The Classic: Hotels

From historic five-star deluxe inn to simple, homey one-star mom-and-pop pensions, you can find hotels to suit every taste and budget in Europe

Yeah, yeah, I know: this is supposed to be a site devoted alternatives to traditional hotels. That doesn't mean we can't provide some pointers, share some tips, and give soem htoel hnting tips when it comes to the classic option for a place to lay your head whilst traveling.

This doesn't mean hotels are always the best options—for one thing, rarely are they the cheapest (I've got two dozen lodging alternatives to hotels here)—but there's nothing wrong with a good ol' hotel room.

Where to find and book a good hotel

I've partnered with Italy-based because it is the most inclusive booking engine for Europe I've yet found. Ulike most other booking sites, Venere includes hundreds of choices for each city that are in the cheaper price ranges (one- and two-star hotels), plus it lists apartments, farm stays, B&Bs, and other non-hotel options.

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A quick guide to European hotels and what to expect from them

Traditional European hotels tend to be simpler and have fewer bells and whistles than Americans ones. Free HBO is considered a God-given right in the cheapest American motel. In Europe, few hotel below the moderate level will even have TVs, let alone satellite channels such as CNN and BBC.

Europeans just have different standards and expectations when it comes to lodgings. Their hotels tend to focus on cleanliness and friendliness over amenities. They're old-fashioned, somewhat worn around the edges, with small rooms and furniture that's either mismatched or aging ’60s functional units, but they're great deals.

The Ratings Game

European hotels are generally rated from one to five stars (plus, in some countries, an extra "Five-Star DeLuxe" category for places that really want to pad the prices).

As hotels get more expensive (four- and five-star categories), they get more similar to standard hotels in the US—where hotels are renowned for their absolute lack of character and cookie-cutter sameness.

There's rarely a good reason to book anything fancier than a three-star, where you'll still get most of the amenities you'd expect at home, just perhaps not as standardized.

As far as the cheaper, more traditional European hotels and pensions at the one- and two-star levels, here's the "worst" of the differences you can expect to find:

A peek inside the European hotel

The beds may have all the spinal support of a wet noodle, bowing deeply in the center on very lazy cot springs, or bulging up and bucking like a bronco every time you stir, and dumping you unceremoniously on the floor should you attempt to do something as drastic as roll over in your sleep.

Lobbies and rooms rarely agree. Never judge a hotel by its entrance; expensive hotels almost always invest heavily in the lobby, often skimping on the rooms, whereas cheaper hotels may just have a dingy desk in a hallway, but spotless, fine accommodations.

Double beds are often two twins with a single top sheet and blanket (or two twin sheet made up to overlap). Turn the mattress parts parallel to the springs and you won't suffer from separation anxiety (or end up slipping through the crack) in the middle of the night.

Many hotels in old buildings don't have elevators. Those that do usuall feature rickety, slow lifts that really belong on the city's official register of historic relics.

Floors are often tile or linoleum, not carpeted (and where there is carpeting, it tends to be of the very thin variety).

European hotel bathrooms or Look, honey: Two toilets!

That funny extra toilet that looks like a reclining urinal is called a bidet. Its water jets are intended to clean the bits of you where the sun don't shine—and to do so much more thoroughly than toilet paper. Your host will not appreciate it if you use the bidet as an auxiliary toilet. Some tourists wash out clothes or store fruit or beer in there, but I just think about what the European guests use the thing for and do my laundry in the sink.

European hotel bathrooms are radically different from the American norm—starting with the fact that in a cheap pensione usually the only bathroom is down the hall, coed, and is shared by everyone on the floor.

Among European hoteliers, it's a bit of a mystery why so many American travelers so strongly object to sharing a bathroom. From their point of view, they find it a bit odd that many of us feel we cannot sleep in a room unless there's a toilet right next to the bed. Although more and more European hotels are installing bathrooms in every room, it is by no means standard. Either accept the shared bath principle or prepare to pay extra for a private bath in your room.

The European concept of a shower is to stick a nozzle into the wall and a drain in the floor. Shower curtains are optional. In many cramped private baths, you may have to rescue the toilet paper and find it safe harbor outside the bathroom before turning on the shower and drenching the whole room.

Another fun European bathroom trick is the half tub, in which you only have enough room to sit rather than lie down, with a shower nozzle that has nowhere to hang. Practical upshot: Your knees get very clean and the floor gets very wet.

Hot water may be available only once a day and not on demand—this is especially true of hotels with shared baths. Heating water is costly, and many smaller hotels only do it once daily, in the morning. Once that's used up, the luxury won't be available again until the next day.

When you check into the hotel, ask "When hot water?" Take your shower quickly, soap up without water, and try to be first in line to avoid inadvertent freezing. In some countries, Britain in particular, you may have to turn the hot water on at a special mini-hot water heater either inside or just outside of the stall itself. Incidentally, the faucet marked "C" in romance-language countries (France, Italy, Spain) will be for hot water, not cold (which is chaud, caldo, and caliente, respectively). For cold water, turn the one marked "F" (froid, freddo, fria).

Traditional European towels are flat, waffle-textured and singularly unabsorbant. Follow the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy's advice and carry your own of the terry-cloth or camping variety for just such an emergency (a hand towel is least bulky).

One final note: just pretend those outlets don't exist. The difference goes beyond just the fact that North American plugs have flat prongs and European ones have round ones (and plugs in the U.K. have three honking big metal posts). Yes, the one in the bathroom may be marked with a little stylized icon of a half-shaved face, indicating it can handle the low wattage of an electric shaver, but my advice is either to stick with Bic or carry a battery-operated shaver. Plug nothing into the hotel outlets (aside from chargers for digital cameras, cellphones, PDAs, and other travel gadgets that are degined designed to work on dual currencies) and you will not run the risk of frying your hairdryer and/or blowing the fuse box for the whole hotel.


This article was last updated in January 2008 . All information was accurate at the time. | | |
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