I love Hotwire.com. For those of you not in the know, Hotwire does a lot of travel-related things but I use it solely for hotel bookings. (Particularly after quitting my job, finding a new one, trying to be better about money, etc.) The gist is that you pay in advance for an unnamed, secret hotel. Paying in advance — non-refundable, mind you — and committing to an unnamed hotel can yield big savings. Really big. (But pay attention to the risks I mention later.) I’ve used Hotwire a number of times now to save a bundle on hotel stays in London, New York, Chicago and Madrid and I have ALWAYS been pleased with the results. That being said, I probably spend a lot more time than other people in making my purchase decision and I stay away from the 2 and 3 star properties, which can be a bit more variable in quality. I thoroughly research all my options and do a little extra research to see if I can determine what hotel I’m actually booking. (There are always clues.)
So if you think you are ready to take the risk, here’s how I use Hotwire, with some screenshots of the app, my preferred way of using Hotwire. (The app includes user reviews. The site only includes the ratings. If you do end up just using the site, pay very close attention to the detailed rating breakdowns.)
So a three night stay at this mystery hotel costs $824.68.
By doing a little detective work — the reviews mention an entrance on Water Street and the free snacks — I determine this is the Andaz Wall Street. To make sure I am getting a good deal, I check the Andaz Wall Street website…and they want $922.77USD for the same stay. If I book through Hotwire, that’s a $100 savings. I’ll take it. Of course, I’m leaving a whole lot of steps out of this research — it’s entirely possible I can find a hotel of similar quality for less money without paying in advance and doing the whole “no name” hotel thing. Generally I do a couple of screens first on Expedia to see what 4- and 5-star hotels are going for in my preferred areas. Then once I’ve established a benchmark, I try to beat the system. My ultimate goal is to get the best quality hotel at the best possible price, which is why Hotwire features in my equation. Especially when I know my plans are set!
Top Tips for Using Hotwire
I always filter on hotels with approval ratings greater than 90% (although I will accept 85% if need be) and with greater than 4 stars. This is partially me being picky, but partially mitigating my risk of being stuck in a crappy hotel.
Read the reviews!! The reviews will often contain little tips that you can string together to determine what hotel it is. For example, in Chicago, the Hotwire reviews for one hotel mentioned its all-white room decor. After a little Google’ing, I determined the hotel was either The James or Public. Based on the location, I was able to narrow it down to The James. In my screenshots above, I highlighted a couple of things in the reviews that helped me determine what hotel this was. Note that for some reason, I can only bring up the reviews on the mobile app. I am not able to bring up the reviews on the website.
Be picky based on location. This is the easiest way to narrow down what hotel it might be. Although generally, for cities I’m comfortable with — like New York and Chicago — I am not so picky about location because I know I can take public transport anywhere I want to go.
Watch out for Internet fees. If the reviews mention that you have to pay for Internet, I look elsewhere. These fees can ruin a good value.
Use Better Bidding! Better Bidding is AWESOME. It will help you determine which hotel is which by matching up amenities. Also, people who have recently booked via Hotwire will post their “wins.” If you’re booking at around the same time as some of the recent wins, definitely check out this info as it may be more up to date than the overall hotel list.
Risks in Using Hotwire
Your plans could change and you really can’t get your money back once you’ve booked an unnamed hotel via Hotwire. Really, you can’t, even if you try really really hard. There are many sob stories on the Internet about this.
You could get to the hotel and totally hate it. Same deal. It’s too late to get your money back.
The hotel may end up overbooked and they send you somewhere else, defeating the purpose of this entire Hotwire exercise. But if you do get moved to a different hotel, chances are it will be a sister property so there’s that.
Rumor has it that Hotwire guests get the crappiest rooms. This has not been my experience, but I mention it because you’ll find reviews that mention this.
So…that’s my quick tutorial on how to use Hotwire to save you some money! Have you booked through Hotwire? Let me know what your experience has been like.
