Inns vs. Hotels: Pros, Cons, Differences

After being cooped up at home for the better part of last year, you and your husband are raring to travel again. You want somewhere quiet, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, preferably in the countryside where you can just spend time walking or biking around as you soak in the local culture.

Would this then mean you would be looking to stay in an inn rather than a hotel? Not anymore.

Contrary to popular thought, there is hardly any difference today between a modern inn and a hotel. Many inn and hotel owners use these terms interchangeably to describe their respective properties as do many travel guides and websites, which classify inns as a type of hotel.

There are many examples of the interchangeability of these two industry terms. The French Quarter Inn in Charleston, South Carolina, was voted by Tripadvisor as its top hotel for the years 2019 and 2020.

Another multi-awarded Charleston hotel, the Wentworth Mansion, was described by Concierge as “an elegant inn”; by Fodor’s as the “most grand inn in town”; by Frommer’s as an “1886 Second Empire inn”; and by Hideaway as a “mansion-hotel”.

On its website, the Union Street Inn highlights the experts’ high praise for its establishment as “The No. 1 Small Hotel in America” by Tripadvisor and the “Best Nantucket Boutique Hotel” by Boston Magazine.

“Of all historic houses-turned inns, this is by far the most stylish,” says Travel + Leisure. Frommer’s seemed undecided what to call it and just went for “This wins my vote for best on Nantucket.”

It can be confusing at times, especially since there are no legal or formal distinctions between the two terms in the United States. It’s another one of those things in the travel industry that can be confusing to ordinary travelers like you and me; just like it is hard to reconcile all the different rating systems travel experts use since there is no universal system in place.

The word, “hotel”, comes from the French word, “,” meaning “a mansion, a palace, large house,” which comes from the Old French, “ostel, hostel,” meaning “a lodging.” It cannot get simpler than that. It may be for this reason that any lodging can fit under the all-encompassing hotel terminology.

Hotels come in all shapes, forms, and sizes

Image credit: Canva

The modern concept of a hotel—big, grand, lots of rooms, lots of amenities, within the city—is still a popular one. But they now have many subsets because there are as many kinds of hotels as there are as many kinds of travelers and as there are as many reasons for traveling.

We can even divide these subsets further according to price points, for example, with hotels offering anywhere from a standard room to a luxurious suite with staggering differences in rates between the two.

Hotels now come in all types of buildings: from skyscrapers to renovated and restored old houses, to botels and cruise ships, to resorts and villas.

Outside the U.S., there is the ryokan of Japan. Another is the casa particular, a Cuban homestay and bed and breakfast; the family-run hostal found in Spain and Latin America, similar to a budget hotel.

The heuhotel and gasthouse of Germany, where the former translates to “hay hotel” where guests pay to sleep on hay bales or beds made of hay, while the latter is a commercial establishment with lodgings added.

The garni hotel of Central Europe, a small hotel without a restaurant.

And the Soviet-era multi-roomed turbaza of Russia, which is also found in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

But the most intriguing may be the 1980s albergo diffusu model of Italy that connects several public establishments within the town together as “rooms” to give the traveler a fuller experience of the local culture and to help revive small historic Italian villages.


Very Small Hotel. While the terms may be interchangeable, there are still slight differences between a modern Inn and a Boutique Hotel, which they most closely resemble. As compared to a Corporate Chain Hotel the modern Inn is a very small hotel with limited rooms and limited amenities and services, while a Boutique Hotel is, essentially, a small to mid-size hotel and can either be a limited-service or full-service establishment.

Intimate and cozy. The inns of today generally are smaller in size with only six to twenty rooms inside a two or three-story house or mansion, or they can consist of a main house and side cottage. They are also invariably a bed and breakfast place serving specialty or gourmet breakfasts and, sometimes, other meals as well. They have an intimate, cozy, and genteel vibe to go with their updated Old World charm and refined architecture. The service is very pesonalized and you are attended to by the owners themselves who run the inns.

Exceptions. There always are exceptions. With only 10 rooms, cozy of course, and situated down a country road, the Olea Hotel in Sonoma County seems to fit the idea of an inn but is a boutique hotel.

Price range. Their prices generally range from below US 150 dollars to below 1,000 dollars.

Best Inns/B&Bs in the U.S.

These were chosen based on their ratings from a compilation of several travel expert guides in the last five years, displaying a consistency of excellence.

  • Abbington Green Bed & Breakfast Inn & Spa – Asheville, NC
  • The Cliffside Inn – Newport, RI
  • Two Meeting Street Inn – Charleston, SC
  • Beltane Ranch – Glen Ellen, CA
  • Candleberry Inn on Cape Cod – Cape Cod, MA
  • The Deer Path Inn – Chicago, IL
  • Anchorage 1770 Inn – Beaufort, SC
  • 11th Avenue Inn Bed & Breakfast – St. Augustine, FL
  • Catherine Ward House Inn – Savannah, GA
  • Candleberry Inn on Cape Cod – Cape Cod, MA
  • Brewster by the Sea Inn – Brewster, MA
  • Jail Hill Inn – Galena, IL

Boutique Hotels

More rooms. Boutique Hotels are simply the bigger versions of the modern inns. They contain anywhere from 10 to 150 rooms and suites housed in more varied settings, taking up many floors in a modern building, for example, or consisting of two buildings amidst the vast acres of an estate, or a series of cottages surrounded by nature’s grandeur.

