Chapter 4: How to Save on Hotels in Europe
Whether you’re planning to travel for two days or 20 days, where you stay can have a big impact on both your budget and your trip experience.
We’ve spent the past 18 years hunting down the best hotel values in Europe’s priciest cities. While we’ve seen some big changes, good and bad, over the years (finally, free Wi-Fi!), there are certain bits of “Cheapo advice” that remain the same today as in 2001.
Before we get started, remember: Don’t panic.
High-season rates in particularly expensive destinations (London, Venice, all of Switzerland…) can cause great anxiety and all-out panic. Remain calm and remember that many websites (not including EuroCheapo, of course!), rank the hotel results to show you what they’d like you to book first. (These are often the hotels that are paying them the highest commission.)
So don’t just stare at those first results and quickly assume that the city’s going to be too expensive for you to visit. It might take a little digging and further research (using tips on this page and throughout EuroCheapo), but chances are you’ll be able to find a great little hotel, B&B, or hostel in town for your budget.
Bottom line: Don’t panic. But be prepared to do some digging for a deal.
Tips for saving on hotels in Europe
Here are our 10 top tips for saving on accommodation and on finding the perfect hotels for your trip.
1. Think about location before price.
We often hear from travelers who do a hotel search, and then book the cheapest hotel they can find, only to realize it’s located far outside the center (or in a neighboring town!), and isn’t easily accessible to areas they want to visit. This can cause an undue expenditure of both time and money, not to mention often a crummy hotel experience.
Fortunately, this can be avoided with advance planning. Really zoom in on the hotel’s location when researching. How far is it from a subway or bus line? Consider paying just a bit more for something more central or closer to public transportation.
2. Be flexible with your travel schedule.
If your trip itinerary spends quite a bit of time in one geographic area, flexibility with your itinerary can help save money. Once you start searching for hotels, you might find that one stop is more expensive on certain dates than others. Juggling around your itinerary can allow you book hotels when they’re at their cheapest.
For example, say you’re spending a week in Belgium, visiting both Brussels and Bruges. Once you start searching for hotels, you’ll likely find that hotel rates in Brussels are lower on the weekends (because there are fewer business travelers and Eurocrats booking them). Thus, why not visit Bruges during the week, and spend the weekend in Brussels, when hotels are at their cheapest?
3. More stars do not always make a better hotel.
Hotel star ratings in Europe are confusing. Every country has their own standards and system of classification, usually set by a government-run tourism board. Thus, what qualifies as a three-star hotel in the Netherlands will probably be different from a three-star hotel in Italy.
In short, the more amenities and services a hotel offers, the higher the star rating. Inspectors visit with clipboards and literally check off everything they see in the lobby, hotel room and elsewhere. The more stuff to check off, the higher the star rating. But obviously, more “stuff” doesn’t always make a better-run, friendlier or more memorable hotel.
You can be fairly certain that a four-star hotel offers elevators, room service, private baths, cable TV, Internet, air conditioning and so forth. But it doesn’t say anything about the room décor, the hotel’s location or the helpfulness of the staff. A four-star hotel may actually be far less charming than a two-star hotel.
We’ve visited many hotels that are stuck, for reasons outside their control, with a low star rating. A two-star hotel located in a historic neighborhood in Paris, for example, will probably have restrictions placed upon its ability to do renovations. This might make adding an elevator impossible, which would prevent the hotel from achieving three-star status, no matter how lovely the rooms or how cordial the management.
Also, note that one-star hotels will often offer things for free (like Internet access) that four-star hotels might still charge for. Read more about star ratings in Europe.
4. Which amenities do you really need? Really?
If you can reduce the number of amenities you need, and reduce the star rating, you can probably score a better deal. Consider which room amenities you really need to enjoy your visit. Do you need air conditioning in Vienna in early June? Do you need a safe? Hairdryer? Toiletries? The difference between a one-star and a three-star hotel might be more noticeable in your wallet than in your room.
5. Know when to book.
When’s the best time to book to save on hotels in Europe? Unfortunately, it depends. Booking in advance helps you arrange your travel plans before you take off, but you miss out on the possibility of last-minute travel deals. Booking at the last minute (even same day!), can result in amazing deals, but it can also lead to stress… and finding yourself without a place to sleep.
I wrote an entire post about when to book hotels for the best rates. But basically, it boils down to this:
We recommend booking well in advance if:
- You need to secure a favorite hotel. Book it before it fills up.
