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Hotels vs Booking Websites vs Consumers in Italy

I favor hotels and restaurants that are handy to your sightseeing activities. Rather than list hotels scattered throughout a city, I choose hotels in my favorite neighborhoods. My recommendations run the gamut, from dorm beds to fancy rooms with all of the comforts. To stay in the countryside, try agriturismo farmhouses—I’ve listed several.

Extensive and opinionated listings of good-value rooms are a major feature of this book’s Sleeping sections. I like places that are clean, central, relatively quiet at night, reasonably priced, friendly, small enough to have a hands-on owner and stable staff, and run with a respect for Italian traditions. I’m more impressed by a convenient location and a fun-loving philosophy than flat-screen TVs and a fancy gym. Most places I recommend fall short of perfection. But if I can find a place with most of these features, it’s a keeper.

Some people make reservations as they travel, calling hotels a few days to a week before their arrival. If you anticipate crowds (worst weekdays at business destinations and weekends at tourist locales) on the day you want to check in, call hotels at about 9:00 or 10:00, when the receptionist knows who’ll be checking out and which rooms will be available. Some apps—such as HotelTonight.com—specialize in last-minute rooms, often at business-class hotels in big cities. If you encounter a language barrier, ask the fluent receptionist at your current hotel to call for you.

RATES AND DEALS

I’ve categorized my recommended accommodations based on price, indicated with a dollar-sign rating (see sidebar). The price ranges suggest an estimated cost for a one-night stay in a standard double room with a private toilet and shower in high season, include breakfast, and assume you’re booking directly with the hotel (not through a booking site, which extracts a commission). Room prices can fluctuate significantly with demand and amenities (size, views, room class, and so on), but relative price categories remain

constant. While most taxes are included in the price, a variable city tax of €1.50-5/person per night is often added to hotel bills (and is not included in the prices in this book). Some hoteliers will ask to collect the city tax in cash to make their bookkeeping and accounting simpler.

Sleep Code

Hotels are classified based on the average price of a standard double room with breakfast in high season.

$$$$ Splurge: Most rooms over €170
$$$ Pricier: €130-170
$$ Moderate: €90-130
$ Budget: €50-90
¢ Backpacker: Under €50
RS% Rick Steves discount

Unless otherwise noted, credit cards are accepted, hotel staff speak basic English, and free Wi-Fi is available. Comparison-shop by checking prices at several hotels (on each hotel’s own website, on a booking site, or by email). For the best deal, book directly with the hotel. Ask for a discount if paying in cash; if the listing includes RS%, request a Rick Steves discount.

Room rates are especially volatile at larger hotels that use “dynamic pricing” to set rates. Prices can skyrocket during festivals and conventions, while business hotels can have deep discounts on weekends when demand plummets. Of the many hotels I recommend, it’s difficult to say which will be the best value on a given day—until you do your homework.

Once your dates are set, check the specific price for your preferred stay at several hotels. You can do this either by comparing prices on Hotels.com or Booking.com, or by checking the hotels’ own websites. To get the best deal, contact my family-run hotels directly by phone or email.

When you go direct, the owner avoids the 20 percent commission, giving them wiggle room to offer you a discount, a nicer room, or free breakfast if it’s not already included (see sidebar). If you prefer to book online or are considering a hotel chain, it’s to your advantage to use the hotel’s website.

Some hotels offer a discount to those who pay cash or stay longer than three nights. To cut costs further, try asking for a cheaper room (for example, with a shared bathroom or no window) or offer to skip breakfast.

Additionally, some accommodations offer a special discount for Rick Steves readers, indicated in this guidebook by the abbreviation “RS%.” Discounts vary: Ask for details when you reserve. Generally, to qualify you must book directly with the hotel (that is, not through a booking site), mention this book when you reserve, show this book upon arrival, and sometimes pay cash or stay a certain number of nights. In some cases, you may need to enter a discount code (which I’ve provided in the listing) in the booking form on the hotel’s website. Rick Steves discounts apply to readers with ebooks as well as printed books. Understandably, discounts do not apply to promotional rates.

Haggle if you arrive late in the day during off-season (roughly mid-July-Aug and Nov-mid-March). It’s common for hotels in Rome to lower their prices 10-50 percent in the off-season, although prices at hostels and cheaper hotels won’t fluctuate much. Room rates are lowest in sweltering August.

