A guesthouse bed, with rolled up blankets at the foot of it and stretched out carpets and blankets all around it on the walls. The headrest and walls are made of stone and it looks very cosy.
One of the best guesthouses we’ve ever stayed in!

Guest house vs hotel: what’s the difference and which is better?

If you’ve ever wondered what makes a guest house and guest house and a hotel a hotel, you’re in the right place! When it comes to the whole ‘guest house vs hotel’ debate, it’s tricky to know which one is better, but this article has you covered.

Personally we love a guest house, and we also love a local home stay. Staying in a guesthouse is an amazing way to experience a local culture, give back to local economies and often, stay somewhere a little cheaper. Admittedly, it can sometimes be hard to know how to find a good one, but that’s all part of the challenge and we’ll cover that too below.

Unfortunately, many people will often opt for large international chain hotels when they travel, which means most guest houses don’t get a look in. This is a real problem for local economies and can also become problematic for local people and natural environments if the hotels require a lot of construction.

This article will talk you through the main difference between a guest house and a hotel (and also homestay), the benefits of staying in one over another and talk you through how to find the best guest houses wherever you’re going.

This article may contain affiliate links! These are often discounted, so there is no additional cost to you, but we may earn a small commission if you use them to book something.

Table of Contents

Not every hotel needs to come from a chain franchise. In fact, there are lots of hotels which are small-scale and run by local people, and these often make for the most welcoming stays.

Really, it’s very easy to understand why people choose international chain hotels (Marriotts, Hiltons etc). Often people find them easier to book than anything else: their sites are slick and easy to use, they know what to expect when they get there, it’s familiar and easy to find reviews (which are often good, because their service is standardised). Additionally, people often feel safe there, and they are enticed by loyalty programmes, which reward them for staying with the same chain often.

However, here’s the issue: international hotel chains are international. That means that often (in fact almost always), the vast majority of their money is divested away from local economies and back to corporate investors and CEOs in countries such as the US, the UK, Canada etc. Additionally, very few international chain hotels are actually doing enough when it comes to sustainability. In fact, from the statistic we have available to us, it’s clear that they’re doing the bare minimum they can to appear sustainable, and for this very reason, hotels don’t make these statistics easy to find!

There are other issues too, such as the building work that needs to go into these projects, which often destroys or encroaches upon delicate ecosystems, the vast amount of food waste that comes from things like breakfast buffets and the water wastage from hotel guests and cleaning teams. This is not to mention the inflated room prices and subsequent tipping culture (often not prevalent in these areas before tourism) that are bound to damage local economies long time. Safe to say, they pose a lot of problems.

For developing countries in particular, this can be a huge double-edged sword. The argument that is repeatedly trotted out in favour of large scale international hotel chains is that they provide much needed employment in local communities. While this is sometimes true, local workers are rarely employed in management positions, and so the wealth gap between local people and expats in managerial roles tends to widen. Add to this that such hotels will usually use concierge teams to book tours, taxis and services at often grossly inflated prices, most of which stays within the hotel itself, and it’s important to question, are they really doing the local economy any favours at all?

But, like we said above, not all hotels are international chains, and it’s perfectly possible to find great locally-run hotels most places you go. A guest house can give you even more assurance that you money will be making its way back to local people, plus the experience is often so much more personal and rewarding.

Guest house vs hotel: what is the difference?

We likely all know what a hotel is: put simply, a place to stay when you’re travelling. This can be a small or large hotel, boutique or resort, self-catering or all-inclusive, whatever it may be. Hotels can be run by local people, but crucially, the owners of the hotel do not need to reside there with guests.

A true guest house is a locally run (usually family-owned) hotel, and the hosts usually reside there with the guests. It can have different names in different cultures, but essentially it’s intended as a means of extending local hospitality to tourists/visitors. It’s a great way to invest money into a local economy and make sure you are giving back directly to the people taking care of you. If you want to ensure you are supporting the people who need it most within a community, you can also narrow your search down to women-owned, black-owned, indigenous-owned guesthouses and so on, depending on who needs the most support and whatever your person criteria may be.

