Most travelers, myself included, find themselves most focused on getting a flight deal. But, what happens once you’re on the ground? You’ll need a place to stay. Let me tell you, where you lay your head can make or break a trip. For that exact reason, you need to know how to book the best accommodations for your budget, preferences, and location.
I’m not trying to be a Negative Nancy here, but I’ve stayed in enough horrible accommodations to spot the scammers from a few miles out. The more I learned about how to save money on accommodations and still get my money’s worth, the more wonderful experiences I had without stress over my stay. Here are my 5 steps to book the perfect accommodations:
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1 // determine your budget for accommodations
Before you even start looking at where to stay, set a budget for how much you’re able to spend. Are you looking to backpack and stay in hostels on the cheap? Or are you more interested in splurging on luxury? If you’re like me, then you’re middle-of-the-road, or equally likely to choose either of these options.
Personally, I like to know the price point for accommodations depending on the destination. You can get a hostel bed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for $3 per night. But, if you get a hostel bed in Paris, France, then you’re looking at around $35 per night. It’s all relative to the local cost of living, which will heavily impact your options depending on your own budget.
Once I’ve seen how much the average Airbnb, hostel bed, or hotel room costs, I decide I’m not willing to spend more than the average. I’ll move the cursor to filter the search results to only include properties that cost the average per night or less. If my budget is below the average, then I set it to that number before I book accommodations.
2 // research availability for dates and location
Like most, I have fallen prey to the amazing prices on Airbnb and other accommodation sites without inputting my dates first. Sure, you can dream and play around in tools like Airbnb, VRBO, or Expedia to get a feel for the average price on a hypothetical trip. But, a summer hotel room is much higher than a low season hotel room. For this reason, you must put in the dates before even looking at the location search results for trip planning.
Before you see a listing and fall in love with it, put in your dates and see how much the average price is for those days. Then, you can see any added fees that property charges, taxes, and how much the final total price will be. If you don’t include dates, you won’t get accurate prices, availability, or booking details. This seems obvious, but I’ve forgotten this many times and been unhappily surprised at just how much a listing can vary in price depending on the month.
Option 1 // Airbnb or VRBO
This one’s always been my first option.
However, because of high cleaning fees and expectations to clean multiple aspects of many apartment listings, I’m moving further from Airbnb and VRBO now.
As a study abroad student, I swore by these two sites exclusively. Now that I have more buying power, I find that travel hacking and taking advantage of hotel points with frequent flyer miles is more cost-efficient.
However, if I’m with a large group, Airbnb is the way to go. I do recommend checking both Airbnb and VRBO for the best rate, because some listings are on both sites for different prices. Due to scamming and other security issues, I like to book places with lots of high reviews and, ideally, a Superhost.
Before you agree to or book anything, read all the listing’s rules, and inquire about cleaning expectations if you don’t want to clean anything before your stay is up. These work differently from hotels in that you may be expected to wash dishes, strip beds, and complete other minor cleaning tasks before checkout in order to avoid fees. They often vary by listing, so ask any questions directly to the host.
Also, be careful about hosts that ask you to pay extra or pay cash for items other than tourist city taxes. It is against Airbnb’s policy to request payment outside the platform except in the case mentioned above.
Short-term rentals like Airbnb and VRBO are actually highly regulated and even illegal in some destinations. You could be liable if your host isn’t following local laws. For example, Airbnb is illegal in Singapore and heavily regulated in NYC.
option 2: hotels
I used to stay very far away from hotels. The prices turned me off, and they didn’t provide the local experience I was looking for.
Now, things have changed for me as a traveler.
Because Airbnb has exceedingly become a money-making business and less about interaction with locals, I find that it doesn’t have the same place in my heart. Also, many Airbnbs are similarly priced to hotels at this point, depending on location, size, and ratings.
Now that I know some basics of travel hacking, I’ve found it best on my wallet to go with hotels.
You can book hotels through your airline frequent flyer account in order to gain miles on eligible stays, earn points through a rewards program like Chase Ultimate Rewards, and earn through hotel membership rewards. In order to earn points, I like to spend strategically on my Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Rewards, rewards galore!
My favorite aspect of a hotel stay isn’t necessarily the luxury. After all, some Airbnbs are considered luxury properties! Instead, it’s the convenience.
If I’m on the first flight that arrives, then I want to drop my luggage at my accommodation and explore before check-in. Hotels are the accommodation that is most likely to offer free, secure bag drop until your check-in time.
If you’re looking for a more local experience and are turned off from hotels for that reason, then search for locally-owned, small boutique hotels. I’ve had some incredible experiences at places owned by locals that aren’t too big!
