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Searching for the best hotel deals in Orlando? First, read this.

All affordable Orlando hotels are not created equal.

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As one of the most popular destinations in the United States, it’s no surprise that Orlando also has an overwhelming number of hotels—at last count, there were roughly 120,000 rooms in the region; only Las Vegas has more. Which one’s right for you? It’s an expensive trip, with plenty of built-in costs, so if you’ve any choice in the matter, the smart move is to go for something affordable. Fortunately, there are some terrific values around town—with a little digging and a bit of know-how, they can be yours in short order. Ready to book? Read this first.

The resort fee is here. (DUN DUN DUUUUN.)
Just about everyone knows to expect these hidden charges in Las Vegas; now you’ll need to look out for them in Orlando, too. There’s some happy news—many of the Orlando hotels charging resort fees are only asking for a couple of bucks at a time; others, however, are collecting fees of roughly $30 per night. This isn’t quite the epidemic that swept Las Vegas a couple of years ago, not just yet, but we are definitely to the point where you need to remember to always read the fine print, before getting too excited over that incredible rate you just found.

Oh, and, resort? More like last resort.
There are certainly some unique and interesting hotels in Orlando, but there are fewer of them than you might expect. Booking sites are awash in independent “resort” properties at often very reasonable prices, but what you won’t learn (before it’s too late) is that Orlando has recently had a rash of cheap upgrades to its most dated hotel stock. (There’s a lot of that.) Many of these places represent poor value, at best—a lick of paint and a few brightly colored chairs by the pool do not a resort make. Not when the resort used to be an Econo Lodge. A little healthy skepticism during the booking process can make or break your Orlando vacation. Be aware.

Familiarity breeds contentment.
A trip to Orlando—particularly with children—throws enough curveballs your way. May I suggest that you not look to be too surprised by your hotel? There are scores of chain properties here that do things pretty much as they do them anywhere else in the country—SpringHill Suites by Marriott and Hyatt Place are two great examples. These are limited service business hotels that cheerfully comp a decent hot breakfast, internet and, usually, parking; these models are designed to make business travelers happy—staff tend to be efficient, quiet and pleasant. Both brands also feature a rather soothing design, the perfect thing after a sorely trying day in the parks with your tribe. Two great examples: Hyatt Place Universal is a partner hotel, walking distance from those parks in decent weather; the SpringHill Suites Sea World has a free shuttle to that resort and features the brand’s new spa-like décor, along with plenty of date sets in 2015 with rates around $100 per night. If you time your visit right, you can’t beat the residential-style properties from the big chains—Residence Inn by Marriott is usually the most dependable in the category, with Homewood Suites by Hilton not far behind. I’ve seen the Residence Inn Sea World—minutes from Universal—for under $100. At peak times, when all of the above are wildly expensive, you can always lean on the budget options from the major chains—Hampton Inn by Hilton and Fairfield Inn by Marriott generally offer the same perks with more basic rooms at a slightly lower rate; the Fairfield Inn by Marriott Lake Buena Vista—one of a handful of options within the Marriott Village area—is a solid, if simple option.

If it’s super cheap, there’s usually a reason. (And it’s not a good one.)
The further below $99 the hotel rate, the more your skepticism ought to increase. Find out why, exactly, this great deal is being offered to you and billions of other people from all over the world. There are some absolutely terrible hotels charging $89 and getting it, there are others that charge less that are perfectly fine. No need to wonder which, many visitors to Orlando are incredibly active on the internet—many third-party sites (and often, the hotels themselves) now feature a Tripadvisor plug-in; sites like Priceline also offer verified user reviews that provide a fairly accurate picture of what you’re getting into.

Beware the mid-priced trap.
Of course, there’s the horde of nothing-special chain properties, hanging around in the low to mid $100’s—don’t blindly book one of these hotels, assuming you’ve done the right thing by paying a little more. Maybe you did, but don’t leave it to chance. You could end up paying $145 for nothing, when, for a little more—or, by simply selecting a different hotel—you can actually get your money’s worth. A good rule of thumb, at least for chain hotels in this category—would you book that brand in another city? They might call it a “Hotel & Suites” or a “resort” (there’s that word again!) in Orlando, but don’t be fooled. It’s still the same standard, if you’re lucky, with the benefit of a slightly more appealing pool and a lackluster games room.

