“I’m on my way to the chiropractor,” Dunn, CEO of public relations firm Dunn Pellier Media, said by phone from his car on his way to a check-up. “I still can’t move.”
Coming from the United States, where you can expect a good mattress without stepping up to a luxury hotel (I’m looking at you, Hampton Inn), Americans are often disappointed with their hotel beds across the pond. Old-world charm only goes so far when you’re done trying to sleep on something flat, short, bunk, twin, or, as in Dunn’s case, “hard rocking.”
Ben Pundole, executive vice president of brand culture and events at Public Hotels says that in general, hotel beds in Europe are not as comfortable as in the US – not for American travelers. But they come with a part. Hard beds, small beds, separate small beds “are very accepted in Europe, especially among, I would say, the older generation,” he said. “It’s a completely different culture than staying at a hotel.”
It’s not just a European problem. America’s love of plush mattresses, box springs and light pillows doesn’t translate well to many of the places we travel, from Japan with its traditional tatami mats and the hard “white” ways of concrete beds to Mexico.
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Hans Mast, a travel agent for Golden Rule Travel, recalls one morning of his group’s trip to Europe when a senior customer grabbed the bus’s microphone to tell a story.
“He said, ‘I experienced what happened last night … I leaned in to kiss my wife and I sat down,'” Mast said.
The bed – to the traveler’s surprise – was made of two twin beds pushed together, which is common in European hotels – another fact unknown to the traveler.
“It’s a European culture,” said Pundole, who is also the founder of the A Hotel Life blog.
Gareth Boyda former hotel owner who lives in Belfast, said the practice came from their traditions.
“In the past, most hotel rooms were designed for travelers or couples who shared a room but did not sleep,” Boyd said in an email.
The system gave travelers the option to sleep in smaller spaces, and “provides more flexibility for hotels,” Mast said, since two twin beds can be separated to accommodate more traveler configurations than a king-size bed can.
Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Pundole says it is not a problem in England, but it is more common in Germany, the Netherlands and Italy.
Travel writer Brad Japhe, who lives in London, has seen a lot of it in Italy and Scandinavia – not only in budget hotels, but also in three- and four-star properties.
“Sure, you’d be surprised if it happens in a minute [American hotel] where you spend $200 a night,” Japhe said. “But it’s the same as the education on this continent.”
What is more difficult for Japhe than two different mattresses is when the beds are laid out separately.
“The idea that you can have a half-sized comforter that only fits half a bed … it’s a bridge away from American wisdom,” he said.
European travel expert Rick Steves says American travelers should expect regional differences in accommodations (although you may be able to find American-style pillows or extra blankets in the room or at the front desk). For example, “Don’t be alarmed if your top sheet is missing,” Steves said in an email. Especially in northern Europe, many hotels use duvet covers instead of top sheets.”
“In France, some beds have pillows that look like millstones or logs,” Steves continued. “And in hot climates, you can have only paper, without a comforter.”
Prioritizing health over comfort
When Dunn told the front desk staff about her broken mattress, the hotel staff was unforgiving. Her husband arranged to change the room, but the next bed was no different.
This may be because firm mattresses have a reputation for being healthy, “and Europeans are known for their good health,” Mast said.
Boyd says European mattresses are often firmer because of their preference for stronger back support, which some believe improves a good night’s sleep. Pundole feels the same way, that sleeping on firm beds is good for you and that is the cultural divide that separates Americans from Europeans.
“Americans like sophisticated and comfortable things and I think Europeans are practical and smart,” says Pundole. “I think that shows even in our mattresses.”
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On a trip to Rome in 2019, travel writer Jenn Rice booked a hotel for “big money” knowing that it would not be suitable for Instagram, but gradually decided that it would fit in the bed. He was wrong. When Rice arrived at her reservation, the pictures of the room were nowhere near what she had seen online. Although his reservation was double, “they were twins,” Rice recalled. “But like, less.”
Too tall for the bed at 5-foot-8, Rice had to open the window at the foot of his bed and stick his feet out to keep it flat.
“I cried,” he said. The next day, he left the ship and found another hotel.
Alli Allen, senior travel consultant with Travel Edge, says she gets frustrated with European customers about the small beds.
“It’s news,” he said. “He likes to call both beds there… the term is confusing.”
But the place comes more in Europe, which can control the hotel’s condition.
“The best hotels have big rooms. … They’re good for a king or two queens,” Allen said. In contrast, “many good hotels, maybe four stars, rooms are small” and they need to have smaller beds accordingly, Allen added.
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Dunn’s trip wasn’t bad. Before arriving in London for a business meeting, she went to France to celebrate her 10th anniversary with her husband, Val. In Paris, Dunn stayed at the five-star Hotel San Régis, and in Cannes, the recently renovated Hotel Croisette Beach Cannes MGallery. “Those hotels were great,” Dunn said. “I slept like a baby.”
The moral of the story will come as no surprise to anyone: To increase your chances of getting a good bed, stay in a better hotel.
I think it will reach a certain level where without a doubt, no matter what happens, he will be called a bed talk,” said Japhe.
Pundole says travelers should be aware that booking a two- or three-star hotel in Europe is more likely to get a traditional European experience (twins, tighter). “Once you hit the hotels or the five-star hotels, it’s like it’s here in America,” he added.
Mast says staying at a big hotel can also help.
“International chains – such as Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, Hilton – have international standards,” he said.
But as Dunn found out at his international conference in London, it’s not a foolproof answer.
To avoid disappointment, Allen talks to the hotels or travel agents he works with to make sure the beds fit his customers. Pundole and Steves encourage travelers to do just that – and explain your needs.
“If you are tall, just let the hotel know that you would like a long bed without a footboard,” said Steves. “And if you want a double bed, make sure you ask for it specifically, as ‘double bed’ can also mean two twins.”
Boyd said this is an observation, and beds can vary across Europe, “even from hotel to hotel in the same city,” he said. Instead of dreading your bed, Boyd says you can embrace what you find as an adventure.
“As with most travel, hotel accommodations provide an interesting lens through which we can understand and appreciate cultural differences,” he said.