- To stay well-rested
- To stay somewhere safe
- To stay somewhere central
- To meet other travelers or friends
- To avoid paying twenty-nine metric fucktons for the previous four criteria
My approach to this trip has been as follows:
1. Use hostels or hotels for one-night stays.
2. If planning to take tours and do day-trips, avoid types of accommodation where I might feel obliged to spend more time with my host. This means hostels or hotels for busy and tightly-packed stays.
3. Try to find friends to stay with when possible, provided I won't just be showing up for one night and then disappearing.
4. Use AirBnB or Couchsurfing for longer stays if reasonable options are available
5. For some longer stays, stay at a hostel if it is in a fun location (or if the hostel is much more convenient)
6. Include one hotel night for every 10-15 days of alternative accommodation to enable me to recharge
While following these six guidelines, my secondary goal is to keep my average spent per night below $60. Considering the extensive amount of time I'll be spending in expensive destinations (Scandinavia, London, Paris, Switzerland, St. Petersburg), this seems like a reasonable target. Hopefully I'll get it even lower than that.
While most of the places I will be staying aren't especially exotic or interesting, I do have a couple lodging plans I am really excited about:
In Interlaken, I'll be staying in a tent. A tent hostel surrounded by mountains of course. Each tent contains several beds, complete with sheets, pillows, and blankets.
|I'll be sleeping in one of these!|
|... Because I won't already be spending enough time on a plane flying home.|
Throughout my planning process I have learned new tricks for finding and booking hotels. Here are 8 assorted tips on the process:
2. Just because you can't find a hotel in one place doesn't mean you should give up. There have been times when I found a hotel on Tripadvisor and wanted to book it, but Tripadvisor told me it was sold out. A quick check of Kayak showed that there was a site that still was showing rooms available, and I jumped on it. The same thing goes for flights -- Don't just stick to searching one site! (A great example of this is my Amsterdam-Moscow and St. Petersburg-Stockholm flights -- I found options with perfect times, but I waited until I had confirmed I had my Russian visa before trying to book. They disappeared from all US-based booking sites when I looked a couple days later, but I was still able to find them on ebookers!)
3. For chain hotels (see my rant below), avoid using booking sites like Orbitz or Expedia because those rates often are ineligible for any loyalty program rewards directly from the hotel. Instead, try to go through a portal found via Cash Back Monitor and book directly on the hotel's website.
5. Best rate guarantees can be an a great way to score free or discounted hotel nights. Many sites and hotel chains have their own variation of a best rate guarantee, and if you can get your claim approved, it can be an easy way to heavily subsidize your stay. Unfortunately, getting these claims approved can sometimes be a pain, but in many cases it's worth the effort. I don't have too much experience here, but I did manage to get one approved with Orbitz: Expedia was offering a hotel for $110 and Orbitz was offering the same room for $159.
6. Many major booking sites have their own loyalty programs which offer even more money back... My preferred choice is hotels.com, which effectively gives 10% back on every booking through their Welcome Rewards program, and that rate is the best in the industry that I am aware of. Many sites offer bonuses or discounts for bookings of multiple nights, and often these are worth $20-$100 as well. For example, Orbitz currently gives 15% off all eligible hotels (until June 1st) by using the promo code "GETHAPPY" in addition to their usual 3% back through Orbitz Rewards, and Hotels.com currently offers $20 off a 3-night booking by using the promo code "REBATES14".
I can usually get a hotel at a minimum of a 10-15% discount, not counting the 3-7% back I get through tip #4. For hostels, it is more difficult to get much back, although sometimes the major booking sites will offer rooms at hostels too. For example, I booked my night at JumboStay (the 747 hostel/hotel) through Hotels.com for the same price I could have gotten through a hostel booking site.
Even though it might not sound like it is worth the trouble of going through these steps when booking hotels, the benefits add up quickly, especially when booking close to 54 nights worth of lodging!
Using my JumboStay booking as an example, the private room I booked cost $108. I will get 10% of that back from Hotels.com's loyalty program, and 5.5% of that back from the portal I used to click through to Hotels.com. After both of these, it will really only cost me $91.26... And that's without any promo codes. Not bad!
