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Rest Your Weary Head

Find the Best Room at the Lowest Price

Room in Botswana
Room in Botswana
While in Botswana, Rob had the pleasure of visiting a variety of locally-owned, unusual lodges inspired by their natural surroundings.

Pope John Paul II and I visited Merida, Mexico at the same time. Because hundreds of thousands of the faithful flocked in from the countryside to see him, I had to scramble for hours to find what may have been the last vacancy in the city. My Spartan room overlooked the courtyard of what I’m sure was normally a brothel. It made a great story, but it wouldn’t have suited most travelers.

Surveys show that most of us want cleanliness, a reasonable price, good location, service, and security. That’s for openers. Other amenities matter too. So how do we pick the most desirable place to rest our weary heads?

You may approach a potential lodging choice on the Internet. Or by being driven into Nairobi by an owner who tugged on your sleeve at the airport and proudly showed you a photograph of his place. Or by walking off a street into a Bangkok guesthouse with a guidebook in your hand. Whatever your path, I’ll suggest factors to influence your decision.

Location

Look for lodging that’s a gathering place for travelers with interests similar to yours: that is, an information node where you can learn quickly how the country works from people with current experience. Guidebooks may identify such places; if not, ask taxi drivers, travelers in a sidewalk café, or the tourist office.

Price

The best options for pleasant, affordable lodging are in South America and Asia. On my most recent trip, a private bungalow just off the beach on the island of Ko Tao—with a bathroom, fan, verandah, and world-class view—cost me $20.

Throughout most of Africa lower-price lodging is less charming, but for a few dollars you’ll be quite happy.

Wherever you are, greet the desk clerk with a friendly phrase in his or her language. Describe the room you want and ask the price. If the quoted price isn’t totally unacceptable, follow the cardinal rule: see the room before discussing price further. If you’re shown the local equivalent of the Emperor’s Suite—at triple the price of the room you said you wanted—just smile and ask to see other rooms.

The flexible room rate

Affordable rooms don’t always start out affordable. The clerk announces the room rate as if it were fixed, but that doesn’t mean it is. Feel free to bargain a. when you’ll be staying three or more nights (an almost automatic discount of 10 to 30 percent) b. in off-season c. when something (bad weather, a coup, etc.) has curtailed tourism d. when you see a lot of room keys hanging on hooks behind the counter e. when you’re part of a group f. every time unless clearly inappropriate.

After the clerk names a price, reply that, regrettably, it’s too expensive, that you can pay no more than “x” pesos or rupees, or whatever. Ask for a discount on grounds of being a student, a teacher, an old person, a young person, or anything you can think of. If you have a business card or a membership card of any kind, lay it on the counter. The point is to persuade the desk clerk that you won’t stay in her hotel unless she gives you a discount. Just give her a face-saving reason for granting it, without disparaging the accommo-dations. The clerk may live in much worse conditions than the room you’re running down.

If you can’t get the room rate reduced, ask for a better room at the same price. If the clerk offers a lower rate but for a less desirable room, offer to pay the lower price for the room you really want.

The end game

If you’ve reached an impasse, tell the clerk you’ve decided to look around at other hotels. Leave slowly, so she can make another offer.

Ask the clerk to write down the total price to ensure that no misunderstanding arises at checkout time and that the room will be available to you for the time you want it. Otherwise, you could be unexpectedly evicted.

Pick up a hotel business card with its address and, if possible, a map.

Amenities

Bathroom: The shower and toilet may be in your room, down the hall, or in a different building. A private bathroom can double the room rate. Test to see that the toilet flushes. If toilet paper hasn’t been provided, ask for it, but always carry your own supply.

Don’t take anyone’s word about hot water. Test the temperature. It’s not uncommon for hot water to be available for limited hours. When I checked into a lovely 2-story stone lodge on the crest of a mountain ridge in Kalimpong, India, no water flowed from the shower nozzle. However, the charming proprietress assured me that hot water would be available at 7 p.m. Given the chill Himalayan air, I watched the clock eagerly. Exactly at seven the hot water arrived as promised—at my door in a bucket.

Noise level: Don’t trust the hotel clerk. Either she’s stopped hearing the racket or she’s not going to tell you about the disco in the rear that roars to life at 9 p.m. for an all-nighter. Ask questions, including about traffic and muezzins. If you suspect a problem, ask for a quieter room.

Lighting: If you love a good book late at night, check the lighting. Some people carry a 100-watt bulb to replace the 25-watt bulb you’re likely to find. Or take one of those nifty lights that clip onto your book or a headband.

Windows: Especially where malaria is a problem, ensure there is some barrier between you and mosquitoes. This usually means screens on the windows and a mosquito net over the bed. If there are neither, you may have to sleep with the windows closed, or last resort, find one of those chain hotels.

Air conditioning: Not standard internationally, so if you’re interested be sure to ask. Air conditioning raises the room rent quite a bit, but when you’re coming off a trek in the sweltering Thai hill country no price is unreasonable.

In equatorial latitudes a ceiling fan or even a small oscillating table fan can make a humid night bearable. Besides cooling your body, the breeze from a fan keeps mosquitoes away.

With the southern India solar furnace operating at full blast, I gratefully paid a premium to stay in the only hotel in Tiruchirapalli with a swimming pool.

Security: Are there unsavory types hanging out in the lobby? Are there sturdy locks on doors and windows? Is there a hotel safe? I carry a plastic wedge for the door and a light chain to secure my luggage to the bed. Guidebooks often comment when a place has a reputation for thievery.

