Before a recent stay in a hotel near Boston, William Campbell wanted to map out some alternate local driving routes to and from the hotel so he would not be late for events during his stay. What he found in his search prompted a call to the hotel that greatly improved his stay there.
Specifically, Campbell was staying at the Crowne Plaza Newton, which, as he discovered when he looked closely, just happens to straddle the Massachusetts Pike. That is, the road goes directly under the hotel — and under most of the hotel windows. Campbell called the hotel to ask if they could guarantee a room on one of the upper floors (it's a 12-story building) to minimize noise from cars and trucks barreling down the road below.
When booking travel, you more or less know what you are going to get when you book a flight or a car — the legacy airlines aren't really so different from one another, and an economy car is an economy car whether the rental car sign is yellow, white or green. But a bad or poorly located hotel can ruin a trip. It's the one booking item about which you will want to sleep well — literally.
Campbell's research saved him a few noisy nights, but there are other critical pieces of the hotel puzzle you can find out with 15 to 20 minutes of research before booking. For instance, are there any restaurants within a very short walking distance? Is the neighborhood walkable and are the streets near the hotel safe and accessible? Do rooms on one side of the hotel have a better view? Is the hotel clean, up to date and in working order? Do you need a car or is the hotel close to useful public transportation? You get the idea.
The big problem with Web research is that the sheer abundance of stuff out there can make the research more daunting than the travel. After a few hours of reading mixed reviews, no one could blame you for simply giving in and taking your chances on the easiest/cheapest/closest hotel. To reduce the time, effort and enthusiasm you spend on hotel research, I'll share my relatively straightforward method for looking beyond price and availability, finding the right property, and getting the best room in the place.
Location, location, location
The old realtor's mantra applies directly to hotels; if you have to “live” there, you want to be in a safe, attractive location with easy access to restaurants, coffee shops, attractions, maybe a small park.
I suggest using Google Earth for this one — among all the competing mapping applications, it seems to have the most complete quick snapshot of an immediate area available. The checkbox “Layers” option allows you to toggle various amenities on and off: coffee shops, restaurants by type of food, banks/ATM's, gas stations, grocery stores, pharmacies, parks, malls, churches and many more.
Where available, the Street View option offers 360-degree snapshots of the neighborhood, which can tell you a lot: whether it's clean or grubby, busy or quiet, populated or more like a strip mall zone. These are things that just a couple of years ago you had to take on faith, and didn't really know until you arrived.
Even in the best hotels, all rooms are not created equal, and traditionally it has been very hard to tell the best rooms from the worst before you have already checked in. Changing rooms is a stressful hassle — by the time you arrive at a hotel, mostly you just want to put down your bags and decompress from all your travels, not tromp back down to the front desk for a run-in with hotel staff.
To figure out your room choice at the time of booking, I suggest using Bing's bird's eye mapping utility. This app features what are perhaps better called “helicopter views” of an area, as if a 360-degree camera were mounted on the bottom of a helicopter. Viewing a hotel while using this application, you will see very quickly if some rooms face a rock quarry, while others face a park; if there are “courtyard” rooms that may be quieter, but could also be much darker; or if there are street-level rooms, rooms that face alleys, or others that might leave you feeling less safe and less sane than you might hope.
Also, I suggest checking some of the hotel review sites below; many posters take the time to warn fellow travelers off of specific rooms, such as rooms next to a restaurant, next to vending machines, on an airshaft or the like. You can often find information on specific room numbers to request or avoid, which can be very helpful information to know before you book yourself into a nearly full hotel and set yourself up to stay in the worst room in the house. (For more tips on avoiding such a fate, check out Get the Best Hotel Room.)
The abundance of review sites on the Web gives consumers an unprecedented voice, and although I am wary of relying too much on specific reviews, in the end the sum total of comments does add up to a formidable assemblage of collective wisdom.
I take the reviews seriously, but usually with a grain of salt, simply because folks who have a good stay at a hotel rarely rush to a computer when they get home to rave about it — but folks who have a rotten stay can be very motivated to do so. As a result, reviews tend to over-sample disgruntled (or merely grumpy) travelers. Alternately, folks with a stake in a property's success, such as hotel managers or marketing executives, have been found to post glowing reviews on many sites (most sites have adopted measures of decreasing or at least flagging these).
That said, anything you see mentioned two or three times in different ways by different authors can probably be taken as gospel truth. For example, Campbell confirms that the Crowne Plaza's hallway rugs were indeed shabby, and the location not entirely hospitable to walking around — both cited in multiple reviews of the property.
The most popular review sites are:
With regard to the two most popular on the list, Yelp and TripAdvisor, my experience is that Yelp tends to lean toward locals posting reviews of their regular haunts, while TripAdvisor includes mostly posts from travelers/visitors. As a result, Yelp is a bit lean on extensive hotel reviews, but can tell you a lot about the nearby attractions.
And although it is considerably more of a free-for-all and thus more daunting, Twitter has become a useful and popular travel planning resource, although I would say less for full-bodied reviews than for good deals, resource listings and breaking news. (Check out How Social Media Is Changing Travel for more on the direction social apps are taking travelers.)
Using Twitter for hotel research may not be quite up to snuff at the moment; a recent survey of industry experts found that most hotels are not using the service very effectively at present. That does not mean it is not worth a look; if you have had success using Twitter to research and book hotels, let us know about it here.