Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the process of choosing a hotel has gotten really complicated. Technology has brought us so many different hotel booking and review websites and apps, not to mention new alternatives like private guest room rentals and houseswapping/housesitting, the task of finding a place to stay can be really time-consuming.
It doesn’t help that I’ve gotten a bit more picky about where I stay as I’ve gotten older, now usually traveling with my spouse and toting loads of gadgets. Private rooms, en suite bathrooms, and in-room wifi, formerly luxuries, are now generally requirements.
I’ve spent hours doing hotel research in the past month for our recent and upcoming trips and wanted to share how I usually choose a hotel when we travel.
Here are some of the accommodation options available and our experiences with each, including some of our favorite research and booking sites.
There are a handful of websites you can use to search for and book hostels, the largest of which are HostelWorld and HostelBookers. Both sites include a lot of different properties and I’ve always fund it to be a huge hassle to browse both of them. I recently found a hostel booking aggregator called Hostelz.com, that searches both sites along with a third I’d never heard of before. The first time I used Hostelz.com (when planning our recent trip to London), I was pleased to see two search alternatives, search for “dorm rooms” and search for “private rooms”. So by doing the private room search I know it’ll only bring up hostels that have this type of facilities.
Most importantly, this site showed me that the prices were actually different for some hostels on the different sites! That’s not something I ever thought of before, for some reason (though I know thats the case on hotel booking sites) I always assumed the hostels were priced the same regardless of site. Once I realized this, I was sold. This is the only way to ID the lowest price, without having to search all three.
The user interface of Hostelz.com is a little more text-heavy than a lot of booking sites, but I still found it very easy to search private rooms, not to mention it being the fastest way to find the lowest price.
This is the area where I’ve long known the value of the search aggregator. For years I’ve used Kayak to search all the main booking sites and hotel chain websites. Then, once I’ve checked out what the prices are I go directly to the hotel site (or to a site like Expedia or Hotels.com) to book the room there.
Occasionally we’ll bid for hotels using Priceline’s Name-Your-Price feature and doing research on a Priceline-bidding forum like BiddingForTravel.com. This has scored us amazing deals like a weekend at the Westin Boneventure in Downtown Los Angeles a few years back for as low as $45 a night.
When I’m looking at options outside of the US, I always use Booking.com. It is very easy to use, has loads of reviews, and has icons to tell you the capacity of the room. That is something that I find difficult outside of the rooms room for two people is called a double room, a matrimonial room, etc. When traveling solo, the site also lets you know whether the price is for one person or for two, because sometimes these booking engines expect that a single traveler will book both spaces in a two person room.
Even though Kayak says they search Booking.com’s listings, I just did a test search for a coastal town in Mexico, and Kayak didn’t pull up all the small, independently operated properties that Booking.com did.
The Travelzoo Weekly Top 20 email newsletter (that I’ve subscribed to for nearly a decade!) often has resort vacations in popular destinations. Also, newer group buying websites like Groupon offer frequent deals on resort vacations, if you are a bit flexible and open to going anywhere.
Bookit.com offers resort deals (most of which are all-inclusive) at destinations that are popular with US travelers. I used it a few years back to book an all-inclusive stay on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
AirBNB is our current favorite for giving us the opportunity to stay in a home in a real neighborhood. I like that it lets you browse either rooms for rent in private apartments (shared with the owner) or entire apartments, depending on what you are looking for. This makes apartment rental more accessible and affordable for solo travelers.
I’ve browsed some other sites like HomeAway and some regional services in Europe, but they all have a less intuitive interface, don’t include the fees into the total price, and because most of the properties are full-time vacation properties (with spartan furnishings and decor), they don’t give you the feel of community that you get from staying in someone’s actual home. The downside is that AirBNB doesn’t have many listings in places that are known for their vacation properties. There were only two or three listed in the beach vacation town of Cape May, NJ, where we are going this summer for my sister’s wedding. I believe my brother-in-law used HomeAway to rent the house we are staying in there.
We hare big fans of having housesitters come watch our pets when we travel, and know there are loads of people who do this as their primary means of staying for free when they travel. While we haven’t tried to housesit yet, I plan to try the next time we have an extended stay somewhere. TrustedHousesitters is the site we’ve been using with great success, though there are a few others.
Because our most recent trip to Paris was longer than we usually stay in one place, I decided to experiment with homeswapping. Because we’ve had such great luck finding housesitters interested in coming to our home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I figured someone would be interested in coming to stay at our house in exchange for a stay at their place in Paris.
Starting more than four months prior, I signed up at a handful of home exchange websites that had free trial periods (because these subscription services were very expensive) and put up profiles. I spent a few hours emailing users on the various sites and nothing worked out. I decided homeswapping was not worth the hassle and expense.
