Budget Tips for Booking Hotels

Hotel Reception Staff, Venice, Italy
Booking direct often makes hoteliers more open to giving you a deal. (photo: Dominic Bonuccelli)
By Rick Steves

The majority of Americans traveling in Europe want to sleep in moderately priced hotels. Most of the accommodations I recommend in my guidebooks fall into this category. Here are a few factors to weigh when searching for a good-value hotel that suits your budget:

Comparison shop. These days, many hotels change prices from day to day according to demand. Given the economic downturn, hoteliers are often willing and eager to make a deal. I'd suggest emailing several hotels to ask for their best price. Compare their offers and make your choice.

Book direct. If you book direct — rather than going through a middleman, such as a hotel-booking website or the tourist information office's room-finding service — the hotel doesn't have to pay a cut to that intermediary. This might make the hotelier more open to giving you a deal.

Try to wrangle a discount for a longer stay or payment in cash. If you plan to stay three or more nights at a place, or if you pay in cash rather than by credit card (saving the hotelier the credit-card company's fee), it's worth asking if a discount is available.

If it's off-season, bargain. Prices usually rise with demand during festivals and in July and August. Off-season, try haggling. If the place is too expensive, tell them your limit; they might meet it. Or consider arriving without a reservation and dropping in at the last minute to try and score a deal.

Think small. Larger hotels are usually pricier than small hotels or B&Bs, partly because of taxes (for example, in Britain, once a B&B exceeds a certain revenue level, it's required to pay an extra 15 percent tax to the government). Hoteliers who pay high taxes pass their costs on to you.

Know the exceptions. Hotels in northern Europe are pricier than those in the south, but you can find exceptions. In Scandinavia, Brussels, and Berlin, fancy "business hotels" are desperate for customers in the summer and year-round on weekends, when their business customers stay away. Some offer some amazing deals through the local tourist information offices. The later your arrival, the better the discount.

Don't consume above your needs. Know the government ratings. A three-star hotel is not necessarily a bad value, but if I stay in a three-star hotel, I've spent $60 extra for things I don't need. Amenities such as air-conditioning, elevators, private showers, room service, a 24-hour reception desk, and people in uniforms each add $10 apiece to your room cost. Before you know it, the simple $90 room is up to $150. Then, additional charges can pile on top of this already inflated room rate. For example, most moderately priced hotels offer Wi-Fi free to their guests, while the expensive places are more likely to charge for it.

Check the prices on the room list, and figure out how to get the best-value rooms. Room prices can vary tremendously within a hotel according to facilities provided. On their websites (and near their reception desks), most places post a room summary that lists each room, its bed configuration, facilities, and maximum price (for one and for two people), sometimes broken down by season (low, middle, high). Also read the breakfast, tax, and extra-bed policies. By studying this information, you'll see that, in many places, a shower costs less than a bath, and a double bed is cheaper than twins. In other words, an inattentive couple who would have been just as happy with a shower and a double bed can end up paying more for an unneeded tub and twins. If you want a cheap room, say so. Many hoteliers have a few unrenovated rooms without a private bathroom; they usually don't even mention these, figuring they'd be unacceptable to Americans.

Put more people in a room. Family rooms are common, and putting four in a quad is much cheaper than two doubles. Many doubles come with a small double bed and a sliver of a single, so a third person pays very little. A family with two small children can ask for a triple and bring a sleeping bag for the stowaway.

Avoid doing outside business through your hotel. Go to the flamenco show and get the ticket yourself. You'll learn more, save money, and be more likely to sit with locals than with a bunch of tourists. So often, tourists are herded together — by a conspiracy of hotel managers and tour organizers — at gimmicky folk evenings featuring a medley of cheesy cultural clichés kept alive only for the tourists. You can't relive your precious nights in Sevilla. Do them right — on your own.

Avoid hotels that require you to buy meals. Many national governments regulate hotel prices according to class or rating. In order to overcome this price ceiling (especially at resorts in peak season, when demand exceeds supply), hotels might require you to buy dinner — or your choice of lunch or dinner — in their dining room. It's generally called "half board," "half pension," or demi-pension. While this might not be expensive, I prefer the freedom to explore and sample the atmosphere of restaurants in other neighborhoods. Breakfast is often included in the room rate, but in some countries it's an expensive, semi-optional tack-on. If you want to opt out of a pricey hotel breakfast, ask if it's possible when you book the room.