3 Tips for booking cheap hotel rooms

Do you want cheap hotel rooms?

For cases when alternatives like airbnb or couchsurfing don’t suit your needs).

Tip 1 – Use EITHER hotels.com or agoda.com to look for a hotel.

Hotels.com has listings available worldwide for cheap hotel rooms, and has a good map interface for searching hotels in a specific region with the amenities you’re looking for.  It offers a “Buy 10 get 1 free” promotion where after 10 nights, a “free” night is available to apply on a future booking.  However, the “free” night has a maximum value that seems to vary depending on the prices of the hotels you’ve booked previously to get that free night.

Can't beat a better price than FREE for cheap hotel rooms! ;)

Progress showing towards free nights on hotels.com

(Sorry, you can’t book 10 days in the Best Western and then stay 1 night at the Shangri-La…)

Agoda has a slightly less friendly interface, but seems to have more listings in Asia.  Rewards points also accrue immediately, instead of batching together like hotels.com.

I haven’t seen difference in price of one or two dollars per night between the two sites for cheap hotel rooms.

Tip 2 – Don’t use the hotel’s own website.

In general, hotels will have their “walk-in” rate posted on their websites, which is nearly almost ALWAYS higher than the price on a hotel aggregator website.

In only one case that I’ve checked has a hotel matched the price for what I’ve seen on hotels.com – but if you did book directly, you aren’t going to be claiming rewards points/days for whatever budget travel site you normally use (agoda and hotels.com bonuses seem to work out to about 3-5% off over time over what normal discounts are already applied).

Tip 3 – Searching every single booking website repeatedly to get the lowest price may actually INCREASE your prices.

I’ve seen some incredible deals in Bangkok, Thailand while searching for places to stay ($36/night places discounted from over $100).  Some search engines (like hotelaggregator.com) that lookup bookings from multiple sites seem to trigger an increase in price.

I’m not sure if this is the hotel returning higher prices because it sees it’s becoming popular, or if some search sites actually place a hold on the room when you select a room type (i.e. “Book now – x rooms left”), thus driving the prices of other rooms up.

If you have other lesser known tips for getting cheaper hotel rooms when travelling, please leave a comment below!

Reykjavik, Iceland – Part 2

Did I See the Northern Lights?

Seeing the northern lights was one of my must-dos in my trip and the reason I would say I came to Iceland in the first place.  Watching videos of the lights makes them seem otherworldly – it seem real, and I had to see it for myself.

Gray Line tours in Reykjavik offers evening trips for viewings of the Northern Lights.  Each day they decide by ~6pm if conditions are favorable – if they are, they will take you an hour out of the city where there are less lights to see them.

I was halfway into my stay in Iceland and each night had been cloudy and poor conditions for viewing.  On a cloudy day, they may go anyways – hoping that they clear up later.  If they aren’t visible, your ticket is transferable to another night.

A busload of us were taken into a clearing.  It was still cloudy, but plenty of wind to push clouds around.  Did I mention Iceland was cold?  I was fully decked out in two pairs of gloves, heavy winter jacket, toque – the works.  They drove to another location… and waited… and waited…  all we got was a good view of some moonlit clouds.  In all we were out of town for 4 hours.  I didn’t want throw away an entire evening again, so I didn’t bother booking another viewing tour.

moonclouds

Not my picture. My camera can’t really take pictures at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While the eastern coast of the US was hit by a terrible storm, unrelated high winds were hitting Reykjavik – reportedly hitting up to 80 km/h.  Before I knew the bus schedule near where I was staying, I braved a 30 minute walk from my airbnb.com homestay into town fully decked in my winter gear to grab a late dinner in town and explore.

Finally, there it was, above me – a completely dark sky, with a long green streak reaching just above the mountains reaching about 1/3 of the way across the sky.  It didn’t dance around, but writhed slowly and if you weren’t staring at it, you wouldn’t notice that it was even moving.

Looked something like this (camera can't take pictures at night)

Looked something like this, but thinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was happy.  I stood on the sidewalk watching for as long as the biting cold winds could permit me while walking into town.

Beware of budgetair.ca / vayama

I use skyscanner.com to book all my flights – it’s a flight aggregator that shows semi real-time fares.  You can even specify blank source or destination locations and have skyscanner show you where you can fly to or from – showing there may be another cheap route to get to your destination.

When booking my flight to Reykjavik last near, skyscanner showed a flight with budgetair.ca through Seattle that was about a $400 savings over the next nearest flight that was over $1100.   Too good to pass up!  A quick Google search showed budgetair was legit, so away I went to enter my details and credit card info.  When clicking Accept at the final step, the site said there was an unexpected transaction error.  Since this was after all my details were entered, I didn’t even know if the purchase succeeded and I would be billed.

I phoned their support number and was connected to a call center in India.  I told the woman of my issue and they said “No problem sir, I can help you book your flight.”  Her English was fine and the phone connection was very audible.  She then asked me all the details that would normally get entered on the website – I sighed as I just entered all this in on the website 2 minutes ago.  I asked what the error meant on the website and she avoided the question.

When she would read back any of the answers to my questions, what she read back was wrong 90% of the time.  I had to spell out phonetically everything from my name to my billing address.   “B as in bravo, A as in alpha, R as in…” you get the idea.  Even after this, what she noted kept being incorrect.  My patience was quickly wearing thin as I was reaching what had to be at least 30 minutes on the phone thinking of words for all the letters “Y as in…  Yellow?”.  I almost gave up several times and told her to forget it, it was taking too long – “Sir we are almost finished.”  Finally they had all my details and had validated my credit card.  She said to expect a confirmation email in the next 24 hours.  I wanted to buy a ticket to Bangalore and strangle her.

