Welcome to my newest series, The Wanderland Guide to Travel Planning. This is the fourth post in a multi-part series!.
Part Four // Booking Accommodation
Each year in my annual roundup posts, I break down all the various placed I laid my head in the previous 365 night. Last year’s tally included seventy-four different beds — not counting the makeshift ones I created on overnight flights, buses and trains. Of those, twenty-two were on a friend or family’s couch, floor, or bed (I told you I like to visit them!), twenty were hotels, seventeen were hostels, seven were apartments I rented, three were beach or jungle bungalows, two were guesthouses, two were tents, and one was a motel. Suffice it to say, I’ve got a fair amount of experience booking accommodation. Here’s a roundup of some of the tools I use, along with some tips for finding the best deals.
Hotels are typically a pretty pricey investment, so when I do splash out I typically spend a reasonable amount of time looking for the perfect spot and the sweetest deal. With twenty hotel stays in the last year alone, I’ve started to get the hang of it. Here are a few tips:
Guidebooks are great for itinerary planning but not the best resource for finding hotels. In big cities, there’s no way they can come close to covering the spectrum of what’s available. In more rural areas, accommodation featured my major guidebooks will often raise their prices and coast on that endorsement, not bothering with general maintenance and upkeep. Hence, by the time you get there, that reasonably-priced hotel that got great reviews in the last edition of Lonely Planet might be an overpriced disappointment. (But you should still grab one! Did you know that right now you can get all Lonely Planet ebooks for just $8.99? Use the code XMASEBOOK at checkout.)
This $5-a-night gem in the Philippines was nowhere to be found in any sort of guidebook.
Tripadvisor, the ubiquitous hotel ranking site, is no hidden gem — but I almost never book a hotel without it. I take the overall rankings with a pinch of salt but once I narrow in on a few options I do scan recent reviews for red flags and room suggestions, and compare user-submitted photos to management-supplied ones. Note that you cannot book directly through Tripadvisor.
The Code Samui, shown below, kills it on Tripadvisor — and for good reason.
HotelTonight is a fantastic app for last minute hotel bookings. While it’s mostly limited to larger cities, it really can’t be beat for spontaneous trips and last minute decisions. This summer, when a friend and I decided to check into a hotel in Reno, Nevada for two nights before Burning Man, we were overjoyed to find a $45 room at the downtown Ramada on HotelTonight. With an easy interface for search and booking, it won’t be the last time I use HotelTonight (which, technically, allows you to search for hotels for both the current night and the next one, if you want to plan the teensiest bit ahead.)
Want to give it a try? Get $25 booking credit by using the code ABAACKES at checkout.
Agoda is my go-to for booking hotels and guesthouses in Southeast Asia. You simply can’t escape the region without using it at least once! Many of its listings are found only on Agoda, and have no other web presence — hence, its selection simply can’t be beat. Early booking discounts can be huge, and many reservations have free cancellation (those that don’t are clearly labeled) so you can maintain some flexibility while still scoring great deals on amazing places, like the $15 bungalow, below, that I love so much I’ve stayed in twice in Pai, Thailand.
Hotels.com + Booking.com
Honestly, I don’t have much patience for combing through all the major booking sites every time I want to nab a hotel (Hotels.com, HotelsCombined.com, Priceline.com, etc.) Hotels.com and Booking.com are two the hotel booking sites I tend to use out of the many available, mainly out of habit. According to my friend Matt’s extensive research, they aren’t bad choices.
I find that Booking.com tends to have a wider selection than Hotels.com, especially outside the US. They tend to have more offbeat accommodation as well, like dorms and villas. As a bonus, they frequently seem to have lower prices, though Hotels.com can occasionally win that battle, so I price check.
And being loyal to one or two of those sites does pay off — I’m up to 7 out of 10 hotel night stays needed for a free night’s stay! Booking a hostel stay for two? (Yup, you can book some hostel dorms!) Each person’s reservation will count towards a free night, allowing you to earn a free stay in half the time. One thing to watch out for — bookings made using a discount code or a coupon are not eligible for Hotels.com Rewards. I learned this the hard way after a coupon code worth a measly $11 invalidated an expensive two-night stay at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club, shown below, towards my rewards account.
Travelzoo is one of my favorite resources around for hotel deals, specifically when it comes to my favorite guilty travel pleasure, Sin City. While you can browse offers on their site anytime, their weekly newsletter, released on Wednesdays, features some of the deepest discounts in travel, specifically for Caribbean all-inclusives and big cities like Las Vegas. I’ve left other travelers gasping with the deals I’ve scored on Vegas hotel rooms at Vdara, The Flamingo, shown below, and SLS (though I ended up cancelling the ladder, a painless and fee-free process). Once I book a flight, I simply sit tight and wait for a deal to roll around — if I were in the business of booking an all inclusive, I’d do the same. Pick a week, block it out and snap up the first crazy offer to land in my inbox. But book quickly! Top 20 Deals (the ones released in the Wednesday newsletter) sell out super quickly.
