We’ve stayed in dozens of hotels. Actually, probably hundreds over the years. These hotels — and I use that word loosely — have ranged from ritzy and luxurious, to seedy and disgusting. It has been fun.

And it has been educational, as we’ve learned how to spot good hotels, and that skill in turn became a part of our travel ethic. Here are some of the things we look for:

1. Small and family/locally owned:

Think of the exact opposite of an airport hotel, and you more or less get this one. Staying at locally-owned lodging tends to result in more personal connections, as happened to us during a recent visit to the Georgian House in Portland. When we arrived, the owner gave us a brief rundown on the home, his background, and the area. The next morning, we chatted over breakfast.


The other big advantage of “buying local” when it comes to lodging is that it keeps your money in the local economy. And that’s one of the best things you can do if you want your travel to have a positive impact on the places you visit.

2. Well-located in walkable and/or transit oriented neighborhoods:

We’ve tried staying far from the sites we want to see in order to save money, and we’ve tried staying right in the most touristy areas in order to save time. Neither really works great. The better option is to find a hotel that is somewhere in the middle: good access to where ever you’re going, but far enough away to be inexpensive and quiet.

The street outside Hotel Italia, in Rome.
The street outside Hotel Italia, in Rome.

Hotel Italia, in Rome, fits that description: it’s a short walk from Rome’s Termini train station, and in the same neighborhood as a few sites. Other sites are just far enough away to keep the hotel’s prices down and its street quiet.

Another good example in this category is the Moore Hotel in Seattle, which has both a good location and great transit access.

3. Inexpensive:

When we started traveling, this was the single most important factor for finding a hotel because we basically had no money. Over time we’ve been able to spend a little more on lodging, but finding inexpensive digs is still important for (at least) two  reasons. First, because spending less per night means being able to travel more, and second because inexpensive places often come with the best stories. Case in point: the room we rented from Ursla in Bacharach.


I think the room cost us 35 euros for a night, and came with the delightful experience of trying to communicate with the grandmotherly Ursla when neither of us spoke the same language. And the breakfast was pretty good too.

Looking for good, cheap lodging is probably one of the trickiest things a traveler has to do because the lines between bland, seedy, and charming are sometimes blurry. I’ve stayed in some amazingly cheap EasyHotel rooms, for example, but probably wouldn’t recommend them because they were isolated and boring.

4. Character: 

Character is hard to pin down, but usually you know it when you see it.

Inside a room at a roadside motel in Orderville, Utah, on the back side of Zion National Park.

Often when all of the above things come together — price, location, ownership — a hotel naturally ends up with a healthy dose of character. There are also places like the Ace Hotel chain, which try to varying degrees of success to force character at corporate properties.

But what we really try to look for is a place where someone has expended some thought and effort to make something unique. That can mean a bizarre, quirky place like the dinosaur-themed room we got in tiny Orderville, Utah. Or it could be the Maze Inn, which was literally built by its owner.

Or it could be something more traditional. But whatever kind of character a place has, finding somewhere unique has proven to be an important part of creating memorable trips.

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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