They straddle the middle between the smaller inns and the much bigger hotels. Like the inns, they generally offer the basic hotel amenities like a restaurant, private bathrooms, hot tubs, a safe, baggage storage, and fireplace; free breakfast, free internet, room service, concierge, free parking, laundry service, and complimentary bicycles.

More amenities. Additional amenities and services for higher-end boutique hotels include a bar and lounge, a fitness center, a pool, private balconies, kitchenette, airconditioning, tennis courts, a business center and meeting rooms, 24-hour front desk, and television; dry cleaning, spa services, valet parking, car for hire or shuttle bus, and board games. Just like their smaller counterparts, some welcome pets and some don’t.

Price range. Their prices generally range from below US 200 dollars for their standard rooms to thousands of dollars for their top suites.

What Inns and Boutique Hotels Share in Common

Historical vibe. Apart from standard amenities, what Inns and Boutique Hotels also share in common is a historical vibe given that these properties are very often lovingly restored houses and mansions steeped in history and unsurprisingly set in or near local historical districts. Many times, it feels like you are traveling back in time.

Character. They celebrate their uniqueness and individuality and are suffused with character that pays homage to their original owners and architecture.  They ooze with charm and local culture. Some are living museums themselves, housing original art pieces that contribute to the character of their settings.

Personal. What sets them apart from the big hotels is the very personalized service of the Innkeepers who operate their own business and attend to their guests personally, giving both their personal touch and attention to detail. They are on a first-name basis with their guests who are made to feel a part of the family.

Best Boutique Hotels in the U.S.

These were chosen based on their ratings from a compilation of several travel expert guides in the last three years, displaying a consistency of excellence.

  • Wentworth Mansion -Charleston, SC
  • Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm – Albuquerque, NM
  • Hotel Emma -San Antonio, TX
  • The Jefferson, Washington DC – Washington D.C
  • XV Beacon -Seattle, WA
  • Post Ranch Inn – Central CA Coast
  • The Kehoe Resort – a Boutique Inn – Savanna, GA
  • French Quarter Inn – Charleston, FL
  • Stephanie Inn – Cannon Beach, OR

Regular Hotels

Image credit: Canva

Chain hotels

Staying true to their brand, chain hotels initially tended to have the same look and style no matter where they are, giving them a cookie-cutter feel.

To get away from this impersonal approach, chain hotels began to include boutique hotels in their portfolios starting in the 1980s, adopting the more personalized appeal and quirky spirit of independent hotels.

Expanding their reach even more, the hotel chains started catering to all market segments, creating brands to fit all budgets and all kinds of clients.

Marriot’s thirty brands run the gamut from their Luxury brands that include the top-of-the-line Ritz-Carlton hotels, St. Regis hotels, and the JW Marriot hotels; to the Courtyard hotels, Residence Inn, and  Marriot Executive Apartments for the business executives and business travelers; and to the budget Moxy Hotels for the millennial traveler.

Independent hotels

As the name says, independent hotels are not affiliated with any brand or company and are run independently by their owners. Although they may cater to a limited market or may have limited services (not that many will notice), they more than make up for these with their inherent strengths.

Local. As local products of their community, they can offer more authentic ambiance and character.

Personal. Because they own their properties, their approach is more personal, and guests do put a premium on personalized service. This individualistic spirit extends to their decors and operation, which gives their business their unique imprint.

Attention to detail. With the impetus to set themselves apart from the rest comes attention to details and quality to give their clients a memorable experience.

Flexibility. Unlike chain hotels that involve chains of command and standard multiple processes, independent hotels can be more flexible in running their business.

If these qualities resonate with what you can find in a boutique hotel, that’s because most independent hotels are branded as such.

Chain hotels have taken notice of this and have come up with their independent brands. Marriot has their Tribute Portfolio’s “family of independent boutique hotels”, while Hilton’s version is their Curio Collection. Not only does Hyatt have its independent collection brands, but it also partnered with the Small Luxury Hotels of the World brand.

The Best Luxury Hotels/Resorts in the U.S.

These independent and chain hotels were chosen based on their ratings from a compilation of several travel expert guides in the last three years, displaying a consistency of excellence.

  • The Rittenhouse Hotel – Philadelphia, PN
  • The Nantucket Hotel & Resort – Nantucket, MA
  • The Little Nell – Aspen, CO
  • The Broadmoor – Colorado Springs, CO
  • The Langham, Chicago – Chicago, IL
  • Four Seasons Resort Hualalai – Kailua Kona, HI
  • The Peninsula Beverly Hills – Beverly Hills, CA
  • Montage Palmetto Bluff – Hilton Head, FL
  • Fairmont Grand Del Mar – San Diego, CA
  • The Setai, Miami Beach – Miami Beach, FL
  • The Ritz-Carlton, Naples – Naples, FL
  • The St. Regis, San Francisco – San Francisco, CA

With so many hotels to choose from all promising a unique and memorable experience, it all comes down to top-notch personal service that anticipates and meets your expectations. If it is wrapped up in an appealing, elegant, and charming setting, then you can’t ask for anything more.

Reed Harris

Reed is a traveler and blogger. He's planning to visit all states in the USA. He's been in 31 states so far.

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