Many of the most typical travel purchases are pretty simple commodities -- albeit commodities with wildly varying prices. Unless you are upgraded somehow, on the whole a flight is a flight. Similarly, unless you are upgraded (or downgraded, as the case may be) for your car rental, a car is a car.
But hotel rooms are a different thing entirely. A wet/small/ugly/smelly/poorly located hotel room, or a room with no Internet, a lousy view and/or a broken TV, can easily ruin a trip. While even a long-haul flight is over soon enough, and even a cramped car is a fairly comfortable form of transport compared to some alternatives, a hotel room is different for one simple reason: you have to live in it.
And you have pay for it every day. Especially if you are choosing your hotel based at least in part on price, sussing out any unstated costs before you book is critical. A hotel that is very affordable in your search results but does not include any amenities can often end up costing you more than a hotel that includes complimentary everything.
Add that to the other factors that can make or break your stay, as listed above, and your hotel choice may be the most important decision you make when planning a trip. To help you get the best room in the best location at the best price, here is my list of 11 things not to do when choosing and booking a hotel stay.
I once stayed in a great hotel that seemed to be in an ideal location -- except that it was surrounded by extremely busy roads, including an on-ramp and off-ramp to a highway on either side of the hotel. It felt like I was staying in an interstate rest stop. I couldn't really walk anywhere, and just stepping outside was not just annoying but borderline dangerous.
There were fine restaurants a block away, and a running trail a half-mile away, and a great riverwalk another half-mile from there. When I booked the hotel, I knew it was close to all those cool things, but did not check closely enough to realize that the hotel was pretty much on a highway median, and that you couldn't get to any of them without risking life and limb. Yeesh.
The easiest way to prevent this sort of problem is to see the site for yourself. Most booking websites include a map view of some kind, and you might also take a look at Google Street View or Bing's Bird's Eye view to get a good look at the lay of the land.
Knowing as much as possible about any given property is your best strategy for getting a hotel and room that you actually enjoy staying in. When checking review sites such as TripAdvisor and Yelp over the years, almost inevitably I have switched my preferred hotel after a bit of research, as there is always something you would never know without the help of folks who have already stayed at a property. These might include noise, lousy food, iffy Internet, dated rooms and more -- even the fact that the hotel is pretty much on a highway median.
And you might find out a lot of good things as well. Before a recent stay, I learned about an affordable bike rental program at one hotel I was researching that tipped the balance toward staying there. We had some great bike rides around the area, saw a lot of things we would not have seen otherwise and saved money on public transportation and car rentals.
I am a big fan of using public transportation when zooming around at your destination, as it puts you among the locals in a simple, straightforward way.
I'm not a huge fan of public transportation to and from the airport, however. Starting and (especially) ending a trip by hauling massive bags through an unfamiliar subway system can be a grueling experience, especially when you are trying to get some rare R&R.
But unless you are renting a car, getting to and from your hotel in a taxi can be really expensive, especially since most airports are quite a distance from the nearest city center. For example, it'll cost you $55 - $70 to get to downtown Denver from the airport -- small beans compared to Tokyo, where an airport taxi will set you back anywhere from $150 - $200 or beyond. Remembering that you have to pay that both coming and going, you could pay more for transportation to the hotel than you do for the stay itself.
When considering the cost of one hotel vs. another, you will want to know whether the airport offers a complimentary hotel shuttle.
If you will have your own car, you will want to check both availability and pricing on parking at the hotel. Even if the hotel has parking available, it often comes with a price tag, and can add anywhere from $10 to $35 or more to your daily hotel cost (the last two hotels I stayed at with a rental car cost $31 and $36 per day, respectively). If a hotel doesn't have its own parking, the cost can be even higher in some places where you are forced to use private lots, and you have to worry about the car getting dinged or broken into -- not to mention the hassle of having to find a spot every day.
The actual per-night difference between a hotel that offers a solid continental (or even full) breakfast included in the rate compared to one that offers a 23-euro buffet can be significant, to say the least.
You can usually find out this information on the hotel website or by calling the front desk directly. Since most folks prefer to breakfast at their hotel, this is an important question if you are concerned about your budget. Sure, you can always try to find an affordable cafe nearby, but you can't beat a free hotel breakfast for convenience.
As with breakfast, parking and a shuttle, if you absolutely need Internet access, you also need to consider it part of your nightly hotel budget when comparing prices. A hotel where you save $10/night but then pay $19.95 for Internet is no savings at all.
This is a tricky one, though, so make sure you check this closely; Internet access may be free for some but not all. Properties in the InterContinental Hotel Group, for example, offer free Internet access only to IHG Rewards Club members. For everyone else, access is commonly priced from $9.95 up to $19.95 per 24 hours. That adds up over a few nights' stay, for sure.
Additionally, some hotels have started charging for access per device, or sometimes allowing only two devices per paying customer. If more than one person is staying in the room, this can become a problem very quickly, as most folks connect with at least two devices these days (e.g., a laptop and a smartphone). Check the fine print.
This applies mainly if you belong to a loyalty club and hope to have hotel points awarded to your account -- because if you book through pretty much any third party, hotels won't pony up the points. This includes well-known booking sites, group bookings, bookings by your travel agent, bookings by the hotel's own vacation club and even bookings at conference rates. Read more in The Trouble with Hotel Reward Programs.
It is often free to sign up for a hotel's loyalty program, and in some cases significant rewards kick in almost immediately. These can include complimentary Wi-Fi, as mentioned above, but also many "soft" benefits that you might not even be aware of; front desk agents might give you a slightly better room, for example.
One of the simplest but most effective tactics for getting a better rate is to ask for one. I usually recommend an open-ended approach, something like "are there any better special rates available?" This usually prompts the reservations person to ask if you are a member of a travel or other association (AAA or AARP), a member of a loyalty program, etc. From there they will often offer a better rate one way or another, simply for the asking.
If you have a hotel that is showing no rooms available, or really high rates, or lack of availability of certain special needs rooms (pet-friendly, accessible, kid-friendly, etc.), you should call the hotel and ask them directly. The front desk often has information about cancellations, additional rooms and more that may not immediately show up on hotel or booking sites.
Even if you have a simple question, such as "How much does Internet access cost?" or "Is breakfast included?" a quick call to the hotel will usually settle pretty much any doubts you might have.
You would be surprised what a hotel can and will do for you if you simply ask politely. Many front desk folks will lend common toiletries, make restaurant recommendations and even reservations, call for taxis, give directions, help with public transportation and handle other logistical items without even flinching.
Additionally, you can often request a room on a certain side of the hotel, on an upper floor, away from the main road, closer to the elevator if you are disabled and more. Simply ask, and ye may receive.
Do you have any tricks you use before booking a hotel room? Let us know in the comments!
Editor's Note: IndependentTraveler.com is published by The Independent Traveler, Inc., a subsidiary of TripAdvisor, Inc.