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How to Choose a Hotel Using the Internet

A Hotel Manager's Perspective - MariaV

While planning a trip, one of the most daunting tasks can be choosing your hotel. You think to yourself, should I trust all those reviews? Whose review is right? How can one hotel get ten glowing “everything's perfect” reviews, and ten blasting “everything was horrid” ones? Who do I believe, and what site do I believe?

As someone who has worked in hotels in two countries, has studied hotel management and European hospitality management, and also has the vantage point of being not only a traveller who has stayed in hotels, large and small, in many cities and countries, but has a job hazard of noticing every little thing in a hotel, I say this:

"There are always two sides to every story."

Perceptions, expectations and standards vary from person to person, and from country to country.

When judging a hotel from its website, there are many things to remember. A hotel will always “put its best foot forward.” The hotel management wants you to choose them, so they will take photos that show their rooms and all parts of their hotel in the best way possible. The lighting will be “just right”, the exterior photo may have been taken right at the exact moment of perfect sunshine and blue sky, and when the gardens are in their most perfect bloom. The room will have been gone over with a fine-toothed comb and every speck of dust gone, before taking the photo.

They will strive to be what they advertise, but sometimes things go wrong. Time will put a little dust here and there, suitcases being taken up and down stairs may put a nick or two on the walls, wear and tear inevitably occurs in all aspects of a hotel -- furniture, furnishings, fixtures, walls, even bathroom tiles. They want you to be happy, to recommend them to others, and to give them a good review. That's how they stay in business. But sometimes things can, and do, go wrong. Inevitably it will happen at Midnight or 2am, but sometimes they'll get lucky and the hot water heater will go on the blink during the day when someone's around to fix it.

Star Ratings

Star ratings vary from country to country, and shouldn't be the deciding factor. In some countries, stars are an indication of what services are offered, (e.g., an on-site restaurant as opposed to a few tables and chairs for a continental breakfast; a pool and spa, an elevator, or even how many rooms). Many years ago in the US, there was a distinct division between a “hotel” and a “motel”, wherein a motel had approximately ten to twenty rooms over one to two floors, and a hotel had over twenty and was usually two or more floors complete with restaurant, etc.

Keep in mind, however, that you can receive “five-star service” in a one-star hotel. That small hotel/B&B will many times be family-owned and run, not always have a fancy reception desk (reception may be a small table or desk where a computer, phone and registration book is kept), but they will be willing to sit down with you and give you information such as the best restaurants in the neighbourhood, the best way to get the most out of your time in the city, help you plan your days, suggest things to do, issue attraction tickets, book a taxi (many smaller hotels/B&Bs have certain companies they work with and trust), and many other things. The five-star hotel may not have time to spend with you like that.

Star ratings will generally not be an indication of cleanliness and comfort. A one-star hotel/B&B can offer you the same shiny bathroom tiles, clean carpeting and spotless sheets and towels that a two, three or more star hotel can.

What Do You Require?

Do you want to spend a lot of time in your room, or just need a comfortable and clean place to sleep? If you are planning to spend nearly all your time out and about, then you may wish to look for the smaller places. Do you want the luxury and pampering of a spa? What about eating – do you need an on-site restaurant, or will you want to eat in the local restaurants, cafes and pubs? Are you a big breakfast eater? Then you may want the hotel that offers you the large, hot breakfast buffet with a lot of choices. Are you okay with a continental breakfast? Then the smaller hotel will suit you.

Think about what's most important to you. Is helpful, friendly staff in comfortable clothes that will sit with you and treat you as a member of the “family” more important than uniformed staff behind a big desk with computers and phones? Are free bathroom trial-sized extras important? A hotel is in the business of making money, and these little extras are not given to hotels free. The cost of the extras needs to be factored into the price.

For example, continental breakfast will vary from country to country. It is generally always cold food, although you may find eggs, but not always. In some countries, a continental breakfast may be coffee and a croissant; in others, it may be some muffins and perhaps hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes a continental breakfast “buffet” will include toast, cereal choices, muffins, cheese, fruit, spreads for toast, and the like. In some countries, such as Scandinavian, the breakfast buffet is a veritable feast in and of itself! The hotel's description will usually let you know what they offer. If it doesn't, then the hotel will usually not mind answering a quick email to let you know what's on offer. A hotel will prefer to take a minute to answer the question beforehand in an email or phone call, rather than having a disappointed guest making a complaint that breakfast was not what they expected or “understood” it to be.

What Affects Reviews?

Hotel workers are human beings. They know and understand you are paying for their services, and want the most for your money. They try to make your stay as enjoyable and comfortable as possible. Movies and television attempt to make hotel work glamorous, but the reality is quite different. Shifts are very long, they are on their feet all day, running here and there, making sure every little thing is as perfect as possible for you – all the while trying to make very tired travellers, with sometimes equally or more-so tired children in tow, happy. They need to keep a smile on their faces while being yelled at if something isn't perfect, if they're not moving as fast as you may like when you're in a hurry, if you may not have understood that a double room does not mean two beds ... I could go on, but I won't! As humans, they may react to a guest's mood. If you are angry and complaining, raising your voice, etc., they may end up as being “not hospitable” in a review – it's not easy to remain hospitable and with a welcoming smile during certain situations.

