is reading reviews, seeing different images and getting the best price. I found that most hotel websites offer better promotions than alternative sites that say they have a great deal. If you are staying longer than three days, most hotel sites have the better price. The trick is to weigh options, look at professional versus amateur photos and be aware of conversion. One site may seem wonderful but have a stay in the cost of Euros but another site for the same hotel may show in U.S. Dollars. Also, book where the site is trusted for payment and ease of archiving confirmations. If you are on a site that is outdated, covered in ads or being glitchy - be careful not to book on it. Your payment may go nowhere or you may not be able to print a valid confirmation of your stay. I soon realized hotels with these issues were ones I should have simply avoided.

2. Location, Location, Location
 Check the hotels landmarks - are there any local attractions? eyesores? etc.

 Map it - check the hotels location in regards to restaurants? transit? etc.

 Google it - get multiple perspectives on exact location with street view

Know where your next destination is in regards to it - nearest airport? taxis?

My first hotel in France was on a secluded road nearest to a major highway. There wasn't a restaurant, bar, pharmacy, store in sight. If there weren't vending machines I would have starved. My second hotel was in a very sketch part of town. It was in remote area as well and when visited appeared to be a motel versus a hotel as "advertised". My third hotel was in a decent area but a small neighborhood nonetheless. Everything surrounding it was a trek and it was co-habitated by actual tenants and students versus tourists. The common denominator is that I didn't map any of these hotels and surely didn't do any sort of street view. I thought my friend was paranoid to do it with all her bookings. However, she never had to stay anywhere dank or off the beaten path. I never accounted for safety, popularity or access and in my case a lack thereof. If your hotel is remote, empty and way over there - cancel the booking before you leave! If you do checks & balances, you can dispute the charges and be assured of your alternatives. Otherwise you could be in a bad hotel or temporarily room-less with no return of your deposit. I've been here and it is not a good place to be in especially overseas with no way to communicate.

3. Amenities

I'm an even keel person who could stay most anywhere. In an apartment, I never utilized common areas like gyms or pools. However, when traveling even if it isn't a recreational trip amenities can come in handy. The biggest one of all is wi-fi. Ask ahead if it is available and exactly how and where it works. Surprisingly, most of Europe thinks it is perfectly acceptable to advertise a gratis wi-fi signal but then won't allow it to work past the lobby. I could say they put wi-fi access in the same boat as public smoking. In America, most places have "designated smoking areas" and Europe prides itself on cornering wireless signals in the same way. If there is only ethernet, make sure the cord is long or there are several jacks in your room. If you aren't staying in a resort, a pool is probably not expected but things like a gym, a bar, a business center etc are all good to have. In general, a hotel without some common areas to socialize, get out of your room etc are just bad. You shouldn't be confined and if you have no choice but to go downstairs to be online it should be welcoming. Ammenties should also be accessible and in working order. You shouldn't have to wipe dust off a bar or struggle with free computer access. Special items for your use should be just that and available during your entire stay.

4. Have Zero Expectations

Sadly, four and five star hotels may not be as intended. Your extended stay hotel may be a transient apartment for others. Name brand and boutique hotels may be all fluff and no substance. You can either walk into every hotel with no expectations or be let down every single time you stay somewhere. I realized my comfort level with travel and being away from home is null. I honestly became to prefer to stay in a private home or selectively chosen BnB situation. I personally hate the fact that I enjoy the alternatives more but hotel stays are just not that fulfilling. After a few experiences, I have to be open to a few disappointments especially so overseas. Rooms are smaller, service is lacking and things never appear to be how they claimed they would be. To bring awareness to whatever I encounter I do believe in thorough and honest reviews. Life is too short to just complain or leave. Surely, I witnessed a lot of that and in the states I probably would. However, being lost in translation, tired and in need of a shower sometimes you deal with a sucky room. Of course if things just aren't acceptable speak up early and often i.e. viewless rooms, after hours noise, soiled linens or a lack of supplies. After all, wherever you choose to stay will be your home away from home for a duration. Just remember that what you see may not be what you may get. Also remember that what you get can be changed or revised. It never hurts to simply ask.

5. Preparation Is Key

When staying at a decent hotel you should have things like slippers, washcloths, cleaning supplies - but these things are NOT provided in most hotels. If you are at a resort, you should have beach towels. However, even four and five star hotels aren't obligated to provide such items. Also, if you like a certain amount or type of pillows, a top sheet, several outlets, an ethernet cable etc - you should ask ahead or bring them. I couldn't stress enough about having things like this in places where they lacked. I stayed in a hotel with a kitchenette that "ran out" of cleaning supplies. I stayed in an apparthotel that skrimped on toilet tissue but gave me slippers? I stayed in several four star hotels who couldn't even provide a bottle opener when asked. I know why would you need any of the above? I thought the same exact thing!? Extended stay places with no salt & pepper. Hotels that had no housekeeping for four days straight. One double room with a single wall outlet. The same four star hotel only had one pillow for each of us. On night three we discovered the "pillow menu". I had to encounter these things to believe it. Sadly, my friend I chose to travel with Mr.Clean wipes, facial tissue, slippers because they were vital to us. Higher end hotels may take requests or offer a la carte services like pillows, robes etc but never assume. Also if housekeeping seems nice simply stockpile things up front you may need so you don't run out mid-stay. Whatever other creature comforts you must have - ask ahead, make requests or simply get them in advance.

So if I could do it all over again. I would have done the following...

I would have chosen three to four star hotels every time even if mediocre.
I would have never searched hostels or apparthotels.
I would have street viewed every viable location.
I would have made choices based on location, transit and nearby places.
I would have booked with credit only.
I would have anticipated costs ahead and made proper arrangements.
I would have brought my own ethernet cable and or personal router.
I would have cross referenced reviews and photos of all future stays.
I would have called or e-mailed my chosen hotels ahead of my stay for requests.
I would have never accepted a room w/o a view and/or unacceptable noise etc.
I would have packed a survival kit of basics like tp, Kleenex and cleaning stuff.
I would have chosen a la carte pillows, linens etc before my stay.

Sounds and looks like a rider but I was on a world tour and some things are just non-negotiable. In essence, if I had started out with the list above I'd be a much happier traveler. Friends don't let friends stay in bad hotels. I highly suggest revising your travel plans against the above so you don't make the same mistakes we did. Even friend hook-ups, hostels and BnB's need a rider of sorts. Your primary goal is comfort. You should be safe, able to rest and pleased overall with your hotel choices. Don't let it be the opposite as it was for us.

More on the hotel and Air BnB experience to come including creating and checking out reviews for better stays for travelers alike

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