Finding 1-star hotel rooms – Tips and challenges
One of the challenges in researching the hotel pricing information for this site was the interesting gap between hostel dorms and 2-star hotel rooms. You might have never even thought about it unless you are a hardcore budget traveler, but most of the big hotel-booking sites like Expedia, Travelocity, and even Kayak, rarely list ANY 1-star hotel rooms, even though they do exist in nearly every big city on earth.
Yes, we know that there are only a few countries with an “official” rating system for hotels, and certainly there is no worldwide standard for what constitutes a 1-star hotel room, so we are generalizing about that group of cheap hotels that are usually just fine for a night's sleep in a small room if that's all you need.
The reason for this gap is certainly caused by the fact that few of these 1-star hotels are properly plugged into the worldwide hotel reservation systems, and even those that are don't provide much incentive to the booking sites in terms of a decent commission, so those sites are just as happy for you to believe that these cheaper rooms don't exist at all.
So what is a 1-star hotel room?
For our purposes we'll use that term for any private hotel room that is so basic that it can't compete in amenities with what most Westerners consider to be a proper tourist hotel. In some European countries they official define a 1-star hotel as something that does meet basic tourist standards, but even in those countries there is often a level below that one.
What to expect at a 1-star hotel
- A very small room with little furniture other than a bed
- Minimal front-desk services
- Often, a bathroom down the hall
- Sometimes in a relatively bad neighborhood
Still, if you are on a tight budget and just need a place to sleep for a night or two, it can be amazing how cheap these rooms can be in some otherwise expensive cities. In some cases you can get a private room for less than the price of cheap hostel dorm bed, so if privacy is more important than amenities, these can make sense.
Where to find 1-star hotel rooms
Hotel booking sites – If you are looking for the cheapest possible private room then it still always makes sense to check a site like kayak.com to see what their minimum is.
Hostel-booking sites – Then check a site like hostelworld.com for private rooms in hostels, which will often be your best bet. Unfortunately, it can be frustrating since that site and many others list something like “private rooms from €12 per night” and a few clicks later you realize that that's a per-person price for a 3 or 4-bed room. It's nearly always true that the lowest “private room” prices you see are for one bed in a multi-bed room. If there are at least two in your group then it's very often possible to get a private room in a hostel for about the same price as multiple dorm beds.
Wikitravel – If you've used wikitravel.org much before you probably know that the coverage can be uneven, but it's actually continually improving and turning into a great resource for budget travelers. Checking their “budget” sleeping category in many cities will turn up results for these 1-star hotels that aren't listed elsewhere, often with a phone number, website, or e-mail address as well.
Residence hotels – These can be depressing in some cities, but still worth a look. Often near train or bus stations in large cities around the world you'll find ‘old school' hotels that might have transient residents living in many of the rooms. But very often they have empty rooms and a front-desk person ready to rent them out for a night. These kinds of hotels are almost never available online so you just have to show up, but often you can get a private room in a city for perhaps US$30 per night when the cheapest online hotel might be over US$50 per night. Hey, if they were good enough for Jack Kerouac, they night be good enough for you.
A note about Southeast Asia and India
The cheapest hotel rooms in the world are almost all in Southeast Asia (which has the world's cheapest hostel) and India, and this contributes to a slightly unusual situation.
The main international booking sites obviously work on commissions, and if you want to book one night at a US$10/night hotel in Vietnam there just isn't enough commission possible to make it worth their while to even list those places, even though the country is filled with them and they are often at 2-star quality or even higher. In particular, prices in Vietnam can be amazingly low considering the quality, so there's little need to look for the cheapest possible room to save a dollar or two.
Having spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia we can tell you that the best source for information on these cheaper places is our friends at travelfish, who exhaustively list a dozen or more cheaper hotels in each city, none of which show up on the international sites. Some of these hotels have their own websites, and an amazing amount of them have prices starting below US$10 per night even though they can be nice, so budget travelers won't find a better resource.
For India we are not yet aware of a similar site, so checking wikitravel is a good first step, and if you know of a good budget-hotel site for India please let us know.