I’m not a big fan of mass tourism resorts or lifeless chain hotels. Not only are they more expensive, but these places to stay also often lack the charm and warmth of smaller independent hotels, backpacker hostels, or b&bs.
One of the cool things about travelling independently is that you can cherry-pick your places to stay! By using the right methods you can often find wonderful gems that other people may have overlooked.
Travelling on a budget doesn’t have to mean staying in hellholes or hovels; in fact, it’s possible to find wonderful places to stay that also happen to be cheap. Check out the following booking sites (and my tips for using them) to find the best budget accommodation for your next trip.
For a budget traveller, well-known booking sites like Expedia or Orbitz are okay but not great; they tend to focus on expensive high-margin listings or lame chain hotels. Only due to pressure from competitors have they begun to mix in some more budget options or local places to stay, but I think their selection is still very crummy.
If you’re a budget traveller I recommend making Booking.com your first port of call for hotel bookings. Booking.com is the best place for independent hotels because it works on a completely different business model.
Other sites buy beds in bulk, but Booking.com instead works on commission. They let independent hotels and guesthouses use their platform directly, in exchange for a fee. This makes it a goldmine for cheaper and smaller-scale accommodation. Basically, they don’t care if a place has 5 beds or 500! Any property can join (after some vetting, of course).
The key to Booking.com is its filtering system. Surfacing the truly good stuff usually takes a couple of steps:
1. First, on the homepage, be sure to tick the box ‘Leisure‘ to filter out all the dull business hotels
2. On the results page, pay attention to the ‘Filter by’ column on the left hand side. Tick the first few box(es) under ‘Budget per night’. You can also use the star ratings to narrow things down.
3. Then, consider filtering by property type. To find those cool independent places with character, I usually tick the options like guesthouses, lodges, hostels, homestays, or bungalows and ignore the other categories.
4. Finally, try sorting the review scores by the type of traveller. You can choose All reviewers, though choosing Solo traveller can also be very effective. I often use this regardless of whether I’m travelling solo or together! Solo travellers tend to be picky, preferring warm, creative, and welcoming places. A strong review from solo travellers usually indicates a lovely place to stay for anyone.
Booking.com does not filter by reviews by default. They just show you whatever they want to promote first. You have to take this manual step to get to the top reviewed ones. I know, pretty annoying!
Some locations around the world have specific property types to filter by. You can filter for traditional riads in Morocco, for beach cabanas in Mexico, or ryokans (traditional inns) and capsule hotels in Japan. It’s always worth having a good look at the options available in the sidebar.
If you’re travelling in Asia, another great site to try besides Booking.com is Agoda. They’re actually a sister company and basically doing the same thing, but since they’re based in Singapore they have a ton of listings in Asia you won’t find anywhere else.
TIP: Want 10% off your first Booking.com reservation? Simply use this referral link.
Backpacker hostels offer amazing value for money. They typically offer a mix of private and dorm rooms, as well as all sorts of (shared) amenities. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, I explain hostels here. I like backpacker hostels so much that even when I can afford to stay in a hotel, I’ll book a hostel anyway. While there are some duds out there, most hostels are amazingly cozy and social places to stay.
The biggest and best site for finding hostels is Hostelworld. I used to list some of their smaller competitors but they just keep disappearing and going out of business. The former main competitor Hostelbookers is actually owned by Hostelworld these days, so I guess they have this market cornered now.
Hostelworld is not just for hostels. Depending on the location, it also often lists local guesthouses, budget hotels, B&Bs and even luxury hostels (yes, this is a thing now). It’s a good one to check even if you’re not keen on dorm accommodation—as it covers a lot more than that.
A few tips for finding great hostels:
1. Obviously, pay attention to the overall rating. Have a look as well at the rating for ‘Atmosphere‘. If this is anywhere below a 7.0 or so, I avoid it. If the Atmosphere rating is anywhere around a 9.0, you can bet this is one of the most social and popular traveller hubs in the city. Try playing with the Filters as well. I have little pet peeves that I filter for; for instance, I always want my hostels to have secure lockers for my important belongings (some hostels in developing countries don’t have this).
