Love is a Hot Tub (apparently...)
March 1, 2013 2:26 PM   Subscribe

I may be, literally, the worst person in the world when it comes to finding and booking hotel rooms and vacation rentals. Can you help me figure out how to better my search processes, what sites and search terms I should be using, or how I can better understand the U.S. hospitality industry?

Oh my god, this is actually pretty funny, but I do need help. Here's the deal: every time it is my responsibility to find and book a hotel room for my partner and me, I inevitably end up choosing a place that is the kind of seedy sex hotel you might see as a gritty-ironic setting in some indie movie scene. I want to stop doing this.

Background Info (skip if bored):
When finding a hotel room or condo rental in our state, my beloved has a real knack for finding places that are comfortable, relaxing, and romantic, but that won't leave us wondering whether we caught something from the bedding after we leave. This is due to his familiarity with places here, or his ability to get good recommendations from friends, but even he is at a bit of loss of how to look for places in cities we have zero connections to.

Whenever I look for hotel rooms, though, we end up finding ourselves in places that make for great stories later, but that aren't at all what I was aiming for when I made the reservation. Best example: I once booked us a room with a jetted tub in it, because that was sort of the thing in that tiny resort town. I knew it might be kind of kitschy, but I was absolutely not expecting that we would be staying in a place where not only could you rent a room in half-day increments (great for local mayors looking to secretly schtup their secretary!), but the rooms came complete with a toilet. In the room itself. With no walls or doors. The toilet was just hanging out, exposed, in the middle of the room, right next to the romantic jetted tub!

Paradoxically, that hotel was also a family hotel, so not only were we serenaded at night by mayoral moans, but we were awakened every morning to the screeching sounds of delighted children who were cavorting around the grounds...

The Situation:
Usually, I search for hotel rooms using a combination of sites like Tripadvisor, Venere, Travelocity, etcetera. I'll sometimes look at the tourism board or chamber of commerce sites associated with whatever town we'll be visiting.

It has dawned on me, though, that by using the "romantic" or "getaway" filters on those websites, I am not finding romantic hotels. I am finding respectable sex hotels for parents (and politicians).

This is not what I want! I need help figuring out how to find the type of place I am really looking for. Because, apparently, I lack these skills. I could never be a travel agent.

The features that come to my mind, and that I look for, when I am searching for accommodations:
- Rooms or condos that are comfortable, maybe have some nice feature like a fireplace or good interior design, but they don't need to have that many amenities (like huge TVs, or a masseuse who will come to your room, or turndown service, etc.)
- Seclusion: We often like rooms that have a patio or balcony. Or maybe nice grounds where you can sit out, have a cup of coffee, enjoy the sun, but not be around all the people.
- An interesting natural (or urban) setting: our favorite place has enormous sliding doors that open up to a balcony with a gorgeous view of a mountain valley. We spent all our time on the balcony, enjoying each other and the natural prettiness. Or: I once stayed at a hotel that was built in the 30s. It had no majestic view, but it had lovely grounds. You could have coffee in interior courtyards. There were small gardens you could stroll through. It wasn't formally landscaped, but it was pretty, and interesting. Or: we've also stayed in more rustic mountain cabins/rooms that were fantastic because there were lots of walking paths and streams and areas that you could just wander around and poke at bugs and stuff. I've never been there, but the Post Ranch Inn, which I've seen mentioned on askmefi, looks like a higher end, more luxurious version of what I like - a place that is set in a beautiful area, and that is arranged to take advantage of its natural setting.
- Like someone's house: honestly, we prefer having a kitchen and cooking for ourselves over room service or eating out every night. We like staying at places that are just like staying in another home; it's romantic to putter about and relax, and to do some cooking with local flavors, you know?

Features that I dislike, but inevitably end up booking:
- Hot tubs, jetted tubs. In the room. On balconies. In the bathroom. So, so unnecessary. Sometimes it's nice to stay in a place with a nice soaking tub, or maybe one of those large, walk-in showers, but the whole gigantic whirlpool scene confuses me. And kind of creeps me out.
- Rooms made up to look romantic: Roses everywhere. Romantic, generic landscapes on the wall. Lattice. Seriously, you know you've made a terrible, terrible mistake when you walk into a room decorated with white lattice and flowers.
- Services: I don't need a spa. I don't need a massage. I don't need room service. I don't need someone to bring us bottles of champagne. I don't need anyone to come up to the room to provide a service (massage, manicure, etc), unless it's to bring up extra towels or something. I don't even need room cleaning every day. A cafe on the grounds might be convenient for morning coffee, but is actually not necessary.
- Families: I'm sorry. I support your life decision, and I think it's great when you see happy families actually having a fun time together on vacation, but for some reason, I keep booking "romantic" getaways that are also heavily oriented towards entertaining children. Please don't hate me, but children aren't relaxing.

