A major expense of any European vacation is the cost of accommodations. No matter where you go - whether a bustling city like Madrid or a midsized destination like Sevilla - the neighborhood and hotel you choose help shape your experience. But you don't have to spend a fortune to find a nice, comfortable place to rest your head every night.
While many travelers opt for modern chains or big, business-class hotels, I find that these tend to build a wall between you and the people and culture you traveled so far to experience. Spending less usually gives you a richer experience. I often hear about people coming back from their vacations with bruised and battered pocketbooks, complaining about their $450-a-night room in London. True, you can spend that much, but I never have. That's three days' accommodations for me.
The most important factor in selecting a hotel - assuming it's in my price range - is location. I prefer small-scale hotels in a cozy neighborhood. For example, in Paris, the area around my favorite market street, Rue Cler, is a pedestrian-friendly bit of village Paris and a 10-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. For me, this is part of the fun of travel: enjoying a warm and friendly hotel in a charming, walkable area.
Many countries, such as France and Britain, have helpful rating systems. In a well-chosen one-star place, budget travelers can sleep well and safely in basic rooms. Two-star hotels offer a great balance of price and comfort - still basic but with good beds, private bathrooms, and often small but appreciated elevators. Three-star hotels can be a decent value, but you'll pay for extras like a lounge and room service.
Besides the extra amenities they offer, larger hotels are usually pricier than small hotels or B-and-Bs, partly because of taxes. Hoteliers who pay high taxes pass their costs on to you. They usually charge the most in summer, particularly at coastal resort hotels, which may impose a mandatory charge for half-pension (lunch or dinner at their restaurant). However, there are exceptions: In places like Scandinavia, Brussels, and Berlin, fancy business hotels can be a bargain in summer (and year-round on weekends), when their business customers stay away.
To find a good hotel, a little research goes a long way. I recommend starting with a guidebook that has a travel philosophy that matches your own. But while guidebooks remain dedicated to providing detailed hotel reviews and their best advice on the sleeping scene, the power is increasingly shifting to travelers themselves and websites like TripAdvisor.
TripAdvisor features an impressive collection of reviews from travelers. But anyone can submit feedback, and my hunch is that a significant percentage of them are by friends or enemies of the place being reviewed. I find more and more small hotels offering a free breakfast to people who promise to write kindly about them on TripAdvisor. Conversely, several hoteliers have told me that occasionally guests threaten them with a bad review unless the hotel gives them a deep discount. So while it can be helpful to look over TripAdvisor's hotel listings, I wouldn't rely on them blindly.
The rise of TripAdvisor goes hand-in-hand with the new power of booking services like Booking.com, Venere.com, Hotels.com, and Expedia.com, which pay to have a link on TripAdvisor. That way, when people search hotels on TripAdvisor, they simply click through to reserve - not directly with the hotel, but through the booking agency. The hotel must then pay a commission, a cost that gets passed on to travelers.
Once you've identified a promising option, I recommend reserving a room through the hotel's own website. You'll get more complete information, and you may save money by booking direct. Also, given the economic issues in Europe, hoteliers are sometimes willing and eager to make a deal. I'd suggest emailing several hotels to ask for their best price, then comparing the results.
There are other ways to negotiate a cheaper rate. It's worth asking about a discount if you're traveling off-season, if you plan to stay at least three nights, or if you pay in cash (saving the hotelier the credit-card company's fee). Many hotels offer family deals, which means that parents with young children can get a room with an extra child's bed or a discount for larger rooms.
With a little legwork, you'll find that Europe is filled with well-located, characteristic hotels at an affordable price. Though they may be smaller and lack certain comforts like fluffy robes and room service, they offer a warmth and intimacy that you won't find in larger establishments. And that's something you can't put a price on.