Accommodation is one of the biggest expenses when traveling. We’ve stayed in all manner of places over the last few years. As we travel on a pretty tight budget, I wanted to share some of the tips I’ve learned to help reduce this particular cost. You can stay in fairly cheap accommodations without having to give up a lot of comfort.
Cheap apartment rentals
This is probably our most common form of lodging. If you’re a single person, you can often find really great deals at hostels, but as soon as the number of guests rise above 1 the savings can quickly vanish.
We like apartments for a number of reasons, but one of the keys budget-wise is you get access to a full kitchen, and oftentimes even a clothes washer. Unless you’re somewhere like SE Asia, it’s almost always cheaper to prepare your own meals. This can be a big savings.
For instance, we’re staying in a fairly touristy town in Portugal currently. One of the cheapest restaurant dishes is frango assado piri-piri (grilled chicken with a spicy sauce). On average, during low season, they’re charging €6.99 for 1/2 chicken with fries. At the grocery store, you can pick up a whole roasted chicken with piri-piri sauce for around €4.50. If you don’t have a teenager among you, that could end up being two meals for less than the price of one. With a kitchen, you can prepare your own chicken for around €2.50.
In expensive places like France and London, groceries are far cheaper than eating out.
I generally use two sites for finding these rentals before arriving in a new town—AirBnB and Wimdu. I usually only book 2-3 nights at first. If we find we like the place, then we extend, or we begin looking for an apartment locally.
The downside to using these sites is that often the owner has up to 24 hours to accept your reservation. You have to pay at the time of reservation, so this can really be a bugger if you’re making a spontaneous trip. I’ll be doing a more in-depth post with AirBnB tips later this week.
The main differences between these 2 sites is that Wimdu tends to have better quality hosts and is typically more expensive. They also don’t have quite the amount of hosts that AirBnB does.
Both sites do occasionally have a property with instant booking.
When planning to stay for an extended period of time in a place, it’s almost always better to look for a place on the ground. You’ll find much cheaper prices this way. Go to coffee shops and grocery stores to look for signs for rentals. Keep your eye out for “for rent” signs as you walk around. Also you can ask staff at hotels, etc., if they know of anyone looking to do a short-term rental. They often do.
I have also googled the name of the city and the word “rentals.” You can find rental companies that are more commonly operating to find homes for locals which will be much cheaper than the vacation rental companies.
If you like your AirBnB or Wimdu place, it doesn’t hurt to ask them for a discount for an extended stay either. We stayed at our current place for 3 nights and decided to extend 8 more days. He gave us a €30 discount. In Prague, our 2-bedroom apartment would’ve normally been around $780 USD for a month, but we paid about $600. Since that also includes all the utilities and Internet, it’s a pretty good situation.
The other plus with these type of rentals is that you’re often outside the normal tourist zone. You get a better impression of what daily life is like, and prices for groceries, restaurants, etc., will likely be cheaper in your neighborhood.
Many of these rentals are for a private room in someone’s flat or house. We’ve done this several times, and it’s almost always been a great cultural experience.
Another bonus to these types of rentals is that often during a holiday, when the hotels are all booked up, you can still find plenty of options. We were looking at arriving in Lisbon during the holy week time preceding Easter. The hotels in the city were 90% booked; however, there were plenty of cheap options on both these sites.
It’s possible to get discounts at many hotels by just showing up and asking for the lowest rate. However, I usually find booking online to offer a better price. I’ve even stayed at places where we wanted to extend, and it was cheaper to do that by booking online.
This is also easier than the rental option above since most of the time you can do these reservations at the last minute. In fact, I’ve even done this while sitting in a hotel’s lobby when their rate was higher than the online offering.
There are an incredible amount of sites for hotel booking, and some of them do better in one region than another. For example, in SE Asia, Agoda was almost always the best source, but they don’t fare as well as Booking.com and some others in Europe.
I have occasionally had good luck with Trivago which includes sites like Priceline in their searches.
