Travel Planning 101: Accommodation

This is the second post in a three-part vacation planning series. Part two is focused on finding awesome accommodation on a moderate budget. For part one, dedicated to finding the best deal on airfare, click here.

I’m easily swayed by low cost airfare. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shoved ridiculously low round trip fares in my boyfriend’s wary face and said “Please!?” A round trip ticket from Orlando to New Orleans, for example, costs under $100 almost every time I hop on Skyscanner. So what’s stopping me from pulling the trigger on all these fabulous, low-cost weekend trips?

Accommodation. That’s where my plans come screeching to a halt. You see, the airfare might not cost much, and I have no problem living out of a carry on suitcase, but finding a safe, clean, modern place to stay is a whole other problem. There are ways to keep the cost of accommodation low. Sure, there are budget motels, reasonably priced spots far from the city center, and in some cities, hostels, but to be honest, I’m not interested in any of those things. I don’t want to couch surf, I don’t want to live in somebody’s spare room, and I definitely don’t want to sleep in a dorm with five total strangers. Call me a snob if you will, but I want something more akin to the traditional hotel stay, with a comfortable bed, my own bathroom, and the city just outside my door. It can be hard to find a place that meets my standards, especially when my low to moderate budget is added to an already-tricky equation. I generally aim to spend around $100-120 per night, though my budget can be adjusted depending on the location.

So where do I go to find accommodation within my limited budget? Let’s start with the traditional hotel setup. There are four places that I find myself browsing when the wanderlust kicks in. Stick around till the end, and you’ll see my number one recommendation for bypassing hotels entirely and staying someplace even better!

Jetsetter

This is a flash-deal site that advertises lower hotel rates for a limited amount of time. The hotels listed on Jetsetter change frequently, and are generally more luxurious than the budget places I would otherwise book. I love browsing properties while trapped at my desk, and imagining all the places my budget could take me. Of course, many of the listings are well outside my established budget, but there are some real luxury gems to be found. Any additional costs, like self-parking, city tax, or resort fees, are clearly detailed in the listing, so everything is laid out before booking a stay. And best of all, the site links to Tripadvisor reviews, so you can see exactly what other travelers had to say about the property.

Jetsetter Screenshot Montauk.png
This hotel in the Hamptons, for example, is listed at up to 58% off the regular price! It’s nuts!
Jetsetter Screenshot Nevada.png
60% off!?!?

Biggest Pro: luxurious properties, often close to the city center, at a significant markdown.

Biggest Con: difficult to book early, as properties can generally only be booked a few months in advance.

Click here to save 5% on your first Jetsetter booking!

Hotel Tonight

The name says it all. Hotel Tonight is an app for booking last-minute hotels. Too tired to drive the last 200 miles to your destination? Pull up the app, see what’s nearby, and find a place to sleep for the night. Last minute hotel stays can be incredibly budget-friendly, as hoteliers often slash prices to fill empty rooms later in the day. Hotel Tonight shows what is available at the reduced price, allowing the weary traveler to find something at the last minute. Rooms can now be booked up to seven days in advance, so planners like myself can still benefit from a little last-minute action. For example, we are staying in an airport hotel on our last night in Europe, and flying out of Charles de Gaulle the following afternoon. This is the only night we have not yet booked, and I am hoping to score big with Hotel Tonight’s last-minute savings.

Hotel Tonight, one of the best ways to find last minute accommodation
A screenshot of hotels near CDG, three weeks before we are expecting to stay. Prices may go up before we visit, making this a gamble, but it’s a great way to save some cash and introduce a little excitement to trip planning. For comparison, the Hotel Oceania cost $89 (was $152) when booked on today’s date, April 29. Sometimes it pays to wait!

Biggest Pro: Significant savings, and the freedom to fly by the seat of your pants. I’m typing this from my couch in Orlando, but it’s exciting to think I could book a flight right now and still find a well-priced hotel at the very last second.

Biggest Con: hotels can only be booked seven days in advance, making it a nerve-wracking option for those who prefer to plan ahead. As it gets down to the wire, there may not be as many properties available, or the only ones left may have cost a lot to begin with.

Secret Rate Hotels

Both Hotwire and Expedia have a secret rates section, where mystery rooms are sold at a discount from their regularly-marked price. It’s a bit of a gamble, but it can pay off in the long run! Dan and I used secret rate hotels to save some money on our 2014 trip to California, and it worked out very well. Simply choose a general area, as shown on a map, and adjust filters such as budget, star-rating and satisfaction rating, and see what pops up. You won’t know which exact hotel you’re staying at until the booking has been completed, but you will get a definite price and a listing of similar hotel chains in each category before pulling the trigger.

