Some of the best hotel or guesthouse deals I found when I first started traveling were from personal recommendations from other backpackers met on the road and from pure legwork: walking into places and asking the price. I often spend a bit more than that now, but I’ll often still arrive with no reservations at all.
Fast forward to now and it appears to be so much easier to find a good deal and book a hotel where you’re going. You can just pull up Expedia, Travelocity, or Hotels.com—or on the cheaper end of the scale, Hostelbookers or Hostelworld. Here’s a fact that few travelers seem to grasp though: there are thousands of hotels not listed on any of these sites.
You can see a few reasons for this in this Gadling article from one of the guys who runs EuroCheapo: The Best Offline Budget Hotels in Paris. He’s talking about how to find a decent place to sleep for less than 75 euros a night ($105) in the most popular city in the world for tourists, but you can apply that some logic to almost anywhere. The owners of these businesses don’t think it’s worth it to pay the hefty commissions. You can’t book them on any website period except maybe their own ugly one built in 1998 and barely updated since. Don’t judge the independent inn by its virtual facade.
A while back I poked around for a half hour before booking a hotel in San Cristobal de Chiapas in Mexico for an adventure travel summit I’m attending. I looked at what was on the big booking sites and wasn’t seeing any good deals at a nice looking place in the center. I looked at prices on the convention organizer’s recommendations on their booking site and thought, “I can do better.”
After tracking down some independent listings of hotels in the city on some Mexico-focused websites, I ended up with a 5-night reservation at a little hotel a few blocks from where I spent most of my time, walking distance to the center, free internet and breakfast, for 680 pesos a night double—taxes included. Thanks to a strengthening dollar and weakening peso, that currently comes out to less than $50. Similar hotels on the big booking sites were running $75 to $80 and were further from the center.
I reserved online directly through their site after looking at the various room options. Other times I’ve reserved and booked by e-mail or phone. When I’m traveling alone, or occasionally with the family, I’ll just show up and look around, old-school. Culturally this works in some places better than others and you can negotiate more with a small family-owned property than you can in a big corporate chain hotel with a part-time night clerk used to dealing with pre-booked package tourists. It’s often worth a shot though wherever. (Update 2014: the perils of booking direct include companies letting their domain or hosting expire. Now you have to book this hotel through Trivago and see what pops up.)
In this case I didn’t have much luck with my guidebook: I only had a Lonely Planet Mexico one and I’ve found most hotels in there tend to get overpriced because they get so much business without trying. One focused on a specific city/region—especially if it’s by another publisher—will usually be more helpful. I’ve personally had really good luck with recommendations in the Moon Handbook series. Moon tends to use more experienced authors who have been covering the same country for a decade or more and it shows.
Be advised this works better internationally than it does in the U.S. For better or worse, we’re a country dominated by chain hotels. Unless you’re booking a B&B, vacation home rental, or park cabin, most of the inventory is listed somewhere as it’s hard to get noticed here otherwise.
In the end, this hotel wasn’t perfect, but it was a great value. The hot water cranked, the bed was comfy, the included breakfast was decent, and the Wi-fi was fast and free.
What have been your experiences in finding hidden gems that aren’t on the big hotel booking sites?