Now that I've figured out when I'm going to be in Australia and where I'd Iike to be, it's time to book hotels. I'm not the sort who will wing it on such a short trip. I'd rather know exactly where I'll sleep and how much it will cost than spend any time at local accommodation booking offices. I usually start by taking a look at Expedia and hotels.com, and by making bids on Priceline. Although I adore boutique hotels and fancy resorts, it's also pretty ridiculous to blow the budget on a luxe room during what amounts to a mileage run.
I'm too old and too prissy to stay in backpacker dorms or youth hostels. I prefer en suite facilities, but really have no objection to sharing a bathroom or even going down the hall for the shower and toilet. In general, I start by seeing what I can get for the equivalent of $100 US per night. At this writing, the US and Australian dollars are nearly on par.
The last time I went to Sydney, just after New Year's 2008/2009, I was able to score a room at the Hilton for $112/night. I found this rate on hilton.com, it did not appear on third-party booking sites. My room was fantastic, with a postcard-perfect view of the Sydney Tower framed in one of my floor-to-ceiling windows. I didn't expect to get this lucky again.
I decided to spend my first and last nights in Sydney, with two nights in the Blue Mountains in-between. I began by bidding on Priceline, trying a combination of star levels and prices ranging from $100-$175 per night for 3-5 star hotels in Sydney. Bid after bid got rejected. Priceline sent me an email, supposedly to help me make a more effective bid by showing me what had been successful during the past 24 hours for the night I needed. I saw that people had been able to book 3-star hotels for as little as $105/night, but I had had no success for the same night for as much as $160/night. Frustrated, I gave up on Priceline. I've had amazing results with Priceline in the past (a $500 room in Singapore in fall 2009 for about $125), but it was just not happening for this trip.
After searching Expedia and hotels.com for a room within walking distance of the Central Train Station, I settled on the Travelodge Sydney, which at this point seemed a good value at $140/night including taxes. Before committing, I briefly checked with TripAdvisor to make sure the hotel wasn't a disaster waiting to happen.
I always take TripAdvisor reviews with a liberal helping of salt. A place with a few strong negative reviews that I stayed at in Bali in October 2009 ended up being nearly paradise. Another in Belize, with mixed to glowing reviews, pretty much ruined my June 2010 honeymoon. The sheer number and variety of reviews can completely overwhelm. That said, I'll note that the management of the Bali property were active participants on TripAdvisor, and showed exemplary attitude in addressing complaints. I think evidence of a high level of positive engagement with past and potential guests is a sign that a property really does strive to be the best it can be, and so counterbalances a number of less-than-glowing reviews. When there's not an obvious choice based on price, location, and TripAdvisor reviews, I turn to a more classic travel-guide type web site. Time Out, Frommer's, and Lonely Planet are my usual choices.
Anyway, TripAdvisor didn't have enough negative comments within the past three months to warn me off the Travelodge, so I booked for my first night. I repeated the process to find a place in the Blue Mountains, and then for my final night in Sydney. I picked the Leisure Inn Spires for $109/night in Leura in the Blue Mountains, and then the Y Hotel Hyde Park at $119. I'd have happily gone back to the Travelodge for that last night, but the price had jumped by about $100!
One last bit of advice on hotel searches: if you belong to AAA (the American Automobile Association), always check your most likely hotel candidates' web sites to see if you can get an even better price that way. If you're booking into a chain hotel--even if it's a non-US chain--it's worth a look. I've had my AAA membership dues repay itself many times over every year by doing this.