Accommodation is a concern of every traveller, whether looking for a place to pitch a tent or a luxury suite in a fancy resort. Booking accommodation, dealing with the vast array of accommodation options, and considering alternative lodging options are all issues that travellers face.
Finding accommodation can be one of the most frustrating aspects of planning your travels. There are two ways to solve the accommodation problem: booking in advance or finding a place on the day.
Booking in advance
Booking in advance gives the traveller peace of mind that they will have somewhere to sleep once they arrive at their destination.
- Over the internet
- Through a travel agent
- Over the telephone
However, hotel managers have to fill beds so it's not uncommon for travellers having booked a room, particularly at the lower end of the cost scale, to arrive to find that it has been resold.
You can book accommodation on-line, either at the hotel's own web site or at the website of an agency. Depending upon where you are going, this can be extremely useful. Yet if you are travelling to somewhere a bit more out of the way, for example, a small city or town, you may find something, but there will be accommodation options not listed on the internet. In this situation, it is better to find accommodation "on the day", as described below.
Meta-search (price comparison) websites are very useful. They offer an on-line service which searches and compares numerous accommodation websites at once to return the cheapest price across them all. This saves time as they do the searching and comparison for you.
Sometimes, a hotel has its own web site but doesn't publish the dates for which it still has vacancies. Completing a "Contact us" form or sending an email should obtain every detail you need.
On-line reservation is increasingly becoming the most common way of booking accommodation (sometimes the only way); unfortunately the downside is that a credit card is required to complete the reservation – so you will be out of luck if you don't have one (sometimes getting a debit or pre-paid VISA/MasterCard may work). Moreover, you will need to check the rate being offered if payment is needed immediately or upon arrival/departure. Discounted rates usually require that payment be made immediately, but regular rates will allow you to pay upon arrival or check-out at the property. In the case of the latter, you do not need to settle payment with the same credit card used for making the reservation; you can pay using cash in many establishments. However, you may still be required to present the credit card used for making the reservation (especially for pre-paid/advance purchase bookings to reduce card fraud).
For booking by email, the sequence of events is roughly the same, with some steps omitted when not applicable:
- first, ask whether your dates are available; ask for up-to-date prices
- inquire on your preferred rooms and other essential details
- ask to reserve for your dates
- ask for confirmation for your embassy; provide all personal details (passport details of every visitor etc) they may need to issue the confirmation
- in the end, ask for cancellation policy, directions to the hotel and other practical details that don't affect your decision to stay there.
When you use a non-native language for writing to a hotel, it works best to ask one or two questions per email, get answers and then choose your next questions. Asking all questions at once frequently results in huge delays that can be broken only by a telephone call.
Avoid giving sensitive financial information such as credit card details through email. Use the website's booking engine for that instead and make sure you see in your browser a padlock that is locked (which should appear when using https:// at the start of the URL).
Travel agents often have deals with specific hotels, although you may find it possible to book other forms of accommodation, like camping grounds, through a travel agent. Travel agents usually offer packages that include breakfast, transportation arrangements to/from the airport or even combined flight and hotel packages. They can also hold the reservation for you if you need time to think about the offer or procure other documents for your destination (e.g. visa). Any amendments or requests though should be coursed through the travel agent first and not directly with the hotel.
Consumers often find the best lodging rates by calling travel suppliers directly. Contacting the specific property, rather than the chain's main toll-free telephone line, provides the best opportunity to negotiate discounts and ask about specials (advertised and unadvertised). In the U.S., hotel and lodging listings can be found for free either by name or category via 1-800-Free411.
Cancelling a reservation
You might have to change or cancel a reservation. For example if your plane/train/bus is delayed or cancelled and you therefore arrive a day later.
Depending on how you booked the accommodation, you may be able to contact the hotel or pension directly by phone or internet to make the necessary change/cancellation. If it was booked through a travel agent or consolidator, you may need to go through them.
Pay attention to the cancellation policy when you make the reservation. Most hotels will require a credit card number to guarantee the room. They will usually charge you for one night if you cancel less than 24 hours before arrival. In some popular tourist destinations such as Hawaii or Las Vegas, this minimum notice may be as long as 72 hours, or you may be charged for the entire stay. This can happen even when you make reservations through a travel agent and your delay is caused by transportation also arranged by that travel agent.
On the day
If you have planned your trip yourself, which means you have not decided to use a package from a travel agent, sometimes finding accommodation when you arrive is the best option.
