What's So Great About Bed & Breakfasts?

By Rick Steves

Between hotels and hostels in price and style is a special class of accommodations: bed-and-breakfasts (B&Bs). These are small, warm, and family-run, and offer a personal touch at a reasonable price. They are the next best thing to staying with a family, and even if hotels weren't more expensive, this budget alternative can be your best bet.

Don't confuse European bed-and-breakfasts with their rich cousins in America. B&Bs in the US are usually frilly, fancy places, very cozy and colorful but as expensive as hotels. In a European B&B, rather than seven pillows and a basket of jams, you get a warm welcome and a good price.

Each country in Europe has these friendly accommodations in varying degrees of abundance, facilities, and service. While we commonly refer to them as bed-and-breakfasts, some include breakfast and some don't. They have different names from country to country, but all have one thing in common: They satisfy the need for a place to stay that gives you the privacy of a hotel and the comforts of home at a price you can afford.

While information on more established places is available in many budget-travel guidebooks, the best leads are often found locally, through tourist information offices, or even from the man waiting for his bus or selling apples. Especially in the British Isles, each B&B host has a network of favorites and can happily set you up in a good B&B at your next stop.

Many times, the information is brought to you. I'll never forget struggling off the plane on my arrival in Santorini. Fifteen women were begging me to spend the night. Thrilled, I made a snap decision and followed the most attractive offer to a very nice budget accommodation.

The "part of the family" element of a B&B stay is determined entirely by you. Chatty friendliness is not forced on guests. Depending on my mood and workload, I am often very businesslike and private during my stay. On other occasions, I join the children in the barn for the sheep-shearing festivities.

B&Bs by Region

The British Isles

Britain's B&Bs are the best of all. As the name indicates, a breakfast comes with the bed, and (except in London) this is no ordinary breakfast. Most B&B owners take pride in their breakfasts. Their guests sit down to an elegant and very British table setting and feast on cereal, juice, bacon, sausage, eggs, broiled tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, marmalade, and coffee or tea. While you are finishing your coffee, the landlady (who by this time is probably on very friendly terms with you) may present you with her guest book, inviting you to make an entry and pointing out others from your state who have stayed in her house. Your hostess will sometimes cook you a simple dinner for a good price, and if you have time to chat, you may get in on an evening social hour. When you bid her farewell and thank her for the good sleep and full stomach, it's often difficult to get away. Determined to fill you with as much information as food, she wants you to have the best day of sightseeing possible.

If you're going to the normal tourist stops, your guidebook will list some good B&Bs. If you're venturing off the beaten British path, you don't need (or want) a listing. The small towns and countryside are littered with places whose quality varies only in degrees of wonderful. I try not to choose a B&B until I have checked out three. Styles and atmosphere vary from house to house, and besides, I enjoy looking through European homes.

Britain rates its B&Bs using a diamond system (1–5) that considers cleanliness, furnishings, and decor. But diamond definitions are pretty squishy. Few B&Bs make a big deal of the ratings, and fewer tourists even know the system exists.

Ireland has essentially the same system of B&Bs. They are less expensive than England's and if anything, even more "homely" (cozy). You can expect a big breakfast and comfortable room, often within an easy walk of the town center.

Germany, Switzerland and Austria

Look for Zimmer Frei, Privatzimmer, or Gästezimmer. These are very common in areas popular with travelers (such as Austria's Salzkammergut Lake District and Germany's Rhine, the Romantic Road region, and southern Bavaria). Signs will clearly indicate whether rooms are available (green) or not (orange). Especially in Austria, one-night stays are discouraged. Most Privatzimmer cost about $40 per person and include a hearty continental breakfast. Pensionen, Gasthäuser, and Gasthöfe are similarly priced small, family-run hotels. Don't confuse Privatzimmer with Ferienwohnung, which is a self-catering apartment rented out by the week or fortnight.

France

The French have a growing network of chambres d'hôte (CH) where residents, mainly in the countryside and in small towns, rent double rooms for about the price of a cheap hotel ($75–120), but with breakfast included. Some CHs post chambre signs in their windows, but most are listed only through tourist information offices. While your hosts likely won't speak English, they will almost always be enthusiastic and happy to share their home.

Italy

Check out Italy's good alternatives to its expensive hotels — look for albergo, locanda, and pension. (While these are technically all bunched together now in a hotel system with star ratings, you'll still find these traditional names to be synonymous with simple, budget beds.) Private rooms, signposted as camere libere or affitta camere, are fairly common in Italy's small towns. Small-town bars are plugged into the B&B grapevine. Breakfasts are usually included, and you'll sometimes get a kitchenette in the room. Drivers can try agriturismi, rooms in farmhouses in the countryside. Weeklong stays are preferred in July and August, but shorter stays are possible off-season. For a sampling, visit www.agriturismoitaly.it or do an Internet search for agriturismo.

Scandinavia

These usually luxurious B&Bs — advertised as a rom, hus rum, or, in Denmark, værelser — cost about $40–60 per person. By Scandinavian standards, these are incredibly cheap (well, not so incredibly, when you figure it's a common way for the most heavily taxed people in Europe to make a little money under the table). Unfortunately, many Scandinavian B&Bs are advertised only through the tourist information offices, which very often keep them a secret until all the hotels are full. If your Scandinavian B&B is serving breakfast, eat it. Even at $15, it's a deal by local standards and can serve as your best big meal of the day. Some hosts provide a roll of foil so you can pack up a lunch from the breakfast spread. If that sounds like a good idea, just ask.

Spain and Portugal

Travelers get an intimate peek into their small-town, whitewashed worlds by renting camas and casas particulares in Spain and quartos in Portugal. In rural Iberia, wherever there's tourism, you'll find these budget accommodations. Breakfast is rarely included. Hostales and pensiones are easy to find, inexpensive, and, when chosen properly, a fun part of the Spanish cultural experience. These places are often family-owned, and may or may not have amenities like private bathrooms and air-conditioning. Don't confuse a hostal with a hostel. A hostal is an inexpensive hotel, not a hostel with bunks in dorms.

Greece

You'll find many $60-per-room dhomatia. Especially in touristy coastal and island towns, hardworking entrepreneurs will meet planes, ferries, and buses as they come into town at any hour. In Greek villages with no hotels, ask for dhomatia at the town taverna. Forget breakfast.

Croatia and Slovenia

In these countries — where mass tourism and overpriced resort hotels reign — private rooms are often the best deal in town (no breakfast). You'll notice signs advertising sobe (rooms) everywhere you look, or you can book one through a travel agency (10–30 percent extra). You'll generally pay extra if you stay less than three nights. Along the Dalmatian Coast, sobe skimmers meet every arriving ferry, targeting backpackers and eager to whisk you away to see their room. In the Slovenian countryside, look for tourist farms (turisti─Źne kmetije), where you can sleep in a family's farmhouse for remarkably low prices. Croatia's Istria region has similar agroturizams.