There are many steps to planning the perfect solo vacation and choosing a hotel is one of the most important.
You want somewhere that is comfortable, welcoming and, above all, safe. And as accommodation costs are likely to absorb most of your travel budget, you want to make sure you are getting the best bang for your buck.
But what things should you consider when picking somewhere to stay?
This is where I can help you. As a mature solo traveller with over three decades of choosing hotels, I’ve refined this process into a fine art.
Take a comfy seat, pour yourself a coffee and discover the tips and tricks for how to choose a perfect hotel.
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The Most Important Things to Consider when Booking a Hotel
To give you a heads-up, here are my top 10 considerations when choosing a hotel:
- The fine print (cancellation policy, deposits etc.)
- Travellers’ reviews
- Room quality & amenities
- Type of hotel (e.g. 5-star chain hotel or boutique property)
- Hotel amenities
- Fellow clientele
3 Most Important Things When Choosing a Hotel
Let’s dive straight into what things are most important when choosing a hotel.
I have placed these roughly in the order of their importance to me as a midlife solo female traveller. But there are many different types of travellers, with different priorities to match.
Yes; it’s a cliché. But when it comes to the choice of hotel, it really is location, location, location.
For the vast majority of destinations, the best hotel location is in the heart of the action, close to the main attractions, restaurants and transport hubs. If you find somewhere that ticks all of these boxes, you’ve hit the jackpot.
Walking is the best way to see any city and although my hotel doesn’t have to be in the thick of things, at the same time I do like to be able to walk to as many places as much as possible.
Making a shortlist of hotels
My first stage in shortlisting hotels is to open a tab on my desktop with Booking.com. There are alternative booking platforms, but I have found that for most destinations booking.com offers a broad choice and useful filtering options.
Let’s say I’m looking for a hotel in Florence, Italy. The first step is an obvious one: enter the destination and travel dates.
Then I refine the search by filtering the results by location, travellers’ ratings and those properties that offer free cancellation.
Choosing a hotel is an iterative process.
As a starting point, I aim high, choosing guest reviews with an average score of greater than 9. If this does not yield many results, I lower this score to 8+.
I then rank these results by clicking on the three dots at the top right-hand corner of the search screen and sorting by top reviewed.
£2k + for four nights in Florence. Ouch!
From these results, I will pull together a shortlist of up to half a dozen hotels, adjusting the travellers’ rating filter if necessary.
Taking a closer look at where hotels are located
It goes without saying that, as far as possible, you should determine if your hotel is in a safe part of town. Personal safety is a priority for many travellers, particularly if you are a woman travelling alone.
This is where you need to use a bit of intuition.
Open up another browser tab with Google Maps and switch to Street View by clicking on the terrain tile at the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Enter the name of the first hotel on your shortlist, drag the little yellow dude to the hotel’s location and zoom in and scroll to your heart’s content to get the lay of the land.
If you are using Google Maps on a mobile device, tap on the image tile in the bottom left corner.
Here’s our swanky Hotel Lungarno (it looks far prettier from the River Arno):
But don’t just look at the hotel entrance. Take a look also at the streets in the hotel’s immediate vicinity.
Whilst this is unlikely to be a deciding factor, it may help you eliminate some options. For example; if it is located on a dingy, rubbish-strewn street or the property looks like it needs some TLC.
Rinse and repeat. While this may sound like a faff, once you get into the swing of using Google Street View it doesn’t take long.
And it is sort of fun. But don’t labour it; this is just to give you a feel for the area.
Digging into travellers’ reviews on booking.com may also give you clues about the area. More on this later.
The other factor I consider when assessing a hotel’s location is its proximity to good restaurants and other local amenities and access to train and bus stations.
2. The fine print
If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is the importance of flexibility in our travel arrangements.
But global pandemics notwithstanding, travel arrangements do not always go to plan. Therefore, it’s reassuring to book a hotel that offers free cancellation.
Let’s drill down further on this.
Yes; your shortlisted hotel may offer free cancellation. But if you can only cancel without a penalty up to six weeks before the date of arrival, how useful is that to you?
For extra reassurance, I also determine the cancellation penalty if I had to ditch my booking after the free cancellation period.
This varies hugely between hotels from one night to the total cost of the stay. Whilst this is unlikely to determine the choice of hotel, it can be a deciding factor between two properties.
The hotel’s terms & conditions go a little deeper than its cancellation policy.
Some of the high-end hotels place a hefty deposit on your credit card for incidental expenses.
It’s also worth checking how the hotel accepts payment. Even in this digital age, there are some hotels that do not accept credit cards. And if they do take credit cards, check that you carry one that they accept.
Bagging a great hotel at an affordable price is one of the tenets of affordable luxury travel.
Whether you are a luxury traveller, flashpacker or backpacker, most of us have a travel budget. As such, you need to choose a hotel from your shortlist that falls within your price range.
But beware of prices that seem to be too good to be true. Experience has taught me that if a hotel is cheap, this is usually for a very good reason.
Other Things to Consider When You Choose a Hotel
4. Travellers’ reviews
After drawing up my shortlist, I then use travellers’ reviews to weed out the duds.
Digging deeper into the reviews on booking.com is a good place to start. These can yield valuable nuggets of information, including the cleanliness of the hotel and the friendliness of the staff.
I often check TripAdvisor reviews also, albeit with caution. As stays are not verified, the rating system on TripAdvisor can be gamed.
