What to Expect in a Parisian Hotel

Many people visiting Paris for the first time end up being disappointed with their hotel. Sometimes they got unlucky and chose the wrong hotel (and some hotel brochures/websites are simply misleading). But most often disappointment is a result of unreasonable expectations.

Star Ratings

I pretty much ignore stars, and so should you. They're awarded to hotels by a government-run agency based on things like the size of the lobby and presence of an elevator, rather than the overall atmosphere, decor, or helpfulness of the staff. So while it's obvious that a no-star hotel won't be as nice as a four-star hotel, I've actually seen some two-stars that are better than three-stars! Some hotels even prefer to be listed at a lower star rating because it means less taxes for them to pay.

French star ratings are also different from the American star rating standards (which I believe go up to six stars now, while the French have 5-star Palace as the highest). This sets Americans up for false expectations right away.

Anecdote: I remember one of my friends had booked us a hotel in Lyon saying "It's a three-star, so it should be good". I didn't want to burst her bubble, especially since I hadn't been to Lyon before, so maybe my expectations were skewed. But as soon as we arrived at the dingy grey hotel with its bad art, tiny pillows and wallpaper circa 1970, I had to explain to her that this is what three-stars gets you in France.

Size

Like most European capitals, or even New York, space is a luxury in Paris. You want space? You'll pay for it. Anything under €250 per night will probably be smaller than you expected. Regular double beds are smaller than American double beds. Queen and king beds are only found in luxury hotels.

Bathrooms and showers are smaller, too. The average French person is shorter than the average North American or British person, so facilities will all feel cramped if you're 6'4" tall.

Elevators -- which you'll see before your room, in most cases -- can be so small that only one person with one suitcase at a time can fit inside. This is because in old hotels (more than 150 years old) the elevator was added after the building was built, so had to be fit within the space available. Newer hotels and luxury hotels obviously have larger elevators, often more than one.

Bathrooms

Aside from the size, Parisian hotel bathrooms can have some odd particularities. If you have a room with a bathtub, there might not be a fixed shower head or curtain for showering, meaning you'll have to sit down or be very careful to not flood the entire bathroom.

Tip: I usually hang the hand-held shower attachment over my shoulder while soaping up; one clever traveler I met packed some Duck Tape to attach the shower to the wall himself.

Bath mats in Europe look more like really thick, small towels. They're meant to be hung up after use to dry out, and are changed with the linens each day. Bidets are still found in some hotels, although this is rarely mentioned in the brochure. Most hotels offer free soap and shower gel; nicer hotels have shampoo, moisturizer, nail kits, cotton balls and shower cap. Only luxury hotels have robes, combs, razors, and designer brand toiletries.

Amenities

No hotels in Paris have their own airport shuttle (many can arrange for a shuttle company to pick you up for a fee), or free local calls (because these aren't free in France for anyone). There are few hotels that are 100% smoke free (about ten at last count), and ice machines are just as rare.

Service

Big conference hotels and luxury hotels have the same standard of service you might expect in any British or North American hotel. The larger the hotel (or higher the star), the bigger the staff-to-client ratio.

In smaller hotels, especially family-run hotels, there may only be one person at the reception desk who has to answer the phone, check people in and out, call taxis, give directions, and handle any problems. There may only be two cleaners for 30 rooms so you'll have to wait longer for your room to be ready if you check in early. And the night receptionist may not be as bilingual as you'd hoped for.

In general, expect helpful and polite service, if not friendly service. The French are more formal in their relationships with clients than we are in Anglophone countries. Discretion and professionalism are considered more important than being pals with the guests, and in general you shouldn't expect to be on a first-name basis with the staff. Keep this in mind and you may be happily surprised rather than put off by "grumpy" service.

Tip: "The customer is always right" is an American saying that pretty much ruins us for travel abroad, where this isn't the case. It turns us into arrogant, righteous, demanding jerks. It took me years to change my wicked ways in this country where cash is not king. In France, it doesn't matter that you're a paying guest, you're still a guest, and should treat your hosts as you would want to be treated by guests if they were staying at your house. If you have a problem, ask for help, rather than yelling out demands. This makes a huge difference in the way your request is handled. Be the type of guest they're happy to bend over backwards for, and they will!

 Decoding Brochure-speak

When you're on a hotel's website or reading the brochure, ask lots of questions. The biggest fibs and exaggerations are on location. "Near" the Métro? How many meters/feet exactly? Many hotels that have "Opéra" in their name are actually three Métro stops (or twenty minute's walk) from the Opéra Garnier. There's only one hotel on the Champs-Elysées, so how many blocks away is the "Best Western Elysées"? I always look at Mappy.fr when I want to see the exact location on a map.

The other biggest embellishment is in the photos. Some brochures only show the lobby and not the rooms. Big warning bells! Lobbies almost always look better than the rooms. When you do see room photos, mentally erase the flowers (they always add flowers for the pics) and the scenic room service tray. Imagine it empty, with no sunlight and unpuffed pillows. Still looks good? Okay. Now you need to know if that's the standard room or if it's the superior or suite. Sites like Expedia.com have started labelling the photos so you know which room type you're looking at. This can be difficult in hotels where each room has a different decor! What should be the same is the size of the bed and amenities.

Again, always helps to assume that your room won't look as good as the room in the photo.

Client Reviews

Reading reviews by other clients on sites like Trip Advisor can be helpful if taken with a huge grain of salt. There are two reasons: first, they might not really be clients. Read this revealing article in the NY Times (free registration required to read), or a similar one about the practice of "Turking" in PC Magazine. Second, they may not know what they're talking about. I've visited over 250 hotels in Paris, so I know what a "good value Paris hotel" looks like. People who have nothing to compare their experiences to couldn't possibly know.

An example: one reviewer on Trip Advisor was ranting about a hotel being "cheap" because the hallway lights were on timers. What she didn't realize is that in Europe almost all lighting is on timers (electricity, like gasoline, costs a lot in Europe), but luxury hotels keep the lights on all of the time (and pass the price onto clients).

Another example: a reviewer complained that her €100/night hotel in St-Germain-des-Prés didn't have a hot buffet breakfast or sufficiently cold air conditioning. She seemed to think she could find these things in "any other hotel in the area for less than what I paid here". Oh really? I've been looking for this mythical hotel for years! (it doesn't exist)

Also keep in mind that people are more likely to write a review if they had a bad experience rather than praise a hotel for good service, so a hotel that has only bad reviews may be misleading. Use your common sense. Pay attention to the more helpful reviewers who say things like: "rooms on the first floor get no sunlight", "the handicap-accessible rooms are bigger, but you can hear all of the noise from the lobby", or "ask for a room with a bathtub; the showers are practically child-sized!"