Booking a bed: from sites to swaps

From free accommodation options like couch surfing to the hotel booking sites that get you five stars for fewer dollars, we look at ways for you to find the accommodation that suits your trip.
 
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01 .Futon or The Ritz?

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Depending on your destination, accommodation can make up a fair chunk of the cost of your holiday. But there are ways of keeping costs to a minimum, or even eliminating them altogether. CHOICE has looked at the options available and found that there are substantial savings to be had - if you know where to look.

In this report you will find information on:

Top tips

  1. Don’t take a star rating as evidence of a good hotel. Always check reviews before making a booking.
  2. The difference between booking sites isn’t just in their prices – it pays to read the fine print. Some sites allow refunds or cancellations to certain bookings, while others do not.
  3. Breakfast at your hotel can be an expensive convenience. If you’re on a budget, consider a room-only rate and have breakfast on the run.
  4. Scammers have been known to haunt classified sites such as Craigslist, as well as apartment rental sites. Check websites directly, and if in doubt, confirm the third party is actually affiliated with the hotel/apartment you’re looking to book by calling them directly.
  5. Got a dud room? Ask to see an alternative. Hotels often have several types of rooms available at the same price, and may be willing to move you to a different one that’s more to your taste.
  6. Cut out the middleman. Some hotels may offer to match or even beat prices available on third-party websites if approached directly, as this means they save on commission. And the booking conditions may be more favourable if booked direct, with greater flexibility for date changes. 
  7. If you’ve already booked a hotel with one site but found a cheaper rate elsewhere, see if your booking was covered by a best price guarantee. If it was, the hotel booking site may (subject to its terms and conditions, see tip 8) refund the difference, or even beat the price. 
  8. Watch for tricky fine print. Hotels.com, for example, states that it can unilaterally refuse to honour its price match guarantee at its sole discretion “to any person, at any time, for any or no reason, and without prior notice”.
 
 

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Hotel booking sites have been around for a while, and there are lots to choose from. We looked at accommodation options around the world, and found that while in some cases different sites had the same hotel rooms listed for very similar prices, at times it’s possible to substantially save by shopping around.

When CHOICE searched for hotel deals earlier this year, prices for the swanky Montague on the Gardens in London varied widely. Using hotels.com for 2 November 2013, the only available room was the junior suite for $733, without breakfast. On otel.com, however, the cheapest room available (also without breakfast) was the double classic, for $353.11. The junior suite was more than $50 a night cheaper than on hotels.com, at $678.23. On the hotel’s own website, the room-only junior suite, which included a discount for early bookings, was cheaper still at about $649.60 for the night. The cheapest room available for the night was the deluxe king, at $524. So travellers could save hundreds of dollars by shopping around, rather than going with the first price they get.

In July, when CHOICE looked at hotel rooms in The Langham Sydney’s hotel for the same date, the results were also intriguing. While the best rate available on hotelsclick.com for a room for two was $376.50, booking.com and the hotel’s own website were offering rates from $555, almost $200 a night dearer than the competition. That was despite a “best price guarantee” from both.

And as illustrated by the British example above, the cheapest rate doesn’t always come from a third party – it can pay to check with the hotel itself for better rates. Some hotels offer price-match (or price-beat) services, so if you prefer to book direct, make sure to still check other sites for better rates. And for those who want to take some of the effort out of shopping around, it’s possible to compare rates of different booking sites by using an aggregator such as the one available via Tripadvisor.

Couch surfing

Haven’t got the dosh for a hotel, or prefer a more personal experience when on the road? Couch surfing may be the answer. The movement has been around for a while, but it’s no longer confined to the kindness of friends or relatives. Couchsurfing.org is a free online portal that connects couch surfers to hosts around the world. With verified profiles and reviews of hosts and surfers, some of the risk associated with staying with strangers can be mitigated, though of course not entirely erased – some listings do offer only “shared sleeping surfaces”, so be careful when choosing your host. Other alternatives include tripping.com, which also offers rentals.

House swapping

And there’s always the good old house swap. From intervac-homeexchange.com, which claims to be the original house exchange facilitator, to homeexchange.com and houseswapholidays.com.au, among others, there are plenty of sites out there to help set up the switcheroo.

Holiday letting a house or apartment can be a more convenient option for accommodation – even if a hotel is cheaper per night, you’re likely to find savings and added convenience in having access to laundry facilities, a kitchen, and more room for the littlies. Some of the sites with rental listings are Airbnb, HomeAway, FlipKey (a Tripadvisor company), and Stayz.

Airbnb 

Airbnb offers 24-hour customer support and is host to more than 300,000 listings worldwide in over 33,000 cities and 192 countries. The site allows prospective renters and hosts to screen profiles, read reviews and references of potential hosts and guests, and confirm that phone numbers and social media profiles that are listed are verified by Airbnb (though not all profiles are).