Since we stopped staying in hostels, guesthouses became our means of still travelling on a budget without having to share a room with others. They’re the perfect intermediate solution for us and a great way to invest back into local economies and meet local people.

Emma and Murray are standing on a balcony looking out to the Pyramids of Egypt. Murray is standing behind Emma and has his hands around her waist. They are both looking away from the camera. The balcony is sweet and has lots of flowerpots with cacti on it.
The view from our friend Rami’s guesthouse in Cairo

Why stay in a guesthouse?

I mean why do we even like them at all? There are so many reasons, but here are a few of our favourites:

🥘 The food – we absolutely love trying new foods and seeing what different cultures eat. Guest houses usually have an in-house cook and the food is usually home-made, local and as a rule, delicious. Of course this varies from place to place, but we’ve often found guest houses to be a unique chance to try some unusual local food, without the fear that we’ll end up ordering something terrifying.

🤍 The people – we’ve met some of our favourite people in the world staying in guest houses, whether that’s the hosts themselves or other guests, who are usually like-minded explorers! Sometimes the guest houses even have pets!

🖼 The decor – since guest houses aren’t owned by large chains, they’re normally free to decorate in their own style, and that means sometimes they look really interesting! Usually they’re pretty cosy and homely we find, but this can vary of course

🎁 Souvenirs – quite often, as an additional form of income, guest houses will sell small souvenirs – maybe homemade ornaments, decorations etc., maybe art, maybe homemade jams or honeys etc. It’s a great way to find something lovely to take home without breaking the bank, and supporting a local business too

😊 You know where your money is going – for us this is the number one reason to stay in guest houses, honestly. You know you’re supporting the local economy without contributing to a big corporation’s pocket money and you normally meet the people who you’re paying directly!

How do you find a guest house?

There are a few ways!

👄 The best and surest way to find a good guest house is usually word of mouth.

Small, family-owned places cannot often have much of a presence online because of the associated costs or WiFi connectivity difficulties. We always trust places our friends and family have stayed, especially if they give us a great review about local hospitality or friendly hosts. Make sure you pass on the favour and spread the word if you find a good one.

❓ If you have no joy with your friends and family, you can try asking other hotels nearby.

Locally owned places usually have a small support network in the area and it’s likely that one owner may know another who they can recommend to you

📚 If you aren’t fortunate enough to have well-connected friends in the area you’re visiting or be staying in another guesthouse already, you can always start by searching online or checking travel blogs for the recommendations of other travellers. Try to check reviews still or go with travellers that you trust (social media can also be a great place to connect on this!) as you want to make sure you’re still saying somewhere genuine

🏨 If neither of the above work, we turn to the online booking platforms. We prefer to use Booking.com, Hotelworld and Hotels.com over Airbnb. This is a personal preference based on feedback from previous guesthouse owners, who have told us that Airbnb charge very high fees that they can’t keep up with. It’s still worth checking Airbnb if the others fail, as some business owners do list there if they can afford it, but we also follow the below tips…

A chair made completely of car and bike tyres
We love seeing sustainable touches in guesthouses, like this tyre chair!

How to find a guest house on booking platforms

We start by filtering down to the cheapest 5% or so of properties on the site we’re using. Simply from experience, we’ve found that guesthouses are usually very cheap and this is a near sure-fire way to find one. If it isn’t immediately obvious whether or not the hotel you’re looking at is a guest house, here are some words you can look out for, which might be unique to certain cultures, languages or countries.

