If your idea of a bed and breakfast experience involves antique furniture, creaky floors, and sharing bathrooms and meals with strangers, well, you have the right idea.
However, this is just one possible B&B experience - the traditional one, if you will - that provides a chance to spend time with like-minded travelers in a quaint and eclectic home away from home. But if you look more closely at the B&B landscape you’ll find your choices are as diverse as a pack of American Idol finalists, ranging from happily staid to contemporary, romantic, and freaky.
Still, at its core, both the overall experience and the hospitality at a bed and breakfast is and should be more intimate than at a typical hotel. That may not sound like it’s for you, but chances are anyone can find a B&B out there whose characteristics and amenities are surprisingly in keeping with their travel style. If you’re wondering if you could ever be happy staying at a B&B, here’s what you need to know.
Book directly to avoid surprises.
Unlike many hotel chains who permit you to book stays through third-party Web sites and travel agencies, most B&B’s will only accept reservations directly. It’s critical that you have an actual telephone conversation with someone who works at the property. “In New York, we have seen many
couples from Europe wandering the streets in the morning with luggage and backpacks because they found a ‘bed and breakfast’ online through a site that didn't belong directly to the bed and breakfast,” observes Julie Barsamian, marketing director for Cook Travel. “When they arrive, no one is around, phone numbers aren't answered and they're scammed out of a place to stay.”
Even if the B&B has an online reservation system you’ll want to talk with the innkeeper about your room’s amenities. Does your room have a private bathroom and if so, does it have a shower stall as well as a bathtub? Does the fireplace in your room work? Also ask if the property welcomes kids. Some B&Bs, hoping to maintain a romantic or mature vibe as well as the integrity of its breakable objects, forbid children; sometimes the property will waive that policy if you’re booking the entire place. And some B&B’s try to accommodate couples as well as families. If you find that idea admirable but not desirable, ask when you book if there will be mostly couples or families there while you’re there.
Know how to game the busy season.
Wine country destinations are densely populated with B&Bs, but often book up well in advance during busy seasons. However, if you didn’t snag a room, don’t give up hope once you reach the destination. A few years ago traveler Dave Gardner and his wife went to Mendocino on a whim for a three-day weekend and booked no room ahead of time. He recalls that “by strange coincidence, Mendocino [had] a simultaneous art fair, wine fair, and music fair going on.” While strolling they asked someone tending a yard in front of a B&B what the rate was, “and he commented that one of the couples who had reserved a room had cancelled just the night before and he was unable to get someone to stay there until the following night. Following a spur-of-the-moment decision, my wife and I offered to stay there that one night - a great decision. We got a discounted rate, and the fellow was happy to have filled an otherwise empty room.”
Ask and ye shall receive…privacy.
While at any given B&B the more inexpensive rooms may not come with a private bathroom, “97% of B&Bs offer private baths,” according to Sandy Soule, vice president of marketing for BedandBreakfast.com, which regularly conducts surveys of innkeepers and B&B travelers. Of those B&B’s they surveyed, Soule also notes that “nearly one in two B&Bs offer guests private tables for breakfast and/or the option of having breakfast served to guests' rooms. And as for what she says is the misconception that overly familiar innkeepers often plop down at your table while you’re eating, Soule says that “guests eat in dining rooms and may be served by the innkeepers, but they rarely sit down at the table …they’re too busy making breakfast in the kitchen.”
If the idea of being served food privately - particularly in your room - packs appeal, verify before you go that the innkeepers offer this option. Some B&Bs don’t, or will only have baked goods and other portable snacks on hand to bring back to your room. Some B&B’s will also charge extra for the privilege of having a hot breakfast tray brought to your room so that, as one B&B staffer put it, “you don’t have to mingle with the hoi polloi.”
Find out how the place is wired.
According to the U.S. innkeepers surveyed, Soule says that “more than 76% offer in-room TVs; 56% have complimentary in-room DVD or video players and fee-free movies, and nearly 40% have iPod docking stations and/or computers for guest use.” She goes on to say that business travelers might be pleasantly surprised at how their needs are met, as “nearly 60% of B&Bs offer fax and copying services, one in three B&Bs has corporate or government rates for business travelers, and one in four B&Bs even have frequent stay programs.”
Technology has pervaded some overseas B&B’s, too. Thomas Christel, who with his wife owns B&B La Torretta Bianca in San Benedetto del Tronto, Italy, says about a quarter of their clientele comes from repeat business travelers, and “the number one reason we find our guests [enjoy] staying at our B&B are the additional services provided, [such as] free Internet access and Wi-Fi and business services like faxing and copying.”
Find a B&B that gets you.
For a walk on the contemporary side, INN at 2920 in Baltimore gets high marks for being hip and romantic, and Modern B&B in Houston has a an almost high-tech communal living feel. If you lean more toward the traditional and Victorian, Bridgestreet House in Lambertville, NJ (technically in a pre-Victorian, Federal-style row house) has the requisite Victorian furnishings and serves a good breakfast. Lambertville itself is also one of those underappreciated Jersey towns that’s jammed with antique shops and art galleries if you like that sort of thing. For overall romance it’s hard to beat Hacienda del Sol in Taos. Your room’s adobe walls and wood-burning kiva fireplace won’t let you forget for a second that you’re in New Mexico, nor will your jaw-dropping backyard view of Taos Mountain.
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