Like most review platforms, it attracts extremes of opinion. Travellers are more likely to post a report following an excellent or disastrous stay (I know that I have!).
And people’s ire when their (unrealistic) expectations aren’t met never ceases to amaze me. Did you really expect a doorman and concierge service when you are paying less than £40 a night at a Travelodge?
It’s all about context and you need to use your intuition to filter out unjustified comments.
5. Room quality & amenities
When it comes to hotel rooms, we all have standards.
One of my friends always checks that there is an iron and ironing board. Another friend will give a place that has nylon shower curtains a wide berth (I’m with her on this one).
I look for a comfortable bed and tea & coffee making facilities. If there’s a Nespresso machine, I’m like a dog with two tails.
So whether you are looking for an oversized rainfall shower head or a 55” OLED TV, check to see if the hotel room ticks your boxes. Check the hotel description and take a closer look at the photos.
When it comes to the images used to market a hotel, there are a few red flags to watch for.
Does the room look super large, verging on stretched, at odds with its stated square footage? A wide-angle lens can do wonders in making a room appear larger than it is in real life.
Are there any obvious photos that are missing? Something I have come across on more than one occasion is a listing with lots of images, but none of the bathroom (or just an artistic close-up of a tap).
Finally, if there are more images of the destination or common areas of the hotel than the room, question why that might be.
6. Type of hotel
What do you look for in a hotel?
The type of hotel that you choose may be very different if you are on a busy city break as opposed to a sun-and-flop beachside vacation.
On a city break, it’s unlikely that you will be spending much time in your hotel room. So will a super swanky 5-star hotel with a host of amenities really be good value if you are out seeing the sights for most of the day?
Conversely, if you are planning a resort-based vacation, it is likely that you take advantage of many of the facilities a luxury hotel will offer.
Also, what type of vibe are you looking for in a hotel?
Some people like the predictability and anonymity of a corporate chain hotel. I prefer a place with more character, a guesthouse or boutique hotel, but feel like a fish out of water in an ultra-trendy urban hotel.
As I have transitioned from a backpacker in my 20s and 30s to a more mature solo traveller, my tolerance of noise has plummeted.
In the past, I would sleep through most things.
The backfire of Vespas on solo trips to Rome; revellers singing outside the hotel window at 3 am; the sound of toilets flushing two floors above my room. None of these things would disturb my forty winks.
Not so much nowadays. Therefore, I check if reviews mention the quietness/noisiness of a hotel, and I always request a quiet room.
Most travellers rely on Wi-Fi to keep in touch whilst they are away, and for business travellers and digital nomads this is essential. So you’d think that the bad old days of hotels charging for Wi-Fi were behind us.
Don’t have a nasty surprise at check-out. Make sure that free Wi-Fi is included in your room rate.
9. Hotel amenities
A hotel’s amenities are likely to be less important if you are on a city break. That said, at the end of a busy day of sightseeing, it can be a treat to relax by a rooftop pool or in a sauna.
Is a hotel breakfast important to you? If so, check that this is available, will be up to your standards and how much it will cost. Starting your day with eggs and muffins at a high-end city hotel may come at a high price.
Are you looking for spa facilities? Spas come in all shapes and sizes, from a tiny pool and grimy sauna to a state-of-the-art wellness centre.
Lastly, consider who else will be staying at the hotel. There are different types of hotels for different types of travellers.
Whilst I had a wonderful stay at the Santhiya Koh Yao Yai in Thailand, the resort was dominated by loved-up couples. That’s not to say that a single traveller shouldn’t stay at a beach resort, just be mindful that you will be in the minority
On the other end of the spectrum, if you are searching for a quiet holiday, avoid family-friendly places (think of boisterous kids). Also, give a wide berth to hotels that attract groups of friends, especially hen and stag parties. These groups often gravitate towards budget-chain hotels.
What I DON’T Consider When Choosing a Hotel
Whilst I’m a big fan of frequent flier schemes, this passion doesn’t extend to hotel loyalty schemes.
In most travel destinations, large hotel chains account for just a fraction of hotel choices. Sticking rigidly to a few brands for the sake of a free breakfast or a room upgrade severely restricts choice and eliminates better properties.
This is not to say that I haven’t had excellent stays in chain hotels – The Shangri La in Kuala Lumpur immediately springs to mind – but some of the best places in which I have stayed have been quirky independent hotels. And quite frankly, when you stay in one of these multinational chain hotels you could be anywhere.
All things being equal, I prefer an independent hotel that reflects the destination and where my stay will put something into the local economy.
Of course, if the chain hotel is the best option for the destination I will book it. For example, an international hotel in a resort may well tick all of the boxes.
I’ll leave you with a final thought on choosing a hotel …
Although not a deal-breaker, your choice of accommodation can have an impact on your travel experience. But don’t spend hours on this task. Like many decisions in life, choosing a hotel can be a gamble, albeit a reasonably informed gamble.
As long as the accommodation is priced fairly for the destination and is in a good location, it’s up to me to make it the best experience that I can. But if I pay a premium for a super swanky hotel, I will expect the quality and service to reflect that cost.
Adjust your budget and expectations accordingly. A positive attitude goes a long way to having the best holiday experience.
And may I say that there’s no such thing as a perfect hotel? Only one that ticks most of the boxes for you.