It seems like it’s feast or famine when it comes to visiting hotels and resorts, and I have a lot of reviews that I’m working on right now. To make sure that you know what your getting when you read my reviews, I’m going to spell out my process, what I look for at a hotel, the standards I use, and my thought process. I’ll also spill my personal biases because, after all, preferences are a very personal thing.
When I visit a hotel, I take down lots of details. I write notes, record audio and video, and take lots of photos. I ask questions sometimes, and other times I sit back and observe. Both levels of involvement tell you different things. I wander the hotel at different hours of the day and night, call the front desk at various times too, and try to think about the various wants and needs that a guest might have.
I’ve made it my practice to not write a review immediately after a visit, because everything seems GREAT or HORRIBLE then. I take time to look at the photos I’ve taken, see how I feel about the visit a week or so later, and then start forming a detailed opinion. Have I found myself telling friends all about the place – either raving or complaining? Or has the visit failed to stand out as a memory at all? A true gem stands the test of time and won’t be forgotten a week later!
While a hotel visit is about evaluating a combination of amenities and experiences vs. price point, the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand. The BEST hotel isn’t necessarily the most expensive and/or luxurious hotel, it’s all about value for the dollars spent.
I accept complimentary stays at hotels. I also pay for them. I’ll let you know when I’ve received something for free or have received a discount that is not available to the typical traveler. If I didn’t tell you it was free, it wasn’t! And before you start wondering if I’ll always rave about something if it’s free, let me reassure you that you need not worry. I evaluate based on the price point a guest would pay for the room.
Over the years, I’ve developed a list of things that I’m looking for when I visit a hotel. Here’s my current working list of things that I look at when doing a hotel review:
- I’ve stayed there. If you’re reading one of my reviews, it means I’ve been there. I’ve stayed there, tested the services, checked out to see how reality lives up to advertising claims. In a perfect world, I’d be able to stay at a hotel for several nights, or make a return visit. That’s the only way to get a complete analysis of a hotel. But since this isn’t always possible, I will tell you how long the stay was and you can take that into consideration.
- Classification. While this is totally subjective, I check to see if the hotel lives up to its own billing. Is it a beach resort, luxury hotel, inn, villa, business hotel, family-friendly hotel, bed-and-breakfast, etc. In other words, is it what they say it is.
- How easy and clear was the reservation process? Will a guest feel like they’ve gotten the best deal available, or are they going to feel ripped off? Even when I’m the guest of a hotel and don’t make my own reservation, I play around with the hotel website to see how easy it is to use. Are the website deals the best around, are the promotions really “deals” or would you be better off booking through another site.
- Is the hotel easy to find? Has the website provided adequate directions on getting to the property whether I’m driving or coming by public transportation. Is the check in area clearly marked so that someone unfamiliar with the hotel can find it.
- Checking in. Are you made to feel welcome? Whether the first impression is the valet parking or the front desk staff, I like to know that my presence is appreciated and that I’m a valued guest. I pay close attention to how long it takes to check in and get my room key, watching to see if the front desk is adequately staffed. This first impression can set the tone for the remainder of the stay, so I pay close attention to how things start off.
- Room first impression. Opening the door is the first make or break moment for me. It’s the time when a guest takes a breath and either gasps, OMG this room is great, or sighs and says UGH! I want to see a spotless room, with chairs and bed linens neatly in place, without a smoke or funky smell. I want lights that work, burned out bulbs replaced before I have to call down and request it, a television and remote in working order (even though I rarely use them, I check them out), and and easy to adjust temperature control. After I walk in, I do a quick once around the entire room to see how things are laid out, make sure that everything works, etc., and I usually take a few photos in this process.
- The bathroom. This had better be spotless, with not a scrap of paper or hair in the sink left behind. What amenities are there? Is it just shampoo, or is there a larger selection of conditioner, bath gel, body lotion and soaps? Is the brand entry level or upscale luxury? Is the bathroom well laid out and easy to use, with ample counter space and well placed plug ins? Are there ample towels in all sizes? When I use the shower, I take note of how the water flow is, if the water is hard or soft, and how easy it is to adjust the water temperature. In other words, I look for features that make this home away from home easy and pleasant to use.
- Desk/work space. Although I love relaxing in a great hotel room, the reality is that I’m usually there working. I want FREE wi-fi and a strong signal! Also important are adequate plug ins around the desk area, good lighting, a comfortable chair that adjust in height for the desk, multiple phones in the room with a speaker phone in the work space area, sufficient waste bins with recycling options, and enough space to spread out and actually work. I’m about functional work space more than pretty, but bonus points if it’s both.
- Bed and bedding. Is the bed notably hard or soft, or just in the broad in between. I’m not a picky sleeper, unless it’s a really, really bad mattress, but I do try to take note of which it is. Are there sufficient pillows, are they soft or firm? Is there an extra blanket in case I am cold? Where is the alarm clock? Is it easy to use or does it require an engineering degree to figure out. Is there sexy mood lighting as well as good lighting to read by? And just in case I’m working in bed, is the wi-fi signal one that works there?
