Nothing ruins a holiday quicker than a horrid room, no matter how temporary the arrangement. After almost two decades of exploring accommodation on three continents, veteran travel researcher Pippa de Bruyn has worked out a thing or two.
A bad meal, mediocre museum, overpriced souvenirs – these are things we take in our stride, but a horrible hotel? I’d rather stay home, thanks very much. The last time I lay awake, hand linked across the rotting floorboards with my husband, who lay similarly wide-eyed and prostrate in the single bed next to mine, the thumping soundtrack of a huge wedding party below us, I swore: never again.
Admittedly my hit rate had improved: that was one of only two bad nights in a 93-day research trip across northern Tanzania (both nights foisted on me by an operator with a vested interest in the two hotels), but it reconfirmed my belief that where you rest your head is the most important decision you make when leaving the comfort of home. Here’s my guide to bagging the best room for your buck.
1. Start with the basics
Plan ahead: If you’re travelling in high season or school holidays, plan at least six months in advance to get the best room. If you can decide at the start of the year where you’ll be at the end, so much the better.
Call up, ask questions: Ask which room or cottage has the best views, is the biggest or closest to the beach – whatever your specs are. Find out if any of the rooms have been recently renovated, especially the bathrooms. Take the most recently upgraded unless it’s a heritage property, in which case the old part of the hotel is likely to be more characterful and, for me, preferable.
Book for a view: Unless there’s no lift and you don’t fancy the exercise, always book the room on the highest floor: a view adds to your sense of space.
Go for corner rooms: They’re invariably bigger and often have twice as many windows.
Take a double: Unless you’re travelling with a friend, always specify a double bed, even when travelling solo – it’s more comfortable and usually suits the proportions of the room better.
Get confirmation: Make sure the room you want is assigned to your name by putting the request in an email. Have the confirmation handy on arrival.
2. Trawl Tripadvisor – with these provisos
With more than 150 million reviews, tripadvisor.com is one of the world’s most powerful sites – I’d be hesitant to book an established hotel or guest house not reviewed there. That said, it has its drawbacks. Unless you follow a reviewer with confirmed credentials, there’s no way of knowing whether you share the same taste, and rankings can be manipulated by unscrupulous hoteliers who host reviewers to write glowing accounts of their establishment or, even more iniquitous, damning reports of their competitors. However, for those who know where they want to stay it’s a great tool. Here’s how to best use it:
Check all categories in a destination: B&Bs, hotels and ‘speciality lodgings’.
Don’t just opt for the top five: study the websites of at least the first 15 ranked (more, if you have the time) – the best one for you is often hidden way below the most popular.
Ignore a few isolated ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’ reviews: one of my top five recommendations in Sabi Sand (currently ranked 22) dropped when a guest who’d only ever posted one review (suspicious!) claimed it ‘horrible’ because they’d searched her bags.
Book to benefit the establishment: If you decide on a small, owner-run place, book on the actual B&B/guest house website. This ensures that more of the money goes directly to the establishment.
3. Dig deep with your research
Relying solely on TripAdvisor is like getting caught doing your homework using only Wikipedia as a reference – if your holiday is precious (as, of course, it is) dig deeper to make sure you find the gems. Booking.com is another site that has revolutionised travel research and is particularly useful if you’re price sensitive and/or know your exact dates. Click on “price” as your priority to search all rooms available for the dates you want to travel to your chosen destination, ranking them from the cheapest and clearly listing the average ratings from past guests. Again, fellow travellers’ opinions are – for the most part – invaluable: there’s no point in booking the cheapest room if the rating is 5.2 (based on 49 reviews), when for an extra R90 a night you can stay in a room rated 7.1 (based on 119 reviews). Generally speaking, avoid an establishment that scores less than seven (if you can afford it, make eight the cut off). Other useful sites that feature fellow traveller reviews are airbnb.com (for international and local options) and safarinow.com (for local). Sites such as expertafrica.com and africatravelresources.com are incidentally good for safari destinations.
Insider’s tip: Once you’ve decided where you want to book, make direct contact: you may be able to negotiate a percentage off the advertised price as they’re saving the commission most booking sites add. It’s worth a try, particularly in low season.
4. 1 photograph = 1000 words
You can tell a lot about an establishment from the quality of the photos on its website or those posted on booking sites. If a hotel or large guest house isn’t prepared to pay a professional photographer for a day’s work – a minor investment taken over a five-year period – you can be sure that attention to detail and presentation isn’t high on the owner’s priority list. It’s important to see the room you’ll be staying in: be wary of websites that use generic location images yet don’t have photographs clearly depicting each of their room categories. If you still like a place despite the down-home look, always call and speak to the proprietor or receptionist – you’ll gauge plenty about the potential warmth and efficiency you get on the other end of the line (and never book a hotel or guest house that has only email listed as the contact).
5. Package deal? Proceed with caution
It sure makes life easy when things are neatly tied up and presented with an affordable price tag, but more often than not the accommodation is a serious let-down. That’s not to say all package deals are duds, only that they require the same level of thorough research before you commit – check out the reviews, price the deal without the ‘free’ extras, look at alternative accommodation options in the same price range. Better still, try to create a personalised package with a local destination expert.
This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Getaway Magazine.