This is part of a series on how to plan epic trips. I’ve linked to the others at the bottom of this post, and you can also download my free e-book for dozens more trip planning tips on flights, housing, itinerary, and more!
Outside of (sometimes) your flight, accommodation will generally be the biggest expense on any trip (particularly true for solo travelers). Then there’s always the fear of having a bad experience with your housing, whether due to cleanliness, bad neighbors or management, false advertising, or myriad other reasons.
So over the years I’ve developed an ironclad process for finding the perfect “home away from home” for any kind of trip. As a result, in the last several years of frequent international and domestic travel, I’ve only had a couple accommodation experiences I was even a bit disappointed with. So I decided to outline my entire process for how to find the perfect hotel or rental to help others who feel overwhelmed by the choices.
What this article covers:
- Determining what you need
- Save or splurge? Is a more premium place worth it?
- Hotel or rental?
- Where to look for accommodations
- How to evaluate different options and make your choice
Save or Splurge?
Since housing is generally the biggest cost apart from flight, I always spend some serious time looking at all my options to make sure that I get a good deal and it’s close to where I’d like to be. As you go through the steps below, save links of the listings that jump out as solid possibilities to create a “short list”.
How much should I spend on hotel?
Short answer: It depends. There are definitely economies of scale. For 2-3 people, I usually shoot for $50 per person per night, but obviously in some places it will be more (and some places you can get away with less). Also, it depends on whether you decide you’re saving or splurging. Which brings us to…
There are a few schools of thought to trip accommodation:
One way of thinking of it (and I often fall into this camp) is that you don’t need a fancy place to stay, because you’ll be spending most of your time out and about. I’ve used this approach for trips where we’re just using it as a base for day trips, or we plan to be exploring the city all day. In this case, as long as it’s safe, clean, close to things, and gets decent reviews, it’ll do.
Then there are times when splurging on an awesome place is totally worth it. First, being close to the main sights (or whatever you plan to visit) is always worth paying a little extra for, if it saves you a lot of time or money getting around. For instance, the hotels in downtown Vancouver were quite a bit more expensive than we’d wanted, but to save money we would have had to stay out in Richmond and spend 20-30 minutes getting into town. We spent the extra money and easily walked everywhere, which allowed us to see so much more on our super short trip.
I’m a sucker for a great view, so when I can find a place with a nice balcony, I’m usually willing to pay a bit more. And of course if your trip is more about relaxation or hanging out with friends—for instance, a beach vacation or weekend in the mountains—then finding housing with more space and amenities is going to be a higher priority.
You also might consider seeking out something a little more unique. For instance, we found a sailboat (with captain) to rent on Airbnb when staying in Sweden, and spent the most magical three days sailing around an archipelago. It was a bit more expensive from a housing standpoint than we’d initially planned ($250 per person for 3 nights), but it was about our only real cost besides flights. Maybe it’s a houseboat, a treehouse, or just a sweet rooftop patio, but if you’ll be there more than a day it could be worth looking at something special.
Hotel or rental?
I’m generally a rental girl, but there are pros and cons to each and it really depends on your trip. Here are some things to consider when deciding:
- Number of people – If you have 3 or more people and are traveling in Europe, finding a triple or family room in European hotels can be quite challenging. An apartment may be a better (and more cost-efficient) bet.
- What time you’re checking in – Don’t assume a 24-hour check-in window. The people who manage apartment rentals are people too, and so there’s usually a more limited window for arrival or extra fees for late-night. Smaller hotels are also often this way, so if you’re arriving way outside of normal hours, a larger chain hotel might be a better idea.
- Budget – For me, half the fun of traveling is trying different restaurants in a new city, but if you’re trying to save money on food, then a rental may be a better fit so you can keep cheaper supermarket food and drinks on hand.
- How many nights you’re staying – If it’s only one, a hotel may be simpler (not always, just a rule of thumb).
Where to look for housing
This really gets into the question of how to find the best hotel or rental. Because there are so many options!
So, you’ve got all the usual suspects, like Booking.com, TripAdvisor, Agoda, sometimes Kayak—these have hotels and some of them also have rentals and B&Bs. Then you also have rental websites like Airbnb, VRBO, Home Away, etc. Know that most of these are owned by the same company at this point, so I mostly just use Airbnb since it has more unique offerings. Typically I start searching on Booking.com, TripAdvisor, and Airbnb to see what the lay of the land is.
Also, be aware that certain destinations have more specialty or localized websites. For instance, in New Zealand (particularly on the South Island), they have these small rentals called “baches”, and there’s a website called BookABach where we booked everything for our trip. I found out about this by skimming through the TripAdvisor forum recommendations, which I highly recommend.