Say, what about those Disney budget resorts?
Disney now has more rooms in its budget category than you’ll find in some small cities. If not renting a car, having access to the park Magic Hours (early admission for resort guests), the babysitting service and other Disney perks are the most important things about your Orlando vacation, you should absolutely consider going the value resort route. Everyone else should know that these properties feature motel-basic, miniscule rooms; these hotels are shoved into a transport backwater that’s a considerable (and often quite crowded) bus ride from the parks. If staying on-resort and accessing those amenities isn’t that important to you, know that for the same price or less, you can have a kitchenette or, at the very least, more space, not to mention easier access to your car, all just a couple of miles further from the parks. Lots of people enjoy certain aspects of the resorts—there is some great programming; the newest property, Art of Animation, is particularly noteworthy—and we’re happy for them. For our part, however, it’s just not enough to justify the expense.

BookingBuddy

The number one hotel deal near Disney and Universal is…
Value for money, reliability, cleanliness, good customer service and—if you’re lucky —a little bit of character—should be the standards by which all hotels are judged. Oh, and a pool, too. It’s Orlando. You have to have a pool. Besides the aforementioned chain properties, my top pick right now is the Drury Inn & Suites, located outside of the resort districts on the more upscale Sand Lake Road, across from a massive Whole Foods Market. If you want value, proximity to Universal (7 min.), Sea World (8 min.) and Disney (15 min.) via easy-to-use local roads, plus walkability to shops and restaurants that locals would actually patronize, this should be the first and last place on your list. With kids, it’s a dream—free hot breakfast and an evening buffet (adults, manage expectations) that could even be your dinner, every day of the week; internet and parking are also free. The pool is indoor/outdoor—another hit with kids. Plus, this is a Universal Partner Hotel—book a package and you’ll get all of the attendant benefits. I really like this hotel. Everyone likes this hotel. Book in advance.

For when you just can’t abide staying away from the parks.
If you want the increased pizzazz of a park stay without the poor value, the one you want right now is Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. A night here starts at around $140 in low season; with the opening of the immensely popular Volcano Bay water park next door, expect rates to run high, at least for now. A retro-fab design kicks off the fun—think Miami Beach meets old Palm Springs—while functional, cheerful rooms, the water park-like pool scene and a bowling alley bring it all home. CityWalk and the park gates are within walking distance; there’s a shuttle for those who can’t walk. Internet is free, parking is $12 per night, there is no resort fee. When it comes to Disney, the Good Neighbor Hotel program isn’t the best value; if the rates are good, odds are you’ve landed on one with extremely limited park shuttle service; the most meaningful benefit at most of these hotels is easy access to park ticketing, if that helps. If you really want to be near Disney Springs (that’s what we used to call Downtown Disney), the cheerful Radisson Lake Buena Vista is just out the end of Buena Vista Drive, about a mile from the shopping and entertainment district. This hotel has a reputation for trying harder—parking and internet are free, there’s no resort fee, there’s a complimentary shuttle to the parks with eight daily departures. Rates begin at a reasonable $85 and climb from there.

Booking a trip?
If you’re looking for cheap airfare to Orlando, start by noodling around on CheapFlights or BookingBuddy—both will compare multiple sites at once, saving you a lot of running around. When you’re ready to book, we recommend Orbitz or Expedia—both offer 24-hour cancellation policies, allowing you to lock in the lowest fare while you finalize your plans. (As always, read the fine print first.) Just on here looking for the best Orlando hotel deals? Start by searching TripAdvisor, or Hotels.com, but don’t book anything without a stop at Priceline, where you can save up to 60% on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars, over the years.). Finally, if you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—BookingBuddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing, with just a couple of clicks.

Question? Comment? Curious to see where we’re off to next? Follow Triphustle on TwitterFacebook and Instagram and receive daily updates.

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