Learn the difference in lodging nomenclature before your next vacation—and how the "motel" got its name.

By Mary Tomlinson
June 24, 2019
Walter Bibikow/jganser/Getty

The importance of lodging on vacation—a historic legacy property on the shore, a room with a view, or something pretty in pink—can’t be overstated. And in your search for the perfect place to post up, the terms “hotel” and “motel” will most certainly cross your screen. Here we’ll go over the differences between a hotel versus a motel and explore the history that gave us these two travel-lodging terms.

The Difference Between a Hotel and a Motel

First and foremost, there are many similarities between hotels and motels. They both offer lodging for multiple nights for travelers with varying degrees of amenities. It’s also important to note there’s no true authority dictating what is officially deemed a hotel versus a motel.

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That being said, a variety of features, amenities and layouts distinguish one from the other. Hotels can contain multiple floors, ranging from tens to hundreds, with internal corridors leading to individual rooms. In terms of amenities, these establishments also range from comfortable to grandiose, with receptionists, concierges, bellhops, and the like. It’s not uncommon to see coffeeshops, bars, restaurants, and shops also attached to the hotel building lobby for the convenience of guests.

Motels by contrast are more utilitarian in their offerings. The buildings are often laid out as one or two floors with individual doors opening directly to the parking lot. Amenities will sometimes include extras such as free hot breakfast or a pool, but for the most part stick to the basics for their guests.

The History of Hotels and Motels                                            

The differences between hotels and motels can be traced to their distinct roles in the history of travel. Hotels, or the general concept of overnight lodging for travelers, are as old as civilization. The Roman Empire had hostelries called “mansionis” along the famed Roman road system, and the European Middle Ages saw a growth of inns and hostels. The modern hotel as we know it came about in the railroad age, popping up along major stations to accommodate travelers. Landmark turn-of-the-century hotels such as the Savoy Hotel in London and the Statler Hotel in Buffalo, New York, set the standard in guest services, convenience, and luxury we associate with hotels today.

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In contrast, motels—a portmanteau of “motor” and “hotel”—are a more recent, wholly American concept. The advent of the automobile and the spirited American road trip necessitated convenient lodging for motorists. But during their travels, they were often out of the way from hotels and inns, plus hours on the road left them too unkempt for the impressive lobbies of the day’s hotels.

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Rudimentary auto camps (areas where travelers pitched tents near their cars) soon gave way to motor lodges, motor courts, and motor inns; basically, a multitude of names for hotels designed for on-the-go road trippers. They were located along major thoroughfares, offered an upgrade from tent camping, and gave lodgers the ability to park right in front of their room for easy access. The first “motel” was dubbed as such in San Luis Obispo in 1925, when California architect Arthur Heineman shortened the name of his establishment from “motor hotel” to “motel”—and so a new category of lodging was born. 

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