Tips for Booking Hotels Online

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The Covenanter Hotel in Falkland, Scotland in July 2014. We found out later it was a filming location for Outlander. Cool!

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Tips for Booking Flights Online, when Erik and I started our travels in Europe in 2007, we used a travel agent.  The agent would ask us questions to determine our preferences and our price range, and then he would book our hotels accordingly.  However, over the past 5 years, the opportunity to research and book your own travel plans online has exploded, and Erik and I find almost as much joy in researching and planning our trip as we do in actually being there. Almost. If you are ready to delve into world of travel planning online, read on!

When I started to write this post, I found I had so much to say that I needed to break it into three chunks. This post will specifically be about booking hotels, and the next post will be about B&Bs, apartments, and other vacation rentals, and a third post will be about finding places to stay for free!

Just a note – many of my links below are for the Canadian version of a site. You may have to adjust this if you live elsewhere.

There are many ways to save money when travelling. The most obvious is to use loyalty programs such as airmiles, credit card points, online specials such as “groupon”, or hotel “accounts” to get good hotel deals. If you like chain hotels and travel often, it’s often worthwhile to sign up for the hotel’s loyalty card. At the very least, you will get a free room or an upgrade from time to time. You may also be eligible for hotel discounts based on your work, your age, or your other associations.

I was a teacher for 10 years before I learned that as a government employee, I could get half price rooms in BC. Now when I travel to Vancouver, I generally book directly with the hotel sites and get a better deal than I can find at any other online booking site.  Are you over 50? Over 65?  Check for senior rates. Every hotel is different so you need to know what you may qualify for.

And even if you do decide to use one of websites discussed below to search for and book hotel rooms, always go back and check the actual hotel site to see what they offer before you book on the third party sites. You might find the same or even better price by booking directly. You may even want to call or email them with the price you’ve found online and see if they’ll match or beat it. After all, they may be saving the money for a 3rd party fee if they can get you to book online.

However, this post is about the alternatives – booking hotels via 3rd party booking sites.

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OK we didn’t really stay here.  This is Bilbo’s home – Bag End in The Shire, filming location for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when we were in New Zealand, March 2015

Hotel Booking Sites

Third party hotel booking websites allow you to search for and book a hotel room at just about any hotel using a set of predetermined criteria. I will list a few of these sites below, but first, here are some tips and tricks to keep in mind when using these websites.

Most hotel booking sites give you an option to filter your search results based on your specific needs. Most will have either check boxes or sliding bars where you can indicate your price range, your desired star rating, the neighbourhood, the amenities and other considerations you find important. Once you do the search, the available hotels pop up with room and pricing information. Some rooms are cancellable, others are not. In general, the better the deal, the tighter the restrictions so read the information carefully and make sure you know what you’re booking.

My first bit of advice when booking hotels online is to compare more than one booking site. Yes, you will often find the exact room for the exact same price on every site, but this isn’t always the case. And then, once you’ve found the best price, go to the hotel’s actual website and check the prices there. Sometimes you can find the same or even better deals.

My second bit of advice is to READ the details CAREFULLY and make sure you fully understand the conditions.  Cheap rooms often come with a trade off – some you can live with, others you cannot. Only you know what’s important to you. Make careful note of any cancellation dates and write them on your calendar so you don’t miss them in case last minute changes if necessary. They can vary widely. Remember to check things like room size, parking, smoking, extra beds, cribs, street noise etc.  I always write down all of the details about a room or I take a screen shot, so I can show it to the hotel when I get there in case there is any disagreement. I’ve been able to use this to my advantage twice – once in Portland when  they lost my booking (I had a paper and a digital copy), and once when we splurged on a special view room on the Amalfi Coast and all we had was an alley view with a skinny bit of ocean between two buildings.  Erik complained and showed them the picture of the room in our booking and they moved us.

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Super minimalist but spotlessly clean airport hotel room in Copenhagen, 2007. $140 CAD!  Yikes!

My third bit of advice is to read the reviews carefully. Often you can filter these reviews by who has written them – mature couple, family, singles etc which may help better match to your own needs.  Don’t just go by the review score, read some of the most recent reviews.  We also like to read reviews from the season we intend to be travelling in so we can get a feel for noise and weather considerations (for example will we want a/c?).

We usually read reviews but last fall we were lazy when booking a B&B for a weekend in Victoria, and we ended up with a sub-standard experience.  Afterwards, we checked out the reviews for the B&B more carefully, we realized it had been sold 6 months before. That stirling 9.4 score was no longer relevant and most of the more recent reviews were poor. Lesson learned. Don’t just assume a 9.4 means it’s awesome.