2. If you’re not super young anymore (full disclosure: I’m in my thirties) you might not want to stay in a hostel that’s 100% youth focused. Most hostels are good for all ages, but some are party hostels aimed squarely at the young or young-at-heart. Have a look at how a hostel markets itself; words like ‘free shot on arrival’ or ‘daily bar crawls’ will give you obvious clues. That said, if a hostel has a bar that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s party central! Many hostels have a small bar that’s just part of their social area.
3. Go for medium-size hostels. I like hostels with around 30 to 50 beds, as this is enough to make things lively but small enough to keep things personal and homely. Unfortunately, Hostelworld doesn’t tell you directly how many beds a hostel has, so you can only infer this from the description and photos (how big is the building? does it have a giant reception area?) as well as the number of room options being given.
4. Avoid large chains. Hostels with “HI” or “YHA” in the name are part of Hostelling International or the Youth Hostelling Association. Sometimes they’re good, but I usually find independent hostels much better. In Europe, don’t be too impressed by large chains such as A&O, Meiniger or St. Christopher’s… these are like the McDonald’s of hostels. Look for the more funky and creative backpacker hostels that are either standalone or only part of a small chain.
5. Check the descriptions for cool stuff! Is there a nice bar, a roof terrace, nightly bonfires or BBQs? Great! Do they offer walking tours and other activities? Even better! Hostels aren’t just about the bed you sleep in, but the environment they offer. Occasionally you find a hostel that offers a daily family-style dinner, and these are just gold for meeting people. There’s something about all eating together that gets the travel stories flowing and turns everyone into best buds.
Sometimes you find hostels with cool concepts like tree houses, cave rooms, eco lodges, and so on, so it’s always worth having a good browse.
The original concept of Airbnb is simply wonderful: it lets regular people share their house on a part-time basis, giving visitors truly local places to stay that are often cheaper than hotels.
There has been some negative news around Airbnb and similar services lately though. A lack of regulation and an influx of companies (instead of individuals) using the platform has had unfortunate effects on rent prices for locals. Both cities and Airbnb seem to be addressing these issues, or at least trying to. In the meantime, you can use Airbnb responsibly by picking properties that seem to be actual people’s homes.
A key thing to understand about Airbnb listings is that the ratings are generally not so useful. This is because there are very few negative reviews. People simply find it too embarrassing or impolite to criticise someone’s actual home… a place that is clearly deeply personal to them. (According to a study, almost no reviews are scored under 3.5).
That’s why you should pay more attention to the volume of reviews, or the general impression you get from the listing or photos. I tend to look for photos that are nice but not too professional, and properties that don’t seem overly styled like they belong in an IKEA catalogue. These are often run by faceless companies instead of friendly locals.
If you want to give Airbnb a try, use this special invite link. As a gift you’ll get a $30 credit for free for your first stay (and hey, Airbnb will also give me some free credit for referring you, so we both win!)
Other ways to find cheap places to stay
- Wimdu and Roomarama are two alternatives to Airbnb.
- Couchsurfing connects travellers with hosts around the world, letting you stay on someone’s couch or in their spare bedroom for free. This system is heavily dependent on trust, and you need to be able to pick your hosts wisely, though it can be a great way to travel cheaply and meet locals.
- On Homestay.com you pay to stay in a local person’s home (kind of like Airbnb), but they will also be there to host you (a bit more like Couchsurfing).
- Travelfreak has this helpful overview of Airbnb alternatives, which offer home and vacation rentals that you might not know about.
- If you’re okay with staying in a single place for a few weeks or even a few months, you could try house-sitting, for instance through Trusted Housesitters. You’ll be expected to look after someone’s house while they’re away. Thanks to Trusted Housesitters, my sister recently spent a lot of time in Spain enjoying a wonderful house with a pool and a beautiful view while taking care of a cat and some chickens. I’d like to try house sitting for myself soon!
- I haven’t mentioned this at all so far, but if you’re backpacking or travelling long-term, you can often also just follow the recommendations from other travellers you meet. This is particularly effective in low-cost countries in Asia and Latin America where there’s an ample supply of hostels and cheap guest houses. Sometimes all you have to do is go to the next town or city without a reservation, but armed with several good tips for hostels or guesthouses from people you’ve met.
P.S. This page has some affiliate links, as explained here.