Since every traveler has different needs when searching for a hotel, you'll need to ask yourself what's most important to you. Whether you're looking for a great deal, a great location or a great B&B, we've broken down the hotel selection process to make it easier for you to find the best hotel for your trip.
What Matters Most?
Before beginning your search, ask yourself what type of accommodations you want and what your budget will permit. Does location trump price, or are you limited to hotels under $150 a night? Do you need a hotel with a spa and fitness center, or would you rather stay at a small property with lots of local charm?
Once you've decided on your top priority, then you can make a more targeted search. Following are the most common determining factors in choosing a hotel, as well as tips for finding properties that suit each particular need.
Price: Nearly every major booking engine gives you the option to sort your results by price. Don't limit yourself to the big three (Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz) -- you should also pay a visit to other booking sites like Kayak.com, Venere.com and Hotels.com. And don't forget to check our very own discount hotel deals!
Tip: Use the booking engines to see what's available and test rates at the properties you're interested in, and then go straight to the hotel's Web site to book directly -- most hotels guarantee you the lowest rate when you book on their site, and will match a lower price you find elsewhere.
If price is your only concern, you may want to try bidding on Priceline.com, where you won't see the name of your hotel (only the star rating) until you've actually booked it. Another useful site to try is Tingo.com, which will automatically rebook you and refund your money if the rate at your hotel drops after you've booked. (To learn more about Tingo, see Want a Hotel Refund? Yes. Please.)
For further advice on landing a cheap deal, check out Get the Best Hotel Rate.
Location: All the major booking sites allow you to view search results on a map so you can see which ones are right on the beach or in the neighborhoods you prefer. Most also have the extra capability of searching for and mapping a hotel in relation to a particular point of interest, such as Times Square or the San Diego Zoo. Good old-fashioned guidebooks are another useful source for finding hotels in a certain location, as hotels are often listed by neighborhood and plotted on a city map.
What Not to Do at Your Hotel
Ambience and Local Flavor: If you'd rather avoid the big chains, you're in luck -- there are many B&B's, inns and small independent hotels that don't appear on the major booking engines. However, finding them can take a little time and ingenuity, as Traveler's Ed explains in Finding Hidden Hotel Hideaways. For a roundup of non-hotel lodging, including everything from vacation rentals to monasteries, see Ditch the Hotel: 10 Alternative Ways to Stay. And if you're looking for something truly different -- like a treehouse or a cave hotel -- take a browse through UnusualHotelsoftheWorld.com.
Amenities: Most of the major hotel booking engines allow you to specify certain amenities when you're searching, such as a fitness center, swimming pool or restaurant. Travelocity makes the process easier by allowing you to compare up to four hotels side by side so you can easily weigh such factors as star ratings, amenities, rates and room types.
Luxury: If you're looking for a truly upscale and distinctive place to stay, you'll find the creme de la creme in groups like the Leading Hotels of the World, the Five Star Alliance and Boutique Hotels & Resorts International.
Loyalty Programs and Frequent Flier Miles: If you travel a lot or if you're a member of a frequent flier program, it may be worth your while to join a hotel loyalty program. Not only can you earn points toward a future hotel stay, but you may also be able to accumulate airline miles if your hotel is partnered with your frequent flier program. Check your hotel or airline Web site to see a list of qualifying partners. Many programs also allow you to redeem points for other purchases, such as cruises, car rentals and entertainment. For more information, see Seven Smart Reasons to Join a Hotel Rewards Program and Smart Tactics to Get More from Your Hotel Points.
Eco-Friendliness: Travelers who are looking to minimize their environmental impact can search for green hotels through a number of organizations, including Green Globe and the Green Hotels Association. You can find a comprehensive list in our Go Green Travel Center.
Family-Friendliness: If you're bringing the kids, you'll want to check for both special deals and family-friendly policies. Your first stop for family hotel and resort reviews should be our sister site, FamilyVacationCritic.com. For bargains, check out Family Vacation Critic's family travel deals and our own family deals.
Real Life Experiences
Few of us book a hotel these days without checking out reviews written by fellow travelers on sites like TripAdvisor, VirtualTourist and the big booking engines. This is where you can learn the truth about how friendly the staff is, how clean the rooms are and whether the Wi-Fi actually works.
Many review sites also allow users to post photos of their hotel -- which are usually more realistic and less glamorous than the professional snapshots you'll see on the hotel's own Web site. Another good source of undoctored photos: Oyster.com, whose eye-opening Photo Fakeouts contrast marketing photos with candid shots of what the hotel really looks like.
Of course, it's always a good idea to take traveler reviews with a certain degree of skepticism. Overly fawning reviews may actually have been written by hotel employees in disguise, while some negative reviews may come from super-fussy travelers who simply have an ax to grind. But despite the occasional misleading review, most traveler ratings are an honest, unbiased and invaluable resource when deciding between hotels.
Pick Up the Phone
These days you can do most of your research on the Internet, but sometimes it still pays to pick up the phone. Calling a hotel directly, rather than dialing a chain's main 800 number, might get you a room at the last minute or during peak travel times.
National reservations desks often have a cap on the number of rooms they can fill at any given hotel, with the rest left to the hotel's own staff. Those working at the front desk have a better sense of the hotel's capacity and will be more likely to check for cancellations or no-shows. Whomever you call, having a list of prepared questions will help you. Avoid calling in the morning or mid-afternoon, when front desks are busiest. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
If you are overseas or in a bed and breakfast, ask if there are shared bathrooms or showers, and how many there are per room. Also, ask about air-conditioning and where to make meal arrangements. Keep in mind that if you're not dealing with a known chain, user ratings and guidebook reviews are suddenly even more important -- and you should always ask about special packages and rates.
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Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, which also owns Tingo and Virtual Tourist.