Havana Cuba, Frozen in Communism

For many travelers there is a certain Mystique that Cuba and in particular Havana holds. The largest Island in the Caribbean is a treasure of Spanish Colonial architecture, breath taking beaches, classic American Cars and being one of the final bastions of communism. Frozen in time is one of the descriptions I use to convey the feeling and emotion of being in Havana. Every where you cast your eyes you cannot be but reminded of being in a place that has changed little since the late fifties.

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Tips for Planning a Successful Trip

Talk to several different travelers about their travel tips and you probably won’t hear the same answer twice. Everybody has their own preferences and techniques or they don’t bother planning at all. Both sides have their advantages and both have their disadvantages.

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New Hotel & Hostel Booking Site Looks to Change Search Habits

Flight and hotel booking sites are a dime a dozen. Let’s face it. There are many affiliate programs out there that allow these companies to start a website and search various prices for their visitors. Typically their prices aren’t better than any of the major travel booking sites (Kayak, Expedia, Travelocity, etc) and often actually charge a small fee which makes me wonder why anybody would bother with these no-name sites.

So while there are no shortage of websites to find flights or hotels, searching for hostels has been more time consuming for me than I would prefer. Most times I’ve used HostelWorld to search for hostels based on location, price, availability, and most importantly, customer reviews. Most, but not all hostels are listed on HostelWorld. Others are listed on smaller sites like Hostelz or aren’t listed at all. Sometimes these small establishments find it too expensive to pay commissions to booking sites.

Looking for something a little more mid-range like a bed & breakfast or small guesthouse/inn can also be difficult. You usually don’t find small, independently run businesses on the larger booking sites and Hostel sites aren’t the same niche. I’ve found TripAdvisor to include many B&B’s but I’ve questioned their reviews since several hotels and tour companies have specifically asked me to post positive reviews on several occasions.

For flights, I’ve been a huge fan of Kayak for a while. They search most major airline’s websites and all of the major booking companies as well. It’s a simple, clean interface and does a great job of finding the best prices.
It wasn’t until last week that I found something that piqued my interest as much for searching for hotels though. Somebody recommended I check out HotelsCombined. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised after running my first search for Budapest. Over 300 results were presented in a clean and easy to use interface. By default the results are sorted by popularity based upon user reviews but can be sorted by price, quality (stars), distance or even the neighborhood.

What I really like about HotelsCombined is that they don’t simply list hotels, but also B&B’s, guesthouses, and even hostels. I can’t say that there aren’t any other sites that like it, but from what I’ve been able to find, it’s very unique.

One reason I continue to check multiple sites for hostels (or whatever else I am booking) is to see the various reviews that customers leave. Sometimes you don’t have much of a selection, but in places like Budapest there are an unbelievable amount of hostels and reading reviews helps you decide on which one(s) stand out. That’s what, to me, is the best part about HotelsCombined as they also aggregate the various reviews from all the sites they search. It saves quite a bit of time if you’re like me and really like to check out reviews.

If you use HotelsCombined and decide to book a room with their service you’ll be forwarded directly to the hotel or booking agent’s website to book without any additional fees. I’ve never understood why some of the major sites felt the need to charge booking fees when they also received commissions.

Give them a look and let me know what you think. It looks to be a good service and I’ll definitely be checking out accommodations through them. It may still take a while for me to break my habit of checking five or six different sites though.

The Secret to Great Hotel Deals

I have a little secret for finding great deals on hotels that I’ve used over the years, and the good news is that in this economy, it’s only getting better.

Many people will probably be angry with this post, including a large number of our followers on Twitter.  Why? Because they’re constantly advertising deals for their own benefit through affiliate travel programs or their own business.  I have nothing against them doing so, but I have to warn that just because somebody says it is a deal, doesn’t always  make it a deal.  I receive hundreds of messages daily about amazing prices on hotels in Hawaii or New York.  Since I recently visited Maui, I looked into a few of them.  I never found any of these advertisements to be less than $250 per night.  I would hardly call that a deal.  Maybe that hotel used to charge $1,000 per night.  Even so, why am I going to pay that much for a place to sleep when I’m there to see the island, not sit around in a beautiful hotel?

So if that’s your business, I apologize in advance but let’s be honest, Have Pack, Will Travel is all about saving money and making the most of your trip, so we never really saw eye-to-eye anyway.

How to find deals on hotels

Some of the best deals are to be found at the last minute.  But how last minute should you look?  If you’re adventurous, the very last minute.  I rarely book accommodations for my entire trip unless I know it’ll be extremely difficult to secure a bed in a hostel or a cheap room in a hotel.  I like to book the first night if I am arriving in the afternoon or evening just to be sure I have somewhere to sleep, but beyond that, I play it by ear.  Sure, this has backfired and created a headache or two, but I’ve never slept out in the cold and I’ve never had to pay anything unreasonable for a place to sleep.

