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Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the process of choosing a hotel has gotten really complicated. Technology has brought us so many different hotel booking and review websites and apps, not to mention new alternatives like private guest room rentals and houseswapping/housesitting, the task of finding a place to stay can be really time-consuming.

It doesn’t help that I’ve gotten a bit more picky about where I stay as I’ve gotten older, now usually traveling with my spouse and toting loads of gadgets. Private rooms, en suite bathrooms, and in-room wifi, formerly luxuries, are now generally requirements.

A room in a private home we rented using AirBNB. Sebastopol, CA
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I’ve spent hours doing hotel research in the past month for our recent and upcoming trips and wanted to share how I usually choose a hotel when we travel.

Here are some of the accommodation options available and our experiences with each, including some of our favorite research and booking sites.
Hostels:

There are a handful of websites you can use to search for and book hostels, the largest of which are HostelWorld and HostelBookers. Both sites include a lot of different properties and I’ve always fund it to be a huge hassle to browse both of them. I recently found a hostel booking aggregator called Hostelz.com, that searches both sites along with a third I’d never heard of before. The first time I used Hostelz.com (when planning our recent trip to London), I was pleased to see two search alternatives, search for “dorm rooms” and search for “private rooms”. So by doing the private room search I know it’ll only bring up hostels that have this type of facilities.

Most importantly, this site showed me that the prices were actually different for some hostels on the different sites! That’s not something I ever thought of before, for some reason (though I know thats the case on hotel booking sites) I always assumed the hostels were priced the same regardless of site. Once I realized this, I was sold. This is the only way to ID the lowest price, without having to search all three.

The user interface of Hostelz.com is a little more text-heavy than a lot of booking sites, but I still found it very easy to search private rooms, not to mention it being the fastest way to find the lowest price.
Hotels/Guest Houses:

This is the area where I’ve long known the value of the search aggregator. For years I’ve used Kayak to search all the main booking sites and hotel chain websites. Then, once I’ve checked out what the prices are I go directly to the hotel site (or to a site like Expedia or Hotels.com) to book the room there.
Hotel Acoma, Otavalo, Ecuador
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Hotel Acoma in Otavalo, Ecuador, reserved using the website Booking.com.
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Occasionally we’ll bid for hotels using Priceline’s Name-Your-Price feature and doing research on a Priceline-bidding forum like BiddingForTravel.com. This has scored us amazing deals like a weekend at the Westin Boneventure in Downtown Los Angeles a few years back for as low as $45 a night.

When I’m looking at options outside of the US, I always use Booking.com. It is very easy to use, has loads of reviews, and has icons to tell you the capacity of the room. That is something that I find difficult outside of the rooms room for two people is called a double room, a matrimonial room, etc. When traveling solo, the site also lets you know whether the price is for one person or for two, because sometimes these booking engines expect that a single traveler will book both spaces in a two person room.

Even though Kayak says they search Booking.com’s listings, I just did a test search for a coastal town in Mexico, and Kayak didn’t pull up all the small, independently operated properties that Booking.com did. Cheap Hotel Reservation Deals, Hotels Tonight Promo Code
Resorts:

The Travelzoo Weekly Top 20 email newsletter (that I’ve subscribed to for nearly a decade!) often has resort vacations in popular destinations. Also, newer group buying websites like Groupon offer frequent deals on resort vacations, if you are a bit flexible and open to going anywhere.

Bookit.com offers resort deals (most of which are all-inclusive) at destinations that are popular with US travelers. I used it a few years back to book an all-inclusive stay on Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
Apartment Rentals:

AirBNB is our current favorite for giving us the opportunity to stay in a home in a real neighborhood. I like that it lets you browse either rooms for rent in private apartments (shared with the owner) or entire apartments, depending on what you are looking for. This makes apartment rental more accessible and affordable for solo travelers.

I’ve browsed some other sites like HomeAway and some regional services in Europe, but they all have a less intuitive interface, don’t include the fees into the total price, and because most of the properties are full-time vacation properties (with spartan furnishings and decor), they don’t give you the feel of community that you get from staying in someone’s actual home. The downside is that AirBNB doesn’t have many listings in places that are known for their vacation properties. There were only two or three listed in the beach vacation town of Cape May, NJ, where we are going this summer for my sister’s wedding. I believe my brother-in-law used HomeAway to rent the house we are staying in there.
bluebay-grand-esmerelda-riviera-maya
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At the BlueBay Grand Esmerelda near Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Booked using Bookit.com
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Housesitting:

We hare big fans of having housesitters come watch our pets when we travel, and know there are loads of people who do this as their primary means of staying for free when they travel. While we haven’t tried to housesit yet, I plan to try the next time we have an extended stay somewhere. TrustedHousesitters is the site we’ve been using with great success, though there are a few others.
Homeswapping:

Because our most recent trip to Paris was longer than we usually stay in one place, I decided to experiment with homeswapping. Because we’ve had such great luck finding housesitters interested in coming to our home in the San Francisco Bay Area, I figured someone would be interested in coming to stay at our house in exchange for a stay at their place in Paris.

