10 Things Your Bed & Breakfast Won't Tell You

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1. "We operate without much oversight."
Running a bed-and-breakfast sounds like a dream job for many folks, and plenty are willing to give it a shot. Today there are more than 20,000 licensed bed-and-breakfasts in the U.S., according to the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, up from a mere 1,000 in 1980. With guests spending a collective 55 million nights at B&Bs last year, according to PAII estimates, many innkeepers often find themselves struggling to manage even the basics, which can turn your dream getaway into a weekend of hassles.

A good litmus test before you book is to check whether a B&B is a member of its state or regional association; that usually means it operates within city and state laws, has met all licensing requirements, and carries commercial liability insurance. Most member B&Bs also get inspected for cleanliness, safety and hospitality. To find them, start with the PAII's Web site, www.paii.org, which has links or phone numbers for state and other associations.

Keep in mind, though, some good small B&Bs may forgo association membership because of costly dues. As a backup, make sure the inn belongs to its local convention and visitors' bureau, or chamber of commerce.

2. "We pay to be in travel directories."
One way a lot of travelers hunt for a B&B in a certain locale is by using one of some 200 online travel directories, such as BedandBreakfast.com and BBOnline.com. On such sites you can find rates, a short description and a picture of the property. Bigger directories like them can even let you screen B&Bs for niceties such as, say, fireplaces.

Just don't expect to find independent reviews on these sites. Most property descriptions are written by the innkeepers, who almost always pay to be featured. For true third-party reviews, check out www.tripadvisor.com, which lists more than 11,000 bed-and-breakfasts, many of which are reviewed online by former guests. Another good resource: www.we8there.com, which has 190 bed-and-breakfast guest reviews.

If you can't find any guest-written reviews, look on the bed-and-breakfast's Web site. Also, note the size of the property. In cottages with just one or two guest rooms, you're going to feel as if you're staying in someone's home, says Helen Bartlett, a Hot Springs, Ark.-based inn consultant. One quick rule of thumb: If the inn has been running for more than 10 years, even under different management, it tends to be a good property, she says.

3. "We'll cut you a last-minute deal."
Seasoned B&B-goers know that many of the most popular inns can book up more than six months in advance. But B&Bs may not always be as full as you think. These days, with the growth in last-minute travel, many bed-and-breakfasts are offering steep discounts to spur-of-the-moment guests. Indeed, you can often get up to a 40 percent discount for booking the week of your stay.

To find these deals, you're best served by going back to those online directories. BedandBreakfast.com lists "hot deals" every Wednesday, and BBOnline.com shows properties with current last-minute discounts by state. Sometimes the prices are too good to pass up. Micah-Shane Brewer, a theater director in Morristown, Tenn., paid $150 for a $250 suite with a hot tub at the Christopher Place in Newport, Tenn., by booking a few days before his trip. "I wouldn't have traveled if I couldn't have gotten that deal," says Brewer, who found the special on BedandBreakfast.com.

If your preferred property doesn't show up on any lists and is full for your chosen weekend, don't give up. Just as with restaurants, there are often cancellations, and some B&Bs will call folks on a waiting list to fill rooms.

4. "Our first price is our worst price."
Like the rest of the travel industry, the bed-and-breakfast market has been hurting over the past few years. Business fell 4 percent between 2000 and 2002, according to lodging-industry analysts PKF Consulting, and PAII estimates it was flat in 2003. At the same time, though, rates are up from an average of $128 in 2000 to $140 today, says PAII.

Many innkeepers say that business is picking up this year, but even so, discounts are still prevalent -- and not just last-minute deals. Many properties will cut their room rates by up to 10 percent, especially for off-season and midweek bookings; weekday corporate rates can even mean 15 percent off for business travelers. How do you get a discount? "Just ask," says Erin Bernall, a spokesperson for the California Association of Bed and Breakfast Inns. "Unlike with chain hotels, you have a little bit more leeway."

Some B&Bs also offer "frequent guest" specials: free nights, discounts or perks for return customers. The Chetco River Inn in Brookings, Ore., for example, offers one free on-site dinner for every three nights you stay, while the Magnolia Glen Bed & Breakfast in Inverness, Fla., offers "pillow miles," giving a free night to some second-time guests.

5. "Our 'stars' don't mean anything."
In the no-brand-names world of B&Bs, independent rating systems, cited in guidebooks or brochures, are very important both to travelers and innkeepers. The most prestigious rating systems are Mobil (stars), AAA (diamonds) and an innkeepers' association called Select Registry (a stamp of approval). All three groups rigorously inspect properties. In 2003, for example, AAA inspected 2,260 B&Bs, evaluating everything from curb appeal to linens.

Unfortunately, some properties have been known to keep promoting years-old ratings. This year about 17 bed-and-breakfasts lost a diamond. Little changes can hurt an inn's annual score, says Janie Graziani, an AAA spokesperson. "If a property stopped offering a turn-down service, it could make a difference in its rating." Her advice: Make sure you look at the year the rating was awarded and ask what has changed since then.

Other properties simply award themselves a rating. Julia's Bed and Breakfast in Hubbard, Ohio, for example, sells itself as the "ultimate four-star Bed and Breakfast experience," but as of press time still had a pending application with AAA. "What we're saying," says owner J.V. Ferrara, "is that we have everything that would qualify us to be a four-diamond inn."

