How to Book a Low-Cost Dorm Room for Your Family’s Summer Vacation

Feb 5, 2019

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Your family’s quest for an affordable vacation has already seen you use points for a traditional hotel, stay in an Airbnb or split a house rental. You may have even tried Vacation Rentals by Choice Hotels. Why not try a dorm room next?

That’s right. More and more colleges and universities across the globe are renting dorm rooms to travelers when classes aren’t in session. Whether or not you have fond memories of your time living in a college dorm, you might be skeptical of booking one for your next family getaway. But, staying in a dormitory can be a smart — and wallet-friendly — alternative to a hotel when you are traveling with family on a tight budget during the summer.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto, Chestnut Residence
Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto, Chestnut Residence

Nightly dorm room rates can vary, sometimes less than $75/night for a simple single room, which might not have a private bathroom, or up to $150 or more for accommodations for several people staying together in a suite setting. Many dorms throw in free breakfast and Wi-Fi in the nightly price while others offer low-cost meals in their dining halls.

Dormitory accommodations are popular overseas and in Canada, but much less so in the United States. Although there are no concrete estimates of just how many families make use of dormitories for their vacations, it may be an intriguing option for your family — depending on when and where you’re traveling.

Do Families Really Stay in Dorms?

Andrea Nelson, rooms manager of the University of Toronto, Chestnut Residence, said, “We certainly do have a number of families staying with us over the summer months. Chestnut seems to be a great fit for short family getaways, with the perfect location, breakfast-inclusive rates and price-sensitive compared to downtown hotels. And, of course, each room has its own bathroom.”

Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto
Photo courtesy of the University of Toronto, Chestnut Residence

Whether or not a dorm would work for your family depends on your travel style, individual needs and when you can travel. Remember, most dorm accommodations are only available for non-student renters during the summer months when school isn’t in session.

How to Find Dorms for Rent

Many families are familiar with searching for Airbnb accommodations or house exchanges here and abroad. Seeking dormitory digs is not all that different, but like everything else, it can be tricky since there’s no one place to look.

University Websites

Most universities mention the availability of dormitory accommodations on their websites and whether or not they rent to individuals or families who are not students. Click on links to the university’s summer programs, summer residence or look for a tab that says something like “accommodations for visitors.” A phone call to the university’s main phone number may also yield results.

Travel Portals Specializing in Dorm Rentals

UniversityRooms.com is a good starting point to find dorm rentals outside of the US. (While the site says it offers rooms in North American cities, we didn’t find anything when searching for Boston, New York City or Chicago. However, there were quite a few choices for families when we searched major cities in Europe.)

In London, for example, a two-bedroom flat at 170 Queen’s Gate in South Kensington starts at 190 GBP ($245) and sleeps up to four. A 15% discount is offered if you stay two nights and a 30% discount for bookings of three or more nights. In Bloomsbury at Goodenough College, there’s a Family Ensuite for three people that includes breakfast for 254 GBP  ($327) per night. And, at Westminster College Cottages in Cambridge, a Double Chestnut Cottage runs for 99 GBP  ($128) plus 25 GBP  ($32) for an additional sofa bed to sleep three.

But, this option looked most enticing: a Quad Basic Ensuite room at the Bankside House in South Bank that sleeps up to four people and includes breakfast and Wi-Fi for 153 GBP  ($197) per night. That’s a fantastic price to be right across the street from the Tate Modern and easy walking distance to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Bankside House London
Rent a dorm room for your family at the Bankside House in South Bank, London, from UniversityRooms.com.

If you’re planning a London vacation, here are eight points-friendly hotels for families of four.

In Paris, rent a Quadruple Ensuite at the Résidence Universitaire Lanteri at 7 rue Gentil-Bernard Fontenay-aux-Roses. The 116 euro ($132) per night room sleeps four and includes breakfast, Wi-Fi and a television.

If you’re planning a Canadian sojourn, try ConnectonCampus.ca, where you can book dorm rooms throughout the country in places like Montreal, Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) or Vancouver.

At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, a variety of floor plans are ideal for families, including one- to four-bedroom apartments and townhouses that offer a living room, kitchen and dining area plus one or two bathrooms. Rates vary by date.

