Booking a hotel halfway around the world

india2As we make our plans for India, we have been very lucky in that we have an inside track: our friend Richard has lived in India for the past few years, and recommended hotels in two of the four cities we will be visiting: Jaipur and Kathmandu. Having stayed in them both himself, we saw no reason not to take his word. Even more delightfully, Richard has graciously offered us to stay with him and his family upon our arrival in Delhi. So, that left just one city in which to nail down a hotel: Kolkata. This proved to be a challenge, given the overwhelming size of the city, and therefore sheer number and types of accommodation available.

Asking around my office–I have a number of Indian coworkers–I was unable to turn up any solid advice for Kolkata, beyond the expected “Taj hotels are always nice.” Taj hotels are VERY nice, in fact, but they also tend to be quite expensive.

In our early days of marriage we would plan an afternoon at a bookstore perusing a stack of books for our destination, making notes to follow up on back at home in front of the computer (oh, how 1999!). A good travel guide – like those Rick Steves publishes – can be excellent resources for hotel recommendations, provided that you know and trust the writer of the reviews, and you know that their preferences/opinions align with your own. Unfortunately, Rick doesn’t publish books on India.

We have several guide books on India at this point, of course, but the selections are surprisingly limited in each. For any given city, only a handful of hotels are recommended, some completely out of our price range, others more like hostels with shared bathrooms.

Short of getting a personal recommendation from someone you trust, how are you to know what hotels will suit your needs? Which are worth the money, and which are overpriced for that “complementary breakfast”? Which ones have really helpful staff, or those that are just pushy? 

Everyone has their own unique requirements and opinions for what constitutes a good hotel, one perfect for their needs. Some people want the luxury experience of a five-star hotel; others prefer small B&Bs where you gather with other guests in a parlor for afternoon tea. For some, a guest house with shared baths is just fine. 

We generally prefer a more traditional hotel (private bathrooms, a lobby), but we definitely don’t need a bellhop, or room service, or lots of luxury. We could care less about a TV in the room. WiFi is nice, but not essential. What we want is simply a clean, centrally located hotel, with helpful staff when you need it, and if there is no restaurant in the hotel, one should be within close walking distance. That’s pretty much it. 

Since about 2009 we have relied almost exclusively on Trip Advisor. We booked accommodations in Marrakech, Madrid, Prague, Belize, and Nicaragua based on the reviews on the site, and have not yet been steered wrong. Now, I know there is a lot of debate on the web about the benefits (or not) of crowd-reviewed sites like TA, but for us, it has proven to be reliable and invaluable. BUT the key to using TA, or any site like it, is reading the customer reviews carefully, and being able to tell the ones written by crackpots with a grudge, or people with unreasonable expectations. You have to know how to read between the lines, as well as look at the overall ratings of a place. 

A hotel that has a handful (say less than 10) of “terrible” reviews, yet has several hundred or more “excellent” or “very good” ratings, is one worth considering, especially if you read the “terribles” and find out it either is due to a booking error on the part of a third party agent, or is because someone assumed there would be free wi-fi and there wasn’t (that seems to be a common cause for misplaced anger), or even sillier, in one recent entry I read, the reviewer wrote that the hotel was clean, staff was very helpful, everything was great, BUT they waited 35 minutes to get french fries from room service. So they gave the hotel one star. 

Actually, quite a lot of the bad reviews seem to involve mistaken or missing reservations, which appears to occur with much greater frequency when a third-party booking site or travel agent is used. For that reason, we always like to book our hotels directly.

In the end, we found what looks like a lovely hotel for our four nights in Kolkata: the Kenilworth. It’s more expensive than some others we considered–in fact it’s the most expensive hotel we’ll be staying in this trip–but it’s still far less than a comparable hotel in Boston or London or even Portland would be. And, it is centrally located to everything we want to do, and has a spa onsite, as well as a pub in the lobby. Given that we will be in one of the most populous cities in India during Diwali as well as Kali Puja, we expect to be a bit overwhelmed at times, and so we felt that this might be the right time to splurge.

3 thoughts on “Booking a hotel halfway around the world

  1. Trip Advisor is a lot more reliable than guidebooks for accommodations and restaurants. It takes about two years from the time the research is done until the time the printed book hits the store, by which time it could be already a bit outdated. Trip Advisor gives you current information and very strictly sifts out the self-serving reviews. You did well when sifting through the reviews. Have a great trip!

    1. Thanks! That’s what we’ve found, too. In the past we’ve been interested in a hotel recommended by a guidebook only to find their prices have changed significantly or they’ve closed.

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