How to stay in luxury hotel rooms all over the world for less

Checking in?
Checking in?
Image: AFP Photo/Fred Dufour
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I will come right out and say it: I have expensive taste—a truly uncanny knack for gravitating toward the most ridiculously overpriced item in any establishment, be it a smoothie with raw cacao and cold-pressed coconut oil, or a cloud grey turtleneck sweater that evokes a sleeping baby alpaca.

What I do not have is unlimited funds, so I am always looking for ways to indulge my inner Veronica on a Betty budget.

This is how I came to love Hotel Tonight, an app that allows users to book discounted hotel rooms around the world, up to six days in advance. It can be a very luxe experience—so long as you use it right.

With my use of the app I have both triumphantly succeeded and dismally failed. After my fourth stay, in a London hotel room with all the charm of a hospital suite, I finally figured out the proper way tap the app’s greatest potential: Stick to your budget. Another way of saying this is: Spend your budget. Resist the temptation to be cheap.

Once you open Hotel Tonight, stop acting like a spendthrift and start acting like a luxury traveler.

It may seem counterintuitive when using a service designed for bargain-hunters. You will be faced with photos of tidy hotel rooms and modern lobbies for prices you believed to be unattainable without bedbugs in notoriously expensive cities. I’ve stayed in two such establishments, and guess what? A cheap hotel is still a cheap hotel.

That’s not to say these rooms aren’t clean, reliable, and politely staffed. The one I booked at the Ambassadors Bloomsbury in central London, conveniently located for a work trip and priced at just $126 per night, certainly was all of that. It also was on the second floor and had space for little more than a bed, semi-industrial carpeting, and a window about six inches away from an outdoor wall.

When I asked about a room on a higher floor with a real window, the woman at the front desk told me my choices were limited because I had requested a bathtub. But really, for $126 in the center of London, what did I expect? Probably not a hotel I would want to take a bath in anyway.

Have realistic expectations—and do a little research.

Kind of sad.
Kind of sad.
Image: Quartz/Jenni Avins

In the end, I paid an additional $35 per night directly to the hotel to upgrade to a “deluxe” room, which had both a bathtub (that I didn’t end up using because it was miniature and the water didn’t get warm enough), and a small window. It also had a desk where I tossed my things, and a metal-armed chair upholstered in what appeared to be vinyl. To be fair, the pillows weren’t bad.

I am a person who loves a hotel with old-school stationery, a deep bathtub, and a plush robe—but this wouldn’t be that hotel. And that’s where I went wrong. Had I shelled out the original $200 per night I had budgeted—or even the $160 I ended up spending—I might have gotten closer.

Hotel Tonight ranks accommodations on a scale that includes “luxe, hip, solid, and basic.” The Ambassadors Bloomsbury got a “solid.” Based on the key used by Hotel Tonight, I suppose this is fair. I would have gone with “basic,” but I only blame myself.

Image for article titled How to stay in luxury hotel rooms all over the world for less
Image: Hotel Tonight

A cursory look at Yelp reviews might also have done more to save me from my mediocre choice. A little research goes a long way.

If it is luxury you seek, Hotel Tonight will find it for you—just don’t get distracted by the bargains.

I understood this after spending a weekend at the Memmo Alfama, a magical gem at the end of a cobblestoned alley in Lisbon, overlooking the Tagus River as it widens to the ocean. My friend Nicolette had recommended it one month prior, as I planned an Easter holiday in Portugal, which fell in the middle of my work trip to London. At more than €200 per night, the price felt steep—but it was only a few nights over a holiday, with the stamp of a personal recommendation. Plus, I would be traveling alone, which is a great reason to splurge on a place that makes you feel safe, welcome, and comfortable. (Think indulgent, not lonely.)

Lisbon’s rooftops, and sun-worshippers, on the roof of the Memmo Alfama.
Lisbon’s rooftops, and sun-worshippers, on the roof of the Memmo Alfama.
Image: Quartz/Jenni Avins

Naturally, at three weeks before my trip, the Memmo Alfama was fully booked for Easter weekend, as was every other hotel that looked mildly appealing. I sat tight for an alternative. The week of my Lisbon holiday, I opened Hotel Tonight each night before bed, and scrolled through available hotels. Nothing jumped out at me, and so I just waited.

Then, the night before my flight, Memmo Alfama appeared on the app. A room was available for about $170 per night. I booked it. I saw  several other suitable-looking options for less money, but I resisted.

All weekend, I commended myself: as I basked with my breakfast by the pool overlooking the old city, as the hotel manager helped me map out a day of flea markets and pastry shops, and as I tagged along on a historic tour of the hotel’s neighborhood.

And guess what? The breakfast and tour were even included in the price.