You definitely need good sleep while traveling, no matter what travel budget you have. Selecting a budget hotel is an art, more than a science, and you’ll improve with practice. Otherwise, you might become the horrible tourist that everyone loves to hate—grumpy, exhausted, and generally not enjoying your time away from home.
Whether traveling solo and you only have yourself to deal with, or traveling with friends and family who despise grumpy travelmates, have a look at these tips!
In the Developing World & Inexpensive Developed Countries as Compared to the USA
Anywhere in the developing world, and even in some inexpensive developed countries, I use 5 steps for selecting a budget hotel. My “budget” means the cost is generally $5 to $20 USD per person. I do not stay in dorms, since I require a good night’s 8-hour sleep and like my privacy. Also, I prefer a room with a private bathroom and air conditioning when in hot climates, so will pay $20 for an aircon room, even if I could get a fan room for less.
Note: I typically stay in hotels only in places where Couchsurfing (free) safely and reliably is unavailable or where I traveled before I was aware of the Couchsurfing website (actually, I began traveling before it existed). This includes countries like Mongolia, Croatia, Kenya, Myanmar, Perú. You can see all the places I’ve traveled here. Also, I am often in small towns or villages.
5 Tips! Selecting a Budget Hotel
TIP #1 – Don’t Use a Booking Website
For budget hotels, read a guidebook, preferably one published within the past 2 years. Guided websites like TravelFish are also very useful, since a limited number of hotels are listed and 1 person reviews each hotel.
Reasons for avoiding websites like TripAdvisor.com for budget hotel research, are:
- 100 people providing reviews will have 100 different opinions, and their expectations and needs may be completely different than yours. Reading the reviews is a time trap.
- The cheapest and best budget hotels are not always listed on booking websites, since they already get plenty of business from a high ranking in a guidebook and don’t use the internet.
- By calling the hotel, simply showing up, or using the hotel’s own website, you can often get a lower price than that listed on a booking website, since the website charges fees. Also, by phone or in person you can ask if there is a less expensive room available– the internet is funny sometimes and doesn’t always show everything that is actually available, or if you arrived a day later a cheaper room could be available.
- Note: Booking websites are great for confirming that a hotel is still reputable, once you’ve selected one or two hotels using other methods—just sort the reviews by date and look at the 3 most recent reviews.
TIP #2 – Don’t Commit Until You’ve Seen it in Real Life
Yes, make a reservation by phone letting them know the time and day of your arrival and how long your would like to stay. Upon arrival, walk into the room before making a final decision on whether to accept it. Many budget hotels will offer to show you the room, but if not, ask to have a look. It’s a very standard request. I find, if I tell them what I don’t like about the room, they will show me more rooms and sometimes even give a free upgrade. Smart business people would rather give a discount than lose your business entirely.
- Comfort – Is the bed comfortable? Are springs poking out? Sit on the bed for a moment. This is the perfect time to ask for a different room with a harder, softer, or better bed. Once you unpack your things, you won’t want to re-pack to change rooms. If you feel uncomfortable asking for a different room or can’t speak the language, it’s often enough to scrunch your face and gesture with your hands what you don’t like about the bed. Hoteliers are aware that different people have different preferences in their beds, so it’s just a matter of finding the right one for you.
- Smell – Does the room smell strange? Is there a dumpster outside the window? I like relaxing comfortably after dinner without smelling mold, or anything else. It’s rare that I have this issue, but better to fix it at the beginning, right?
TIP #3 – Bathroom Check
I always forget to do this, and a few times I have kicked myself later. Is the bathroom acceptable? It doesn’t have to be fantastic, but it certainly must meet your needs. Check the bathroom, whether shared or private. Personally, I feel better knowing that I will have a clean place to shower.
- Toilet Paper – It is extraordinarily helpful to know in advance whether toilet paper is provided. If I don’t see it, I ask if they sell it because sometimes it’s just in a special toilet paper holder that I don’t recognize. Trust me on this one—understand your toilet paper situation before it becomes a “situation”.
- Towel – if I don’t see a towel, I ask for one. I avoid using my travel towel, but I do carry one just in case.
- Toilet Type – This is also a good time to see if the toilet is western or squat.
- Shower Type – Check whether the shower is a bucket bath system. If hot water is not commonly available in the area, ask about it. Hot bath water may require you provide notice, so that it can be heated in the kitchen.
- Light Switch – Finally, even if it’s daytime, flip on the light switch. Make sure you know where it is located. Sometimes the light switch is inside the bathroom and other times it is outside the bathroom. When you return from adventuring and dinner in the evening and are full of liquid, you do not want to be searching for the light switch! Again, just trust me on this one.