Beauty: Beautiful lodging may mean a ryokan in Japan with painted shoji screens and jasmine-scented tatami mats, a losman in Bali with incense burning at a Hindu shrine in the manicured garden, or a white-stucco posada in Portugal nestled against the stones of a castle wall with views of red-tile roofs and distant fields of ripe grain. As we think about practical issues, remember the importance of beautiful memories.

Of course, sometimes the only amenity that really matters is a “Vacancy” sign.

Concierge or Culture?

How to Choose Where to Spend the Night

I love luxury hotels, at least the ones that are oases of art and paragons of pampering, and I’ve stayed at quite a few. But much more often, I just visit them for high tea or an evening cocktail.

A much larger number of travelers routinely choose international chain hotels. I understand that too: easy to reserve and very predictable. In fact, many chains are at their best overseas.

On balance though, many luxury hotels and virtually all chain hotels are uninspiring clones that rob travelers of the essence of the experience they’ve come so far to enjoy. These places appeal to English-speaking guests who, oddly, don’t tend to talk much with one another. Dining room meals consist of “international cuisine,” meaning you’ll recognize everything.

Break Out of the Cocoon

To avoid that cocoon, select from among the zillion smaller, more personal, locally-owned lodging choices. The 10-room guesthouse in Ubud, Bali looks like it was designed by the family-owners instead of from plans emailed from London or Atlanta.

The people you meet are likely to be travelers keenly interested in local culture. Since there may be no dining room you’ll be going out for meals of local specialties and serendipitous conversations. You can stay for a month on what you’d spend in three days at the luxury palace. And what you spend will stay in the community rather than being shipped back to corporate headquarters.

Not all locally-owned lodging is wonderful. Some accommodations are so awful they make great stories. But the good ones earn a warm place in your memory bank.

To Reserve or to Freelance

Many travelers assume they should make hotel reservations for every night of the trip before leaving home. That’s a quest to reduce concern about the unknown, a security blanket to ensure there will be a room available at a known price.

There are a few circumstances in which even an experienced traveler might make advance reservations:

  • After a long flight, certainly if arriving late at night, and sometimes for the night before departure to ensure you’ll be near transport to the airport.
  • A woman arriving solo at some destinations may prefer to have a booking rather than take an immediate walkabout.
  • During high season at very popular destinations.
  • When a public event, such as Carnival in Rio or Octoberfest in Munich, is likely to jam the city.
  • If the destination is a resort.
  • When a certain hotel is so splendid (not necessarily meaning expensive) that you’re determined to stay there.

Wing It!

Other than those exceptions, I detest being committed to a string of reservations.

Here’s why:

  • A reservation is a tether that requires you to be at a certain place on a specified date. It can drag like an anchor on your independence once you’re underway. Finding a place each night is a cheap price to pay for the freedom to take spontaneous side trips.
  • If you reserve and don’t show up or cancel well ahead, you’ll probably lose your deposit and maybe more. Similarly, if you check out early, you may have to pay for the entire period reserved.
  • Generally, when a hotel abroad has invested in advertising in print and/or on a Web site, its rates reflect that expense. Further, according to The Wall Street Journal, rates at “name” international hotels are hitting all-time highs—just at a time U.S. economic policies have sent the dollar into the tank.
  • You can’t assume that reasonably priced domestic hotel chains are equally reasonable overseas. Fact is, Holiday Inn, Best Western, even Quality Inn, can be very expensive internationally. By the way, if you’re quoted a room rate in U.S. dollars rather than in local currency, you will pay more than you need to. And, finally, except in the situations I mentioned above, a reservation is seldom necessary.

How to Find A Great Place

If you choose freedom over certainty-in-advance, how do you find a great place to spend the night? No problem.

  • When you arrive at an airport, train, or bus station, lots of smiling people spring forward to solicit your business, flashing photographs of low- and mid-priced lodging (known as a guest house, inn, losman, ryokan, hospadaje, pension, residencial, bungalow, and many other names). They may offer free transportation into town in return for your agreement to “just take a look” at their lodging—no obligation. Ask questions. If a place sounds attractive and is located near where you want to stay, it’s a good way to get into town and may result in a great choice. If not, catch a local cab and move on. Never a hassle.
  • Guidebooks sometimes suggest real treasures and keep you from looking at dogs. Of course favorites raise their rates as soon as mentioned in the guidebook and fill up early.
  • Ask other travelers. A strong positive recommendation usually leads to a memorable stay. (Although on the remote clove island of Ternate, Indonesia, I reached a hotel someone raved about that was so bad I wondered if the guy had been taking hallucinogenic drugs.)
  • Tourist information booths in or near airports, train stations, and bus depots often offer a reliable room-finding service. You may pay something, either as a fee or in a slightly higher room rate, but it can be very helpful. Note that the least expensive lodgings in town are seldom on lists provided by these services. However, the clerk may know about good places that have yet to appear in any guidebook.
  • Ask a hotel clerk. If you’ve stopped into a place that has no vacancy or the price isn’t right, tell the clerk what you’re looking for. It’s common to get directions to someplace that has the amenities and price you seek.
  • Call ahead to check for availability and prices. Crisscrossing town after a long day on the road is no one’s idea of fun. Find your night’s lodging early, before you’re tired, then go have a good dinner.

The bottom line is that, even without help, it’s no big deal to find that special place all by yourself. As you reminisce years later you won’t remember androgynous international chains, but you’ll smile when you think of some architectural gem in a far away place gently supervised by an elderly couple whose mission was your daily happiness.