These days every traveller, no matter how inexperienced, has the ability to find their own accommodation. Travel agents, at least in this regard, are completely obselete. It doesn’t matter if you’re booking six months in advance, the day before your flight, or simply showing up unannounced – you can find everything you need with a few clicks of a mouse.
When I book flights I almost always take the cheapest option, however accommodation is a little different. Cheap accommodation is great, but you need to make sure you’re getting the right accommodation for you. Some people will need something close to the airport. Some people will need lightning fast wifi. Some people need a gym.
How do you get exactly what you’re looking for, at the best possible price? In this guide we’ll talk about my favourite resources and how to best use them when looking for a new bed.
Don’t want to pay for accommodation? Couchsurfing is your friend. Couchsurfing is a community of travellers, who either identify as surfers, hosts or both.
A host is someone who offers travellers a couch to sleep on for free, and a surfer is someone who sleeps on a couch for free. It’s a very simple process – you log onto Couchsurfing, look at a bunch of hosts and then message the ones you think you’ll get along with. They’ll either accept or deny your request – if they accept, you show up to their house once you land and sleep on their couch for a few days. It’s also assumed that they’ll show you around the city and make sure you have a pleasant stay.
Once you leave, you will write a public reference for the host on their profile, which can be either positive or negative. This will allow future surfers to see if the host is reputable or not before deciding to stay with them.
Remember, there’s no money involved; it’s based on a goodwill system of travellers helping out other travellers.
- Try and stay with well-referenced hosts. This is especially so if you’re travelling solo and doubly so if you’re female. It’s not hard to find hosts that have 10+ positive references in almost every major city, so there’s no reason to stay with someone who doesn’t look 100% safe. There’s no need to be paranoid, just exercise basic common sense. Couchsurfing is a very safe and close community, but of course there are always gaps.
- While you’re allowed to stay for free (Couchsurfing rules explicitly say hosts are not allowed to charge surfers), common Couchsurfing etiquette is that the surfer gives back in some way. “Free accommodation” isn’t really a good description. “Hospitality exchange” is a better one, and the exchange part goes both ways. There are many ways for surfers to contribute their part of their exchange; one of the most popular is cooking a meal, ideally something from your home country. You can also leave a souvenir, help around the house with something etc. It’s up to you.
- If you’re unsure about a host, look at the references on their profile and then send a message to their past guests. I’ve had quite a few people message me asking about hosts I’ve stayed with and if I had a pleasant stay or not. This is a really easy way to do a “background check” on your host and give you some peace of mind. Some people have been known to set up fake references for themselves, although I things like this are rare.
If I’m not going to Couchsurf, Hostelworld is where I go next. This is easily the biggest and most comprehensive hostel booking site out there.
Why stay in a hostel?
Backpacker hostels have changed a lot over the last five years. They’re no longer the stuffy, smelly, mould infestations that they used to be (okay, some of them are). But the majority of them are now totally jazzed out, with Playstations and big screen TVs and pool tables. And if a dorm room isn’t your thing, most of them have private rooms as well.
If you’re on a tight budget, hostels will likely be one of your cheapest options, and they’re also the perfect place to meet other travellers and plan trips, get travel tips, make new friends and so on. It’s a good time.
- Sometimes it pays to check other booking sites, like Booking.com. There is sometimes a price variance and you might find something cheaper there.
- When booking on these sites most backpackers will do one of two things – they’ll list by “cheapest price” and book the very cheapest bed, or they’ll list by “review score” and book the hostel with the highest review score. What this means is that the cheapest hostel and the best reviewed hostel are always super busy. Therefore a good idea is to book the second or third hostel down the list, not quite the cheapest or the best reviewed, but still really good. These hostels are always much less busy, which means less crowded bathrooms, less crowded dorms, less crowded breakfasts, less time waiting at reception, less noise, less time waiting for a computer etc etc.
- Hostel culture can be a little strange or intimidating if you’re new to the road, but if you’re willing to embrace it you’ll have a really great time. I meet people in hostels from all over the world and of all ages and it truly doesn’t matter where you’re from or how old you are. If you approach the experience positively you’ll have a great time. If hostels are new to you, you can get acquainted with the culture in my post Hostelling 101: A Newbie’s Guide To Hostel Life.
Hotel booking sites
If you’re not keen on a hostel you’ll be looking for a guesthouse or boutique hotel. For this the easiest way is to use a hotel aggregator site.
- When planning your trip check the site every day. The prices change often, and last minute deals pop up all the time. I’ve had up to 50% off just by waiting until the day before my stay to book. If you miss out, don’t worry – there’s plenty of other hotels to choose from.
- When you book through Agoda, make sure you sign up for an account. Agoda will give you loyalty points for every night’s stay. It’s not the best program (it will cost you around $625 in bookings before you get $25 in rewards) but it doesn’t hurt to rack the points up if you’re making bookings anyway.
Hotels.com is another pretty standard hotel booking site I use. This website also has a loyalty program; the deal is if you stay 10 nights you will get one night free. Of course, the free night must be equal or lesser value to the average of your 10 previous nights. This gives you a better return than Agoda’s program, as you only need $250 of bookings to get $25 in rewards credit (Agoda requires $600+). Still only worthwhile if you’re making a lot of bookings, because the points do expire, but no harm in collecting them if you’re booking hotels anyway.
Booking.com is probably the most comprehensive of the sites out there, and sometimes it has prices lower than Hotels.com and Agoda. It definitely has the best selection of the three.
In Europe I actually found myself using Booking.com a lot, as it had the best prices for hostels (even better than Hostelworld) and smaller guesthouses, and definitely had the most options. You usually don’t need to pay a deposit either.
