I’m currently on a two month vacation, traveling around Europe and northern Africa. It’s expensive! And my largest expense? Accommodations. There’s little I can do to get around this, bar stringing a hammock in the streets – not quite the vacation I’ve planned. Still, there are ways to strategically budget and curb the costs of pricey hotels for close to sixty nights.
- Decide what kind of accommodations you need. There are many different types of accommodations to choose from, depending on the level of comfort, privacy, price, and quality you desire. In most cases, the type of accommodations you choose will also depend on the duration of your stay and your desired location.
- Hotels – these range from budget to five star quality, and the price range is highly correlated. In general, they are easiest to find and will usually come with the most services and amenities. In the high end (4 or 5 stars) you may find that services such as parking, spa, fitness center access, business services (printing, faxing, scanning), WiFi or Internet are widely available, but may also come with an additional fee. Resort fees are also common, particularly in sun destinations. Hotels in the 2.5 to 3 star range sometimes offer these same services for free, but their standard of comfort is lower (ie. poorer quality sheets/bedding, smaller rooms, basic showers, smaller swimming pools, unstable WiFi). 1 or 2 star hotels are very basic, similar to hostels, but with small private rooms and bathrooms. Remember that the star rating is just a rating and 5 stars in North America, for example, may not be the same standard as 5 stars in other parts of the world.
- Aparthotels – these are a bit smaller than regular apartments, but larger than hotel rooms. There is usually a small sitting area and kitchen so you can cook your own meals. You can often find these for a similar cost to a 3 or 4 star hotel, and is good value for money if you want more space. However, they are a bit more difficult to find and are often located outside of the city centre. They are managed just as a hotel would be, with onsite assistance and services.
- Apartments – these are apartment units specifically used for short term rentals and may be rented through companies or private owners. Since you will often need to pre-arrange a meeting to get the key and most owners are based offsite, it is a bit of a hassle if you are staying only a night or two. However, it provides a good budget option for families or those staying short term (three or more nights), and provides more privacy than a hotel would. Check if there is parking, Internet, and a cleaning fee involved.
- Guesthouses/Pensions/Residenciales/Pousadas/Auberges/Riads – although called different things in different parts of the world, these are all similar types of lodging. Most often rated between 1 and 3 stars, guesthouses are smaller hotels with only a few rooms. They usually have basic services with few amenities, and may have shared living spaces where you can meet other travelers. Because they only serve a few guests at a time, hosts are usually very warm and generous in their knowledge of the area, and are able to offer guests more personal attention. (Perfect for solo travelers who are looking for a bit more than a hostel can offer). Look for traditional riads in Spanish speaking countries. These are beautiful guesthouses built around a central courtyard. In general, these usually offer the best value for money. Since my personal preference is to support smaller, locally run businesses rather than large hotel chains, I often opt for these types of lodgings.
- Bed & Breakfasts – not much different than the category above, traditional B&Bs are family run with only a few rooms available in a large house. Sometimes bathrooms are shared between all guests, and sometimes also with the host family. Breakfast is usually included (hence the name) and it is a great way to meet a local family (if you want a homestay feel). There are usually few additional services available.
- Hostels – famous amongst backpackers, solo, and younger travelers, hostels are known for being very cheap forms of accommodation. Rooms, services, and amenities are very basic (but there is almost always Internet), sometimes offering only a bed in a shared room (dormitories vary in size from 4-20 beds in one room) with shared bathrooms. The most basic hostels sometimes provide only the bed and you must bring your own bedding and towels. However, larger hostels do offer private rooms, and sometimes also private bathrooms, but there are fewer of these available. Because of the shared spaces, they offer little privacy, so it is a great way to meet other travelers, but can be fairly loud with people coming and going throughout the night. Sometimes to save space in crowded rooms, lockers are used to store personal belongings, which may be inconvenient if you prefer to have access to your things.
- Houses – if you are looking for longer term options, are traveling in a large group or family, or simply prefer the comforts of home, you may wish to consider renting a whole house, or look for housesitting opportunities.
- Camping – usually the cheapest of all the options, depending on the type of travel you are doing, you may have the option to camp with a tent (sometimes you can rent these so you are not burdened with carrying your own tent and supplies), or camp with your own (or rented) camper or motorhome and pay campsite or parking fees only. For those not ready to “rough it out” there is a modern, higher end style of camping called “glamping” in which you can experience the outdoor camping feel with all the comforts of home available on-site and you needn’t lift a finger.