Stayz

Stayz, which is owned and operated by Fairfax Digital, facilitates vacation rentals in the Australian market. It claims to have an inventory of more than 30,000 holiday rental property listings on its website. This site takes a more hands-off approach when it comes to listings, relying on self-regulation by property managers and stating: “All property information is submitted by third parties and is displayed in good faith… While Stayz takes every precaution to ensure the integrity of the site, we are not responsible for managing properties or ensuring the accuracy of their information.” Consumers can check reviews of properties and hosts, but there’s no guarantee that the reviews are legitimate, as anyone can leave a review on the site.

HomeAway

HomeAway says it is “the world's leading online marketplace of vacation rentals”, and claims, along with its subsidiaries (which include VacationRentals), to have "more than 742,000 paid listings of vacation rental homes in 171 countries”. The site also provides 24-hour phone support for those who need help.

Flipkey 

Flipkey claims to feature 200,000 vacation homes located in over 11,000 cities throughout the world and says that every owner is verified by staff. Contacting Flipkey is not as convenient as some other sites, however, as it’s only open between 9am and 6pm USA Eastern Standard Time, and says it “typically” responds to emails within two business days.

Suss out the suss

Before settling on a hotel or apartment, it’s important to ensure the reality matches up with its advertising. Tripadvisor is a useful resource for those looking to vet possible accommodation options, but it may also be worthwhile to check some of the more popular booking sites like booking.com for reviews. While Tripadvisor may well be playing host to astroturfers (fake reviewers working on behalf of companies to leave positive reviews) and disgruntled naysayers galore, booking sites tend to host reviews from those who have used them to book accommodation.

Scam alert

The online hotel and apartment booking business can be a lucrative one for scammers, so care is advised. Earlier this year, reports of scams targeting holiday rentals websites emerged. According to Fairfax, a class action lawsuit is being planned against a bank that enabled the creation of “hundreds of false accounts” on various sites, which were then used to steal millions.

The scammers were able to pull a swiftie by hacking into rental websites including FlipKey and HomeAway, intercepting the email booking inquiry, pretending to be the apartment owner, and responding to the inquirer with an alluring deal. Holidaymakers would then transfer money to the scammer, and be left stranded when they arrived at apartments whose owners had no idea what had occurred.

These scams can be difficult to detect. If a deal seems too good to be true, be suspicious. If the original owner of the listing on the site you’re using has left a contact number, give them a ring to confirm details. Check review sites for any traveller horror stories. And if in doubt, search elsewhere.

A cautionary tale

A few years ago, I was looking for a holiday rental in London. Having come across an offer that seemed very reasonable on online classifieds site Craigslist, I emailed “John Fernandez”, the real estate agent who was advertising it, and asked for more information.

John offered a discount on the already cheap rate, and the amount quoted was suspiciously low. Interest piqued, I dug around for information on the real estate agency he claimed to be employed by. The company number on the letterhead of the quote belonged to a corporation that was dissolved in 2006, and the website he linked to in his signature was inconsistent, listing two different addresses for his office. I checked Google Maps and found that one was a bath shop, while the other was a genuine real estate agency with a name that matched the one he had given me. But when I emailed them to check whether he was legitimate, they told me they had never heard of the agent or the property he had listed.

I reported the scammer to the UK police, but I’m sure there were plenty who didn’t pick up on the ruse and ended up hundreds of pounds out of pocket. 

Left out in the cold

Matt booked into the Andaz West Hollywood in California, USA, online directly with the hotel’s website. The hotel’s website stated that the price was covered under parent company Hyatt’s best price guarantee: “If you find a lower, published rate on another site, we’ll not only match it, we’ll discount it by 20% for your entire stay.” Matt later found a cheaper price on jetsetter.com - but an Andaz customer service representative told Matt that the cheaper rate wouldn’t be matched because the site offered member-only deals (even though the only criteria for “membership” was providing an email address), which weren’t available to the general public.

Joe booked accommodation with Airbnb for his holiday in Madrid six months in advance. However, a month out from his booking, the host cancelled his reservation without explanation. Airbnb credited his account with an extra $50 to help cover a potential increase in the price of accommodation, but as it was peak-season, Joe wasn’t able to find a suitable alternative on the site. When Joe complained, Airbnb offered to credit his account with a further $200, but it was too late. As more than a week had passed between his email and the response, Joe had already made alternative arrangements.

Are you covered?

Some booking and rental sites offer guarantees to ensure you’re not left stranded if your booking falls through or isn’t up to scratch. Airbnb’s guest refund policy, for example, promises (at their discretion) to provide guests with a refund or “use reasonable efforts” to find alternative accommodation in the event that the rental isn’t as described, or is cancelled at short notice.

But regardless of the policies of the site you’re using, they won’t replace good travel insurance, which is vital. It’s important to check the terms and conditions of your cover thoroughly, especially if you’re staying somewhere unconventional, like on a home exchange or in an apartment. Check whether you’re covered for personal injury, and if the insurer will cover your costs if your booking is cancelled.

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