This is continuing our series on how we’ve planned our recent trips, building on the last post about finding flights.
How do we book accommodations? Since we’re a family of 4, what we look for is going to be different than what a business traveler, or a honeymooning couple, or a 20-year-old budget backpacker is looking for.
Particularly, with our kids, it’s nice to have a small apartment with a separate sleeping areas for the kids, and a kitchen so that we don’t need to eat every meal out. We don’t always get this – often, especially on a road trip, we get the standard room with 2 queen beds. But the popularization of Airbnb and equivalents, where we can get more space in exchange for no hotel front desk or daily cleaning service, is great for our traveling demographic.
Some folks are big into hotel points – and this can make a lot of sense in some situations. We have the accounts and collect the points when applicable – mostly in the US, where hotels are much more consolidated into chains. But the sort of international family travel that we’ve done recently doesn’t really suit itself well to staying in chain hotels. For our situation and these destinations, we can get a much better value and feel more a part of our destination by renting apartments or staying in locally managed hotels.
First-pass tools: Booking.com (non-US) and Expedia (US)
- Booking.com dominates the online hotel booking market in Europe, even though it’s not as well known in the US. One important feature for us is that Booking.com often also has apartment listings as well as hotels. In some cases, the apartment lists might just be a larger room in a hotel or perhaps be managed by a short-term rental agency. We actually use Booking.com apartments somewhat more often than Airbnbs.
- Expedia is great in the US. They also own hotels.com, where they provide the same inventory under the hotels.com brand.
These sites are great when the choice isn’t obvious. Tools like this, with their many filters, make it more efficient to search for and book hotels – which is important when you have a list of 5+ cities for an upcoming trip and don’t want to spend hours researching each hotel. And if you book with enough volume on Booking.com, you can get 10% discounts on a good chunk of their inventory.
Direct bookings with the hotel
The downside of online booking engines is that they charge the hotels a significant commission.
While you don’t directly pay the commission, the side effect is that some hotels are less likely to give you points or the better rooms if you go through a third party booking site like Expedia. The hotels sometimes withhold rooms from these sites if they think they can entirely fill them with direct bookings.
So the consequence is that if we get an advantage by booking directly – e.g. points, free wifi, etc. we will do so. We typically do this for chain hotels like Marriott or Best Western in the US. Or if we found a hotel in a guidebook, and there’s a discount when booking via email (e.g. Rick Steves books).
That said, booking websites for small hotels can be cumbersome. So if there’s not a real advantage to booking directly, we will often just use Expedia/Booking.com, which will save us time and give us a predictable way to deal with issues, like cancellation, if they arise.
Apartment-oriented sites like AirBNB/VRBO/HomeAway
AirBNB is a great site for getting an apartment, rather than a vanilla hotel room. Compared with a cramped standard room, it’s much nicer to get a 1 or 2 bedroom apartment when traveling with our kids and have a washing machine to catch up on our laundry.
Often AirBNB listings makes sense for stays more than a night or two, since there is usually a minimum stay requirement or an explicit cleaning fee. Be aware that there’s typically no room cleaning until you leave, and the check-in/check-out can require more coordination, depending on if they use a lock-box or if somebody needs to come meet you. It may be more difficult to deal with bags too, if you arrive early or late. Still, given that you get an actual small home, it can be very worthwhile.
While we do use and like AirBNB, we slightly prefer Booking.com apartment listings for the location if they’re available (mostly outside the US). Most of the reason is that AirBNB seems to sometimes operate in the grey area of the local lodging laws, and there’s a greater chance of the listing being canceled (which happened to us once in Japan).
VRBO and HomeAway are slightly older tools than AirBNB in that same space. For some locations, they can be a better option – for instance, when we stayed in Kauai, we noticed at the time that VRBO had much more complete listings than AirBNB. This may change over time.
Holiday apartments in Europe
This is similar to AirBNB/VRBO/HomeAway, but it’s worth being away of specific options for a destination. In many resort areas of Europe, it common for holiday apartments to be rented on a weekly basis, from Saturday to Saturday. These are in many locations, be it in the Swiss Alps or the French Riviera. The thing to be aware of is what are the common local booking sites. Interhome.com is one such site that we’ve used.
The nice aspect of staying in these is that often middle-class Europeans stay in them too, which can mean plenty of nearby infrastructure, and prices not being out of control. As an example, we’ve stayed in “Ferienwohnungen” (or “holiday apartments”) in Switzerland several times. While Switzerland is not an inexpensive country to visit, we’ve found that we can significantly reduce expenses of a holiday in the Alps if we book a week-long holiday rental (in, say, Wengen or Lauterbrunnen), buy the appropriate train passes including a 6-day mountain train pass, spend our days hiking and exploring (with trains to help, and picnics while hiking), and eat our breakfasts and dinners back at the apartment.
Opaque sites like Hotwire
Hotwire allows you to book hotels with specified star ratings in certain neighborhoods, without seeing the name of the hotel in advance, at a discounted price.
We mostly pull this up on road trips, where we just need someplace to crash for the night, and where the location within the city is flexible. Typically, I first look at Expedia to get a baseline. If there’s a much cheaper equivalent hotel on Hotwire, and the feedback for that hotel is good, I might book the Hotwire one instead.
Caveat: Hotwire seems to tack on some extra “fees” towards the end of the booking process, so you sure make sure to compare the all-in prices.
In the past, we’ve used Priceline as well, but I believe they only guarantee a room that fits two adults, which doesn’t help us given that we’re a family of four.