Whether you’re looking for a quick hotel in the city or a secluded resort in the tropics, where you choose to stay can make or break your vacation experience. But even the most seasoned travelers may not know the difference between the two main types of homes-away-from-home. Besides their first letter, is there any real difference between hotels and motels? Don’t worry, this isn’t one of the 21 secrets hotels won’t tell you, but the answer isn’t as simple as you’d think.
These two types of lodging have the same basic purpose—a place for travelers to crash—but there are plenty of features that set them apart. For instance, they came to be for different reasons, and at very different times. The word “hotel” dates back to the 1600s and comes from a French word, hôtel. That word, just like the English one, referred to a place that provides lodging, meals, entertainment, and other services to travelers. (Word to the wise: Make sure you never do these 15 things in a hotel room.)
Motels, on the other hand, are a much more recent—and pretty much exclusively American—lodging option. This word dates back to the 1920s and combines the words “hotel” and “motor.” As America’s major highway system developed, so did motels, filling the need for roadside stops for motorists traveling cross-country.
There are also some more nuanced differences that can help you figure out which type of place you’re in. Hotels tend to be built for longer stays, while motels are geared more for one- or two-night stops along a journey. Because of this, hotels are much more likely to have offerings like lounges, gyms, and entertainment.
While hotels usually have lobbies, you’re more likely to access your motel room door straight from the parking lot. Hotels are also more commonly right in the middle of the action at an already-popular tourist destination. Motels, meanwhile, might have nothing around them but a stretch of open road. As for cost, hotels tend to be pricier as a whole, but other things such as size, popularity, and location can have a bigger effect on cost than motel-vs.-hotel distinction.
So, in the end, it comes down to what you want from your trip and from your lodging. Want the place you stay to be just as much a part of your travel experience as anything else? Opt for a hotel. Just need a place to pop in and out of to shower and sleep? A motel might be the better choice. Before you book anything though, be aware of the 10 red flags of a bad hotel.