Since 2010, we've stayed in countless hotels, apartments, AirBnBs, homes, bunk rooms, and other assorted accommodations. This year, we paused to count…and to consider what hotel features we most appreciate. What makes a good hotel great and what mars an otherwise promising stay? We polled our readers, too, to see what they look for (and are annoyed by) in their hotel stays.
OK, our Travel Past 50 hotel summaries and reviews have not exactly been posted annually. But we'll ignore past lapses and start 2024 on the right foot. Our record keeping is reliable support for the data provided here; we're big fans of TripIt Pro to track all our bookings for hotels flights, tours, trains, and most of our meals, too. We highly recommend TripIt, not just to manage details while you are traveling, but to be able to recall the when, where, and whys of your travels.
Feel free to comment below with your hotel appraisals and nominations. 2024 is just getting underway.
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Table of Contents
Summary of Our Year in Hotels
In 2023, we slept in 32 beds other than our own at home. Those beds placed us in 21 different hotel rooms (think 21 check-in experiences), four private hosted properties (AirBnB or similar), and seven stays with family or friends.
All in all, we slept in 28 different cities this past year.
In 2023, our travels took us to only a handful of countries: England, Canada, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and the United States, where we visited seven states plus Puerto Rico. Hotel stays were dictated by twelve distinct trips. We took more shorter trips this year than usual, mostly because we prioritized travel with family and friends. Also, Tom and I took a couple trips individually.
The overall pace and hotel count is down from our high mark in 2014, when we surfed to about 70 distinct beds in the year. When we last kept track, in 2016 and 2017, we were averaging about 50 bedrooms a year in 40-some different cities.
The point is, we have enough experience to have formed some opinions on hotels and hospitality!
The Hotel Industry 2023
The past year has been challenging for hotels, as the hospitality industry still struggles with adequate staffing in the wake of the COVID pandemic. The random outbreak of bedbugs in Paris put everyone on edge. The busy travel year in Europe meant prices were high and central location hotel rooms could only be had at a premium. AirBnB and similar options, despite increased local controls, continue to put pressure on the traditional hotel industry…and on local rent.
But we still appreciate hotel experiences: home away from home, a bit of pampering, convenient dining options, work space and, let's hope, sleep! Sleep, rest, showering, and recharging are primary needs; work, Wi-Fi, and access to local attractions are also essential to us. Our dear readers are aware we don't cover all-inclusive resorts nor floating hotels of the massive ocean-going variety. (River and expedition cruises are another matter and can rank at the top of some of our hospitality categories.)
We like to remind ourselves and fellow travelers that on-duty hotel staff often have as little to do with your comfort as airport gate agents have to do with the weather. Just as we have responsibilities as tourist, we travelers have a responsibility to treat accommodations well and staff as respected partners. Practice patience and understanding no matter how disappointed you are in your room. By the same token, if there's a problem, report it quickly and kindly. (We've immediately requested room changes a couple times due to heavily scented cleaning products, for example.)
The best hotels, no matter their star rating, extend warm welcomes and sincere attempts to satisfy guest needs. And guests can sense this from all levels of staff. If that's too subjective for you, read on. Here are some details we can put our fingers on!
Ten Most Appreciated Hotel Features
It almost goes without saying that guests want clean rooms, nice bedding, free Wi-Fi, sufficient lighting, quiet heating or AC units, and plenty of outlets. Almost.
Not surprising, guests want all that and more. We've gathered our notes and the comments of our Travel Past 50 readers to list these hotel features that most impress. From basic amenities, to considerate design, to above-and-beyond service, these are the things that make a good hotel great.
Luggage racks for two
Double rooms should have space for two pieces of luggage, isn't that right? If there is not built in space for a bag, (floor space doesn't count) providing two luggage racks is a welcome option.
Closet with hangars
Plenty of hangars please, and don't affix them to the closet rod. That just makes us mad.
Bedding and pillows
Assorted pillows and plenty of them with differing loft and fill. Our fellow travelers don't like to have to ask for non-down options. Two sheets please, even if a comforter is encased in a sheet.
Drinking water provided
We're not asking for little plastic bottles in every room every day. But we love to see water provided in the lobby so we can refill our bottles. Large glass bottles of water with drinking glasses are another great option in rooms. If tap water is the only option, please provide an ice bucket, drinking glasses and a note as to tap water safety.
We rarely purchase items out of a mini-fridge, but we do love to store our own beverages, snacks, even meds in the cooler.
(p.s. We hate those mini-fridges that automatically charge you for something if you jostle or lift it from it's designated spot. Just because I looked doesn't mean I drank the Kool-Aid.
Our readers, like us, have lots to say about hotel bathrooms. Specifically, these simple features are much appreciated:
- Bulk bath products instead of the wasteful little plastics.
- A shelf in shower for guests' personal bath products. A bench or ledge for perching is even better.
- A magnifying shaving/makeup mirror at the sink.
- Legible labels on bath products, since most of us don't shower with our glasses on.
