Choosing a California Hotel

How We Do it at's California Travel

InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, Nob Hill, San Francisco, California USA
Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

It can take a lot of time to research a hotel for your trip. I know. After almost two decades of writing about California travel, I've done it more than most people. To save you time, I provide lists of recommended hotels for California's popular destinations and give practical guidelines for how to find them in smaller places.

Here's how I find a place to stay:

Choosing Candidates

This the bottom line for me: If a hotel has more than 20 TripAdvisor ratings and averages 3.5 or higher (out of 5), it's likely to be acceptable. 4 out of 5 is better. I use this same cutoff in all price ranges because people have lower expectations for less expensive hotels and it all evens out. It's not as simple as just looking at the averages, though. These are a few things to keep in mind:. It's not as simple as just looking at the averages, though.

These are a few things to keep in mind:

Stars are not the same as quality ratings. Stars are based on what the hotel offers - the more stars, the more things you'll find, such as swimming pools and other services. However, they don't reveal that the swimming pool is poorly maintained, the carpets worn, or the beds lumpy.

Ratings can't be trusted if there are fewer than 20 reviews. Competitors, employees, and disgruntled former employees can post reviews, positive or negative, but there aren't armies of them and eventually they get lost in the general opinion.

Even worse than bad reviews written for the sake of competition, a few unscrupulous individuals engage in a form of extortion, posting bad reviews of properties and asking for money to remove them. It's also worth noting that people are more likely to take the time to complain than they are to praise and that almost any place to stay and/or any traveler can have a bad day. This article from NBC News has more tips for spotting a fake review.

Reading negative reviews can give you an idea of pitfalls. Low-rated individual reviews can reveal problems with the reservation system, specific wings or floors that have problems — like being too close to the trash dumpster or not yet renovated — in a hotel that otherwise is fine. It can also reveal that the 90% of visitors who give high ratings like to party all night, while the other 5% complain about the noise. Knowing what to look for (and avoid) can be helpful.

A rating of "5" means different things, depending on the cost. If someone paid very little and got a clean room with comfortable beds and a hot shower, they may give a high rating. Conversely, if they paid a lot, they probably got more amenities, nicer rooms, a jacuzzi tub and more staff attention, but if even the smallest thing went wrong, they'll knock off a little on the rating.

Making the Cut: Choosing a Hotel

When I make a list of recommended hotels, I first sort them into price ranges. Often, the list of contenders is still large. This is where extra criteria come in:

  • Value for Money: Among hotels with the same rating, lower average cost is better.
  • Cleanliness: When all other criteria fail, cleanliness ratings can break the tie.

What's NOT in my lists is as important as what is. If I find a hotel unacceptable, no matter how well-known it is, I won't recommend it. If you look at a list and you think I "left out" or "forgot" a hotel, it's more likely I can't suggest that you stay there. It may be too expensive for its ratings, may have a big name and need renovation, or may not be as clean as others in its class. If you still want to stay there, that's up to you, but keep an eye out for potential problems that could ruin your trip.

About Hotel Reviews

I don't recommend hotels I haven't slept in. A quick walk-through just can't reveal noise leaking through the walls in the middle of the night, lumpy mattresses, rude desk clerks or that two-hour wait for room service.

I don't write hotel reviews. Instead, I include places I like and would go back to in roundups of other hotels. I try to stay in interesting, individually-owned or boutique hotels. I also look for newly-renovated, newly-opened places that you may have heard about but which are too new to have gathered many reviews yet. That means you may not find big-name, chain hotels mentioned very often.

Hotels sometimes give me a complimentary stay, which is common in the travel industry and allowed within's ethics policy. Otherwise, I couldn't afford to stay in some of them. I make it clear from the beginning that every property has to earn its rating and I always keep my obligation to you first and foremost. I pay extra attention to interactions between staff and other guests. I read all the negative reviews to find out what to look for. I look in all the corners, under the beds and anywhere else that might be important. You get the idea. You come first, no matter what.

More: Easy ways to get a good rate | Get the best rate by telephone | Beware hotel hidden charges

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