Are you a fan of lifeless chain hotels and mass tourism resorts?
Yeah, me neither.
When I travel, I always try to go for the charm and warmth of smaller independent hotels, backpacker hostels, or B&Bs. Not only are these much more cozy places to stay, they’re often much more budget-friendly too!
One of the cool things about traveling independently is that you can always cherry-pick your accommodation.
Even though the booking platforms can make it difficult sometimes, using the right methods you can often find wonderful gems that are also easy on the wallet.
Finding cheap but good hostels
Hostels offer amazing value for money. They typically offer dorm rooms as well as private rooms. Some of the facilities or amenities might be shared.
Hostels have gotten better and better over the years. Some are still super basic ‘youth hostels’ purely for shoestring travelers, but many have hotel-like qualities but for far less money.
The biggest and best site for finding hostels is Hostelworld. They pretty much own the hostel market.
Hostelworld is not just for hostels. It also lists local guesthouses, budget hotels, B&Bs and even luxury hostels (yes, this is a thing now).
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.
2. 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.
3. If you’re not super young anymore (full disclosure: I’m well into 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 or aimed at a younger and wilder audience. Check how a hostel markets itself; words like ‘free shot on arrival’ or ‘daily bar crawls’ will give you obvious clues. That said, a hostel with a bar isn’t necessarily a party central. Many have a small bar just for socializing.
4. Go for medium-size hostels. I like hostels with around 30 to 50 beds. It’s big enough to make things lively but small enough to keep things personal. Hostelworld doesn’t tell you how many beds a hostel has, but you can often guess from the photos and the room options given.
5. 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, I’m not so impressed by large chains such as A&O, Meiniger or St. Christopher’s… these are like the McDonald’s of hostels. The more funky and creative backpacker hostels are often standalone or only part of a small chain.
6. 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. Hostels with a daily family-style dinner are absolutely gold for meeting people. Look for these if you’re solo.
If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, you can read more about how hostels work.
Finding cheap but good hotels
Looking for a nice local hotel? Then well-known booking sites like Expedia or Orbitz are not always so great.
In my opinion, they tend to focus on expensive high-margin listings or uninspiring chain hotels. Their business model often prevents them from adding smaller accommodation.
I recommend making Booking.com your first port of call.
Their business model is different. Other sites basically buy beds in bulk, but Booking.com 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, or part of a chain or independent.
The key to Booking.com is its filtering system. Surfacing the truly good stuff usually takes a couple of steps:
1. On the search 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Finding the best Airbnbs
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. It seems cities are trying to address these issues. In the meantime, you can use Airbnb responsibly by picking properties that appear to be actual people’s homes.
A key thing to understand about Airbnb listings is that the ratings are not so useful. This is because there are very few negative reviews. People simply find it too embarrassing or impolite to criticize 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 look nice but don’t show interiors that are just blandly styled by a larger company.
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!)
A cute farmer’s house (‘trullo’) I stayed in Italy, under 20 EUR per night.
Other ways to find cheap places to stay
- Wimdu and Roomarama are two alternatives to Airbnb. Check out this helpful overview of Airbnb alternatives, which offer home and vacation rentals that you might not know about.
- 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).
- 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.
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