Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Picking Hotels in Italy

OK, for this entry let's look at the process we went through in selecting our hotels for our Italy trip.  Unlike air fare, where you've really got very little in the way of selection or competitive pricing, lodging tends to offer a lot more opportunity to save, although as you'll see in most cases substantial savings come at the cost of other aspects of your vacation experience.  Still, if you're spending most of your time in major cities you will at least have a large number of options available to you.

So, how do you select a hotel?  A lot of it comes down to what your expectations are when it comes to travel.  Much like increasing your chances of getting a date, the number one way to cut lodging costs is to lower your standards.  Some folks are perfectly comfortable staying in places that offer little more than a bed and a door that locks, with shared bath and shower facilities  down the hall and not much else in the way of creature comforts (like, for example, air conditioning).  Others (like me) have grown accustomed to a certain level of luxury when traveling (private baths, in-room AC, bar/restaurant on premises, etc.) and not having these comforts available would result in a less pleasant travel experience.

If you don't care about much aside from having a flat surface to collapse on at the end of the day there's a really good chance you can find a very affordable (€40-75/night) place somewhere in a major city like Rome or Florence without much trouble.  Think 2-star joints -- it might be kind of run-down, most likely not air conditioned except (perhaps) in the common areas, and chances are most of the staff will not speak much English, but chances are it'll be adequate and safe, if not exactly picaresque.

If you're looking for a little more comfort, but still want to keep costs down, you can grab places that are farther out from the main attractions.  Again, depending on the city this may or may not be a big deal. In Rome, as long as you're near the Metro it's really easy to grab a train and get to the heart of the city.  In a smaller city like Florence spending all day walking to major spots is much more doable. But just be aware you might be trading easy access to the city and its sights for savings, and you'll probably need to be more rigid in planning your itineraries for the day to avoid unnecessary time-consuming trips back and forth to the hotel.

What We Did:

But in our case, we've really left the days of roughing it behind, and we both want a place with more amenities and a bit of style that also afforded us the ability to quickly access the main attractions of the various locales.  So, we looked for places that were more upscale, if not 5-star deluxe, but also centrally located (at least in Rome and Florence: we figured after 5 days in Rome, when we got to Sorrento we'd be fine with being out in the boonies a bit).

If you are going to be picky, but still want to try to avoid blowing huge wads of cash, it's time to start researching like mad.  We used Rick Steves' Italy guidebook (which included recommendations for many hotels at different price points), as well as extensive research on Tripadvisor, Travelocity and to get opinions from other travelers that had stayed at the properties that caught our eye.

We also spent a lot of time looking at the location of the hotels. This is especially true of our hotel in Rome (well, we actually wound up reserving and/or cancelling reservations at different hotels in Rome: more on that in a bit).  One of the pleasures of Rome that we are looking forward to is just strolling around the city in the evening, wandering until we get tired and just walking back to the hotel when we're ready.  Obviously, if your hotel is somewhere in the Hinterlands this will be less appealing.  Needless to say, the closer you are to the "hot spots" the more likely you'll pay through the nose.

Anyway, after much hemming and hawing we finally settled on one hotel in Rome, one in Sorrento, and one in Florence, leaving a decision about our final night in Rome (after returning from Florence, but before departing the following morning for our return flight home) open for the time being.  The hotel in Rome we contacted directly, as we'd heard that they offered discounted rates if you a) mentioned that you'd found the through Rick Steves and b) agreed to pay in cash upon departure instead of by credit card (this is very common in Italy, by the way).  The hotels in Sorrento and Florence, however, we reserved and paid for via, which offered us some really good prices as well as the ability to pre-pay for the hotels, thereby making budgeting for the trip a little more manageable.

One thing to keep an eye on is the cancellation policies.  In pretty much every case there were no non-refundable deposits, and all of the hotels were fine with cancellations right up to 48 hours prior to arrival, but caveat emptor yada yada. typically has a full refund policy, too.  Which can come in handy ...

... especially if you're a pain in the ass, who can't make up his mind.  Like me.