TYPES OF ACCOMMODATIONS

Hotels

Double rooms listed in this book range from about €50 (very simple, toilet and shower down the hall) to €450 (maximum plumbing and more), with most clustered around €140 (with private bathrooms). Prices are higher in big cities and heavily touristed cities, and lower off the beaten path. Traveling alone can be expensive: A camera singola is often only 25 percent less than a camera doppia.

The Italian word for “hotel” is hotel, and in smaller, nontouristy towns, albergo. A few places have kept the old titles locanda or pensione, indicating that they offer budget beds.

Most listed hotels have rooms for any size group, from one to five people. Some hotels can add an extra bed (for a small charge) to turn a double into a triple; some offer larger rooms for four or more people (I call these “family rooms” in the listings). If there’s space for an extra cot, they’ll cram it in for you. In general, a triple room is cheaper than the cost of a double and a single. Three or four people can economize by requesting one big room.

Arrival and Check-In

Hotels and B&Bs are sometimes located on the higher floors of a multipurpose building with a secured door. In that case, look for your hotel’s name on the buttons by the main entrance. When you ring the bell, you’ll be buzzed in. (The hotelier doesn’t control the building’s common areas, so try not to let a slightly dingy entryway color your opinion of the hotel.)

Hotel elevators are becoming more common, though some older buildings still lack an elevator, or you may have to climb a flight of stairs to reach it (if so, you can ask the front desk for help carrying your bags up). Also, elevators are often very small—pack light, or you may need to send your bags up without you.

When you check in, the receptionist will normally ask for your passport and keep it for anywhere from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. Hotels are legally required to register each guest with the police. Relax. Americans are notorious for making this chore more difficult than it needs to be.

Hotels vs. Booking Websites vs. Consumers

In the last decade it’s become almost impossible for independent-minded, family-run hotels to survive without playing the game as dictated by the big players in the online booking world. Priceline’s Booking.com and Expedia’s Hotels.com take roughly 80 percent of this business. Hoteliers note that without this online presence, “We become almost invisible.” Online booking services demand about a 20 percent commission. And in order to be listed, a hotel must promise that its website does not undercut the price on the third-party’s website. Without that restriction, hoteliers could say, “Sure, sell our rooms for whatever markup you like, and we’ll continue to offer a fair rate to travelers who come to us directly”—but that’s not allowed.

Here’s the work-around: For independent and family-run hotels, book directly by email or phone, in which case hotel owners are free to give you whatever price they like. Research the price online, and then ask for a room without the commission markup. You could ask them to split the difference—the hotel charges you 10 percent less but pockets 10 percent more. Or you can ask for a free breakfast or free upgrade.

If you do book online, be sure to use the hotel’s website (you’ll likely pay the same price as via a booking site, but your money goes to the hotel, not agency commissions).

As consumers, remember: Whenever you book with an online booking service, you’re adding a needless middleman who takes roughly 20 percent. If you’d like to support family-run hotels whose world is more difficult than ever, book direct.

If you’re arriving in the morning, your room probably won’t be ready. Check your bag safely at the hotel and dive right into sightseeing.

In Your Room: More pillows and blankets are usually in the closet or available on request. Towels and linens aren’t always replaced every day. Hang your towel up to dry. Some hotels use lightweight “waffle,” or very thin, tablecloth-type towels; these take less water and electricity to launder and are preferred by many Italians.

Nearly all places offer private bathrooms. You’ll save by booking a room with a shared bathroom down the hall. Generally rooms with a private bathroom have a bath or shower, a toilet, and a bidet (which Italians use for quick sponge baths). The cord over the tub or shower is not a clothesline. You pull it when you’ve fallen and can’t get up.

Most hotel rooms have a TV, telephone, and free Wi-Fi (although in old buildings with thick walls, the Wi-Fi signal doesn’t always make it to the rooms; sometimes it’s only available in the lobby). Sometimes there’s a guest computer with Internet access in the lobby. Simpler places rarely have a room phone, but often have free Wi-Fi. Pricier hotels usually come with a small fridge stocked with beverages called a frigo bar (FREE-goh bar; pay for what you use).

Double beds are called matrimoniale, even though hotels aren’t interested in your marital status. Twins are due letti singoli. Convents offer cheap accommodation but have more letti singoli than matrimoniali.

