How To Stay In Nice Hotels Without Paying Top Dollar

luxury hotel accommodation
UggBoy UggGirl, Flickr

I still remember the feeling of slipping into 600 thread count sheets after months of staying in backpacker hostels where the bedding was often akin to vintage potato sacks and the mattress boasted a giant dimple where thousands of other young unwashed explorers had slept before me. Settling onto an ergonomic, body-cradling bed, resting against down pillows, waking up to a buffet breakfast with more types of pastry than one could reasonably taste-test before 10 a.m. – it was glorious. There’s just something about a nice hotel that you can’t put a price on. Yet, of course, they do come with a price, and it’s typically a hefty one.

No matter your travel style, it goes without saying that you want to stretch your dollar as far as possible. That often means compromising on accommodation – staying in a bare bones room with questionable stains in the carpet – so you can spend your money on what really matters, which is of course, exploring your destination. Still, few of us would turn down the chance to stay at a nice hotel, especially if we could do it without forking over a whole lot of extra cash. And the thing is, you can stay in nice hotels without paying top dollar – you just have to know how to go about it.The first step, of course, is to search around for a good deal on your accommodation of choice and you’ll find no shortage of booking websites offering discounts (Expedia, Kayak, Hotwire and lastminute.com, to name just a few). But why limit yourself to what’s advertised to the masses? Here are a few other ways of scoring nice digs on a budget.

Haggle. It certainly depends on where in the world you’re traveling, but in many countries, haggling is an expected part of any transaction. So go ahead and ask the receptionist for their “best price” – you’ll be surprised at the number of times you receive a discount. This tactic works best if you haven’t already made a booking and the hotel risks losing your business. Of course, use some common sense and make sure you’re not being unreasonable in your demands, especially if you’re traveling in a developing country (where the locals need those extra few dollars more than you) and the price is already pretty good.

Ask for an upgrade. There are lots of places where negotiating would be frowned upon. I mean, you don’t exactly walk into The Four Seasons and start haggling over your room rate. But what you can do at these kinds of establishments, is ask for some kind of bonus, whether it be an upgrade to a better room type, being placed on a higher floor in the building, getting a room with a nice view versus one that faces the parking lot, or a free breakfast voucher. A surprising number of hotels will oblige your request if they have room available. Just be polite when inquiring and remember to tip when they come through with the upgrade.

Seek out new, independent hotels. A new establishment – especially one that isn’t associated with a major hotel chain – needs to work at attracting guests and building a name for itself, which means they’ll likely offer lower rates to get people in the door. As an added bonus, everything in the rooms will be sparkly and new, and the service will probably be better than usual because the owners are eager to impress.

Stay in business hotels. Hotels geared towards business travelers typically fill up during the working week, but come the weekend, they empty out. As a result, many of these hotels lower their rates over the weekend, making them ideal for leisure travelers looking to save a few dollars. The further away from the tourist centers the hotel is located, the cheaper it’s likely to be (many are found near conference centers or the local business district).

Look for a hotel away from the tourist haunts. Every city has its established hotspots that tourists generally flock to but if you can hunt down the emerging districts you’ll be able to nab accommodation at a much lower rate. Don’t be afraid to venture a significant distance from the downtown attractions – as long as there’s a good public transit system or affordable taxis, you won’t have a problem. In fact, chances are you’ll have a more authentic experience overall when sleeping, eating and shopping in the same district as the locals.

Have you ever had success negotiating down the rate on a nice hotel? What other tactics have worked for you?

Kiwi Cool: Saving Money While Traveling In New Zealand

Saving money in New Zealand - supermarket lamb
Last month, I spent three weeks traveling through New Zealand, focusing mainly on the cities and culture. After living in Istanbul for two years, it wasn’t the culture shock, the jet lag, or the seasonal switch that was hard to adjust to, it was the prices. While I knew New Zealand wasn’t cheap (though their dollar is slightly weaker than ours), I was unprepared for the sticker shock. Dinner and drinks can easily run $50 a head or more, city buses can cost more than a NYC subway ride, and $3.50 for a bottle of water seemed offensive. I did discover a few ways to save money and still enjoy the Kiwi cool.

1. Drink locally, eat globally – New Zealand is known for its excellent wines, and starting to get accolades for their craft beer as well. Whether you’re dining out or picking up a bottle in a supermarket, it’s hard to go wrong with anything made in New Zealand; even the cheapest glass of house “Sav” is likely to be pretty tasty. Also note that many pubs are likely to be “tied” houses (unlike the excellent Free House in Nelson, pictured in my first “Kiwi cool” post) and will carry a limited range of brands, giving you an incentive to stick to the “house” tap. In contrast, for cheap eats, look for foods with origins outside the country; Asian cuisine like sushi, Chinese noodles, and Indian curries are often the most budget-friendly options and given the country’s ethnic mix, just as authentic Kiwi as roast leg of lamb and Pavlova.

2. Rent a car – This is one area where I didn’t follow my own advice, preferring to explore the country on public transportation as my husband is the only driver in the family and my baby is not a fan of car rides (yet she’s perfect on planes). Generally, public transportation in New Zealand is not cheap – a day pass for the Auckland bus system is over $10, taxis from the airport can cost up to $100, and the cost of two bus or train tickets between cities often exceeds the daily rate for a budget rental car. Kiwi companies Jucy and Apex offer older model cars as low as $22 – 34 per day, if you don’t mind a less than sweet ride.