Starting more than four months prior, I signed up at a handful of home exchange websites that had free trial periods (because these subscription services were very expensive) and put up profiles. I spent a few hours emailing users on the various sites and nothing worked out. I decided homeswapping was not worth the hassle and expense.
Couchsurfing:

From the people I know that have done it, Couchsurfing offers much more than a free place to stay. Their huge online community includes a really remarkable group of travel-loving people and offers a easy way to get to know locals and make new friends. Though I’ve browsed the members offering spare rooms several times, I haven’t tried it yet but intend to one day soon. Here’s a lovely post my friend Kimi wrote about the friends she’s made Couchsurfing in Japan.
Other resources I use to narrow down the finalists:

I generally don’t trust guidebooks to have the most updated information on lodging and restaurants, so I rarely start there, but once I’ve identified a few lodging options from my online research, I’ll see what my guidebook suggests.

Then I look at TripAdvisor which generally has a large number of reviews of properties.

I use Google Blog Search to search for in-depth reviews from bloggers. I also often regularly stumble upon hotel recommendations from bloggers I read, and flag them for when I visit that place one day.

It’s no secret that travelers have for years been using technology to get leverage when they’re faced with an unsatisfactory hotel stay. Hotel chains routinely monitor social networking sites for instances of their name and respond to customer grievances.

Say you get to your hotel and you need some extra towels, just as an example. If you call down to the front desk, you may be put on ignore if it’s during a high-occupancy time and there are no hands on deck to help you. But if make a comment about the lack of towels on the hotel’s official Twitter or Facebook page, hotel management may ring your room and offer, “We’re sorry you were unhappy with the lack of clean towels today. Can we come by now and drop some off for you?” This works particularly well if you have a large social media that could potentially be swayed by your posts.

But have you ever thought about zigging when others zag. and standing out from the crowd by posting a good comment? Writing something online saying you’re greatly anticipating your stay—even before you get to your hotel—is a great way to put yourself on their radar and possibly get some upgrades.

Mike Timmermann recently wrote a piece that explained how one woman got more than $300 in travel freebies simply by being nice!

Remember the old saying: You get more bees with honey than with vinegar.
Watch out for these hotel booking scams
Know where you’re booking

There are a variety of legit third-party players for online hotel booking (like Expedia and Kayak, just to name a few.) But you’ve got to be aware of the bad guys. Many are paid ads at the top of your search results page when you search for something like “hotel booking sites” or “affordable hotels.” Two in particular to watch out for include ReservationCounter and ReservationDesk, according to Yahoo Finance. Check the URLs closely to make sure you’re booking where you think you’re booking! Better yet, consider booking directly with the hotel themselves, rather than through any third party. They may even match a deal you find on Expedia or Kayak.
The pizza flier scam

Picture this: You’re tired after a day of sightseeing and you go back to your hotel room to crash out. Pretty soon hunger strikes and you eye that pizza flyer that was slipped under your door earlier in the day. You call the number and the nice person on the other end of the line gets your credit or debit card number and says your pizza will be delivered shortly.

An hour later, you’re still waiting. So you call the pizza place back. The nice person on the phone apologizes and promises your pie is on the way. Two hours later, and still no pie! What happened? The nice people on the other end of the line were criminals! When they took your card number over the phone, they instantly started using your card number around the world as part of a criminal ring.

There’s an easy workaround for you: Before you order a pizza, call down to the front desk to verify that the pizza leaflets are legit. Or better yet, ask them for recommendations about legit restaurants. You can always use your smartphone (or a computer) to visit Yelp.com, Kudzu.com or other local review services to check out the alleged restaurant.

By doing that, you solve the munchies and you avoid having to spend all night on the phone with your credit card company trying to shut down your account before the criminals spend more of your money!
Checkout scam

There’s an ugly ongoing problem when you check in or out of a hotel. At the desk, you’re always asked to give a form of payment like a credit card or a debit card so if you trash the room, they have something on you. But then a lot of people decide at checkout that they want to pay cash instead of plastic. So you settle up and they give you a receipt (hopefully) and you go.

The problem comes if there’s a dishonest individual working behind the desk. They may still charge your room to your card *and* pocket the cash. If you later notice and have proof you paid cash, you call up and they say, “Sorry, it was a clerical error.” But what if you didn’t keep that receipt or they didn’t give you one showing you paid cash? You lose.

The best answer is the form of payment you leave at the desk when you check in is the form of payment you pay with when you check out. Hotels are a fertile ground for identity theft rings and credit card theft rings. You have a situation where there is frequent turnover at hotels and weak background checks on employees. Plus, there are so many transactions happening and so much info being given by travelers. It all adds up to hotels becoming a new weak point in our nation’s ability to stop identity theft and credit card theft.

And that brings us full circle to the dangers of debit cards. Because the hotel check-in desk has become such a weak link, never pay for a hotel room with a debit card.
If your number is compromised, using a debit card lays you wide open to having your entire checking account emptied. Then you have to fight with your bank to get your money restored. So for hotels, the only safe thing is to pay with a credit card!
Front desk calling scam

In this one, you check into a hotel, get up to your room and get a call from the front desk saying there’s been a problem with your credit card. You’re told the charge didn’t go through and they need to confirm your number with you.

The only problem is it’s not the front desk calling. It’s a criminal who just dialed in and asked to be transferred to such-and-such room number. If you fall for the ploy, next thing you know there are fraudulent charges being pushed through on your card by the criminals.

If you get this call, tell the person you’ll come back down to the front desk in a moment to discuss the credit card trouble. That way you can handle a legitimate request if it is one and you can also deny the criminals on the phone the info they want!

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