I made a quick trip to Chicago last month. Very last minute. It kinda cracks me up that I’ve been back to Chicago THREE TIMES since leaving the city last June. Out of all the places my new job could have sent me…seriously??
To be fair though, this third trip was more about me than about work. I knew I had some leftover holiday to take and I knew I wanted to see some people and celebrate some things so I went. And I had a nice time. But I don’t think I need to go back for a while now…
I stayed at The James hotel off Michigan Avenue, an excellent location if ever there was one. My room was all white and modern BUT it was also a bit scuffed up. I used Hotwire to book my room and saved A BUNDLE. I forget now if I’ve written about my Hotwire arbitrage skillz but if not, I will in a later post. I like The James BUT I don’t like the food at The James, even though it is David Burke. Every sandwich came with too much untoasted bread and too many undercooked fries. Also, every sandwich was pretty expensive. So stay at The James if you want a nice central location, but eat elsewhere. Also, book via Hotwire. I saved $100 a night off the regular rate at time of booking. With taxes and fees, my room cost $153.87 a nght, which is a great rate for a hotel of this caliber and in this location. The Verdict: A good choice, but in need of a facelift. Try The Thompson instead.
Eating & Drinking
I wish I could tell you that I did some good eating and drinking while I was in Chicago, but honestly…I didn’t. I don’t know if it was bad luck or just laziness on my part. (OK, it was laziness.) I didn’t even go to Eataly, for the love of God! Here’s where I ate and drank…
Kanela Breakfast Club, Wicker Park: I met my friends Amy and Larissa at Kanela Breakfast Club in Wicker Park for a Saturday brunch/lunch. Kanela is in a beautiful space largely kitted out by the oyster bar that was there before Kanela. I liked that oyster bar, but when they opened, I thought to myself “People in Wicker Park don’t eat oysters.” I was right. They didn’t last long. Judging by the crowds at Kanela, people like it here. I did not enjoy my chorizo breakfast burrito at all, and that was after waiting an hour to receive it. The Verdict: Skip it. But I don’t know…everyone else seems to like it here so there’s that.
O’Callaghan’s, River North: My friends Bob & Aileen were celebrating their 10 year anniversary so I popped over to O’Callaghan’s with them for some Guinness to kick off the festivities. Super friendly bar staff, although very dark interior. It was quite empty when we visited but I am sure it gets packed during the week. The Verdict: If you want a nice Irish bar in downtown Chicago, you could do worse than O’Callaghan’s.
Star of Siam, River North: I used to walk by Star of Siam every day on my way to work, but yet I had never been. Well, a sudden craving for curry led us here during my visit and boy am I glad we stopped in. I loved it! I loved the decor! (All warehouse-y and spacious and nice decorated with Thai things.) I loved the service! I loved the food! Why have I not eaten here before? Star of Siam is in a bit of a strange location…you have to walk down a flight of stairs to get there from Wabash…but it seems to be a destination in its own right. The Verdict: Go if you’re craving Thai in downtown Chicago.
Lou Malnati’s, Rush Street: I woke up on Sunday morning and was kinda jonseing for a pizza. Don’t ask. I am ashamed of myself. I was there as soon as they opened and enjoyed my deep dish mini pan pizza in silence. UNTIL…I ran into my old colleague Leslie who caught me stuffing my face at 11 am on a Sunday morning. Lucky for me, her and her dad were planning on doing the same. The Verdict: A guilty pleasure.
Soho House, West Loop: I met Karen out for some drinks and snacks at Soho House and she gave me the grand tour. Amazing how much it feels like Shoreditch House. I mean, I guess that’s not amazing because it is the same owners and everything but they’ve really got this design thing nailed. The ground floor of Soho House was packed, the upper levels less so. The ladies’ room on the pool floor was flooded, so that was kinda gross. Also, I ordered almonds and pickles to snack on and the dish came with just three pickles. (Granted, when I pointed this out, they brought me a WHOLE BOWL of gherkins.) The Verdict: I like Soho House. Despite The Pickle Incident.