- Beverage center. I don’t care about a mini bar, and am not sure who does anymore, but I do like a refrigerator to keep water cold or for leftovers from dinner. A coffee pot and coffee/tea is important, along with adequate cream and sugar — and the cream shouldn’t be the powdered stuff, there are plenty of shelf stable options. Is the coffee pot located where it’s convenient to use? Bonus points if it’s high quality coffee.
- Housekeeping. Is the hotel sufficiently staffed that the room is cleaned quickly? Is my one day to sleep in interrupted by housekeeping knocking at the door at 8 am? Does the housekeeping staff make an effort to be quiet or is there noise and chatter echoing down the halls? If it’s a quick overnight, I may not get the full measure of this, but if I’m staying for more than a day, this is high on the list of things that factor in.
- Hotel restaurant. I try to have at least one meal at a restaurant at the hotel or order room service, both if I’m there for awhile. Most travelers will have at least one meal at the hotel. I check to see if the restaurants are over-priced because they have a captive audience, or if they’re fairly priced for the general area. I’m also looking to see what kind of variety is available, and whether the choices are family friendly (and priced accordingly) or more upscale adult dining. I check out how long the line is for coffee, knowing that many guests will want to grab a cup on the run. If the restaurant is significant in its own right, I will often do a separate review of it.
- Conference/business space. While this is hard to check out unless you’re actually using the space, I do try to take a peek or two and see what’s available. I’ll also take a look at the business center.
- Public spaces. I spend some time wandering around the public spaces, not just the lobby. Are there little spots to sit and have a drink or chat? Is there work space in the lobby? Is there wi-fi in the public spaces? When I encounter staff in the public areas how are they acting? Am I greeted or ignored? Is there art in the public areas, an easily accessible rest room, is everything clean and tidy?
- Pool, jacuzzi and/or beach area. Is the pool indoor or outdoor? What hours is it available for use? Are kids permitted? I check out locker room and shower areas (if available), and notice if the smell of chlorine grabs my nose a block away. Is the beach area kept clean? Is food and beverage service available, and if so, what’s it like? Are there adequate towels and loungers, and is there a charge to use? Are these amenities free to use, or is there a resort fee or amenity charge?
- Work out room. If it’s on premises, I take note of any fee that is charged and match that up with what’s available, how it’s maintained, and how many people I see using it. What hours is it open? If there’s nothing on site, I find out what’s close by. Are there running trails nearby, or can the hotel staff make some recommendations. If it’s just a quick overnight stay, I don’t always have a chance to check this out.
- Concierge. A good concierge is worth their weight in gold, so I try to ask a variety of questions during my stay. My questions range from basic information (where to catch the bus) and facts about the hotel (how many rooms are there), to asking for recommendations on where to go (is there a bookstore nearby) and things to do (any good happy hours within walking distance). If they only suggest hotel facilities, I’m immediately suspect. If they engage me in conversation to try to get a feel for my preferences BEFORE making suggestions, I know they really care about the quality of my experience.
- Operator. Phone etiquette is one of my pet peeves. When the operator answers the phone, I need to be able to understand him/her. If the first part of the message is said so fast that I can’t figure out if I’ve called the right placed\, then the ending “how may I help you?” won’t really matter. Staff that answers the phone should be trained to speak slowly and distinctly so that they can be understood.
- Spa. This is a review category separate to itself, and just as extensive.
- Demographics. Who would like to stay at this hotel and why? Is it perfect for a family reunion, with lots of kids, or is it a romantic gem? We all want a different hotel experience for different reasons, and matching up expectations with a selection is always important.
- Problems. There is no perfect hotel, and even the best of the best will have an off day. The real issue, is when there is an issue, how does the hotel handle it? Is a problem quickly acknowledged and resolved? Or do you feel like the staff is playing the blame game? If it’s a major issue, does the hotel try to compensate or accommodate you in some appropriate way? I’m not talking about trying to scam something, I’m talking about a fair make good for your trouble. The best hotels know that “stuff happens” and are prepared to handle it efficiently and courteously.
- Star factor. Whether it’s stars, diamonds, or some other rating system, I look to see hotel lives up to its reputation.
- The unknown factor. Not everything is quantifiable, and many times staying at a hotel isn’t about a check list, but about an emotional feeling. The “it” factor, if you will. I never discount it.
- One-week later. As I said before, it’s important to reflect on how I feel about the visit a week later. Many times, I’ve mellowed, and something wasn’t really horrible, I was just having a bad day. Conversely, maybe the bar wasn’t really that much fun, it was just the third glass of wine. A great experience will be a great experience next week or next month.
Depending on the length of a stay it can be hard to evaluate all these factors, so I will include the length of my stay and which ones were personally observed hopefully giving you ample information for an interpretation of the results.
After collecting and evaluation all that information, I then evaluate the experience against the price point of the room. It’s all about value, and what’s a value at $100, $200 or $500 per night will be vastly different. I try to include basic room rates and other fees, along with any special promotions or packages that might offer good value to a guest.
Ultimately, a hotel review is just a snapshot of my stay, and with a longer stay, the snapshot is a little more clear and focused. Your experience at any hotel will likely vary. After all, we are different people coming into contact with different people. My hope, however, is that my reviews will be of sufficient depth that you have enough information to decide whether a particular hotel is likely one that you’ll enjoy.
NOTE: I will also be setting this list up as a permanent page, changing and updating as my review process changes.
Photo credit: SXC