So, here are the hotels we initially booked:
  • Rome -- Residenza Cellini: Nice location, lovely building, tastefully decorated
  • Sorrento -- Hotel Prestige: Beautiful and relaxed place in the hills overlooking Sorrento, with views of the Gulfs of Naples and Salerno
  • Florence -- UNA Hotel Florence: High-style, trendy, uber-cool modern hotel.
Of these the hotel in Rome was by far the most expensive per night (approx. €180/night), plus we were going to have to pay them in Euros, cash, to get the best rate.  The hotels in Sorrento and Florence we purchased via, with decent rates and good discounts for early booking (the place in Sorrento was, relatively, a steal, at less than $300 for the weekend!).

So, these stuck for a couple of weeks.  And then, one day, it hit me:  We're not locked into the hotel in Rome or anything.  We can keep looking, waiting for sales or discounts to pop up on  So we did.  And after a bit of peeking and researching, we chose to cancel there and instead book a room via at the Hotel Diocleziano.  Very well reviewed, conveniently located within walking distance of the Roma Termini station, slightly less than the Residenza Cellini, and we can get it all paid up in advance and not worry about dragging a bunch of cash with us.  Sounds perfect!

A little later, we finally decided on a hotel for our final night in Rome.  In a fit of break-the-piggy-bank exuberance we decided to splurge, opting for a truly luxurious and beautiful boutique hotel on the Aventine Hill: The Hotel San Anselmo.  Gorgeous property in a very different area that the Deko Rome for our final night.  Incredible design and style, with each room uniquely decorated.  Balconies with views of central Rome.  Truly amazing place (seriously -- here's our room, here's the hotel. Zowie).

So, now we've got a) 1 truly astonishing boutique hotel in Rome, b) a relaxing retreat with views of the bays nestled in the hills in Sorrento, c) an ultra-modern trendy design hotel in Florence, and d) the Hotel Diocleziano.  Which looks ...

... nice? 

With rooms that look like they were decorated -- well -- about 30 years ago.  Simple and utilitarian.  Like an upscale Holiday Inn. And which is located by a big train station.  In a neighborhood which according to other travelers tends to be a little less than "nice" after dark -- not dangerous, just kind of ... grimy.

And with that I'm done.

So, here I go.  I start researching again.  I start dropping notes and sending messages and posting to forums, until Lo and Behold!  I hit on the perfect hotel!  The Deko Rome. Number one rating of all hotels in Rome on Tripadvisor.  Hundreds of 5 star reviews.  Located in a wonderful little spot just off Via Veneto, 10 minutes walk from the Spanish Steps.  Remarkably, not insanely expensive -- just very difficult to get. I ping them, hoping that maybe, just maybe, they've got a room available.

And they do!  But, due to availability (it's a very small place -- 6 rooms) we'll need to take a suite for the first night, for an extra €50, then switch to a double for the remainder of our stay at €175/night. Excited, but figuring "the worst they can say is no!" I agree but suggest €175 a night across the board instead of paying extra for the suite, since we really don't want/need it and the owner graciously agrees (actually, he said "Oh, what the heck, sure!"  His name's Marco and he's very nice). It's a total win, although we are now back to having to acquire a pile of Euros to pay when we depart. How to do this as inexpensively as possible is yet another task that I'll cover in a future entry.

At this point, Christine made me promise to step away from the computer and just stop already. In my defense I'll just say that OCD may be kind of frightening, but it can generate some kick-ass results!

So, the moral is: plan ahead as far as you can.  Get a good grasp on what you want, and what you're willing to pay for it.  Research research research.  Make reservations early  and if possible pre-pay (as long as you can cancel at will and get a full refund no questions asked) to make budgeting as easy as possible.  And don't be afraid to change your plans.  As you prepare for your trip you'll find your plans will shift.  You'll come to understand the location of the things that matter most to you in relation to your lodging, and if it looks like you'll spend too much time hoofing it back and forth, don't be afraid to find a place that's more reasonable/appropriate.

Well, that's more than enough on that topic.  Next entry we'll look at cars, trains, ferries, and so forth.

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