How to find the best hotel or rental
Whether a rental or hotel, the first thing I look for is proximity. I look at the map of the listing options and then also pull up Google Maps and search for various areas to see how close it REALLY is to where you want to be (near metro, near sites, easily walkable, etc.)? “Five to ten minutes” is one of life’s greatest lies, and nothing exposes it quite like dragging a suitcase around.
Whether you’re looking on Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Booking.com, or another site, use the map to zoom in and out and look at your options relative to each other, and to major sites. Pull up Google Maps and enter the address of a potential hotel or landmark near your rental and get walking directions to the train station or key sites, to see how long the walk truly is.
How to Skim an Airbnb listing (applies to hotels too):
- I usually start with photos (make sure it’s clearly that place and not just the area).
- I then look at price including cleaning fees and service charges, and then divide that total by the number of nights to get my true nightly amount.
- Read the description, including number and type of beds (don’t be fooled by the “sleeps XX”), cancellation policy, and check-in and check-out times.
- Read through the amenities in-depth. Does it have WiFi? Laundry? Free parking? In more tropical climates, look for air conditioning and/or fans. Think about TV options if that matters, kid-friendly choices if that applies to you. Just read through carefully and think about how you’ll use the rental and what you do and don’t truly care about.
Reading Between the Lines of Reviews
Reviews gets its own section because they are critical when choosing housing, whether that’s a hotel or a rental.
Read through them in-depth, at least a few pages’ worth. Make sure you’re looking at the most recent ones. Always look for normal review red flags, like cleanliness, bed bugs, noise, poor customer service, inaccuracies in the listing, etc. Obviously, some people can always find something to be dissatisfied about, so you have to take things with that all-important grain of salt. Also, I’ve noticed that people from certain cultures seem inclined to give positive reviews overall, while others seem to find fault in everything, so take that into account.
Next make sure to also carefully read for complaints about those amenities that matter to you. If strong WiFi is important so you can work, do the reviews complain about the WiFi constantly? If it’s important to be a very close walk to something due to mobility issues, see what estimates people are giving for TRUE walking times. If enough people complain about uncomfortable beds, cleanliness, or something else, it’s worth taking note and deciding how you feel about it. If you’re going to an all-inclusive resort, see what people are saying about the beaches, noise and parties, cleanliness, whether the air conditioning works, the strength of the drinks, and anything else you’d care about.
Are there reviews? If you’re talking about a rental, sometimes you might be getting a new host, and this can be a bit challenging. You don’t have reviews to go off of, so there’s no way to know if this is going to be a nightmare or a great find. Ideally, it’s competitively priced to incentivize you to try a new place (or you could reach out to the host and ask about a discount due to lack of reviews). Also, look at the host’s profile to see how long they’ve been a host and how long the property has been listed, and also see if they mention it being a new listing in the description. Ultimately this is a judgment call. When I have other good options I don’t tend to gamble, but sometimes it’s worth it (particularly for a short trip, or one where you won’t be at the apartment much).
Some of the coolest hotels or rentals from my travels:
Making Your Choice
Now we get down to brass tacks. You should have your short list of potential listings now, and it’s time to go through and select your winner.
- Pull them all up as separate tabs next to each other and go through each with a fine-toothed comb. Before you start, make sure they all reflect costs and availability for the correct dates and number of people.
- Make notes in a separate Word doc next to each link with the basic info (price, beds, etc.), as well as your own feelings (feels small, cute balcony, worried it’s a longer walk, etc.).
- This should help you narrow your list down fairly quickly. As you go, close tabs that “disqualify” themselves relative to the others.
- Then look for deal-breakers you may have missed, and compare nitty-gritty details directly to each other (cancellation policies, for instance).
- Read through the reviews again in-depth.
- Stealing this from Paul at TravelIsLife.org because I think it’s a great tip—if you’re using Airbnb, or if the hotel is offering specific amenities for free that are important to you, take a screenshot of the listing and save it in case there are any disputes later. Sometimes hosts want to come back and say another person is extra when it wasn’t listed, etc., so it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Overall, my goal is typically to get it down to a top 3 list, so that if things get booked up before you are ready to book (or you realize you’ve missed a detail), you have backups ready and don’t have to start the process all over again. Once you’ve found your favorite and as soon as your itinerary is solid, book that baby!
So there you have it—the process for how I find the best hotel or rental! I use it every time I plan a trip. I’d love to hear from you with any questions, and also if you have tips that always work for you…hit me up in the comments!
Other resources for epic trip planning:
- My Trip Planning Process: Inspiration, Research, Realism
- How to Find the Right Flight…Every Single Time
- 20+ Tips to Survive & Thrive on a Long Flight
- 10 Things You Have to Do Before Every Trip
- The Best All-Purpose Carry-On Suitcase I’ve Found
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