Feel at home at Europe's bed-and-breakfasts
In the morning, your hostess might help plan your day, tipping you off to the best places for lunch and about the live folk music in the village pub that evening. She then sends you out the door with a smile, handing you an umbrella, just in case it rains.
The best B&Bs ooze warmth and local color, making these some of my favorite accommodations in Europe.
B&Bs are generally small, family-run places with fewer amenities but more character than a hotel. Most offer up to six rooms in the hosts' home, though they can range from large guest houses with 20 rooms to small homes renting out a single spare bedroom.
While B&Bs often lack the conveniences of a hotel -- such as fancy lobbies, restaurants and in-room phones -- I happily make the trade-off for the personal touches that they do offer, whether it's joining my hosts for tea in the afternoon or relaxing by a common fireplace at the end of the day.
And unlike American bed-and-breakfasts, which are usually frilly, fancy places that cost just as much as hotels, B&Bs in Europe are generally cheaper than comparable hotels.
But even though B&Bs are family-run, it doesn't mean you have to feel pressure to become "part of the family."
Chatty friendliness is not forced on guests. Depending on my mood and workload, I am often very businesslike and private during my stay. On other occasions, I join the children in the barn for the sheep-shearing festivities.
While you can find good family-run accommodations in any European country, the best ones are in Great Britain and Ireland.
B&Bs in Britain and Ireland typically have several rooms and are run by a charming couple or family. Amenities like free Wi-Fi and a tea-making machine in the room are standard.
The best part is the huge, home-cooked breakfast: the English or Irish fry. Most B&B owners take pride in their breakfasts. Each morning, you sit down at an elegant and very British table setting in a small, intimate dining room. You help yourself to cereal, juice, yogurt and fruit while ordering whatever parts of the fry you desire, including bacon, sausage, eggs, broiled tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, and coffee or tea.
B&Bs aren't for everyone, though. Some places either don't allow kids or require them to be over a certain age, usually somewhere around 8 to 12.
B&Bs can be equally unfriendly to seniors with mobility issues, as rooms may be tucked away in attics or perched at the top of several flights of stairs. Don't expect an elevator.
Most rooms have an "en suite" (attached) bathroom, but some rooms come with a "private bathroom" instead, which can mean that the bathroom is all yours, but it's across the hall.
It's not uncommon for B&Bs to have a two-night minimum, especially in popular weekend-getaway spots. Although more B&Bs now take credit cards, they may add a service fee to your bill. Others are still cash only.
Depending on what country you're traveling in, bed-and-breakfasts go by different names (and may not include breakfast at all). In Germany, Switzerland and Austria, they are known as Zimmer Frei or Privatzimmer.
In rural Spain, look for a cama or casa particular. In Croatia and Slovenia -- where mass tourism and overpriced resort hotels reign -- private rooms called sobe are often the best deal going.
France's chambres d'hote, mainly in the countryside and in small towns, are usually listed only through tourist information offices. While your hosts likely won't speak English, they will almost always be happy to share their home.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email email@example.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2012 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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