Getting Your Money’s Worth: Budget-Friendly Vs. Expensive Hotels

When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep and the best experience possible, the price tag matters...but only to an extent.

October 4, 2018
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For nearly eight years, while I finished high school, got my college degree, and started navigating life after college, I worked in hotels.

In high school, I worked at a resort with a formal restaurant and a full-service space. I served in banquets, then moved on the front desk where I eventually managed a small staff of employees while I was in college.

After that job, I moved on to a budget-friendly option near the airport. The guests at this hotel just needed a bed, and that definitely showed in how the hotel was taken care of. I didn’t stay there long. The last place I worked was budget friendly, but a part of a major brand. It was a great experience being able to watch hotel ownership caring about how the hotel was cared for and making sure budget-travelers had an enjoyable stay.

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For most of my time in hotels, I worked either as a front desk agent, front office manager, or assistant general manager. Even so, I still spent plenty of time helping with laundry, vacuuming rooms, and jumping in during busy seasons in the restaurant. I kind of feel like I’ve seen it all.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a hotel as anything more than a guest, but my behind-the-scenes experience means I’ve learned some important lessons about finding a good place to stay, how much money to spend, and which inexpensive options are worth a try. Here’s what you need to know about getting your money’s worth in both cheap and expensive hotels.

“You shine like a star.”

Five-star hotels are often thought to be luxurious and pristine, while low-star hotels are associated with being more affordable but of lower quality. The system of hotel star ratings, though, is widely misunderstood.

Originally created by Forbes Travel Magazine in the 1950s, star ratings are concerned with amenities and features. This is important to know if you’re turning to a star rating to gauge something like cleanliness—that isn’t what this rating measures.

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For example, a one-star hotel is likely to offer the most basic room: a bed and a bedside table. When staying in a one-star hotel, you might even share a bathroom with other guests, according to USA Today.

As you move up in star ratings, the number of amenities increases. A two-star rating indicates that a hotel has private en-suite bathrooms as well as a closet or dresser. In a two-star hotel, you’ll have a TV. It might not be top-of-the-line, but it will be there.

Three-star hotels are likely the type of hotel your average traveler expects to stay at while traveling for work or vacation with their family. It’s definitely not a luxury option, but it should be comfortable and affordable at the same time. The rooms in a three-star hotel are roomy. You’ll have a newer TV and there will likely be someplace to eat in the hotel. There might be extra staff to offer help with things like taking your luggage to your room or helping you plan out things to do during your trip.

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Four-star hotels are definitely more luxurious—your room will be large, and you’ll access to a spa, a gym, and room service—and five-star hotels are the best of the best. When you opt for five-star digs, you’ll have a concierge on site. The rooms will be very large, well decorated, and have top-of-the-line appliances and furniture.

As you can imagine, the star rating of the hotel will definitely affect your experience, but a lower star rating doesn’t necessarily mean a bad experience—it just won’t be a luxury stay.

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“Budget-friendly does not necessarily mean ‘not clean,’ but it may mean not-so-updated,” explains Ashley Blake, founder of Traverse Journeys. “Your bathroom tiles may be scrubbed and sanitized in a budget hotel but still have signs of wear and tear, where you wouldn’t find that in a five-star hotel.”

The Money Myth

One of the lessons I learned quickly while working at my first hotel, the historic resort and spa, was that many people truly believe that spending more is tied to better quality accommodations. While I think there is some truth to that belief, it only applies in the extremes.

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For example, if you’re choosing between a $44-a-night motel and a nightly rate that’s several hundred dollars, you’re probably going to have vastly different experiences. However, I’m convinced that when we’re talking about spending $100 or $200 a night on a room, the cost might have nothing to do with the quality of your stay. Instead, less-talked-about factors like brand and location will wind up determining if your hotel room is going to be clean and comfortable.

What’s in a brand?

