Finding the best holiday accommodation for your getaway used to be a simple matter of walking into a travel agent’s office and picking a hotel from a brochure. While that’s still an option, there are now so many alternatives you can easily become overwhelmed with choices.
Based on over 10 years as an industry insider, I’ve put together my top booking accommodation tips, and asked a few of my favourite travel bloggers for theirs too. Read on for a rundown of the different booking options, and what you need to look out for. If you’re still struggling to schedule in the time off for a holiday, check out these great tips from Sage at The Everyday Wanderer first.
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Accommodation booking tips for online
This is probably the most popular option, especially for those who like the idea of being independent, or booking at the last minute. Sites like Expedia, booking.com, hotels.com, etc have easily searchable databases with live availability (usually) and lots of great images to help you make your decision. Sounds like a no-brainer? There are still a few things to watch out for:
- Make sure you double check the fine print and inclusions. Some sites in particular are notorious for not including all the taxes and these can substantially change the price of a property.
- On the same line, always check to make sure there are no “resort fees” that will be added on when you get there. It’s usually a compulsory daily rate the hotel charges to cover little extras like a newspaper and internet access. It can be anywhere up to USD$30/day so can make a big difference!
- Check how many people are included in the room rate. Sometimes, even if you have searched for “2 adults, 2 children” the fine print will say there is an extra charge for more than 2 people in that room.
- Always check the bedding configuration. Some will accept kids “on existing bedding” so you’ll only have one double between three (or more) of you. In the USA, a room for 4 people is usually 2 double beds, which is fine as long as you don’t mind sharing!
- If you’re flexible on your dates, use a site that breaks down the charge into a daily rate. Touristy places especially often have different rates over the weekends or school holiday periods (in Las Vegas they change on a daily basis somewhat randomly). If you can see the daily rate you can adapt your dates to make the most of your budget.
- “Free Wifi” does not necessarily mean it will be available for free in your room. A lot of places will only provide free access in their lobby or public spaces and then charge you to use it in your room. Again, know what you’re buying.
Top Blogger Tip #1
Read the reviews. This is one of the most important steps of booking accommodation, so you don’t end up with a view of a nightclub, thin walls and bad breakfasts. It doesn’t matter how wonderful a hotel, apartment or resort says they are, it’s the past guests who will tell you the good, the bad and the ugly. Always look at a number of reviews about each place so you get a balanced view.
Booking accommodation direct with the hotel
Whether on the phone or online, booking direct with the hotel can offer a few bonuses – particularly if you are loyal to one brand. Here’s what you need to know:
- Hotels usually have a number of different rate options for the same room. Each rate will have different inclusions and conditions, so make sure you read the fine print.
- Joining up to a reward program, especially if you travel often, will often give you bonuses like free WIFI, but you can also accrue points and score free stays. To make the most of the program you’ll need to book direct or supply your membership number to your travel agent. Nights booked through third party websites won’t usually earn points.
- Unlike third party booking sites, booking direct will often have an option to pay on arrival – so if you want to get your accommodation confirmed before you’ve saved the dosh to pay for it this is the way to go.
Top Blogger Tip #2
Once we are narrowing in on booking a villa or hotel, there are a couple of places I will always check before pressing “book” to ensure we like the look of a place – Instagram and Instant Street View.
When people are uploading their snaps to Instagram, they’re not being pedantic like they might in a Trip Advisor review, so I feel you get a more genuine impression of what a place is like from a user’s perspective. And Instant Street View, we like to check exactly where our accommodation is. Not just next to beach, or close to the shops as they hotel might describe itself – take a look on street view and make sure you’re not downwind from the town’s main sewerage drain, or situated in the middle of the party district. They say a picture tells a 1000 words and I most definitely use them to plan my family trips!
Booking tips for holiday homes
If you’re a family, travelling in a group or just like a little extra space, booking accommodation in someone else’s home or holiday home can be an amazing experience. You’re more likely to have access to kitchen and laundry facilities, and staying in a residential area instead of downtown will give you a more immersive cultural experience. Here’s what you need to know:
- There are generally no regulations on these sites and aside from signing up as a member, anyone can list their property.
- Read the reviews thoroughly but don’t rely on them 100%. Remember often property owners have friends write reviews for them, or unfairly influence guests to leave a positive review.
