Infinity pools, butlers serving afternoon tea complete with those little finger sandwiches I do love so much (crust cut off, of course). That is how I like to travel, with sites like Small Luxury Hotels winning hands down over any budget accommodation website out there.
However, there is a reality I can’t escape – I like to travel for more than your average two-week vacation and absent a limitless budget (which I sadly don’t have), it’s important to focus on this very simple travel math rule: the cheaper you sleep, the longer you can stay on the road.
The good news is that for every high-end site offering luxurious hotels to lure you in, there are countless websites designed to keep your room spend low.
When I hung up my designer handbag in favor of traveling the globe, I had to re-learn how to book rooms with a focus on sleeping for cheap or, better still, free. Based on my experience and recommendations from other travelers, here is a list of some of the best budget accommodation websites.
Best for: Hostels and cheap B&Bs
Hostelworld is the clear leader in the hostel booking domain. They have an extensive choice of dorm rooms you can book around the world including in more obscure locations (Semuc Champey, Guatemala comes to mind). You can also use the site to book low-priced private rooms either in hostels or a Bed & Breakfast. With Hostelworld, there is little need to search elsewhere if you’re looking for a bunk bed for the night.
Best for: HI members
Ok, a slight amendment to my last comment – there is little need to search elsewhere…unless you have a Hostelling International membership card. First off, this is one of my least favorite sites for booking hostels, but if you are a member, you’ll want to bookmark this site and check if each new town has a member property. And with over 4,000 HI hostels around the world, it’s possible that they will. On my travels I’ve experienced a few times when HI hostels have not been listed on Hostelworld or Hostelbookers, yet I’ve been able to secure a bed via the network’s own website.
The site doesn’t list the membership price because it is apparently impossible due to the number of options (dubious frown, translating this brush off as meaning that the prices are set by HI according to what they think is an acceptable charge in each country).
The upsides: you get to shave a few dollars off each night’s stay, get access to hostels HI reserve for members only and can expect a certain level of service, which is usually pretty high in terms of facilities, cleanliness and travel information. The card can get you access to a network of other travel discounts, too.
Best for: sleeping with locals for free
While there might be more than one way to sleep with a local for free, keeping things clean and out of the gutter, Couchsurfing is an internet phenomenon in travel terms that has taken free sleeping to a whole new level. If you don’t know already, it allows global wanderers to arrange a stay in someone’s house for free. That’s right – nada dinero.
As well as being a huge cost saver, many of the hosts will take you on a guided tour of their town. The potential downsides are that it can take some time to find a willing host; you take a gamble on your sleeping space (floor, couch and private wing are all potential options); it’s not ideal if you’re the shy, retiring type; locations aren’t always in the center of town; and, even if you are social, you can feel obligated to spend more time than you’d like with your host. All of that said, did I mention it’s free? And you get a genuine local insight?
My couch is currently residing in my brother’s flat near Shoreditch so let me know if you need a place to crash in London!
Best for: sleeping with a local and paying them
Like couch surfing, except you pay money, Airbnb is another internet booking success story. There are plenty of properties available in over 190 countries so you don’t need to worry about location. In fact, I tracked down a beautiful plantation home to stay in for under $50 a night on an obscure Hawaiian island when the only other alternatives were two competing Four Seasons Hotels (still can’t figure that one out).
Although it’s not free, you tend to get your own room and the variety of properties on Airbnb can be pretty funky – there are tree houses, trains and air streams currently listed. I even saw a mansion on offer for $10 a night in Mexico! Again, set aside some time to let your plans take shape.
Find a crew
Best for: those with sea legs and able to pitch in
I have yet to use this site, which was recently pointed out to me by a travel friend. The concept is a little like couchsurfing, but on the water. Boat owners list their upcoming journeys and advertise for shipmates. The options seem endless from those looking for experienced crew to those who will accept deck hands, cooks and even inexperienced travelers. There are a few people seeking a masseuse, which made me shudder slightly – hey, it may be all above-board (pun intended), but there is a pretty broad range of options on offer. In some cases you are paid (if you have the right skills) and in others you’re expected to contribute to your expenses. Other trips are free.
Both the locations and length of sail can vary vastly from a jaunt in western Europe for two weeks to year-long adventures through Asia. You’ll want to make sure you have the sea legs before you commit to such a long trip, and make sure you bond well with your captain, because the get-out options are likely to be limited, but all round this strikes me as an excellent idea for travelers. Now, I wonder if there is a crew option from Japan to Korea around May? I can cook.
Trusted House Sitter, Mind My House and Luxury House Sitting
Best for: people considering renting a place
Packing your bag every few days can be exhausting and sometimes all you want are the comforts of home…even if it’s not your own home. Whether it’s a new job overseas, a house that is in the process of being sold or a summer home that needs a body in it to make sure the pipes don’t freeze over winter, there are plenty of reasons people leave their homes and want to install a house sitter for the duration of their absence.