- Drain plugs for sink and tub.
- A retractable clothes line over the tub is handy.
- Good lighting, please!
Lighting and electronics
Good bathroom lighting, lighting on both sides of the bed, plus little reading lights that don't disturb the other are a big bonus. Night lights are welcome. We do like dimmer switches for the main lighting. We don't like spending 20 minutes figuring out out how to turn everything off at night.
For energy savings, keyed operation of lights is a good idea, as are systems which don't allow heating or air conditioning to run when windows or balcony doors are open. Kudos.
And of course we love having plenty of outlets, including at the desk/seating area and both sides of the bed.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning can make all the difference between a good night and a miserable night. If we have a window to open we feel like we've hit the jackpot. Individual control of the fan speed and temperature is key. And above everything else, travelers wish for quiet HVAC systems.
Comfortable chair or seating area
Even if it's a small room, and even if the seating is for one person only, a comfy chair to sit in suddenly helps us relax. For a place that feels more like home, we select rooms with queen or king beds (versus twins) to allow more space for that cozy seating area.
Knowledgeable concierge or staff
Despite using our phones to navigate around most cities, we love to ask hotel staff (not necessarily the concierge desk) about their favorite restaurants or parks or walks. We want to know about local neighborhoods, perhaps near university campuses or where artists and craftspeople work. One thing leads to another. Do get a map from the hotel and let your new friends scribble all over it.
Some of the hotel features mentioned by our readers may or may not be searchable items when you are hunting for a hotel. Do take time to consider what's important to you, and see below for some tips on how to find and book the right hotel. It's the unquantifiable details, the little surprises, that we and our readers appreciate. Such as:
- A lovely lobby which offers quiet seating areas and refreshing water or coffee. Flowers and good art, yes.
- A relaxing bar, possibly part of the lobby, where one can work or eat alone, or meet up with friends. This is our living room, a safe comfort zone when the room for two is…just too small.
- A hosted happy hour with wine and cheese.
Travel Past 50's 2023 Hotel Awards
Best Overall Hotel
When a hotel is a destination unto itself, you know you have a winner. The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colorado, could be described accurately as a luxury hotel, historic hotel, resort, and adventure destination. Fine food, great bars, shopping, a unique art collection, and its location at the foot of Pike's Peak make it irresistible. The room has it all, including a bathroom with separate tub and shower, and plenty of space to dance.
St. Ermin's Hotel in Central London has history, intrigue, elegance, and fine food in an excellent location. We visited but didn't stay overnight, or it would have shared top honors.
Tucked between the Palace and Parliament, the hotel boasts a fantastic lobby recreated by its theater designer architect back around 1900. Best of all is the spy history that permeates the hotel. From World War II to more recent double agent affairs involving the UK, USA and Russia, various episodes are noted in historic displays in the bar and lobby. (John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is reported to be based on Russian mole Kim Philby who frequented the hotel.) Kids are welcome here, and provided with a “Top Secret” spy activity folder. Read about our ad libbed Three Days in London.
Honorable mention goes to the historic St. James Hotel in Red Wing, Minnesota. Like the Broadmoor, this hotel harkens back to the sporting scene. Red Wing was the birthplace of American ski jumping, and The Broadmoor hosted early figure skating teams and events. Read more about historic Red Wing (now a stop om Viking's Uppoer Mississippi river cruise, in our post on MNtrips, Things to Do in Red Wing.
The quirky Berkeley City Club may not impress with its rooms or guest services, as it seems to be in constant transition from an apartment building to a boutique hotel. But the 1930 hotel was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan, the groundbreaking San Franciscan who designed over 700 buildings including Hearst Castle and this, her “Little Castle”. It includes a swimming pool, library, patio, gorgeous event spaces, lovely breakfasts, and a cozy sophisticated bar, Morgan's Bar and Lounge. If you're lucky, you can look out form your simple 6th floor room to the San Francisco skyline and Bay and Golden Gate Bridges. Read about visiting Berkeley and the Bay Area in our post, 10 Reasons to Make Berkeley Your Bay Area Base Camp.
Best hotel restaurant
We had no expectations when we approached Corinthia Lisbon, a rather large hotel on the far northern edge of the center city. But any bland impressions were blown away by their Erva Restaurant. We ordered cauliflower soup with hazelnuts, succulent mushrooms, and excellent sea bass. With a good wine list and excellent but casual service, we were won over.
(tie) Viking Osfrid
Lucky us to spend a week sailing the Douro River aboard Viking's Osfrid, where Chef Mihail Mihaylov proved night after night that he is a master soup chef (as he said), not to mention a roasting master and pastry magician. Look for our Viking Douro River Cruise story coming soon.
Best rooftop bar
Hard to believe this one rooftop, capping the AC Málaga Palacio, could offer views of the beautiful city, a lush park, the Mediterranean Sea, the Alcazaba castle, the sunsets…and alsp provide good lunches and tasty cocktails. If we had a Best Hotel Breakfast category, this AC by Marriott hotel would win that too. Read our Visitor Guide: What to Do in Málaga for more ideas.
