The Ins and Outs of a Bed and Breakfast

The modern bed and breakfast may be different from what travelers expect

Ponden Hall Front Garden
••• Vesna Armstrong / Getty Images

"Bed and breakfast" or "B&B" is a term used to describe a private home which lets rooms to travelers for a fee. While they used to be primarily an economical way for travelers to find safe lodging and a hot meal, bed and breakfasts have grown in sophistication and become a crucial part of the tourism industry. 

What to Expect at a Bed and Breakfast

While some countries have specific regulations about what establishments can and can't consider themselves bed and breakfasts, there aren't any hard and fast rules in the United States.

In general, American bed and breakfasts are significantly smaller than hotels or inns, have owners who live on-site and limited front desk/check-in hours. Some have shared bathroom facilities, especially in older buildings, but newer ones have rooms with en-suite baths. 

All bed and breakfasts provide at least one meal to guests, served either in the guest's room or a shared dining room. This is usually a meal the bed and breakfast hosts have prepared themselves. For the most part, the hosts also clean the rooms, maintain the property and provide concierge services like booking tours of local attractions. 

How Bed and Breakfasts Differ from Other Accommodations

With the rise of home-sharing sites like Airbnb, it can be challenging to differentiate between a bed and breakfast and a less formal arrangement. Most reputable bed and breakfasts are recognized by an organization like the American Automobile Association, trade organizations like the Professional Association of Innkeepers International, or the Association of Independent Hospitality Professionals.

In addition to converted private residences, some establishments are considered bed and breakfast inns. The same concepts of "room and breakfast" apply. The major difference is that an inn has more rooms available than the usual one to four found in a private home. Inns often provide meals in addition to breakfast, as well as other services not always provided in a private home.

These two terms are used in the industry to distinguish the difference between a stay in a private home and an inn. But remember, no two homes or inns are alike. They vary even within the same geographic area. 

Why Stay at a Bed and Breakfast

Travelers usually are attracted by recreational, cultural or historic sites, or by a business purpose they have in a particular area. Business travelers, especially women, will sometimes seek out bed and breakfast accommodations as an alternative to the typical lodge, motel or hotel facility available in an area. 

Sometimes this is for cost reasons, sometimes to provide a little peace and quiet on an otherwise hectic trip. Most of the time bed and breakfast rates are lower than hotels and inns. Regular bed and breakfast visitors consider the low-key environment a big plus.

In the past, a bed and breakfast wasn't necessarily the reason a traveler would visit a given area, but as these establishments grew in popularity and improved marketing efforts, they became attractions themselves.

History of Bed and Breakfasts

The bed and breakfast concept has existed in one form or another for ages. Monasteries served as bed and breakfasts for travelers, and in some cases still do.

Bed and breakfasts have been very popular with the traveling public in Europe for years. It was in England, Scotland, and Ireland that the term bed and breakfast first came into use.  In other countries, terms such as paradors, pensions, gasthaus, minshukus, shukukos, homestays and pousadas are used to describe what Americans and English-speaking Europeans think of as a bed and breakfast.

Bed and Breakfasts in the United States

American bed and breakfasts date back to the time of early settlers. As pioneers traveled the trails and roads across the new country, they sought safe refuge in homes, inns, and taverns. In fact, some of those historic accommodations now serve as bed and breakfasts.

During the Great Depression, many people opened their homes to travelers to bring in additional money, although these were usually referred to as boarding houses.

After the Depression, this type of lodging fell out of favor, and the prevailing image was that such accommodations were for low-income travelers or drifters.

In the early 1950s, the term "tourist home" became widely used. This too was essentially a form of bed and breakfast. However, once motels were built on the new highways, these grew in popularity as tourist homes declined.

Today, the bed and breakfast is not viewed as a low-cost lodging facility but as an attractive alternative to the typical standard chain hotel or motel room. Today, some bed and breakfasts offer amenities, not unlike those found at the most upscale hotels in the world.

This series was originally written by Eleanor Ames, a Certified Family Consumer Sciences professional and a faculty member at Ohio State University for 28 years. With her husband, she ran the Bluemont Bed and Breakfast in Luray, Virginia, until they retired from innkeeping. Many thanks to Eleanor for her gracious permission to reprint them here. Some content has been edited, and links to related features on this site have been added to Eleanor's original text.