When I handed in my resignation letter, put what few belongings I hadn’t sold into storage and packed my life into a 55L rucksack, I became a vagabond.
Without bricks and mortar, without a stable income and without fear of regret, I altered the direction in which my life was headed and set off to travel the world.
Long term travel is a romantic notion, one that many aspire to but never achieve.
Whenever someone has no frequent flier miles, no ability to get travel-rewards cards, and really wants a cheap domestic flight, I always send them to Kayak. Kayak.com is a popular travel search aggregator that scans all the other travel search aggregators and shows you the cheapest rates it finds. It does all the comparison work for you and that’s why so many people love it.
But what makes Kayak so lovable in my mind is its ability to help you get free hotels.
To explain this, I’ll have to explain what a “BRG” or Best Rate Guarantee is.
1.) Best Rate Guarantee Policies
The BRG strategy is one of my favorite tricks because not only does it often get us a room that costs no money, it won’t cost us points either. Furthermore, it’s a trick that anyone can use as it doesn’t require you to sign up for any kind of credit-card or promotion or anything.
So what is this BRG policy?
This is simply a promise a hotel makes that they will offer a better price for their rooms on their own website than they will on any search aggregator like Kayak, Travelocity, Expedia, etc. My guess is they set this up as an accountability system to make sure they keep on top of the prices they’re releasing to these aggregators, and that they’re correcting the price anytime an aggregator’s price is listed too low.
First, I’ll share with you the basic steps of applying for a BRG, then I’ll share with you a few hotels with the most generous BRG policies.
This is where Kayak.com comes in and shines.
1.) Find a hotel you’re interested in that advertises a BRG policy.
This includes so many hotels that I probably don’t need to name them, but the ones that are most likely to result in a free room are InterContinental and Hilton. We’ll discuss the specifics of their policies and others below. Here is the most complete list of BRG policies we could come up with.
2.) Find a cancelable rate on that hotel’s own website- a rate you think you’ll be able to match or beat.
We book cancelable rates just in case the hotel decides not to approve our claim- then we’re not left with an expensive hotel when we meant to have a free one.
3.) Use Kayak.com’s “search by brand” feature to find the EXACT same room.
This needs to be more exact than finding a “Hilton standard room” if you’ve booked a Hilton standard room. Depending on how picky the hotel is and how badly they don’t want to approve your BRG, you need to make sure no listed detail contradicts the hotel’s own website description. Check-out time, breakfast or no breakfast, etc.
We’ve been told that because breakfast was included on the cheaper rate we found on an aggregator, but not included in the rate on their own website, it wouldn’t be considered the “same room.”
This even goes for the currency the price is listed in. Luckily, Kayak has a country selection that will allow you to see only rates listed in that country’s currency. OR sometimes you can go to the site Kayak has pulled up for you and change the currency from there.
Really though, only some of the hotels are so picky about a matching room description and because you booked a cancelable rate, if you think the description is close enough, you can always try!
4.) Obviously, most importantly, make sure the room Kayak has shown you is cheaper.
This may take a bit of hopping back and forth from the brand’s website to the aggregators, but other times you’d be surprised how easy it is to find a cheaper rate.
5.) Now it’s time to submit your claim.
This is a simple process that happens online.
Hilton’s BRG claim form can be found here.
IHG’s BRG claim form can be found here.
Choice’s BRG claim form can be found here.
And Marriott’s BRG claim form can be found here.
As I mentioned above, our favorite use of the BRG strategy is with hotels whose BRG policies are generous enough to allow a free room.
Whose policies are the most rewarding?
InterContinental Hotel Group is a hotel chain that includes Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, IHG, etc. Their BRG policy states that if you find a cheaper rate for their rooms on someone else’s site, they’ll give you “your first night free.” Naturally, we take advantage of this by aiming for BRG’s at their nicest brand, InterContinentals, and by booking one night stays so our whole stay is free.
Hilton is a hotel chain that includes Hampton Inn, Waldorf, Conrad, Double Tree, and Hilton, etc. Getting approved for their BRG claims will either give you a $50 Amex gift card (for domestic stays) or a $50 price reduction (Internationally.) We take advantage of this by trying to book rates that are as close to $50 as possible.
Best Western basically offers a $100 Best Western voucher for approved BRG claims. So your initial stay won’t be free, but your next one would be as there are plenty of Best Westerns for $100 or less. Also, by the time you have one $100 voucher, you could submit a BRG claim for another stay, paying for that stay with a voucher and receiving another voucher for your next stay. And on and on and on. But there are a few more rules to this, which you may want to familiarize yourself with.
