Accommodations often end up being the priciest part of your trip. Hotels can run hundreds of dollars per night, especially in popular cities like Paris, Rome and New York. Renting a home, though often cheaper than a hotel, can also set you back hundreds of dollars per night. The good news: There are plenty of ways to save on hotels and home rentals, as well as alternatives to these accommodations, that can keep the cash-strapped traveler on budget.
Booking Your Hotel
The best way to save money on a hotel room is to plan in advance. “You’ll rarely find good deals at the last minute, especially around holidays or big events,” says Melanie Nayer, an award-winning travel writer and brand consultant.
She suggests snagging a good deal when you see one, even if you’re not 100% sure you’ll be taking the trip. Most hotels only charge you a fee if you cancel your trip 15 days or less before your expected date of arrival.
Prices vary depending on when and where you’re traveling — it’s important to be aware of the reasons why hotels offer lesser rates during specific times. During the spring monsoon season in Asia, for example, prices will be cheaper because many travelers don’t want to be caught in the torrential downpour. And in August in Europe, hotels may be more affordable in cities like Paris or Rome because many Europeans have fled to beachside resorts — the downside is that many museums and galleries might be closed in their absence.
To find deals during the season you want to travel, use sites like Hotels.com for general information. Then, when you’ve decided on a neighborhood and price range, begin to contact the hotels directly to see if they can offer you deals. Many large hotel conglomerates such as Starwood and Intercontinental even have their own smartphone apps.
If you're down to the wire and need a hotel room, apps such as Hotel Tonight will find you deals on open rooms.
In your quest for the best hotel deal, don't discount location. "Plan out where you are going to visit," suggests Nayer. "Then consider finding a hotel in that area, even if it's touristy and the average price is a little higher" -- as this may ultimately save you money because you may save on transportation costs by being in the center of the action, as well as be near public transportation, which is usually cheaper than a taxi.
Bargaining Down the Price of Your Hotel (And Getting Extras)
Nayer says she uses the big hotel aggregator sites like Hotels.com to get a baseline price for the hotel room, but then goes directly to the hotel to see if she can score deals.
“I’m a big believer in the policy that if you ask, you’ll probably find the answer you want to hear,” says Nayer. She means this specifically in reference to hotel rooms, which are often more than willing to accommodate guests when they ask if there are any special deals.
“Quite frankly, a friendly smile or a polite way of approaching the question goes a long way,” says Nayer, something that anxious travelers often forget.
Nayer also recommends going directly to the hotel's website to look for deals since you’ll often find package deals that might not be advertised anywhere else. Certain hotels will include tickets to theaters, tours, or even private transportation to and from the airport, for example. Such add-ons can really make a difference on a trip where you're doing a lot of sight-seeing.
They’ll also offer packages tailored for romantic weekends, off-season travel, or even family getaways. Nayer is a big fan of asking for substitutions tailored to your travel itinerary. "Suppose there's a romantic getaway package, but you're traveling alone," she says. "Ask if you can switch out the candlelit dinner for two with free parking for the weekend." Hotels, she says, are usually amenable to working out a fair price.
Swapping and Couch-Surfing
Not paying for a room is also an option for a frugal traveler if you're willing to house swap with another family, or even couch-surf, a new trend that requires you to place your trust -- and your vacation -- in the hands of a total stranger.
When exchanging a house, start by doing research on a website tailored to the practice. These include Camago.com, which offers quizzes to potential swap partners, KnowYourTrade.com, a home swap review site, or HomeLink.org, a home exchange organization based in 80 countries that has been in the business for 60 years.
Katie Costabel, the owner of HomeLink, suggests contacting the family with whom you'd like to switch homes three to six months in advance — or even farther in advance if you're traveling for a major event like the Olympics.
Although you have to consider all of the obvious things — location, whether or not pets or children are allowed, proximity to activities — you also must vet the family with which you're exchanging homes to see if their interest and taste align with your own. This can be done, Costabel says, by exchanging numerous emails, photographs, or even phone calls.
Then, she says, you have to rely on your instincts. "If you don't feel at ease with this person, all you need to do is politely bow out of the discussion," she says. "But don't wait until plane tickets have already been purchased."
The same logic applies to couch-surfing, a trend that revolves heavily around the website Couchsurfing.com, which has six million users in more than 100,000 cities. In 2012, over 10.2 million people used the site to find a host during their travels.
The term couch-surfing is actually misleading -- much of the time, hosts actually offer extra bedrooms or even guest houses to the people they welcome into their homes for free. Couch surfers will find themselves on an actual couch less frequently.
Couch-surfing comes with obvious risks -- you might not get along with your hosts, with whom you'll be in close proximity. Or the accommodations might be different than what you saw in the pictures. But like any other frugal traveler, if you do your research, and read reviews, the experience might actually enhance your vacation — and if your hosts are great, who knows, maybe you'll make a friend for life.
Renting a House
Renting a property can be cost effective — but it also requires a lot more background research than staying at a hotel. To start, check out sites like HomeAway.com or VacationHomeRentals.com or even Craigslist to browse houses in the area where you will be vacationing.
Taking location into consideration is just as important with a rental as it is with a hotel — but with a rental, you'll also want to look out for hidden costs.
These could include paying for utilities, cleaning services, Internet, or even heating in the pool. You want to make sure that you know exactly what you'll be charged before even stepping foot in the house, to avoid being surprised by additional items on a rental bill once you leave.
Finally, have an emergency contact person ready to call if there is some sort of problem that requires paying a professional — a leaky roof, for instance, or a broken washing machine. You don't want to be stuck harassing the owner after you've left for reimbursement of services that aren't your responsibility.