- Where to search. Before even deciding what type of accommodation I am looking for, I like to do a general search to see what quality and price range is available for the area so that I know how far I can stretch my budget. Remember that you will be paying for location. Large tourist areas and city centers are usually the most expensive (do a bit of research first, as major attractions may not be in the city center). Look at areas adjacent to this, particularly if you don’t mind walking a bit further, or the city has good public transportation (but factor this into your costs).
- I often start by browsing metasearch sites such as Expedia, Agoda, Booking, or Travelocity. From there, I decide the specific type of accommodation I would like and then search local websites to compare. In most cases, especially with larger hotel chains, the metasearch sites offer lower rates than the direct hotel websites, but sometimes smaller hotels will give incentives for booking directly with them so that they can avoid the third-party booking fees charged to them by the metasearch sites. It also never hurts to ask hotels directly for their lowest possible rate (they are often happy to give you a discount off their regular rack/posted rates, especially in low or off season, if you ask). If you are a student, teacher, or affiliated with a professional organisation, tell them so.
- AirBnB is a great option if you want to rent directly from owners rather than hotels, but be aware that it is not always cheaper. Here, people rent out whole houses or extra rooms in their house. There is a small membership fee involved and also an AirBnB cleaning fee that is included in the list price. Sometimes it is possible to connect with the owners directly and forego the booking fee.
- Read reviews. While it’s important to take these with a grain of salt (remember, your standards, expectations, and needs might differ from those who have reviewed the hotel), in general, people writing reviews do so to be helpful for others. Look at the details of the review, not just the number rating. There may be special circumstances influencing the low (or high) number. Also check the date of the reviews. Those posted most recently will reflect the current state of the hotel most accurately. Remember that the hotel may have been upgraded, staff may have received training, or management may have changed since reviewers critiqued their stay. You can find reviews on the metasearch sites or Tripadvisor, which offers reviews from travelers on hotels, destinations, and other activities.
- Write reviews. Critique your stays to help others (and sometimes yourself), and not only when your stay has been fabulous or lackluster. If a stay was just okay, say so. Because I’m often moving along from place to place, writing reviews helps me to not only keep track of where I’ve been and stayed, but allows me to help others when visiting the same areas. I once found what I thought was a great room option on Agoda. I happily skipped down to the reviews before booking, only to find many negative reviews, one of which I had written myself in a previous year!
- Join reward programs. As I was beginning to write, I realized that this topic deserves a blog post of it’s own, so watch this space for reasons to join reward programs and which ones to join. Whether a frequent traveler or not, hotel reward programs can offer many perks such as free nights, room upgrades, or discounts/coupons in the area you are visiting. In some cases, just signing up for the rewards card will be enough for your first upgrade or bonus. It only takes a few minutes, and you can always cancel it later if you find it’s a hassle.
- Think outside the box. When I’m traveling for long periods of time (like my current travels) I like to switch up the type of accommodations I choose. Accommodations can offer more than just a place to sleep. Look for unusual (off the beaten track) options that offer unique experiences as well (surprisingly, these are not always more expensive). This might include homestays (spending the night with a local family), tree houses, houseboats, wilderness camps (these vary from basic to luxury style), university dormitories, churches, ashrams, temples, environmental lodges such as in caves, igloos, sand dunes, jungles, or eco retreats. Ask locals for suggestions (and some will open their own homes to you or know of affordable options outside of the usual hotels).
- Be strategic. Choose hotels to suit your needs. There’s no point in going high end if you will be arriving late at night or departing early in the morning. Make sure you have time to enjoy what you pay for. I’m a sucker for beautiful photos of glistening blue watered swimming pools but very rarely use them once I’m there. (And I’m quite happy with a simple space to roll out my yoga mat). Breakfasts in anything 3 stars or less is seldom more than bread and jam, so if it isn’t already included in the price, forego the breakfast and find yourself a cute café down the street. If you’re planning a long trip, remember to treat yourself every once in awhile. Although my hosteling days are few and far between, I indulge in larger, higher quality hotels every few days. Not only does it allow me a better night’s sleep, but also gives me a chance to catch up on essentials, like laundry, high speed Internet, and bubble baths, without blowing my budget.
Have a travel or healthy lifestyle question? I’d love to hear from you! Just leave a comment below!