These are just a few of the most generous Best Rate Guarantee policies. But there are so many more Best Rate Guarantee policies out there.
Thanks to Kayak.com, the hunt for an approved BRG claim can be pretty easy.
It is odd to realize that a luxury hotel can be the means for budget travel, and therefore, sustainable travel for my husband and I. But strange as it sounds, we have found this to be the case.
For instance when we arrived in Venice a few weeks ago and needed a place to stay, (after a bit of internet time), we found ourselves at the Westin Venice, a five-star hotel just around the corner from St. Mark’s Plaza. We found ourselves here not because we have high standards for comfort and quality, but because we are cheap- too cheap to pay $20 a bed for a hostel when we could stay at the Westin for free.
Now, certainly hostels serve a unique purpose for lone travellers that is tough to find elsewhere. For instance, in a hostel you are sure to find other travelers and thus, some of the anxieties that can come along with lone-travel might be eased. It is tough to find such a community atmosphere elsewhere.
And yet, my husband and I will pick a hotel over a hostel every time. Our reasoning can be summed up in just two words: “Rewards programs.”
While this strategy may cost very little cash, it does cost quite a bit of research and strategy. In this article I’d like to start that research process by discussing what rewards programs are, how they work, and how they can end up stretching out your travel funds.
What are rewards programs and how do they work?
Chain hotels will often create a program that offers its customers an incentive for remaining loyal. (Thus, these rewards programs can also be called loyalty programs.)
Most often in the hotel industry these incentives are given in the form of hotel points. For every dollar you spend with the hotel, you receive a point (sometimes more and sometimes less depending on the situation) that you can put towards a free night witht he brand in the future.
These points may feel like they accumulate slowly, but there are a few ways to speed up that earning process through promotions. We won’t go into that now, but you can read more about the role promotions play in our strategy for full-time travel.
Really there are two basic ways to collect these hotel points.
1.) By being rewarded for your paid stays, as mentioned above (with or without a promotion to speed that earning along).
2.) By signing up for that hotel’s credit card. For example Starwood (the hotel chain associated with the Westin hotel mentioned before) offers a credit card with a 25,000 point bonus, achieved after spending a certain amount on the card within a certain amount of time.
If the mention of a required amount of spending between you and your bonus makes you nervous, there are tricks for that too. While it’s a bit complex to introduce in this article, you can read more about the tricks for reaching spend requirements here.
How do these rewards programs make it possible for a luxury hotel to be a cheaper option than a hostel?
The primary reason we’ve opted for hotels over hostels is because many luxury hotels are part of a chain, and as I mentioned above, many chain hotels offer you reward programs that open the door for spending something other than money- points.
A hostel has never decreased my nightly rate because I’m a return customer. When we go to a hostel, we pay per bed, perhaps we buy a locker too and perhaps we pay for internet on top of that. Then, when our stay is finished, we go on our way and that money is gone.
When we stay with a hotel that has a loyalty program, even if we are spending money, we’re buying more than our room for the night. We’re buying a small piece of another night.
The best way to make this work for your benefit is by paying for stays at the cheapest hotel the brand has to offer. For instance if we see a Holiday Inn for $50, we’ll stay there knowing that we’ll earn points that can be spent at the nicest hotels in IHG’s brand if we’d like. IHG is actually a wonderful example of this process because of a promotion they offer called “PointBreaks.” During this promotion IHG releases a list of hotels whose price in points will be discounted severely, including some very nice luxury hotels. (Read more about IHG’s PointBreaks promotion here.)
Luxury hotels like to grab up the best property they can find, often making them quite central to any kind of attraction you might be in town to see. And centrality will save you money. In the Venice example I mentioned above, our central location allowed us to avoid taking a daily bus into Venice.
On another occasion, we stayed at a five-star hotel in a prime location in Kowloon, HongKong. Thanks to our location, we were within walking distance of the evening light show.
While it takes a bit of a strategic approach, my husband and I have made this our primary strategy for long-term travel. Since beginning our pursuit of the nomadic life two and a half years ago, we’ve stayed at 74 four or five star hotels for free.
In my mind this statistic is not impressive because of the luxury but rather because of this: 74 free nights means 74 more days of exploring this beautiful planet.