- You see very limited availability when you search. Book now — it’s only going to get worse. (This is especially the case during high season.)
- You just want to get everything checked off you’re list and relax.
- You have a pretty rigid schedule.
We recommend booking closer to your travel date if:
- You see lots of availability and cheapo options when you search for hotels. You can hang back and see if prices come down. (This is often the case when traveling during the off season.)
- You want more flexibility when you’re traveling. Are you the kind of travelers who likes to switch your itinerary at the last minute? You may just want to hold off. (Or at least book refundable rates! See next point.)
6. Consider first booking a hotel with free cancellation.
Another option is to book a hotel right now that offers free cancellation, and then cancel the reservation later if you find a better deal. This can at least calm your nerves (hey, you’ve got a place!), and allow you some flexibility in terms of finding something better later.
One warning: Most hotels now charge a bit more for free cancellation (so you’re actually spending money to have this flexibility). Also, be aware that the definition of “free cancellation” varies widely. Free… until when? Are you free to cancel until the day of your reservation… or only free to cancel up to one week before check-in? There’s a big difference — pay attention to the details.
7. Consider renting an apartment.
Even though we have a special love for small hotels, we can’t deny that apartments can be handy and sometimes even more affordable than hotels, especially for longer stays or when traveling with a family. You can browse apartment listings by searching on EuroCheapo, or on any number of apartment search sites, like VRBO or (of course) Airbnb.
Be aware that some European cities, like Paris and Berlin, are cracking down on illegal apartment rentals on these sites, so double-check before booking that it’s legal! Also make sure that all of the check-in logistics are squared away in advance, and that you know exactly how to get into the apartment, and how to contact the apartment’s owner for any questions or emergencies.
8. Hostels are for everyone.
Hostels in Europe aren’t just for “youth” anymore. In fact, in the past 10-15 years scores of stylish and hip hostels, like the Generator chain, have reinvented what it means to be a hostel. Today’s “hip hostels” often offer fresh design themes (often developed by local artists), low-cost group activities, healthy food options, and lots of shared space.
As you’ll see when you search and filter by “hostels” on EuroCheapo, the bedroom situation ranges widely depending on the hostel, but most offer both private rooms that are cheaper than you’d find in most hotels (you’ve got the room to yourself, although you might share a bathroom) and really cheap shared rooms (you’re probably sleeping in a bunk with others in the room). Regardless, rooms tend to be simply furnished, but often hostels make up for it with extensive public rooms meant for reading, hanging out, and meeting other travelers.
That said… the hostel landscape still includes plenty of more traditional “youth hostel” options, as well, especially those official and non-profit hostels affiliated with Hostelling International.
9. Take our hotel advice
We’ve spent a lot of time inspecting hotels and rounding up the best affordable hotel options in Europe’s priciest destinations. We especially like small, family-run and independent hotels that really capture the spirit of the destination–and we try to stay away from recommending big international chain hotels. I always say that I prefer to wake up in Rome and immediately feel that I’m in Rome — and not next to the Milwaukee airport.
10. Keep saving once you’ve checked in.
Once you arrive, there are still ways to save on your hotels in Europe even after you’ve checked in. These include:
Head for the nearest grocery store: Don’t touch that minibar! As soon as we plop our things down in our room, we typically head out to a nearby supermarket for some essentials: Bottles of water, fruit, snacks, missing toiletries, and anything else that would cost us a small fortune if purchased from the hotel or (double yikes!) taken from the mini-fridge.
Think twice about breakfast: When you check in, the receptionist will probably ask you, “Are you taking breakfast?” Don’t be shy here — ask for more specifics before committing to their breakfast offerings. How much does it cost? And what exactly does it consist of? (You might be surprised!) If you’re staying in the middle of a city or town, chances are you can easily walk to a cafe or restaurant and get a better deal.
Be clear when making your hotel reservation.
One final word of advice (from an article I wrote about how to not get stuck with the worst room in the hotel): Be as clear as possible when reserving your room. What exactly are you looking for in a room? Do you prefer one on a high floor overlooking the street? Or perhaps you like lower floors with windows opening to the courtyard? Maybe you dream of a room with a balcony? Do you need a bathtub instead of a shower?
Mention these preferences in your correspondence with the hotel when reserving. (When reserving through EuroCheapo, there is a field in the reservation form to add any special requests). Your requests will almost always be considered. The hotel wants you to be a happy guest (and they especially want you to write a glowing review). They’ll try hard to accommodate.
Source: Euro Cheapo