It’s so much easier to book accommodation than it used to be, with online booking engines doing most of the work for you. However, once you’ve run your search and found out what’s available for your dates, it’s worth spending a bit of time looking more closely at those results, rather than just picking the cheapest option, or the one with the best photo.
Way back in 2008 we recorded a podcast called “Ten things to look for when booking a hostel online”. Things have changed for us since then — we no longer stay in hostel dorms, for one thing — but we still have a mental checklist of things we look for when booking our accommodation online.
Before you even search
Before you start looking, think about what you want from your accommodation. Are you after a nice romantic place to stay? The absolute cheapest option out there? Somewhere to meet people and spend your evenings? What are your preferences and deal breakers? For us, price used to be the number one factor, but we wouldn’t stay anywhere dirty. These days, price is still important, but availability of wifi and quiet rooms are essential. Plus we prefer to be close to the main attractions of a town, as we don’t want to waste time getting to and from our accommodation every time we go out.
Your preferences might determine which booking site you use. We tend to start with booking.com and move on to hotels.com if we can’t find what we’re looking for. If we want more contact with local people, we’ll lean towards airbnb.com or homestay.com. If you’re looking particularly for hostels, try hostelworld.com or hostelz.com. The various sites will all give you a different experience, but as a general guideline, enter the location you’re heading to and your dates, and then consider the following ten items.
1. General location
First and foremost, make sure that the results you’re looking at are for the place you want to go to, and not in a different country altogether. Panama City and Panama City Beach are not the same, and there are Birminghams in both the US and the UK! You might want to narrow the search according to distance from the centre of town at this point, but we usually leave this until later.
You can filter your search according to the amenities you require. Wifi is essential for us, perhaps having breakfast included is important for you. If you’re driving, the onsite parking is worth having! If the booking engine doesn’t allow you to filter for these amenities, you can look at the write-up of the hotel to see if they are mentioned.
Ratings need to be taken with a grain of salt, and we won’t choose a hotel just because it has the best rating. However, we’ve found that low ratings definitely correlate with bad experiences, so we filter out hotels with a rating of less than 7/10. If there aren’t many options available, we might change the filter to include more hotels, but this is a good place to start.
After applying our filters, we then order the remaining results by price, and open individual listings to look more closely at each hotel or hostel. Some of the cheapest options won’t be suitable, but this process sometimes reveals really good options, especially if someone’s made a data-entry error! We found a four-bed room for the price of a single dorm bed in Nice once, which was pretty cool.
Reviews are a great place for check for issues. For example, many hotels in Colombia didn’t have hot water, a lack that was only mentioned in the reviews! I always look for comments about noise, as I prefer a quiet environment, and previous guests might also mention the safety of the area and ease of getting to the hotel.
6. Room type
If you do a search for two people, you might be shown beds in dorms, double rooms, twin rooms, family rooms. Groups might have the option of a family room, dorms, or any combination of singles and doubles. Look carefully at the options you’re offered and weigh up the price and other facilities available before you book. Perhaps that family room isn’t such a good deal if you prefer privacy and you could get individual rooms for just a few dollars more.
Also look into the beds that are available. If it’s a private, two-person room, does that mean bunks, twin beds, or a double?
7. Bathroom situation
Since we’ve ordered by price, sometimes the first options in the list don’t have a private bathroom. For us, that’s fine if we’re only staying a night or two, and not fine at all if we’re staying longer — we’ll filter the search to only include rooms with private bathrooms, or mentally eliminate the hotels that can only offer us a shared one.
8. Extras that are included or available
Look carefully at what’s included in the rate; some of this information will be listed in the general hotel information, some will be in the room listing. Is breakfast included? Is it available for an extra charge? What about an airport or station transfer? We love being offered a welcome drink on arrival, and while it’s not a deal breaker, this might be enough to make us choose one place over another.
Similarly, what ISN’T included in the price? Do you have to pay extra for taxes, for example? Some hostels charge extra for sheets, a towel, a shower — make sure you’re aware of extra costs before you book.
10. Specific location and local facilities
Finally, check the specific location of the hotel or hostel — it might be worth using the map function or running a search in Google Maps to see exactly where the hotel is located. Check transport options and local facilities (such as supermarkets) so that you don’t get stranded!
Booking accommodation online is easy, but you’ll get the best results if you take a bit of time and consider your needs before you enter your credit card details!
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