From the people I know that have done it, Couchsurfing offers much more than a free place to stay. Their huge online community includes a really remarkable group of travel-loving people and offers a easy way to get to know locals and make new friends. Though I’ve browsed the members offering spare rooms several times, I haven’t tried it yet but intend to one day soon. Here’s a lovely post my friend Kimi wrote about the friends she’s made Couchsurfing in Japan.
Other resources I use to narrow down the finalists:
I generally don’t trust guidebooks to have the most updated information on lodging and restaurants, so I rarely start there, but once I’ve identified a few lodging options from my online research, I’ll see what my guidebook suggests.
Then I look at TripAdvisor which generally has a large number of reviews of properties.
I use Google Blog Search to search for in-depth reviews from bloggers. I also often regularly stumble upon hotel recommendations from bloggers I read, and flag them for when I visit that place one day.
I sometimes ask for recommendations on Twitter (adding the hashtag #cityname or #countryname, as relevent).
We used Hostelz.com to book our recent stay at RestUp London, and they discounted our stay to thank us for trying them out. But I’d recommend them even if they hadn’t. Searching one site is so much better than searching three!
Kimi Sugiyama says
Very comprehensive post, and thank you for including me!
I love hostels, but I feel like I’ve outgrown them very quickly. Definitely leaning more towards apartment rentals and couchsurfing lately. Need to try housesitting too.
So many options, so little time 🙂
Cassie Kifer says
No problem, remembering your sweet post made me think to include it as an option. I’m reaching out to couchsurfing members for some tips on an upcoming trip, they’ve been so helpful! How long are you in Japan for? Will I see you at TBEX?
Kimi Sugiyama says
Danggit I didn’t know you were going to TBEX. I can’t make it this year 🙁
I’m back in the States though so if you fancy a pit stop in Detroit on your way home, let me know.
Cassie Kifer says
Shoot, it’s a quick trip this time, but I’d like to get out to Detroit one of these days. I’ve been hearing such great things about it as a city lately and I always think of you. And Nick, too 🙂
Debbie Beardsley @ European Travelista says
As I’ve gotten older my hotel “needs” have changed too which is why hostels aren’t really an option. It is hard to decipher reviews and know which site gives the best rates. I usually go with what I think sounds reasonable price rise instead of spending hours and hours of researching for price. I usually spend quite a bit of time looking for the property though which sometimes makes my eyes feel like they are crossed.
Cassie Kifer says
Exactly, with so many different review sites, I have trouble comparing. I think I tend to go for places that have been reviewed a lot (so they are more likely to be representative) and places with user-submitted photos, because the professional (and photoshopped!) photos properties use are often deceptive. As for your eyes going crossed, that’s exactly what I was feeling when I wrote that post! I had to step away from my research 🙂
I travel a lot for both business and pleasure. The last two years I used airbnb a lot and really enjoyed it. Lately however, I can find cheaper accommodations bidding on priceline than I can often get a spare bedroom for. There certainly is appeal in staying with locals and I had a great time, but if you give me the choice between a spare bedroom (usually way overpriced!) and paying less for a 4 or 5 star hotel, I’ll take the hotel.
Cassie Kifer says
We’ve had a really good experience using Priceline, too! Do you using BiddingforTravel.com or another bidding forum to do research first? The times we do not use it now are when we are traveling by car (because sometimes the parking fees at the hotels you wind up at are really high offsetting the deal we got) and when we are traveling with our dog, because we’re not sure we’ll get a pet-friendly property.
Richard Thompson says
Very thorough list! It’s also just a great resource depending on where you want to go. Thanks for sharing, I will be consulting this as I plan my next trip!
Cassie Kifer says
Thanks, Richard. What’s your favorite booking site?
This is a great read. I’ve been traveling for years and until now, I still don’t know how to pick a hotel that best fits me. I’m glad I got to read this post and I find it really very interesting. Now, I have to consider a hotel that would fit my kids too since I’ll be bringing them soon in traveling. Thanks for sharing!
Cassie Kifer says
Thanks, Joseff–glad it helps and let me know if you have any tips to share! 🙂
Silas Knight says
Thanks for the tips for choosing a hotel. That is something that stresses me out when we travel, choosing the wrong hotel can ruin a whole trip. I love to find a cheap deal, but the quality of the place has to be good too.
I agree that it’s gotten more complicated to choose a hotel. There are lots of factors to consider such as location, price, commodities, etc. I’ve never before considered staying in a hostel but I would interested in having that experience. I’ll be sure to look at the sites listed for more information. Thanks for sharing your knowledge on different accommodations.