Finding the Right B&B: 10 Questions to Ask an Innkeeper

Do you find that hotels cost more these days while offering less? Picture instead an elegant breakfast at a Victorian house in Bellingham; a Croatian inn, where a grandmother gives you a bottle of homemade rose liqueur; or a hostess in the Bahamas serving breakfast in a tropical garden.

While B&Bs may not always be predictable, they provide a wealth of personal service and fascinating encounters. The trick is knowing what to ask beforehand, so you can satisfy your needs and avoid unwelcome surprises.

1. Where would you like to stay: in a city, near a wilderness park or other attraction? Find out exactly how close the B&B is to your destination.

For a seaside vacation, ask if the lodging is by the sea! When my family went to the Oregon coast, we pictured sand outside our door. Instead, we found ourselves on a cliff five miles from the nearest beach.

If a view is important to you, make sure it’s visible from your room. To see the “magnificent seascape” at a New Zealand inn, we were led to the owners’ living room for a long, boastful conversation. On the other hand, at a Vancouver Island inn, our room had a view of giant evergreens leading down to the ocean. We could walk to the shore in minutes.

2. Get an exact price quote, and find out what’s included in the cost. In Charleston, South Carolina, my antique-filled suite in an antebellum mansion cost less than a conference hotel room. Determine policies on credit cards, deposits and cancellation fees, which may be different from hotels.

3. Find out the type of breakfast served, and factor that into the price. Look for key words like “hearty continental” or “generous buffet.” That New Zealand B&B’s breakfast, advertised as “the best in the country,” turned out to be a small, lonely, well-decorated waffle. By contrast, an Australian farmer’s breakfast of fresh, local food was so generous we weren’t hungry until dinner.

Ask about breakfast hours. Our hostess in Portaferry, Northern Ireland served breakfast at 8 a.m., which didn’t suit our late-night habits. But innkeepers in Ireland and Prague said the magic words, “What time would you like your breakfast?”

4. Understand the house rules, such as whether you can come and go as you please. While most inns provide house keys, our nemesis in Portaferry wouldn’t lend us one, saying we’d “lose it and everyone and his brother would be breakin’ in.” When we stayed out late and had to wake her up, we felt like naughty adolescents.

5. Most B&Bs have private facilities, but if not, learn the ratio of bedrooms to bathrooms. The third strike for the place in New Zealand? One bathroom served four guest rooms; if someone took a shower, the rest of us couldn’t use the facilities. Now I look carefully for a two-to-one ratio.

6. Ask about street noise before you reserve. If an area is loud, does the house have a quiet side? You may want a more tranquil neighborhood. One Christmas we stayed at a beautiful Tucson B&B filled with fine art and candles; the area was quiet but within walking distance of holiday festivities.

7. Do you want to be near restaurants, nightlife, theaters or museums? Choose an inn accordingly. Or perhaps you’d like to get away from it all. In a stunning Portuguese setting overlooking vineyards and the Douro River, I wanted to stay forever, savoring the breakfasts and the view.

8. Inquire about special events and weather. Traveling off-season lowers rates, but the weather could be unpredictable. You may want to enjoy--or avoid--Mardi Gras or Oktoberfest. We were willing to pay double rates and overlook crowds for Holy Week in Seville. And we made a point of visiting an English farm at sheep shearing time.

9. Need telephone and Internet access? Ask if connections are provided or if a computer is available. Check on cell phone reception, especially in remote areas. I had to drive through a storm in Wales, then stand on a windy hilltop to call my bank about a credit card emergency.

10: Find out about children and pets. My husband and I like places with animals; I fell in love with a Scottish terrier in Maine and a calico cat in Nashville. Other travelers may want to avoid them. And whereas once we looked for family-friendly houses, now we search elsewhere if a conspicuous welcome is made to young children.

Here are more questions to ask, depending on your needs and preferences:

  •     Does the B&B have a pool or hot tub?
  •     Are laundry or kitchen facilities available?
  •     Will my dietary/physical needs be accommodated?
  •     Is there an elevator? Can luggage be stored?
  •     Is parking nearby? Public transportation?

You can get answers to these questions by checking out an inn's website, sending emails, or picking up the phone. Most innkeepers will offer advice without obligation, and you can learn a lot by their response.

With few exceptions, your hosts will surprise you with their personal service and acts of kindness. I remember an English lady bringing tea to our room each morning, a French couple helping with a stolen backpack, a Welshman driving us to a men’s choir concert. Most innkeepers love what they do and have respect and affection for their guests. Those who don’t will be far outnumbered and soon forgotten.

By Jan Schwert, a freelance writer living in Seattle.
Last updated June 6, 2011
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