7 straight-talking strategies for bagging the best accommodation
Generally speaking I live in a bit of a travel bubble, where most people I know or speak to are as obsessed as I am, and similarly know all the best tips and tricks – and more. Every now and again however, I have a conversation with someone which reminds me that not everyone is
a total geek like me as clued up as they could be when it comes to booking trips and holidays. (I was chatting to a friend the other day who mentioned that she’d never used Google Flights and didn’t really know what it was – I nearly spat my G&T out). As per this blog’s realistic, straight-talking, down-to-earth aims, I also think it’s good to go back to basics every now and again. So, here follow a few simple rules that I abide by when trying to find the absolute best place to stay for the very best price.
Don’t just use package deals or bargain-hunting websites!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good ol’ fashioned package holiday – I’ve even been known to indulge in a few of these when I’ve been too lazy/burnt out/busy to plan one of my overly complex and exotic itineraries. A package holiday was even the basis for one of our favourite holidays to Greece, where a serious amount of time was spent lounging around that pool below. However, anything that comes as a package or – even more suspicious – as a bargain package holiday needs to be carefully considered. (I really wanted to insert a pun here about avoiding suspicious packages… but it was too excruciating).
The long and short of it is that you need to look very carefully at the accommodation offered as part of any cheap package deal. A few holiday websites offering cut-price trips abroad are very good at making something seem stupendous, until you look into it more closely. For example: a colleague of mine recently booked a trip to Rome, which sounded far too cheap to be true. The catch? The hotel was some godawful bland concrete box on an industrial estate, ‘only a short bus ride from the city’. (I may be exaggerating about the industrial estate, but you get the idea). Unfortunately she’d paid before checking this out. She then tried to change the hotel (no luck). She then decided to just cancel entirely. Unsurprisingly, she was gutted.
Some websites will also try to boost the appeal of the accommodation offered with their deals by pointing you towards a glowing Tripadvisor rating, but again I’d always go and investigate this. Does it have 4/5 because all the business travellers like its close proximity to the airport? Do the Brits Abroad love the fact that its right next door to Johnny’s Sky Sports Steak Bar With Free Disco? Double check exactly what it is, where it is, and whether it’s your idea of an ideal hotel.
Do decide on a few essentials and dealbreakers
When you’re trying to decide between hotels – and particularly if you’re trying to stick to a budget – it can be tempting to talk yourself into forgoing a few minor needs. No aircon? Well, you don’t plan on spending much time in the room anyway. No pool? Never mind, you’ll just chill and read your book. No free breakfast? That’s ok – it will encourage you to go out and eat where the locals do.
All of the above may be fine with you, but trying to convince yourself that they are is another matter. This is your holiday – it might be the only one you have all year. There is no point in skimping on a few pounds each night if it is the difference between you enjoying yourself, or sitting on a baking sunlounger, sweat dripping down your spine as you try to figure out where on earth you’re going to find breakfast at 8am on a Sunday morning. (And yes, I’ve experienced both of the above – although luckily not at the same time. The breakfast one was actually much worse, as it was also cold and raining, and everywhere was closed).
I’m not a budget traveller and don’t pretend to be – if it’s hot, I need a pool and aircon. Figure out your own dealbreakers and be firm with them!
Don’t overlook Airbnb
Some people feel a little tetchy about Airbnb these days. In some cities it has pushed up rent to a tremendous degree, hosts aren’t subject to the same tax and safety laws as hotels, and there are numerous horror stories online about bust-ups between hosts, guests and neighbours alike (to name but a few problems). It’s up to you whether you can get past that or not (and I’m not really here to persuade you either way) but it is useful to consider as an alternative if you are struggling to find something either affordable or unique.
When I have tended to use Airbnb, it has been to stay in a location that doesn’t really have many other accommodation options, and in this respect it is a great way to stay somewhere a bit different, hopefully interact with a host who knows the area inside out, and get a taste of the local lifestyle. Most recently we used it to stay in a tiny village in the south of France, and the bonuses were tenfold: not only was it the cheapest accommodation I’ve ever paid for, we also got to inhabit a beautiful old apartment at the top of a classic French-style townhouse, overlooking the village square and church. I could pick up a fresh baguette and bag of croissants every morning from the bakery next door, and the weekly farmer’s market was right on our doorstop. C’est la vie…
Do make use of Tripadvisor…
Tripadvisor is not only useful for getting the lowdown on your prospective hotel (although occasionally with a pinch of salt) but is also becoming increasingly handy for pointing you towards the best price available online. It also might introduce you to hotel booking sites that you haven’t used before: Agoda specialises in bookings across Asia and might not spring to mind as a first choice for those of us based in the west, but Tripadvisor regularly flags it up as a good option for bookings in this region. I generally use TA as a starting point to get an idea of prices in the area and dates that I’m looking at, and then do some further research.
… But don’t rely on Tripadvisor alone
One downside to Tripadvisor is that it will almost always point you away from the hotel’s own website – even if they offer lower prices for booking directly with them. If I’m staying with an independent or small hotel, I always check to see what rates they offer themselves; often theirs will be the same as (or lower than) what you’ll find elsewhere. I also like to know that all of my money is going to the hotel directly, rather than a slice being taken by a third-party website. Rumour has it that hoteliers may also look more favourably on those who book direct, and I’m never one to stand in the way of an upgrade…
Do be flexible about where you stay
In some cities, the price of accommodation either drops markedly or absolutely skyrockets based on the location of your hotel – London, New York, Amsterdam and Sydney in particular spring to mind as a few that I’ve grappled with, and sometimes it genuinely does pay to be a bit more relaxed when it comes to location, location, location. Whilst you obviously don’t want your base in Rome to be on the edges of an industrial estate (see above), it is worth looking at other options. Try something in an up-and-coming area, a suburb of the city or a location a few subway stops away from the main action. Chances are that any major city commanding high price tags will also have a well-developed public transport system, although always check out the difference between a more central hotel vs. one further out and with potentially higher transport costs. Try the east end and beyond in London, or the funky inner-western suburbs of Glebe or Newtown in Sydney. Uber-hip Volkshotel in Amsterdam offers unique accommodation in a renovated newspaper headquarters just south of the centre for a very reasonable price, especially when you factor in the sauna and rooftop hot-tub, whilst going south of Midtown in Manhattan can also be beneficial: check out the rates at Cambria Hotel & Suites in Chelsea.
Don’t be afraid to splash out!
I always like to try a mixture of accommodation, particularly if I’m on a longer jaunt, and have found that some of my favourite and most memorable experiences have been when visiting a small independent place, or when taking a punt on something unusual. Every now and again however, it’s nice to fork out for something utterly stupendous. Even if you can’t afford to spend a whole week there, just staying a night in somewhere truly special can help to create memories that last a lifetime. When visiting Thailand last year I was careful enough with our budget that we could afford a night in the glorious Pimalai resort on Koh Lanta. Watching the sun set on the Andaman Sea from their divine infinity pool was one of the outstanding moments of our trip, and our stay as a whole was easily worth what we paid for the room – and more. Go on… treat yourself!
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