Bed, Breakfast, and Your Own Temporary Local Mother

By Rick Steves

She threw her apron aside, became about 30 years younger, bolted out of the house, and hollered after me, "Where's your umbrella? Here, take mine. And be back by 8:00 because Danny and his friends are playing folk music down at the corner pub tonight." When you stay in a bed and breakfast, you get lots more than a bed. You get your own temporary local mother.

Compared to hotels, bed-and-breakfast places give you double the cultural intimacy for half the price. Prices include a big cooked breakfast. The amounts of coziness, tea, and biscuits that are tossed in varies tremendously.

If you have a reasonable but limited budget, skip hotels. Go the B&B way. If you can use a telephone and speak English, you'll enjoy homey, friendly, clean rooms at a great price by sticking to my listings. Always call first.

If you're traveling beyond my recommended destinations, you'll find B&Bs where you need them. Any town with tourists has a TI that books rooms or can give you a list and point you in the right direction. In the absence of a TI, ask people on the street for help.

"Twin" means two single beds, and "double" means one double bed. If you'll take either one, let them know or you might be needlessly turned away. "Standard" rooms come with just a sink (many better places have standard rooms that they don't even advertise). If you want a room that contains a private bathroom, specify "en suite"; B&B owners sometimes use the term "private bathroom" for a bathroom down the hall that only your room has the key for.

B&Bs range from large guest houses with 15–20 rooms to small homes renting out a spare bedroom. The philosophy of the management determines the character of a place more than its size and facilities offered. Avoid places run as a business by absentee owners. My top listings are run by people who enjoy welcoming the world to their breakfast table.

The B&Bs I've recommended are nearly all stocking-feet comfortable and "homely," as they say in England. I look for a place that has friendly hosts (i.e., they enjoy Americans); a location in a central, safe, quiet neighborhood; clean rooms, with firm beds; a good value; and no mention in other guidebooks (and therefore it's filled mostly by English travelers). I'm more impressed by a handy location and a fun-loving philosophy than hair driers.

A few tips: B&B proprietors are selective as to whom they invite in for the night. At some B&Bs, children are not welcome. Risky-looking people (two or more single men are often assumed to be troublemakers) find many places suddenly full. If you'll be staying for more than one night you are a "desirable." In popular weekend-getaway spots, you're unlikely to find a place to take you for Saturday night only.

Sometimes staying several nights earns you a better price — ask about it. If my listings are full, ask for guidance. (Mentioning this book can help.) Owners usually work together and can call up an ally to land you a bed. If you book through a TI, it takes a 10 percent commission and may charge you an extra pound or two. If you book direct, the B&B gets it all (and you'll have a better chance of getting a discount).

B&Bs serve a hearty "fry" breakfast that generally includes eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, and often grilled mushrooms, a tomato, and baked beans. Cereal and fruit are also usually available. You'll figure out quickly which parts of the "fry" you like and don't like. B&B owners prefer to know this up front, rather than serve you the whole shebang and have to throw out uneaten food. Because your B&B owner is also the cook, there's usually a quite limited time span when breakfast is served (typically about an hour — make sure you know when it is). It's an unwritten rule that guests shouldn't show up at the very end of the breakfast period and expect a full cooked breakfast — instead, aim to arrive at least 10 minutes before breakfast ends. If you do arrive late (or if you need to leave before breakfast is served), most B&B hosts are happy to let you help yourself to cereal, fruit, and coffee; ask politely if it's possible.

B&Bs are not hotels: If you want to ruin your relationship with your hostess, treat her like a hotel clerk. Americans often assume they'll get new towels each day. The British don't, and neither will you. Hang them up to dry and reuse.

In almost every B&B, you're likely to encounter unusual bathroom fixtures. The "pump toilet" has a flushing handle that doesn't kick in unless you push it just right: too hard or too soft, and it won't go. Be decisive but not ruthless. There's also the "dial-a-shower," an electronic box under the shower head where you'll turn a dial to select the heat of the water, and (sometimes with a separate dial or button) turn on or shut off the flow of water. If you can't find the switch to turn on the shower, it may be just outside the bathroom.

Some B&Bs stock rooms with a hot-water pot, cups, tea bags, and coffee packets (if you prefer decaf, buy a jar at a grocery, and dump into a baggie for easy packing). Electrical outlets sometimes have switches that turn the current on or off; if your electrical appliance isn't working, flip the switch.

Most B&Bs come with thin walls and doors. This, combined with people walking down the hall to use the bathroom, can make for a noisy night. If you're a light sleeper, bring earplugs. And please be quiet in the halls and in your rooms (talk softly, and keep the TV volume low)...those of us getting up early will thank you for it.

Your B&B bedroom generally won't include a phone. In the mobile-phone age, street phone booths can be few and far between. Some B&B owners will allow you to use their phone (with an international phone card), but many are disinclined to let you ring up charges. If you must use their phone, show them your calling card and keep the call short (5–10 minutes max). If you plan to be staying in B&Bs and making frequent calls, consider buying a British mobile phone.

Many B&B owners are also pet owners. And, while pets are rarely allowed into guest rooms, and B&B proprietors are typically very tidy, those with pet allergies might be bothered.