No matter where you’re going, if you didn’t bring a tent you’re going to need a room. Staying in a hotel, motel or inn is a simple way to book a spot to sleep and free up your days for fun activities or more travel. Depending on where you decide to stay, you can also find activities on site to make your trip more enjoyable.

Hotel vs Motel vs Inn

What is a hotel?

Historically, a hotel was a place where travelers, particularly religious pilgrims, went for care. In the days when travel was a rare event and could be very hard on your health, you would make your pilgrimage, visit the shrine or statue that was your goal, and recuperate in a hotel.

The word hôtel is from the French and has the same meaning as the original word for hospital.

Modern hotels are also a place to recuperate, but you don’t have to go on a pilgrimage to enjoy one. When you stay in a hotel, you can actually enjoy some lovely amenities. They’re not necessarily destination locations, but you can enjoy the amenities as part of the fun of your vacation.

hotel room

For example, you can rent a hotel room in San Antonio, work out at the gym, eat in the restaurant and visit the Alamo. Your hotel in NYC can get you close to Broadway shows and Times Square but allow you to eat breakfast in your room after a great night’s sleep.

Generally, hotels were built as hotels. Recent building and housing trends turning hotels into apartments or lowering fees to make them long-term stays means that you can find hotels with small kitchens and other daily living amenities, but most hotels provide a comfortable bed, a place to store your clothing, a bathroom and a refrigerator for beverages.

Televisions with entertainment packages allow travelers to turn their hotel rooms into a relaxing oasis when they’ve reached their destination.

hotel flow chart

What is a motel?

The word motel is a combination of the words motor and hotel. Generally, a motel is right off the highway and is centered around a parking lot. As highway travel grew, motel access became more important.

A hotel is generally a destination stay. A motel is a place to shower, sleep, and get back on the road. While paying guests are certainly welcome to linger in a motel, the amenities are generally not comfortable enough to settle in.

For example, while a hotel may have a restaurant in the building and room service with just a phone call, folks staying in a motel may have to get up and walk across the lot or the road to a restaurant or just eat out of a vending machine.

Across the United States, there are motels that have achieved a level of kitsch or notoriety. For example, if you plan to drive Route 66, you can still find “motor inn” motels where your room door is visible from the road!

Be aware that these rooms are often quite small and may not be the cleanest; because motels are often cheaper places to stay, the amenities can be limited.

motel ground level rooms

Be aware that there are security risks in having your room door open to the lot. If you’re on a car trip and you must stay somewhere overnight, try to get into your hotel room before full dark.

Bring in food so you can enjoy a relaxing dinner in your room and secure your vehicle by putting away books, tools, and charging devices. Motels get more traffic than hotels and a lot more traffic than inns.

Any overnight lodging where your front door opens onto a sidewalk instead of a hallway will be less secure than a traditional hotel structure.

If you have limited mobility, ask to see your hotel room before you pay and accept your key. While access directly off the parking lot can be helpful to those in a scooter or a wheelchair, your motel room may be too small to allow you room between the end of the bed and the bureau or television stand.

motel flow chart

Comparison chart

HotelMotelInn
DescriptionAn establishment that provides paid lodging on a short-term basisA motor inn designed for motoristsAn older building or establishment that provides lodging services
CostHighLowLess than a hotel but more than a motel
ComfortGreatPoorGood
AmenitiesPlenty: including food, exercise, officeNone: Perhaps a vending machineBasic: including food
SafetyGoodPoor-NonePoor-Good
AccessibilityEasy: elevators, parking availableEasy: room access from outside ground levelAverage: Many inns have stairs, poor parking
Suitable forAll travelersMotorists who need a quick stayWeekend getaways

What is an Inn?

An inn is often a building that was once a large home. The word “rustic” is often paired with the name “inn” and should be noted by those who are used to hotels.

For example, a rustic inn can mean a lot of stairs, tight corners, and small bathrooms. If you have physical limitations or need special accommodations, book early and be very specific about your clearance requirements.

The words “charming” and “cozy” are also often associated with inns. Your setting will matter a great deal. For example, you may stay at an inn in the northeast and enjoy lovely hikes in the Catskills or the Adirondacks. At most inns, the owner or the manager lives on-site to handle any concerns.

Inns generally do not include a full-service restaurant, but some offer dinner and breakfast to overnight guests. If you have special dietary preferences or needs, make sure you confirm with the host that you can be served the food that suits you. Be prepared to get at least lunch out on your own and don’t be surprised by limited choices.

large inn with mountain views

A very low-cost inn might offer a boarding-house or family-style meal. In such a case, you sit with other guests around a table and pass plates and bowls. Like dining on a train, dining in such a setting is a wonderful way to meet new people and find out about other parts of the world.

Recent world events have made such serving and dining options unlikely; you may instead have the option to take a disposable container of food to your room for a private meal.

There are inns that are considered to be a destination in and of themselves, featuring a full menu and activity options. If you’re looking for the quiet of a bed & breakfast, booking at a large inn with lots of amenities may limit the quiet you can enjoy.

While many bed & breakfast locations cater to couples looking for a quiet place to reconnect, large inns with amenities may serve families with children.

It is important to note that hotels and motels can operate under a national “flag” or brand. One Holiday Inn or Microtel should have similar amenities to other facilities under the same flag. Inns are individual facilities, as are many roadside motels. Check the reviews to avoid unpleasant surprises. If you have physical limitations, make sure you have a backup idea of where you might go in case your current pick doesn’t suit you.

inn flow chart

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