Finding your perfect accommodation (and booking it)
Planning a trip, as most things in life, requires making some choices: where and when to go, how to get there, where to stay? Through this post, I am willing to help you sort at least this last question out. Where should you stay the next time you travel?
Accommodation searching can be a very time consuming part of planning any trip. It is very easy to get overwhelmed by the large quantity of properties being offered, particularly at popular destinations. To make things worse, we are many times compelled to reach a quick decision, under the fear that our destination may suddenly run out of accommodation spots. If this helps, let me start by calming you down right here: chances are there will always be somewhere to spend the night, no matter when and where you're going and whether or not you booked it in advance - availability may not reflect what you would have preferred, but will exist (when this happens, try to remember the old saying: "The early bird gets the worm").
Ok, so maybe I didn't really manage to calm you down on that aspect, but hopefully I was able to make a point: by booking your accommodation in advance you may ensure an optimized travel experience while keeping tighter control over your budget. While it is true that sometimes it is possible to haggle a better deal by just showing up at the property's reception on a quiet day, experience thought me that that's hardly worth the risk of paying a higher rate or of having to spend precious time searching for last minute alternatives.
Narrowing down your options
The first thing I do even before opening an accommodation search engine is to pause for a moment to consider what I am going to look for. This may sound strange but it really makes a difference. Answer to yourself: why are you visiting this place (to enjoy the beach, to ski, for sightseeing, get to a concert, to attend a business meeting).
Unless your motives require you to stay in a particular area, you will probably be willing to consider multiple regions. Now it's time to start shaping your travel experience: you could open Google Maps to familiarize with the area, including where most points of interest are and how the public transport network (if any) is designed. Then proceed searching about the destination, trying to identify which are the more desirables areas as well as any hints on nice food/shopping/green districts.
At this moment you should be ready to start looking at accommodation websites. I tend to prefer Booking.com or Agoda, while HostelBookers is a great resource when looking specifically at hostels. A nice hint here, particularly if you want to save some time researching about your destination, is to start your search by filtering only first-class and luxury properties (4 and 5 stars) as those are likely to be located in tourist/business friendly neighborhoods. Simply look for those with higher location scores in the reviews and once in the know go back and adjust the search criteria as you please.
Picking your perfect stay
Hotels come in all sizes and fit every budget. Whether you chose to stay on a large chain hotel or a small locally owned property, quickly glace at their latest reviews and check which amenities are available to guests. There will be cases where your hotel will be literally the place for you to "crash" at night, while in others they are the very destination. Sometimes you want family-friendly services, sometimes you need a nice place to work. Weighing these factors together with your desired location and available budget, you are prone to come up with just a few options to decide.
Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs) and Guest Houses will usually bring an affordable accommodation alternative that don't offer the vast array of services larger hotels do, while being quieter and better equipped than most hostels. You will find that many times these properties are maintained by their owners and family members, providing a closer local experience.
If you are budget-minded and enjoy social environments, then you're likely to feel attracted by hostels. While a long time favorite of young, solo backpackers who won't mind sharing a dorm with up to 10 or more fellow travelers, hostels are also an increasingly popular alternative among solo travelers and couples wanting to unite the privacy of a private room with the social vibe of these properties.
Sometimes people happen to have a room to spare at their home, or an apartment available for short-term rental. These properties can be great options for those willing to experience what life actually is at their destination. AirBnB is probably the best source for looking at this type of accommodation.
Another way to experience the local life, but on a more budget friendly way, is through CouchSurfing.org. This is a very large community of people who would welcome you to their homes for free or for a small fee. It might be interesting if you're willing to meet locals.
A word about traffic
Traffic in large Latin American cities tend to be a big issue, and I am sure you can find more pleasant or productive ways to spend your time other than getting stuck in a jam. Public transport is generally improving but is still not state of the art, with subway lines often crowded beyond reasonable and buses facing similar traffic problems as cars do (although usually benefitting of priority lanes). This aspect should not be minimized. Keep it in mind while assessing your options to move around (private/rented car, bus, subway, on foot).
Ah, and talking about public transport. Distances in Latin America can easily mean plenty of opportunities for you to spend a night on an inter-city or international bus. If sleeping on a bus doesn't sound like an issue, it could mean an optimal use of time and travel budget.