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The No-Nonsense Traveler: Hotel Trap

Fodor’s very own No-Nonsense Traveler reveals the secret to booking your hotel, and why the hotel star-rating system has nothing to do with the quality of your stay.

You may (or may not) be surprised to hear that my go-to hotel in Paris is the very humble Ibis Bastille Opéra (from the same company that owns Motel 6 in the U.S.). Why, you might ask, with all the charming and gracious hotels in Paris, would I choose to stay in a characterless chain? Read on.

First off, the Ibis is well within my comfort zone at less than €100 per night. But the location and the included breakfast buffet tip the scales. From this hotel, I can easily walk to the Métro, to restaurants and stores in the Marais and Left Bank, and to a little grocery store to stock up on water and snacks; I can get to Notre-Dame on foot in about 15 to 20 minutes. And while most Paris hotels offer a roll or croissant and a single coffee, the Ibis has a huge, all-you-can-eat buffet, with cheese, yogurt, fruit, rolls, croissants, as well as a most welcome sight: unlimited coffee. For the same price as the miniscule breakfast in a typical Paris hotel, you get a relative feast. I’m cheap enough that this is an important distinction for me.

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The Importance of Knowing What You Need

My favored Ibis hotel is clean, conveniently located, in a safe neighborhood, offers an English-language news channel, and is light on my wallet. In essence, it meets my needs. And I’ll be honest with you: I’m simply not willing to pay a premium for charm. If the cost is about the same, then so be it, but charm itself doesn’t rank very high on my list.

Others might place more stock in having a down comforter, a large and luxurious bathroom, a full-service concierge, and everything else you can get for over $400 a night to get in most of Europe. They would be disappointed in the Ibis Bastille Opéra. And rightly so.

I love good service, cushy beds, a roomy room, a separate shower and tub, and all the accoutrements of a luxury hotel room. Who wouldn’t? The trouble is that I don’t crave these amenities so badly that I am willing to pay for them. I was very happy to stay in the luxurious Renaissance Makati hotel in Manila, paying about I’ve paid at the Ibis in Paris, but the thought of spending much more than $200 makes me feel a little faint.

So while I value location and price, others place a higher premium on amenities and service. While I prefer a place to sleep where I won’t be bothered, others want to be noticed and coddled. None of these choices is wrong, however. My point is that the first secret to being a satisfied traveler is knowing how to identify what you need, so that you can separate it from what you merely want.

Talk to Doug: What Do You Look For in a Hotel?

Choose a Hotel, Forget the Stars

“But we specifically chose a 4-star hotel!” The disappointed traveler makes the easiest mistake in the book by thinking that so-called “stars” have some relation to quality. Do you want to know the truth? Stars, diamonds, golden apples: They all add up to the same thing, and that has little if any relation to the quality of your stay.

Stars denote only one thing—the kinds of services and amenities you can expect to find in a destination’s hotels (and in some countries, such as the U.S., there are no coherent standards even for that). What they don’t tell you is whether those services and amenities are delivered well, whether they are worth the cost, and whether they will make you happy. The difference between a 3-star hotel and a 2-star hotel is often whether the hotel has a restaurant, not whether you might actually want to eat at the restaurant. The difference between a 4-star hotel and a 3-star hotel is often whether the hotel has a full-service business center or just a computer connected to the Internet. The difference between a 5-star hotel and a 4-star hotel may be whether someone found a piece of lint on the bathroom floor. The stars can’t tell you whether the hotel will meet your needs.

I can tell you that I was considerably happier staying at the $90 per night Salisbury YMCA (3 stars!!!) in Hong Kong than I would have been at the $500 per night Peninsula (5 stars) next door. And that makes the experience all the sweeter.

Ironically, the economic downturn may be a boon for those who can still afford to travel. There are some great deals now, particularly in expensive cities. Prices in New York City are already much more down to earth; you can get a decent hotel for $139 right now that would have cost over $200 last winter. A friend recently stayed at the Peninsula in Manila and paid even less than I did for the Renaissance Makati.

So what are you experiences in the hotel world? Have you found a modest hotel that fit your needs better than a luxury grand-dame? Do you choose your hotel by the star-rating? Has the weakened economy opened up any doors for you this year that were slammed firmly shut last year?

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–Doug Stallings

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