How to Make a Budget Hotel Feel Like a 5-Star Experience
If you’re starting to book some travel and looking into accommodations, one thing might strike you: Hotels have gotten expensive. Really expensive. NerdWallet.com reports that the average hotel stay is going to run you at least $200 per night. Staying in just a decent and safe but not-so-dazzling hotel in major destinations like Los Angeles or New York can cost even more.
There was a time when a person could enjoy a four- or five-star hotel for a few nights at a reasonable rate. Now, that can easily consume one’s entire vacation budget. In fact, MarketWatch.com reports that the cost of a hotel room rose by 17 percent between 2020 and 2021. The average household income hasn’t increased at even close to the same rate.
So, what’s a person to do who wants to visit a new place but doesn’t want to slum it in a grimy motel? Try a few of these tricks that make a two-star hotel feel like a five-star one.
BYO Spa Robes
When you stay at a high-end hotel, you open the closet to find crisp and fluffy white robes. Maybe they have that waffle cotton fabric. You instantly feel clean and relaxed in them. They’re perfect for lounging on your balcony with a glass of wine or for wearing down to the pool.
Cheaper hotels won’t provide these, but you can pick up a set online for around $50.
Send Yourself a Gift Basket
Arriving at an expensive hotel room often comes with a nice surprise like a gift basket full of goodies. These might contain fresh fruit, local chocolates, tea, crackers, olives, cheese or even a little bottle of bubbly.
While your motel won't provide this, what you can do is send yourself one in advance. Order a gift basket full of local treats and have it delivered to your hotel before you arrive.
Get a Room With a View
A view makes all the difference, and while the sights inside of your room might not be anything to write home about, a look outside the window can change everything.
Before booking your hotel, research the surroundings. You might find that one side of a two-star hotel faces beautiful mountains that get beautiful sunsets, while the other faces a parking lot. Request to have a room facing the scenery.
Snag a Room With a Patio
If the area feels safe enough for a ground-floor room, consider getting one. These often come with patios, and patios are traditionally larger than the balconies at lower-end hotels.
Here, you can spread out and create the feeling of having a larger room because you have added living space. If you’re driving to your destination, you can pack a couple of nice patio chairs and a folding table to deck out the space.
Or Opt for the Top Floor
When ground-floor rooms aren’t available or don’t feel safe, opt for a top-floor room. Lower-end hotels don’t often have the insulation that newer, more upscale ones do.
That means one thing: a lot of noise pollution. Being on a bottom floor can mean hearing every step above you. A top floor will be free of any such sounds.
BYO High-End Toiletries
Here’s another thing that luxury hotels provide: high-end local toiletries. These aren’t your usual generic lotions or shampoo-conditioner combos. These will be curated and sophisticated products from small-batch local vendors. Think creamy hand lotions, hypoallergenic makeup remover, green tea face wash and beyond.
Stop into town and make your own little basket of luxury toiletries to bring to your room.
Pack an HDMI Cable and Your Laptop
While pricier hotels have started to offer Netflix, Amazon Prime and similar streaming services, two-star hotels likely won’t. Rather than pay a daily fee to access these in your room, simply bring an HDMI cable.
This will let you connect your laptop to the TV and watch your own Netflix, Amazon Prime or similar account right there on the big screen.
BYO Air Purifier
The air in budget hotels can feel … stale. It can smell that way, too.
You can solve that problem by bringing an air purifier along with you. Plug it in the moment you arrive, go for a 20-minute walk to let it do its thing and return to a fresh-smelling room.
Pack Great Towels
This is another thing you’ll find at five-star hotels but not at motels or lower-end hotels: great towels. The kind you just want to take a nap in. They have a high thread count, are made of Egyptian cotton, are thick and fluffy and are oversized.
Invest in a set, and bring your own great towels to your budget hotel.
Nice hotels will often provide you with some plush terry-cloth slippers. It can be nice to wear these down to the pool to avoid slipping in flip-flops.
Keeping a shoe-free room instantly makes it feel cleaner, too, and slippers can help you do just that. Invest in a nice pair of spa-style slippers to bring to your two-star hotel and wear them with the robe you packed.
Do Your Own Turn-Down Service
While your stay might not offer turn-down service, you can do it yourself. Pack some chocolate mints and fresh sprigs of lavender. Each day before heading out, turn down the tops of the bedspread and add a chocolate mint and one lavender sprig to each pillow. Put your slippers at the edge of the bed. Dim the lights. Add a fresh bottle of water to the bedside table.
You'll come home to the ultimate relaxing experience.
Pack a White Noise Machine
As previously mentioned, sound insulation isn’t always top-notch in budget hotels. The sounds of the ice machine, traffic and kids playing in the pool can really ruin your peace.
Pack a white noise machine that has calming options like the rain forest or ocean sounds. There are even lots of free apps on your phone that you can play to lull you to sleep.
Find a Quiet Room
Speaking of quiet, it’s a good idea to research the property in advance and know where the quiet rooms are. In general, you don’t want to be too near an elevator since you’ll hear people going in and out of it all night.