When it comes to finding a hotel, brand matters. In my experience, this can really set one affordable hotel apart from another. For many hotels, branding is much more than a color scheme or tagline you see in their advertisements.

In hospitality, brand identity is often tied to brand standards. This is important for travelers to know because that means there are certain hotels that belong to brands that require them to meet specific standards in order to remain affiliated with the brand. This is the reason staying at a Holiday Inn in San Francisco is a similar experience to staying in a Holiday Inn in St. Louis—all Holiday Inns are working off of the same manual. They’re all trying to keep their hotel clean and maintained for those random drop-ins for brand inspections.

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This is also good news for travelers on a budget. Within a brand like Hilton or IHG, there are multiple price points from luxury hotels all the way down to extended stay options. While there are definitely differences between these price points, expectations of cleanliness and maintenance are common threads that run through all hotels in a brand.

The employees working at hotels under these brands are taught to pay close attention to the details as a way to improve the guest experience. I’ve been the fly on the wall during many brand inspections and seen even the most affordable hotels within a brand receive penalties for things like marks on the walls of rooms and dust along the floorboards.

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The same is true for customer service. Within a brand, employees are typically held to the same standard of being friendly, quick, and going above and beyond to meet guest expectations. Sticking with brand-standard language, answering the phone within a few rings, and following a step-by-step procedure for check-in were all a part of the branded hotel inspections I was involved in during my hotel days.

Of course, brand is also not equivalent to ownership. Two hotels can share a brand, like IHG or Hilton, without sharing ownership, and ownership definitely plays into how an individual hotel is maintained because, in many cases, ownership determines budget.  

Not all that glitters is gold.

Interestingly enough, an expensive price tag doesn’t necessarily indicate that a hotel will be clean. Knowing what I know about resorts from my time working in one, I cannot emphasize this enough.

The expense of maintaining a resort compared to a budget accommodation is astronomical, with larger rooms to maintain, a spa and restaurant to staff, and extensive grounds to upkeep. It is easy to see how a lean season for a resort might mean corners end up getting cut in housekeeping or maintenance.

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A small 2016 study conducted by TravelMath actually found that budget-friendly accommodations were cleaner than luxury accommodations. They swabbed surfaces throughout hotel rooms, like the bathroom counter, the phone, and the remote control, and tested those swabs for germs to determine the number of CFUs, or colony forming units of bacteria, were present.

The results might make you squeamish.

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The bathroom counters in rooms of all star ratings tested for an average of 1,288,817 CFUs. Four-star hotels had the highest average bathroom-counter CFU count, with an average of 2,534,773 CFUs. Moving on to the remote control, scientists found an average of 232,733 CFUs per square inch on the remote controls in three-star hotels. In the five-star hotels, the number is downright scary, with an average of 2,002,300 CFUs per square inch. That’s enough to inspire a large investment in Clorox wipes.

Beyond the Basics: Amenities

While you could easily argue that cost isn’t closely tied to cleanliness, the same is not true of amenities. In my experience, the biggest difference between an affordable and a luxury-brand hotel is in the amenities, and Blake is quick to point this out as well.

“This point may vary quite a bit for budget accommodations: Some are no frills and you’re lucky if they have soap and a bottle of water for you. Others have a full spread of toiletries, slippers and robes, and maybe even a hair dryer and iron,” Blake explains.

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This is in comparison to an expensive or luxury hotel, which will always have high-quality amenities like complimentary name-brand beverages in the room or name-brand toiletries in the bathroom. High-end hotels also have the extras, according to Blake, like a pool, spa, gym, and landscaped gardens, golf courses, or patios.

Another way I have seen this play out is in the food that is offered at different hotels. Many hotels offer food, either for free or as a part of a package. While this is an amenity often offered by both budget and high-end options, a closer look will likely reveal a big difference in what is offered.

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A small buffet of pre-cooked breakfast food, warmed in a convection oven, is fairly standard in budget-friendly hotels like Holiday Inn, Hampton Inn, and more. Luxury brands are more likely to include meal tickets to be used for a sit-down meal at a made-to-order restaurant or at the least a made-fresh buffet.

