Catharine Hamm (Travel Editor, LA Times) gives expert video advice on: How should I pick a hotel?; What are the most common types of rooms offered by hotels? and more...
What are the most common types of rooms offered by hotels?
In the United States you can generally tell the type of room by the type of bed. So, a double room, for example, is a double bed meant for two people. A queen, obviously, is a queen size bed meant for two people and so forth and so on. There's the king obviously. There's also the junior suite, which may have a little bit of extra area where you can relax, kick your shoes off and sit on the sofa. A full blown suite may have a dining room. It may have a separate work area. There may be a living room with an entertainment area where there's a flat screen TV or super stereo system. In Europe it's not uncommon to find a single room, which is really just a twin bed in a small room. The one thing that you should always check though, whether you're in the United States or abroad (although it's much more common abroad) is to find out whether you're booking into a hotel that has a shared bathroom. There are some people who are very uncomfortable doing that. It's not uncommon in Europe to have a shared bathroom, so you should always check with the hotel and make sure of what you're getting.
What is an "extended stay" hotel?
An extended stay hotel is one that's really intended for somebody who's going to be there, just as it sounds, for an extended period of time. They're really good for business travellers who are on assignment and have to be in a certain place for maybe one or two weeks. They have small kitchen facilities; there's a little bit more room. They have a more home-like quality than a regular hotel room.
What options are available if I am traveling with my family or a group?
Nowadays, you have more options travelling with your family or in a group than you've had in the past. I think hotels are very aware that family travel, especially inter-generational travel, is very popular. As a result they're offering more hotel rooms that are adjoining or connecting, and that's a real help for families. Also, families can consider extended-stay hotels, which are really built for business travellers, but work really well for families because there are usually kitchen facilities and there's a little more space to move around.
What is a hotel room "upgrade"?
A hotel room upgrade means that you start out in one category of hotel room, for example a standard double, and then you are in the next category, which may in California for example, be a partial ocean view. An upgrade from there may be a full ocean view. Or, a hotel room upgrade may simply refer to a more luxurious accommodation.
What is a hotel room "rack rate"?
A hotel's rack rate, or its brochure rate, is usually the top maximum that it charges. In other words, there's no discount applied to the rack rate, it's just the top-of-the-line rate, and it's generally what you will be quoted if you want to know the ballpark of what a hotel charges.
What is a hotel room "cancellation policy"?
Hotel cancellation policies vary widely, and sometimes wildly. In some cases, you can cancel up until 6 P.M. the day of your visit. In some cases, it's 24 or 48 hours. But you really need to check at the time you make your reservation, what those cancellation policies are. Otherwise you may end up paying for nights you don't stay there, or can't stay there.
Who rates hotels?
A hotel rating system generally indicates how good a hotel is, but you have to be careful because it's not always clear who is assigning the hotel rating. For example, in the United States we have the Mobil rating system. We also have the AAA rating system. Both of those are made using existing standards; the standards that their inspectors look for. That's not always the case in Europe, where sometimes they will assign stars to themselves and they may go up to as many as 6 or 7 stars. So those systems, to my mind, are not necessarily as reliable as those in the United States. You have to be really careful because, again, various websites will use their own rating systems, so the standards vary and you may not know exactly what it is that you're getting. Three stars doesn't mean three stars doesn't mean three stars.
What are "customer review ratings", and can they be trusted?
Customer review ratings often show up on sites like TripAdvisor, and it's the public saying what it thinks of a particular hotel, but you have to be careful. The way we look at customer review ratings, we generally discount the very, very high end and the very low end, because you really don't know the people who are responding. So, throw out the highest, throw out the lowest, and look at the middle range of what people are saying. I had an experience in Paris where the TripAdvisor rating on this particular hotel was just awful. It talked about how mean the proprietor was, but I went there anyway and they were lovely. So, you really can't always trust customer review ratings because you don't know who's writing them.
What is an "aggregator site"?
An "aggregator site" is a site in which the website goes out and seeks the information. In other words, it's not information that is loaded into the system. Aggregator sites like sidestep, kayak, and mobissimo go out. They seek the information from, for example, the airline's website or the hotel's website and then they bring it back and present it to you so you are getting information that is very, very current and up-to-date.
How do aggregator sites differ from other types of sites?
I think each hotel site, be it aggregator or not, has its merits. I think with Travelocity, Expedia or Orbitz, you generally have customer service that backs you up. In other words, if you get into a jam, if your flight is cancelled or something goes wrong with your hotel, you can contact Travelocity, Expedia or Orbitz. With an aggregator site, you're doing business directly with the airline or with the hotel, so your recourse is not as great. It's like the difference between having a travel agent and not having a travel agent. As we know, travel agents are often really good advocates for travelers, and they can intervene when necessary. You don't have that when you're using an aggregator site because you're doing business directly with the site, so you have nobody to advocate for you.