MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

5 things to look for in a B&B

Here's how to find an inn you'll like.

The Silver Star Inn in Spring Green, Wis.

© Beth Gauper

At the art-filled Silver Star Inn in the hills above Spring Green, Wis., each room honors a famous photographer.

Everyone looks for something different in a B&B. Some people just want to relax in fancy environs, and their search is relatively easy: Look for high-end inns and be willing to pay for them.

I'm always on the move when I stay at a B&B, so I look for one that's near whatever I plan to do — biking, hiking, touring. If the proprietor is reasonably friendly and the room clean and comfortable, I'm happy.

But I like inns best if they have a unique character and reflect their surroundings. When we stayed at the Silver Star Inn in Spring Green, Wis., one May, for example, the owner didn't lavish wine or chocolate on us.

But the inn was filled with unusual art that reflected her interest in photography and days as a Madison art dealer, and we went home with dried morel mushrooms she and her family had gathered from the surrounding hillsides.

Spring Green is a famous center of art and idiosyncrasy (House on the Rock, Frank Lloyd Wright), so that was perfect.

Of course, it's also nice when an innkeeper does dote on a guest and anticipate every need.

Everyone likes something different. Some seasoned travelers don't want to know too much about an inn, because the surprise is what they like best. If that's not you, here are a few guidelines to consider when looking for a B&B.

1) Make sure the owner wants you to come. A wise inn proprietor told me this when I was new to travel writing, and I thought, 'Huh?' Now I understand completely. Some owners get into the business more because they love decorating, not because they love hosting.

If a proprietor doesn't sound happy to see you, don't make the reservation.

2) Look for an inn whose proprietor has a professional attitude. It should belong to an inn association or, at least, be a member of the local chamber or tourism bureau.

Today, an inn must have a web site, and it's a good sign if the owners put their full names on it.

It's even better if the site includes information on local attractions and events.

This means innkeepers are thinking about how they can enhance your vacation — possibly because they're nice people, but also because they want you to remember your trip (and their inn) fondly, tell all your friends about it and thereby increase their business.

That's how it should be.

And when you call, make sure the phone is answered with the name of the inn, not just "Hello?'' If it isn't, don't reserve.

3) Be skeptical of inns that boast top ratings or mentions in guidebooks or magazines. The inns that offer the most free rooms to guidebook and free-lance travel writers and buy the most advertising in magazines generally are the ones most frequently mentioned in travel stories.

Can these stories be trusted? Maybe, maybe not.

You won't find independent reviews at such directories as Lanierbb.com, BBonline.com and Bedandbreakfast.com.

Inn owners pay for these listings, and generally, they're the ones who write the material. However, these sites may list specials the inn is offering.

4) Word of mouth is the best way to find a B&B. But friends don't know everything, so you can look on-line for reviews. TripAdvisor has the most, but its reviews should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if there's only one or two about a property.

If it has 25, however, and nearly all of them are good, you can be fairly confident. For more about using TripAdvisor, see Word of mouse.

5) Look for an inn that has a point of view. Good innkeepers know no inn can be everything to everybody, so they play up what they can do best. Some cater to bicyclists and some to hikers, and they should offer such amenities as secure bicycle storage and, perhaps, shuttles.

I also like an inn with a democratic bent. For example, if an inn has one inexpensive room, and a room accessible by disabled travelers, and a room with two beds for friends traveling together, that says to me, "We welcome guests of all kinds.'' Those are the best inns. 

What to ask

After you've selected an inn, don't hesitate to make sure it's what you expect. Pictures don't lie, but they can mislead.

Many inns say their rooms have fireplaces, but that can mean several things: wood-burning fireplace, gas fireplace, electric fireplace, free-standing wood stove or gas stove. If you're counting on the crackling of a wood fire in a hearth, be sure to ask.

Other inns say they have whirlpools. Usually, that's a whirlpool for two, but it could be a regular bathtub with whirlpool jets. If that's important to you, ask if two people can comfortably sit in the whirlpool.

And unless you also want to bathe in the tub, make sure there's a shower.

The days of shared baths are almost over. But some rooms still have "private'' baths that are across the hall, down the hall or even in another part of the house. If you want a private bath in your room, ask.

That said, you usually can get a great deal at a B&B with shared baths if you come midweek, when it's unlikely you'll have to share the bath.

Once you're staying at an inn, remember to be a good guest. Innkeepers are there to serve you, but not wait on you hand and foot. This is their home, so be sure to respect it and them.

For a list of web sites listing B&Bs in the Upper Midwest, see How to find a bed-and-breakfast.

For more information about staying in a B&B, see a July 2004 story in SmartMoney magazine, "10 Things Your Bed & Breakfast Won't Tell You.''

Last updated on September 13, 2012