Some people wonder how I can afford to travel so often. Let’s get one thing straight – I am certainly not wealthy. When it comes down to it, I make travel a priority. I’d rather have experiences than have things. I also do a lot of research and planning before going anywhere to get the most from every dollar.
I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve learned a few things along the way and I’m bound to learn more as I go. I’ll add some tips here as I think of them. None of these things are secrets or are particularly revolutionary for the seasoned traveler – just tried and true things that I do again and again.
1. Use Trip Advisor and “Know Before You Go”
Use tripadvisor.com to research accommodations. Trip Advisor features reviews and photos from everyday people who have stayed at the hotels you’re considering. While some people have ridiculous expectations and nothing will make them happy and while a bad stay can happen at even the nicest hotel, Trip Advisor’s rankings compile data from many reviews and can generally be trusted – they’ve never let me down. You can also read in depth reviews and see pictures taken by past guests. Take the in depth reviews with a grain of salt, understanding that different people go into a hotel stay with different expectations and their reactions will reflect that; however, reading many opinions on the same place will give you a quite clear picture of what you’re getting into. Trip Advisor can also help recommend where to eat, and things to see and do in any given area – I’ve found some “hidden gems” that I would have completely overlooked and really made my trips special just by glancing at Trip Advisor’s rankings.
2. Comparison Shopping
Use Expedia/Kayak/other comparison engines to compare rates for your travel dates – it will give you a great idea of what’s available in a given area and how the various companies stack up with each other. This is equally true for accommodations and airlines. I generally prefer Expedia for accommodations and Kayak for airfares. Once you have your choices narrowed down, it’s always good to compare directly with the company before booking. Often there are booking fees hidden within the price at places like Expedia and you can get a few more dollars off by going direct to the hotel or airline. Company websites may also have details on special promotions that aren’t available anywhere else. There are exceptions to the rule and sometimes significant discounts can be had by booking through sites like Expedia when they have special promotions so it really does pay off to check both.
3. No Rooms Available?
If your heart’s really set on staying at a certain location and booking direct through the hotel’s website tells you it has no rooms available – try Expedia. I’ve had luck finding rooms at “sold out” hotels as websites like Expedia may be holding their own inventory. You may also have luck calling the hotel directly vs using their online booking engine. And vice versa with each of the previous statements – I’ve been told on the phone somewhere is sold out and found availability online and had Expedia claim no rooms available only to snag a reservation direct with the hotel. If all that fails to turn up a room – you can play the waiting game and try again later as cancellations do come up and rooms get released regularly. Some hotels will place you on a waiting list while others require you to check back on your own. Sometimes you really won’t be able to get in but usually persistence will pay off.
4. Google Street View is Your Friend
Before I book a hotel, I often use http://maps.google.com to check it out. The overhead satellite view is good, but street view is even better. To activate street view, look for the little yellow man on the zoom bar and drag him onto the map right next to your planned hotel. You can then get a virtual 360 degree view of the neighbourhood and even virtually “walk” down the street and have a look around. It’s helpful to have a picture of what’s nearby – convenience stores? shops? post office? banks? parks? lots of trash? graffiti? abandoned buildings? night clubs? Depending on what you want in a hotel stay, the immediate surroundings may greatly affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep, feel safe and secure, or be within walking distance of the amenities you require. Google street view lets you see for yourself what hotel websites do not necessarily advertise. Unfortunately this is not yet available everywhere; however, it is constantly expanding and is currently available in most major destinations.
5. Be Flexible and Save
This is true in a number of ways. For one, you can often save hundreds by flying a few days earlier or later than you had originally planned and hotels are often much cheaper Sunday – Thursday than on the weekends. More than that, if you are also flexible about where you’ll be staying, you can get some great deals using “blind bidding” websites. I only have experience using them to book hotels, so I’ll just speak to that. With blind bidding sites, you can control the star level of the hotel you’re staying at and the general area it will be in, but you do not know exactly where you’re staying until after you have paid for your stay (at a much reduced rate!). I generally use this method if I really don’t care where I’ll be, won’t be in my hotel for long anyways, and know the city well enough that I’ll still be able to get around well no matter where I end up staying. I stick to three and four star hotels, because I know that they’ll meet my expectations no matter what. There are plenty of two star hotels I stay in when I can research them and know they’re okay.. but there are also plenty of two stars in sketchy locations or with run-down properties, so you’re running a bit more of a risk when blind bidding them (though you can get some really really cheap deals too… I’ve seen $23/night rates… it’s up to you if you think the risk is worth it!).
If you’ve got some time to spare before you need to nail down a booking, I recommend trying Priceline.com’s “Name Your Own Price” option first. With this site, you pick your star level, general area, and then name a price you’d be willing to pay. Priceline then either accepts or rejects your bid. If your bid is accepted, you’re locked in and must pay what you offered. If your bid is rejected, you can try again 24 hours later with a higher bid or bid again instantly if you’re willing to expand your parameters (i.e. widen the geographical area you’ll consider). My strategy is to start my bid low – at about half of what I’d expect to pay for a hotel stay, if not slightly lower. I’ve got nothing to lose if the bid is rejected, except time… and my first bid usually is. 24 hrs later, I bid again – this time $5 higher than the last time. I repeat the process day after day until my bid is accepted. Usually I have gotten hotels at 50-60% of the price you’d expect to pay if booking direct with the hotel.
If you’re more pressed for time and need your booking to be made now, try Hotwire.com. Hotwire is different from Priceline in that you know right away how much it costs per night. Like Priceline, you also know the star rating and general area of the hotel. You are also told, in general terms, the amenities offered by the hotel. What you do not know in advance is the name and exact location of the hotel – you are only told after you have already paid for your stay, in full…. and it is non-refundable. In general, I find you do not save quite as much with Hotwire as you would with Priceline, but the savings is still significant.
Be sure to read the fine print with these sites and be willing to accept the limitations of these services. Bookings are usually non-refundable, non-transferable and you can’t cancel or adjust your dates. Also, you can’t usually specify the type of room you want (though Hotwire does offer this option with some hotels, for an extra cost), i.e. two double beds/king bed/accessible room. You can sometimes make a request directly to the hotel when you’re checking in and they will accommodate you if they can but full-price-paying guests come first and you may just have to accept whatever is available. Again, flexibility is key and this may not work for you for every single hotel stay, but when it does work, the financial reward is worth any possible inconvenience of not getting exactly what you might have picked if paying full price.