I love hostels – good ones, anyway. Hostels have allowed me to make friends, kick off holiday romances, and meet travel buddies while on the road solo. They can be one of the best parts of travel! To find the gems, I browse Hostelworld and sort by rating and amenities to find a good fit. Unfortunately, hostels are rarely reviewed on big sites like Tripadvisor, so the Hostelworld ratings hold a fair bit of weight. In addition to checking Hostelworld, I also try Googling “[City name] + Design Hostel” to find more modern and thoughtfully conceived options. (That’s how I found the Panamericana in Panama City, one of my favorite hostels in the world, as well as several design hostels I’ve stayed at in Southeast Asia.)
These days, I go for a private room when it’s a reasonably affordable option (like my adorable pad at the Banana Bungalow in Maui, below), which gives me the best of both worlds in terms of privacy and socializing. While girls only dorms are often pricier, they are sometimes a worthy investment for women travelers — I sometimes book them, depending on my mood. Worried about sleep? Find a list of my dorm sleep tips here!
Apartment and Villa Rentals
Personally, my experience with apartment rentals on the road is somewhat limited. I don’t like renting apartments when I’m alone as even when I’m being a loner by choice, I often feel more comfortable surrounded by the hum of other travelers in a hotel or hostel. That said, when I’m traveling with others — especially in a large group or with my pup! — I often check Flipkey and Airbnb. This year I’ve had great experiences renting apartments and villas in Greece, Thailand, New York, and California!
There are so many benefits to staying in a rental over a hotel — having a large group all together, having a kitchen, and getting to feel a little more like a local. I had to be practically pried out of this gem of a studio apartment in Santorini.
For stays of more than a week or two, I’d recommend getting a little more creative. Craigslist can reveal some great sublets in the US, whereas my experience monthly apartment hunting in Thailand has shown me that knocking on doors and dialing phones is still the fastest way to find a place in many parts of the world.
Want to check out Airbnb? Get $25 off your first booking by clicking here.
Couchsurfing is an amazing concept in which locals can open their homes to travelers for free — their reward is the joy of showing off the places they call home and filling up their karma bank with all kinds of bonus points. It’s a great way to meet wonderful hosts, get a local experience and travel on the cheap. Now that I’m working on the road I no longer use it (“hello nice to meet you may I use your wifi?” is not the path to making friends) but I had fun as both a host and guest in the past. The goal here is not just to reduce your travel budget – though that is enticing. It’s also to live like a local and get to experience a new place in a different way. I actually regret not doing this more often when I was a bit more of a carefree backpacker and a bit less of a businessperson.
That said, I informally Couchsurf on the regular with friends and family, a method of travel I strongly advocate for. Not only does it save you cash, it also strengthens your bonds with your loved ones — and can result in some pretty swank surprises too, like discovering my cousin’s downtown Miami apartment boasted the views shown below. No friends or family in places you’d like to go? Get working on that Couchsurfing profile, or check out popular alternative like Global Freeloaders and Hospitality Club.
Housesitting and House Swaps
This is one type of accommodation I’ve yet to explore, though I have several close friends who swear by it. As I start to settle down and travel more slowly, I become more and more intrigued by the idea and know that it’s only a matter of time before I give it a go. Basically, you stay in someone else’s home while they are away, a Want to learn more? Head over to my friends Dalene and Pete’s site Hecktic Travels, where they have extensive resources on getting started with housesitting.
I certainly wouldn’t mind housesitting at my friend Wes’s Phnom Penh apartment, where I crashed for a week last year.
When possible, I make long journeys overnight in order to save on a night of accommodation, fight boredom, and use my time efficiently. Some of the night boats and trains (one of each shown below) I’ve taken in Thailand were more comfortable than some of the hostels I’ve stayed in in the same country! On the whole I do try to avoid night buses, though there are exceptions — in some countries, like Peru, VIP bus seats can be comparable to business class airline seats. Book directly when possible to avoid mark ups from travel agents.
A Few Other Thoughts…
To Book Ahead or Not To Book Ahead
Sometimes I book accommodation ahead of time, sometimes I just show up. When I’m traveling with others or on a short getaway, I’m more likely to pre-book, if I’m alone on a long-term backpacking trip, I’m fairly likely to have a few places in mind and check them out upon arrival.
If you’re traveling internationally, remember to have your first night’s destination (or intended one, if you haven’t booked ahead) written down on paper. Some guesthouses even have printable directions in the local language that you can hand to a cab driver. The first time I traveled abroad solo, I landed in Bangkok to the head-smacking realization that my smartphone didn’t work there (duh) and I had no way to look up the hotel I was staying in, let alone tell a cab driver how to get there.
