Last Updated on May 30, 2024 by Ben

hotel versus motel
Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/RawPixel

Many people think that various terms for accommodations are interchangeable. But there is actually a difference between a hotel and a motel that can be traced to their respective histories.

What is a Hotel?

The word “hotel” is derived from the French word for hostel, which was first recorded in 1765, meaning “an inn of the better sort.”

Hotels, as we know them today, began in big cities with the first landmark hotels springing up in the late 1700. The first modern American hotel was Boston’s Tremont House, which opened its doors in 1829 with a number of luxurious firsts: free soap, locked guest rooms, bellboys, a reception area and, most notably, running water and indoor plumbing.

Now we have scores of hotel chains, from budget chains like Comfort Inn to the luxurious Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton. At every price point, travelers find a wide array of services and amenities. Budget hotels offer a clean, simple place to lay your head at a low price. Business hotels feature practical necessities like high-speed Wi-Fi and coffeemakers as well as meeting facilities, restaurants, gyms and dry cleaning.

At upscale and luxury hotels, expect plush decor and an elevated level of service. Rooms tend to be more spacious, often with a sitting area, luxurious bed linens and extravagant bathrooms. Downstairs you can expect gourmet restaurants, pools, spas and concierges to fulfill guest requests.

What is a Motel?

The most important difference between a hotel and a motel is historic.

The first motels were directly linked to the Ford Model T, which appeared in 1908. As 20th-century Americans took to the open road, weary travelers needed places to stay. In 1925, Arthur Heineman built the first motel to accommodate traveling motorists in San Luis Obispo, California. He opened a series of small bungalows with garages attached and called it the Milestone Mo-Tel. In contrast to today’s stereotype, the first motel was a luxury establishment.

Afterward, motels sprang up around the country, most notably on the iconic Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica, California. These motor lodges tended to be clean but utilitarian mom-and-pop operations offering basic services.

During World War II, travel slowed and car production shifted to the war effort. To stay in business during wartime, motel design changed to connected rooms with guestrooms opening directly to the parking lot.

When the war ended, Americans started traveling again by the millions. Construction of the Eisenhower interstate highway system put even more people on the road, and motels were there to accommodate them.

In the 1960s, franchised chains took over many mom-and-pop motels, offering a more consistent and predictable customer experience. Many of the motel brands from that era are still in business today, like Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn, Travelodge, Best Western Motels and Quality Inn.

Today’s travelers expect more out of hotels and motels than in the past. Both types of lodging give guests the value they expect, no matter the price point.