J.R. Tolkien

"Not all those who wander are lost." - J.R. Tolkien

Friday, July 8, 2016

Budget Travel Tips: The Hotel Hustle

1.  Compare Airfare
2.  Smart Car Rental
3.  Hotel Hustle

I’ve stayed in some shady (I am actually thinking of another "s" word that’s less appropriate) places in the past to save money.  An example, I stayed in a room in Hanoi, Vietnam where I can almost touch the walls by stretching out my arms.  We shared the showers and flushed the toilet using a string attached to a broken handle, which was perpetually damp.  And when we checked in, the resident rat scurried across the room as a way of welcoming us.  The upside, we paid $4/night for it.  Here’s what the room looked like.
$4 a night hotel in Ha Noi, Viet Nam circa 2010
Now that I’m a little older and have been spoiled a bit by some nicer options, it’s harder to go back to the rough and tough days.  I’ve increased my hotel spending limit to above the $4 range and upgraded to the rat free option.  Surprisingly, it’s not hard to find great hotels for very good prices if you are willing to do some digging and to be a little adventurous.  

Here are a few of my favorite ways to get great rates on hotels at reasonable rates.  My main criteria for a good hotel: great location, clean facilities, and $100 range.    
Use Hotelcoupons.com. There’s no easy way to book cheap hotels, you just have to look around and compare prices.  But the easiest way for me is to go to hotelcoupons.com.  The site shows me a list of hotels in the area that offers walk-in rates and special discounts, many times 50% cheaper. You risk not having a hotel room if there’s no availability that day.  But this works especially well in smaller cities, in off holiday season and if several hotels in the same area are offering the same discounts (giving you more options if your first choice has no availability). You can also call ahead or check on their website first to gage if they have enough availability.  On a weekend trip to Columbus, we saved 65% on a very nice hotel room.

Try non-traditional hotels.  Hostels, state parks, home stays, bed and breakfast offer some really great rates and a one of a kind travel experience.  Hostels are great for super budget/single travelers and a great way to meet other travel enthusiasts.  They offer dorm style beds for as low as $10-$20/night, though you'll have to share bathroom facilities.  Hostels also offer private ensuite, we paid around $50 - $60 for nice private hostel rooms in Europe (try: Hostels, Hostel World, Hostelling International).  Home stays are fun as well.  I did a home stay in Bali and loved living in a traditional housing compound completed with a temple and roosters for alarm clocks (try: Airbnb and read guide books for your specific destinations).  The weirdest thing I've booked yet, a pod hotel in Japan for $40/night (surprising spacious and comfortable, even for our 6 ft + friend).

A pod hotel in Kyoto
Check out Apartments, vacation homes, and condos.  These are great for a large group.  You save by splitting the cost and using the cooking facilities to save on food (try: Airbnb, Flipkey, HomeawayVRBO).  You'll get the home away from home experience.

Take advantage of your memberships.  A lot of hotels offer special rates for AAA, AARP, seniors, and military members.  So always keep an eye out for these options when booking a hotel.

Sign up for hotel membership.  You can earn points as well as perks if you sign up for a membership at chain hotels.  On a business trip to St. Louis, I got upgraded to a larger room, free water bottles and checked in earlier than the rest of my party because I was a preferred member.  Memberships are free and just require a few minutes to sign up. Hilton and Marriott both offer free internet for members.

Grab a mystery hotels.  This is my favorite new way to save on hotel.  Priceline has the Express Deals where you can save 50% or more on your hotel.  The catch, you won't know the name of the hotel until after you pay and it's nonrefundable.  They do provide you a general area on a map, a list of amenities and customer ratings.  My tip, make sure it's in a good location, choose only hotels with 4+ star ratings and at least 40% savings.  I did it for the first time on a recent NYC trip and scored a $224/night hotel for only $105 in an amazing location a few blocks away from Times Square and Rockefeller Center.  Hotwire also offer the same mystery hotel options on their Hot Rate hotels.  

Our $105/night hotel in NYC. Source
Bundle.  Booking hotels with car or flights in a package can save you some major bucks.  I usually end up getting free car rental or paying as little as $9/day for car rental.  My hotel rate also end up being lower. Just choose the package option when using aggregate sites like Expedia and Travelocity.   These sites now also allow you to book your flights first and come back within a certain time frame to book your hotel at a discounted rate. 

Give up your amenities.  I've stayed at some fancy hotels ($400+/night) and found that the main draw is the amenities.  While nice, I never have time to enjoy them.  I want to be out exploring as much as possible and come back to the hotel to rest at night.  Choosing a cheaper hotel with less amenities can mean big savings.  Also, the more expensive hotels rarely offer free breakfast, parking, computer usage, which can add up. 

Expand your search area. If you can't find a great rate in your area of choice, consider looking beyond that area. Sometimes, driving an additional 15 minutes out or taking a subway in can save you a lot of money.  For example, last week I couldn't find any cheap hotels in the D.C. area, I found a hotel across the bridge in Arlington for $100/night (which was nicer than my $400/night hotel).  It was just a short subway ride away.

Research Obsessively.  I always compare prices from different hotels using aggregate sites like Expedia, Hotels.com, Travelocity and ALWAYS read customers reviews.  My go to is Tripadvisor to read reviews from other travelers on hotels, tours, restaurants, etc. before finalizing my purchase.  That hotel might look shiny and new on the outside, but only people who’ve stayed there can give you insight on the service, facility conditions, things to do around the area, etc.  Take overly negative and positive reviews with a grain of salt, read a few reviews and look at the overall ratings to make up your own mind.