6. "You may be surprised when you pull up to the door."
For the last night of their 2001 vacation in New Mexico, Glenn and Andrea Panner booked a night at the Chocolate Turtle Bed & Breakfast, which they expected to be a countryside property outside Albuquerque. The inn's Web site, which pictures the Pueblo-esque inn, advertises the spot as a place where visitors can enjoy the "quiet rural setting."

But when they pulled up to the inn, they felt like they were staying smack in the middle of the suburbs. "There's the Joneses' house, and there's the B&B," Mr. Panner says he recalls thinking. "You felt like you were staying in a relative's house." Making matters worse, the Panners say that from their room they could hear doors slamming and conversations throughout the house.

In some cases, what you see on a B&B's Web site might be, well, a little different from what you get. Since there is no real policing, it's best to ask the innkeeper about the inn and its surroundings before booking. Chocolate Turtle's owner, Debra Humiston, says that the houses in her area are on 1-acre lots and that she's heard no other complaints. "Most people feel like it's very rural," she says. "The houses are not tremendously close together."

7. "We'll bend our own rules."
Julie Tupker regularly stays at B&Bs while doing ancestry research in the Midwest. On a recent trip, the bed was so uncomfortable, she says, she got up in the middle of the night and slept in an upright wooden chair. "It was the worst mattress I've ever had," says Tupker, a cake maker from Marion, Iowa.

Many inngoers think that because of a B&B's small size, you have to take what you get. Not so. Make your needs known when you book. Also, test out the mattress as soon as you check in. If it doesn't feel comfortable, call the manager before unpacking. Many innkeepers will bring in a bed board if the mattress is too soft, or move you to a different room if one is available. But you may have to pay extra for nicer accommodations.

Some travelers avoid B&Bs altogether because they loathe the idea of socializing with strangers in the morning, but that legendary tradition is negotiable too. If you ask, a lot of inns will bring the hot breakfast to your room or arrange for a basket of cold continental-style goods delivered to your door. Same goes for dietary requests: If you let the innkeepers know when you book, they'll likely let you eschew their famous pumpkin-pie pancakes for, say, a low-carb omelette.

8. "We sold out your bliss for business travelers."
To stay competitive in the lodging industry, many bed-and-breakfasts are now marketing to niche groups, offering discounts and packages to seniors and families, and meeting rooms or breakfasts-to-go to corporate visitors.

The business market is especially hot, but many people staying at bed-and-breakfasts are doing so precisely to avoid the sights and sounds of everyday life. If that's you, look for properties that forbid cell phones in common areas or that keep groups of travelers separated from other guests. The 1870 Wedgwood Inn in New Hope, Pa., adopted a rule to help prevent large groups from alienating single guests: If more than two couples traveling together want to stay at one of the property's three houses, they have to rent the whole house.

On the other hand, if you're traveling for business or with a family, make sure the inn can actually accommodate your needs. Angela Goddard has stayed in B&Bs four times in the past year while on business, choosing them over chain hotels for their homey feel. But the St. Louis marketing consultant had trouble getting on the Web -- either there was no high-speed access, or she had to use the innkeeper's own office -- and now just tells people to contact her by cell phone on such trips. Her advice: "I've had better luck in city locations," she says.

9. "Our cancellation policy isn't as tough as we say it is."
Because b&Bs are so small -- with an average of 8.5 rooms -- most properties do not overbook, unlike hotels, and count on each guest to show up. As a result, they take cancellations seriously. Though policies vary, if you don't cancel by two to three weeks before arrival, you could be charged a nominal fee. And if you don't cancel by 72 hours before, you could be billed for the entire amount. Properties tend to be more lenient with business travelers -- sometimes accepting day-of cancellations -- if, that is, you identified yourself as one when you booked.

But if a last-minute illness or another emergency strikes, don't despair. Many innkeepers won't charge guests if the room can be filled -- a good reason to check for a waiting list when you book. Or, if you booked with a Visa card, you have to pay only for the first night, according to a Visa spokesperson. Also, "some innkeepers will compromise and give guests a gift certificate," says Randy Fought, president of BBOnline.com. "Instead of giving them their money back, they'll let them come at a different time."

10. "If you're not happy, you can get your money back."
JoMay Schleicher and her husband, David, were looking forward to a romantic night at the Pacific Grove Inn outside Monterey, Calif. But when they arrived, the Schleichers discovered their "ocean view" was a sliver of blue that they could just barely see through rooftops and trees. There was also a soda can full of cigarette butts on the balcony, extremely loud plumbing and, worst of all, sand in their sheets. When they asked for some sort of compensation the next morning, the manager refused. JoMay wrote an e-mail complaint when she got home, and the manager replied that they had found no trash or sand when they cleaned the room. "All we wanted was a nice, peaceful, romantic evening," says the Moraga, Calif., homemaker. "And what did we get? It was horrible." The inn's current manager, who has started since the Schleicher's visit, says she would have upgraded the couple to a new room that night, or offered a free second night or discount the next morning. She calls the treatment they received "ridiculous."

Many innkeepers are willing to negotiate refunds or discounts after a bad experience, but if yours isn't, you can make a claim through your credit card company. Just take careful notes before you leave, to document your case. Your chances of winning a claim are even better if you pack up and leave as soon as you realize the inn is a bust. You'll have more leverage if you don't receive any of the promised goods and services.