Know when peak season is in your destination — don’t think it will be easy to wing it over the holidays in popular beach destinations, and be aware of what places are popular weekend getaways for locals from nearby big cities. (Had I not, I might have missed out on a weekend stay at the popular Iguana Perdida in Lake Atitlan, shown below, which is a local favorite with volunteers and expats from Antigua and Guatemala City.)
I’m a strong advocate for using points to book flights, and work hard to make sure I rarely pay cash for a plane ticket. That said, I rarely do the same for accommodation. I have dabbled — I wrote an extensive account of my Starwood points accrual (and the amazing hotels I spent them on!) using the Starwood Amex, which you can read here. To reiterate my conclusion from that post, I think it’s an amazing credit card for those traveling to Southeast Asia, as the region boasts countless Starwood hotels, many of them with shockingly low point redemption values. The Le Meridien in Chiang Rai, shown below, cost just 4,000 points per night to redeem!
That said, unless I see another amazing deal like this one crop up again, I’ll save my points building efforts for airlines.
When Things Go Wrong
There is one downside to all the apps and accommodation sites shown here. If something goes wrong at your hotel (overbooking, etc.) you’ll have been much better off booking directly through the hotel. One way to avoid this? When you find a great rate on a booking site, call the hotel directly and see if they’ll price match. In my experience, the opposite is true in hostels and apartments. Because the rankings on sites like Hostelworld are so important, those that book through it will be given preference over those who book directly and will have nowhere to air grievances. But fingers crossed, you won’t run into any bumps in the road.
Do you have any great accommodation booking tips? Share them in the comments below!
Update: Travel Blog Success was merged with Superstar Blogging by Nomadic Matt. It’s an equally impressive course that I plan to take and review eventually — click here to take it yourself!
I rarely stop yacking about how Travel Blog Success helped me make Alex in Wanderland what it is today — a financially successful and creatively fulfilling travel blog that just celebrated its fourth anniversary. It’s the first thing I recommend to those who write to me for blogging advice, and was instrumental in getting me to where I am now! Our secret member’s Facebook group gives me daily inspiration, feedback, and hearty laughs. Yes, the warmest community in travel blogging is on sale now!
My favorite hostel in Tbilisi (Envoy) was not the highest rated on hostelworld or booking, and was too new to be in the 3-year-old Lonely Planet – I found it by tweeting some returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Georgia and now run a Georgian food cart in Portland! Super random. The Peace Corps community can be a great resource – volunteers definitely know where the good values are to be found in their capital, cause they’re on a tight budget (of course, people have different opinions about whether they want to stay at a hostel full of PC volunteers). I stayed at 2 other highly-rated hostels during my time there and was disappointed by both.
On the question of whether to book through a website or directly through the hostel/guesthouse, I had a couple of places tell me that they had to charge folks more who booked through hostelworld, etc because those sites charge them a fee. After that, I did my research online but then contacted the places directly to book.
That’s a great story! And yes, I’ve definitely heard hostels say that they would prefer guests to book directly through them as Hostelworld takes quite a cut. But I’ve seen so many cases where those that booked through Hostelworld were favored when it came to overbooking, bed placement, etc. that I can’t help but think it’s the smartest way to go.
These are all great tips! I’m pretty guilty of not thinking out of the box when it comes to accommodation, although I do love Airbnb. I mainly use booking.com. I was loyal to hotels.com for a long time, but found their customer service to be criminally bad so I’ve sworn them off for life.
I haven’t had to use it yet, though I do think it’s silly that they won’t count bookings you used a discount code towards your free nights. If you click through and read the research my friend Matt did about the booking sites, it was pretty unflattering to Booking.com — he found they almost never have the best rate!
Figuring out a way to cut down on accommodation costs has been a huge booster to our travel budget. Aside from using couchsurfing, we also frequently crowdsurf our friends — via facebook or emails — asking if anyone has a cool (and free!) place to stay — promising in return to be great and polite guests 🙂
Social Media has definitely changed the way we travel in so many aspects! I too have been put in touch with awesome people by friends of friends, connections that I never would have made before the advent of the internet. It’s great!
I couldn’t agree more. You always wish that there would be someone that will allow you to stay for free.
Great article! I can see a lot of research went into this. I only know and use a few sites. Simply because I can’t be bothered combing the web for hotels. I use Booking.com (but first I check the hotel on Tripadvisor) and when I travel outside of Europe I sometimes just knock on the door of hostels based on Lonely Planet. That’s all I use and it’s been working well for me 🙂 I’d like to try out AirBnB one day though! So many of my friends get great accommodation through that site.