Google Street View – often when we are considering a specific hotel, we will find it on google street view and go for a “walk” down the street.  You can’t always tell what a hotel is like by its exterior, but you can get an idea about the neighbourhood – we look at the buildings nearby – stores, restaurants, hotels, bars – the size of the street to get an idea of potential noise level, and the location of local transportation, sidewalks, pathways to the sites we might want to visit etc.

Finally, before you start searching, make a list of the criteria that is important to you, and set your filters accordingly to speed up the search process.  If you don’t find what you’re looking for, drop a filter that isn’t as important and search again. See Erik’s and my list at the bottom of this article for some ideas.

Here are some of the most popular sites.

Booking.com – this is probably the site that Erik and I have used the most.  We have set up an account and always log in when we are using the site so we can get better deals. We usually cross check the prices with a few others sites, as well as with the hotel site directly. Sometimes we are positive we aren’t going to change our minds and book a non-refundable (and therefore cheaper) room. Other times, we want more flexibility and we pay more to be able to change our mind later. We always note the cancellation date and record it on our calendar so we don’t miss it.

Expedia.ca – Again you check off the filters you want and see what’s available. Expedia has many other travel booking options as well, including flights and rental cars. We found that when we booked our flight to Italy through Expedia last year, we were able to take advantage of additional 10-15% off certain hotels booked through the same site. It has a point system so if you use it a lot, you can earn cash and free nights.

Venere.com – Erik and I have booked European accommodations through Venere several times although we haven’t yet used it for hotels closer to home.  We’ve been happy with all of our bookings to date. In addition to hotels, you can also book B&Bs and apartments.

Hotels.com -I have not used hotels.com myself but I know people who are quite happy with it so I think it’s worth mentioning. It works the same as the other sites but it also has some special options to save you more money – if you set up an account, you can collect nights (get a free night for every ten you book), and/or other special deals.

Trivago.ca – here is another very popular site, but I have not used it myself. I like the way it is set up though and it seems easy to use.

Meta-Sites for Searching for Hotel Deals

Kayak.com – this site allows you to check up to 5 different booking sites at one time and compare prices. It is able to search Priceline, Hotels, Travelocity, Expedia, and Booking.

Bookingbuddy.com is another meta-search site that searches a number of travel booking sites sites. Once you plug in your dates and destination, you can choose up to 7 different sites to search all at once. Similar to Kayak.

There are many more booking sites – these a just a few. If none of these sites meet your needs, just google “hotel booking sites” and you will find a long list to try.

“Name Your Own Price” and Other Hotel Deals.

My first introduction to online hotel booking and saving was with Hotwire and Priceline.  These sites are a little more restrictive but the savings can often be bigger. They are not for the faint-of-heart and can be a nerve-wracking way to book a hotel because you must book the room without knowing the name of the hotel until after you’ve paid. Both sites now offer regular hotel booking system like the sites listed above is you are less daring but the real deals come from a willingness to take a chance. I prefer to use these two sites when I’m going to a familiar North American city such as Vancouver because I know the area well and have a pretty good idea of what I want. In addition, I only use these sites when I’m certain I will not be changing my plans.

With Hotwire, you plug in your dates and city, choose a neighbourhood, a star level, some specific amenities such a free parking or wifi, and if you want, a minimum review score.  When you click search, you will see a list of hotels that meet those criteria. The description will not only tell you the price but will often include additional hotel info such as restaurants, pets etc. The only thing missing is the hotel name. If you want to book the room, you pay for it and then find out where you will be staying. As long as you have a fairly decent understanding of the hotel star system, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

Hotwire also allows you to compare their prices with those of other sites such as TripAdvisor, Hotels.com, and Triage.   In addition, they  now allow you to book flights, car rentals, and vacation packages using a similar system, however I have not tested this.

With Priceline, you follow a simpler but more restrictive process.  You choose the city and dates first. Then plug in your desired neighbourhood and star level and bid price indicating what you are willing to pay for a room – it does NOT includes taxes or fees and you have no option to choose amenities.  In order to have a successful bid, you need to have a good idea of a typical hotel rate for that criteria so you can make a realistic low offer.  Once you bid, you have to input your credit card info because you will be committed to purchase the room if a hotel accepts your bid. You cannot change your mind after it is accepted.

Priceline then takes your bid and searches to see if any hotel matching the criteria is willing to accept it. Whether your bid is accepted or not depends on how busy the area is on that particular day and how many rooms are available. A hotel would rather have a room filled at a low price than leave it empty.

Once you click “bid”, you find out pretty quickly if it was accepted and the name of the hotel that accepted your bid. In the past, we were able to book a 4 star hotel in downtown Vancouver for $75, much less than half the normal rate at the time, and less than any other deals out there.