3. Book transportation online – If you do choose to go the public transportation route, it can pay to make your arrangements online rather than in person. By booking tickets for the Waiheke Island ferry online, I saved $7 on each adult fare, even for a same day ticket. As part of the promotion for the new Northern Explorer Auckland-Wellington train, Kiwi Rail was offering two-for-one tickets, check their website for current promotions.

4. Check out motels – In my European travels, I’ve been using AirBnB and other apartment sites to book accommodations, as it pays to have extra space, laundry and a kitchen when you are traveling with a baby. The AirBnB craze hasn’t quite hit New Zealand yet, though you may find luck with BookABach (a bach is a Kiwi word for a vacation home that might be more basic than a typical house). I was more surprised by the quality of motels and motor lodges in New Zealand, they are often modern in style and comfortably outfitted with nice amenities like heated towel racks, electric blankets, and real milk for your coffee standard (a small pleasure compared to the powdered creamer typical in most hotel rooms). Motel rooms range from modest studios to sprawling apartments with jacuzzis. I found a useful directory of accommodations on NewZealand.com, and you can filter for features such as laundry or pool and check for special deals. Golden Chain is a quality collection of independent motels spread over both islands.

5. Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot – Another surprise I found in New Zealand is the lack of free Wi-Fi. Even many coffee shops only offer Internet for a fee, and some accommodations will limit your free connection to 100 mb or so per day. The city of Wellington has set up free hotspots in the city center, but I found the signal hit or miss. A more reliable and affordable option is to make your own hotspot by purchasing a pre-paid SIM card with data. Consult this helpful wiki for rates; I bought a SIM through 2degrees with 1 GB of data for about $20. One other tip is to find the local iSite tourism office for a short period of Wi-Fi access if you need to check email or make travel plans (they can help with booking travel and accommodation too, of course).

6. Shop vintage – After a few days in Kiwi Land, you’ll feel an urge to buy lots of nice merino wool clothing and gifts. For a country with apparently more sheep than people, it is everywhere and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on new sweaters. Another option is to try vintage and thrift shops. I found a lovely baby sweater probably knitted by a nice Kiwi grandmother for $8 in an antique store, just as quality as the $30 one I bought at a market, and both far cheaper than most retail shops. Auckland’s K Road and Wellington’s Newtown have lots of used and “opportunity” shops, often with proceeds going to charity. Eco-friendly fashion is also becoming more widespread, and “recycled” fashion shops can be found in most cities.

7. Stay in on public holidays – One upside to the high cost of a pint of beer is that tipping is unnecessary in New Zealand; the GST tax on goods includes service. However, you will note on many restaurant menus a surcharge for public holidays of 15%. This covers the owner’s cost of paying their employees more for the holidays. Try to avoid dining out on holidays or look at it as a special holiday gratuity.

A bonus tip that may or may not be relevant in the future: follow the rugby fan trail. Started for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 to ease traffic congestion and crowding on public transport, Auckland’s Fan Trail was revived for a match against Australia last month. The trail stretches two miles from downtown to the stadium and is lined with entertainment, food and drinks, and other activities, most of which are free. Even if you aren’t headed to a game, it’s fun to watch both the performers and the fans dressed up to cheer on their team. If you happen to be in Auckland during a future big rugby match, find out if the city plans to run the fan trail again.

Stay tuned for more “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Un-adventurous.”

Motel 6 guest trashes room “to free trapped midget”

Motel 6A 73 year old guest spending the night at a Motel 6 in Spartanburg, South Carolina trashed his room when an incoming call told him to help “free a trapped midget” locked inside a neighboring room. The caller warned him that he was being watched by secret surveillance cameras.

The caller then instructed the hotel guest to throw the TV out the window, after smashing it with a toilet seat. They then asked him to break through the wall into the next room.

The man followed all the instructions, thinking he was helping release the midget, and assist the cops. When a manager went to check the room after noise complaints, they confronted the motel guest in his trashed room.

Amazingly, this is not the first time a prankster has pulled a trick like this, we wrote about similar pranks last year. Apparently, a group called pranknet is behind the calls.

When police arrived, other motel guests told them that they had received similar calls, but did not fall for the prank, so the jokers kept calling other rooms until they got a hold of someone who had some compassion for midgets.

Bottom line – if someone calls your hotel or motel room with a story that sounds too weird to believe, it is probably someone hoping you’ll trash your room “just for fun”.

The motel is not pressing charges, as it became obvious the man had been tricked. A video with the 911 distress calls from the front desk can be found here.

Motel 6 goes for younger image, offers free stays to rock bands

When you think of edgy, hip places to stay, I’d venture a guess that Motel 6 isn’t the first place that comes to mind. But the budget lodging chain is hoping to change that with a new promotion – providing free rooms to a few up-and-coming touring rock bands. The marketing gurus at Motel 6 have asked the bands to blog and tweet about their stays, hoping that the buzz will build brand recognition and positive association among younger customers.

The bands, which were chosen by a music promotion company called Primary Wave Music, will receive six weeks of accommodation at Motel 6 locations along the tour routes. The bands aren’t being told what to say about Motel 6, but the company is obviously hoping for positive press. Even the budget motel has been hit hard by declining travel, with occupancy rates down 5-7% over the last year. Jeff Palmer, VP of marketing, is hoping the promotion will help get Motel 6 back on track, and earn the company some new, younger customers. “If they stay with us young, maybe they’ll remain brand loyal,” he said.

Rock on, Motel 6.