I’ve never used Booking.com, but I have lots of friends who do — and I sent them all Matt’s post (the one I linked to here) after reading it. They almost never turned up the highest rates! Might be worth looking into…
LOVE this. I just want to print it out and hole-punch and keep all travel guides forever 🙂 Thanks so much!
Feel free to do just that! Or at least bookmark it 😉
If I’m not using Airbnb or HomeAway, I usually am so lazy I just book on Hotels.com assuming it’s priced reasonably. I’ll have to check out these other resources, too 😉
I do feel you on the laziness. I don’t think it’s worth comparison shopping for hotels in quite the same way one would for flights. But I don’t know… I have scored some insane deals on sites like Travelzoo (in Vegas) and Agoda (in Asia)!
Whoa! What a beautiful guide! Given my short term memory, I am definitely getting a print out for this and keeping in my file. Thanks a ton for the brilliant and detailed information. This is going to be helpful for just so many people.
That’s awesome, Rajesh, glad this could be helpful!
We’ve had good luck in a few cities in the US booking a mystery hotel through Priceline or Hotwire. The website will tell you what sort of amenities the hotel has (free parking? free wifi? gym?), how many stars it has, and also if other people have ranked it as 7+, 8+, etc (out of a high score of 10). If you don’t care about what exact hotel you’re at, you just want a decent place to sleep, it works well. The websites will also show you a map and your hotel is guaranteed to be within a certain area on that map. For Philly and DC, we got fantastic hotels right in the heart of the city for cheap! (although these were booked last minute, and not at peak tourist times).
I’ve heard awesome stories about those mystery hotels, but I’m too much of a control freak, ha. Usually when I’m in a hotel (as opposed to a hostel or friends’ couch) it’s a special occasion and so I do care somewhat about where I end up. But it’s a very cool tool for the scenarios you describe!
So. Many. Options. I admire people like you who are adventurous with their lodging choices! I’m pretty freaked out by any indoor bugs, so that keeps me from being too adventurous! I don’t travel for a living, so I usually have a pretty decent accommodation budget and stick to the points programs I have, especially SPG – as you mentioned, it’s great for SEA as I’ve currently got 4 nights in Chiang Mai and 3 nights in Siem Reap covered with points!
Nice! I agree that the less you travel, the more you tend to splurge — that’s definitely been true for me in this settle down phase.
Yet another fabulous, informative post! Thanks! Does the Hotel Tonight discount work for previous users, or only first time? It’s a recent discovery of mine, and it definitely helps to make staying in a hotel (usually the only option in most of the US unfortunately!) easier to stomach.
Also, what’s the most you’ll pay for a private room in a hostel, if you don’t mind my asking? I am in Puerto Rico right now, and recently paid $44 for a private hostel room. That felt like an absurd price to me, but maybe sometimes it’s worth it? I also like to have a room to myself when possible.
That’s a good question, Eva, and I’m not sure the answer! I think it’s for first time users but it won’t hurt to try. I’m trying to think of the most I’ve paid for a hostel room… I know in Brussels right before a huge festival the DORM beds were going for 40E a night! I was shocked. I was on a media comp and I was glad because I might have wept openly at checkout otherwise. Generally I feel comfortable around the $20 mark for a private hostel room, but obviously there are parts of the world where that just won’t fly.
Sweet digs in PNH.
The bit of me that thinks moving to Australia was a good idea just got pwned.
Methinks you need to post a pic of your new place, for comparison purposes (and to tempt me to come crash that one…)
Hey Alex, I wanted to reach out to you. I have heard good things about your site and I am actually here on Koh Tao for another week. I have been traveling SE Asia since June and was hoping we could connect even for just a cup of coffee. You said the you see the comments left faster than a direct email. Thanks for in advance for your response Alex.
Hey Derrick, I’ll shoot you an email! Hope you’re enjoying Koh Tao!
I’m a bit traumatised at the moment at the idea of overnight transit. I was meant to have a comfortable overnight couchette from Budapest to Munich a couple of weeks ago but only found out that my train no longer existed when I arrived at the train station. Long story short I was stuck in Salzburg train station from 2.15am to 5.30am. I was not a happy person!
I absolutely love couchsurfing. I began my trip on the 23rd of November and last night was actually the first time I stayed in a hostel or paid for accommodation of the whole trip. I spent the first two weeks catching up with old couchsurfers I had hosted in Melbourne and the rest of the time meeting new hosts in the middle of Germany. It’s such a great way to meet local people and I often feel safer couchsurfing than I do at a hostel!
Oh that sounds awful Britt. I had a similar situation recently with an overnight ferry that left me bumming around a pier at 5am. No bueno.
Thanks for this article post. Your information/experience might come in handy for us anytime soon. Picked up some good info in here. Great share!
Thanks Ron! Glad you enjoyed it!