What Makes a Great Hotel 14


After a marathon of guidebook research in Italy, I’ve seen tons of hotel rooms. Some were dreamy, others forgettable and some were the stuff of nightmares. I’ve been inspecting hotels for a long time, but as an architect and committed budget traveler, I have a slightly different eye for what makes a place stand out, and money has nothing to do with it. Recently, some ideas have been crystallizing in my mind about what makes a great hotel at any price point.

I present to you an open letter of sorts to small, family hotel owners. I’m writing this for the average traveler too, perhaps you’d like to see what goes through my mind when inspecting or selecting hotels to recommend. Many of these ideas require little effort or money and can make a visit far better. You may also find some ideas to incorporate into your own home.

Dear Hotel Owner

The first requirement of a good hotel or BnB is good communication. Are emails clear and directions easy? Is there any direct contact after a reservation is made? A good stay starts before it begins. Easing travelers’ fears and answering questions before they occur to the customer are golden characteristics. For a traveler, a non-communicative hotel owner can be a clear red flag. I always prefer to book and not pay in full at the booking, just in case I get bad vibes after I reserve.

Presentation Matters

It’s not a mystery–how a hotel presents itself on arrival makes a big difference. Are the owners prompt and available? Is the lobby clean and orderly? Does it feel cozy, clean, corporate, sleazy or like you’ll contract a disease there? I prefer common areas that are tidy but warm, with a nice couch and soft lighting.

The look of a room upon entering can affect the whole experience. The bed should be inviting and well made, no faded covers or wrinkles. Sloppy housekeeping is the worst, the bed must be tightly made (I’m looking at you, expensive Florentine hotel with wrinkled bedspreads). A hotel I stayed at in the Cinque Terre knocked this one out of the park. The room was warm but fresh upon entering. The bed had lovely throw pillows and a soft blanket at the foot. The bedside lights were on, as if the room had been waiting for me to arrive. Perfection.

Another hotel did their best to impress me by setting out an elaborate display on my bed, with a bathrobe, slippers and chocolates scattered on the duvet. Nice touch…except that I’m so tired at the end of the day that I will often not get all of the chocolates off of the bed and end up with melted chocolate in my hair in the morning, or worse, all over the sheets. True story.

Small Things are Big

I don’t need to stay at the Ritz, although I once did and wasn’t impressed. What impresses me is an attention to small details in a room. Light switches next to the bed. Outlets in convenient places for charging devices, preferably at the nightstand. A reasonably thought-out location for luggage. A bathroom faucet that has a high arc, where a water bottle can fit underneath. Hair dryers and toiletries kit hooks in the bathroom. Vanity lights that are high enough that a tall person can look in the mirror without hitting their head. Coat hooks! Seriously people! I will carry them and install them myself if I have to!

The new trend is the hot water kettle, a concept imported from Britain. 10 years ago I would have been skeptical of that gesture, as it usually meant that the hotel catered only to Brits. I do like a kettle, and I appreciate a small selection of tea or coffee with mugs, as well as a corkscrew. It makes a room feel like home.

Light it Up

I used to be an architect and I’ll tell you a little secret about interior design. Good architecture can be easily turned into a horror movie backdrop with the wrong lighting. Alternately, a cardboard box under I-5 can look awesome and inviting with the right lighting. It takes very little to make a hotel look 100% better, just change the lightbulbs. (Insert lightbulb changing joke of your choice here, I’m terrible with jokes-email me your favorite!)

Buzzing fluorescent bulbs, particularly old tube models, can make any room look like a seedy motel or unlicensed dentist’s office. The buzz they make is almost inaudible, but it makes an impact even on a subconscious level. The small CFL bulbs are no better, giving an ugly color of light that is usually too bright and too cold. The delay these bulbs take to turn on also makes a room feel cheap and creepy.

The best solution for updating any room is to add warm spectrum LED lightbulbs and modern light fixtures or recessed lighting. The bulbs are more expensive at the outset, but last longer and, when used the right way, can make almost any space look more elegant. My kids and I used to need an escort to go into our creepy basement, but now with recessed LED lighting it’s our favorite place to be.

