For many (including myself), the hardest part about traveling is buying the plane ticket. Once that's done, the rest comes together naturally - or so we hope - because at the very least, you know you're going somewhere. Whether you like to plan every detail ahead, have no plans at all (you spontaneous adventurer, you), or are somewhere in between, this post is aimed at helping you with perhaps the second hardest thing pre-travel: the accommodations. In choosing where to stay, it all depends on where you're going and what's available in the area, your preference in type of accommodations, budget, and the overall experience you want to have. Here are some of my favorite options:
For cultural exchange: CouchSurfing ($) - online & app
In all honesty, CouchSurfing probably deserves its own blog post. I have loved 99% of my experiences because of the unique opportunity to meet and/or stay with locals wherever I'm traveling. It is about the cultural exchange and immersion that is more difficult to have unless you're with someone who lives and breathes that place regularly. If you don't have this mindset and solely want to have a place to stay for free, do not use CouchSurfing -- it deteriorates the quality of experiences had by those who genuinely want to get to know other people, cultures, and lands from a less touristic lens.
With that said, there are three main components to CouchSurfing:
1) the online portal and forum to exchange information (events, advice, interest groups),
2) the in person meet-ups, and/or
3) the ability to host a fellow surfer in your home or stay with someone in theirs.
Focusing in on the latter, CS accommodations vary by host - some are literally a couch or air mattress in the living room, while others may have your own room, bed, and bathroom. Your host will most likely be present while you are staying there, and there might be roommates or family living in the same residence. All of this should be specified in the potential host's profile, and if it isn't, clarify with the host beforehand. It's better to set your expectations prior to arriving.
If you're new to the community and wary about staying in a stranger's house, ease yourself into the idea by attending a local meet up, meeting a CSer who's visiting where you live, or arranging to meet with another CSer during your own travels. Hopefully these interactions will make you more comfortable with the idea of staying with or hosting a fellow surfer in the future.
Once you're comfortable with the idea of staying at a stranger's house (though the idea behind CS is that you're staying with a friend -- you just don’t know it yet!), select "Find Hosts" on the website or app. Start with the location and expected arrival and departure dates (much like searching for a hotel, though it's common for dates to change - just communicate often with your host if you think this will be your situation). There are several filter options that will help narrow down the search. I usually filter to show hosts who: have multiple positive references (read them!), are verified, are either accepting/maybe accepting guests, who have logged in within the past week to show they are active on CS, and have a private or public room (avoiding shared bed/room). Also look at response rate frequency and read profiles to see if there's anything that sparks your interest.
Some hosts specify in their profile what they'd like to know about you; include this information in your message to them. Be open, friendly, and tell why you're interested in surfing with the particular host. This often yields a better response from a potential host and they will hopefully accept your request to host you.
Knowing their interests is also helpful as it's a nice gesture, albeit not mandatory, to bring a small gift or token of appreciation from your hometown or travels for your host. I've given coins, old bus passes with handwritten thank you notes, little trinkets that I think match the host's interests, and even an extra microfiber towel - a great gift for any traveler. I've also taken turns cooking for/with my hosts, buying drinks or meals, and given impromptu language lessons/tutorials.
Remember, CouchSurfing is about the exchange: your hosts wants to learn from and share with you as much as you learn from and share with them.
For budget-conscious (and solo) travel: HostelWorld ($) - online & app
Like CouchSurfing, hostels are great for cultural exchange and swapping stories with travelers from all parts of the globe. They're also ideal for partaking in adventures with new people and meeting fellow travelers who will flood your head with new ideas. Hostels might not be for everyone, but they're fabulous for budget-conscious, solo, and/or extended travel. The key to booking hostels is to take reviews into careful consideration and have an open mind.
HostelWorld allows reviewers to rate hostels based on: Value for Money, Security, Location, Staff, Atmosphere, Cleanliness, and Facilities. It's super easy to navigate, and to make a reservation, you only pay a small percentage of your stay up front. TIP: Pay the extra $1 for maximum flexibility and free cancellation -- you never know what detour your adventure will take you on!
Traveling solo? I love hostels for this reason, especially when it coincides with extended travel. Just because you're going by yourself doesn't mean you have to be completely solo the entire time. When you want company, hostels are a sure-fire way to meet someone looking for the same, someone to strike up a conversation or get a drink with, explore the city you're in, or even plan the next stop on your every-changing travel itinerary! If this sounds like it's up your alley, look for hostels with reviews that confirm a social atmosphere (not necessarily party/drunken debauchery unless that's your preference) -- you should be able to tell from reviews and photos.