Small hotels, guesthouses, and family run B&B’s simply cannot afford to be on Booking.com, Hotels.com or any of those big websites. Where you will find them is on TripAdvisor. This is perfect, because they’ll have reviews from past guests and you’ll be able to sort through them by review score to find the best one. I’ve found it to be a great resource for lesser travelled countries, especially in Africa. Another good resource to find such accommodation is on Wikitravel.
- Accuracy of reviews is far lower on TripAdvisor than it is on Hostelworld, Agoda, and other booking websites. Many owners of these guesthouses ask their friends, family and preferred guests to write reviews for them, meaning 5 star reviews are easy to come by. By contrast on Agoda, only guests that have actually paid for a night at the hotel can write a review for it, meaning reviews are mostly honest and accurate.
- Negotiate! Small accommodations on TripAdvisor will normally point you to their website, where they will have rack rates that are inflated somewhat. Send them emails and bargain them down, and drop subtle hints that you’re looking at other guesthouses in the area. You’ll often be emailing directly with the owner, rather than a hotel receptionist who couldn’t care less about whether you stay or not, so your chances of getting a discount are good.
When staying somewhere longer term (2 weeks+) I like to look for an apartment.
AirBnB is the industry favourite right now. This is a sharing economy website where local people list their rooms/apartments for rent. This makes it possible to rent regular apartments for just a few days in a foreign city, which is really convenient and a lot more comfortable/interesting than a hotel. Prices are decent and this can be a great option for cities where hotels are known to be expensive (e.g. Hong Kong, Tokyo). You can also try Wimdu, Roomorama and Flipkey.
Other tips for finding the right accommodation:
Location is everything
Depending on where you’re going, transport has the ability to really dent your wallet. For example, in my hometown of Auckland, even public transport will cost you between $3-$5 to get into town and a taxi will cost you around $10 just for a 5 minute ride. At those prices, staying in the wrong part of town can really end up hurting your wallet.
Before you book your accommodation, decide what you’re likely to do in the city. Are you going for the nightlife? Stay close to the bars and clubs. Beach? Stay within walking distance. Just overnighting? Stay near the airport.
Almost every website above has a map function. Use it!
Never pay the rack rate
If you are going to stay in a hotel, don’t pay the rack rate. The rack rate is always inflated. I don’t know why they do this but they just do. The websites above will be cheaper than rack rates most of the time. There’s been several times where I’ve wanted to extend my stay and reception will only allow me to do it for the rack rate. I’ve literally stood at reception and booked extra nights on Agoda, and then waited for it to come through their system so she can add it to my room. Sounds silly but it happens.
Negotiate rates for longer stays
If you’re staying more than a week you should have a good chance of negotiating a better rate. This has worked best for me with little hotels and guesthouses, but I’ve heard of people having success with this at big hotel chains too. With smaller places, it helps if you have the money on you and/or offer to pay in advance. When you flash a big stack of cash it can be hard for the owner to turn it down.
There have been many times when I’ve been upgraded for no reason at all. Whenever I check-in, especially if it’s quiet, I always make a huge effort to be as chatty as possible with the person at reception. Smile, and be friendly, say nice things about the country and ask funny questions. If they have a name-tag, greet them by their first name. And then don’t be surprised if they hand you your keys and say “Enjoy your stay Sir, I’ve upgraded you to Deluxe!”
Why does this happen? I’m not quite sure. I’ve noticed it often happens when I check in very late, presumably because at this time they know what their occupancy is for the night and what rooms they can give away for free. Also, I notice it happens when reception isn’t busy, probably because the hotel is half empty and they have a lot of spare rooms.
Book the less popular hotels and new hotels, as they’re usually not as busy as the popular chains. But really, just be nice. The people at reception have the power to give free upgrades, so if they like you you’ll probably get one.
Check the hostel or hotel’s direct website
One last tip. Before you book, make sure you check the website of the actual hostel/hotel. To do this, simply Google the hotel’s name and their direct website should come up. Sometimes (but rarely) the price will be cheaper if you book direct.
Making your booking
Here’s a quick example of the process you might go through when booking your hotel. As an example, we’ll use a hotel I’ve actually stayed at before – Skyy Hotel in Bangkok. These guys actually gave me a free upgrade when I stayed with them, so I’m going to give them this free plug on my blog 🙂
Let’s go for two nights on April 1-3. The process is pretty simple, just search on each of the booking sites and see who is the cheapest.
Price on Agoda:
Notice the small print that I’ve circled in red. Make sure you check that it in fact includes all taxes and service charges.
Price on Hotels.com:
Price on Booking.com:
Price on Skyy Hotel’s website:
One final check I would do is contact the hotel directly. Simply send them an email along the lines of “Hi, I’m coming to Bangkok soon and came across your hotel on Hotels.com/Agoda/TripAdvisor etc. Your hotel looks perfect but I noticed your rates are a bit higher than others in the area. Is that the best rate you have available or can you offer something a little better? Thanks!”
Depending on the place you can get quite favourable responses doing this.
So our available prices are:
Agoda: 3,168 THB
Hotels.com: 3,419 THB
Booking.com: 3,360 THB
Hotel’s website: 3,360 THB
So the decision here is pretty easy: book with Agoda (unless they offer you a cheaper rate via email). You’ll get the cheapest price and also the Agoda reward points to put towards a free room later on.
Also note you can continue to check as many hotel booking sites as you wish, but I generally stick with the ones listed above.
There it is. Hopefully this guide should be everything you need for finding accommodation on your next trip. If you’re looking for something a little more unconventional, you can also check out my post 16 Ways To Travel The World For Free. There are a lot of accommodation options available, many of them free, that will suit the more adventurous traveller.