Joe Stonecrab, River North: Joe’s was right around the corner from The James so we popped in here for dinner one night. I order the ahi tuna and kicked myself later. I should have stuck with what Joe’s does well…stonecrab or steak. My ahi tuna was straight out of the fridge. No sign of searing but maybe they did sear it…in a very cold, cold pan. Many people like Joe’s, but after eating here many times with those many people over the years, I’m just not a huge fan. The Verdict: Meh.
So there you go…that’s my last trip to Chicago for a while, I think. Unless I become a property magnate and then maybe I will maintain residences around the world. That would be awesome.
After kicking myself in the head for spending as much as I did per night at the Eden Rock Cap Cana, I made my way to Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. My trifecta of hotel sites (Jetsetter, Splendia, & Mr. & Mrs Smith) had directed me towards Casas del XVI and boy am I glad they did.
Because I honestly never wanted to leave this hotel. I wanted to hire their decorator to come to my house. I wanted to kidnap their breakfast chef. I wanted to drink all their honor bar rum. The hotel is super small but super sweet. All of the staff were amazingly lovely. And when I had a bit of a mix up with my transport back to Punta Cana at the end of my stay that left me sitting on the side of a busy roadway for 90 minutes waiting for another driver, without hesitation, they refunded my ride. Casas del XVI is a class act. If you ever find yourself in Santo Domingo — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — stay here.
Here’s a video of my lovely room…I loved the tilework, the ceiling, and the art work. Very well done and well-curated. Thank you, Casas del XVI for a lovely, lovely stay.
I stayed three nights at Casas del XVI in April 2015 at a rate of $260.35 USD per night.
I really should really know better. Luxury hotels in the Caribbean are for honeymooners, not solo travelers. I would have been better off at the Westin and I bet the wifi would have been faster too. But I was so pulled in by the Eden Roc Cap Cana. The photos online, the reviews, the private pool…everything was so tremendous that once my overworked brain found a (relatively) good deal on Splendia, I had to book it. And I did book it. And I confirmed with them my name and that I was traveling alone for a few days before my cousin’s wedding and wanted some peace and quiet to hang out and brush off the jetlag.
Still, the envelope in my room read “Mr & Mrs. Passportdelicious” and everywhere I went, the staff wanted to know if my husband was joining me. “Nope, it’s just me,” I would chirpily reply before delving into whatever dish or cocktail they put down in front of me.
Traveling solo in some parts of the world requires firm belief in oneself. Yes, it does.
I wanted to like Eden Roc. And I did, kinda. But it wasn’t my favorite hotel ever which at this price, it really should have been. (There’s a Grand Hyatt in Doha that currently holds pole position.) Here are my pros and cons of my stay at The Eden Roc Cap Cana…
I loved the golf cart that came with my villa. Me and the golf cart had a lot of good times, driving around Cap Cana, checking out the new construction.
The bartenders in the bar were the sweetest and nicest to me and made me all sorts of lovely rum concoctions.
The bath products in the room were really really nice and in plentiful supply.
The TV in the room was huge. If you’re into that sort of thing.
The beach was lovely and small and private. People online complain about this, but I really liked it.
I got a really good gel manicure at the spa.
I had a “private” plunge pool.
Cool iPad that controlled the lights in the room. (Although sometimes, I just wanted a switch.)
The hotel slippers were cute and green.
No Dominican rum in the minibar! Seriously…where am I??
Staff on the beach were fairly absent and had shorter-term memories than I do. I just wanted some water. One day, it never arrived. The next, it arrived ages later.
The pool area was seriously lacking in atmosphere and waitstaff, although the club leading into the pool was gorgeous and the staff there were friendly and nice.
Dearth of bottled water. You are not supposed to drink the tap water at Eden Roc but you’ll be lucky if you get two bottles of Dasani a day. Small bottles.
Late-running turn-down service. I was ready to crash by 8 pm and turn-down still hadn’t arrived by then, meaning I missed out on additional bottled water. (I suppose I could have called and asked for some, but I didn’t.)
