After spending four months on the road, we became fairly comfortable with booking accommodations on the cheap. We learned a lot during the process and thought we’d share a few tips with our readers…
We found a few great online resources that we came to rely upon pretty heavily:
- TripAdvisor: This was our go-to site for researching rooms while traveling. It has listings for hotels all over the world with many independent* reviews. These reviews are then used to create a ranking of hotels in each city which can be filtered by cost and availability. Reviewers often submit their own pictures — of bright blue swimming pools or moldy corners — which can be pretty helpful toward deciding where to stay. The only problem we had was with the asterisk * – For many hotels it was clear that some of their reviews weren’t so independent. We learned to watch for streams of overly positive reviews from people who had not reviewed any hotels other than the one in question (you can see a complete list of each member’s reviews by clicking on their name). Also, I believe that availability filtering (“only show me hotels that are free next Wednesday”) eliminates less sophisticated hotels that are not integrated with TripAdvisor’s system, so you might want to filter just on price, than contact hotels individually to check availability. With these points in mind, TripAdvisor was the best way we found to get a good hotel.
- HostelWorld: We used this site quite a bit for researching and reserving hostel rooms. Despite a possibly shady reputation (they’re reported to have “competing” sites with different names but the same data, and I’ve also read that hostels can remove negative reviews), they never let us down. In our experience, the best rated hotels (scores of 90 or above) were always solid.
We found ourselves trusting these sites even more than our guidebooks. With guidebooks, hotels can coast on a good review until the next edition of the book comes out. With realtime sites like the two listed above, this shouldn’t happen. Note that the only brand of guidebook that seemed to give very reliable reviews was Rick Steves’ — we trusted him more than the online reviews.
When to Book
When taking any sort of reasonably long trip, there’s always the question of how early you need to pick a room. Generally, there are three options:
- Book lodging weeks (or more) in advance
- Book a night or two before you arrive
- Find a room when you get there
In this list, the options are progressively riskier but more flexible. Booking too early makes it difficult to change plans, such as wanting to stay an extra night in the previous stop. Booking too late can mean scrambling for a room, paying too much, or not finding one at all. Over our four months of travel, we employed different strategies for different types of cities. Here are our tips:
Expensive cities (Copenhagen, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, …) – Book far in advance if at all possible, as these cities have a limited number of affordable options. We found that the places that were cheap and got good reviews on TripAdvisor also booked up quickly. When we waited too long (such as in Copenhagen), we were forced to decide between negative reviews or high price tags. Booking earlier would have avoided this dilemma. Cheaper places (Eastern Europe, SE Asia) tend to have a wider range of affordable options, and if they don’t, the next price tier may still be within your budget.
Places where there may not be enough rooms to cover demand (Mediterranean beach towns in the summer, anywhere with a big event going on) – Book these in advance as well. We tried to wing it in Nice in early September, and found that all of the hotels listed in our Rick Steve’s guidebook were full. The budget hotel we found on foot turned out to be the worst place we stayed during the entire trip.
Anything else – We found that booking a night or two in advance was good enough. The only times we booked farther in advance were cases where we had already booked a flight that would be expensive to change, so that we did not need our hotel to be flexible. We felt pretty comfortable winging it (#3 above) in Croatia where Sobe (rooms rented out in private residences) were cheap, plentiful, and easy to find through tourist information offices.
We found a few deals on accommodation that we thought would be worth sharing:
- Sobe – As mentioned above, staying in private residences in Croatia is the way to go.
- B&Bs, Homestays – Don’t rule these out either. They can be cheaper than traditional hotels and you often get to know local residents, though you may need to share a bathroom with other guests.
- Private rooms in hostels – We had good luck with this approach. A private room in a hostel gives you the privacy and security you’d expect from a hotel, but the price and atmosphere that come with a hostel.
- Church-run hotels – We stayed in church-run hotels in Siena and Florence. Both were cheap and clean, though Abby and I had to sleep in separate single beds.
- Small towns – We found lodging in Europe to be cheaper in small towns than in big cities. For example, the hotel rooms we got in the center of beautiful medieval Tuscan hill towns were a much better deal than what we got in Rome.
Best & Worst
Best Value – The best value we found on our trip was the Honeymoon Guesthouse II in Ubud, Bali. $60 USD got us a two-story private bungalow in a beautiful garden (see the picture from this post). We were asked to fill out cards each night specifying when and what we wanted for our complimentary breakfast, delivered to the dining area of our unit’s open-air ground floor.
Worst Value – The worst value was Hotel Lyonnais in Nice. For 59 € (about $90 USD at the time), we had a dirty room with an unfriendly owner and a bad odor. We picked this on the spot without checking TripAdvisor first. We should have known better… of the eight reviews, seven of them give the hotel the lowest possible rating.
Honorable Mentions – There were a few other excellent deals we found that we’d like to share:
- Arles, France: Hotel Le Cloître – This place was great. It was clean, friendly, centrally located, and well priced. We’ll definitely stay there again if we go back to Arles.
- Málaga, Spain: Barceló Málaga – This hotel was in a brand new shopping mall at the end of the new train line that connects the city with the airport. It featured one of the best buffet breakfasts we had on our trip, and was the only hotel we stayed at that had a slide.
- Siem Reap, Cambodia: Tara Angkor – While there are definitely cheaper options in town, at our rate of $70/night USD, this four-star hotel had a breakfast that rivaled Barceló Málaga’s, plus a well-kept outdoor pool that was a wonderful treat after long, hot days of exploring temples on foot.
- Bangkok, Thailand: New Siam II Guesthouse – For about $25/night USD, we had a very clean, private room with our own bathroom, A/C, a safe, and a TV. It’s close (but not too close) to Khao San Road, and just a few steps from Phra Arthit, which has a row of good restaurants. We spent eleven nights here in total.
- Kyoto, Japan: K’s House Kyoto – A new, spotlessly clean hostel in Kyoto, not too far from many of the temples. It was a great deal in a relatively expensive city, and they pointed us to a great local ramen shop.
- Tokyo, Japan: Tokyo Monterey Hanzomon – Tokyo is an expensive city. This was one of the cheapest hotels that Expedia had listed in Japan, and it turned out to be a great home base. It’s located in a laid-back residential neighborhood which happens to be right in the center of the city, near the Imperial Palace. While there’s not a lot going on in Hanzomon, it’s easy to get around from here, since there’s a subway stop right across the street from the hotel.