Breakfast and Meals: Italian hotels typically include breakfast in their room prices. If breakfast is optional, you may want to skip it. While convenient, it’s usually pricey for what you get: a simple continental buffet with (at its most generous) bread, ham, cheese, yogurt, and unlimited caffè latte. A picnic in your room followed by a coffee at the corner café can be lots cheaper.

Hotels in resort areas will often charge you for half-pension, called mezza pensione, during peak season (about May-mid-Oct for resorts). Half-pension means that you pay for one meal per day per person (lunch or dinner, though usually dinner), whether you want to or not. Wine is rarely included. If half-pension is required, you can’t opt out and pay less. If it’s offered as an option, it can be worth considering, especially if they charge less per meal than you’ve been paying for an average restaurant meal (and provided the chef is good).

Checking Out: While it’s customary to pay for your room upon departure, it can be a good idea to settle your bill the day before, when you’re not in a hurry and while the manager’s in. That way you’ll have time to discuss and address any points of contention.

Hotelier Help: Hoteliers can be a good source of advice. Most know their city well, and can assist you with everything from public transit and airport connections to finding a good restaurant, the nearest launderette, or a late-night pharmacy. English works in all but the cheapest places.

Hotel Hassles: Even at the best places, mechanical breakdowns occur: Sinks leak, hot water turns cold, toilets may gurgle or smell, the Wi-Fi goes out, or the air-conditioning dies when you need it most. Report your concerns clearly and calmly at the front desk. For more complicated problems, don’t expect instant results. Above all, keep a positive attitude. Remember, you’re on vacation. If your hotel is a disappointment, spend more time out enjoying the place you came to see.

Making Hotel Reservations

Reserve your rooms as soon as you’ve pinned down your travel dates. For busy national holidays, it’s wise to reserve far in advance.

Requesting a Reservation: For family-run hotels, it’s generally cheaper to book your room directly via email or a phone call. For business-class hotels, or if you’d rather book online, reserve directly through the hotel’s official website (not a booking agency’s site). For complicated requests, send an email. Almost all of my recommended hotels take reservations in English.

Here’s what the hotelier wants to know:

• type(s) of rooms you need and size of your party

• number of nights you’ll stay

• your arrival and departure dates, written European-style as day/month/year (for example, 18/06/20 or 18 June 2020);

• special requests (such as en suite bathroom vs. down the hall, cheapest room, twin beds vs. double bed, quiet room)

• applicable discounts (such as a Rick Steves reader discount, cash discount, or promotional rate)

Confirming a Reservation: Most places will request a credit-card number to hold your room. If you’re using an online reservation form, look for the https or a lock icon at the top of your browser. If you book direct, you can email, call, or fax this information.

Canceling a Reservation: If you must cancel, it’s courteous—and smart—to do so with as much notice as possible, especially for smaller family-run places (which describes many of the hotels I list). Cancellation policies can be strict; read the fine print or ask about these before you book. Many discount deals require prepayment, with no cancellation refunds.

From: [email protected]
Sent: Today
To: [email protected]
Subject: Reservation request for 19-22 July

Dear Hotel Central,

I would like to stay at your hotel. Please let me know if you have a room available and the price for:

  • 2 people
  • Double bed and en suite bathroom in a quiet room
  • Arriving 19 July, departing 22 July (3 nights)

Thank you!

Rick Steves

Reconfirming a Reservation: Always call or email to reconfirm your room reservation a few days in advance. For B&Bs or very small hotels, I call again on my day of arrival to tell my host what time to expect me (especially important if arriving late—after 17:00).

Phoning: For tips on calling hotels overseas.

If you find that night noise is a problem (if, for instance, your room is over a nightclub), ask for a quieter room in the back or on an upper floor. To guard against theft in your room, keep valuables out of sight. Some rooms come with a safe, and some hotels have safes at the front desk. I’ve never bothered using one and, in a lifetime of travel, I’ve never had anything stolen out of my room.

Short-Term Rentals

A short-term rental—whether an apartment, house, or room in a local’s home—is an increasingly popular alternative, especially if you plan to settle in one location for several nights. For stays longer than a few days, you can usually find a rental that’s comparable to—and even cheaper than—a hotel room with similar amenities. Plus, you’ll get a behind-the-scenes peek into how locals live.

