(Update: The Chase Ultimate Reward portal no longer offers bonus points for booking hotels through Hotels.com)
As full-time travelers we live our lives out of hotel rooms and other rented spaces. Sometimes we’ll sleep in as many as three different cities in a single week. That adds up to a lot of hotels over the course of a year. As a matter of necessity, we’ve become pretty good at finding the best places to stay.
And by “best” we don’t necessarily mean cheapest. While we definitely consider ourselves budget travelers we focus at least as much on value as on absolute cost. Some things, like private rooms and central locations, are worth paying a little more for, in our view. So this article won’t teach you how to find the cheapest bed anywhere within commuting distance of your chosen destination. But if what you’re looking for is a great room, in an awesome location, at a terrific price then the process we outline below should work as well for you as it has for us.
Research your destination
The old saw about the most important things in real estate also holds true for hotels. Every great room has three things in common: location, location, location.
Before we even start thinking about hotels we do a little reconnaissance on our destination. Answering basic questions like how we’ll spend our time; will we need or want a car; where are the best or cheapest dining options located; will we want to stay in the heart of the action or someplace more serene; all help point us toward our preferred location and also inform us about the kinds of amenities we might desire in a hotel.
Once we identify some things we want to do, we’ll often plot them on Google Maps to help us visualize the areas where we’ll be spending time. By doing that in Bangkok we successfully avoided staying in the ridiculously touristy Khao San Road area that everyone seems to recommend. Instead we found a great budget hotel in a more local neighborhood that also happened to be within walking distance to virtually everything we wanted to do.
Narrow the field with Booking.com
Some cities have so many hotels that picking just one feels overwhelming. One of our favorite sites for winnowing the choices is Booking.com.
The first essential thing you want in a hotel reservation system is a huge inventory of rooms. And Booking’s inventory is really, really big. Rarely will we find a hotel that accepts online reservations that isn’t on Booking. And that makes the site one of the better places to start your search.
The second thing you want in a good hotel search engine is powerful tools for sifting through all of those rooms. And it’s here that Booking.com shines.
The thing we use most often is Booking’s mapping feature. From the research we did earlier, we already have a pretty good feel for the geography of our destination. We also have some idea of the area where we’d like to stay. With Booking’s map we can easily see the hotels that fall within our desired area.
If that isn’t enough, we can filter Booking’s search results using the dozens of different criteria that appear along the left-hand side of the screen. We can narrow the hotels displayed based on price or on whether they offer WIFI, parking or spa facilities. If we want breakfast, an airport shuttle, a pet friendly hotel, a terrace, air conditioning, or a kitchenette we can specifically search for all those things and more.
After filtering by price, location, and a couple of desired amenities we can usually narrow down our list of potential contenders pretty quickly.
Check Tripadvisor for potentially missed opportunities
But we don’t want to stop there. While Booking.com is great it doesn’t have everything. There are still plenty of awesome places that can’t be booked online. So while those hotels definitely won’t show up on a site like Booking.com they may still get reviewed at a place like Tripadvisor.
That’s how we discovered the unique bungalows at Time for Lime in Koh Lanta, Thailand. We chose to stay there not just because they have really affordable rooms right on the beach or because they pour the best mojitos this side of the Caribbean, but also because it’s a good cause. The profits from Time for Lime support Lanta Animal Welfare; a local charity delivering sterilization and veterinary care to the island’s dogs and cats – some of whom also “work” at the bungalows as greeters and even roommates, if you wish.
The trick to finding interesting places like Time for Lime is to ignore Tripadvisor’s main listings and head over to its “specialty lodging” and “B&B” categories. That’s where the smaller hotels that are least likely to appear on other hotel search engines often reside. You’ll find a link to those listings near the top of the screen directly above the place where it asks you to enter your vacation dates.
Use reviews wisely
We now have a short list of potential hotels that we’ll try to cull further by combing through online reviews. Where possible we try to avoid relying on the rankings of sites like Tripadvisor that allow anyone to write a review. We’ve seen enough seemingly bogus reviews to make us cautious. Instead we’ll typically head back to sites like Booking.com where only guests who’ve actually booked rooms through the site can submit reviews.
We’ve also learned from hard experience to mostly ignore the numbers or star ratings people assign to things. We place far more emphasis on why someone rated a place the way they did than what rating they gave. Often times people pan places for reasons we don’t care about (“room service sucked”) or complain about trivial things (“the carpet was stained”). The same is true for rave reviews only in reverse. So we end up spending more time than we’d like scanning through reviews trying to pick out the few nuggets that are relevant to us.
Use an aggregator to compare prices on hundreds of sites
Now that we’ve narrowed our list of potential hotels down to a manageable number we’re ready to start hunting for the best deal.
We’ll use an aggregation site like HotelsCombined to compare the prices of a specific hotel across hundreds of booking sites. All we have to do is punch in the hotel name and our travel dates and HotelsCombined.com tells us the rates different booking sites are charging for a room in that hotel.
As an example, we performed a search for the Marina Villa Resort on Koh Samui Island in Thailand. HotelsCombined showed us prices on four competing booking sites that ranged from a high of $55 per night on our favored Booking.com to a low of $51 per night on a site called Venere.com.
The same search on a different aggregation site called Trivago.com returned much the same result, although it showed the Venere.com room as slightly more expensive at $52 per night.