And that equals good news if you’re considering renting a place – house sitting can let you have the luxuries of home, but for free.
The downsides? Yes, there can be some – a few chores may be included in your assignment. Gardening, pool cleaning and looking after family pets are the most common (horses are cute, but do you really have the time or ability to look after them?). The other potential complaint is that most sites require you to be a paid member before you can start contacting owners. Rates vary from $10 to $75 for a year. So, you want to be committed to this concept before signing up. That said, if it wasn’t for the fact I need to be England now, I would definitely be looking into the 2 month sitting assignment among the vineyards of South Africa.
Best for: people who like a surprise
Has Priceline had its day? I don’t think so, at least not when it comes to naming your own price. I’ve used this site many times over the years and have almost always had success (the only fail was during my first visit to San Francisco when I ticked the luxury boutique box and ended up with a hotel that could more accurately be described as a smelly shoe box). Anyway, I’ve had better success with a room for $75 in a 5-star hostel overlooking the Harbour Bridge in Sydney and a great spot near Times Square in New York I’d otherwise not been able to afford.
If you don’t already know, Priceline is an auction site where you can name the price you’d like to pay for a room in a hotel in a specified city. If Priceline accept your, you pay that price (plus a fee). Sounds ideal? It is, but only if you are prepared for the unknown. You do not bid on a specific hotel, this is only revealed once the deal is done, by which time you are contractually bound. You should also pay close attention to areas within cities. I read a complaint this week from someone disappointed that their unnamed hotel in Vegas turned out not to be on ‘The Strip’. After closer inspection, the site in question (which wasn’t Priceline) included a map of ‘The Strip Area’, which stretched beyond what you might expect – to most of Nevada.
I would recommend giving it a go and don’t bid too high (research what you would pay in a straight-forward booking). As you’re only allowed to bid so many times per day, you’re better trying this at least a week in advance so you can start your bidding low and build up. As budget hotel websites go, Priceline is perfect for getting more for your money, just don’t get carried away – set a limit and stop when you reach it.
There is a lot of information out there to help you succeed. I used Google when I was bidding on a property in a specific city – it doesn’t take a lot of research to find a list of the possible Priceline hotels you might get. While you can’t rely on such guides being correct or up to date, any extra information is helpful.
Best for: Cheap hotels in Asia
Between thoughts of free sailing trips, stays in tree houses, rolling vineyards and the excitement of booking the unknown, it seems pretty dull to move on to more mainstream booking options, but there will probably come times when all you really want is a stay in a cheap hotel. Communal bathrooms and having to exchange chores for your bed can wear, but that doesn’t mean you need to obliterate your budget.
Agoda is one of the best sites I’ve used for cheap sleeping options in Asia. In a region where no-star hotels are readily available at very affordable rates, it’s worth considering an upgrade. I’ve stayed in a 3-star hotel with pool for under $25 a night during low-season in Thailand and had discounts as high as 75% with Agoda when booking last-minute. However, I would steer clear of this site outside Asia as the rates don’t seem to be competitive.
Best for: last-minute plans meaning big discounts
I know I’m at risk of sounding like a one-woman marketer for this new hotel booking system, but I am genuinely impressed by the savings on offer on Hotel Tonight (the ex-lawyer in me feels the need to confirm I’m in no way affiliated with this site). While it may not strictly be budget, it does offer some impressive deals.
I haven’t made a booking yet because I’m in my home country with plenty of places to stay for free, so can’t justify the spend, but I’ve become a little addicted to checking the prices on offer – a $150 saving on one hotel in central London, last time I checked.
The deal? This is real last-minute booking stuff – i.e. you find yourself in a city, bags in hand and need to find a room that night. You can’t book before midday and can only book a maximum of 5 nights, but the savings seem good. I’m hoping to find myself post-cocktail tipsy in London one night and therefore too lazy to catch the night bus/train home to justify trying this site.
The downsides – unless you have a smart phone, forget it. This is app territory only, you can’t book online (yeah, technically shouldn’t be in this list, but my new obsession couldn’t resist); availability is currently non-existent outside of the big cities (though they look set to expand); and it’s less than perfect if you prefer to have a booking confirmed.
I’m always interested to hear about new sites and apps, so do message me with any recommendations.
2 thoughts on “Best Budget Accommodation Websites”
Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up. The words in your article seem to be running off
the screen in Internet explorer. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do
with browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you know.
The layout look great though! Hope you get the issue solved soon.
Hi, thanks for letting me know – really appreciate it! Now the problem I have is finding a computer that I can access IE on (I have a Mac). I’ll hunt one down and check this out. Thanks again for the heads-up – let me know if you need any travel tips by way of repayment 🙂