An important note – Priceline only guarantees a room with a double bed.  You may get 2 doubles, or 2 queens but you can’t request it.  If you are travelling with more than 2 people, you are best off booking through another format because you may only get one bed. The trade off to using Priceline is that you can’t make any changes or requests – well, you can try, but there is no guarantee that they will meet your request. You get what you get.

If your bid is NOT accepted, you have to wait 24 hours before you can rebid on the same criteria with a higher dollar amount, or you can make a significant change to your criteria (bump down the star level or change neighbourhood) and rebid immediately with a higher amount.

Another hint – if you really enjoy the excitement of Priceline, you should also check out this forum that has been set up solely for people to share successful bids on priceline.

Obviously, these booking sites are not for everyone but you can definitely save a LOT of money at certain times and places.  We’ve found they are especially useful when we’ve gone for a weekend in a larger city.  We know the area of town we want to be in and we always choose 4 star or higher so we are sure it’s a nice hotel and then we throw out a lowball bid and take our chances.  But if you are travelling with children, or have a disability, or for some reason need very specific amenities or bed type, then this format is probably not for you.

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Are there cafes or restaurants nearby? Paris, 2013.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Hotel

When we travel, we stay in a wide variety of places – from cheap airport hotels for quick getaway, to mid-priced boutique hotels off the beaten track, to chain hotels in the downtown core, to a fully equipped apartment in a major city, to classy B&Bs for a fun get away weekend, to special treat accommodations with a view of the ocean.  We try to save money and go cheap on some nights so we can splurge on others.

Regardless of where you like to stay, it’s a good idea sit down with your travel partner (if you aren’t travelling alone) and determine your priorities. What is your budget? What do you look for in accommodations? What are your must-haves? Would-be-nice? Can live without? Can’t have? Where do you need to compromise?

Here is a list of things Erik and I usually take into consideration when booking hotels.  

  • a comfortable bed, the bigger the better (watch this in Europe where double beds tend to be small and queen/king are much less frequent than in North America). They are often listed in centimetres rather than north american sizes.  180+ cm is king, 152 cm is a queen, 137 cm is a double.
  • a private ensuite bathroom – I don’t know why but I tend to judge accommodations by the bathroom. I’m not a fan of a shared bath unless I’m really trying to save money.
  • excellent reviews, in our case, we look for reviews by mature couples.  We don’t care too much about negative reviews by families for example, or by people who complain about the lack of an elevator. Make sure the reviews match your needs.
  • clean! I look for good reviews that mention the cleanliness of the hotel. Dated and/or worn is sometimes ok if the hotel is very clean.
  • good wifi, preferably free. Find out if they have limits. We found NZ allowed 250 mb per day.  That isn’t much if you like to upload your photos to the cloud when you get to your hotel.
  • air conditioning in summer (in most places we visit). If there’s no a/c, I read the July/August reviews and see if people mention the heat. Sometimes a ceiling fan is enough, others times, not so much.
  • room size – often booking sites will have the room size in square feet or metres.
  • location – proximity to restaurants and shops, major sites, and public transportation. This depends a lot on where we are. Again, check google street view.
  • parking – if we have a rental car – proximity? price?
  • quiet location – what do the reviews say? Is there a noisy bar nearby?
  • price – we have stayed in really cheap hotels and we’ve splurged and stayed in beautiful places.  We try to balance it out on our trips. Know your budget.
  • cancellation policy – this varies depending on the flexibility of our plans.
  • free breakfast?  – depending on where we are, we sometimes make good use of a this if it is offered. However, we seldom pay for a hotel breakfast, and would rather grab a coffee and croissant or a piece of fruit somewhere along our travels.
  • in room fridge, microwave, coffee maker? – I love having a fridge to keep cold drinks or some yogurt or fruit, even if it’s just the minibar. The other appliances can be handy if you are trying to save money on restaurant meals.
  • pool, hot tub, weight room – these are treats for certain places but definitely not a necessity for us.

We can live without many of the things listed above, depending on the type of trip, the city, and the time of year, but our basic needs of a comfortable, quiet place to sleep, a private bathroom, and good wifi are the three most important things to us. What is important to you?  Got any tips to share? Leave a comment below!

Hotels are only one type of accommodation, and to be honest, we probably stay in hotels only one third of our stays.  In my next blog post, I will write about booking other forms of accommodations such as B&Bs or farmstays, and I’ll discuss how to use sites such as AirBnb and VRBO.  In a third post, I’ll give some suggestions on how to find FREE (or almost free) places to stay.

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Our amazing hotel room on the Amalfi Coast.  We had booked a sea view room but were put in a room on a side street alley with a tiny sliver of sea view between two buildings. Thanks to Erik’s polite but firm complaint, we were upgraded to this amazing room for our next night.  Sigh – I wish we were back there!

 

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