The Nose Gives it Away

After inspecting many hotel rooms over the years, I can tell you that my nose is the best inspector of all. I have a very sensitive nose, which is really a blessing and a curse. It comes in handy for appreciating a fine wine, but will induce far more potent whine in a smelly hotel. Mold, mildew, pet smell, smoke and a wide variety of other sins cannot be covered up for my nose. If a hotel tries to do it with scented room spray, that’s just a big red flag being waved by a clown shooting fireworks out of his fingertips. I hate clowns.

If a hotel really wants to impress me, it needs to smell right. Clean. Honest. Fresh, like sun-dried laundry.

Cleanliness is Next to….

Speaking of clean. There is no substitute on this. There is nothing that will ruin my day more than finding mold or stray hairs. That happened to me recently in a brand new hotel that which was doing their best to show off. Actually, it was the one with the chocolates on the bed! I was happy and comfortable until I went to use the toilet and saw a few long, black, curly hairs on the shiny marble bathroom floor. I have neither black, nor curly hair. Eeeeew.

I have a special place in my heart for hotels that are spotless. If you want me to love your hotel forever, make sure that I can touch any surface without fear of communicable disease or a sudden need to take a shower. Bonus points if I can drop my food on the floor and still eat it, observing the 5-second rule.

Creating an Atmosphere

An easy upgrade for any hotel at any price is to create a convivial atmosphere, ideally if there is a common area where travelers can meet. A terrace or a lounge can make a stay far more fun and sociable.

That can be as simple as leaving the left-over breakfast pastries on a covered tray in the lobby for afternoon snacking. Some hotels are instituting a happy hour each night, with a tray of serve-yourself snacks and drinks.

I like when the hotel owners make themselves available for a bit of socialization each day if they can, even for a short, set time. I realize that it is a big responsibility to run a hotel, but a half hour in the evening for a chat with guests can pay off in the long run, as many of those guests will want to return.

A little IKEA goes a Long Way

As long as we are speaking about an atmosphere, let’s get something straight about interior design in general. The only place where an all-Ikea design looks good is either inside Ikea or in Sweden. I like a Billy bookcase as much as the next architect, but only when used sparingly.

More and more these days, I find new BnBs that rely on an Ikea-chic style (I’m looking at you, AirBnB) which ends up falling flat and looking junky. Even worse, accommodations using those kind of furnishings will look shabby after about five years since that furniture wasn’t meant to take the kind of beating that hotel rooms get.

Free architect design advice here, people. Limit your Ikea/Swedish-modern decor to about 20%.

Keep it Fresh

Maintenance is huge for homes and hotels alike. A fresh coat of paint every few years can be expensive, nearly impossible for smaller hotels, but touch-ups are key. I must admit, my biggest gripe with high end hotels is the lack of attention to scuffs on the walls and chips on the corners. Smaller, more basic hoteliers seem to get this. You wouldn’t believe how many $250 hotel rooms I’ve seen with careless maintenance.

Please, I beg of you. Touch up the scrapes on the corridor walls. Steam clean the hall carpets at least once a year. repair chips and cracks. And never, ever let me see mold between the tiles in a bathroom. I’m a mother and home owner. I know there are easy ways to fix all of these things.

My Kingdom for a Coffee

I do love coffee. Good coffee, served promptly when I arrive at breakfast. I do not love bad coffee. It makes me grumpy. Let’s be clear on something, Nescafe is not coffee.

Serving bad coffee at breakfast, especially in Italy where they should know better, is something I consider a personal offense. I’ll let you in on a secret, though. Almost every hotel in Italy will make you are real, respectable cappuccino if you ask. Italians would never drink the gray bathwater they leave out in the breakfast room and hotel owners know that, so they always have a good coffee machine hidden somewhere in back. Ask. You’re worth it.

Be Friendly but Not Pushy

Some small hotel owners try to make up for the shortcomings in their property by offering excellent customer service. It works. My favorite hotel in Rome is not fancy at all and has more scuffs on the walls than I’d like, but the kind and genuine staff will keep me coming back year after year.