The Questions:
1. What search terms, sites, strategies, or resources should I be using to find the types of accommodations I am looking for, and avoid the ones I usually end up snagging?
2. Sometimes, it just seems easier to look for condo or house vacation rentals, but where on earth can you find reputable renting resources or listings? VRBO seems limited, expensive, and sometimes sketchy, and I have never been able to book a place through airbnb. Do people have empty condos or farmhouses that you can rent for a couple of days? A couple of weeks? A couple of months? How can I find these people, when they are not in my state?

I am looking for advice for domestic accommodations in the U.S., only. Strategies for international bookings could be a whole other question, surely. Also, I recognize that I would probably have a much easier time finding what I want if I were willing to fork out at least $500 a night. I'm realistic and know I can't find what I want in dirt-cheap hotels, but the budget we're talking usually falls into the $150-$250 range (adjusted for length of stay and location. I know we might not find what we want in NYC or San Francisco, but a lot of our travels revolve around mid-size cities, largish towns, or off-season, outdoorsy recreation places. Essentially, generally cheaper areas, not the major coastal cities).

And I am keeping this deliberately open, and not specific to any city/state, because this is a recurring issue, and because I need some underlying strategy that can I use regardless of our destination, as this is a recurring issue, no matter where we go.
posted by vivid postcard to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Um, have you tried reading reviews?
posted by TrixieRamble at 2:35 PM on March 1, 2013 [7 favorites]

This is going to be hard to correct without a feedback loop.

Next time, find three places. Send their web sites to your partner along with the Tripadvisor and Yelp reviews. Let him decide and explain why he picked them, which might be some criteria we didn't think about. With this feedback you should hopefully get better at solving this problem in the future.
posted by grouse at 2:42 PM on March 1, 2013

Best answer: You've already said you know you need to do what would be my first recommendation: Stop searching for anything about romance or couples or any of that nonsense.

I am an awesome hotel picker, per my husband, and what I do is use TripAdvisor without any sort of filter or criteria - just the list of hotels, sorted by top ranked. I find the ones in the price range I can afford in the neighborhoods I've identified as acceptable (usually for me this is the part of town closest to the center that is identified more as a historic or kitschy area, rather than business-oriented), and read the reviews. In general I try to pick historical places whose photographs make the place look more like an inn than a hotel. I think doing that weeds out a lot of families with small children, whose primary goal is probably focused more than mine on ease and comfort rather than interesting decor and some character.

Mainly I think you're probably overcomplicating things by trying to be too specific with search terms and all that. Just start with a broad brush and narrow it down by location and the star rating on TripAdvisor and you'll have better luck.
posted by something something at 2:42 PM on March 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

I have had a lot of luck with airbnb, but it does take some searching legwork and I always use the secondary search checklist to fine-tune. If you're searching hotels, aim for search terms like boutique instead of romantic. And, even though you may not want to avail yourself of spa services, aiming for a place with a spa may help you get out of flowers and lattice territory.
posted by quince at 2:43 PM on March 1, 2013

My go-to sites are,, and as a last resort, and I've never experienced the sorts of issues you're describing, even while booking hotels in China sight-unseen...
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:44 PM on March 1, 2013

Actually, on lack of preview - what something something said. I just sort by star rating and price, and find the highest rated place in a walkable location that fits my budget. If there are several decent matches, browse the reviews.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:46 PM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It sounds like you might like a lodge or inn. Not "Motor Lodge" but a place that uses those descriptive terms.
posted by barnone at 2:48 PM on March 1, 2013

Google Street View is your friend - especially in the US/North America. Get the street address of the hotel in question, you can often tell a lot from a place by the outside. You can also get a sense of how much the photos on the websites are lying.
Go to the more popular Travel Guidebook sites (Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet) - this what guidebook authors are paid for, and they will seldom steer you wrong, and may help you find a gem or two.
Join AAA, and look at their reviews. I don't know if it's still true, but long ago (and far away - like 25 years or so), a 2-diamond with the words "beautifuly landscaped grounds" in the description was always (!) a deal/steal. These days, I never book less than 3 diamonds - the last time we stayed in a 2 diamond rated motel (Utah) it was scary-seedy (I did not want to take off my shoes, lest I catch something from the carpet - and I'm not germ-phobic!.
posted by dbmcd at 2:49 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I nth that you need to start reading the reviews behind the ratings. I've used Yelp, Kayak, and Travelocity to great success. Also, consider asking to see a room before you pay for it.
posted by Flamingo at 2:56 PM on March 1, 2013

