For some, the appeal of a stay in a bed-and-breakfast is obvious: hyper-personalized service in an intimate setting, and often cheaper than a hotel. Others need a little more convincing, like my anti-social father, whose idea of a vacation isn’t making small talk with strangers, even if the homemade muffins are amazing.
These days, though, he may be outnumbered, thanks to a growing open-mindedness toward “alternative lodging” — call it the Airbnb effect — and an appreciation for feeling like a local. “Until Airbnb came along, I often felt like B & Bs were travel’s best-kept secret,” says Mary White, founder and CEO of B & B booking service BnBFinder.com. “But Airbnb and others like it have done a great job selling the ‘local’ experience that actual B & Bs have offered for years.”
Innkeepers are responding to increased competition with creative packages and flexibility on what you might call the “intimacy” factor. Not everyone wants to check in as a guest and leave as a friend. “We see travelers that range from those really looking to bond with the owners to ‘hotel people’ who are happy with a little more anonymity,” says Ken Withrow, who spent 20 years in the hotel business before opening the Union Street Inn, a 12-room bed-and-breakfast on a side street in Nantucket. His staff knows “within 90 seconds” of talking to a guest where on the spectrum he or she may fall, though he points out that the best guests aren’t afraid to let their preferences be known. “Every winter, we have one guy come up from Washington,” says Withrow. “He brings a case of red wine, a stack of books, and tells us from the get-go: ‘I’m here for peace and quiet. If I need anything, I’ll let you know.’ ”
And if you do the same, you’re not being rude. “B & Bs can feel like being a guest in someone’s home, because in most cases you are,” says White. “But it’s important to remember that these are still businesses, run by people who want to stay in business.” A good innkeeper is only as intrusive as you want him or her to be.
Still, just like hotels, different B & Bs have different personalities. A website can, and should, tell you a lot: whether the vibe is friendly, quiet, romantic, sporty, and so on. Read the descriptions, but also look at the photos and overall Web design. “A very traditional, Bob Newhart-looking website might indicate a place is liable to skew older or more traditional,” says Withrow, “while someplace with a more modern approach to decor and food would have that sensibility reflected in their website.” While White says size doesn’t matter (the average B & B has seven rooms), in general, the bigger the B & B, the less interaction you’re likely to have with the owners and the other guests. The website should also note if a property is licensed, inspected, and insured, and if it’s won any awards or had notable mentions in magazines.
But while the Internet is useful in narrowing your options, the best way to determine if a particular B & B will suit your needs — as well as your personality — is to pick up the phone and call. “The trend is click, click, click, but it’s never a bad idea to talk to a real person who knows the property,” says Marie Kemmler of the Boston-based booking service Bed and Breakfast Associates Bay Colony.
When White travels, she searches B & Bs in her desired area by activity (golf, kayaking) or amenity (king beds, dinner service), often looking for something she can’t get at home, like an outdoor massage or cooking class. Then she calls a handful of finalists. “One question I always ask is how they do breakfast,” says White. “What will my experience be like? Are there individual tables? Can I get breakfast in my room? And I’m very upfront about how I like to travel or my particular circumstance,” whether she’s looking for time to herself or traveling with her partner and seeking a more romantic getaway.
White says most B & Bs have done away with communal dining room tables (not to mention shared bathrooms), but if the idea of breaking bread, or muffins, with strangers is a total deal-breaker, it’s important to ask. Over the phone, an innkeeper can also make suggestions about which room to choose and offer insight into the area, including restaurants to book in advance and anything special happening on the weekend you’re looking to go. The conversation can also cover the type of experience you’re likely to have. “An innkeeper will rarely try to sell you on coming if he can tell it’s not right for you,” says White. After all, B & Bs, like most in the hospitality industry, rely on reviews and guest feedback.
Which, by the way, you should read. Keep in mind that certain sites, like BnBFinder.com, allow feedback only from guests who’ve actually been to the B & B they’re reviewing, while TripAdvisor and Yelp allow reviews from anyone. Some, like Oyster.com, rely on professionals who visit the properties. White suggests you avoid putting too much stock in any one review and understand that something you might appreciate (a no-kids policy, for example, or an on-site pool) could be something another person finds unappealing. “It’s your vacation,” says White. “But an innkeeper’s not a mind reader, so be clear and be honest. These are people who have gone into business to make guests happy.”
Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer in Newburyport and a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.
B & B — OR AIRBNB?
Unlike actual B & Bs, Airbnb.com deals mostly in short-term rentals, usually of private homes or rooms within them, and can be a great option for families and those who prefer a more DIY approach to travel or want more privacy. Properties found through Airbnb are often cheaper than a hotel room — or even a B & B — though not always: Prices may range from $20 to spend the night on an airbed in the North End to $5,000 for a week’s stay in a house on Lake Winnipesaukee. Owner involvement varies widely. Some may be available to act like innkeepers, especially if they live on the property, offering recommendations for local restaurants and activities. Others might be reachable only by phone.
While individual states have begun looking into ways to regulate short-term rentals like Airbnb, for the most part, they are not licensed, insured, and regulated businesses, like actual B & Bs. Airbnb.com offers certain safe-booking protections, but it doesn’t prevent owners from canceling a stay, even at the last minute. Although Airbnb makes online booking easy, in order to avoid disappointment or misunderstanding, it’s always a good idea — as with B & Bs — to get the owner on the phone before you book.
BOOK IT LAST MINUTE
Whether you’ve waited until the last minute to find a place to stay for your family reunion or decided on a spontaneous weekend getaway, the best way to find lodging at the eleventh hour — and maybe even a deal — is to use an online booking service. Both BnBFinder.com and Select Registry let you search their vetted listings by location, interest, amenities, and availability — BnBFinder’s “Specials” pages also lists “Last minute spontaneous bed and breakfast” offerings — while sites like Hotwire, Kayak, and Hotel Tonight often include similar listings for B & B vacancies. The best time to book will depend on the season, where you want to go, and whether your dates or destinations are flexible, but if you’re willing to be open-minded about where you end up, you can often get great deals late in the game.
> Select Registry
Search by location, price point, and amenity (from fireplaces to Tesla charging stations). All member B & Bs are required to pass an unannounced inspection in order to earn a spot on the site. selectregistry.com
From the woman who literally wrote the book on B & Bs (Running a Bed and Breakfast for Dummies by Mary White), the site allows users to search last-minute specials and leave feedback for future guests. bnbfinder.com
More than 10,000 listings of B & Bs around the world include user reviews, ideas for themed travel (Civil War inns, foodie bed-and-breakfasts), and a “Diamond Collection” of inns that are professionally inspected and guest-reviewed. bedandbreakfast.com
With editorial-level detail about each B & B it lists — not to mention a comprehensive selection of photos — the site employs professional reviewers to visit and assess properties with complete honesty. oyster.com
> Bed and Breakfast Associates Bay Colony
This collective of agents deals primarily with B & Bs in the Boston area — and personally vets every one listed on the site — but they can also advise on properties throughout New England. Agents are available to discuss options with you over the phone. 617-720-0522, bnbboston.comSend comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The story headlined “Picking a B&B that’s right for you” has been updated to reflect that Oyster.com relies only on feedback from professional reviewers.