How to: Pick a Hotel For Vacation

Photo credit: Free for Commercial Use via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

Figuring out where you will sleep every night on vacation can be complicated. There is a lot to think about. It's not just what price is the cheapest. You also have to question: how will I get there from the airport? Am I renting a car at my chosen destination, and, if not, is there suitable public transportation nearby? Will I be able to shop and dine as needed? If you are staying some distance away from the hotel, town, beach, or any other area you are visiting, keep gas prices in mind; will the gas prices mitigate any hotel/airbnb savings you acquire? What about your happiness? Will you be OK driving to and from your final destination on a daily basis?

Maybe you don't put as much thought into hotel-seeking as I do. That's ok. If you are the kind of person to click through to Travelocity, Orbitz, or even your favorite chain, then maybe this post isn't for you. But if you are interested to know how I look for, choose, and book hotels, then read on… :)

As you may or may not know, I am in the midst of planning and booking two winter vacations for the end of 2016/beginning of 2017. My husband and I have limited vacation time of which I intend to take full advantage of. So within the past week, when I haven't been blogging or editing photos (or working!), I've been spending all of my time researching. And if you think about that, all of that extra time adds up. Picking a hotel is a big deal. And it's not just the typical things you think about that matter (like view, proximity, or price for instance), sometimes it's something as small as feeling valued (a free cookie upon your arrival to a Doubletree Hotel) or not bringing home bedbugs. All of the little things add up making or breaking what otherwise could be an amazing (or not) vacation.

1. When planning a trip, I first need to find a place I am at ease with. I realize this has nothing to do with picking a hotel, but … it also has everything to do with picking a hotel. Just two weeks ago, I knew my husband and I were going somewhere over Christmas break but I wasn't sure where. A week before that, before we booked flights randomly to Hawaii(!!), I would have told you we would probably be spending Christmas in Greece, Switzerland, Italy, or Germany. Those were the key places I was searching for flights to. Then Hawaii happened. Delta published a fair deal and my cheap (but not without reason) husband said "Book it!" He never exclaims those two little words to me, so I had no choice. But my heart was still … sad. I felt off kilter and not myself; my desire was to travel to Greece or Italy for Christmas, not somewhere in the US! But with a big trip like Hawaii in the picture, Europe, quite frankly, was out.

I started thinking … Florida … Keys, St. Petersburg, Miami … No, no, no. None of those sounded quite right. North Carolina to learn to ski? Close but no cigar. Chicago? Ehhhhh… NYC? … again? … nope.

Nothing felt right.

So I googled: "Where are the best places to spend Christmas in the US?"

Frankly, no one else had any idea either. I scoffed as I read "Atlanta" on one list. Yeah, right. Great place to spend Christmas, my foot! Of course, that made every other destination on the list a waste of time. My desire was for the beauty of France – the Christmas lights, the magic, the architecture… Nowhere in the US could have anything quite so heavenly, right?

Then I saw it. Out of the blue. Pages and pages of google search in: Quebec City. 😮 😊

That was it! Beautiful architecture! Snow (or at least the possibility of). the French language?! Raclette!

But could we get there for cheap-enough?

Photo credit: kevin dooley via Visualhunt / CC BY

2. This is where transportation decisions come in.

Justin and I have the Chase Sapphire card with 33,000 Ultimate Rewards points available to us. Yes, I'd love to have more (Chase Reserve with 100,000 UR points maybe?!), but I didn't know what I was doing when I first got my hands on this credit card. I spent the points like they were going out of style. I saved tons of money in the process, but I never restored those points. Because we didn't know how best to use the card, we just didn't use it! But now… 😉

So, I hopped on Rome2Rio. Click, click. Best option: Amtrak from NYC to Montreal. But Amtrak wouldn't let me book with points… More clicking and I discovered Justin and I could take Amtrak from DC with a one hour layover in NYC to Montreal for a total of 6,000 points.

And done! :) At a cost of approximately $70 to fly to DC + 6,000 UR points (approx. worth $60), Justin and I could get to Montreal. Of course we'd have to bus ourselves (or train or rental car) to Quebec, but, given the short distance between the two cities, I was quite confident that I had taken a decent costing trip down a notch … or two. My disbelieving husband concurred. 😀

3. Despite the fact that the husband and I are still in the uber-booking phase and haven't actually pinned down any DC flights or Amtrak trains, I'm already in the midst of researching hotels. When you are looking at being away from home on New Year's Eve, you have to plan well in advance otherwise you will find yourself roomless in a cold city on one of the most exciting nights of the year.

But that's not the only exciting night I'm having to worry about. Our Hawaii vacation, which we do have flights for, will take place over the week of Valentine's Day! Hawaii isn't known for being un-romantic, so I'm having to look at hotels there, now, too.

Dates, my friends, are important and worth consideration. If you aren't planning well enough in advance, you will have a hard time finding whatever it is you want!

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

4. After discovering what is available, I tend to scour TripAdvisor looking for the best hotel reviews and seeing where those hotels are on the map. Depending on who I'm traveling with, I will also take the hotel chain into consideration. My preference: Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Club Carlson, Marriott/SPG (in that order). If there's a really cool hotel that used to make ice, for instance (like the one Justin and I stayed at in Strasbourg, France), that's also taken into consideration. I want the best hotel for the best possible rate in a great location; is that really too much to ask?

