12.26.11

Netflix for hotels

Posted in Travel at 14:37 by RjZ

When I started traveling to countries far enough away to require a passport, I found places to sleep because they were in an international youth hostel directory. Later, branching out to destinations beyond a widespread network of hostels, I tried guidebooks, and even frequently noticed that touts aren’t such a bad idea. All that was before the internet.

Booking a hotel in advance goes against my grain. It seems so limiting to have signed up to be at a given place on a given day when you’re not even sure what it’s going to take to get there, let alone what you’ll be forced to miss by moving on too soon. Not to mention that the online pictures and reviews may wind up having little to do with the room that you finally sleep in.

Back in the day, I would arrive in a city and walk from budget hotel to budget hotel checking out the bathroom and ceiling fan situation in prospective rooms until I found something that seemed like a fair bargain. If the city was too big to walk, most budget destinations would have cheap enough transport to get you to another room even if the first few weren’t acceptable. Today, much has changed. The world’s standard of living has increased enough that tuc tucs and rickshaws aren’t nearly as common any more (hey–we’re only talking 20 years here–things change fast) and inexpensive air travel has brought plane loads of people and their wallets to places who now know what tourists can afford and price things accordingly.

The internet has made even guidebooks a bit superfluous. Back then selecting a hotel from a list of budget choices in the book meant hoping that the reviewer had a similar idea about what is important to you and what isn’t. Today, crowd-sourced websites offer to sort reviews of hotels, not from a single travel writer, but from dozens and dozens of random people; some of whom describe the reception as unfriendly, and the party-scene as totally not happening, while others think the same hotel was spotless and in a perfect location (I’ll take that one!). Hopefully, budget hotels will be well represented on the internet as they cater to a young clientele who are never too far away from Facebook. Now, planning a trip can be done with a web browser and a credit card.

Early on, I was selecting from hotels I could easily get to after arriving and seeing, in person, whether the room was to my liking or not. I was able to book when I arrived, and be free as a bird until then. Of course, getting to a range of hotels takes up a whole bunch of time, requires you to arrive early, often means taking whatever is left. Booking ahead, meanwhile opens you up to unpleasant surprises and requires you to select from only those hotels actually listed on the internet. How can you decide which strategy is best?

Simple enough: if your destination is so remote that internet is hard to find a coke bottle falling from the sky is thought to be a gift from the gods, then the two hotels you find on the internet may well be your only choice, more likely than not, there will be some alternatives who just don’t have access to the internet to promote their lodgings. It’s a judgment call, but winding up in a five-star hotel when a charming backpacker’s hotel was next door can be frustrating. If, on the other hand, where you’re headed is well-wired, there is a good chance that searching online is a good representation of your search in real-life; but you can do it before your trip and don’t have to waste a day of your trip just looking for a place to sleep.

Just for example, I don’t think I could have plied my old strategy in Buenos Aires. Not every hotel was listed on line, but it’s a big city and not so cheap to travel around. I think it’s worth it to select from those available at hostelworld.com. Deep in Patagonia on the other hand, where internet may be widely available but incredibly slow, there’s a good chance that some new hotels have already popped up without even a web-page, and they may be just the bargain you’re looking for. In the long run, though, the internet will be everywhere (I hope) and the old method will make less and less sense.

Learning to read crowd-sourced reviews is key. Clean, good location, quiet, fun; are all very subjective terms. An inexperienced traveler might think a hostel is disgusting, while an itinerant hippie knows it’s par for the course. Well-heeled guests with a rented car are happy with a hotel conveniently next to a freeway, while those on foot don’t care if there is even parking.

Here’s a business idea (you heard it here first). Why isn’t there a Netflix Recommendation Engine for hotels? Sure there are tons of sites that will book a hotel for you. What we really need is one that will compare your ratings of hotels you’ve already stayed in with the ratings other guests have given similar hotels and then offer you hotels you might like based on your preferences. You liked your stay in the “Happy Traveler,” you might also like the “Barry’s Backpacker.” Such algorithms are actually very challenging to develop and, as big as the travel industry is, there isn’t as much data available to guess what you’d like as there is from movies people have seen, but, here’s hoping some smart folks steal my idea. Maybe I could get a royalty?

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