Me and Hotel Booking
I never liked booking hotels prior to going on holiday. I remain a devoted backpacker – I can’t stand bulky, overweight suitcases – and booking a hotel in advance always seemed like cheating to me; it seemed as if doing so sucked the adventure out of a holiday.
That is not to say I used to turn up at a new place without any preparation or without any information about the place. Far from it: I would plan meticulously what I would need for the journey and spend days packing and re-packing my backpack, trying to make the most of the limited space. I would get hold of a Lonely Planet book and check out the prices for guest houses and restaurants and decide whether I needed a tent and cooking equipment.
I would also look at possible routes; possible must-see locations, and make a rough plan of a route. I would decide what was possible and what seemed too expensive, too far away or too risky.
Never among all this planning would I book a hotel. Back in the early nineties there was no internet. The best you could do was phone or write to make a reservation. It seemed that any place that required such effort was beyond my budget anyway.
The Old Days
The places I looked for were the small guest houses, often run by locals or by a family. A place listed in the Lonely Planet. On occasion I would lend an ear to someone hanging around a train station or bus station and take up their offer of accommodation. Sometimes I would have to walk for hours (usually in the blazing sunshine) looking for a cheap place. In those days you could tell pretty quickly whether a place was in your price bracket.
It was also the days when information given to you by other travellers was invaluable. When I and my wife went to Zanzibar in 2001 we followed the recommendation of a traveller whom we had met previously. We stayed in the village at Nungwi. We wouldn’t have known about the $15 a night place. The other resorts on the beach were $50 to $100 a night. If we hadn’t found that cheap local place we would have given up on staying at Nungwi.
Chareon Hotel in Udon Thani
Booking Engines not Always the Good Guys
In 2014 I went to Thailand for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony was in the boondocks in Udon Thani. On returning to Bangkok before flying home I searched for a cheap hotel in Bangkok with pool for my wife, child and I. We got off the domestic flight and got a taxi to the airport. We eventually checked in to the 3 star hotel and eventually got a room with air-con that worked properly. The price was under 2,000 Thai Baht a night. OK for a couple of nights. I was happy about the deal until my friend arrived. He had booked online and as a result got his room a few hundred Baht cheaper. I felt cheated and told the reception staff so. Thais don’t like getting a dressing down and could only look down as they mumbled what might have been an apology. My revenge was I never bought a drink or meal at the hotel, and we never used the tuk tuk driver hanging around the lobby.
That was the point when I had to admit to myself that online hotel booking was not a total waste of time. There are several big hotel search engines such as Expedia, Hotel.com. Agoda, Trivago etc. The TV is full of adverts for these sites. Trip Advisor is now on telly pushing their hotel booking service. You just can’t get away from these big corporations dominating the hotel booking market.
They seem great from a consumer perspective but perhaps not without problems for the hotels. There is a Scandinavian hotel chain that got into a legal dispute with Hotel.com because they were banned from offering cheaper room details on their own websites. They viewed it as unnecessary interference to lose the right to offer discounts to visitors to their website.
In another famous case which went viral a small guesthouse in the Caribbean was listed as closed by a booking site. This cost the hotel thousands of dollars in lost bookings before eventually they got the booking site to remove its listing. The company involved didn’t answer emails or correct the hotel listing for over a year. Only overwhelming bad publicity on the net made the callous hotel booking giant do something. In short they acted like a bully.
There is no doubt that these companies have too much power. They dominate search engines (except Google is trying to get in on the act by offering its own booking service) and their sites have no real information about places (other than Trip Advisor). Corporations with shareholders and obsessions about market share have replaced traveller recommendations for many travelling abroad.
Hiptique Hotel in Bangkok
There are still cracks in the system. You can email or phone hotels directly and ask about room discounts. They might do a deal with you and by-pass the commission they have to pay to the hotel booking sites they use.
The villa rental market is a lot more open. Operators like Flipkey (owned by Trip Advisor) and Air BnB are trying to corner this area of the accommodation market. However, villas are usually smaller businesses owned by individuals, not big companies. Simply use Flipkey and Air BnB to find places you are interested in and then contact the villas directly through their websites. They will often be open to dialogue that can lead to much reduced prices especially if you discuss what services and amenities you need and don’t need. Air BnB takes its commission from being the middle man. They are coy in how they calculate the commission but it can be as much as 12%. That is 12% you could save immediately.
So nowadays I don’t immediately reject hotel booking online. Instead I search, do research and find what travellers have to say. I send off some emails and see what comes back. I don’t book online if I can help it. I might reserve if it is free. This is a good idea with hostels that fill up quickly.
Sometimes everything is just too expensive on the net. In which case I either give up going to that place or I bring a tent. The alternative is a night bus or night train to get in and out as quickly as possible. I simply cannot believe that when you go to a developing country that there are no rooms for under $100 a night.