Practical Trip Planning (Part 3): Finding Cheap Accommodations
Let’s face it, the US dollar is weak and getting weaker. Planning a trip without short changing yourself is difficult. Determining where you can go and booking the flights in such a way to maximize your budget is the first step to planning a vacation. Developing an itinerary that maximizes your allotted time abroad is the second step. Now it is time to figure out where you’re going to lay your head each night.
Finding cheap accommodation without compromising your comfort is one of the hardest parts of trip planning. Anyone can hop on the internet and book the most recommended hotel. Unfortunately not everyone can afford – or wants – to do this. Finding inexpensive hotels or hostels can take a lot of time and effort but the money one can save is tremendous and often the end result is a unique travel experience that money simply cannot buy.
Sticking with the Spain/Italy itinerary we’ve been working with, let’s take a look at how we can go about finding a bed.
|Flight to Barcelona|
|Arrive in Barcelona 2:00pm
Relaxing night, Recover from Jet Lag, Las Ramblas
La Sagrada Familia, Park Guell, Sangria and tapas
|Ferry from Barcelona (overnight)
Bus tour, open air market, walk around city until ferry departure, recover from hang-over
|Arrive in Rome via Civitavechia 5:00-6:00pm
see the Colosseum at night, Wine on Piazza Navona
St. Peters Basilica, Vatican Museum, Catacombs, Aqua duct, explore Roman Churches
Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps, Colosseum, Palatine Hill
Duomo, Leaning Tower, Battistero
Uffizi, David Statue, Walking tour, Gelato tasting
Duomo, Cappelle Medicee, Ponte Vecchio, Dante’s home
Get lost wandering the city, Relax on San Marco Square, Water bus tour, nice Italian dinner
|Fly home from Venice
What Are You Looking At?
With our itinerary in front of us we know that we need two nights accommodation in our first stop Barcelona, three nights in Rome hotels or hostels, one in Pisa, two in Florence and one in Venice. So where do we start? To begin we want to have an idea of what type of accommodation we are looking for. For tips on this check out my article Backpackers Guide: How to Choose the Perfect Hostel. Once you’ve established what type of accommodation you are looking for and what size room you will need we can start looking at prices.
For the purposes of the trip outlined above I would be looking for a double room (preferably with twin beds). Having a bathroom down the hall rather than in my room is not an issue with me but location is. I want to save money but don’t want to have to dwindle my savings on city transport. That being said if the price is right I will no doubt walk for it. I also am not picky about being in a hotel vs. a bed and breakfast. I can do without a hairdryer. So with this in mind I go to my trusted hotel/hostel booking websites (www.venere.com and hostelworld.com (aff)) and look up the city and date for which I need a bed.
Window / Screen Shop
Ordering the results by price will quickly give you an idea of the average cost. Be very careful to understand what you’re looking at. Set your currency preference to USD (or whatever you are comfortable with); this way you will be sure of what the cost actually is for you. Right away you will probably notice that the first few listings are rather cheap and then the price jumps to a pretty steady average, rising slowly. On closer inspection you will most likely notice that those first few bargains are located way out of the city center and usually have the word “airport” in the title. One word of caution: the search can be a long process. Don’t start reading reviews right now or you will never get done. Check out just those things that are defining your search. ie: price and location.
With this information you will be armed with knowledge to decide what is and what isn’t a bargain. A search on www.venere.com for my two days in Barcelona gives me the impression that all that is out there are rooms around the 150 dollar price with the cheapest around 125 dollars. A search on hostelworld.com (aff) reveals (WOW!!) we can get beds for about 20 dollars.
First thought; “that is wonderful I can get a bed for about half the cost of anything else I’ve found.” NOT TRUE…yet. With a few clicks and a tad more investigation you soon will realize that those prices are not only per person (which still is not that bad) but not at all what you are looking for. The actual price for the double or twin room, even sharing a bathroom, is actually about 47 dollars per person, per night. The price quoted originally is for an 8 person dorm room and although these can be great deals they are not what I’m looking for on this particular trip. None-the-less you end up with a minimum (so far) price of around 95 dollars. This is what we can work with and ultimately, anything we find cheaper that still satisfies our requirements is a deal.
The Quiet Ones Are Always the Ones to Watch
The truth of the matter is however that often the best deals just don’t pop up on the big search engines. Finding those hidden gems can be approached through sheer luck and plugging “Barcelona hotel” in Google may turn up a few personal websites designed by individual hotel owners. This approach however is hit and miss and generally is not as productive as following one of my golden rules of travel “the best advice comes from those travelers who have been there”. So, head to the source; travel forums.
Travel forums are a great source of info for pretty much any question you may have. The responses are surprisingly quick and comprehensive and if you don’t feel like waiting; chances are someone already asked your question and you can find an answer in the archives. Some great travel forums can be found at www.frommers.com under the “travel talk” button, www.lonelyplanet.com where it is titled “thorn tree forum” and my personal favorite www.fodors.com; simply called “talk”.
You can create a profile in order to ask questions or simply jump right into the forum and search your question. Fodor’s travel forum has a handy search where-by you can narrow your interest down to a specific country as well as keywords. For our purposes, choosing Spain as our location and typing in “Barcelona accommodation” works great. What you end up with is a list of questions that travelers just like yourself have asked and the answers other travelers have given. Scroll through the posts and take the time to read several of them.
