Christopher Pratt (cpratt) wrote,
Christopher Pratt
cpratt

For Mom: How to find a cheap room anywhere

As I'm finalizing plans for Paris-Madagascar this September [congrats mattycub and zombietruckstop on getting free flights from AA!], the next step is to get my parents over to Paris for a few days so that we can celebrate my 39th birthday in style (at a dive restaurant of my choosing, of course).

This means that they'll have to catch a train from London and find a place to sleep for a few nights. They travel quite a bit - they were just in Libya last month, believe it or not - but our travelling styles are very different. I like doing everything myself as much as possible, mostly to save money, but also because I prefer to stay in one spot and see the hell out of it, as opposed to multi-stop itineraries which can be rewarding but hectic (think the crazy 3-day whirlwind tour of Portugal I did with the bears in 2006, for example).

Anyhow! Here is Chris Pratt's ten step guide to finding a cheap place to stay.

1. Figure out where you want to stay.. Before even thinking about visiting another city, have some kind of idea about where you'd like to stay. Every city has neighborhoods you'd be happy to find yourself in... and others that'll scare the bejesus out of you. The bad ones can be fine if there's a subway stop there (so that you can get out quickly), but exasperating if it's blocks and blocks to a bus stop. Paris, for example: the Marais is a great part of town in terms of charm, shopping, and bears, so I'd prefer to stay there - but if I can't afford it, then at least I can stay on a subway line a few stops away to economize. Google Maps is good at finding subways stops near an address; you'll need proper subway maps for any city you'll visit, though, to see whether or not it's a straight shot to where you want to go from a given station. Try Wikipedia or Google to help you find those maps. [Sean and Matt - we're three stops away from the Marais, FYI.]

2. Start with generic booking sites. http://www.booking.com and http://www.sidestep.com will allow you to search for a hotel by address. http://www.octopustravel.com isn't bad either. http://www.expedia.com, http://www.orbitz.com, and http://www.travelocity.com are all OK too, but give you somewhat less choice. You can use these to find hotels near where you want to be and get a sense as to how much money that's going to cost you. Write down the hotels that seem favorable AND affordable; you'll need that info for the next step.

3. Check the hotels' Web sites directly. This isn't always easy: lots of smaller hotels either have poor Web sites that barely work - or, worse yet, they don't show up in Google easily. There are lots of shady travel sites out there that make money by spoofing hotels' Web sites (in the sense that they show up in Google search results first); if you can't find a hotel easily with Google, try adding more info (the address? the chain?) and hope that you find it. The idea here is to input your search criteria into the hotel's own booking system in hopes of finding a better deal; make sure to search packages (maybe $10 extra will get you breakfast?) and all discounts (do you have an AAA card?).

4. Mystery hotels are often worth it. There are two big sites that I jokingly refer to as "mystery hotel" sites - http://www.hotwire.com and http://www.priceline.com. Both of them have saved me a ridiculous amount of money over the years. The basic principle of the two is the same: they sell you hotel rooms by vague geographic location (e.g. the Marais, Montparnasse, CDG airport, Montmartre) and star rating (3 is pretty good, 4 is lavish). What they don't tell you is what the name of the hotel is going to be or where exactly it's located. Thankfully, there are strategies available for having a better guess as to where the hotel's going to be before you buy it...

5. Hotwire is the easier of the two sites to use - you know exactly what's available for your dates, exactly how much it's going to cost, and approximately where it's going to be. The key to working the system to your advantage is this: there are ways of finding out which hotel you'll be buying that work at least 80% of the time. First of all: Try searching for a flight + hotel package to your destination first. If you search for a flight + hotel package to Paris from [insert random airport here], Hotwire will show you what hotels are available, with their names revealed. This may or may not correspond to what hotels are available for hotel-only bookings - sometimes hotels show up in one or the other search, but not both. What you can do is mark down identifying features - every hotel is shown as having certain amenities (business facilities, pool, laundry, suites, etc.) and those may sometimes match up between the two different kinds of searches. Got me? If not, there's an even easier way: BetterBidding [an independent Web site] provides fairly accurate lists of what hotels are available in which zones in which cities. Go to the site and look for the appropriate Hotwire hotel list - e.g. "Priceline/Hotwire Hotel Lists and Tips for Other Countries" and then "Hotwire Hotel List - Other Countries." This will show you a good guess as to what Hotwire has available in Paris, for example.

6. Priceline is a bitch to use, but you can save even more money. Plus, you may or may not enjoy the nail-biting excitement of bidding on mystery hotel rooms. You don't know exactly how much to bid, whether or not anything is actually available, or what hotel you're going to wind up with. You begin by selecting a zone (e.g. the airport, Louvre-Marais). Then, you are shown what classes of room exist in that zone (1-4 star, or even "resort"). Next, you offer money (and you can expect to pay about $20 over and above that in taxes and fees, so if you offer $70, figure $90 is what a winning bid will actually cost you). Then, you click BUY MY ROOM NOW... and wait. If you're lucky, you'll get a cheap room. If you're not so lucky, you get nothing. If you're unlucky, you might get to experience a weird Priceline tactic where they dangle tempting offers in front of you - "increase your bid by $17 and maybe we'll give you something!!!!" So how do you work this to your advantage? Here's how:

