It’s easy – in this age of TripAdvisor, smartphones and hotel comparison sites – to forget that booking a hotel room in a foreign land used to be a hazardous business.
Who knew what you were going to really get, when all you had to go on was a photo in a brochure or an outdated review in a guidebook? Who knew if that really was the price you’d end up paying when you got there?
But let’s just pretend that the internet is down. (Don’t panic. It’s just pretend. You don’t need to start hyperventilating and stocking up on tinned food.)
And let’s just pretend that you’ve been set down in a foreign European city, with little or none of the local language, and a tight budget.
The next 8 tips are just about to save your life – well, find you a cheap room for the night anyway, which often amounts to the same thing when you’re travelling.
1. The cheapest place is in the old town
In Europe, the cheapest places to stay are always in the old town areas. Not sure where that is? Head for the cathedral or main square and start scouting around the medieval back streets – you’ll soon turn up the little family run pensions, guest houses and basic hotels that don’t appear on any price comparison site.
2. Don’t listen to the man at the train station/bus station/ferry port
I say this reluctantly, because obviously not everyone is out to fleece you and in some countries and destinations it’s perfectly fine to jump on the back on someone’s scooter and go and see their ‘cousin’s guesthouse, very close, very cheap – everywhere else already full’.
I’m just saying that, on the whole and in the round, this option removes the control from you and grants it to the man on the scooter, who is now driving you to a satellite suburb several time zones away, where his cousin’s guesthouse (well, not strictly his cousin, more like his boss, but let’s not quibble) – while perfectly fine – is A) a bit pricey and B) no you can’t have a lift back.
Use your common sense. Greek island harbour, middle of summer, lots of tourists and lots of cheery touts, probably an OK deal. City centre train station, hassly guy with space-encroachment issues, probably not.
3. Look at the room – and look at a few
So you’ve found a likely looking place. Now ask to see a room – it’s not rude, and as some rooms are much better than others for the same price, it pays to shop around. Most owners won’t mind showing you a room or two, and if you don’t like any of them, you don’t have to stay there. Smile nicely, say thank you and move on.
Want some excuses? If you don’t want to stay and don’t want to feel awkward, say things like “I’m thinking of coming back next month/year, and just wanted to see a room” or “I’ll have to check with my friend”.
4. Can’t speak the language – don’t worry!
Their business is rooms. You’re standing there, looking expectant. They have rooms. You want one. You’ll figure it out, especially if you’ve taken the trouble to learn a word or two. Bathroom, breakfast, double bed, single bed, shower, balcony, view, price – you don’t need much more than this to find a room anywhere in the world.
5. Want a better deal?
Then ask for one. “Have you got anything cheaper” is the other phrase you should probably master.
Rooms without an en-suite bathrooom are always cheaper. As are rooms without a window. You might be OK with the former, probably not with the latter, but you’ll still get offered a broom cupboard or similar from time to time. Depends how far you need your money to stretch. A better option is to team up with others to share a room.
6. Staying longer than a night or two?
The other way to bring the price down is see if there’s a discount for staying longer. It’s tricky, because you might not want to commit yourself until you’ve spent at least a night there. If you’ve splashed out out for a week’s stay and it turns out to be Party Central or on the 4am bin-cleaning route, you might have a tough time getting your money back.
But if a place looks and feels all right, it can’t hurt to see if they’ll knock some money off for a 2 or 3 night stay.
7. Do you really need breakfast?
You might also be able to save some money by seeing if they’ll do you a room-only deal. It’s common on hotel-booking websites for the cheapest rooms to be without breakfast these days, but it still comes as standard in most small family run and budget places. And as all you’re usually going to get is a bread roll and a cup of watery coffee anyway, you might as well go out to the local bar and get a better breakfast there, using the money you’ve just saved on the room.
This, by the way, is a no-brainer in more expensive hotels where charges for the buffet breakfast of £10/$15 and more are common. That’s basically a big plate of ham and cheese or about a year travelling in Thailand, your choice.
8. Check the small print
Hotel tax, city tax, sales tax, tourist tax – they didn’t mention that at check-in, really? It’s just something to watch out for, along with the Number One Golden Rule for avoiding unexpected charges that negate the whole point of staying in that cheap hotel in the first place.
Never, ever use the mini-bar.
So, what tips do you have for finding a cheap place to stay? Let us all know in the space below if you’ve got a tried and trusted technique.
Header image: Vacancy by Brent Moore, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Old Town Dubrovnik, Croatia, by Matt Zimmerman, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
One man, two bicycles by Timothy Krause, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Bad breakfast by Luis Tamayo, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0