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updated 7/14/2009 3:46:18 PM ET 2009-07-14T19:46:18

Choosing the right hotel is always a trying task, and with the enormous number of promotions, deals and programs out there, it can be downright overwhelming. It doesn't help that these days most hotels have Web sites full of tantalizing photos and slick promotional copy that make you believe you'll be bathed in luxury as soon as you step foot into the lobby. How can you tell if a hotel will live up to its own hype — and, more importantly, if it's the right hotel for you?

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Since every traveler has different needs when searching for a hotel, you'll need to ask yourself what's most important to you. Whether you're looking for a great deal, a great location or a great B&B, we've broken down the hotel selection process to make it easier for you to find the best hotel for your trip.

What matters most?

Before beginning your search, ask yourself what type of accommodations you want and what your budget will permit. Does location trump price, or are you limited to hotels under $150 a night? Do you need a hotel with a pool for the kids, or would you rather stay at a small property with lots of local charm?

Once you've decided on your top priority, then you can make a more targeted search. Following are the most common determining factors in choosing a hotel, as well as tips for finding properties that suit each particular need.

Price: Nearly every major booking engine gives you the option to sort your results by price. Don't limit yourself to the big three (Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz) — you should also pay a visit to aggregator sites like Kayak and Sidestep, and lodging sites like Hotels.com and PlacestoStay.com. And don't forget to check our very own discount hotel deals!

Tip: Use the booking engines to see what's available and test rates at the properties you're interested in, and then go straight to the hotel's Web site to book directly — most hotels guarantee you the lowest rate when you book on their site, and will match a lower price you find elsewhere.

The world's best hotel bedsIf price is your only concern, you may want to try bidding on Priceline, where you won't see the name of your hotel (only the star rating) until you've actually booked it. Learn more about landing a cheap deal in Get the Best Hotel Rate.

Location: Expedia, Travelocity and Kayak allow you to view your search results on a map so you can see which ones are right on the beach or in the neighborhoods you prefer. While most booking engines also allow you to see individual hotels on a map, Expedia and Hotels.com have the extra capability of searching for and mapping a hotel in relation to a particular point of interest, such as Times Square or the San Diego Zoo. Good old-fashioned guidebooks are also a good source for finding hotels in a certain location, as hotels are often listed by neighborhood and plotted on a city map.

Amenities: Most of the major hotel booking engines allow you to specify certain amenities when you're searching, such as a fitness center, swimming pool or restaurant. Hotels.com and Travelocity make the process easier by allowing you to compare several hotels side by side so you can easily weigh such factors as star ratings, amenities, rates and room types.

World’s weirdest hotels

Family-friendliness: If you're taking the kids on your next trip, you'll want to check for both special deals and family-friendly policies. Your first stop for family hotel and resort reviews should be our brand-new family travel site, FamilyVacationCritic.com; we also love the hotel reviews at WeJustGotBack.com. And don't miss our own list of the Top 10 Family Resorts. For bargains, check out Family Vacation Critic's family travel deals and our own family deals section.

Luxury: Looking to go luxe? You'll find the creme de la creme at sites like the Leading Hotels of the World,the Five Star Allianceand Boutique Hotels & Resorts International.

Ambience and local flavor: If you'd rather avoid the big chains, you're in luck — there are many B&B's, inns and small independent hotels that don't appear on the major booking engines. However, finding them can take a little time and ingenuity, as Traveler's Ed explains in Finding Hidden Hotel Hideaways. A few common alternatives to standard hotels include bed and breakfasts, vacation rentals, home exchanges and homestays/farmstays. And if you're looking for something truly different — like a treehouse or an igloo — take a browse through the Unusual Hotels of the World.

Loyalty programs and frequent flier miles: If you travel a lot or if you're a member of a frequent flier program, it may be worth your while to join a hotel loyalty program. Not only can you earn points toward a future hotel stay, but you may also be able to accumulate miles if your hotel is partnered with your frequent flier program. Check your hotel or airline Web site to see a list of qualifying partners. Many programs also allow you to redeem points for other purchases, such as cruises, car rentals and entertainment.

Eco-friendliness: Travelers who are looking to minimize their environmental impact can search for green hotels on a number of sites, including Green Globeand the Green Hotels Association. You can find a comprehensive list in our Go Green Travel Center.

Real life experiences: It's all well and good to read guidebook reviews and study hotel Web sites, but often the most valuable information about a hotel comes from other travelers just like you. That's where sites like TripAdvisor, Virtual Tourist and MyTravelGuide come in.

These sites (and many others, including the major booking engines) offer honest hotel ratings and reviews straight from the mouths of real travelers. This is where you can read about how the staff behaves, get an idea of how clean the rooms are and learn whether the wireless Internet connection actually works. Many sites also allow users to post photos of their hotel —which are usually more realistic and less glamorous than the professional snapshots you'll see on the hotel's own Web site.

World’s weirdest hotelsOf course, it's always a good idea to take traveler reviews with a certain degree of skepticism. Overly fawning reviews may actually have been written by hotel employees in disguise, while some negative reviews may come from super-fussy travelers who simply have an ax to grind. (Traveler's Ed describes the potential pitfalls in Star Quality: What's in a Star Rating?) But despite the occasional misleading review, most traveler ratings are an honest, unbiased and invaluable resource when deciding between hotels.

Another way to get feedback from other travelers is by posting on our message boards. When asking for advice and recommendations, be specific about what you're looking for. Do you have any special requests, such as a view or kid-friendly accommodations? Do you need a queen-size or king-size bed? Do you want something close to town or in the country? The more explicit you can be about what you really want, the better chance you'll have of finding something you'll be happy with.

Pick up the phone: Though these days you can do a lot of research on the Internet, sometimes it still pays to pick up the phone. Calling a hotel directly, rather than dialing the chain's main 800 number, might get you a room at the last minute or during peak travel times.

The world's best hotel bedsNational reservations desks often have a cap on the number of rooms they can fill at any given hotel, with the rest left to the specific hotel staff. Those working at the front desk have a better sense of the hotel's capacity and will be more likely to check for cancellations or no-shows. Whomever you call, having a list of prepared questions will help you. Remember to avoid calling in the morning or mid-afternoon, when front desks are busiest. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Is one side of the hotel preferable to another?
  • Is there parking nearby?
  • Is the hotel near public transportation?
  • Is there a restaurant?
  • Is there an exercise room?
  • How far is the hotel from the beach/theater/meeting/convention center/highway?
  • What are the neighborhood attractions?
  • How safe is the neighborhood?
  • What is the hotel's cancellation policy?
  • Does the hotel offer smoking/nonsmoking rooms?
  • What are the hotel's environmental policies?
  • What facilities are there for the disabled?

If you are overseas or in a bed and breakfast, ask if there are shared bathrooms or showers, and how many there are per room. Also, ask about air conditioning and where to make meal arrangements. Keep in mind that if you're not dealing with a known chain, user ratings and guidebook reviews are suddenly even more important — and you should always ask about special packages and rates.

Before you sign: When you do finally decide on your accommodations, ask to see the room before you actually sign in. There may be something you overlooked or the hotel neglected to mention. Your room might be right above the disco, undergoing renovations or just a lemon. Be choosy. If you're not happy, don't be afraid to say so. You should never be apprehensive about asking too many questions. You'll be glad you did.

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