One of my favorite hotel booking websites, especially for properties in Asia, is Agoda. Agoda has helped me find boutique hotels I’ve fallen absolutely in love with–and for a great price!
option 3: hostels
Some destinations are famous for backpacking and staying in hostels. Even if a destination is more commonly known for hotels or luxury, hostels are sometimes the coolest accommodations around.
I’ve seen such cute places in Munich, Amsterdam, and all over Europe. I’ve also seen my fair share of awesome hostels in South Asia and Latin America.
If you’re on a tighter budget or just love the hostel experience, then Hostelworld is the place to start your search. I put in my destination, dates, and how many guests will be staying. Once the search results come up, I filter the results by A/C, WiFi access, or other amenities. In some cases, I don’t care about having A/C or WiFi. If I’ve got work to do, then I definitely need a way to access the internet!
Once I filter the results by the factors that matter most to me for that specific trip, I arrange the results by reviews. I’ll consider hostels that are rated 8.5 or higher, but tend to only book those that are at least 9.0.
Because the prices on Hostelworld are usually low for the range of available accommodations, I can pick for quality over cost. Prices per night for a private room and a dorm bed will show in the results, so pick what’s best for you!
option 4: homestays or couchsurfing (?)
I list this one as option 4 with a question mark, because I’ve never used Couchsurfing while traveling. As a result, I cannot fully recommend the platform for accommodations, but want to offer it as a resource.
I do have an account and I’ve offered travel advice for Nashville visitors, but I’ve never stayed at a fellow Couchsurfer’s place before. I know many people that swear by it and love the experience.
If you want to stay with a local through Couchsurfing, then complete your profile, read their profile in full, and message them in advance. I find it a nice touch to bring your host a gift, but that’s completely up to you. And, of course, respect their space.
If you’re only looking for a place to crash or a one-night stay before heading to the airport, then Couchsurfing isn’t the best place for that. With Couchsurfing and other platforms like it, you get what you give.
If you arrive and you’re at all concerned for your safety, then book a place elsewhere through Hostelworld, Airbnb, or a hotel. Compromising your safety is not worth saving a buck!
The reason Couchsurfing and homestays are included in this guide is because I’ve lived with multiple host families. Speaking from experience, living with a host family can be one of the most rewarding aspects of living abroad. But, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows.
You often don’t know the unspoken rules until you break them. There’s a certain level of awkwardness surrounding things you normally do at home, but may feel uncomfortable doing in a stranger’s house. Each time, I met my host parents as I moved into their house.
These are all aspects of the experience to consider before using a platform like Couchsurfing for traveling.
3 // thoroughly check the reviews
This step is arguably the most important, regardless of what accommodation you choose to book.
You must, must read the reviews.
Airbnbs live or die on the platform by their reviews. Furthermore, it helps to check out how the host responds to a negative review. This will get you an idea as to whether or not a hotel, hostel, Airbnb, or Couchsurfing host will be a good fit for your trip.
This piece of advice alone can help you avoid headaches, stress, regret, and bad memories later on. And, once you stay, leave an honest review. I never shy away from leaving constructive criticism if necessary, but it shouldn’t be in a nasty way. Of course, give credit and express gratitude where they are due!
4 // read the fine print
How much will this property charge in fees and local taxes? Are those included in the price you see? Or are they added once you arrive to the property?
Is this place in a good location to access the main attractions you want to see, or is it far from everything? Is it in more residential area of the destination with a longer commute and more quiet, or a short walk from the center and a more lively area?
Does the price include WiFi, or is it an extra fee? Does the property have heat and air conditioning?
All of these questions are answered by reading the fine print once you scroll to the bottom of a listing. And that fine print is hugely important. It will tell you the real full price, including any fees that they don’t want to market at the top of the listing.
For example, many Airbnbs and VRBOs charge a late check-in fee that can be higher than $100. That information is found in the fine print, away from the highlights of the listing.
If you have a question that isn’t answered, ask the host, hotel, or hostel in writing, through their website or social media. No one wants a costly surprise!
5 // book with free cancellation
After all my research, my buyer’s regret wins every time. I rarely book without free cancellation, because I always wonder if I’ll find a better deal. On Agoda, Expedia, Hotels.com, Airbnb, and Hostelworld, there is often free cancellation. It’s worth it to me!
That way, if I decide to go with a different listing, I can get 100% of my money back.
If the property you want to book accommodations with decides to tell you its added fees after you book, then you have that grace period of free cancellation.
Ever since I lost money on accommodations once I realized there were better deals, I swear by this. I highly recommend free cancellation and the flexibility to do what’s best for you!
. . .
These 5 steps I use to book accommodations get me the best deals every time.
I love travel research, but there’s a trade-off between finding the best deal, and the time it takes to search. It can be overwhelming, so choose a budget, plug in your dates, and scour the search results until you find the one!
*Cover photo by Rhema Kallianpur. Thanks, Rhema!
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