Traveling in a group? Try booking an entire dorm room depending on number of travelers and room capacity to give you and your travelmates a sense of "privacy" when you want to get away from others in the hostel. It'll be like having your own hotel room slash slumber party but with separate beds.
Not into the shared dorms? Most hostels also offer private rooms for a higher rate, but are still much more affordable than your regular hotel. These rooms are great for couples or individuals who just need some personal downtime. You can be social when you want to be and also have access to hostel amenities, like a kitchen, group outings and tours, laundry, and more.
Some other things to think about when booking hostels are what's on the inside: if you want to cook, is there a kitchen? If you're trying to save money but want to be social, do they cook group meals (usually breakfast and/or dinner)? Are there electrical outlets, decent sized lockers, or reading lights for every bed? Is it a single, double bunk, or triple bunkbed? Try to avoid the latter if possible - it's a pain climbing up to top of 3 bunks every night and it's a pain to wiggle yourself into the middle bunk if you end up there. Do the curtains have beds for extra privacy?
While there might be a little more to think about when booking hostels than hotels, the experience and people you meet will definitely add some interesting and memorable moments to your trip.
For the home away from home feel (or an outrageous place to stay): Airbnb ($-$$$) - online & app
Airbnb gets major points for being in over 34,000 cities and 191 countries. People can list, search, and book unique accommodations -- everything from a room in someone's house to a castle or villa to a treehouse in the jungle -- via its website or app. Most people who list accommodations want to monetize their extra space, but many will also make themselves available to give advice on things to do or even take you out on the town. Plus, you get the comforts of "home" and usually a better price as opposed to staying at a hotel.
The flexibility of Airbnb is great as you can search for shared rooms, private rooms, or entire homes/apartments, depending on your comfort level and situation. I've stayed at Airbnbs both where I've had a private room with the host present and where I had the entire place to myself or a group of friends. While I've only stayed at an Airbnb a handful of times, my experiences have all been quite positive and a good alternative to hotels, hostels, or CouchSurfing. Like everything else, do your research and always contact the host directly first before booking the Airbnb.
To get $35 in travel credit, register here: www.airbnb.com/c/aalon10
For last minute deals and bookings: Hotel Tonight ($$) - app only
The Hotel Tonight app allows you to book good, usually chain, hotels at last-minute rates within one week of the booking. Hotels with unsold rooms will post them on the app at incredible discounts up to 70% in order to quickly fill the rooms (a little something is better than nothing, right?). While there are fewer options, all the hotels are vetted by the app and user reviews.
My favorite uses for Hotel Tonight are road trips when you don't know exactly when or where you're stopping but want to book a quality room quickly, as well as trips to places that otherwise have ridiculous hotel prices (San Francisco). While the app features hotels predominantly in North America and Europe, it also has expanded to Central and South America, North Africa, the Middle East, New Zealand, and Australia.
Once you download the free Hotel Tonight app, you can use invite code "AALON3" to redeem $25 in hotel credit.
For deals on boutiques and indie hotels: Stayful ($$-$$$) - online & app
Sure, it can be super convenient to stay at a Hilton or Marriot or insert-hotel-chain-of-choice-here, and there are definite perks to loyalty and points-building. But if you want to support smaller, independent hotels or explore specialty boutique hotels, Stayful is the way to go.
Stayful requires a membership similar to CouchSurfing or Airbnb, but it's 100% free and there's no hidden fees when you book. It works best for booking within 30 days of travel as that's how they get the best deals for you.
The downfall? Destinations are limited to typically larger cities in the United States, Canada, US Virgin Islands, and UK. However, the three-year old start up is quickly growing their destination list and offers perks on their app like mobile check-in, check-out, and some concierge services.
For $25 in hotel credits, register here: https://stayful.com/invite/aileen87
For any other option: Booking.com ($-$$$$) - online/app
If none of the above work or I just want to compare prices, I head to Booking.com. The site and app provide deals on everything lodging, from hostels to five star hotels to apartment room rentals (like Airbnb-ish). They also have a section for last minute deals and many hotels will allow free cancellation up to 1-3 days before arrival -- just make sure to read the room terms before booking! This is quite handy when you book a hotel early on, only to find 1) a better deal, 2) better hotel, or 3) your plans change, since you can usually cancel or change the reservation without penalty. Plus, when you complete five stays through the site/app, you start building up perks for future travel.
What experiences have you had with the above websites and apps? Feel free to share in the comment section below, or tell me about your favorite tool for finding accommodations!