As for bed bugs -- yes, it happens. Unfortunately, as many may not realize, they can come with you to the hotel in your bags, your clothing, anything, from another hotel or anywhere you've been. They can hide in the backs of alarm clocks, or in the wood slats of the bed. Many hotels have switched to metal beds for this reason. Yes, cleanliness can be a factor; however, a hotel will probably not know that they are in the room until a guest says "I got bitten." Then it can be taken care of.

Who to Trust

Now, what should you do for those reviews that can be confusing? Should you believe and give more credence to an agency's reviews, or the independent traveller sites? In deciding, there are some factors to be aware of.

Sites such as Booking and Venere, and many others, only allow you to post a review if you have booked through that site. They have checks and balances to make sure you cannot just post a review. This is protection for the hotel against fraudulent "reviews", an angry ex-employee, or a competitor. This is also protection for the potential guest because a hotel owner, obviously, cannot post a "review." The hotel has to jump through hoops, with major explanations, if they wish a review to be checked. The agency will contact the reviewer, as well. Agencies do not allow attacks or offensiveness. One thing about agency reviews is that the hotel cannot respond to “defend” itself, so there is no balance.

Sites such as TripAdvisor and others really don't have those checks. Yes, they say that fraudulent reviews are not allowed. However, I could go on there, choose a hotel, and write whatever I want. Fortunately, the hotel has the option of responding, but is allowed only one response (no changes, edits, nothing). Believe me, the hotel's response goes through more vetting than the reviewer does! Many times it gets sent back to the hotel for various reasons with a request for editing due to any variety of reasons (e.g., sounded like a personal attack, used the word "you" instead of "the guest", etc.).

Many reviews are written in the heat of the moment. You (the generic "you") may have gotten an off day on the croissants and are not in a good mood -- you choose then to write the review and everything turns out to be "horrid." One small negative point can easily turn into "the most disgusting place I've ever seen."

Cultural standards should also be taken into consideration, (e.g., London hotel rooms are going to be smaller than American ones; a five-star hotel will have a fancy bathroom tray with “smellies” -- the small hotel/B&B may have a bar of soap). In London, many of the hotels in Victorian buildings are listed -- this means they cannot change things such as the absence of a lift, or the size of the stairs. You may be upset about having to walk up two flights of stairs, and your review then says, "It was terrible! I had to drag my four suitcases up two flights of stairs! There was no lift! I wanted to walk out!"

You may read some reviews that say, “Reception staff unhelpful, rude, impolite,” but the reviewer will not give any information as to what the staff were responding to. Perhaps the guest was being rude, or complaining about things the reception staff could do nothing about and had no control over, or were tired and in a bad mood. The next few reviews could give the reception staff glowing commendations. Who do you believe? Take human nature into consideration when judging which to believe.

Watch carefully for how reviews are written. There are sites out there that make up reviews, and many hotels are aware of it. Are the reviews all written in the same type of wording? In the exact same style of punctuation and grammar? Is the review written by someone in, for instance, the UK or US but sounds like it was written by someone whose fourth language is English? If you are suspicious (remember, there are sites that take names from legitimate reviews on other sites, and then make up reviews and put those same names on it), then look at reviews from other hotels on that same site – are they the same? Is the wording, grammar and style the same?

Hotels change over time, with new management, new employees, new fixtures and fittings. Watch the dates on a review. It could be a new review, but it may say "stayed in 2003". Weigh the negative reviews carefully against the positive ones. Watch for management responses, and read the response carefully. Was it written professionally? Did the hotel seem caring and responsive? Or did it say "Fine -- go choose the (whatever) next time."

Should you trust the hotel that offers a double room for half of what the other hotels do? They could be running a special, or it could be that no one would pay the price for what is offered. Do not hesitate to ask to see a room first before you've paid. It's far easier for a hotel to not have to refund money if you get in there and hate it.

Once you've made your reservation, understand that the hotel has blocked off that room. If it is a small hotel, realize that, as they say, “Every little bit helps”. If you decide not to stay or cancel late or simply do not show, they've lost that revenue and now have to rely on a walk-in traffic to make it up. Large hotels will often double-book rooms, because they have either empty rooms or another hotel to rely on. Smaller ones do not. Don't think a hotel is untrustworthy because it asks for credit card information, your security code, preauthorization or a deposit. It's protection for everyone. The request for a security code tells the hotel that the card is actually in your hands. If a fraudster is using your information gained from somewhere, they generally will not have your security code because they won't have the physical card, and many times are making fraudulent bookings to see if the card is valid and there is money on it. By preauthorizing or taking a deposit, the hotel is protecting itself from this. It is far easier for a hotel to refund your deposit (if, for example, you cancel within the cancellation period), than to try to resell the room on the day of the booking.

At this point, I think I'm getting into more aspects than how to choose a hotel and whether to believe ratings. Trust your instincts, take all the reviews with the proverbial grain of salt, do a little more research if a hotel has a rating of five out of five on every single review it receives (can it really be so good that there is not one single, solitary thing to give a less-than-five to?) and “everyone and their dog wants to stay there”, look at management responses.

And don't hesitate to email other travellers who've stayed there.

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About the Author

Maria is a traveler, and has been a hotel manager in Sicily and London. Her main interests are writing and, of course, travel, and refuses to stop until she's made a serious dent in seeing all there is to see! She is a long-time advocate of slow travel, mostly by upping and moving to a new country just for the heck of it, but also thinks spending a few days here and there is okay, too.

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