If you have not made reservations in advance, this should be your first priority upon arriving. The best and/or cheapest hotels have a tendency to fill up most quickly, and looking for a place to sleep as darkness falls can be an anxious – and even dangerous – experience.
It is sometimes frustrating to be reading a guidebook and looking for the listed recommendations trying to decipher an unfamiliar map having just travelled for several hours. Walk around and inquire at the first few places you see. Courage and confidence are required for this type of thing, especially if you are not using your native languages. However, it is sometimes easier to do this rather than tracking down listings, especially for the first night.
Larger cities and popular tourist destinations may have "tourist information offices". These may be operated by the local government, a consortium of local hotels and attractions, or independent parties (of varying trustworthiness). These frequently offer listings of hotels and other lodging options (e.g. hostels, bed-and-breakfasts). Some act as booking agents for hotels, placing visitors in facilities with vacancies (though there may be a fee for this service).
Looking at last-minute accommodations may not be feasible if your intended destination country requires a visa be obtained in advance; many such countries require that aliens have already arranged accommodation before approving a visa or admitting a traveller into the country.
- Newly opened hotels. Frequently, the best hotels are those just opened. Beyond being new and modern, they need to attract clientèle, and may strive to offer more comfort or services for less money. It often makes sense to ask locals upon arrival which hotels / pensions, etc, have opened in the last year or two.
- Last-minute offers. Many hotels discount their unsold rooms and sell them through specialist 'last minute' type consolidators. The reduced rates available from these consolidators are not usually advertised in the hotels themselves (the hotels do not want to advertise these lower rates to guests who are paying full rates). Contacting a consolidator directly can save you money and, especially in larger cities, legwork – the better companies will usually telephone the hotels within your budget to confirm availability, important when you've got tired legs in a large city like London for example. Look for consolidators offering both telephone and online booking services so you are not dependent on internet access when trying to find a hotel.
- Off season. Check business hotels for weekends and resort hotels for weekdays, be aware of local holidays and consider non-peak seasons. Some establishments publish off season prices, for others negotiating a better price may be possible. Depending on your destination, some individual attractions may be closed off-season; check whether what you want to see is open before booking a trip.
Types of accommodation
- See also: Hostels
Hostels, also referred to as backpackers or youth hostels (for historical reasons; there is usually no upper age limit now in most regions). These are usually low-budget dormitory accommodation but may also have private rooms available. Usually kitchen facilities are a must, but the kitchen may be sacrificed in third-world countries where labour is cheap and even impecunious young visitors are rich in local wage terms.
Hotels provide private serviced rooms for guests. They range from very basic budget-style to extremely luxurious accommodation; various rating systems award "stars" (or "diamonds", in one automobile association system) based on levels of provided amenity. Grand old hotels are glamorous hotels, usually dating back a hundred years or more.
- Capsule hotels are a cheap form of accommodation in Japan, usually more or less on par with a dorm bed in a hostel, in terms of pricing. The "rooms" are little more than small one-person capsules with only a mattress, radio, and TV (which usually boasts a variety of Japanese porn channels). Note that most capsule hotels are segregated by gender, while many, if not most, don't accept female guests at all.
- See also: Motels
Motels (motor hotels or motor courts) evolved from the primitive cabin camps of the 1930s to become inexpensive, single-story hotels in which motorists entered their rooms directly from the car park instead of through an inside corridor. In the 1950s, many of these were built quickly and inexpensively at the edge of towns on the main two-lane highways of the era. As these roads were increasingly bypassed by freeways, independent motels began to decline, ultimately being supplanted by economy limited service hotel chains which appeared at motorway exits in the 1980s and 1990s. In some European countries, "motel" may refer to any low-cost hotel; in others (particularly in South America) it may refer to a "no-tell motel" where rooms can be rented for as little as a few hours. In Oceania, it is common for motel rooms to incorporate mini-kitchens often fully equipped with utensils, cutlery and crockery for preparing your own meals.
Historically, inns were local roadhouses which offered food, water, stables, drink and lodging at short, periodic intervals on the main horse and stagecoach roads. These date to imperial Roman times, but were largely supplanted by downtown hotels in the railway era, which in turn lost traffic to roadside motels (and then to chain hotels) in the motorcar era.
As any establishment offering any of the functions of the coaching inns is free to use "inn" in its name, a few establishments brand a British-style pub, restaurant or tavern as an "inn" even if they offer no lodging facilities. Most use the term "inn" as just another modern synonym for "hotel", where it often appears in names of major chains - including some with no restaurant. A "motor inn" or "motor lodge" is a motel.
