After staying at 72 hotels and 33 Airbnbs in the last year, we’ve seen the beautiful, the good, the bad and the ugly lodging options around the world. We wanted to acknowledge those hoteliers and Airbnb hosts who made our traveling easy, and who go above and beyond to make travelers’ stays more enjoyable. We’d like to help promote the great work these hosts are doing, so we’ve created a set of One-Year Retirement Awards! Each winner will receive a #1YearRetirement Certificate of Achievement. And for those who ended up on our Worst List, you get no certificate, as your punishment will be your ignominious listing on this page for eternity (or until I forget to pay the website’s annual renewal fee).
Someone other than Steve Harvey or Warren Beatty, hand us the envelopes please! The votes are in (adjudicated by a grand total of two judges, me and Megan), and the winners are:
Hotel water pressure is sort of like sex for Amish newlyweds — you don’t know whether it’s going to be any good until it’s too late to do anything about it. This year we’ve experienced everything from the dribbling trickle to a painful power wash at PSI levels that could remove gum from sidewalks. A few have been poor, many have been adequate, but the best was the Red Roof Plus Osaka. It had just enough to be invigorating with strong pressure to massage a tired traveler’s muscles, but it wasn’t too much, or as described by Newman in the water pressure Seinfeld episode, "like Silkwood."
The bed in Christina’s Saigon Airbnb was like sleeping on a cloud — and not just because it was situated in the loft above her adorable living area. The bed, the sheets, the ultra quiet room — everything added up to five blissfully uninterrupted nights of sleep, something very rare for us over this past year.
Robert’s Bright & Spacious Loft in Berlin provided seven great nights of sleep in Berlin, and the location might have helped as Robert’s Airbnb overlooked a quiet apartment courtyard.
Some travelers want a temporary home with the busiest and most active neighborhoods for dining and nightlife, while others value peace and quiet. These three spots had the best of both worlds. The Cerulean Tower Hotel in Tokyo was right in the heart of the rollicking Shibuya neighborhood — home of the busiest intersection in the world and a great immersive introduction for us as first-time Tokyo visitors. Christina’s Ben Tranh Loft in Saigon was close to everything yet a half-block off the main road down a quiet alleyway, so that street noise was never a problem. In Buenos Aires, Brian’s Palermo Soho Beautiful Apartment Airbnb was perfectly situated in the city’s vibrant Palermo neighborhood.
If you’re studying interior design and would like to be surrounded on all sides by the definition of art deco chic, might I suggest booking a night’s stay in Dawn’s Airbnb in Auckland? Airbnb hosts like Dawn are clearly making a conscious decision to shave a little off of their profits to ensure they provide a delightfully unique experience.
No detail is spared in this one-bedroom apartment in a historic 1930s building in Auckland — from the faux library wallpaper in the dining room, to the antique rotary telephone, to the art deco front door and knocker. It didn’t hurt her chances that she provided not only bread, milk, eggs, butter and even a chocolate bar in the fridge, but also a bottle of wine for two weary travelers just off a 13-hour flight from Buenos Aires. So yes, we can be bribed, in case you were wondering. And is that a $5,000 Eames chair and ottoman in the corner? Yes it is, so let’s not spill the wine, mmmkay?
When you step off the train in Nuremberg, you immediately realize you’re at the Mecca for quaint medieval towns. Then you step into the Hotel drei Raben and realize there is another level for quaintness. This boutique hotel is situated right on the town’s main thoroughfare (see Best Location Award), with the drei Raben logo (drei raben means “three ravens”) throughout the lobby and hotel, even down to the complimentary raven-shaped complementary sugar cookies.
True to its hometown pride, the hotel decorates each room in a different Nuremberg theme. Our room was the First Railway room, commemorating the Eagle, the first railroad in Bavaria, with a wall mural, and an amazing 3-D picture box on the wall. These room themes are carried forward in the lobby tables, so that each room has a corresponding table (no penalties are assessed for not sitting at your room’s themed table).