7. Other noteworthy sites I haven't mentioned yet include Rocketmiles and PointsHound which offer airline miles for hotel stays. Rocketmiles offers a minimum of 1000 miles a night, while PointsHound offers 100-1000ish... Rocketmiles has a more limited collection of hotels, but they usually offer a lot more miles than PointsHound. Both are worth checking out depending on the circumstances, and although I still feel I can do better on balance by booking through Hotels.com, I do use both sites from time-to-time.
If you do decide to join either site, you can earn bonus miles for being referred by an existing member:
For Rocketmiles, you can get 1000 bonus miles on your first booking by using my referral link:
For Pointshound, you can get 250 bonus miles on your first booking by using my referral link:
8. I'm still learning new tricks and options all the time, and you'll learn new tricks as you go too. There are more booking sites than stars in the sky, and there are always new complications and ways to maximize each hotel booking. I learned a lot by messing things up, and while I kind-of hope that isn't the same for everyone, it is a learning curve and you will miss out on some opportunities... Don't let that discourage you at all.
Now, a run-down of different accommodation options and some of my thoughts on them... Most of these thoughts are in the context of traveling in Europe, although they mostly still apply elsewhere:
Hostels are fun, but it can often be difficult to get a good night of sleep when you are staying with multiple other people in the same dorm, and if you stay out drinking until three in the morning every night, you definitely won't get a good night of sleep. Of course, ironically, these same people who may be preventing you from sleeping also may be the reason you are at a hostel in the first place:Even if you go out and actively seek other people at hotels, nothing can compare to the social environment of a hostel, and as a single traveler, meeting other people along my travels is an important consideration. Finding an affordable centrally-located hostel is also much easier than finding an affordable centrally-located hotel, especially in some of the bigger European cities.
|One of the best hostels I ever stayed at: Hostel One Home in Prague. The facilities were great, the beds were comfortable, the location was central, and the people were amazing!|
AirBnB is a relatively new and rapidly growing resource for short-term rentals of apartments and houses. The term BnB may give an incorrect impression: While there are some properties whose owners offer fantastic BnB-like service, there are many others which offer a more hands-off approach. There are listings for everything from a converted 18-wheeler toa couch or private room in an apartment to to an entire beach house. AirBnB is a great compromise between staying in a hostel and staying in a hotel: You get to meet a local host who usually can offer advice on the destination you are visiting, you get to see the destination from a very different point-of-view by staying in an apartment or house, and you get the privacy of having your own room. Different hosts have different levels of involvement, and AirBnB has their own rating and review system set up for guests to provide feedback on their stays. There are over half a million listings around the world, and AirBnB can often be cheap option to enjoy the privacy of having your own room while not compromising on safety or the social aspect of travel.
Pros: Opportunity to meet a local host and experience the city from a different point of view, budget-friendly, centrally located options available, private rooms (or entire apartments!), laundry facilities often available
Cons: Requires communication and coordination with a host (especially to pick up the key, which may be difficult if you arrive very early or very late), less formal than a hotel, may lack certain facilities that would be standard at a hotel, unless renting a full apartment it can be difficult to find space for more than two people, short stays are generally inconvenient
If you decide to sign up, I'd appreciate it if you used my referral link. I get a $25 credit when you book your first stay, and you get $25 credit toward that stay: Sign Up for AirBnB!
Couchsurfing is an extremely economical way to find a place to sleep at your destination: It's free! Before you suddenly think you have found a ticket to a free lunch though, couchsurfing is very community-oriented, and you should only consider it if you have an interest in interacting with and spending time with (usually very friendly) strangers: To participate, you need to be willing to dedicate some time toward finding a potential host, checking on what type of accommodation they have, and getting to know your host beyond a few awkward exchanges of pleasantries. Couchsurfing is more about meeting other travelers and fostering a community of generous (and not free-loading) people. Remember, these are people inviting you into their homes. Couchsurfing is like a no-frills version of AirBnB with more social emphasis -- It certainly is not for everyone, but can be a fascinating way to see a destination from a very different perspective and an amazing opportunity to meet locals and fellow travelers.
