Motel vs. Hotel: Differences in Overnight Accommodations

By: Mitch Ryan  | 
We can almost immediately tell that this woman is checking into a hotel, but what is it about this scene that tells our brains this isn't a motel? Matthew Ng / Getty Images

Differentiating between most overnight accommodations can be simple, based on the building's location, layout, amenities and price, but several outliers blur the lines between these key differences.

Read on to learn more about motel vs. hotel confusion so you can know what to expect when you book your lodging.


Location, Location, Location

Hotels have been a staple for travelers venturing to urban areas since the 1500s. Many of the world's most prestigious hotels remain in the same historic buildings they were founded in generations before.

On the other hand, the word "motel" is relatively new, being coined in the 1920s with the spread of automobiles and a growing trend of family road trips.


The common motorist's hotel provided a budget-friendly option for weary road warriors requiring accommodations in rural locations. This need was met with motels springing up along highways and freeways, bisecting remote rural areas located close to popular attractions.

This is not to say it's impossible to find a one-star hotel in middle-of-nowhere America, but if you're off the beaten path, you'll likely come across more motels than hotels on your journey.


Building Layout

The most glaring difference between a hotel and motel is structure size and building layout.

Hotels are typically designed for a larger building footprint with multiple floors that can house a diverse range of room types. Room options start with single-bed studio layouts and can top out with upper-floor penthouse suites with multiple rooms, private kitchens and entertaining spaces.


Larger hotels allow guests to check in at a central lobby and use elevators and interior hallways to navigate the building between rooms and amenities. A smaller, family-owned boutique hotel might emulate this model, but it won't be obligated to follow the luxurious five-star hotel blueprint of its corporate competitors.

Many motels tend to adopt a more simplistic design with fewer floors and exterior entry doors facing the parking lot instead of an interior hallway. Rooms are typically located closer together with no-frills room layouts and less privacy between your family and fellow travelers.


Most Motels Offer Fewer Amenities

One of the most distinct differences between hotels and motels is the amount of amenities offered to guests. Even a boutique hotel or bed-and-breakfast will offer more perks than motels, but that is due to differing business models.

Motels offer basic amenities and short-term lodging options for on-the-go clientele, while hotel customers expect a memorable experience when they stay. By sheer size alone, hotel chains can set themselves apart by allowing guests easy access to a broad range of facilities, including fitness centers, swimming pools, conference rooms, restaurants and pet-friendly rooms.


Fitness Centers

Hotels often offer fitness centers to provide their health-conscious clientele with the basics to work up a sweat and stick to their exercise regimen during their stay.

A typical hotel fitness center may include treadmills, free weights, yoga mats and accessories. More extravagant fitness centers may offer resort-like amenities such as steam rooms, saunas and indoor swimming pools.

Swimming Pools

A swimming pool is one of those amenities that causes confusion in the hotel vs. motel debate. A nice motel may have an outdoor swimming pool or hot tub on par with one you'd find at bargain hotels.

However, hotels tend to have indoor swimming pools, due to their larger size, while smaller motels don't have the space for more amenities along these lines.

Conference Rooms

Conference rooms are a game-changer for hotels. By providing a space where business travelers can eat, drink, sleep and meet up with their colleagues under one roof, hotels become the perfect destination for conventions and large professional events.

Business travelers also require reliable high-speed Wi-Fi that many motel accommodations may be unable to provide.

Restaurants and Hotel Room Service

A major difference between a hotel and a motel is many hotels offer restaurants to entertain guests and provide them with several culinary options to keep them well-fed during their stay. Guests can either grab a drink at the bar, lounge in the intimate atmosphere of the dining hall, or order room service directly to their rooms.

These same hotels will often serve food in the mornings with a wide range of free breakfast items and a la carte options.


Motel Rooms Are Typically Cheaper

Motels tend to attract budget-conscious travelers looking for lodging during a long road trip. A motel room is typically smaller to maximize space and allow enough room for adequate parking. It's easy to see why most motel designs are dominated by the parking lot and typically located near major roadways.

Since most motel guests will only stay the night, even on a family trip, there is less pressure to provide other amenities besides adequate parking spaces and a room with the basics, including a standard mini fridge, coffee maker, hair dryer, Wi-Fi, and TV.


Offering fewer key features allows motels to charge less, and their remote locations incur lower operating costs than hotels in major cities. However, one of the worst-kept hotel secrets is that you can often find cheaper rates through third party sites than through the hotel itself, so you'll benefit from shopping around.