I've used both and with great success finding sometimes quirky, sometimes extravagant, always awesome hotels and B&Bs. With Orbitz, you can sort by best deal, which basically takes the rating and the price and runs them through an algorithm to find hotels that have higher rankings than their price would suggest, which is a good way to find those "diamond in the rough" sort of places.
posted by smoq at 2:59 PM on March 1, 2013

When using Tripadvisor, look at the pictures submitted by actual people who've stayed there.
posted by deludingmyself at 3:48 PM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I make my hotel and B&B decisions solely based on Trip Advisor reviews. For more rustic places like a cabin rental, I have had great success with VRBO. Many of my friends use Airbnb and love it as well.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:13 PM on March 1, 2013

The trick to avoiding families: The more you spend, the fewer kids there will be. Other than that, all of your other issues will be neatly solved by reading TripAdvisor reviews and looking at the photos posted.
posted by HotToddy at 5:02 PM on March 1, 2013

Response by poster: So, I do appreciate the suggestion of reading reviews, and I can aim to do so with more strategy than checking the bedbug situation. But, I've noticed that A) some smaller establishments really don't have that many, and B) a lot of reviews focus almost exclusively on cleanliness, and whether the staff is friendly...not on the toilet by the bed. That hotel had the best reviews of the group I looked at.

So, other strategies and suggestions are appreciated.
posted by vivid postcard at 6:55 PM on March 1, 2013

Best answer: I wonder how you're using TripAdvisor etc.? I never just search through the booking tool unless it's a last resort (no pun intended). I look at the forum for where I'm going, crosscheck with Yelp and the hotel's own site, and have a 100% success rate so far. I ask a question on TripAdvisor if I need to. If you don't reveal personal information, they're friendly.

If there's a small hotel with no reviews anywhere, I don't stay there.

Your definition (and mine) are pretty much the polar opposite of what most sites with categorization consider "romantic," so I look for things like location, descriptions/photos of the rooms, and so on. If I care about something like tubs or wifi I either email/call the hotel or ask on TripAdvisor. This is how I found the great no-fuss B&B we stay at in Fort Bragg. :)

I know it'll fail me one day, but it works a lot better than the time we stayed in an unpleasant box of a motel in Alhambra, CA because I relied on Yelp (3 stars). That was years ago, though.
posted by wintersweet at 10:42 PM on March 1, 2013

Look for "boutique hotels", not romantic ones.
posted by empath at 2:51 AM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

TripAdvisor + User Photos + Reviews = good first-hand information on a location you're considering. If necessary, call and talk to the front desk agent and ask what sort of things are nearby and about the area. You can also use Google Maps/Birdseye View to get an over all view of the area.

One of the best places I ever stayed, I found searching with Google Maps. I wanted to stay *on the beach in Malibu. Most lodging in Malibu is on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway, away from the beach and then there's the Malibu Beach Inn $$$$. But there was a flag for one place on the beach. I used the contact information and it turned out to be an original resident of Carbon Beach (very exclusive area in Malibu) who rents out rooms in her home, including the whole second floor suite with 40' balcony just steps from the surf. Amazing. So, my point is, if you're looking for a particular location, start narrowing it down on a map and go from there based on reviews online.
posted by SoftSummerBreeze at 7:12 AM on March 2, 2013

I think what you're looking for are a) boutique hotels, and b) bed and breakfasts. A lot of B&Bs (outside of AirBnB) don't do online bookings, or have sketchy websites, but do have pictures on their websites. Once you've found someplace appealing, Google it. Look around for other reviews. My favorite B&B on the Oregon coast has a really awful website, but it's a fantastic place to stay. I just have to use the telephone, which is kind of annoying.
posted by linettasky at 9:02 AM on March 2, 2013

Can you perhaps re-create the search you did where the toilet-in-the-room hotel came up and post a link for us? I think it might be fun and helpful for us to look at that search and tell you why we would or wouldn't pick that hotel, and what we would pick instead.
posted by gubenuj at 9:59 AM on March 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback. I like the suggestions for the types of hotels to look into - I actually have had the best experiences at lodges, so that suggestion definitely sparked some ideas. I'm going to use some these strategies while booking our next trip, and we'll see how things turn out...
posted by vivid postcard at 12:19 PM on March 6, 2013

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