When choosing a hotel, we usually weigh the tangibles—location, facilities, room features, price—but what we remember most, years later, are the people we met: the inn owner with the interesting stories, the housekeeper who sent tea with honey to your room when you had a cold, the bellman who gave you an insider’s walking tour of the neighborhood, the manager who threw an impromptu party when he heard it was your birthday….

Usually we expect that level of surprise-and-delight only from five-star properties.  At the much-buzzed-about new Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, for instance, the hospitality is over-the-top: Members of the local community show you around their island, and if you need a car, you don’t rent one:  You just grab one from the hotel’s driveway and return it whenever you like.  But the Fogo Island Inn costs upwards of $875/night. How can you find five-star hospitality without paying five-star prices?

One strategy is to favor hotels that have earned five-bubble service ratings. The ten hotels that TripAdvisor travelers rate highest for service around the world have an average nightly rate of $307; the top ten in the U.S. average just $228 per night. Most of these hotels aren’t fancy but are beloved because they’re run by thoughtful, caring hosts who go out of their way to make guests feel like family.  At the Desert Riviera Hotel, for instance—the Palm Springs, California, property that’s rated #1 in the U.S. for service—the staff gives guests complimentary rides to and from the airport and downtown restaurants; provides complimentary bottled water, fresh fruit, coffee, and tea 24/7; lends out DVDs and board games; throws pool parties; etc. Travelers are made to feel like they’re family coming home.

Interestingly, three of the top hotels for service worldwide are in Marrakech, Morocco, and three of the top U.S. hotels for service are in Palm Springs. Do properties in sunny desert locales with decadent pools put staffers in a better mood?  Maybe but, then again, the Fogo Island Inn is on a cold, wet isle off Newfoundland–and I personally have never encountered a hotel staff in a better mood.

Next time you’re headed to a hotel, whatever the climate, increase your chance of great service by:

  • thanking helpful staffers and complimenting them so that their superiors hear.
  • leaving a tip for the housekeeper early in your stay rather than on the last day.

How and where do you find five-star hospitality without paying five-star prices?