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*post updated October, 2019
I find researching where to stay on a trip to Europe to be truly one of the most enjoyable parts of the planning process - and the most stressful! (If you're interested in planning the other parts of the trip, beyond the hotel, please check out How to Plan a Trip to Europe).
Picking where you're going to stay can impact so much of your trip, particularly as the place you choose to make your home base impacts what you will see, how much time you will spend on public transit, and your overall impression of the trip. Unfortunately, picking a hotel that you aren't happy with can definitely put a bit of a damper on a trip, if it's inconvenient, unclean, or makes you feel unsafe. So, needless to say, the hotel selection is a fairly big responsibility.
But that's not to say it should be intimidating!
Beyond location, there's so much else to think through about with hotels themselves. Should you be loyal to a hotel chain, or select more local hotels? Where do you even start?
Personally, as I'm now booking my 7th trip to Europe, I'm feeling like I've got a pretty good handle on things! From hotel loyalty to location selection, and so much more, let's walk through what I consider when picking a hotel in Europe!
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Selecting a hotel in Europe: Start with "can't-miss" hotels
When considering a new city in Europe, I first check to see whether there are any hotels at which I must stay, above all. I call these, "can't miss" hotels. Most cities have them, but certainly not all do! And just because they're "can't miss" doesn't mean they'll necessarily break the bank, so definitely explore them!
Examples of these "can't-miss" hotels include the iconic Goring Hotel in London or the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City (which actually is a Fairmont and, objectively not in Europe - but it proves my point!).
If you really want to stay at one of these places, don't miss out for the sake of hotel loyalty points. Generally, places like this are going to have excellent locations, so that's likely not a problem. Ok, let's assume that where you're staying either doesn't have a "can't-miss" hotel, or that it's crazy expensive, or booked!
Where to look next?
Selecting a Hotel in Europe: Consider chain hotel loyalty
Assuming that we didn't have any luck in the "can't-miss" hotel category, I then look to see if there are any chain hotels that fit the bill. Depending on the city, you'll naturally see different chains represented more strongly. If you have a chain loyalty that you work with in the US, see if you can stay with them in Europe - chances are you probably can.
If you don't have an existing loyalty program, do some research to see which chain might work for you, depending on your home base and work travel, if you're interested in signing up for one.
When I finally graduated from law school, I had a few Hilton points from the minimal travel I had done in those three years, so I picked Hilton and, frankly, I've never been disappointed. The points add up quickly and they're relatively easy to spend once you accumulate them. The Marriott Rewards program has rebranded as Bonvoy and now includes a huge number of hotels around the world - I've heard people are very happy with it.
So, I search for Hiltons in whatever city we're going to visit and, of course, there always are at least a few. I recently achieved gold status with Hilton, so now I get free breakfast, and space available upgrades, all around the world! Definitely worth it. That said, I really try to avoid staying in the giant, faceless conference hotels, if possible. A great example of a chain, yet boutique-feeling hotel - Maison Astor Paris, the newest Curio Collection Hilton in Paris, where we stayed for my birthday last year.
Selecting a Hotel in Europe: Do the math on chain loyalty
Eliminating the airport hotels and the budget, work-travel hotels, in most major cities, there are, sticking with my Hilton example, generally around three Hiltons (I prefer Waldorfs, Conrads, or the higher end "Hilton" branded hotels).
This is where the math comes in. Just a bit - stay with me. Not real math - just off the cuff talking to yourself and saying numbers. Is the cost of the room, which is slightly more for the security of being with a big chain, worth it to you? Is it worth having a slightly less "authentic" experience for the reward points and the sake of knowing pretty much what you'll be getting?
There will be some instances in which the answer is yes, and certainly some where the answer is no.
For me, the answer is generally about 50/50. I like knowing that I can count on the hotel being safe and clean, even if that means I spend $50 a night more. I also, as noted, like accumulating the points. But, I don't like the really big hotels, and sometimes those are the only options.
Additionally, read up on the area before you book. Big chain hotels are often in the most tourist parts of the city. That's not always a bad thing, but occasionally it is.
Explore the wide world of all the hotel options - carefully
If you aren't going with a "must-have" or one of the chain options we discussed, you're entering the scary world of random, foreign hotels.
A few words of advice! I generally go for one of the hotels recommended in a reputable travel book like Frommer's or Rick Steves, taking into account the general bias of both authors. I have stumbled upon gorgeous hotels run by sweet, accommodating, caring hoteliers throughout Europe, using this approach.
If it seems too good to be true, it is. TripAdvisor is, as always, both a friend and an enemy. But, do check it out. I look for total red flag posts like "I found a half-eaten burrito in my room"- that's real, and avoid the scathing review "the soap made my nose itch and no one cared." Take it all with a grain of salt, but look for things that could be a deal breaker for you.
I repeat : If it seems too good to be true, it is. A larger sized room and breakfast for two, included, for only 90 Euros? This is not going to be what you think it will.
Selecting a Hotel in Europe: Picking a room
If this were a Choose Your Own Adventure novel from my childhood, this is often where I'd end up being told to turn to page 95, and that my adventure is over (or, in this case, has just begun!) and it's time to book.
First, I ALWAYS prepay, in full, for my hotel rooms. I generally save hundreds of dollars. We do not have children or pets, so we take the risk. As I see it, the greatest risk is losing out on one night because of missed flights. And, frankly, that generally would still leave me ahead on savings. The vast majority of people are too afraid to prepay, so hotels are willing to gamble pretty significantly (they'd also make a lot if they got that money and could rent the room out on top of it).
Additionally, do not get the smallest room at a given hotel. I cannot say this enough. It will be too small and you will be uncomfortable, especially for a longer stay. When we used to do this, there were several times that the minute we walked into the room we had to ask for a larger room (and pay for it). European hotel rooms are small. It's just a fact of life. If this is your first trip to Europe, definitely check out my First Timer's Guide for more on everything from what to expect in European hotels rooms to how to find coffee!
Thanks for stopping by!
I'm so glad you came over to think through picking hotels in Europe! While you're here, please check out the country-specific travel advice for Italy, France, and the UK!
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