The flip side of that is customer service which is overboard and obviously playing to the online review. Friendly interactions should be genuine and limited. There really can be too much of a good thing. Sometimes, especially in the hotel business, people just want to be left alone…depending on why they are there.

I was staying at a hotel recently in Sicily that went way overboard in the “customer experience”, hanging around to check in with me every time I left my room. The lobby was dripping with huge signs displaying their 9.0 Booking.com rating. It became comical at breakfast, as three people were waiting on me and staring at me while I ate breakfast. There is a point where diligent customer service can begin to feel like stalking.

A Thoughtful Approach Shows

Overall, I find that the stars of the small hotel industry are the people that care about what they do. You can’t fake caring. If you try, it inevitably goes poorly. Likewise, being caring only so that you can rack up better online reviews is shallow and shows. Working with tourists and with people in general is a calling, and you should only do it if you really enjoy it. Disinterested or disingenuous owners are just as bad as stray hairs. Not as bad as clowns, but close.

I have met many wonderful, caring hotel and BnB owners that truly want to create magic for their guests. For those that want to up their game, its not hard. Being kind is free and appreciated above all else.


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


14 thoughts on “What Makes a Great Hotel

  • Carol

    Coffee! Remembering the hotel we stayed at in Venice on our Rick Steves Best of Europe 21-day tour. One young man on the wait staff teased us about drinking brown water. He told us to order espresso for real coffee.

  • Lisa

    I agree with 99% of what you have written, the last 1% is about the coffee as I’m not a coffee drinker so wouldn’t know a bad cup from a good cup. However, let me add my two cents worth of what I would consider as criteria for a good hotel, B&B, whatever. For the love of all that is holy, please put in shower doors that are full doors! Or, at the very least, please leave a copious amount of towels to dry off the floor and walls of the bathroom when you are done trying to keep everything dry while at the same time trying to wash yourself and your hair. I will never understand the point of half of a shower door, or worse, those with no door at all. And, while I understand the economy of sheets with a polyester blend, I absolutely HATE them. I never sleep well in them, they are so hot. I know I’m a cotton snob but, oh well, what can I do?

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      Agree totally about the sheets. I am guilty of using half glass doors in my own designs, but they work well if they are at least 42″ wide. Less than that and we have a problem.

  • Heather Lee

    Very well written and expresses my sentiments exactly, especially the parts about cleanliness and the COFFEE!

  • Karla

    I sooo agree about the smell! I have a sensitive sense of smell! On the good side, it means that I can smell a good coffee shop a block away. However, it also means I smell even the subtlest odors. Been following the recommendations in the Germany and Austria guidebooks (responding to this post in a recommended hotel Room), thanks for the work you and all the guides do!

  • Linda C.

    I agree with your post wholeheartedly, and like everyone else, I have found that there are enormous variances for what you will find in hotels, especially for budget-minded travelers. The only thing I would add would be that mattresses are important. I do not require that there be a fancy mattress, with high end materials, but I do hope for one that is level (with no worn valleys) and does not sound like crushing cardboard every time I move.

    • Kim B.

      Mattresses — and all involved with sleeping — HUGELY important! As someone mentioned above, i hate the poly blends. Stayed in a hotel last week that I really liked – but not those poly-blend sheets. Also pillows – I swear I was somewhere recently where the pillow smelled moldy. ICK!!

      A comfortable bed with good “literie” as the French say – sheets, comforter, etc. — is key!

  • Karen Lindaman

    Well done summary! I would add: How about a couple more, or even one or two good towel bar(s)?!! A cheap fix! Often hotels would like you to reuse your towel, to save laundry, etc.. I am good with that, but if there are two of you in the room, where you hang them to dry?? often there is no room for two towels, and I don’t want to put a towel over furniture to dry. I would also challenge most small hotels or B & B’s to actually try to dry their own hair with the hair dryer provided……often it hardly blows any air at all, or the cord is way too short and too close to the sink or wall. (Maybe this is because I am tall and have long arms? I don’t know!) One I used (or tried to use in Venice, had terrific, HOT heat, but would hardly blow the air. If I got it too near my head, I was getting burned! I have thin, fine hair, so no too much hair to dry on me, but would hate to be the guest with nice, thick hair trying to get it dry! Thanks for letting us give input! Keep the terrific posts coming!