Look for these phrases

  • B&B/Bed and breakfast
  • Riad or Dar (this is pretty specific to the Middle East and North Africa)
  • Lodge/House
  • Pension/Auberge (French speaking countries)
  • Inn
  • Residencia (Spanish-speaking countries)
  • Casa or Casa Particular (this is specific to Cuba)

Avoid these phrases

  • Corporate-style hotels with meeting rooms
  • Anything which offers a loyalty scheme or has multiple locations
  • Chains (even if they include the word ‘inn’, such as Days Inn or Hampton Inn and Suites)
  • Large properties with more than 30 or so rooms
  • Brand names such as Novotel, Sofitel, Marriott or Hilton
  • The word ‘aparthotel’
  • The phrase ‘and Spa’
  • The word ‘resort’
A tiled store front with a sign that reads 'seuri bar'. It looks quite run down, but is one of the best guesthouses in the world.
It may not look like much, but this is the best guesthouse we’ve ever stayed in, where we met some lifelong friends!

The importance of checking reviews

In order to guarantee a great experience, it’s essential to check reviews. Often guest houses can’t afford to have beautiful photos taken, or they don’t have anyone who is experienced at doing so, so their photos may not always be representative of what you’re getting. Additionally, they may have had fewer guests than hotels, their review star ratings may be skewed by one especially bad or especially good outlier review.

Here are our tips for checking reviews:

  • Check reviews across MULTIPLE platforms, not just one, to get a well-rounded overview
  • Remember that reviews are subjective and therefore should be taken with a pinch of salt. People are more likely to write reviews when they are really unhappy vs really impressed, so pay close attention to positive and negative reviews and see what is mentioned. Our favourite thing to see is that the staff took great care of the guests and made it a really enjoyable experience for them. Bad reviews may come from one negative experience only, so try to take them lightly and as part of a more general overview, unless there are lots saying the same thing
  • Tripadvisor is an open forum and does not vet its reviewers to make sure they have visited a place before reviewing. By contrast, Expedia, Booking.com, Hostelworld and Airbnb all require you to make a booking somewhere before you review it, so reviews on these sites are more likely to have genuine feedback
  • For small places, we look for at least 4 out 5* ratings, and only 5* ratings if not many people have stayed there. Since their service is not standardised, it’s important to make sure it’s generally great
A pool in the evening - there are a few people swimming in it and loungers around it.
Our guesthouse in Kenya even had a pool!

Should you book direct?

Though we often find our guest houses through hotels.com/booking,com, we try to avoid booking there too often, unless we really have to. We’ll normally confirm it in the app on a refundable rate, so we don’t miss out, and then email the guesthouse directly to confirm they have received the booking, and check if we can book with directly instead. In general, it’s good practice to confirm a booking directly with a small independent property, as there can sometimes be connection issues that lead to your booking being missed if you don’t.

We always like to email, call or WhatsApp to say hello and ask if we can cancel our online booking to confirm with them directly. Most hotels will be delighted to be asked this and will gladly allow you to do so for free, so that they do not have to pay online commissions. We have had occasions where the hotel has asked us to keep the booking in app for their security/ease of payment, and that’s fine – we just go with whatever they want, but we always ask first.

Note: always cancel a booking and rebook elsewhere if you do not hear back from a hotel before your trip. It’s a huge red flag that either your booking has not been made, the place does not exist or the service is very bad.

Is a guest house a homestay?

No, they are different!

A guest house is a hotel, set up for guests, who can entertain themselves as they would in any other hotel. A homestay is a hosted visit, usually with a family who stay with you and host you (like your friends or family would) to give you the most in depth local experience possible.

A guesthouse is perhaps an easier way in for those who are not used to this type of hospitality, as you are pretty much left to your own devices, but a homestay is really fun if you want to try something different! We have tried both homestays and guest houses, and like both, but a homestay is much more hands on.

A ginger cat with green eyes looking up at Murray expectantly. She is very slim and pretty
We love a guesthouse with pets!

If you liked this post, don’t forget to subscribe, or leave us a comment to say hi. You can also stay tuned for next week’s post, where we’ll talk about the best guesthouses we’ve ever stayed in!

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    Written by Emma


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