Hotwire Secret Rate Hotels Near Anaheim.png
This screenshot from Hotwire shows a few mystery hotels near Disneyland. Areas on the map are marked in green, and the ones I’ve selected to include in my search are in red. I’ve sorted this sample list by satisfaction rating, and from I could also add filters such as “free breakfast,” “free parking,” and “shuttle to parks.”

Location is the most important aspect of my own hotel hunts, so I love that I can choose the general area and narrow my search down from there. You can’t read reviews, since the hotel’s identity is a mystery, but you can see general Tripadvisor satisfaction stats and do a little extra digging, if you like. Some sites even claim to know what hotel each mystery listing corresponds to, but since I haven’t tried that for myself, I can’t vouch for it.

Anabella Hotel
Anabella Hotel in Anaheim. Our hotel was literally across the street from California Adventure, and cost $79 per night, plus fees, for a total of $199. Image Credit: Anabella Hotel
Mikado Hotel Standard Room
Mikado Hotel in North Hollywood. This one cost $82 per night, plus fees, for a total of $202. It was a ten minute drive from our main destination, Universal Studios Hollywood, and a short drive from both the Walk of Fame and several hiking trails.

Biggest Pro: Savings, plus the thrill of not being totally in control! I literally squealed when I saw where we would be staying in Anaheim, at a hotel we had already considered even at full price.

Biggest Con: Uncertainty. You just don’t know what you are going to get when you book a mystery hotel. Maybe it’s a jump-up-and-down-screaming moment of excitement when you see where you’ll be staying, or maybe it’s a punch to the gut when you realize that $28 room is in fact a Motel 6.

Orbitz & Similar Comparison Engines

Orbitz, Priceline, and similar websites are nothing new, but I like to browse their hotel listings to familiarize myself with the going rate for a given hotel or area. Sometimes I’ll find a hotel that I wouldn’t have seen on Jetsetter, and I can do more research on that property and comparison shop before booking. I always recommend googling coupon codes before completing a booking. We booked our hotel in Rome through Orbitz, and a random Google search resulted in a 15% off code and a savings of $87.34 on our total bill. Good thing, too, as the hotels in Rome were very expensive and we would have otherwise exceeded our desired budget. If Orbitz did not have any coupon codes, we would have checked with Priceline, Expedia, etc. until we found the winner.

Suite Art Navona Screenshot
A screenshot of the listing for our hotel. At this point, the price has gone up, and the only room left is a more expensive suite. By booking early and using a coupon code, we were able to get our room for an average of $145 per night.

Biggest Pro: price comparison across multiple sites, a greater likelihood that coupon codes and mass sales will be available. Loyalty members who book frequently through one of these sites can generally gain credit toward future hotel stays.

Biggest Con: Unless there is a significant sale, these are not likely to be the most cost-effective rooms. If money is not a significant deciding factor, go ahead and use these sites. Otherwise, I recommend just using them to shop around and follow new leads.

Airbnb

Last is a non-hotel option. There are a slew of options in this category, but I’m going to focus on Airbnb. You’ve probably heard of it by now, but if not, I’ll give a brief overview. Airbnb allows people all over the world to rent their properties out to total strangers. It could be a spare room in their home (not for me, thanks), a guesthouse on the property, or an entire vacation home that otherwise would be left vacant. This is an especially good option for families and larger groups, who could book an entire home rather than several hotel rooms. We booked a place on Airbnb for our stay in Paris, and found an excellent apartment in the Marais within our vacation budget. We will have the whole place to ourselves, live among locals, and have the heart of Paris right outside the front door. What could be better?

Sample Screenshots of Airbnb Usage.jpg
Sample screenshots from the Airbnb app show a generic search in Paris, a gorgeous listing, and a map to show the approximate location of the apartment.

Biggest Pro: more property for less money, especially when compared with neighboring hotels. It’s also a good way to see how and where the locals live, as opposed to lunching with all the other tourists, and to save some money by cooking at home.

Biggest Con: comforts like room service, daily linen changes, a full breakfast buffet, and a dedicated concierge are not available. This is not a hotel; it is somebody’s home. I personally love the chance to get out of my comfort zone and interact with a few locals, but it’s not for everyone.

Airbnb is awesome. Click here to save $20 on your first booking!

So there you have it! I spend so much time agonizing over the perfect place to stay, and when I finally book it, I’m happy knowing that I picked through the best of the best. I hope these tips will help someone else to book a killer base for their stay, all while staying on budget and keeping more money for adventures.

What booking sites and services do you use when looking for a place to stay? Comment below and let us know your thoughts!

All screenshots were obtained on April 29. Prices are indicative of that search date, and may have since changed. This post is not sponsored; however, I do earn credit when someone uses my affiliate link to money-saving sites like Jetsetter and Airbnb.

Travel Planning 101 Finding the Best Accommodation

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