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The 5-Star, 2-Star Conundrum, part two

From my last article, I probably left the impression that the better cultural experience is likely found by staying at a two-star hotel, rather than in fancy five-star digs. This is reasonable assumption for a reader since I bashed the new Westin in Santa Fe in Mexico City (I had my reasons) and did not counter with a better five-star examples. Trust me, there a loads of great five-star places worth considering.

The way I look at it, travel falls into one of two categories, traveling and vacationing. Traveling is more about a place or a culture and the hotel may make little difference to the traveler. A traveler is not going to cancel his or her trip to Paris because a favorite resort or hotel is booked solid.

Vacationing is different. I just returned from a five-star place Fiesta Americana in Los Cabos whose staff went out of its way to provide superior service and creatively invented memorable dining experiences. For four days, I was completely content and stuffed to the gills with incredible food without having to leave the property. However, had I wanted to leave I would have had to take a cab twenty or thirty minutes to get anywhere, and walking was not an option.

The reason most resorts and major chain hotels frequently attempt to become the destination unto themselves rather than just a place to sleep is about money. If a visitor stays several days and never leaves the resort all the money spent at the resort will remain at the resort. In all fairness the hotel or resort spends tons of money on aesthetics, convenience and luxury.  This is not bad within itself, it is just a different type of experience. Less culture and more luxury and amenities, versus more culture and less amenities and luxury.

However, I can have both. My days of youth hostels are over. Not only have I stopped being young, I also grew tired of the three German guys that seemed to be at every youth hostel I visited. The three would not stop drinking, screaming, running about, fighting and always came equipped with their own bad techno music. This means I have more work to do in planning my trip. To find a little luxury in my culturally based travel.

I stay in the center of town whenever possible. I ask myself, are there local bars restaurants, attractions within walking distance. As an example, on my last trip to Santa Fe, it would have been much more worthwhile to stay in the Zocalo area of Mexico City than in an area with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Location means not having to source long rides to be where I want.

A few great, ideally located hotels that come to mind are the swanky Opus Hotels of Montreal and Vancouver that have great food and beautiful hipsters but are situated in greats areas of town leaving me to explore on my own. The San Juan Marriott is on a gorgeous beach, has a casino, spa, fine dining and is a twenty minute walk to Old San Juan. Of course, these are only a couple of examples of thousands of great options. How can you find these places when looking for a travel/vacation combo?

Work with a travel agent

Most good agents have a geographic specialty. A place that the agent has personally been to numerous times and will have solid suggestions to neighborhoods and attractions worthy of your time. As an example, I know several agents who have been working in Mexico City and know numerous places to stay that would have been more charming and practical in making my trip memorable.

Phone a friend

Some hotels really do put their customers first. The most reliable information I get is from friends who have stayed at the hotel before and can offer an unvarnished opinion.

Call the hotel

Find out directly from a hotel concierge what is in walking distance including: bus stops, restaurants, Internet cafes, museums pharmacies, and markets. Ask them to get specific, then plan accordingly.

For the record, I always prefer travel. It was the natural progression of things when I took a rucksack out into a foreign land with not a lot of money. I had to stay downtown, near train stations, and walked a lot. However, as I wrote more professional travel articles, I learned to appreciate the vacationing aspect as something meaningful by experiencing both the good and the bad of luxury travel. I found the places that created experiences, which is, for me, what travel is all about.

The Five-Star, Two-Star Conundrum, part one


  1. You’re right; at the end of the day it’s all about the experience you want.
    Nancie recently posted..Day Tripping in Rural Korea &8212 Part 2

  2. Asking a friend is really great advice. I’m not so much the 5 star resort type because I want to see more than just..well..the resort but I’m much in favor of a 4 or 5 star hotel in the middle of where I want to be and what I want to do.Cae in point: 4 Seasons, Sultanahmed, Istanbul.
    inka recently posted..THE dream trip to Peru!

  3. Honestly, this isn’t a conundrum for me – I don’t do 5 star hotels. 🙂 For one, I can’t afford them. And second, I think it puts a huge distance between what you came to see and experience. It goes along with the reasons you listed above. Being the budget traveler I am, I can’t justify the price for the comfort of a 5 star hotel. Honestly, I am uncomfortable with someone treating me that nicely or catering to my every need. I feel that’s just wrong.