5. One useful tool I've only recently begun using is Hotel Hustle. You put in your location and dates and the website (as slow as it can be) spits out a map with hotels pinned to it. Hover over the pin or look at the sidebar to discover what the price for the hotel is and how many points you could pay instead. If you only are interested in certain chains, unmark the unwanted chains in the map key. Unfortunately Hotel Hustle is not the most intuitive and, in the case of Maui, ultimately requires an airport code rather than a city name, which can be frustrating. It also does not provide non-chain hotels as part of the list making it more difficult to compare prices. But Hotel Hustle does at least give you a bird's-eye view of what is available in your chosen area and what's in your price range making it easier to hone in on the best hotel for you.

6. Next up, now that I know the general location and price ranges, I will often click through my prefered chains looking at the reviews (are they mostly positive?) and then seek out the "view from room" pictures. Sometimes when you get into the TripAdvisor albums you discover unwanted things … like images of nasty bathrooms or bed bugs. Further investigation should reveal if the images are recent or not and whether or not the problem has been taken care of. If you go to the Bedbug Registry, you should be able to find the information you need to determine whether or not you should risk staying at a specific hotel and if an image has any validity to it.

Photo credit: samuele.dangelo via Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-SA
7. Looking at images though should give you a good idea of what the hotel is like. Reviewers often suggest the best rooms to stay at, tell you what benefits you will get for having elite status, indicate whether or not there is a terrace or rooftop view, and even let you see whether or not you want a city view … or some other type of view. You can use all of this information when you begin to start looking at booking…

8. After compiling all of that information, I'm still not done! I don't trust TripAdvisor to provide accurate unpaid reviews. Plus it irritates me beyond belief that I can't click on reviews on my phone without having the website suggest I download an app.


So what do I do? Google the hotel + blog review. Maybe I'll start by looking at The Points Guy city guides, or perhaps someone from The Boarding Area blogs has written a review on the hotel with pictures! 😀 These types of reviews always give you a good idea of what you are getting into. Hearing positive comments from multiple bloggers about how they were upgraded despite a lower status tells me to lay low when I'm booking; maybe the hotel will offer to upgrade me for free?! They also give me a good idea of what I'm getting when I book the room. Maybe with my tier status not only am I paying a higher price as that of a room for another chain of "equal" value, but maybe I'm getting a "free" breakfast too. If hotel A is only $10 more than hotel B and I'm getting free breakfast because of my status, then it's probably worth the $10 to stay at hotel A especially since it would be both me AND my husband getting the free breakfast. What's the likeliness we could eat at a restaurant for that price ($10)? But if hotel A is simply $10 more without the free breakfast (or I don't have status), then it might be better to stick with hotel B. Good things to know, right?

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via VisualHunt / CC BY-NC

9. Finally we come to price comparison. Flyertalk, Slickdeals, Kayak, and TripAdvisor all offer useful tools for comparing prices. The forums let you know what discounts are available for the websites you are booking on while Kayak and TripAdvisor allow you to compare websites one to one. Other websites worth keeping in mind include Groupon, Living Social, JetSetter, Visa Signature (if you have a visa signature credit card), Amex Travel, and Travelzoo. Some of the sites I listed are like "clubs" where you join and see the cheaper prices (Groupon, Living Social), but some provide extra amenities for going through their site (free bottle of wine, free breakfast, free hotel credit etc … on sites like Travelzoo, Amex Travel, and Visa Signature). Again, you will have to price compare to determine what works best for you. If you don't drink wine, a bottle included with the price of your hotel room won't be worth as much to you as it might be to someone who purchases a bottle of wine on every trip they take. It's always worth a look though. And don't forget those discount codes! (Even Groupon takes coupons!)

10. Finally, before you book, make sure to check out cashback portals like ebates. DO NOT leave money on the line! Do this for yourself! And your future vacation happiness! 😀 At least visit Cashbackholic and see if a discount on top of your discount is even a possibility!

And, if you forget any of these steps but have booked a cancelable room, feel free to go back and try again! That's what the word "cancel" is all about!

* 11. For the ambitious out there, you also have options to earn points through credit card spend toward hotels. For example, think the IHG card; it costs $50 a year but in value gives you free gold status and one free night a year! (That free night could easily be worth far more than the $50 the card annually costs you!)

Or, you can try for a "best rate guarantee". But those, my friends, are hard. Hotel chains are very particular. If one comparison rate is in Euros and the other is in USD, the chain may not accept it, even if one rate is actually cheaper than the other before transfer fees. And, if one room offers smoking and the other doesn't? It's a no-go. If one is cancelable and the other isn't, nope. Read everything, even the fine print. Get screen shots! And then try for the gold. Worst case: they don't give it to you. But hey! at least you tried! (I've only been successful at this strategy once. Proceed with caution!)

How I feel when I've reached the end of my search!
Photo via Visual Hunt
Am I crazy for getting so involved in the planning and research of this aspect of my vacation? Do you do a lot of research when you are booking hotels/deciding where to go?

Linking up with Tamara Gerber of Confessions of a Part Time Working Mom for #TopTenThursday

* Wanderful Wednesday hosts: Lauren of Lauren on Location, Van of Snow in TromsoIsabel of The Sunny Side of This and Marcella of What a Wonderful World

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