IN SEPTEMBER 2017, my wife and I sold our home, our car and almost all of our earthly possessions. What remained fit in a storage pod measuring 12 feet by eight feet by eight feet. We then spent the next three years traveling across four continents and staying in more than 200 rooms. Along the way, I learned a few things about booking lodgings that could make your travels a little cheaper.
We used Airbnb 40% of the time and Booking 35%. On the other days, we stayed with friends or negotiated directly with hotels. Staying with friends is obviously the most economical option, though it can have long-term costs.
Airbnb rents mostly private apartments or houses, which are generally more affordable and get you access to a kitchen. Booking has both hotel rooms and private Airbnb-like apartments. The latter tend to be a little more corporate. Negotiating directly with a hotel can help you avoid some service fees, though most will only negotiate on the margin.
They all use bait-and-switch pricing. You enter the dates of your stay and click search. You notice an apartment you like for $100 a day. Since your stay is for seven days, you’d expect to be charged $700—and you’d be wrong. When you click “book,” the price is now magically $810, due to taxes, more taxes, cleaning fees, service fees and so on. On Booking, there may be additional taxes and fees directly owed to the hotel upon checking in or checking out.
We took to using Booking as a safety net. Consider booking fully cancellable accommodation that meets your minimum requirements for price, location, quality and so on. Then, between now and the fully cancellable date, scour the internet for accommodation that’s better and cheaper. Payment may be charged prior to the fully cancellable date, so—if you cancel—you’ll have to wait for the refund to hit your credit card. If this is a foreign transaction, changes in the exchange rate could cause the refund to be more or less than the initial charge. If it’s less, call your credit card company to ask for the difference. If it’s more….
Do not book accommodation that doesn’t include photos of the bathroom. “Trust but verify” all important amenities. In Japan, you still have the option to book a smoking room. I didn’t verify. Febreze can only do so much. I rented a place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the summer and failed to notice that it didn’t have air-conditioning. Fans, even five of them, can only do so much.
If there’s an issue, complain. Your potentially negative online review has power. If the issue can’t be resolved to your satisfaction, ask for satisfaction. In Reykjavik, Iceland, I had one night—worth $135—refunded due to an incredibly loud party next door. In Ann Arbor, I had $130 refunded after complaining about the smell and cleanliness.
After booking, and prior to your first night’s stay, contact your host with any requests or just to say “hello.” Making a connection with your host will only make your stay more pleasant. Hosts have good intel about the area, and they can save you money if you have issues or need to extend your stay.
Airbnb offers the ability to negotiate, so use it. If you don’t like the price you see, feel free to click the “contact host” button and ask for a lower price. This worked 65% of the time. Booking doesn’t offer a way to contact the host, making negotiation impossible. This is most likely not an oversight.
If your stay is open-ended and you need to extend, contact your host and offer to extend at a lower rate. Prior to making your offer, try to determine if the place is available, either using the online calendar or by attempting to book it. By dealing directly with the owner, you may sidestep service fees, cleaning fees and so on. If you make your offer in cash, you may save even more. This has worked almost every time.
Airbnb and Booking have ratings and reviews for each property. Booking has a review score with a scale of zero to 10. The scores and reviews tend to be tougher than those on Airbnb. I have a theory why. Most of the properties on the site are either hotels or corporate apartments, as opposed to people’s homes. People don’t mind telling Marriott the shortcomings of its properties, but have trouble giving a homeowner the same feedback. Also, because most of the properties are hotels, the quantity of feedback is significantly larger.
Airbnb scores its properties with zero to five stars. The number of stars and the reviews tend to be overly generous. I think people are reluctant to give accurate feedback to people just like themselves. This is especially true if the owners have some personal contact with the guest before or during the stay. To me, five stars mean the Ritz-Carlton: scrupulously clean, seamless check-in, 500-thread-count sheets. But on Airbnb, I’ve booked so many five-star properties that have come up woefully short that now, when I book a five-star property, I expect a four-star experience.
On Airbnb, you can typically get a discount for longer stays. These discounts generally work in increments of seven, 14 and 30 days. Result: If you can stay seven days instead of six, you can probably get a better daily rate. If you’re planning to negotiate a better rate on Airbnb, it’s useful to know the discount you get for extending your stay. For example, if you plan to stay for 13 days, but a 14-day stay gets you a 20% discount, this could be useful knowledge when negotiating. Also, some cities will charge less tax, or no tax at all, for stays 30 days or longer. The upshot: If your plan is to stay only 29 days, extending your stay by one day could save you money.
Negotiating directly with hotels can be frustratingly futile. Almost all front desk employees and managers will only match online rates, which is less than ideal. Our best results came from establishing a relationship with the manager after check-in, which often proved useful when negotiating future stays.
Michael Flack blogs at AfterActionReport.info. He’s a former naval officer and 20-year veteran of the oil and gas industry. Now retired, Mike enjoys traveling, blogging and spreadsheets. His previous articles were Lost Abroad, Making the Call and Trading Places.