When it comes to travel on a shoestring – my favorite style – the amount of money you spend or save on accommodation becomes a serious matter. There was a time when travelling to China was very, very cheap, and accommodation options where everywhere. Unfortunately, with China experiencing the economic boom, things have changed quite a lot. On the other hand, the development of Chinese tourism has also created a wide range of opportunities for all kinds of travellers, making it quite easy and affordable to find budget accommodation in comfortable, clean beds. Where?
Simple: at YHA, the first wonder of Chinese Budget accommodation!
Everywhere and anywhere in China, my first option is to look for the YGA symbol, which means Youth Hostelling International. This international franchise is widely spread all around the major tourist destinations of China, and at times also a bit out of the beaten track. Generally, this kind of hostels are the Chinese equivalent of the Southeast Asian guesthouses, are full of travelers, good vibes and dispense good travel information. Besides, they are generally very cheap to stay in, they provide free wi-fi connectivity, restaurant facilities, self-service kitchen areas, luggage storage options and, very important if you cannot speak any Mandarin Chinese, can help you book your onward train or flight tickets. You will pay a little surcharge, but believe me, it is worth to save time and effort.
Most likely if you are looking for the cheapest option, you will end up staying in a dormitory: have no fear, as YHA dormitories are usually big, equipped with your own locker, sparkling clean, spacious and comfortable. They are also great places to meet other travelers. Dorms usually come in different sizes, and are generally equipped with several rows of bunk beds able to accommodate 4, 6, 8, and even up to 10 or 12 people. Dorms are also very cheap, as they start from 20 to 40/50 yuan per bed. So far, I only found the higher end of the spectrum (50 yuan) in Shenzen, Beijing and Shanghai.
One of the best services provided is definitely the onward-travel hostel booking service: each hostel will have many cards advertising other hostels in the next “tourist towns”. Just glance trough and pick the one you like most, tell the receptionist and he/she will make a call to reserve your bed at your next destination. Generally, you will have to pay half of the fee to the hostel you are reserving from and once you get to your destination, you will pay the difference. It works like Hostelworld, but over the phone, and most times free train or bus station pick-ups are guaranteed.
Travis at the frequent-flyer blog Extra Pack of Peanuts had a post titled, Why Hostels Are Better Than Hotels. Among other reasons, he waxed poetic on the benefits of the local touch and community atmosphere. Many hostels are owned and operated by locals, so you get a more intimate feel than you would at a chain hotel. As for community, most hostels are set up to encourage interaction between guests. You might strike up a conversation while watching TV or sipping tea on the rooftop.
He helpfully includes photos and names of his favorite hostels around the world. Note: the hostel he recommends for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia–Rainforest B&B–is out of business. I stayed there the first time I visited KL in 2008 and thought it was fantastic. Huge and had the fun feel of a jungle lodge. Last I heard, the owner was planning to open a new hostel.
The No. 1 reason I continue to stay in hostels it to meet people. I can’t adequately describe how much richer my travels were because of the people I met along the way.
Why do you stay in hostels? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Can you imagine being woken up at a hostel at 7:30am to chop fire wood or complete your chores before breakfast?
Chore detail had fizzled-out before 2009 when I hostel hopped for several months; spending anywhere from three nights to two weeks at various places. Personally, I enjoyed seeking out the odd ones, like old prisons or sailing ships. But what I discovered recently was, that same year the concept of youth hostels had officially been around for a century!
Apparently the idea came from Richard Schirrmann who led extended hikes across the German countryside and sought shelter for his group at farms along the way. But on one rainy night in the summer of 1909 Schirrmann and his companions were turned away by a farmer. Though they weren’t forced to resort to sleeping in the rain; it was a close enough call that he dreamed up the vision of widespread dorm-type accommodations. A year later the first youth hostel opened at Altena Castle in Rhine Valley which is still in operation to this day.
In the beginning beds were stuffed with straw, chores part of the payment and everyone was required to be out exploring during daylight hours. But now each one has its own social vibe and offers creature comforts. Hostels actually do more business than large hotel chains and are progressing with demands by offering smaller more private rooms.
How different would backpacking be without hostels? Have you ever done chores while staying at one?
Hostels vary wildly in quality. Some are total fleapits; others are so luxurious they rival hotels. How can you find the quality hostels instantly?
The website Hostelworld.com announced the 2012 winners of the “Hoscars,” their awards for the best hostels in the world. Users around the world voted for their favorite places to stay. The establishments are clustered into an amazing variety of categories. You can find hostels based on size, region, popularity, and many more characteristics.
