Travel cheaply while ye may

This Arsenal season has highlighted for me something I probably would not have noticed living my “normal” life. Hotels experience seasons and neighborhoods fall temporarily out of favor. When out of season or in a temporarily out-of-favor area, they are definitely cheaper. I could have easily understood this in a beach or ski community, where hotel prices are much greater during high season, but it never occurred to me that it also applies to hotels in a big city like London.

hotels in london
Our hotels so far, and the Emirates, naturally.

My husband and I, separately and together, have traveled to London four times since August. Early on, we set a nightly price point for hotels that we felt was reasonable considering the amount of travel we’ll complete this year. This price point would typically put us in 3-star hotels, usually in an area somewhat away from the central tourist area. Not a hostel situation by any stretch, but not luxury living, either. We’ve stayed in Shoreditch, Camden, Old London, and Bloomsbury so far, all interesting neighborhoods with plenty to see and do. Just walking around those neighborhoods is great entertainment. I could almost do it all day.

For us, more important than any other factor in choosing a hotel is proximity to the Tube. On a rainy London day, there is comfort in knowing that your socks will get only so wet walking a few blocks to the hotel. There is absolutely no doubt that Tube proximity correlates with increased room cost, but not having convenient access to public transportation would certainly increase ground costs for the same trip. We’ve stopped caring whether a hotel is close to the Piccadilly line that takes us to the Emirates, because we’ve found it so easy to navigate to Piccadilly from wherever we are. There is so much to see and do in London, it’s easy to let our Tube line and neighborhood be our guide in planning our time on the ground.

Although it is possible to hotel at a more reasonable price in London with a shared bathroom, we’ve opted each time for a room with a private bath. These bathrooms have ranged in size from small to exceptionally teeny tiny, but they’ve allowed us to complete the requisite bathroom activities. (This is all I ask!)

bookingWe haven’t done anything fancy to find hotels. I use two websites with regularity–Hotels.com and Booking.com–because they are easy to navigate and offer screening features that help us find best value at our price point. I occasionally use Orbitz and the British Airways site because they have somewhat different hotel options and deals. I would suspect that for Orbitz this will be less the case going forward since they were recently acquired by Expedia. Expedia also owns Hotels.com (and Travelocity, which I’ve stopped using given some bad experiences in the past).

I find both Orbitz and British Airways sites rather more difficult to use to shop around. Hotels.com and Booking.com both pop the hotel up in a separate window from the screening results, allowing me to keep a hotel open that looks interesting, and then navigate back to my screen results to keep looking. I find that both the Orbitz and British Airways sites cause me to lose my screening criteria far too often when returning from viewing a specific hotel. But Orbitz’s mapping feature is right in the hotel page, which is convenient. On Booking.com and Hotels.com, they produce a thumbnail map on the hotel page, which you can open in a separate window to see a bigger map. Now that I’m starting to recognize the London neighborhoods, I don’t need the big map as much. (When I need the big map, that’s usually a sign that the hotel is far from where I want to be.)

My perception before we started this travel is that these travel websites tend to focus on large hotel chains. I found, though, that doesn’t seem to be the case for London. It’s possible to find a good selection of boutique hotels and serviced apartments, in addition to chains. Perhaps that’s reflective of the market for hotels in London. Fewer chains as a percentage of available options, so the websites meet the market. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with hotel chains; booking in a chain is a decent means of minimizing unexpected quality differences, but I enjoy being able to have many different options when selecting a hotel.

What I love about the sites as much as the convenience is the availability of good deals if you pay attention. A hotel that’s usually out of our price point will often fall into it over time. Once we have bought our air tickets for the match, I’ll start casually checking the hotel websites to see what’s available. If it seems that options are closing down, I’ll grab the best deal that meets our criteria. Although our price point would usually point to a 3-star option, it’s been possible for us to find 4-star options each time we visit by being vigilant on the booking sites. We are often reserving the cheapest room available at a hotel when we book, so even through the hotel is a 4-star hotel, and the amenities are 4-star, our room will be the most basic available. Clean, charming, tiny. We show up with enough clothing for a two-night stay, so that works for us.

Most hotel reservation sites are now offering both nonrefundable and refundable options, with nonrefundable options at the best prices. I will usually try to find a refundable option that’s not far in price from the nonrefundable option. To me, a $10 difference in ultimate cost is worth being able to cancel if I need to, or find something better. I have used nonrefundable options when booking close to the date of travel or when an interesting hotel simply has no other options.

If you are likely to use travel insurance when you travel, the cheaper, nonrefundable hotel reservation option makes a lot of sense, with the travel insurance providing a refund mechanism. We all know from Consumer Ed class that insurance is based on the law of large numbers. An insurer can make money insuring trips because most trips it covers won’t fail. A family loses a lot of money for the one big trip they plan that somehow can’t happen, so the expense for transferring risk is worthwhile.

We haven’t used travel insurance for any of our trips because we are taking so many trips this year; i.e., we are somewhat approximating the requisite large numbers for “the law.” The cost for insuring all of the trips we’re taking is close to the cost for a trip that doesn’t happen. The plane ticket reschedule we had to do for the Leicester City match cost us $1,000. If that is the only problem we have this year, that’s better than the cost of insurance. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure until the season is in the books whether we’ll face a similar scenario that will make it a very bad decision indeed.

The other concern with travel insurance: I really don’t know how a negotiation with an insurer would go in trying to get back the cost of a trip simply because a match got rescheduled. That thought makes me positively cling to the law of large numbers.

Our upcoming February trips especially highlighted for me the value and curse that is the travel websites. Because February is apparently not a time of high hotel demand, it took me a very long time to settle on something because the number and quality of options in our price point have been so vast. The longer I wait, the more it seems prices are coming down all over town. Yesterday, it was possible to find five 5-star hotels at our max nightly price.

Because I have that Sky-sponsored $1,000 flight rebooking charge to make up, this interesting London hotel market has caused me to take a different approach for one of our trips. Rather than trying to stay in the nicest option available at our price point, for one of our February trips we’ll stay in one of the typical hotels we book–small & basic room with a weird, tiny, private bathroom–but at a much lower price than usual. We won’t make up the $1,000, but we’ll cut into it a little bit.

stock
We like to buy low, indeed.

The hotel market is clearly becoming more and more like the stock market. It’s probably always been driven by supply and demand to a great extent, but there has never before been such an efficient market in which to make transactions. Although it has to be better for a hotel to have customers as a slightly lower rate than no customers at a higher rate, as a traveler who pays attention to the hotel market by being active on the travel sites, I feel that the current environment helps me be on the winning side of a transaction, too.

I wonder how much longer this will be the case for the budget traveler as Expedia buys more and more of these travel websites. It’s not completely clear that an oligopoly will force inefficiency into the market in a way that benefits the travel sites and the hotels at the expense of the traveler, but that is the way such things often work.

Travel cheaply while ye may.

 

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