With the exception of Myanmar, mainland Southeast Asia is saturated with inexpensive hotels, guest houses and hostels. The ability to easily find cheap accommodations makes Southeast Asia particularly attractive to backpackers and budget travelers. In many places a bed in a dormitory-style hostel can be had for as little as $5 USD. As for myself, I prefer a bit more comfort (air-conditioning) and privacy, choosing to stay mostly in two to three-star hotels and guest houses. Outside of the big cities like Bangkok I rarely pay more than $20 USD per night.
Many budget travelers and backpackers will arrive in a city or town without pre-booking any accommodations. Armed with an outdated guide book they wander the streets with their heavy backpacks searching for cheap hotels or hostels. I usually run into most of these fellow travelers early in the morning, just as they have arrived in town on an overnight bus or train. There is some logic behind this strategy; generally in Southeast Asia you can walk into a hotel, guest house or hostel and get a room a little cheaper than booking ahead on-line.
Personally I almost always book a hotel room in advance, usually on-line, particularly in cities or towns where I have not previously visited. First of all, I like the peace of mind that comes with knowing that I definitely have a place to lay my head. More importantly, I like to have a plan for organizing transportation from the airport, bus or train station. Knowing the transportation options and the distance and route to your hotel will save you money and may prevent ripoffs by unscrupulous taxi drivers. When I travel to new places, with planned stays of more than three days, I will often only book the first few nights. This gives me an opportunity to check out my chosen hotel and look around for other options.
How to find budget accommodations in Southeast Asia
Guide books are very useful for choosing the general area of a town or even a particular city neighborhood to stay in; but usually only list a very small sample of accommodation options, particularly in big cities. Much of the information may be outdated, especially prices. Once I decide which part of town that I want to stay in, I put the guide book away and study the area with Google Maps. Using Google Maps, travelers can easily locate hotels, see prices, reviews, ratings and determine the proximity to restaurants and points of interest.
Once I find a few potential hotels on Google Maps I turn to Trip Advisor and read the reviews posted by fellow travelers. One has to take these reviews with a grain of salt and read between the lines, but if the majority of the posters have something positive to say about an establishment the hotel usually turns out to be acceptable. Travelers who plan on staying in budget accommodations in tropical Southeast Asia should keep a few things in mind:
1. An occasional gecko or insect may show up for a visit. In my experience they are all harmless with the exception of mosquitoes.
2. Most budget hotels and guest houses will have wet bathrooms (no shower stalls). Move the toilet paper away from the stream of water.
3. Breakfast is often pretty average if the establishment does not cater to Westerners.
4. The rooms are usually rather simple and have minimal furnishings.
5. You can save as much as $4 USD per day by choosing a “fan room”. Many hotels have circuit breaker panels behind the front desk which allow them to control the power supply to air-conditioning units. A simple flip of a switch converts a fan room to air-conditioned room and vice versa.
Booking budget accommodations in Southeast Asia
I’ve had mixed results contacting hotels directly through their websites and generally prefer to make reservations through the big on-line hotel booking sites like Agoda or Booking.com. These two are my current favorites and I use them for the majority of my reservations.
Many small family-run hotels only use booking.com, which requires you to pay the bill at the hotel. These places often only accept cash in local currency. The credit card details that you provide at the time of booking appear to be only a formality. I use Agoda when I want to use my credit card to pay for the room and collect the reward points. I have never had a problem with either of these companies.
Budget accommodations in rural Southeast Asia
Even some of the smallest rural towns with virtually no tourism will have more hotel rooms than they will ever fill. I often think that many families just build hotels as long-term investments rather than putting their cash into banks. These hotels generally cater to local business people and do not make on-line bookings or have web pages. I have stayed at a number of small family-run hotels where none of the staff are able to speak English. In these cases I usually have an English-speaking local call the owners and make a reservation over the phone. Otherwise, I just simply walk in and ask for a room.
One of my current projects is to review all the Asian hotels that I have stayed on TripAdvisor. So far I have written over 40 reviews which you can findhere through my TripAdvisor profile.