(tie) We chose the Riad Toyour for our family trip to Fes, Morocco, both because it offered parking and featured a garden courtyard inhabited by caged and wild birds. The best feature, though, was a rooftop lounge area from which we could see both city gates on opposite hills and all the medina below us. Day or night, this was the place to be and where conversation flowed.
(Honorable Mention) It's at the Riu Plaza España in Madrid that we first understood the current phenomenon that is rooftop bars. Guests in this landmark hotel on the newly renovated Plaza España can access the rooftop any time. Locals line up well before sunset to share open air drinks and tapas. Views of the city are complemented by views of the immense Casa de Campo, the park and former royal hunting grounds. We stayed here in 2022, hence the honorable mention in 2023. Check out our main Madrid post, What to See and Do in Madrid.
Award for Sustainability and Innovation
We stayed at the Wyndham Garden Winnipeg Airport for its easy access to the airport and to downtown Winnipeg, not to mention free parking for our rental car. We were impressed most that this Indigenous-owned hotel, a first under the Wyndham Garden group, provided bilingual signs, Indigenous-crafted gifts, and a pleasant breakfast cafe featuring Indigenous fare. Don't miss the bannock, a pan-fried Indigenous bread similar to biscuit, best eaten with local berry jam. Other pluses include a pool and fitness center. Read about Winnipeg: Top Places to Visit in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
(shout out) The Broadmoor. Finally, a hotel that provides reusable bottles in the room and water stations in the hotel halls.
Best AirBnB Host
“Leonardo” in Sevilla, Spain, grabbed our attention with a sweet property in a quiet neighborhood available during the busy Semana Santa Holy Week. It turned out to be a perfect place for us, and a great example of what is best about AirBnb bookings. The privately owned accommodations were modest, all we needed. The kitchen was sufficiently stocked, the building secure, pleasant and conveniently located. The owner met us at the door and gave us complete instructions and recommendations for the neighborhood. We stayed long enough to enjoy the vibe of the surrounding streets. Thank you. Read about one of our favorite cities: What to Do with a Few Days in Sevilla.
We didn't set out to award any disappointments, especially in Puerto Rico where we admire the great work of the tourism and hospitality groups pulling Puerto Rico back up after Hurricane Maria (2017) and COVID. Yes, visit PR. The reality is that the Sheridan Puerto Rico Resort and Casino was really not equipped to host a conference of travel writers. We understand the convention was booked there because the off-season and ongoing construction reduced the price tag. But the restaurant, devotedly recommended by staff, for example, was awful. Rooms were meh. On the plus side, the hotel is located near the sparkling new convention center and entertainment district. Still, guests will want to hop the shuttle or taxi and get into old San Juan, ASAP.
The Swan's Nest apartment in Henley-on-Thames exemplified the corporate take-over of gig-hosting. Located right on Market Place at the top of High Street, it was a fine location for accessing local restaurants or walking to the river. Locals, though, bemoaned the take-over of a local gathering place in the building. The second bedroom featured no windows and high loft beds no adult would wish for. Noise in the square prompted us to shout out in the wee hours for some peace and quiet. Oh well. There was a good pub adjacent and Henley is a charming town close to Windsor Castle and Legoland Windsor.
Longer story, short blurb. We had connecting flights in Paris. Our return flight to MSP was cancelled, so we were given hotel and dinner vouchers to tide us over until the next day's flight. I can't even tell you which airport hotel it was, but it was the first time (and we've traveled in Japan) that we had to retract a bed in order to exit the room. Some of the space-saving devices were truly impressive. Enough said.
How to search for and book lodging
We've always done all our hotel booking ourselves. Primarily, we use Booking.com or Hotels.com for our search, plugging in location first and relying on reviews, location, pricing, and select amenities to make a selection. Eventually, you need to crawl out of the worm hole you've created, make a decision, and click to book.
Note, unlike reserving airfare when we use search engines but book our tickets direct with the airline, we usually complete our booking right in the Booking.com or Hotels.com app. (In Asia, we recommend the comparable Agoda.com.)
The exception to booking through the online agents is if you are a rewards member with a hotel group. We enjoy Marriott's Bonvoy program and will book direct with them when that's a choice. The advantage is that our preferences – for pillows, hotel floor, distance from elevator, etc. – are retained in our account. Hotel loyalty programs will also get you faster check-in and possible later check-out. In general, though, we tend toward local hotel groups and don't use international chains enough to warrant a branded credit card for rewards.
We do filter for amenities and preferences. For us, that is straightforward: location (especially distance to city center or train station or public transit), parking if needed, breakfasts included, restaurant/bar on site, price, rating, deals.
When possible, it's great to communicate with your booked hotels to let them know your estimated time of arrival.
As mentioned earlier, make your preferences known at the time of booking when possible, especially any allergies, special needs, pets, etc.
People in the hospitality industry really do like to help you feel comfortable.