    Splurging on a trip is one thing. However, a hotel that is a destination unto itself isn’t worth it for me. It’s the same reason I don’t like cruises. The ship and all its comforts and activities aren’t my vacation – it’s the destination. I know many will agree but maybe I am different than many people. Then again, maybe not.
    Jeremy B recently posted..Thanksgiving travel 101- Thanksgiving forecast and 7 travel tips for driving

    • Hey Jeremy,

      I agree. I also rarely spend my own money on five-star resorts — being a travel writer has its perks. Having said that, I have learned to appreciate resort destinations. I still have not done the cruise things yet. I imagine getting cabin fever, but I know some people who swear by it. Cruises are also a really economical way to visit a lot of incredible places.
      Devin the Travel Writer recently posted..Get Published Now- Be Interesting

  4. In the internet era I’ve never really thought of going to a travel agent. I’m definitely in the city centre explorer camp too.

  5. As I get older, I have the same thoughts and feelings. I wouldn’t mind staying in 5 star places provided they’re not 30 minutes away from anything else, but more times than not, I simply can’t afford to, or I’d rather spend my money elsewhere. It really depends on the trip though. Despite my love for travel, I do still like to vacation sometimes. It is nice to just sit back and do nothing and have someone cater to your every need. But I usually get antsy after a few days and want to experience something.
    Adam recently posted..La Boca Picture Post

  6. I have never stayed anywhere that was 5-star and I could only really justify it if it were free!
    ayngelina recently posted..Viva Cuenca!

  7. Good advice! I’ve also had good luck with boutique hotels where you get mos of the luxury of a 5 Star Hotel(my hostel days are also long over) but with more personality than the chain 5 Star hotels.

  8. There’s another reason, a major reason why we prefer 2-4 star hotels.Top range hotels generally will have built in aircon systems. 2-4 generally will have retro-fitted in room units.
    Now most places we/ve stayed, maintanence is an unknown occurrance, and once installed an aircon is never cleaned.And filth builds up in the filters creating a breeding ground for bacteria, just growing in a closed up humid hot room waiting to blast out into the air when you walk in and switch it on.Ever wondered why respiratory problems are such a part of travelling?
    We travelled Vietnam with an aircon engineer mate, and EVERY place we stayed at he’d open the front covers, pull out this inch thick grey/black felt mat , throw it in the shower and wash it clean and replace the clean white filter.

    This is now a first job for me anywhere we stay.And then it’s down to front desk to chew their heads off, nicely.

    Now in 5 star you can’t do this,because they’re inbuilt systems, and on the same presumption about lack of maintanence, just how clean are their cooling towers?
    Remember Legionaires disease?

  9. I agree. When choosing a hotel, my main concerns are location and cleanliness. If I have those 2 things, and I feel safe, I can stay at any hotel.
    Christy @ Ordinary Traveler recently posted..10 Free Things To Do In New Jersey 2

  10. Another great post Devin. Great tips and really balanced view. Yikes, I am just realizing how rarely I get to say the words “really balanced view. =)

  11. I’m 5-Star all the way!

  12. I consider myself more of a traveler and the “2-star” kind, but i have enjoyed a few 5-stars here and there. It all depends on the destination and the experience I want. Great post Devin.
    Norbert recently posted..7 Additional Buildings You Should See When in New York City

  13. Great post. I’ve also been thinking about swanky 5-star travel and blogged about my experience with butler service. The fewer the stars, the more egalitarian the interaction between hotel staff and guests.

  14. I’m sure we’ll be staying at a few upmarket hotels on our upcoming adventure if Laura gets her way! Can’t be in and out of hostels the entire time I suppose lol.
    Andrew Murray recently posted..Attractions of Arkhangai Aimag- Mongolia

  15. I lkke what you’re saying in this post and I agree to a lot of it. In my experience, the best times I’ve had travelling has been by getting to know the locals, familirising myself with their culture, and making an effort to understand both them and their language.

    Staying at a resort exclusively limits how much you can do this and besides, what’s the point of travelling and meeting new people if you’re going to do the same thing at home. I like to meet new people. Socialising with other tourists is nowhere near as much fun as mixing with the locals.

  16. Devin,
    I think you may have an ongoing series here on hotel culture and experiences. Keep posting. I look forward to reading “The 5-Star, 2-Star Conundrum, part fifty” in a couple of years.

    BTW – I was never interested in the cruise thing either, and then I was givien the chance, and the thing I loved most is hat you get to see multiple destinations and only unpack once. I think the key is finding the “right” cruise for you.

    Nice piece.

    Glenn K. recently posted..A Better Life

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