Online Travel Agencies

You can also look for dorm room rentals at online travel agencies like Hotels.com, Booking.com and Expedia. We searched Hotels.com for accommodations in Halifax this July and the site offered rooms at Dalhousie University, including a 750-square-foot suite that accommodates up to four people.

Hotels.com
Check online travel agencies like Hotels.com that offer dorm rentals from a variety of colleges and universities.

If you’ve got the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, don’t forget to book your dorm through Hotels.com Venture to earn 10 miles per dollar spent through Jan. 31, 2020.

The idea of earning miles for dorm rentals intrigued us so we also searched for Dalhousie University at Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Travel Portal and it was theoretically bookable there, too (although the dates we checked were sold out). So, that not only gives you the option of earning 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent (if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve) but you could also redeem your Chase points for the dorm room rental as well.

Finding dorm rentals on an OTA is a bit of a hit-and-miss proposition, but it is possible. Search for your destination first and see if any dorms pop up. Also, if you know of a dorm near your destination that definitely rents rooms, enter the school’s name in the search field and it might come up as an option.

Also be aware that even if a particular university pops up in your search, it may not list all of the different dorms available. Your best bet is to check with the school itself for the most up-to-date information and details about dorm types that would work for your family.

Colleges With a Hospitality Program

While most of the rooms we’ve discussed so far are actual dorm rooms, some colleges and universities with hospitality programs actually operate on-site hotels as a means to train their students. These rooms often cost much less than comparable lodging nearby. Cornell University runs The Statler Hotel on its Ithaca campus and Grand Canyon University runs a hotel and restaurant in Phoenix.

Statler Hotel
(Photo courtesy of The Statler Hotel)

Rooms at hotels operated by educational facilities often cost less than those at the nearby competition.

Dorm Rental Tips and Takeaways

Book early. This cannot be stressed enough. Oftentimes, special programs, such as summer camps or short-term programs, block large numbers of dormitory rooms for their participants. Folks attending conferences on the campus, sports teams and students taking summer courses also vie for these rooms.

Be aware of the dorm’s schedule. Note when dormitory accommodations will become available for rental. This often is dependent on when spring college classes are over and when they resume at the end of summer. In Canada, for example, where staying in dormitory accommodations is popular, most classes end in April and dorm rooms are available in May until early August, when students return to campus.

Look for suites. Many dorm accommodations are suites with multiple bedrooms, a private bathroom and possibly even a kitchenette; a setup that’s a boon for families.

Make sure the bathroom is private. When renting a dorm room, confirm that it includes a private bathroom. You really don’t want to be running down the hall to a shared bathroom with your kid in the middle of the night. Also note that bathtubs are rare in dorms and bathrooms are often outfitted with just a shower stall. If your children still need a bathtub, dorm rentals may not work for you just yet.

You’ll probably have twin or bunk beds. Most dorm accommodations will have single beds, but there might be a bunk bed in the room. Double beds are available in dormitories for married graduate students. Check before booking.

dorm bunk beds
Dorm bunk beds (Photo by Jummie / Getty Images)

Don’t expect a lot of services. Many facilities are staffed by students during the day, who also do the room housekeeping. Housekeeping, such as making beds, might not be done daily. (This goes for true dorm rooms. Hotels run by a university’s hospitality program will generally offer all the services and amenities you’re used to at traditional hotels.)

Lobby access. Sometimes, lobbies are closed when you arrive late and you will need to call the college’s security folks to gain admittance. Check on lobby availability before you book.

Ask about air conditioning. Some dormitories in northern climates do not have air-conditioned rooms.

Where’s the Wi-Fi? Find out if Wi-Fi is available in the room, only in the lobby or not at all.

Bottom Line

For the best dormitory experience, do your homework and once you find the perfect spot, reserve it for your summer break. And, who knows? Maybe staying at a university dormitory might inspire your kids when it comes time to figure out their own college plans.

Claudia M. Caruana has stayed in many college dormitories in the US, Canada and Europe.

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Featured image of the University of Toronto by benedek / Getty Images

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