  1. Decide what parts of town are acceptable. This is easy.
  2. Decide what star rating is acceptable. You'll probably want 4-star, or maybe 3.
  3. Figure out which zones do not have rooms at your star level. OK, this is confusing. If you're looking for a 4-star room, what you need to know is this: Which zones do not have 4-star rooms? You'll need to know this because if your bid is rejected, you cannot re-bid unless you add another zone. If you add another zone that does not have any rooms at the star level you want, you can still rebid - and chances are zero that you'd actually get a room in that other zone, because there are no X-star rooms in that zone. Got it? Yeah, confusing, I know.
  4. Get an idea of what's available. It's never easy to get a good idea as to what hotels you might actually win - try the site for Hotwire I linked to above, or try the site I linked to below.
  5. Decide how much to bid. This is tricky. There used to be sites where people would post winning bids, e.g. "I paid $65 for a hotel near LAX on these dates," but they come and go all the time. This one is my favorite but its domain name has been cybersquatted. Go there and see if you can find posts from people who successfully bought rooms in your preferred zone and dates. If not, get a feeling for what might work for your zone and dates. If people won rooms for $65 on a weekend before or after your weekend, try that. Of course, if the weekend you're travelling is home to a huge convention or concert, it ain't gonna happen... but you can still try.
  6. Start betting bidding. You just have to bite the bullet: when we went to LA last weekend, I saw that folks had won the Westin at LAX for $60 the previous weekend, so I bid $60.
  7. When rejected, carefully re-bid. If you're given a counteroffer, consider taking it - but those usually mean rooms are available for near your original offer. When we went to LA last weekend, our bid of $60 was rejected, but Priceline said "hey, if you offer $77, we can probably find you something." I said no, but then bid $65 for a room in either LAX or WeHo. That offer was accepted, and we wound up in a fancy room at the Westin at LAX for $65 - an amazing deal considering the room would have cost $179 if we'd booked through their Web site.
  8. If you don't get what you want quickly, stop. Fear is a great sales tool - people buy things they don't want if they think they're gonna run out of them (cf. the subprime meltdown). If you don't get the room you want at the price you want, stop bidding. You can start over again in 48 hours or so, so let it lie until then. If you're being too cheap - you're not going to get a $400 hotel room for $80 - you'll never get anything, but it is not worth your money to buy a room in a part of town that's inconvenient or undesirable. Be extra careful with those so-called "free rebids" - you need to check for yourself that you don't accidentally bid in a zone that does have rooms in your desired star category. If you do, you'll probably wind up there (cheaper rooms are not surprisingly often located in less desirable areas).


7. Sign up for repeat guest programs. If you wind up winning a room operated by a major chain such as Westin, Hyatt, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, it will cost you nothing to go to that chain's Web site and open some kind of frequent guest account. You almost certainly won't earn any points or miles or whatever (because you paid so little for your room) - but what you will earn is a chance at getting a better room when you check in. A guest with a loyalty card is often treated better than some random yahoo with a cheap Hotwire or Priceline booking. If anything, it shows that you came prepared. Plus, never be afraid to ask for what you really want: non-smoking, king size bed, far away from the elevators, what have you. Every hotel has crappy rooms and it's up to you to avoid them - and a cheap room usually means you will be steered towards the crappy rooms if possible.

8. Other sites exist. As danlmarmot points out in the comments, other countries may have unique sites that offer last-minute deals on hotels. For example, http://www.wotif.com is huge in Australia and New Zealand: when we travelled around Australia in 2002, we saved a ridiculous amount of money by only ever booking hotel rooms a few days in advance. Wotif appear to be attempting to go international, but their selection is meh outside of the South Pacific. Quickbeds used to be good as well but they now appear to be part of Virgin Blue or something. If you know of other sites similar to Wotif, I'd love to hear about them!

9. Don't forget TripAdvisor. Often, it's a good idea to double-check http://www.tripadvisor.com before you book a place - bear in mind that people are more likely to negatively review a hotel they didn't like than to go out of their way to praise one they liked, so you'll naturally see a higher rate of negativity there than you might otherwise expect. However, if a hotel gets repeatedly scary reviews (e.g. the Radisson CDG, which apparently is awesome if you like black mold in your bathroom), you might want to avoid it if at all possible (e.g. the Hotwire 4-star CDG hotel is probably the Radisson). I'm also very impressed by hotel managers who reply to the reviews on that site - it shows they care enough to address customer complaints publicly.

10. Finally, don't forget apartments, especially if you're with a small group or are visiting a relatively under-touristed city (such as Berlin or Buenos Aires) AND if you're staying a week. Apartments are fun because you get your own fridge, have a lot more space (usually), and they can be fairly cheap. Downsides: renting one sight unseen is a risky proposition, and most apartment rentals involve the hassle of picking up keys across town, large sums of cash, meeting agents at strange times, bizarre deposit refunds, you name it. We've always been lucky so far, but it is NOT relaxing to have to play cell phone tag just to get in to the place. We tried to find something that would work for Paris, but gave up due to crushing expense - so we're staying at the same B and B as Sean and Matt, which means at least it'll feel like home (good friends and a shared living room).
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