While most of us are familiar of the makings of a typical hotel, the ‘motel’ is the sometimes misunderstood offshoot of its more well-recognized counterpart. So, what is precisely the difference between motels and hotels? The term ‘motel,’ a portmanteau contraction of ‘motor’ and ‘hotel,’ was coined by the founders of San Luis Obispo’s The Milestone Mo-Tel, the world’s first motel, in 1925. The development of major American highway systems and subsequent increase in automobile travel during the early 1920’s created the demand for a style of lodging that would cater to the unique needs of motorists. Clever entrepreneurs capitalized on this new niche market and motels began cropping up along the country’s roadways. The motel industry took off in the 1950’s and 1960’s following a rapid boom in car travel, specifically for the purpose of cross-country leisure trips. By the 1980’s, typical mom-and-pop motor inns started dying out due to the popularity of newly-conceived motel chains such as Holiday Inn, Motel 6, and Travelodge.
So the question remains….what’s the difference between motels and hotels?
First of all, location:
Hotels and motels are often regarded as interchangeable by the general public, but it is important to note that there is more than one fundamental difference between motels and hotels. The first of these differences is the general location of motels. More likely to be spotted during rural drives than in high-traffic urban areas, motels were initially conceived as welcoming roadside stops existing as an in-between resting point between destinations. Much of the iconography surrounding the concept of the Western motel derives from the once-thriving lodgings that lined Route 66. Though many of these now-retro motels have since become run-down, if not totally demolished, there is nonetheless no shortage of roadside motels along any major highway. Contrarily, hotels have always been, and continue to be, centralized tourist hot spots. While you can certainly find hotels while on the road, there is a certain immediacy to the concept of a motel that better lends itself to last-minute overnight stays.
Second of all, amenities:
We’ve established that motels are traditionally turned to as a quick, no-frills alternative to a hotel. Turns out this unfussy design extends to the rooms themselves, for they are considerably less furnished than the ones typically found in a hotel. Yes, the low rates and prompt service might leave you tempted to live there instead of paying rent, but the rooms of a motel simply aren’t set up to accommodate lengthy stays from finicky guests. In short, you’re getting what you pay for, meaning no kitchenette, fancy spa, or first-responder-style room service. If you’re looking to be pampered by way of restaurants, jacuzzis, and more attentive service (not to mention a heftier bill), then a hotel is probably more up your alley.
Having previously mentioned that a motel was conceived around the needs of motorists, it is only natural that the entirety of its structure should be best suited to said needs. Ever wonder why the rooms of a motel have individual entry points instead of a lobby with an elevator? The idea is for you to station your vehicle directly outside of your room so you can hit the road immediately after checking out the next morning. And those charming neon signs that are so crucial to retro motel culture are more than just aesthetic decoration: they’re actually a first-degree form of advertisement in which flashier equals better. Typically constructed with a low, one-to-two floor layout, with guestrooms accessible directly from the parking lot, the construction of motel rooms also affords privacy ideal for families looking to make the quietest getaway possible.
Blurred lines: The Modern Motel
Though we have traced the motel’s origin story and pinpointed every difference between motels and hotels, a renewed public interest threatens to utterly redefine this dichotomy. By pairing the retro motel’s nostalgic qualities with upscale amenities, a new range of boutique motels are beginning to pop up sporadically. Examples such as the June Motel in Toronto or the Jupiter in Portland are proposing high-end reimaginations of longstanding motel signifiers, in a mix between gentrification and straight-up restoration. Only time will tell whether these newly introduced concepts will result in a total overhaul of the hotel/motel hierarchy, though I personally hope see a proliferation of these types of motels.