One of the biggest incentives for long-term travelers to Airbnb an entire home vs. renting a hotel room is that for the same price, you can save money using a kitchen. In fact, we’ve missed cooking so much that we’d look forward to our longer-term Airbnb stays so we could enjoy pasta and wine, taco night or in the case of Jonathan’s Cape Town Airbnb, barbecue! What a rare treat to have both a kitchen stocked with all the needed utensils and dishes as well as a balcony gas grill. I’d say it made us feel like we were home, but we didn’t even have a gas grill at home. Now that’s on our list for when we return.
Some Airbnbs don’t even leave salt and pepper, much less olive oil, butter and all the necessary cooking utensils. That’s why Dawn’s fully-stocked kitchen at her Heritage Art Deco Apartment was such a delight. She even provided eggs and bread, so we didn’t have to make a grocery store stop, which alone is worthy of recognition in my eyes. And it was Kasper’s Waterfront luxury apartmentin Copenhagen that provided the largest and best-stocked kitchen of our trip. Even with the fantastic dining options of Copenhagen, we opted to stay in and cook in this well-appointed kitchen and dining area.
Best Toilet —
Anywhere in Tokyo
What, you’re surprised this is a category? Then you’ve never been to Japan. Any pit stop there was a delight, and it’s the Todo Washlet brand toilet for the win. If you’ve never bidet-ed, we highly recommend giving it a try.
If you’re going to Santorini, you’re going for the view, and the Hotel Sunny Villas Santorini gives you exactly what you’re looking for. With a deck that overlooks a beautiful bay, you’re provided with a magnificent 180-degree vista of sun, sea, Skaros Rock hill, and the famed ultra-white cityscape of nearby Imerovigli. Since it’s west-facing, the view gets even better at sunset. We stopped our Santorini sightseeing excursions each night at 7:30 to get back to our room and sit on our deck with a glass of wine to watch the stunning sunset show. We were there before the busy season, so this studio room was under $100 - a fantastic deal for the view and the location.
Another amazing sight was the view from our window onboard the Royal Galapagos ship Natural Paradise, with the Galapagos Islands drifting by each morning of our seven-day cruise around the islands. And the Le Meridien Split in Croatia gets an honorable mention for the best view for your dollar. While this is a stunning view of the Adriatic Sea at any price, at $109/night in the offseason and a balcony with our Starwood Preferred membership, it looked even better.
Everyone seems to be searching to find their hygge (pronounced “HUE-gah”) these days — the Danish phrase that describes that sense of uber-coziness that you can feel from the top of your knit-by-Grandma stocking cap right down to your alpaca wool slippers. But a few places made us feel like they were hygge before hygge was cool. Topping the list is Christina’s Ben Tranh Loft Airbnb. Along with a bed as soft and comfortable as falling into a snowdrift made of cotton balls (See “Best Bed” above), the entire room provided the comfort we needed after spending the day on some gritty Saigon streets.
But the special touches from the staff are what really made this small guest house with under a dozen rooms feel like a warm and inviting home. Upon our arrival we were greeted with an adorable “Welcome Megan and Jim” sign in the lobby. The front desk clerk came out from his desk and sat us down for some tea and watermelon slices while he checked us in and walked us through the city’s best tourist spots and a few hidden gems to eat and drink. When we left, the staff person working the front desk asked us to text her when we got to the airport to ensure we had no problems. That’s mom-level hygge right there, and we appreciated it. I think my wife said “aww” multiple times a day, another good sign that we’re reaching critical hygge levels.
Another Uber-Hygge location is the Hotel Drei Raben. The great interior design with the homespun theme was a great first step (see “Best Interior Design” above), but every member of the staff we encountered made it much hygge-ier (is that a word yet?). The manager didn’t just recommended a nearby restaurant that would be the best meal we had in Germany, he booked the reservation himself and wrote down instructions for what we should order. The front-desk staff didn’t just greet us with a smile, they asked what we’d toured and gave us tips on additional stops to make. The bartender at the free wine happy hour didn’t just recommend a glass, he asked us which we liked best so they could adjust their offerings. And perhaps the most adorable of all, the 20-something piano player at the happy hour (at this point, of course they’d have a piano player) didn’t just keep us entertained but asked us to call out a song to play, all of which he knew — even my Johnny Cash request. We stayed here only one night, but wished we’d stayed longer, as we’ll not soon forget this great hotel and its wonderful staff.