Using Other Travelers … in a Good Way
The first to come up during my search was a straight forward post titled “looking for advice on reasonable accommodation in Barcelona”. You can’t get much better than that. A read through the responses provides numerous suggestions on where to stay and remember these are all places that former travelers have been and are recommending. Often you will find direct website links to these places and other times just a name. Copy and paste that name in Google and more often than not you will get a link directly to the website of the hotel you’re looking for.
Our search in this forum in fact turned up one hotel that just so happens to be opening March 08 so you can be assured the sheets are new. Even better however is the fact that a double room in this brand new hotel is about 112 dollars. That’s 13 dollars cheaper than venere.com gave us. Still, it’s not the cheapest but write it down just in case you want to check it out again. A bit farther down the list of posts another bit of advice was found. With a direct link to www.barcelonarooms.net (I’ve never stayed here so I’m not recommending the place yet) we soon find modern looking rooms, in a great location and, what’s this? 88 dollars a night! We have now successfully shaved off nine dollars from the cheapest place we have found…in a hostel…and 24 dollars off our nearest priced hotel. But wait there’s more.
Gay Can Mean Just a Happy Time on Vacation
Time and time again I find myself pleasantly surprised by the suggestions of other search engines besides those I am familiar with that lead to great finds. One site in particular that came up during my search was www.gaymap.info. Now before you think “I’m not gay” or “these are probably sex houses”, consider this: how many gay guys do you know that would put up with a dirty hotel room or deal with a location that was not central to great food and shopping? Ok ok, I’m being a bit cliché but the fact of the matter is my experiences with the hotels on this search engine support the stereotypes and, in this case, that’s a good thing. In the case of the listings for Barcelona the common denominator is that they are located in the “gay district”.
So what do we find with this search engine? Towards the bottom is a listing, absolutecentro.com (that claims rooms from 35 Euro ($55US) per night. After a quick look over the official website everything looks in order. That is except there are no specific prices, nor online booking.
Doing It the Old Fashion Way
On many independent websites (where you’ll typically find the cheapest prices) you will run into a situation where you must send an e-mail to the owner asking if they have availability. Often they will have a form (like Absolut Centro does) but once in a while they will just provide contact info. Personally I don’t spend the money or feel comfortable calling an international phone number to ask about prices but if there is an e-mail address I’ll send a letter. If they have the form; take the time to fill it out and see what type of response you get.
If the hotel only provides an e-mail address simply provide your name (it’s just polite), the dates you are seeking accommodation and the type of room you are seeking. Remember that in many parts of the world outside the US the day comes before the month when giving a date. August 28th 2008 is generally written as 28 August 2008 or 28/08/2008. Further don’t forget that you will be checking out the day after your last night there. So, for example, if you will be in … say Barcelona from April 29 – May 1 but your last night at the hotel will be April 29 make this explicit. Saying, “I am looking for accommodation from 29/4/08-1/5/08” can be confusing. “I am looking for accommodation for the nights of 29/4/08 and 30/04/08” is much clearer.
Lastly, there is no reason to be rude. The people receiving the letter probably speaks English better than you speak their language and will be able to respond with clarity. Still, why not start the e-mail with a greeting from their own language. “Hola” works well in Spanish; “Egregi Signori” is a nice start to a letter for Italy; “Lieber [fill in the blank]” is acceptable for Germany. No matter what country you’re headed to, a simple Internet search can give you the correct greeting and it will go a long way.
The Price Is Right
What does all this amount to? After e-mailing a few hotels and getting a response back from each it became apparent that I had reached my goal of significantly reducing the amount I would have paid without searching. At this point compare reviews of the few choices left but don’t take them too seriously. Tripadvisor.com or venere.com often has trustworthy comments. Accommodation can change with the mood of the owner as well as the guests. Reviews may reflect a week the cleaning lady had pneumonia and didn’t work or a weekend the Munich football team checked in and drank all night. Each experience is unique and having your own can be half the fun. If that is not your idea of fun…wait until you have a bigger budget.
In our case we decided on Absolut Centro which offered a double room with shared bath for 76 dollars a night. This brought our savings from what we saw as an average price down by almost 50 dollars per night in a hotel.
Be sure to respond to the hotel you choose if conversing via e-mail and confirm that you would like the room. Print a copy of whatever type of confirmation you receive and pack it away for your arrival. Another step you may want to take at this point is to map out the location to eliminate searching when you arrive. Find the hotel or hostel on a map (Google Maps works great when you have an address) and then transcribe the location into the guide book you will be taking with you.
Of course, traveling on a budget means being flexible and putting in the effort. Following this same process a conclusion was reached that the only affordable accommodation I could find in Rome was at a “campground” just outside the city. This however meant that our night in Pisa could bring with it a little indulgence and coupled with the average of 70 dollars saved during out stay in Venice following this thought process, we’re due for a fantastic dinner in Florence.
With the stress of finding a place to sleep taken care of before you even leave your home added to the extra money you will have to either save or use to splurge you can start thinking about the next step; tying up loose ends at home and packing.
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About the Author
Christopher Cook currently lives in Tallahassee, Florida where he received his second Masters Degree from FSU. As an avid traveler he maintains a budget travel website, www.noambit.com and develops MP3 audio tours in the hopes of inspiring others to just get out there and see Europe. He has lived and studied in Tübingen Germany and travels as much as possible each year to cities throughout Europe. His writing has appeared in several publications including, bravenewtraveler, thetravelrag and the FSView.