A traveler lives in hotels. If you want to travel fast through the world, you should probably be prepared to start viewing hotels not as something you pass through but as something you live in. Likes so, your own particular “quality of life” criteria for selecting hotels is an excellent thing to cultivate when on the road.
The following is my five step criteria to finding good hotels and hostels.
Step 1: Location
It does me little good to stay in an excellent, cheap, and super friendly hotel if I need a car to get there. In point, a good location is the first thing I look for when selecting a place to stay. I want to be well connected to a city’s transportation hubs while at the same time be able to access the downtown/ interesting areas/ shops on foot. If I need to take an hour long bus ride to get to a city’s center, then I’m going to look for a different place to stay. If I need to take a taxi just to get to some place where I can get food, then I’m not in a prime location. When I visit a place I want to stay at its ground zero.
Where that ground zero is depends on the place. In big cities, there can be dozens of central areas and good neighborhoods to stay in. So I sort them out and try to gauge their individual “characters” for myself.
My goal is to place myself in a location where I can get cheap food, easily find things to do, and meet people. I try to avoid tourist districts at all cost — as everything tends to be more expensive and the people there are often not those I really want to meet. I try to aim for university areas, as this is often where some action is happening and the prices are usually kept low by the population of young adults looking for kicks without much disposable cash.
Once I find a good district to set up in, I then go there and scour the streets for a place to stay. Often, I will do some online searches ahead of time and make a list of hotels in the area to guide my hunt. I then walk around, searching, and asking around. It’s truly amazing how easy it is to land good “off the grid” accommodation just by talking to the people who live where you’re looking to stay.
Step 2: Security
It does me no good to land a spot in a bargain hotel if it’s in an area where I’m afraid to go out at night or if my room gets pilfered and I lose some of my gear or money. Cheap price and security are two things that continuously need to be balanced out when traveling. The most expensive taxi ride I ever paid was the one that I didn’t take in Santiago, Chile, in 2002. Rather than flagging down a cab like any normal person would do I decided to walk through a dark park at night, and I got robbed for my frugality. The same goes for selecting hotel rooms: paying a few bucks more is worth raising the odds of not getting your valuables stolen.
Finding secure hotels is an involved process. I first look at the surrounding area: How does it look? How are the people in the streets? What’s the neighborhood’s reputation? I then look at the hotel itself: Do they lock the door? Do they have a security guard? How are the people running the place? Are non-paying guests allowed inside? Finally, I look at the rooms: Can I securely lock the door? Could someone get in through a window or balcony? If everything lines up and looks good I’ll ask the price; if not, I go and look elsewhere.
Step 3: Price
When I’m on the hunt to find cheap, affordable accommodation, I know that I can usually drive a pretty hard bargain. Outside of a destination’s high season, shopping for a hotel room is a buyer’s market: there will generally be far more rooms in a city than visitors to fill them. So when I walk through the doors of a hotel I know that the odds are in my favor to knock the price down by 30% or more.
As a general rule, the more days I’m willing to stay somewhere the cheaper a rate I can shoot for. If I’m going to stay in a place for over one night, I will work the hotel for a discount. If I’m going to be in a place for a week, I will generally try to get around 40% off the daily rate. If I want to be somewhere for a month I try to even get more of a discount than that. I may need to ask around at a half dozen or so hotels first, but I can usually get one to gratefully accept my offer. In point, filling a room for a multiple days is a good deal for a hotel, and many are willing to jump on on the odd traveler looking for a longer term place to crash.
Booking online, should I do it?
I have just begun using online hotel price comparisons and reviews sites to find places to stay. I’ve always been hesitant to do this before it limits my ability to properly exercise the other steps in this hotel search criteria — such as really being able to check out the room, the hotel, and the outside area in advance. But the times are changing and these hotel booking sites are getting better and better. Though I still prefer showing up in a city and finding a room for myself, on those occasions where I just plan on being in a place for a day or two I’ve been deferring towards booking online in advance.
The advantages of booking online for short stays are obvious, and I’ve found that I needed to update my accommodation selection methods to meet the changing times. In point, I can cover far more ground searching for rooms from my computer than I can on foot. Punto. All I need to do is pull up a good hotel booking engine, punch in my destination city, my price range, and voila, there are a list of hotels that meet my criteria. I have to admit that it would take me literally hours and hours to have this range of access to hotels when going around a place in person, and the fact of the matter is that if I’m only going to be in a place for a day or two I don’t want to spend hours and hours searching for a place to stay. So in these instances I’ve found that I’d rather compromise some of my criteria for this convenience.
Step 4: Quality
Old and junkie hotels should not be confused with dirty hotels — they are two different breeds of the same animal. When I enter into a hotel than I’m considering staying at for more than a few days I check it out really well: an older appearance does not put me off, but a dirty one sends me right back out the door.
First of all, I look to make sure that the little things which are easy to fix and maintain are kept up with — I make sure that there are no broken windows, no blown light bulbs, that the electrical outlets are not dead, that the lobby is swept and kept tidy, that the tables and chairs are clean, that broken crap is not laying around, that there are no holes in the walls, crushed insects on the floor etc . . . What I’m looking for here is a way to gauge the manager’s and staff’s attitude towards running their business. I know that I’m not going to be able to fully analyze a hotel in the small amount of time I have to check out a room and make a decision if I want to stay there or not, so I look for signs which indicate to me a broader pattern. In point, if I see multiple things that are easy and cheap to fix laying around broken, I take that as an indication that everything else in the hotel is going to be taken care of in a similar fashion.
Secondly, I generally check out if the place is any good. Are the sheets dirty? Are there rodent turds on the floor? Do the toilets flush? Are there toilet seats? Are there windows in the rooms? Do the doors lock well? Are there random people hanging around? What are the amenities — WIFI, air conditioning, heat, TV — like? Is there a kitchen? How many electrical outlets are in the rooms? Are there pets in the hotel? Does the WIFI work in the rooms? Is there a curfew? How clean is the place?
Step 5: Ambiance
For longer term stays, a hotel or hostel’s ambiance is as big of a factor as any other.
When I enter a place in search of accommodation I look around at the other guests who are staying there: Do I want to talk to these people? Do I want to live near them? Is this my crowd? To be blunt here, if you don’t mix with the clientele a hotel or hostel tends to attract, all of the other criteria in this guide can all of a sudden be rendered irrelevant. If you are squeamish about seeing people naked then don’t stay at a nude hotel, if you don’t like hippies then don’t stay at a hippy flop house, if you want to go to bed early then don’t stay at a party hostel. A bad crowd can make a hotel’s price, location, security, and quality seem like trifles.
I also try to interact with the hotel staff as much as I can. I try to tell a joke to see if they laugh, I try to get them to reveal their personality behind the “hospitality face.” To be blunt, if you’re going to be in a hotel for a while, the staff are the people you’re going be living with: in this scenario it’s way too easy to either become amazing friends or excellent enemies.
One final point is that I look at how well a hotel or hostel is set up. Is this a comfortable place to be? Do I like hanging out in the common areas? Are there even any common areas? To be honest, living in nothing more than a single, four walled room can become trying after a while, so I shoot for hotels that have as many accessible common areas as possible. The more area a hotel has to hang out in the bigger my domain becomes.
Though lately I’ve been staying in apartments more often than hotels, I still find myself at the check-in desk frequently. The above criteria is what I continue to use as I find good, cheap, and secure hotels around the world.
It is my impression that when on the road long term, devising a set criteria for what you want out of the places you’re living in is key to fully enjoying the travel experience.