Finding cheap hotels in Asia requires different strategies
As we are just about to release our best-value destinations in Asia list, we realized that some of it wouldn't make much sense to those who've never traveled much in this huge continent. It seems that for most of the rest of the world the best advice is to start online with a meta-search engine like Kayak.com, but budget travelers will find that it's not quite so simple in Asia.
For 3-star and above hotel rooms it actually does work in more or less the same way because they are all computerized and plugged into at least one hotel-booking engine. But for those who want to find really nice 2-star or 1-star rooms at amazingly cheap prices, it's worth considering the strategies below.
1 – Start with a meta-search travel site to judge the market
When you have some dates in mind it's definitely worth punching them into kayak.com or the travel search site of your choice, just to get an idea of how much rooms are going for. If you see that the cheapest 2-star rooms are going for, say, US$25 per night, you can be fairly sure that plenty of similar places that aren't listed will have rooms closer to US$15 per night.
The other very important thing this first search will tell you is if there is a big holiday or festival in town at the time that impacts hotel occupancy. The lunar New Year in particular will fill up many rooms in or around February, but there are plenty of other holidays that fill some cities up at times that can be surprising. If a city you expected to be cheap has rooms starting much higher than you'd guessed, or the only cheap rooms are way out of town, it's time to find out if there's something more to the story.
2 – Be confident that rooms will be available upon arrival
With the above in mind, plus adding in the December holidays where nearly every warm city is crowded, as long as you aren't coming during peak season, there will be plenty of vacant rooms available when you arrive. If you are arriving late at night, or especially if you are flying in from a long distance, it's always a good idea to pre-book at least your first night, however. Partly this gives you a specific destination for the taxi or public transport ride, which could otherwise be stressful when you have just come a long way.
Other than that, it's good to know that pretty much every tourist city in Asia is brimming with hotel capacity. Unlike, say, New York City, even a hotel that is rents rooms for US$10 per night and is rarely more than half full can be one of the most profitable businesses on a given block. Having traveled all over Asia for the past 14 months, it really is amazing how many relatively empty hotels there seems to be in every town, with more constantly being built.
3 – Use Travelfish and Wikitravel
So if most of the cheapest nice hotels aren't listed on the major travel-booking sites, where do you find them? We covered this extensively in our piece about finding 1-star hotel rooms, and much of that advice works for Asia as well. But specifically, if you are going to be traveling around Southeast Asia, including Bali, then mosey on over to Travelfish.org. Amazingly, they review and list dozens of hotels in every city you'll want to visit, and a huge portion of them are the too-cheap-to-computerize ones we are discussing here.
For example, their Bangkok hotels section (which was just refreshed and updated) covers loads of cheap guesthouses in the Khao San Road area that are all cheaper than what you can book online. They also review and list hotels in higher price ranges, and you can book many of those through them using Agoda, which tends to be the cheapest booking engine for Asia, so they are a great resource regardless of your own budget.
For the rest of Asia, and in fact, for the rest of the world, you'll find plenty of very good recommendations on the pages of wikitravel.org. This user-generated site was once filled with sketchy information and some poor writing, but in recent years it's become uniformly good or great, and is an invaluable resource for budget travelers. They'll often list many good options that aren't available online, usually providing the reservation email address as well.
4 – Email for a reservation
In the computerized world it's understandable that most hotels won't hold a room without a credit card number, if not full pre-payment. But in most of Asia there are plenty of smaller friendly hotels that will happily hold your room with nothing more than an email. For many of them it's either that or a phone call, as they don't have a system to charge your credit card anyway.
There are definitely a few stories out there of a popular hotel giving away a room before the guest arrived, but it seems to be rare. Also, keeping in mind the abundance of rooms as mentioned above, even if this does happen to you the downside is usually minimal. Again, if you are coming during a busy holiday period, or if you have one fantastic hotel in mind, it's good to book ahead online. Otherwise the email reservation works like a charm, and it even gives you the ability to walk away if the hotel appears to have misrepresented its facilities or location.
5 – Consider fan-rooms rather than A/C
In northern Asia the seasons are like those in Europe and North America, but in the southern half, including Southeast Asia, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, March through May are the hottest months. During these times paying more for air conditioning can be wise, and perhaps the only way you'll get to sleep, but otherwise a “fan room” can be an excellent bargain.
When I first started reading about fan-only rooms in hot climates I pictured sweating while an oscillating desk fan pathetically tried to keep part of me cool. But the reality is that these fan-only rooms are almost all equipped with an industrial-strength ceiling fan above the bed, and are often much more quiet than A/C units. They also tend to cool you off faster than A/C, especially since nearly every cheap A/C hotel in Asia will turn the electricity off when you aren't in the room.
You'll often save US$5 or more per night on an identical room, which means an extended trip can go on much longer considering lovely US$10 hotel rooms are easy to find in the cheaper countries.
6 – Ask for long-stay discounts
If you arrive at a hotel that doesn't feel too full, it's actually okay to bargain for the room rate even for one night. If they are asking US$12 for one night then it might be too much hassle or be embarrassing to haggle hard, but if you are staying at least 5 to 7 days, it's perfectly reasonable and it will usually work.
Long-stay customers usually bring ancillary income to these hotels (like booking tours or onward transportation) so it's usually worth it to knock the rate down by around 20% to keep you from asking for a discount at the hotel next door instead.
7 – Be prepared to pay in cash
If you like to travel on plastic then you need to ask about that before you get your room key, because many of the cheaper family-run hotels don't take credit cards at all. When you are paying only US$10 per night per room, it shouldn't be much of a problem to set aside the amount on your ATM run.
Even many hotels that do accept credit cards will tack on 3% to 5% extra for the privilege, since that's the amount their own bank charges them to process a foreign card. It's true that you'll end up paying a similar fee in ATM charges to get the cash anyway, but still it's worth consideration, and most of the cheapest places don't take cards anyway.
8 – Take advantage of free airport, train station, or bus station pick-up
In a situation that seems to be much more common in Asia than anywhere else in the world, many hotels will send a driver carrying your name on a sign to an airport, train station, or bus station, for free. It's not their benevolence driving them to offer this, it's that many cities are filled with hotel touts and unscrupulous taxi drivers who'll blatantly lie to you to steer you away from your reserved room and to theirs.
This “free” pick-up service is their guarantee that you won't become waylaid en route. Not only is it fun and reassuring to see your name in big letters upon arriving in a city, but you'll often be saving US$5 to US$10 in the process. Just don't expect “free” drop-off because that tends to be quite rare, and that part is usually less of a hassle anyway since you'll know your way around by that point.
9 – Research prices in advance here on Price of Travel
The whole purpose of this site is to help travelers know what their expenses will be in advance (plus know what weather to expect) so of course we'll recommend that you check out our city pages in the planning stages of your trip. For example, you can find out Bangkok prices, Bali prices, or Goa prices all translated into US dollars or any other currency you wish.