    • Jennifer

      Yes! A weak hairdryer is my travel pet peeve, especially if it’s the hope that requires you to hold down a button the entire time you’re drying.

  • Peggy Whelan

    Great article! I must add this to what I want in every hotel bathroom: a shelf to set my toiletries, toothbrush, skin care, etc. I find so many bathrooms in which the only horizontal surface is the toilet seat lid – not good enough.

  • Theresa S

    Another excellent post, Sarah. Sound the word: any and all accommodations worldwide, Bedspread Elimination!! I cringe a little at pic of your youngest sweetums face down (well, head to the side) on the least-likely-to-be-laundered item in the room. I think smart temporary stays should always include certain automatic adjustments. Decorative items on the bed are removed immediately; fashion forward is not a freshly cleaned for the next occupant guarantee. Luggage goes on – only – hard surfaces (straps on folding luggage racks will have to do, if not ideal) – never, ever! – on the bed (and, try hard to not use the floor). Whether staying at high-end property or budget spot, I bring or get locally and use properly disinfecting wipes for handles/pulls (doors, drawers, mini fridge, room safe and such) light switches, remotes (entertainment, heating/cooling systems) telephone headset, hairdryer and iron, if in room. I personally do not walk barefoot (or even stocking footed) anywhere in any room except when literally ‘in’ the shower. I quickly and efficiently do my own due-diligence (to an in-the-first-place acceptable room) upon settling in, then easy-breezy, I go about my business of enjoying my travels. BTW, Best of Sicily tour I was on was 2 days behind Alfio’s group with Rick on board. Jamie did a fantastic job for our group and Sicilian people, food, vino, culture, geography were all AAAHHHHHH-mazing!

  • Susan

    Dear Sarah,

    In addition to your comments let me add a few more. I operated a B and B for twenty years and my husband and I have traveled to Europe almost every year since 1978, now, since we are retired, sometimes twice a year. I am writing you from Puglia, Italy. In addition to reading lamps, I suggest reading lamps directed to the bedside with sufficient illumination to actually read. Two comfortable reading chairs, stress comfortable, would be nice.

    Owners and operators should tell us more about bathrooms, tubs or no tubs, how big is the shower, and show us the pictures. Too many web pages do not have a bathroom picture, or it shows only part of the bathroom. I really do not care if there are rose petals on the bed. Tell us, the consumer, if your breakfast is fresh food or pre-packaged stuff, give me real jam any day rather than those little squares with no fruit.

    I second your request for hooks for pjs ,robes, sweatshirts-more hooks and towel racks. And adequate counters, where I can put stuff, my cosmetic bag and my husband’s dopp kit and places for roller bags, and back packs. Show me how spacious the room is, and get rid of the clutter. If you have a table top, keep it clear, and let me put my stuff on it, not your knick knacks. There are some things left for discovery upon arrival, but lets keep that to a minimum.

    PS-At age 75 and after reading your article on less is more, I am trying out your G 4 Free back pack for four weeks of travel in Italy and Greece-still brought too much stuff.

  • Liz

    To what everyone else has said, I would add to please have a nightstand, or at least a shelf, on both sides of the bed–so my partner & I both have a place to put our glasses, watches, phones, etc at night. And have enough room to walk around both sides of the bed, so one of us doesn’t have to crawl over the other one to get out!

  • Felicia Murphy

    Thanks, Sarah. Another helpful article. May I add this about lights? Both my husband and I routinely read a bit before sleeping at night. Most hotels/BnB’s provide bedside lighting of some kind, but occasionally we’ve had to improvise by dragging a lamp over to the nightstand, or make do with an overhead fixture that requires getting out of bed and walking across the room to turn it off. We find adequate bedside lighting both convenient and “homey”.

Comments are closed.