Conducting a business trip that encompassed every state in Australia was never going to be a super-cheap enterprise, but I was determined not to spend more than I had to. How did I keep costs for motel rooms down?
I started by setting myself some basic ground rules. Save one brief stay with friends and another with family, I'm going to be in a motel room for every night in May. Because I'll be travelling with a lot of gear, I wasn't prepared to risk cheaper backpacker options, or more far-out choices like seeking couches via Twitter.
My minimal requirement for accommodation was that it offered my own room and was centrally located. (Out-of-town motels are cheaper, but that falls apart once you hire a few taxis and realise there's nowhere except the motel to eat.) Some cities I visit for work regularly and already had likely venues in mind; others I had no idea at all. But as a rule of thumb, I didn't want to spend more than $100 a night, and I pretty much stuck to that, even in pricey locations like Sydney. In the past, that's meant fairly compact rooms and a none-too-recent paint job, but neither of those factors bother me much.
I came up with the itinerary for the trip back in January, but didn't end up actually booking most of the rooms until early April (when the whole project had been fully confirmed). Inevitably, that meant that prices had gone up on a couple of hotels (and one was no longer available), but on the whole the prices were still pretty reasonable. As a long-time proponent of advance booking, that was a little surprising.
On the other hand, my suspicion that last-minute deals were unlikely to be a better bet was confirmed. I just did a check on Wotif.com for the hotel where I'm staying in Adelaide tomorrow, and the cheapest room at that venue is $60 a night more than what I'm paying. Anecdotally, I've heard quite a few people tell me that they've recently gotten incredible discounts on CBD hotels, but these are inevitably at the top end of the market. Paying $170 for a $500 room is a great saving, but not much help if you didn't plan to spend $170 in the first place.
Getting cheap hotel rooms is often something of a convenience trade-off. There are dozens of aggregators who sell hotel rooms cheaply, and often (though not always) these match the prices available from the hotels themselves. The vast majority of my bookings ended up going through HotelClub, largely because I like the fact that you get credits for every booking which you can then spend on future rooms. (My May travel is going to give me around $140, so that's a useful bonus.) I didn't hesitate to look further afield if the prices or locations didn't suit, though.
I only made one major mistake. I initially booked a hotel in Devonport, Tasmania for a good price, and which looked convenient since it was right near the ferry terminal. As I started planning the day's events, I realised that the hotel was near the terminal, but not at all near anything I wanted to do, or the city centre where cheaper food would be available. I ended up having to cancel the room, paying a $25 fee for the privilege, and paying a little more for the alternative room than I might have earlier. My own stupid fault — I should have researched more thoroughly in the first place. (I'm blaming the fact that I'm on Devonport on a Saturday and thus wasn't in full "where are the work events?" mode.)
The key lessons? It's the same old story: If you know what you're doing, advance bookings on hotels will generally save you money. We'll see over the next month if the savings are worth any associated angst.
Lifehacker's weekly Loaded column looks at better ways to manage (and stop worrying about) your money. Throughout May 2009, Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman will be travelling throughout Australia with just one carry-on bag for the Hand Luggage Only project.