Portugal had a strong showing, completely sweeping every award for “Ratings Criteria.” These were things like “Most Fun,” “Best Location,” and “Best Staff.” It’s eye-opening to see one country rack up so many awards. They must be doing something right.
Do you have a favorite hostel that’s not on the list? Tell us about it in the comments.
Nomadic Matt recently posted a list called My favorite hostels in the world. Goes to show that low prices don’t always mean low quality. You can save money and have a great time.
Matt’s list spurred me to remember which hostels I’ve enjoyed over the years. Here are some of my picks:
Circus (Berlin, Germany) — If every hostel was as grand as Circus, I’d never worry about staying in a hostel again. I’ve been in hotels that weren’t as cool as Circus. Very trendy, a designer hostel.
Beijing Jade International Youth Hostel — Out of all the hostels I’ve seen in China, this was was the best. Huge, like a hotel, and very clean. Big restaurant and common area on the ground floor.
Yes Inn (Hong Kong) — When you absolutely have to visit Hong Kong for a visa run and don’t want to stay in the Chungking Mansions. Clean, modern, and in Hong Kong Island. I’ve been to this hostel more often than any other because of doing visa runs from Taiwan. I’ve recommended this place to dozens of travelers.
K’s House Tokyo Oasis — Flat-out most awesome hostel in Tokyo. Has the feel of a traditional inn, but all the modern conveniences of an up-to-date building.
Take a Nap (Bangkok, Thailand) Love this hostel. One of the few, along with Circus, that has individual beds, not bunk beds. Each dorm has its own bathroom, saving you the embarrassment of walking down the hall to take a shower. Very colorful and fun too.
Chocolate Box Backpackers (Taipei, Taiwan) — A good hostel with a super-central location across from the Shida night market. Clean and solid. What really cements the place in my memory were the friendly staff and travelers I met there. So many fun times.
Bedz KL (Kuala Lumpur) — When I was backpacking through Southeast Asia, I passed through Kuala Lumpur a lot because it’s the main hub for Air Asia, a low-cost airline. Bedz KL was my favorite out of the ones I’ve been in. Feels like the apartment of a rich friend.
What are the best hostels you’ve stayed in? Please share your recommendations and stories in the comments.
Intro video for inbed.me
Over the years, there have been several attempts to combine travel and social networking. The latest on the scene is inbed.me (that name is just asking for double entendres).
The idea is to solve the problem of that first-night loneliness in a new hostel. You’ve just arrived, and all the previous guests have formed their cliques, so you don’t have anyone to talk to. With inbed.me, you can connect to travelers who will be at that hostel before you arrive. By reading their profiles, you can find common interests and make plans to hang out. Ideally, you land in a new hostel with some ready-made friends.
It is a cool idea. I tested it out by entering a few cities: Taipei, San Francisco, and Bangkok. Your mileage may vary, but I often only saw one traveler in each hostel. Since the site is so new, I think travelers haven’t widely adopted it yet. If the site gains a bigger audience, then it would become more useful. Something to keep an eye on.
What do you think of this idea? Do you know similar websites that do a better job? Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Hostels are a mainstay of the budget travel circuit. Share a dorm room with strangers, shave off a big percentage of your accommodation costs. They do come with some drawbacks however, as this article from The Sydney Morning Herald describes: The problem with staying in hostels.
Although for me, the “problem” the author writes about is my favorite benefit of staying in hostels: meeting other travelers. I can’t imagine how lonely my trips would have been had I opted for private rooms in hotels. As for getting distracted, I think it’s really a matter of self-control and politely saying “no.” If you only have one day left in your trip and you’re really set on visiting a certain site, then just go. There’s no shame in politely declining an offer from a fellow traveler to hang out in a pub.
I can see where he’s coming from, since I’ve encountered some of the problems he’s described, as well others that didn’t make the list. For example, people who snore. Whenever I walk into a hostel room and see 10+ beds, my heart sinks. I know the odds favor that at least one person will be a heavy snorer. Yes, I’ve also had people stumbling in late at night while drunk, or waking up insanely early to pack because they have a 6 a.m. flight. But you have to take the bad with the good.
Did you start out sleeping in hostels, but have moved up the accommodation ladder a bit? It’d be nice to stay in small guesthouses with private rooms, but still have a big common area that encourages conversation. For more discussion, you can check out this post: Three modes of travel.
How do you feel about hostels? Please share your stories in the comments.