More times than naught, I’ve landed some incredible deals on hotel rooms by walking up late in the afternoon and simply inquiring about a price.  Yes, you run the risk of not finding someplace, but use your judgment on the time of year and the popularity of the city you are in.

The first time this worked out for me was in Florence, Italy back in 2004.  I was traveling with three Americans I met and our train arrived late in the afternoon.  We walked to a couple of hostels that ended up being completely booked.  This was pretty stressful and we weren’t sure where we were going to find somewhere to sleep.  Before we knew it, day became night and there were no more hostels to check.  On a small budget we weren’t looking forward to finding out how much a hotel room would cost.

By 8pm we entered a small two-star hotel to inquire about the price.  Right there on the wall was a sign that said without a bathroom was €50, or €60 with a bathroom.  We asked anyway and didn’t act desperate for a place to stay.  The desk clerk (probably the owner) knew it was late and the chances of them filling any of the open rooms was unlikely.  They offered us two rooms for €25 each.  That worked out to about €12 per person for a very clean and authentic Italian hotel.  Not bad since in Paris & Venice each hostel dorm bed cost €25 each.

I’ve had a few experiences like this over the years, but what I have been noticing lately is that, given the economy, there are even better deals to be had.  Back in February I went to Costa Rica (for the second time in one year) with two friends.  It was the high season and all common sense given the area were in said that booking a room was a wise idea.  We reserved a private room at a hostel in Quepos as it was considerably cheaper than the hostel and hotels in Manuel Antonio (the national park area that everybody travels to the area to visit).  In the guidebook and on their individual websites, all the small hotels on the road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio advertised rates of $99 or higher.  You can imagine our surprise when we were driving down the beautiful road taking in beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean when we noticed signs in front of several of the same hotels we looked at online advertising $25-50 rooms!  Not only could we have saved money, but we would have had beautiful ocean views and seclusion.

Sure, playing everything by ear can be stressful if you’re limited on time or easily stressed, but the upside is pretty nice.

Have you fallen into any great hotel deals?  Talk about it in the comments if you have any experience or tips on the matter!

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Top Travel Resources on the Web

We have a little bit of a theme going this week which all about travel and the internet.  Today I’ve outlined a few of my favorite travel resources online.

Kayak

To me, Kayak is simply the best airline search engine out there.  Plug in where you want to go and they’ll automatically show you a list of recently found fares for many specific dates.  You can easily browse the calender and get an idea of what dates have the lowest fares.  In addition, they do a great job of piecing together flights on multiple carriers if your destination requires several legs (although expedia.com might do a slightly better job at that).  Best of all, Kayak will direct you to the carrier’s booking page so you can book it with them, rather than through Kayak with an additional fee.

Lonely Planet

Most travelers know and love Lonely Planet guidebooks. Sure, you can criticize some of their books, but no matter how you look at it, their website is a great resource for initial travel planning.  They offer great overviews of nearly every country in the world, weather statistics, basic transportation information, and recommendations on the top areas to visit.

U.S. State Department

Going somewhere with questionable political stability and possible danger? The U.S. State Department does a good job of providing information on these topics with recommendations on whether or not it’s safe to travel.  They err on the side of caution though and just because they say it might not be a good idea, doesn’t mean it’s a bad place to go.  Check it out, but don’t use them as a final say.

One Bag

OneBag.com is a great resource to teach you to lighten your load whether you are heading out for adventure travel or simply business.  They have great packing lists, tips on how to pack, and even luggage recommendations.  The amount you can learn about packing from OneBag is truly unbelievable.

TripAdvisor

Over the past few years I’ve had small hotels and tour companies ask me to give them a review on TripAdvisor which, unfortunately, has actually made me use the site less.  But when I am interested in a hotel or hostel but can’t find much information on it elsewhere, I’ll check it out on TripAdvisor and see what kind of reviews they are receiving.  One of the nice things is that they allow users to upload photos so you can get an idea of what the hotel looks like.  I’m not too picky usually but it doesn’t hurt to check out.

Hostel World

Hostel World is a huge directory of hostels all over the world.  You can even book right on the website.  There are reviews and photos which, like Trip Advisor, I like very much when trying to decide on a hostel if there are many to choose from.

CouchSurfing

If you’re using CouchSurfing you’re a different kind of traveler and I’ve written about that in the past.  There are people all over the world who are willing to share their living space with you.  Sure, it’s a way to get free accommodation, but that’s not the point.  Meet people, make friends, and experience the area’s culture from a different perspective.

I hope these links help you in your travel planning.  If you have any to add please feel free to list them in the comments below.

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