Many places require a minimum-night stay, and compared to hotels, rentals usually have less-flexible cancellation policies. And you’re generally on your own: There’s no hotel reception desk, breakfast, or daily cleaning service.

Finding Accommodations: Aggregator websites such as Airbnb, FlipKey, Roomorama, Booking.com, and the HomeAway family of sites (HomeAway, VRBO, and VacationRentals) let you browse properties and correspond directly with European property owners or managers. If you prefer to work from a curated list of accommodations, consider using a rental agency such as InterhomeUSA.com or RentaVilla.com. Agency-represented apartments typically cost more, but this method often offers more help and safeguards than booking direct. Or try Steve and Linda of Cross-Pollinate, a booking service for private rooms and apartments in the old centers of Rome, Florence, and Venice; rates start at €30 per person (www.cross-pollinate.com).

Before you commit, be clear on the details, location, and amenities. I like to virtually “explore” the neighborhood using the Street View feature on Google Maps. Also consider the proximity to public transportation, and how well-connected the property is with the rest of the city. Ask about amenities (elevator, air-conditioning, laundry, coffee maker, Wi-Fi, parking, etc.). Reviews from previous guests can help identify trouble spots.

Keep Cool

If you’re visiting Italy in the summer, the extra expense of an air-conditioned room can be money well spent, particularly in the south. Most hotel rooms with air-conditioners come with a control stick (like a TV remote; the hotel may require a deposit) that generally has similar symbols and features: fan icon (click to toggle through wind power, from light to gale); louver icon (choose steady airflow or waves); snowflake and sunshine icons (cold air or heat); clock (“O” setting: run X hours before turning off; “I” setting: wait X hours to start); and the temperature control (20 degrees Celsius is comfortable). When you leave your room for the day, turning off the air-conditioning is good form.

Think about the kind of experience you want: Just a key and an affordable bed…or a chance to get to know a local? There are typically two kinds of hosts: those who want minimal interaction with their guests, and hosts who are friendly and may want to interact with you. Read the promotional text and online reviews to help shape your decision.

Apartments and Rental Houses: If you’re staying somewhere for four nights or longer, it’s worth considering an apartment or rental house (shorter stays aren’t worth the hassle of arranging key pickup, buying groceries, etc.). Apartment and house rentals can be especially cost-effective for groups and families. European apartments, like hotel rooms, tend to be small by US standards. But they often come with laundry machines and small, equipped kitchens (cucinetta), making it easier and cheaper to dine in. If you make good use of the kitchen (and Europe’s great produce markets), you’ll save on your meal budget.

Private and Shared Rooms: In small towns, there are often few hotels or apartments to choose from, but an abundance of affittacamere, or rental rooms. This can be anything from a set of keys and a basic bed to a cozy B&B with your own Tuscan grandmother. Renting a room in someone’s home is a good option for those traveling alone, as you’re more likely to find true single rooms—with just one single bed, and a price to match. Beds range from air-mattress-in-living-room basic to plush-B&B-suite posh. Some places allow you to book for a single night; if staying for several nights, you can buy groceries just as you would in a rental house. While you can’t expect your host to also be your tour guide—or even to provide you with much info—some may be interested in getting to know the travelers who come through their home.

In Italy, even luxury B&Bs can suffer from absentee management—the proprietors often live off-site (or even in another town) and may be around only when they are expecting guests, so clearly communicate your arrival time. After checking in, be sure you have your host’s telephone number in case you need to reach them.

Local TIs can give you a list of possibilities (or try one of the many aggregator websites that book B&Bs and hostels in Rome, Florence, Milan, Naples, and Venice). These rooms are usually a good budget option, but since they vary in quality, shop around to find the best value. It’s always OK to ask to see the room before you commit.

Other Options: Swapping homes with a local works for people with an appealing place to offer, and who can live with the idea of having strangers in their home (don’t assume where you live is not interesting to Europeans). A good place to start is HomeExchange. To sleep for free, Couchsurfing.com is a vagabond’s alternative to Airbnb. It lists millions of outgoing members, who host fellow “surfers” in their homes.Confirming and Paying: Many places require you to pay the entire balance before your trip. It’s easiest and safest to pay through the site where you found the listing. Be wary of owners who want to take your transaction offline to avoid fees; this gives you no recourse if things go awry. Never agree to wire money (a key indicator of a fraudulent transaction).

Written by Emily Olson

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