Monday, August 31, 2015

Hotels, B&Bs, Homestays, Pensions, Guest Houses and Other Temporary Abodes

For the past 2+  months since we left our home in North Carolina, we have been living out of a suitcase in a variety of different types of temporary abodes. Tomorrow, we move into a house that will be our home for the next 8 months (if all goes according to plan). No more lugging around a year's supply of clothes. Therefore, this seems like a good time to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of the different types of temporary housing that we've utilized.

During our travels in Europe we stayed in hotels, guest houses, pensions, apartments, homestays, and one agriturismo.  These lodgings were located in England, France, Germany, Austria and Italy.  We spent the night (but did not always sleep through the night) in large cities, small villages and rural locations. Because we are on a budget, price was always a factor in our choice of where to stay.  Our choices are also limited by the fact that there are three of us. In contrast to the U.S., the typical European guest room does not accommodate three people so it was not always easy to find a location with one room for three people, or even two adjoining rooms.

In general, we did not stay in five-star hotels, although we did stay at one five-star hotel - the Graf Zeppelin in Stuttgart - but somebody else was paying for it. The Graf Zeppelin earned its five-star ranking, but that category of lodging was not realistic most of the time.  Here is what we learned from staying in various other types of accommodations:

1.  The best places - We can't agree on our favorite loding.  Bronwyn enjoyed the places where we had the most interaction with the owners, probably because she is the most fluent in other languages. Bronwyn also preferred urban locations. Joan (our daughter) preferred locations that had good internet access. I preferred the rural locations where it was easy to go hiking or cycling, or take a train to the nearest city.  As a bonus, in rural locations it was easy to find a place to park the car.

2.  Generalizations about different cultures - Customer service does not seem to be a high priority in France. German and Austrian lodgings were invariably clean, usually efficient and generally somewhat spartan. Italian lodgings had the friendliest owners and staff.  Although we stayed at several locations where they claimed that we were the first Americans to visit, a rural Austrian pension was the only place we stayed where nobody spoke any English. However, at all locations it worked best to make a sincere effort to speak the native tongue.

Homestay near London
3.  Homestays are the biggest crap shoot. We had the most awkward moments at homestays because the rules and space boundaries are unclear. However, we also got to know some very nice people who provided us with a glimpse of normal life in their country. To avoid disappointment, don't take anything for granted with a homestay. Assume that you will be given an extra room in the attic with no air conditioning, minimal ventilation and a shared bathroom that requires contortions to use. In general, we found that the homestay pictures were the most misleading. Home stays work best if you speak the same language as the hosts because it allows you to maximize the opportunities for discussion with a native and the resulting cultural exchange.  On the other hand, the homestays tended to be the least expensive and in some cases allowed us to fix some of our meals ourselves rather than going to a restaurant for every meal. One homestay owner also allowed us to use their bicycles.  Because most homestays are just a way for the owner to earn a little extra money, their primary focus is not helping guests and they might fail to understand what American guests consider normal.

Ca'Orologio Agritorismo in Baone, Italy
4.  An agriturismo can be great if don't  mind being in a rural location. We only stayed at one agriturismo (in Baone, Italy) on this trip, but Bronwyn and I thought it was fantastic.  The price was reasonable, they had bicycles that we could borrow, they allowed us to sample their own wines every evening, and they went out of their way to try to be helpful. They even had an above-ground pool for kids. Although it was hot, they tried to make our room as comfortable as possible by placing a portable AC unit in our room. On other trips, we have stayed at other agriturismo type places (in Australia and France) and we've always had a good experience. The only question is why we didn't stay at more agriturismo places on this trip.

5.  Guest Houses and Pensions - The line between a guest house and a pension is blurry.  Many of the places we stayed claimed to be both.  In general, pensions were very economical and offered plans that allowed you to receive one, two or three meals as part of the room rate.  "Bed & Breakfast" is not a term that seems to be commonly used in Europe. However, at least one of the guest houses that we stayed at in Germany probably would be described by most Americans as either a B&B or a very small inn. They served a great breakfast and it was small enough that the owners spent a lot of time sitting and talking with us.  Unlike a homestay, the owners of guest houses and pensions were in the business of running lodging establishment and seemed to try to be as accommodating as possible.

6.  Hotels - Most hotels in Europe seem to actively advertise whether they are a three-star hotel, four-star hotel or a five-star hotel.  In our experience their advertising was accurate. Since three-star hotels are what fit our budget, we stayed at a couple of them.  In general, the rooms were very small, the bathrooms minuscule, the beds uncomfortable, air conditioning was not an option, and they were located in marginal areas, but the staff were very helpful.  One of our least favorite lodgings of the trip was a three-star hotel that sat over a strip club (the "Candy Bar") near the train station in Munich. The hotel was clean and the staff were very helpful, but the room was hot and the neighborhood was noisy. It did have the benefit of prompting some interesting discussions with our eleven-year-old daughter.

Paris apartment
7.  Apartment rentals - We rented an apartment in Paris for a month and an apartment near the French Alps for ten days. In both cases, the landlords went out of their way to be helpful to us, but it is our understanding that many people who rent apartments are not so lucky. Most of the people who had bad apartment rental experiences rented through an agency. After locating potential apartment on websites, we dealt directly with the owners, which probably helped. Both apartments were in great locations and charming, although the kitchens and plumbing seemed a little primitive at first.  If you want to do a lot of cooking, it is probably worth asking the landlord a lot of detailed questions about the kitchen. One of the apartments we rented did not have an oven and it was impossible for two people to work in either kitchen.  Dishwashers and washing machines are also something that does not seem to be standard. If you are going to be on the road for more than a week, it is really nice to have access to a washing machine from time to time.  We searched hard to find apartments that had a small (by American standards) washing machine for clothes.  Although one of the apartments also had a dryer, we found that it was easier to air dry our clothes than wait for a small non-vented European dryer to dry our clothes.

8.  Finding the perfect place - We used a variety of websites (,,,,,, etc.) to find lodgings, but we never found the magic formula to consistently identify great places to spend the night. One suggestion is to use Google maps' streetview function to check out the neighborhood before making a commitment. Most of the time, we tried to stay at each location for at least three nights to avoid having to repack every day. The disadvantage of this approach is that when you end up at a place you don't like, you are stuck there for multiple days. One unexpected advantage of staying multiple nights is that sometimes a place that you didn't like at first grows on you ... but sometimes not.

In summary, over the past two months we never had a really bad lodging experience, but we had some awkward moments and we had a lot of interesting experiences. The best places had people who we will fondly remember for the rest of our lives.  My advice is that even if you can afford to stay in five-star hotels every night that you should try some different types of lodgings.  You will meet a lot more interesting people and have a lot more interesting experiences.

1 comment:

  1. I want to hear about the discussion you had with Joanie in Munich ;)