$20 surcharge for room service. Seriously? I think when you’re paying this much for a hotel room, $20 extra for room service is a joke. Especially when there are golf carts.
My gel manicure cost $65 USD.
SLOW wifi, particularly during peak periods at breakfast and dinner. Again, if you’re paying this much for a hotel, the wifi better be the super-super-fast kind. (My speed tests at Hotel Wifi Test — my new favorite website — came in at a very average 2.5 mbps.)
My private pool was surrounded by wasps. Also, re the “privateness” of the “private” pool, anyone could have walked into the pool area at any time. And indeed they did, on my first morning when they were cutting the grass and spraying for bugs and on the 2nd morning when they were cleaning the pool.
Housekeeping took at least one hour to clean my villa. Yes, I counted. I came back from the beach one afternoon to see that housekeeping was inside my villa. So I drove around and around and around on the golf cart waiting for them to leave. Finally, after an hour, I gave up and just went inside. They needed about ten minutes before and then they were done.
Food was only so-so. At this price, I wanted to be wowed. I wasn’t.
So in the end…would I do it all over again? No. I mean, the golf cart was fun but I bet I could have equal fun somewhere else for a lot less money. The golf cart was just a bonus. Pay attention to my upcoming post on my stay in Santo Domingo for more on this topic.
A recent spate of hotel stays has me thinking about the little things that bother me in hotels these days. When I’m in a hotel, I want an escape! I don’t want to be annoyed. Here’s what’s been bothering me lately. What bothers you?
No clocks: Where are they in hotels? Are we that reliant on our iPhones that hotels don’t need clocks anymore? I find this particularly annoying when I am getting ready before a big day of meetings. I want to keep one eye on the clock as I am ironing, blow-drying, etc. Impossible in a lot of hotel rooms today. Why?
Safes that are small and poorly positioned: If a safe doesn’t fit a laptop these days, what’s the point? I’ve seen some safes that can only fit a wallet and a cell phone. Safes should also be installed at eye level. During my recent hotel stay in Manchester, England the other weekend, the safe was maybe 18 inches off the ground. A pain in the ass. I learned the downsides of low safes the hard way back in Singapore last year; I left one of my camera lenses in the safe and the cost to FedEx it back to me in the US was more than the value of the lens. (So I let the hotel keep it.)
Expensive hotel wine: Hey, sometimes I just want a glass of wine at the end of a long day. If you’re going to charge me $18 USD for a glass of wine, I’m going elsewhere.
Internet I have to pay for: In this day and age, you shouldn’t have to pay for Internet. Okay okay…if you want to do that thing where the 2.5 mbps connection is free and the 25 mbps connection requires payment, I’m okay with that. But don’t make me pay for slow.
No outlets by the bed: When I travel, I’ve got my iPhone, my iPad and multiple cameras that all have batteries that need to be charged. I like to keep everything I’m charging all together so I don’t lose anything. Give me ONE SOCKET by the bed that’s not under a damn nighstand, please!
No bottled water: I just need one bottle. Just one. Generally, I’m okay with drinking tap. But in some countries, I’d prefer not to. I’d really like to have at least one bottle available for free.
Beds that dip: I carted a mattress around the world for nearly 20 years. It was still a perfectly fine mattress when I got rid of it before I moved back to the UK. No dips. Why do hotel beds dip so much? Do elephants stay in hotels and have a lot of sex?
No slippers: I do not like hotel carpet. How frequently do you think they deep-clean hotel carpets? Not often enough, in my opinion. I bring my own flip-flops generally but I appreciate hotel slippers.
No hooks in the bathroom: Sometimes I wonder how other people live. Do you just throw all your sh*t on the floor when you take a shower? I like to hang things up. I need at least one hook. Preferably two.
Shower curtains: I hate shower curtains, particularly in hotels. They always manage to smell like mildew.
