When online travel agencies—or OTAs—hit the internet in the mid-90s, the way people booked hotels changed completely. Instead of calling up a travel agent or a hotel directly, people could browse thousands of options on sites like Expedia and Priceline and book it all online.
But over the following 25 years, not much changed, Maya Poulton realized. A travel industry veteran who has worked for Jetsetter.com and Mr & Mrs Smith in the past, Poulton wanted to come up with an idea for a better OTA.
The result is Safara, a brand-new hotel booking website that launched in January 2020, that is run on a subscription-based model. Unlike other OTAs, Safara passes 100 percent of the commissions it makes from bookings onto its members in the form of “Safara Points,” which are each worth the equivalent of $1. (The amount you earn varies by hotel.) Safara members can earn Safara Points each time they book a hotel through the site. The next time they want to book a hotel through Safara, they can use those points to save money on their next stay.
Typically, the annual membership fee is $195 a year, but right now AFAR readers can get $50 off by using the code “AFAR20” at checkout. When you add in the $100 in free travel Safara is gifting everyone toward their second booking, you’re looking at a net cost of just $45 for your first year.
Sign Up: $195 per year (use code “AFAR20” for $50 off), safara.travel
Safara launched in January with 7,000 hotels across the globe all handpicked by Poulton over the past 15 months.
“I’ve slept in hundreds of these hotels and toured even more,” Poulton said. A frequent traveler who has lived in seven different countries, Poulton says that less than 2 percent of hotels made the cut to be added to Safara’s options. You’ll find big brands like Ritz-Carlton and Kimpton alongside boutique hotel collections like Hoxton, Freehand, and the Line.
To see what the experience is like, I tried Safara out for a recent trip to Paris over Christmas. The website looks and operates like any other hotel booking website—you simply enter the place and the dates on which you want to travel. Unlike Expedia, however, I didn’t get thousands of options for Paris. Instead, Safara returned results for around 100 hotels, which gave me choices without completely overwhelming me. I found that the top results all had a “Where We Stay” badge to mark properties where Safara employees have personally slept before.
Since I knew I wanted to stay in the Marais for a few nights before moving closer to the center of town for New Year’s Eve, I toggled over to the map function in the search results to find a hotel close to the restaurants and bars I wanted to go to in that neighborhood (you can also search by price and amenities like parking, spa, pool, gym, and more). That’s how I discovered the 1K Paris, a boutique hotel located steps from popular spots like Clown Bar and Le Mary Celeste.
My three-night booking there earned me 116 Safara points, plus another 100 points for signing up for a membership. That meant I was able to shave $216 dollars off my final night in Paris at the Hotel des Grands Boulevards, making an expensive New Year’s Eve stay slightly more reasonable for my trip budget (and cover the membership cost at the same time).
While frequent travelers will probably be able to justify the annual membership fee, business travelers will benefit the most from a Safara subscription. Just book your hotels for work trips through the website and you’ll earn points for every reservation. When it comes time to plan your own personal vacations, you’ll likely have hundreds of points saved up in your account so you can book those hotels for free.
Safara also promises to refund the difference if you don’t earn more free travel than the cost of the membership in your first year.
This article originally appeared online on January 14, 2019; it was updated on March 12, 2020, to include current information. Products we write about are independently vetted and recommended by our editors. We may earn a commission if you buy through our links.