I waited patiently for the email to verify the details.  Surprise – my phone number and address were wrong.  At this point I started to do a bit of internet detective work to find out more about this company.  Turns out the site is just a canadian skin of vayama.  Googling “vayama review” gave some scary results:

vayamareviews

 

 

 

 

 

 

To summarize the reviews out there, they do give cheap flights, but if you want to change anything they charge you fees of $200+ (granted, this is stated in the T&C), and sometimes after booking they will call you and tell you the flight is no longer available – but they can rebook this other flight on another date or time that happens to be more expensive.  You have connecting flights?  Sorry, too bad.  You want to cancel your flight and get a refund?  Let us refer you to our refund department, where you should expect to see money sometime between two weeks and never.

It took 3 back and forth exchanges over email to make sure my details were correct – info that was correct in one email suddenly became incorrect in the next.  I don’t know what the plan was here – just incompetence, or trying to get me to call in to change my flight and charge me?

There was still the matter of the transaction error on my original booking – is vayama going to bill me twice?  The charge hadn’t appeared on my credit card yet.  I check back the next day and boom, there was two vayama charges back-to-back.  My $400 savings was now a $300 increase.

Another phone call to India – the CSR actually confirmed seeing the mistaken double-transaction and said that it would be removed.  It was, fortunately.  Would they call me up the day before my flight telling me it was no longer available?  I was dreading a phone call from them leading up to my departure, but that didn’t happen.

No wonder vayama rebrands itself in different countries.  Googling “budgetair.ca scam” shows positive results:

budgetairreviews

 

 

 

 

 

How was it possible a site that’s just a rebranded skin of vayama have so many good reviews?  When something is too good to be true, it probably is.  If it were Yelp, the page would be full of No-Face 1 Review people.  Read for yourself on trustpilot.

Signs trustpilot is full of fake reviews for budgetair:

– A lot of reviews read like commercials

– 0 of the reviews are validated through Facebook connect, they are all a “Review by confirmed purchaser” – I’m guessing BudgetAir allows users to post reviews directly bypassing the normal interface

– Large groups of reviews appear in batches of specific dates instead of across a normal date distribution

There’s no way to tell if bad reviews are removed.  I just posted my story and I’ll see if it stays.  I don’t believe that trustpilot itself posts these reviews – more likely vayama or marketing companies hired by vayama.  To the consumer, it’s not really relevant where they come from either way since trustpilot appears second in Google and isn’t giving users “good” information.

I’m not the first one to doubt trustpilot’s authenticity:

http://www.frustratedcustomers.co.uk/complaints_detail.php?SETparam=aWQ9d2U1c25xa2drYmh3aXo3MHV0ZmN0

But it seems investors love trustpilot – it just got an investment of $13M back in December.

http://techcrunch.com/2012/12/11/with-nearly-7m-reviews-of-100k-sites-trustpilot-raises-13m-from-index-and-more-to-build-out-a-yelp-for-the-world-of-e-commerce/

Sorry trustpilot, you’ve got a long way to be as trusted as Yelp.

 (Update 1/5/2014)

This page is getting a few hits from search sites and I want to respond to the feedback left by budgetair over the email they sent.  They’ve apparently stopped using that call center in India (thank god).

They probably have good deals for some specific fares, but I would really not recommend them (or any budget fare dealer) if there is any chance whatsoever you’ll need to cancel or change your booking.  That’s hard enough when doing it directly through an airline.

Reykjavik, Iceland – Part 1

It turned out that when booking my trip the dates coincided with Iceland’s biggest music festival, Iceland Airwaves (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iceland_Airwaves).  This turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing.  On one hand I got to experience the collective buzz in the city from a fun happy social event, on the other hand I didn’t have a ticket (sold out, and I don’t really like concerts anyway) – so I wasn’t able to get in some of the bigger venues, and I had a hard time booking accommodations on the second part of my trip there.

There are two major tour bookers that exist in Reykjavik – I used Gray Line Iceland Excursions (http://www.grayline.is/Tours/activity_tours/Iceland.is) when I went caving. All hotel transfers worked out pretty well, you can get picked up at your hotel or just meet at the main office.

The time of year when I was there (late October/early Nov) it was dark very early.  This turned out to be the case in all of my stops in Scandinavia.  This means after waking up around noon some days, by the time I’d eat and roll out I’d only get a couple of hours of daylight.  Most of the Europe photos on my trip are going to be either indoors or appear to be at night time.

Fortunately not all venues were IA exclusive, some bands play in venues like Bus Depots or Hostels.  I was able to check out a lot of different bars in Reykjavik.  Given the cold, lack of available seats and coat check – most people just kept wearing their jackets in the bars or clubs the entire night.  Clubs didn’t charge cover – apparently “That just wouldn’t work here” – they just might have super long lineups to get in.  My first night in a bar in Reykjavik dancing I thought to myself “How cool is this?  I’m in fucking Iceland!”

I left the last few days of my Iceland trip unbooked hoping I’d find something while there.  I was able to find a place a 10 minute bus ride / 30 minute walk out from the city center.

Read more about Iceland in Part 2…