Am I going to stay in a hotel or an apartment? If I’m only going for 3 nights, I usually opt for a hotel as it is easier. Even if eating out, there’s some shopping to do for an apartment (milk, bread, coffee, cheese) and possibly issues around bedlinen, towels (although some place will provide or hire). Recently I got charged the ‘final cleaning’ amount for one night in an apartment in Colmar, France, that would have been the same if I had stayed a week! So watch that in the small print.
Whether I stay in hotel or apartment also depends on what I want to do while I am visiting. There is no point in finding a wonderful hotel that is 7km from all the restaurants and the old town in which I want to wander about (as in many instances in Funchal, Madeira).
So a map (Google maps) is necessary, to pinpoint where I want to be, where are the restaurants and where exactly is the hotel or apartment. Google maps does not list all the shops and restaurants/bars, but it gives a good idea (you often have to zoom in to get them to show on the map). Go to streetview and use the little man to see exactly what is there – just walk him around and have a look – a virtual first visit.
I think the research is very worthwhile. Obviously, it doesn’t answer all your questions (for example, sometimes an old town centre doesn’t have a streetview as the streets and alleys are too narrow), and you cannot tell if the beds are comfortable or not, unless you read enough reviews that are all saying that they are!
Booking.com – I usually use this site – it’s been my choice for many years, since it was a telephone service based in the Netherlands, only dealing with hotels mainly in Amsterdam. You can use their map view to see where hotels and apartments are and what is available on the dates you have selected. I am fully aware there are many other hotel booking sites but I always end up back with booking.com, they suit me and I have not been disappointed. Now they do apartments as well, and starting to list cottages. I always do reviews for them after visiting, so I can see how they check the validity of the reviewer – I know there is no guarantee, but they seem to be reliable and fairly honest (I’ve always found them accurate).
Apartments mean self-catering which I quite like; I don’t always want to be sitting in a restaurant, or I just want to eat something plain. But I’m also aware that cooking in a strange kitchen it not always easy, so don’t plan anything too complicated. I generally take a small bag with some common herbs and spices so that I don’t have buy lots of new which I have to throw away when I leave.
It’s always good to have the refrigerator to chill the wine – I wish hotels would provide the same (occasionally they do, but it’s rare – for some reason, ski resorts seem to provide). And find out where the nearest shop is, even for basic supplies. I recently stayed in Valletta, Malta, and there are no real supermarkets in the old town, no butchers and nothing anywhere near where I stayed. No car meant I had to do something, even to buy milk and wine – so I now have an account with an online supermarket in Malta, and they were very helpful – even to the point of telephoning me to tell me there were two items I had ordered that were out of stock – I took the call in Heathrow airport on my way to Malta!
You can find out about public transport; often the timetables online will be in English, whereas at the bus-stop or train station they might only be in local language, which could be a different alphabet.
Many cities and areas now have comprehensive public transport information online and information about the prices of tickets – it’s far easier to buy a weekly ticket than work out how to buy tickets, get them stamped every journey (or risk a fine) and often cheaper. Recently on a visit to Malta, I discovered a very useful map of buses around the island (which was printable), and even which bus stop in the bus station to catch the bus. The schedules were online and timetable up-to-date.
In Switzerland, the postbus stops are marked on the Michelin maps – this is great if you want to do some walking, you can easily see where you can pick up a bus when you get tired (as long as you have checked the timetables previously – also easy, as they on online and totally reliable).
Car parking, if you are taking or renting a car. This might seem obvious, you can be told in the hotel or cottage/apartment details (or see on google maps) that there is plenty of parking. What is the reality?
For example, St Ives, Cornwall is notoriously difficult to find parking – there are car parks, a weekly ticket can be purchased, but no guarantee to find a space. Some car parks are out-of-town – you have to walk or get a shuttle. Some car parks are one end of the town, and you could be staying at the other end – a very long walk. I recently found a cottage that had private parking – they had obviously had problems with previous visitors, as they gave full directions on how exactly to enter the underground car- space and gave the height and width of the space. It was so narrow that I realised I would never be able to reverse my car out – once in, I would be stuck there. There was even a photograph of the ‘space’. I didn’t book that cottage but was very grateful to the owners for being honest.
A hotel in France recently assured me that there was parking outside the hotel. I checked on google and could see it – a large car park and 2 euros for a day. I parked and paid 2 euros. When I checked in the hotel I was informed that I would have to move my car by 0500 next morning, as it was market day and the market used the car park.