In Europe, Priceline and Booking have had better results for me.
When evaluating searches, make sure they’re including taxes in the total price. Some sites require you to check a box to include taxes. That can make a big difference when you’re doing cost comparisons. Also make sure to select any amenities that are important to you (like WiFi, free breakfast, etc.).
One thing I really like about Booking is that they often have hotels that don’t charge your card at the time of reservation or just charge a deposit.
These can be a really mixed bag. Some hostels are quite basic and slightly dodgy while others make you wonder why they’re called a hostel rather than a 3-star hotel. We spent a lot of time in hostels in Mexico and Central America. They can be your cheapest option, often have a communal kitchen, and they are really great for meeting fellow travelers. Hostels usually have a commons area that invites socialization.
Some hostels make it clear kids aren’t welcome, but generally I’ve found those to be rare. Most of them are fairly kid friendly, and fellow guests often seem to enjoy having Tigger around. In Tulum, we stayed at a hostel that ended up being quite the international experience. Tigger made schnitzel with some German ladies, did some juggling with a guy from Costa Rica, and taught a group of Dutch travelers how to play Uno.
Some hostels are party hostels, and if you’re traveling with kids, or just want to ensure a good night’s sleep, you’ll want to avoid these.
Another downside with staying at hostels is that they often charge per person. A hostel advertising $20 a night sounds great until you realize you’ll be paying that for each one in your party. Usually a family of 3 is going to find a hotel much cheaper in these situations.
This is the cheapest option usually, but can be the most frustrating. Couchsurfing can be really enjoyable, and sometimes it’s a rather. . . interesting adventure.
The bonus here is that lodging is free, and you get to know a local and have a really great cultural exchange. Most of the time.
It can be rather frustrating setting up a couchsurf, though. Some hosts never bother to respond, so you generally have to send out several requests which requires some planning. Some areas are more active than others, so you can find it really easy or really challenging to find a host.
We’ve had mostly positive experiences and have some friendships that developed from past surfs, so it’s worthwhile to explore.
How about planning?
I’m not much of a planner. Actually, I kind of detest it. However, I understand some people can’t stand the thought of not planning. I would caution to not overplan, though. Sometimes it’s easy to just show up in a town and walk around to find a cheap place, and other times not so much.
Some things to consider when deciding if you reserve ahead or not:
- Make sure you aren’t arriving during high season or during a local holiday. You’re at a complete disadvantage in these cases if you just show up.
- Do you have little ones? It was hard enough walking around with a tired 9-year-old trying to find a cheap place to stay. Add in more and you’re probably going to be hating life. Also, the presence of visibly upset, tired, frustrated children could very well reduce your negotiation power.
- What is the weather like? If it’s freezing cold or hell hot, are you really going to want to walk around with your backpack/suitcase for a couple of hours?
- When is your arrival? Obviously, arriving at 3 PM on a weekday makes it easier than if you’re trying to negotiate a new town at 10 PM. And not every accommodation has 24-hour reception.
- How big is the city? Walking around London trying to find accommodations is going to be much more difficult than on Utila.
If you plan on staying more than 3-4 days, I would also recommend not booking for the whole duration of your stay if you can at all avoid it, especially if you have to pay in advance. If you don’t like a place, you could be out of luck if you want to change. Better to reserve for a couple of nights, make sure it meets your needs, and extend then. Obviously, traveling during high season or a holiday may require you to just hope for the best when clicking the reserve button.
Outside a city
When we visited Rome, the places within the city were extremely expensive for my budget. We expanded our search and found a very affordable, nice place outside the main city. It took us about 20 minutes to get into the center of Rome, so that wasn’t bad at all.
You do need to consider the price of local transportation when doing this, but unless you’re in a place like London, the savings will warrant it.
I’m sure if you have a couple of little ones, you’re going to want to weigh the hassle vs. the cost savings.
Do you have any tips I’ve missed?