When you’re getting ready to plan a trip, one of the most important things you need to consider is where you’re going to be staying. When it comes to accommodations, everyone tends to have different priorities. But there are a few tips that can help you pick the best place to stay regardless of where you’re going.
Location location location
If you’re thinking that the most important consideration when booking a hotel is cost, you’re wrong. I would love nothing more than to spend $10 a night when I go anywhere, but if I’m going to New York or Paris, that’s not going to happen.
Before you start looking for things within your budget, you have to adjust to the local prices wherever you’re going. Once you’ve done that, you can begin to worry about your desired budget. Here are some tips to help you get the best, most affordable hotel.
Paying more to stay in a central location is usually worth it
I’ve gone on many vacations with varying budgets. And in the interest of saving money, I’ve stayed far out of the areas I was visiting in several expensive cities. And I have to say, that is rarely worth the trouble. Time is a precious commodity and when you’re on a vacation that is already exhausting to get to by plane, train, or car, you definitely don’t want to spend 45 minutes on public transportation every day to get anywhere from your hotel.
You also have to consider the hidden cost of saving money by staying out of city center. And that’s that you have to get yourself to and from your hotel every day, likely several times a day. Because when I was 21, I could leave the hotel at 9 am and not come back until 2 in the morning and be fine. At this point, my body doesn’t do that anymore. I need to go home after sightseeing and get some rest and shower before I even think about going anywhere for dinner.
So if your hotel is outside the city, that’s at least 4 trips to and from it every day. And it may be a $2 subway ride, but it may be a $25 cab ride when you get lazy or you’re in a hurry. In the end, those things add up. You could have spent just as much to stay in a more comfortable central location that you could go back to throughout the day when you need to.
Be mindful of how accessible it is by public transportation
The most important thing about a hotel’s location is how close it is to the nearest transportation hub, be it a tram stop or a train station. The cheapest hotels are usually cheap because they’re impossible to get to without a car. Unless you drove there, that’s a huge inconvenience. And it’s going to end up costing you in the long run.
So even if it doesn’t have a view of the Eiffel Tower, you’ll be in very good shape if you can get on the Metro by simply walking downstairs. If you’re not close to public transportation, you’ll have to consider the fact that you’ll be walking 20-30 minutes, sometimes with bags, sometimes late at night, and often after you’ve already spent all day walking. Save the steps for the Louvre (you’re going to need them.)
Be mindful of what neighborhood you’re staying in
I have a friend who once accidentally stayed in the Red Light District with her young kids. She had to go out of her way to avoid having them see certain things and ask awkward questions. This is precisely the danger of not being careful where you’re staying. Though most cities have well-defined popular tourist areas, you should always double check by Googling your neighborhood or street to make sure that’s somewhere you want to stay.
Listen to other travelers
One of the easiest things to overlook, especially if you’re focused on price, is hotel reviews. I mean actual reviews, not star ratings. Star ratings can give you a good ballpark to start from, but you should always read specific guest reviews, especially the negative ones. Even 5 star hotels are going to have some downsides. The lower in star rating a hotel is, the more downsides it will have. The reason why reading reviews is crucial is because some downsides are real deal breakers.
For example, I don’t care if someone docked one or two stars because the person at the front desk was rude. But if someone claims that there was feces on their sheets, I care. I don’t need to hear that from more than one person to decide that I don’t want to stay at that hotel. And that important bit of information gets lost and aggregated into a generic 3/5 star rating.
Finding the right place for your budget
Once you’ve narrowed down some areas where you can stay and some hotels that are safe and clean, you can start looking at your budget. What’s the best way to find something affordable?
Book ahead of time!
In travel, hotels are the only thing that give you a lot of flexibility, because most of the time, you can cancel them if your plans change. Flights, trains, and even tours are non-refundable. You can only buy those when your plans are final. But you can book hotels anytime. And you should.
I’ve had situations where I know my travel dates but I’m not sure about my destination, so I’ll book several hotels for those dates in different places. When I decide where I’m going to go, I just cancel the other ones.
The earlier you book, the better. That’s not because hotels will be cheaper booked far in advance, though that’s often true. But because if a better deal comes along later, you can just switch your hotel at the last minute. Obviously, in order to do this, it’s crucial that you book a place that offers free cancellation. Read the fine print and make sure you know the policy (like the deadline to cancel) before making an expensive mistake.
Booking directly from the hotel vs third party sites
Third party sites like Priceline or hotels.com are really helpful in seeing what prices are like across all available hotels. But it may be cheaper to book directly through the hotel itself. This isn’t always the case, and sometimes it’s actually more expensive. But it’s worth checking to compare to see what the same room costs you if you book through a third party site versus the actual hotel.
One advantage of using third party sites is that you can take advantage of their deals and promotions. Though I use Airbnb more often than hotels when I travel nowadays, I’ve always been pretty loyal to hotels.com. Because when you sign up with them, you get a free night after booking 10 stays. If you travel enough, or at least have an account long enough, you’ll eventually get a free night out of it.
Beware of booking the wrong kind of room by mistake
This is especially common when you’re using a third party site. For example, you might assume that all listings on hotels.com are for standard hotels. But they’re not. Hostels and B&B’s also come up in hotel searches. If you’re not careful, you might end up staying at an inn with a front desk that’s open only 4 hours a day.
Or you might end up in a hostel, sharing a bathroom with another room. Don’t assume that just because something says standard room that it has a private bathroom. Check the listing details to ensure that you’re staying in the kind of room you want. It’s probably useful to note here that many hostels do have completely private rooms. So you shouldn’t rule them out altogether.
Ensure that you have the right amenities
I work 100% online, so having good WiFi is not optional. If a hotel only has paid internet services or poor connectivity, I will stay elsewhere. The essential amenities are different for everyone. If you’re going somewhere on important business, for instance, you’ll probably want to make sure that you’re staying somewhere with an iron, so you’re not walking around in wrinkled clothes.
The more you save on the hotel, the less amenities you’ll probably be entitled to. Most hotel sites and third party sites include detailed information on what is included in the room you booked. So if something is not negotiable for you, double check to make sure it’s available.
Never book a trip before checking the cost of hotels
My last, but perhaps most valuable tip, is that when you’re planning a vacation, you should always carefully consider the cost of hotels at your destination before deciding to go. Yes, for most international vacations, the cost of the flight will be the biggest expense. But that is not always the case.
You don’t want to blindly book a cheap flight somewhere just because it’s on sale, and then find yourself in a place where hotels are a minimum of $250 a night. The cost of the vacation must take into account both transportation and accommodations.
So don’t get swept up by that $175 flight to Dubai next spring. (I’m trying not to. I really am.)