Traveler Pro Tip
If you’re in a warm climate where buildings are open and bugs come inside, before entering the bathroom at night turn on the lights and wait a few moments before entering. This gives any nocturnal bugs time to run and hide out of sight. Also, before sitting on the toilet at any time of day, lift it and peek underneath. If a gecko emerges from under it when you’re already sitting, it may scare you half to death!
For People Who Don’t Walk Well
Definitely check the bathroom! Often times there is at least a small step up between the room (or the hallway, if shared) and the bathroom. If you’re in a wheelchair, or otherwise don’t walk well, you should confirm that you can get up and down that step.
TIP #4 – Confirm Your Room Cost
Understanding the cost of your hotel room is frequently done verbally. Make sure you have communicated how many people will be staying in the room, because some budget hotels charge by the room, while others charge by the number of guests.
Recently, I arrived at a hotel and was not impressed, since the guidebook gave the price as $20 per room, which I felt was too much for the quality. However, it was an easy decision to stay when the hotelier explained that it was actually $10 per person and included a buffet breakfast with fresh fruit. As a solo traveler, this was exactly my price point and I was extremely happy.
TIP #5 – Prioritize Your Requirements when Selecting a Budget Hotel
It is rare that you will get 5-star amenities at a budget hotel, but not impossible. It depends on how you prioritize. Do you want the private porch with a hammock over a tropical river in Laos ($3 per night), even if it means you sleep in a wood stick hut and the bathroom is a 45-second walk down a path?
What are Your Absolute Requirements?
Typically, my three requirements for a room is that it is clean, I feel safe, and the location is good. However, if I’m taking rest days and will be spending afternoons relaxing at the hotel, certain amenities are added to my list of priorities. I have been known to stay extra days in a place simply because of a lovely porch overlooking a lake ($10 USD in Myanmar) or the aforementioned hammock over a river in Laos. Here is an overall list of priorities for your consideration.
- Cleanliness – Would you be willing to eat dinner off the floor? How about walking around barefoot? I prefer a very clean room over a private bathroom.
- Safety –Ensure that the door locks securely from inside and out. Check that windows have bars on them, if on the first floor. Check that any bedside tables and other surfaces are far from a window, even if it has bars. People can reach in through barred windows and steal your things (I know someone who had their wallet and passport stolen, while napping in their room in Laos.)
- Location – Is the hotel located near a market or restaurants within your budget and food taste? (tips for eating street food safely are here.) Are tourist sites nearby? Otherwise, taxi fares might offset any savings expected by staying at a budget hotel. This is less of a priority if you have a motorbike or other transportation. Make sure it’s not located next door to the morning market or the bus station, unless you plan on waking up before sunrise.
More Useful Requirements
- Reception Desk – Are the people friendly and helpful? A good guidebook will mention this. That’s one of the primary reasons I am a loyal Rough Guide book buyer. The people at my hotels are my go-to people and often improve my trip more than I could have imagined. They offer helpful advice on a great restaurant or an off the beaten path temple with monkeys. They book bus tickets and taxi rides and advise me on hotels in my next destination based on what they hear from other tourists. These people are my guides, travel agents, friends, and buddies. I rely on these people to provide information that isn’t in the guidebook and I would not think to ask about.
- Common Area – A great lobby, rooftop deck, or lakeside porch improves a hotel experience overall, so a less good room might be acceptable in this case. Common areas are great places to meet fellow tourists and exchange information, hook up with for a day trip in a tuk tuk, have someone to chat with, or just relax with.
- Television – Do you want a television in your room or is one in the common area enough for you?
- Wi-Fi – I love my Wi-Fi internet access, however in some hotels, even in the USA, the signal is weak and practically useless. Check that it actually functions before prioritizing it.
- Breakfast Included – Ask what kind of food is included. Sometimes it’s a small, tasteless breakfast, so worth skipping when if delicious food is a short walk away from the hotel. However, similar to the common area, this is the place to meet your fellow tourists. And, if the food is amazing, breakfast may be a highlight of your stay (Nena’s at Plitvice Lake, Croatia has the best breakfast! Homemade bread, jams, meats. So good!!!).
- Air Conditioning or Fan – An air conditioned room may be available for a higher price, but if the weather is temperate, this is the perfect time to save on your budget and select a fan room.
- Bathroom – are you willing to save money and share a bathroom? Maybe your decision will be based on the cleanliness of the shared bathroom. Ask to have a look before deciding. Or, what is the price difference? It may be only a few dollars, so worth the price to avoid walking to and from a bathroom down the hallway.
- Animals – Do cows wander through the front yard adding to the tranquility of your stay? Maybe the hotel has a cute cat on the premises, but you’re allergic to cats. Or, maybe the bathroom is full of mosquitoes. Animals can be wonderful or they can cause you great distress.