When you have a zebra saunter by your hotel window, that’s unique. The Mara Siria Lodging we booked through Phoenix Safaris during our Kenya safari was very comfortable — even though it’s technically a tented experience, you feel like you’re in a fine hotel (this ain’t no pup-tent from scout camp). The location is on a hill overlooking the Masai Mara reserve so you can find yourself like we did — waking up with beautiful wild animals grazing nearby. (And we were assured by staff that the dangerous Big 5 animals don’t come near this hill, so the only wake up calls guests receive are zebras and giraffes. But just to be safe they provide escorts to your tent at night after dinner.)
At Rod and Chun’s Secluded Coastal Studio in Orient Point, Australia, our complimentary breakfast included a guest Rosella parrot who landed on a nearby fence to check us out during our al fresco breakfast. That’s a significant upgrade from the pigeon who usually joins us when we dine outside on the road — and a nice improvement in the view.
I didn’t expect this to be a category until I walked into the Hotel Marine Plaza in Mumbai. As a disclaimer, this hotel had a friendly, helpful staff, a spectacular complimentary breakfast and a lovely room. But it was hard to get past this array of creepy mime paintings in the lobby. I’m pretty sure I saw one of the pairs of eyes follow me as I passed. I’d recommend this hotel for anyone staying in Mumbai, but keep your head down in the lobby, as these smiling faces still haunt my nightmares.
The Four Points by Sheraton Munich provided a note in the room after we’d checked in apologizing for the ongoing construction noise, which ran from 7 a.m. to about 6 p.m each day of our eight-night stay. So I guess that makes it better? It didn’t really feel like it when the molar-rattling jackhammer commenced each morning. I guess we’re getting an early start for our day in Munich!
The runner up would be Melbourne’s Metropole Central. In its defense, we were there during both Halloween, and the Melbourne Cup, the biggest party all year for “the race that stops a nation” in Australia. Aussies from all over come to celebrate before, during and after the race, both at the race course outside the city and throughout Melbourne. When we noted the noise issue from the first night the manager just shrugged and said in his Aussie accent: “Yeah, roight, we’ve got some boys from Adelaide heer." Ooohkay. Your Crocodile Dundee accent is nice and all but it’s not making the noise go away. As we laid in bed at 4 a.m listening to a drunken Millennial yelling and banging on the door next to ours, trying to wake up his bro’s because he’d been locked out of his room, we decided if we visit Melbourne again, next time we’ll visit in the winter instead. Or maybe just bring earplugs, along with noise-canceling headphones, and before bedtime pop a horse tranquilizer.
This dubious honor goes to the inaccurately listed “Designer Rooftop Apartment 1” in Phnom Penh. It was billed as a spot created by a hotel designer, connoting there’d be an attention to detail at the location. Cleanliness apparently wasn’t a detail worth attending to, as the entire place was dusty and dirty, with cobwebs, unexplained kitchen stains and an overall musty smell. The location was billed as “a very chic place” but in fact was right above a street fish market which created a smell that would fell a charging rhinoceros in three paces.
We knew going into this leg of the trip that Cambodia is not like other destinations and requires more patience, but even for Cambodia standards, and especially at $85/night in Phnom Penh, this was bad. We had booked for four nights but left after the second night to find other lodging. To the credit of Airbnb, when we showed their dispute team the photos of the location as we found it, they made things right by giving us not only a complete refund for our stay, but also a $150 voucher to use for a future stay.
These hotels were the best of the entire year. Their fantastic accommodations and friendly staff made leaving each of these great locations difficult. For all the reasons previously mentioned, the Hotel Drei Raben was a top-notch experience. The Melia Hanoi Hotel in Vietnam and Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera in Croatia also provided world-class stays on a middle-class budget ($120/night for an upgraded room in Hanoi, and a fantastic deal at $76/night in Dubrovnik).
User reviews are the lifeblood of both Airbnbs and hotels. We review every location we visit, and we use the information from fellow travelers’ reviews for every stay we book. But sometimes a travel experience is so good (and sometimes bad) that it warrants something more than an online review. These “best of” locations helped make us feel right at home, and we know they’d make you feel the same.