In these examples the price differences are pretty modest. $4 per night isn’t much to get excited about. But sometimes the differences are much larger. When searching for a room in Penang, Malaysia, Trivago uncovered a room at the popular 23 Lovelane Hotel that nobody else seemed to have. That room was $80 per night cheaper than anything we could find on any other site. Score!
Check with the hotel for special deals
Booking directly through the hotel’s website rarely gets you the best price. But sometimes hotels do have special promotions so it’s worth taking a minute to investigate.
A better approach is to contact the hotel to see if they’re willing to beat the best available internet rate. Sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t.
Visit specialty sites for discounted rates or other perks
Now that we’ve identified the lowest publicized price for our preferred room, it’s time to search for unpublished rates. There are two sites we use that sometimes offer great deals.
Travelpony is usually our first stop. It’s a unique hotel search engine built on the idea that it can offer better prices by eliminating its marketing budget. They pass the savings on to their customers and, in return, ask their customers to give the company a shout-out on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
In our experience Travelpony really does offer prices as much as 30% lower than its competitors. The drawback with the site is that they have a much smaller inventory to choose from and the biggest discounts are only available on some of the hotels. So while Travelpony often has really great prices, those deals aren’t always for places we want to stay. Every once in a while, though, the stars come into alignment and we’ll find a terrific price on a preferred hotel.
If we strike out on Travelpony we’ll take a look at Rocketmiles. Their prices are about the same as those available on other sites, but Rocketmiles awards up to 5,000 frequent flyer miles for each night you stay. That can result in a pretty nice deal if you actually use the miles.
The hotels on Rocketmiles tend toward the higher end, and the site suffers from the same limited inventory issues as Travelpony. But as with Travelpony, we sometimes find the best deal here.
If you’re a new user you can get a 1,000 mile sign-up bonus by opening a free Rocketmiles account through our referral link.
Final Stop: Hotels.com
The last place we always look when searching for accommodations is Hotels.com. That’s because if Hotels.com has the room we’re looking for, they’ll match the best public price on the internet plus we can get an extra 20% off in travel rewards and coupons. There are three reasons we book more with Hotels.com than with any other site.
- 10% Discounts through Hotels.com Welcome Rewards Program
Hotels.com is currently the only booking site that has any kind of loyalty program, and it’s a good one. They advertise their Welcome Rewards program as “Book 10 nights and get 1 night free” but it works more like a 10% discount coupon that you’re awarded after you complete your 10th night stay.
- Another 10% worth of points awarded through Chase Sapphire Preferred
If you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card (our favorite travel reward card) and you access Hotels.com through Chase’s Ultimate Reward portal, you earn 5 Ultimate Reward points for every dollar you spend on Hotels.com. We’ve routinely been able to redeem our Ultimate Reward points for airfare worth $0.02 a piece. That means we’re getting an additional 10% off (.02 * 5) our hotel bookings on top of the 10% coupon we’re earning through the Welcome Rewards program.
- Hotels.com “Best Price Guarantee”
If you find a better publicly available price for the same hotel room elsewhere on the web, Hotels.com will match that price. We’ve tried it and Hotels.com refunded us the difference in price with no hassles. Best of all, we still earn Welcome Rewards and Ultimate Rewards meaning we not only get the best available price, we do 20% better than that.
A last word on unconventional lodging
It should come as no surprise that an article titled “How to Find the Perfect Hotel Room” mostly discusses ways to find hotel rooms. But we thought it worthwhile to point out that even a perfect hotel room isn’t necessarily the best lodging option. There are times when we choose to stay in other kinds of places. These are some of the unconventional lodging options we also consider as part of our room-search repertoire.
One of our favorite unconventional lodging providers is Airbnb. We use them primarily to rent entire apartments for stays of a week or longer. We currently have bookings through them for a month in New York City and three weeks in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
But even for shorter stays Airbnb can make a lot of sense. You can usually find studio apartments on Airbnb for less money than budget hotel rooms. Renting a private room in someone’s home, bed and breakfast style, is even cheaper.
Best of all, we’re still offering our readers $25 off their first Airbnb rental. Just create a new account using our invitation link and you’ll receive a $25 credit on your first booking.
Private Hostel Rooms
When we’re in the mood for a more social environment or want basic kitchen facilities to prepare meals we’ll sometimes look for private rooms in a centrally located hostel through specialty booking sites like Hostel World. These places are almost always cheaper than traditional hotels, but you’ll usually understand the lower price when you see your room. You won’t find any frills here. But the best hostels are funky and fun. Many offer low-cost events like cooking classes or walking tours. And nearly all of them are great places to meet fellow travelers; young and old alike.
For longer stays in a “homey” environment we’ll sometimes look to arrange a house sitting assignment through a site like Trusted House Sitters. This option has the benefit of providing completely free lodging but comes with the added responsibly of caring for someone’s home and often times their pets. It’s a good way to settle into a neighborhood and live like a local for awhile.
The process of arranging a house sit is more involved than booking an ordinary hotel. It’s a topic that deserves an entire post of its own. So stay tuned for that.
Tell us your secret
So that’s basically how we go about housing ourselves 365 days per year. We think it’s a pretty reliable process, but we’re always on the lookout for new tips, techniques, and tools to make it better.
So tell us your secrets. How do you find your perfect hotel room?