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 whether you’re booking 6 months in advance, the day before your flight, or simply showing up unannounced and asking for a room – 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.
It’s important that you get exactly what you’re looking for, but also that you get it for 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 host’s 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.
- Only stay with people who have rock-solid references. 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 50+ positive references in almost every major city, so there’s no reason to stay with someone who doesn’t look 100% safe.
- 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. There are many ways to do this. I will typically leave a souvenir or some chocolate from New Zealand and a small amount of money on my pillow. It’s also popular for surfers to buy some groceries and cook the hosts a traditional meal from their home country.
- 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, so be thorough. A host with only 2 or 3 references is generally not worth the risk.
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. In most places frequented by backpackers (such as South East Asia and South America) it is not uncommon to find a huge selection of $5 dorm beds in very modern hostels.
- Hostelworld will sometimes set it’s prices a tad higher than it’s main “competitor” Hostelbookers (Hostelworld has since acquired them). Be sure to check both sites to make sure you’re getting the best deal.
- Most backpackers will do either 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.
If you’re travelling through Asia, Agoda easily has the best prices. I used to use a few different websites to find accommodation, but I now almost exclusively use Agoda, mainly because of their loyalty points system.
- 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,
and if you submit a review (which takes about 5 minutes) you’ll get even more points. Their points system is actually really generous, and after 5 or 6 nights you’ll probably have enough for a free room. I’ve already had a few free nights from this program.
Update July 2014: While I used to favour Agoda’s rewards programme heavily, they have since changed it slightly. It will now cost you around $625 in bookings before you get $25 rewards credit on Agoda.
Hotels.com on the other hand only requires around $250 in bookings to get $25 of rewards (Ten $25 nights and you’ll get one free). For that reason, I am trying to use Hotels.com wherever possible. Agoda, however, still seems to reign supreme in offering the lowest prices (just!).
This website also has a loyalty program, which is very good. 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.
As of 2014, this loyalty programme has a much better return than Agoda’s, so my advice is to check both sites and if the price is the same book through Hotels.com.
Booking.com often has slightly higher prices than the others. It has a lowest price guarantee, however you’ll actually have to email them about the lower prices you’ve found elsewhere and wait for them to confirm that they’ll match it. To me that’s lame, I’ll simply book with whoever is offering the best price on the spot.
My thoughts on Expedia are more or less the same as Booking.com, however Expedia is a much more comprehensive site (you can book flights, cruises, hotels etc). I’ve used Expedia quite a bit in the past but not so much anymore.
AsiaRooms has prices that are competitive with Agoda, and also the name is misleading – it actually has a good selection of rooms outside of Asia. However, with the loyalty program on Agoda, there’s little reason for me to book through here.
Of course this is not exhaustive. There are literally hundreds of booking sites out there, and I’m not going to list all of them. Those listed above are limited to the ones I have experience with and can comment on from personal experience.
Small hotels, guesthouses, and family run B&B’s simply cannot afford to be on Agoda, 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. This has been 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 glowing reviews for them, meaning 5 star reviews are easy to come by. 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. The lesson here is, if a place on TripAdvisor has glowing 5 star reviews, don’t take it as fact.
- Negotiate! Small time 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 almost always look for an apartment. Google is first. Search for “short term apartment + your city” and you should find the go-to listing site for your location. Bookmark the ones you like, and then head to a local agent (these are usually not hard to find, especially in tourist-heavy cities). Simply tell them what you’re looking for and they’ll be able to help you – remember, it’s in their best interest for you to find a place as well. Lastly, you can ask some locals. It might be the receptionist at your hostel, a taxi driver, a waitress or whoever. They should be able to tell you the right newspaper, agency or website to look at. That should give you enough info to get started.
AirBnB is a site where you can book an apartment on a short term basis, even for just a few days. 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. For a more in-depth breakdown of Airbnb tips, check out my article here.
(note: You can get $25 free AirBnB credit by signing up through my referral link here!)
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? Then make sure you stay close to the bars and clubs. Are you going for the beach? Then make sure you find a place within walking distance. Just overnighting? Stay near the airport.
Almost every website above has a map function. Use it!
Never pay the rack rate
The rack rate is always inflated. I don’t know why they do this but it’s just how it is. The websites above will be cheaper than rack rates 99.9% 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 this is common.
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 boutique 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. When you flash a big stack of cash it can be hard for the owner to turn it down.
I can’t tell you how many times 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, you’ve been upgraded 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 by 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 definitely 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, the price will actually 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 one night on October 31.
Price on Agoda:
Our initial search shows the price is 1,564 Thai Baht (around $44). Often there can be other fees and taxes, so to be sure the price is final we’ll click “Book” and go through to the pay screen to see what the final bill is:
Cool, it’s the same price, and confirms it includes all taxes and fees, so no sneaky business going on here.
Now let’s see what Hotels.com is offering:
Price is slightly cheaper than Agoda, but no mention of fees and taxes here. Again, to check we’ll need to click through to the pay screen and see what the total bill is. Let’s do that:
With taxes and fees added on, the price on Hotels.com is 1,776 THB, much higher than Agoda (around $6 more).
Next, we’ll check the rate on Skyy Hotel’s website:
The price is $1,687 THB, lower than Hotels.com but definitely more expensive than Agoda.
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: 1,564 THB ($44 USD)
Hotels.com: 1,776 ($50 USD)
Hotel’s website: 1,687 THB ($47 USD)
So the decision here is pretty easy: book with Agoda (unless they offer you a cheaper rate via email, of course). 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 sites as you wish, but I generally stick with the ones listed above.
So, there it is. Hopefully this guide should be everything you need for finding accommodation on your next trip. Travel agencies will regularly advertise “amazing deals” for $150 hotel rooms, but don’t let these fool you. In my experience, $150 is a luxury price and should be getting you very nice rooms in most major cities, and unless you want to, you should never have to pay that much. $50 is more than enough to get you very comfortable rooms, and $10 is usually enough to get you a decent dorm bed.