You also want to stay far from the lounge, pool or other common areas, and try requesting a room on the side of the hotel that doesn’t face the street to avoid traffic noise.
Pack a Lighted Vanity Mirror
Five-star hotels are starting to catch onto the fact that guests want a nice vanity area to get ready. Budget hotels? Not so much. They’re notorious for unflattering fluorescent lights.
Bring a portable lighted vanity mirror. Find a little corner of the room to place it. Pull up a stool. Create your own vanity area.
This is one of the hotel world’s best-kept secrets: Bringing your dog could get you a better room. Many hotels have a handful of rooms reserved for those who bring a pet.
What makes these rooms different than the others? They typically have tile floors rather than carpet (to make cleaning up pet messes easier). And tile floor rooms instantly feel more elevated than carpeted rooms, especially if the carpet in question is decades old.
BYO Coffee Corner Amenities
You can usually count on high-end hotels to provide you with some nice coffee and tea. Your two-star hotel might have nothing more than a single-cup coffee pot or no coffee in the room at all.
But, today, there are several portable coffee machines that make excellent beverages and fit in a suitcase. You can also bring some nice tea with you and a small portable electric kettle.
Pack a Food Tray
Eating in bed gets messy, and you don’t want a budget hotel room to feel messy. Nice hotels usually provide you with pretty little food trays, so you can eat breakfast in bed without getting food everywhere.
Pack your own. Find a nice wooden one with handles so you can bring your cup of tea and snacks into bed without ruining the sheets.
Bring Nice Drinking Glasses
This option is best for those driving rather than flying to their destination. A two-star hotel or motel will likely only provide you with plastic or paper cups, so a stunning water pitcher with a set of pretty drinking glasses can instantly elevate a room.
Better yet, bring a bottle of champagne and some champagne glasses.
Stay Near a Great Day Spa
While a budget hotel probably won’t have a spa on site, you can likely find a good day spa nearby. If you stay near one, it almost feels like it’s the hotel’s spa.
Book yourself a treatment so you can enjoy the spa’s facilities like a steam room and Jacuzzi — facilities your hotel might not offer.
Pack Disposable Items
High-end hotels often provide you with all of the disposable items you need from razors to nail files to shower caps. Ask for these at a motel, and you might get a blank stare.
Purchase a set of these and pack them for your travel. Put them in a cute basket on your bathroom counter to make it look like the hotel provided them.
Ask for a Room With a Tub
While this won’t be an option at all hotels, a lot of them offer two room options — one with a tub or one with a shower. If possible, get a room with a tub.
Be sure to bring great bath accessories like bath bombs and a bath caddy. Taking a bath always feels luxurious, and a room with a bath feels fancier than one with just a shower.
Check Your Credit Card Perks
Before booking any sort of travel — from air travel to hotel rooms — get familiar with your credit card perks. Many major credit cards offer travel perks to their members. These can include free upgrades at certain hotel chains or complimentary cocktails.
You never know if one of your cards could get you VIP service at your hotel.
Look Into AAA Perks
AAA members are often rewarded with certain rewards at major hotel chains, too.
Familiarize yourself with all of the perks that come with being an AAA member before booking a hotel.
Pack Some Accent Items
Five-star hotels tend to splurge on the decor. But budget hotels and motels skip it.
Bring your own accent items like a throw blanket and some throw pillows. These can quickly make a room feel more sophisticated.
Request a Cart, and Order Delivery
One of the major differences between motels and hotels is the onsite amenities. Hotels have things like spas and restaurants, while motels or budget hotels do not. So, try making it feel like you can get room service.
You might be able to get a small rolling cart from the front desk. Then, order delivery from a great restaurant in town. Pick up a little vase with some flowers to decorate your eating space. Grab some nice cloth napkins. Make your delivery feel like room service.
Stock the Mini Fridge Yourself
Nice hotel rooms often have a stocked mini fridge with all of the classics. Think macadamia nuts, peanut M&Ms, sparkling waters, airplane-size bottles of booze and bars of chocolate. They usually charge a pretty penny for them, too.
But you can pick these items up at the store and put them on a tray in your motel room.
Pack Coffee Table Books
This is another thing lower-end hotels skimp on: literature. Nice hotels will often have interesting and beautiful coffee table books. These might include travel photography books, fashion books, history books and beyond.
Grab a few online and bring them with you to your hotel.
Tip the Front Desk
One thing that will make every hack easier is this: Tip the front desk staff well. If we learned anything from Netflix's "Inventing Anna," this is it.
Motel and two-star hotel staff usually aren’t paid very well — certainly not well enough to give guests the VIP treatment. Tip them kindly when you arrive, and they might be more inclined to fulfill some of your requests covered on this list.
Keep Your Room Clean
Every room feels nicer when it’s clean. So, keep your hotel room tidy. Don’t throw towels and clothes all over the floor. Put trash in the trash bin, rather than across surfaces.
You could even bring some wipes and wipe down countertops and desks after using them. Keep clothes hung up or folded in the drawers.