Bed and breakfasts
Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs) and Guesthouses provide private, serviced bedrooms for their guests. However, they are typically private residences and you will interact with your hosts and other guests, often eating together and sharing common spaces. Bed and Breakfasts and Guesthouses are found both inside and out of major centres. Many market themselves as providing a "quiet escape"; others eschew formally marketing themselves at all, relying on word of mouth and repeat visitors or just a swinging "Vacancy" sign to attract passing travellers in rural areas. In Cuba only, B&B guest houses are billed as casa particular, the Spanish-language term for "private home". In France, a "gîte" as a tourist home does not necessarily include breakfast; in Canada, "gîte" and its variants (gîte du passant, gîte et déjeuner) are almost always B&B's, even where "déjeuner" (breakfast) isn't spelled out explicitly.
There are many associations and websites that offer help finding a Bed and Breakfast in your travel area.
A hospitality exchange or home stay network is an organization that connects travellers with local residents in the cities they're visiting. If travellers can connect with the right people at the right time, they can get room and sometimes board in the place they're visiting for free or at very modest prices. Network size goes from a few thousands to a hundred thousands, and most networks are growing steadily.
A related variant is home exchange, which involves staying in private homes during times they would otherwise be vacant. This provides room but no board.
Ships and trains
On long rail journeys, a sleeper car is often available for a price, allowing the traveller to sleep in moderate comfort on the train. Bunks and cabins are also available on some overnight ferry trips, such as the six to fourteen hour voyage from Canada to Newfoundland and many of the Baltic Sea ferries.
Typically, the least expensive options are crowded and noisy; more comfortable accommodation is available at a premium.
Car camping, Caravaning or RV camping involves carrying your equipment in your motor vehicle, which you drive right to your campsite. The focus is usually to enjoy the site, cook-outs, day hikes, and other outdoor activities. Some use their vehicle for transportation, pitching a stand-alone tent to sleep in; others pull a pop-up trailer/tent or use their car or van as part of the tent or shade structure. Some drive large vans or recreational vehicles which may include many of the comforts of home (on a more compact scale).
Caravan parks tend to have two or three types of accommodation: powered sites to put your caravan and car; caravans owned by the park that you can stay in; and small cabins with a bit more space. Often they also have an area separate from the caravan parking area, for those with just a tent. In some locations, the site also hosts a marina.
Caravan parks are usually located in medium sized towns and cities, or in very popular tourist spots. Some commercial camp grounds provide showers, a general store, picnic areas, an amusement park, a beach or an outdoor swimming pool.
At some destinations, it is possible to rent houseboats or other small craft with sleeping bunks, a campstove-equipped galley and primitive toilet facilities on-board. Marinas may be able to offer short-term dock rental with some caravan park-like amenities such as shore power hookups and wi-fi.
Camping is do-it-yourself accommodation: you carry your roof and your bedding in your backpack or your car. It's often the only choice of accommodation you have when you're travelling off the beaten track, but there are also very popular sites for camping holidays. Many car camping sites have an area for those coming with just a tent. On these, or other areas especially for campers, there are usually at least basic facilities, such as fresh water and toilets.
Camping is a common option in national parks and similar. Always check whether you need a permit to camp, how much it costs and whether your choice of site will be restricted. You generally need to get permits either in advance or on arrival. Many popular national parks or protected sites have limited camping to particular sites and some have banned it altogether. When hiking, there will often be set camp sites a day's walk apart, and often you are forbidden to camp between them. The facilities may be much more basic than at normal camping areas.
Permits can typically be obtained in advance or on arrival, but may be hard to get or sell out during very popular holiday periods. At very popular holiday periods the permits may actually quite hard to get and sometimes sell out months in advance – don't blithely plan a Christmas camping holiday without being sure you can get a permit if you need one.
In e.g. the Nordic countries the right to camp is a fundamental part of the right to access: you may put your tent more or less anywhere for a night or two, as long as your camping does not disturb or harm nature or people (out of sight, out of mind, mostly, but keep out of sensitive areas and check campfire regulations separately). If you want facilities, use paid camping grounds. In protected areas, check local rules. See also Primitive camping in Denmark, Urban camping in Japan, California desert camping and Camping in the United States.