From there, there is so much to choose from when looking at hotels and the amenities they offer. Do you want access to a spa and a full workout room? These are most likely to be available at luxury hotels and resorts. Need a babysitter on site so you can enjoy yourself kid-free for a day or night? Look to luxury options like Club Med, Disney, and Atlantis.

It’s the little things.

Another thing to consider when booking a room is that what you spend might be directly tied to the quality of the sleep you get while you’re there. It makes sense when Blake says that a more expensive hotel means a more comfortable experience.

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“In a high-class hotel, you would almost always expect a top-of-the-line mattress and pillows, fluffy towels, a bathrobe, and a perfectly functioning heat and A/C,” she says. “Budget accommodations will vary widely on these points: Mattresses are more firm in Asia, for example, and that’s likely what you’ll find and sheets won’t be as fine of a thread. The wifi might be temperamental and a lightbulb might go out.”

Blake is quick to clarify that it isn’t impossible to find a comfortable hotel on a budget. There are many budget-friendly options that have built a reputation on making sure their guests feel at home while they are there.

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Another “little thing” that makes a big difference is the way a hotel looks, according to Blake. This may not be a priority for some travelers, but others prioritize this part of their experience.

“One of the more subtle yet profound differences between budget and expensive accommodations is décor,” she says. “Whether the design is modern rustic, Scandinavian simplicity, or Old World prestige, a high-end hotel will have put significant resources toward the ambiance, feel, and perceived value of the hotel.”

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She goes on to explain that high-end establishments may build their reputations on being boutique hotels with unique and decadent decor. This might be accomplished with unusual architecture, fine art, and even handcrafted furniture. A budget hotel might not look bad, or even outdated, but its decor is likely more cookie cutter.

How to Get Your Money’s Worth

It seems that “it really depends” is the theme of this deep dive. While it is absolutely true that you don’t need to spend several hundred dollars a night for an enjoyable overnight stay, you will need to make smart choices and do your research before booking your room if you’re trying to stay within a smaller budget.

First things, first—know what you want from your hotel stay! Everyone has different priorities when they travel. Is this the type of trip where a clean room and a bed is all you need? Or is it a romantic getaway, and you’re hoping for more than the basics during your trip? Take these things into account as you create your budget and start your search for the perfect hotel.

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Next, you’ll want to do your research. This goes beyond looking at a star rating since we’ve established that those only refer to the amenities and extras provided. To gauge something like cleanliness, we recommend finding out what previous guests have to say about a hotel by browsing rating sites like Travelocity and TripAdvisor before you book.

A word of warning, though: Not all reviewers can be trusted! Before you take a negative reviewer at their word, see if that reviewer typically leaves nasty reviews. The problem might not be the hotel; it might be the guest. By comparison, if someone normally leaves complimentary reviews but has harsh things to say about the hotel, you can probably take them at their word and steer clear of that specific establishment.

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If you want to cut back on your research time, most booking sites allow you to sort search results by their average rating. This will allow you to filter out any hotels with an average star rating that is scary low, focusing your attention on hotels with three stars or more. Just a note about star ratings on these sites: These are not Forbes stars! Most hotel booking sites have their own systems for rating, which are based on the reviews and ratings left by previous guests.  

According to USA Today, the Better Business Bureau is another good resource for researching a hotel. Previous guests can file formal complaints after a particularly bad stay. This is the information you will definitely want to know before booking a hotel!

Lastly, don’t be afraid to do a walkthrough before you get settled into the suite you end up choosing. Pull back the bedspread and check for stray hairs or bedbugs. Do a quick inspection of your bathroom to make sure it is up to your standards. If you’re unsatisfied with the cleanliness of your room, speak with a manager about getting it refreshed or getting a refund so you can move on to better accommodations. It’s not too late to turn your stay around!

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