Because couchsurfing is very informal, there are very few standards for any sort of host. Some people might have a bed, some might have a floor, some might have something in-between. Some might host more than one couchsurfer per night, others may have multiple other housemates, and others may have twenty-seven cats and a gerbil named Harold. Hosts may live two minutes from the central station, or they might live multiple miles from the nearest metro station. Know what sort of situation you are getting yourself into beforehand, and make sure you are comfortable with all of the arrangements. Be sure to read profiles, and remember that you want to be someone a host might be excited about meeting and spending time with for a few days (and you should be excited to meet your host too!), not someone who is solely in it to save a bit of cash.
Cons: Requires large amounts communication and coordination with a host (both to pick up the key, which may be difficult if you arrive very early or very late, and to establish a relationship of some kind before you are invited into the host's home), much less formal than a hotel, can be bare-bones accommodations, sleeping arrangement may make it difficult to get good nights of rest (i.e. sleeping in the living room sofa or on the floor), short stays are rarely worth the time and social investment
If you are interested in Couchsurfing, there is a great post on it on MileValue's site here.
Hotels are, of course, the most common option for most trips. They're convenient, they're reliable, they offer privacy, and they get old quickly. I like to be able to look around wherever I am staying and be able to figure out if I am in Oklahoma or Paris, and all too often, hotels don't cut it. There are some great hotels out there that I'd love to stay at, or that I have really enjoyed my stay at, but they are rarely Hiltons, Hyatts, or Marriotts, or if they are, they are way out of my price range (read: upwards of $500/night). Sure, chain hotels offer reliable value, but they rarely offer the feeling that you are somewhere exotic or interesting. I can definitely understand redeeming hotel points for a few nights at a unique or luxury hotel that is part of a chain, but I don't like the sterile feeling of being in "just another Hilton".
I prefer smaller, non-chain options whenever I am considering staying in a hotel. Non-chain hotels with good reviews on TripAdvisor often provide great experiences beyond just comfortable and private beds, and they are more likely to help immerse you in the culture of wherever you are visiting (inasmuch as a hotel can do so).
Maybe I'm just a stingy budget traveler, but I prefer to aim for 3-star (or extremely well-reviewed 2-star) hotels when I do opt for a hotel. I don't need overwhelming luxury, I need a comfortable bed in a reasonable location that won't cost me a fortune. I find it hard to justify having my toilet paper folded into a neat little triangle when I plan to spend the entire day out of the room anyway. For me, hotels are necessity to recharge, but outside of recharging they are not my go-to option unless my other choices are very limited. I don't feel like I need to say too much more about hotels other than getting on my soapbox about staying in boring chain hotels in far-flung destinations.
So, with that said, let's play a little game (Hint: One of these rooms costs over $300 less than the other two):
|Marriott Paris, Marriott Rome, or Marriott Tampa?|
|Marriott Paris, Marriott Rome, or Marriott Tampa?|
|Marriott Paris, Marriott Rome, or Marriott Tampa?|
Sorry, I lied about getting off my soapbox. The correct answers are (highlight to see): 1. Marriott Champes-Elysees, Paris - Starting at only $485 a night! 2. Marriott Tampa - Starting at only $129 a night! 3. Marriott Grand Hotel Flora, Rome - Starting at only $430 a night!
The moral of the game? Even if you got all three right, chain hotels tend to have relatively standard offerings. You know what you are getting -- Chain hotels offer a reliable product, but it's unlikely you'll have a fun story to tell after you check out. In fact, it's unlikely you'll even remember the hotel at all, since it'll blend in with any other hotels you stayed in.
I'll try to put up one more post before I leave, but for now let me just offer a friendly reminder that it always pays to double-check your reservations whenever possible: I happened to glance at my SAS reservation for Thursday and noticed that I had somehow been reassigned to a middle seat for the long-haul portion of my trip! A quick phone call sorted it out, but it'd have been a far more unwelcome surprise at the airport.