Cabins and cottages in rural destinations, such as hunting or fishing outfitters camps, represent one step up from camping. These vary from primitive shelters to small buildings with most of the comforts of home. Popular in remote locations (such as a small, quiet lake at the end of a long, winding, poorly-marked country road), but also at camping sites and as an alternative to hotels at resorts. Visitors are generally expected to make their beds and clean up for themselves.
For the end-of-winding-road version, check whether facilities you expect are provided and be prepared if not. Electricity and running water (hot or otherwise) may not be available and heating may be in the form of a wood stove. You may need to bring your own linen, food or other supplies. There may even be some walking or boating required to get to the cabin. The most primitive ones can be excellent for "getting away from it all", and may even be cheaper than a tent lot at a camping area.
Villas can usually accommodate a minimum of four people, offering more space and privacy than a hotel room. Each typically has its own kitchen, living/dining room, bedroom and in many cases a private swimming pool. The rental price is charged per week, which for extended stays may prove more cost-effective than a hotel.
- See also: Timeshares
Like a privately-owned summer cottage, a condominium or timeshare requires that the traveller incur the capital cost of real estate ownership at destination. Unlike a private cottage, a condominium confers ownership of just one room or suite in a larger building; a timeshare confers partial ownership (typically one room of a hotel or resort for one week a year).
These arrangements can be inflexible as the owner/investor continues to incur significant expense even during years when they don't have time to travel, cannot afford to travel or would prefer to go elsewhere for a change. As with any bet on real estate, prices can rise or fall substantially over time.
- See also: Vacation rentals
Vacation rentals are houses and apartments of residents of popular tourist destinations, which are leased to visitors. The residence may have been bought specifically for this purpose or the normal occupants may vacate it during some parts of the year. The guests will have full use of the residence, usually with utilities included but no servicing or meals. This approach can be cheaper than booking a hotel room for the same length of time (and give more space than a hotel room), especially if travelling with a family or other sizeable group of people. Facilities will vary depending on the property, but usually include kitchen and laundry facilities and possibly amenities like a swimming pool (or access to a communal pool), a games room (table tennis, pool, game consoles), and TV/video/DVD players. Contacting the owners directly is the ideal way to make arrangements as they can answer any questions you may have about the property, and may offer more competitive pricing since there's no middle-man.
- See also: Novelty architecture
There are exotic hotels in some areas:
- in sandstone caves: Goreme (Turkey), Ia (Santorini, Greece)
- in rock caves: (Matala, Greece; 'Anatolian Houses' near Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey)
- on trees: Rafter's Retreat in Kitulgala (Sri Lanka); tree houses in Olympos and Çıralı (Turkey)
- on rock cliffs
- on moving vehicles (a rail sleeper car is standard enough, but a blimp or a Zeppelin?)
- in theme parks or pioneer village living museums, styled or restored to match the park
- in a nature preserve, as a three-story giant mushroom (Reino Fungi Lodge, Panguipulli, Chile)
- beside the midtown New York Public Library, a 10-story Library Hotel's numbered rooms whose artwork and décor follow Dewey's Decimal System
- ice hotels: Sweden (Jukkasjärvi), Norway, Canada (Quebec City), Finland (Kemi) and Romania
- island hotels: Sveti Stefan (originally a fishers village)
- underwater bedroom: Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (Maldives), Jules Undersea Lodge (Key Largo FL US)
as well as unusual hostels:
- in a former convict settlement (Darlington, Tasmania)
- in a decommissioned jail (Ottawa-Gatineau, Canada, Helsinki (Finland), Stockholm and Visby (Sweden))
- Faux wigwams/teepees: Holbrook AZ, San Bernardino CA, Cave City KY (US)
- Caboose inns (in decommissioned rail cars): (US, various)
- Cabin court of permanently-installed VW minibus or camper vans
- Nostalgia motels restored to 1940s or 1950s themes (US Route 66)
- Grain silos as individual motel rooms or short-stay apartments: (Little River, NZ)
- Underground motels (including a few former mine sites in Australia)
Novelty bed and breakfast
- Historic lighthouses
- Shipboard floating B&B's ('Golden Slipper' yacht, Boston; 'Alexander Henry' museum ship, Kingston)
- On islands reachable only by cruising on small craft or off-road, off-grid locations
- In caves ('Kokopelli's Cave' near Mesa Verde National Monument, New Mexico)
- Oversize dog house ('Dog Bark Park Inn', Cottonwood, Idaho, a pine guesthouse shaped like a giant beagle)
- Tramway or rail cars, decommissioned
- Tree house (an oversize 'Cedar Creek Treehouse' near Mount Rainier National Park, WA US)