- Communicate with the host as much as you can beforehand. If you’re not getting quick responses, or you feel uncomfortable, cancel the booking straight away. Trust your instincts – there is such a thing as “too good to be true”.
- Look for places with late cancellation policies or low cancellation fee – that way you’re not locked into something you may regret later down the track.
Top Blogger Tip #3
When you are considering a vacation rental read the description and look at the photos carefully. If an owner claims a 1-bedroom apartment sleeps 4 look for a sleeper sofa or murphy bed. If you don’t see one, email and ask where the other two people are expected to sleep. Are they assuming you will bring a travel bed? If a 3-bedroom sleeps 10-12 expect bunk beds and a tight fit.
Building codes are not the same all over the world. If the place has a balcony or deck or pool make sure structures are as childproof as you need them to be — could a child climb the balcony wall? Are the fence slats wide enough for a child to try to wiggle through, is the pool very hard to control access to, etc.— and what childproof items might you want to bring?
Also keep in mind that rental photos are like any real estate photos; they are staged and optimized to show a place at its best. consider how big/small rooms really are and don’t expect the fresh flowers, cute throw pillows, etc. to actually be there when you arrive.
Booking accommodation with a travel agent
Even if you’re not booking a package deal, it’s always worth checking in with your favorite agent when you’re booking accommodation. Contrary to the popular belief that travel agent’s are the most expensive option, you’re more likely to find better availability, better prices and added bonuses (like free meals!). Here’s what you need to know:
- Because of the relationships they have with their suppliers, agents will often have the flexibility to offer extra discounts, or “price match” a rate you’ve seen advertised elsewhere. It might work every time, but It sure doesn’t hurt to ask!
- If you can’t find availability online, there’s a chance your agent will be able to get it for you. Hotels allocate a set number of rooms to different agents to sell so what’s sold out with one may be still be available with another.
- The popular destinations for an agent will likely have been visited in person by either the agent themselves or one of their wholesalers, so the chances of getting stuck with a dud are much lower. They can also provide valuable tips and information about which rooms are best and how to get there from the airport.
- Whether you book through an agent or online you’ll still be paying someone a commission – it’s up to you whether that person is sitting in a call centre or behind a desk in an office.
- If you don’t have time or energy to be reading through all the review sites and fine print yourself, an agent is the best way to go. Their reputation depends on you having a great experience, so a good agent will always put the time into choosing just the right place for you.
- Travel agents really come into their own when it all turns to custard. When that happens, it’s awesome to have someone in your corner fighting your battles for you. They’ll deal direct with the problem and you won’t need to worry about time differences, language difficulties or misinterpreted booking conditions.
Top Blogger Tip #4
Our family’s favorite way to book accommodation is through Airbnb. Having a house with separate rooms and a kitchen is such a huge plus for our family of 6. My best tip is to book an Airbnb for as long as you can. The monthly discounts are usually extremely discounted, sometimes 50%, so it might be worth staying a little longer!
About those online reviews…
Online review sites like TripAdvisor are a fantastic resource but are not a complete fail-safe. Read all reviews with a grain of salt and cross reference them against at least one other review site to make sure the information stacks up. Don’t just look at the number of bad reviews – READ them. Did they mark the property down because it was actually bad, or was it just that it didn’t meet their expectations? People from different countries, and different walks of life, have vastly different ideas of what constitutes “normal”. Make sure your apples line up with theirs.
And remember: Personal recommendations from people like you are the most reliable reviews you can get. Just because your single party-loving friend loved that hotel doesn’t mean your young family will.
Top Blogger Tip #5
For those looking to keep costs low, enlisting your home on the free to use GuestToGuest site is one way to travel without having to worry about accommodation costs.
With GuestToGuest you can engage in a direct home exchange or you can use points accumulated and stay without a direct exchange. The flexibility this home exchange site offers is great as is the additional insurance options once can layer in for peace of mind. What I love most about this travel website is that your home’s location and amenities are factored into the “price” and so a home in downtown Toronto can accumulate more points than say, a small place in the suburbs.
It’s always great visiting a city, staying where locals live and shopping at their grocery stores, and GuestToGuest gives us the chance to do just that. As we’re travelling for 5 months we’re very grateful for the comforts of home like having access to a washing machine and toys for the kids!
Anita | Burgess Travellers