I love traveling to new countries. I like new adventures and delight in surprises, so I'm always eager to stay in unusual places. My excitement turns to dismay, however, when I arrive at my hotel only to find armed guards out front, or a six-story room and no elevator, or a room the size of a closet that's been taken over by a dog-sized water bug. Sure, getting the best out of a foreign hotel can be tricky, but I have a few tips to make things a little easier.
1. If you crave consistency, choose names you know. The major hotel groups have properties all over the world. Choosing a big-name hotel will most likely guarantee some degree of familiarity and uniformity as regards service and facilities. But results will still vary! Don't expect a Sheraton in Shanghai to be exactly like the Sheraton near your mother-in-law's house in San Diego.
2. Look carefully at online hotel reviews. Ordinarily I'm not a huge fan of consumer-review Web sites, but sometimes they're all we have to go by. You should know, though, that travelers from different parts of the world have very different expectations and very different ideas of what makes a good hotel. You might want to pay special attention to reviews from your fellow countrymen. On most review sites, you can click on reviewers' names to find out where they are from.
3. Try specialty listings. Ranking international hotels can be difficult, and the two most familiar services, AAA and Mobil, offer rankings only for North American properties. Star ratings on independent travel Web sites are often unreliable, with ratings for the same property varying widely from site to site. However, there are some groups, such as Zagat, Small Luxury Hotels of the World and The Leading Hotels of the World, that rate hotels in many foreign destinations. Their criteria are tough and their reviews are reliable. The only drawback is that they tend to rate mostly higher-end properties, so they won't be very helpful for a budget-conscious traveler.
4. Check rates carefully. When you're given a rate quote, make sure you know what currency it's in. Ask what taxes, gratuities and miscellaneous fees will be applied to your bill. And make sure you know how many people the rate covers. American hotels usually quote a rate that implicitly covers two people per room (double occupancy), but many foreign hotels quote rates per person. Extra vigilance about the room rate can prevent a very nasty surprise at checkout.
5. Get directions to your hotel in the local language. This great tip comes from my über-practical friend Vicki. Never assume that your taxi driver will speak your language or will know where your hotel is. Get the hotel to send you directions in the local language before you travel, so that you can hand them to the taxi driver and be done with it.
6. Some hotels require you to hand over your passport. In my humble opinion, this practice is completely unacceptable, but it occurs time and again. I first encountered it at a property in Athens, Greece. At check-in, one member of our party was required to leave a passport with the front desk. The reason was not explained, and I refused. I would have slept on the street before I let some stranger do who-knows-what with my passport. (My traveling companion finally relented and handed hers over.) I don't know of any country that requires hotels to hold your passport — it's up to the individual hotel. Call ahead to find out if your hotel requires this, and book elsewhere if it does. Note: Many hotels will ask to see your passport or take your passport number as proof of identification, and this is perfectly acceptable.
7. 911 is not an international emergency number. Each country has its own protocol for emergency calls. Make sure everyone in your hotel room knows how to use the hotel phones and how to contact emergency services.
8. Be careful with valuables. I once wrote about innkeeping laws and how they vary from state to state. I couldn't even begin to cover the laws around the world. So just assume the worst when you're at a foreign hotel — you have few rights, no protections and everyone is out to get you. Lock all valuables in the manager's safe, if possible. Better yet, leave your valuables at home. And remember that your life is your greatest valuable, so always be aware of your surroundings.
9. Check for safe facilities. Check for clear exits, working smoke alarms, sturdy door locks and chains, etc. If you're traveling with young ones, make sure your room is as childproof as possible and that any cribs are safe. (It's better to have your baby sleep on the floor than in an unsafe crib.) If you are disabled, remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act covers only the United States; many countries do not legally require hotels to provide amenities for disabled guests. Call the hotel directly to ensure that it can accommodate your specific needs, or check an online resource like Emerging Horizons for up-to-date accessibility information. Finally, know that safety regulations are nonexistent in some areas, and you might find that no local lodging offers the protection to which you're accustomed. In that case, vigilance is especially important.
10. Choose a hotel with easy access to food. Jet lag can make us do strange things, like crave mashed potatoes at midnight. A hotel with 24-hour room service can cater to your odd dining times, but do your best to get on the local schedule as soon as possible.
11. Some hotels still use old-fashioned keys. Not every property has switched over to key cards. Some still use old-fashioned locks and keys. Many of these properties will ask that you leave your key at the front desk when you go out for the day. Do it. The cost of replacing a lost key can be very high.
12. Take an adapter and a converter. Sure, most people know to pack an adapter for appliances. That's the little thingy that snaps onto your plug's prongs and turns them into prongs that will fit into another country's outlets. But often that's not enough. Voltage also varies from country to country, and without a converter, you can easily melt a curling iron. So take both to be on the safe side, and don't assume that your hotel will be able to provide either one for you.
13. There may be critters. Aruba has nosy iguanas. Costa Rica has some crazy bugs. Kenya has exotic animals creeping outside your door. Heck, even here in Florida, we have huge swarms of flying insects that take over twice a year or so. Fortunately, we have not managed to kill and tame all of the world's creatures (yet). Hotels in foreign locations may have some equally foreign nonhuman visitors, and there is nothing they can do about it. Don't blame the hotels. They're not unclean. They've just learned to coexist with their environment.
14. Understand local tipping practices. In some places, overtipping can be just as rude as undertipping. Customary tip amounts for most locations can be found in just about any good guidebook.
15. Take nothing for granted. This is the wisest bit of advice I've heard, and it comes courtesy of my world-traveling cousin, Melinda. Whatever you think you need from a hotel — whether it be air conditioning, or an iron, or bellmen, or clean showers — never assume that it will be on offer. If a particular service or amenity is important to you, you must check ahead of time to ensure that your requirements will be met.
The joy of traveling to new locations is seeing and trying new things. My best advice when staying at an foreign hotel is to embrace the differences. You'll learn a lot about your destination and even more about yourself.
I didn't have the space here to include all of my tips, and I'm sure many of you readers have great advice that I've not even thought of! Please post your best foreign hotel tips in the comments section below or in our Tripso forums.
Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties — from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. or on Tripso.com!