No conditioner: I guess hotels cater more to the male business traveler who apparently doesn’t need conditioner. I need conditioner, or otherwise, my hair looks like a rat’s nest. I’ve taken to bringing my own small bottle, but really, I would prefer not to.
Chintzy towels: Hotel towels should be nicer than my towels at home. I must have really good towels because even though I use them daily and wash them twice a week, they are still in excellent shape. What happens to hotel towels that makes them so chintzy??
Unpredictable maid service: Sometimes, you knock on my door at 8 am and want to clean my room. Sometimes, you don’t show up until 4 pm. I would ideally like to live in a world where I know approximately what time maid service will arrive. Is there an app for that?
Pricey hotel laundry: Washing my drawers should not cost me $6. Even $3 is a bit pricey. Hotels should have a washer and dryer available for guest use!
I plan on updating this list frequently. I might even add your contributions! Talk to me people…what bothers you about hotels these days?
Over the Christmas holidays, I read my friend Matt Kepnes’ book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. I first met Matt back in 2009 in Chicago at a mini travel-blogging conference after BlogHer. He was — and is — living the life that most of us can only dream of, traveling the world and running a successful website all at the same time. Matt, if you ever need a personal assistant, you just let me know.
You should definitely check out Matt’s book if you have a chance. It made me think a bit differently about the things I spend money on when traveling, and that alone made it worth the £9.74 investment. So when I was looking for a hotel in Helsinki, rather than my usual large business-class hotel that earns me points or the luxury boutique hotel with expensive soap and iPhone chargers and bluetooth speakers, I went with the design-led-but-still-cheap Hotel Helka at £59 a night. And while that’s certainly not the $50 a day that Matt gets away with, it was a lot better than the £150 a night I probably would have spent otherwise. Matt, it only took me six years to adopt your principles, but I’m getting there!
I also experimented with a new booking site in making my reservation. It’s called Kaligo.com and their (very good) gimmick is that you can earn additional frequent flyer miles with your booking. This was my compromise with myself…cheaper hotel, but get more miles. Plus, I booked my stay using my BA Amex so I got even more miles there. I have the BA Amex Premium Plus Card, which gets you 1.5 Avios for every £1 you spend and 3 Avios for every £1 you spend direct with British Airways or BA Holidays.
Back to Kaligo…here is how they describe themselves on their About page…
A brand you can trust and enjoy, Kaligo.com is a leading global hotel booking platform that rewards customers with incredible miles & points across a wide range of favourite loyalty programs.Launched in 2014, Kaligo offers great rates and a large selection of 300,000 properties across more than 200 countries.
While I saw lots of attractive offers on Kaligo.com for my Helsinki stay — two nights at the Hilton Helsinki boasted 3200 British Airways Avios — per previous, I chose the much more moderate Helka Hotel, which included a bonus of 700 Avios. I was very focused on saving money this trip and The Helka cost me just 59 quid a night. Kaligo’s confirmation noted that I should receive my Avios within six weeks after my stay. I just checked my Executive Club statement and the 700 Avios arrived five business days after I checked out of the hotel.
I can’t think of a reason for not using Kaligo for all my hotel bookings now. If I can get extra miles…why not??? (Although please note that booking through Kaligo may mean you can’t otherwise earn points on your stay.) Sure, I am also a member of Expedia’s Reward Program in the U.S. but to be honest, I have totally no idea how it works. (Fodder for further investigation, of course.)
I liked the Helka overall, but I will admit…I missed my luxury bath products. Also, the bed was not the most comfortable one I’ve ever slept in. That being said, the hotel breakfast was awesome — why is it that tourist class hotels include breakfast but luxury hotels do not? The bar area was also pretty cool. I basically tried to spend as little time as possible in my hotel room.
Here’s my little video tour of The Helka…
So in summary…I would definitely use Kaligo.com again for sure. And, thanks to Matt and his book, I will definitely be more price-sensitive when choosing hotels in the future. More money to spend on me!! And all the Marimekko and Iittala in Finland…
Check out these other articles for more details on Kaligo.com: