Booking Reservations vs. Just Showing Up

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To book or not to book? That is the question.

Though a lot of it has to do with personality types, deciding whether or not to book accommodation ahead of time can have a huge impact on your travels.

Booking ahead can certainly reduce the element of spontaneity.

If you just made some new friends who invite you to come along to some not-to-be-missed place, but you have that non-refundable reservation in a place 100 miles in the opposite direction- you may be cursing your responsible, pre-booking self.

At the same time, when you’re wandering around an overwhelmingly foreign city, exhausted from your travels, trying to decipher maps and cryptic street signs to find a decent place to stay, only to be told that they’re fully booked, you’ll certainly have at least a tinge of regret about following your free-wheeling self’s need for freedom.

You can also waste a good deal of your time looking for accommodation, so if time is of the essence, it may be to your advantage to figure out where you’ll be staying before you leave.

It’s hard to say whether booking or not is smarter.

Obviously a lot depends on where, when and with whom you’re traveling. Here are some things to consider:

The amount of accommodation available in your destination is the first thing. Will you be in a village with only one small guest house or a big city full of hundreds of hostels and hotels?

If you’ve decided to go without reservations, it’s good to do a little research ahead of time to know what your options are.

  • Is there a central area where most of the hostels and hotels are located?
  • If you find out the few hotels in a small town are booked up when you get there, is there a nearby town you can move on to easily enough to try your luck there?
  • How about the kinds of accommodation available?
  • Are there enough that fit your price range and/or have what you need, or will you be completely screwed if the last bed at Hostel Average has been taken and you’re left with no choice but to sleep on a park bench or blow your whole budget for a night at The Grand Ritz De Luxe?
  • Just how likely is there to be availability in the types of places you would be willing to stay?

Although it’s not always possible to know ahead of time, it’s always good to do a little research to find out whether there is a holiday or a special event like a festival, race or convention going on in your destination when you plan to visit. These are likely to jack up the prices and fill up the hotels.

On a recent trip to Prague, I was lucky enough to find out over a month ahead of time that Prague is apparently the hot spot of Europe on Easter weekend. Which meant that everything was booking up fast, at 5 times the normal prices!

I scrambled to make a booking with the first acceptably central hotel within my group’s price range, although I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

But the booking could be canceled up to 24 hours before, so I figured I’d just keep looking until the last minute.

As time went on, I became more and more happy I had booked SOMETHING, since the prices just kept going up and everything below 700 euros a night was pretty much full by the time we actually went there!

Another thing to consider is your time of arrival.

No doubt about it, arriving early makes going reservation-less 5000% easier.

Not only are places less likely to have been filled by other drop-in travelers at that point, but you have much more time to find a place, more daylight to explore your options (and neighborhoods), and a much higher chance of finding someone to help you (i.e. front desk staff or someone at tourist information).

The smaller the town, the more likely there will be no one manning the front desk after, say, 5 p.m.

Also, smaller hotels and hostels don’t always have 24 hour reception, and many places (like family-run pensions or guest houses) only have staff available when they know, ahead of time, that you’re coming. So even if they had room, it wouldn’t matter!

On the other hand, accommodation shopping later in the day (like going to the market just before closing) CAN result in better deals, if the places have lots of empty rooms they want to fill at the they-don’t-care-what-rate.

At the same time, if they know your options are limited and it’s getting late, they may just as well take the opportunity of your late search to rip you off. It’s kind of a gamble.

The big question is: are the best deals to be had by booking ahead of time, or by just showing up?

Again, it depends.

It’s always good to take a look at reputed sites, like booking.com, to get an idea of the kinds of prices that are available to you online.

Often rooms at big hotel chains are deeply discounted on these types of sites, while some of the nicest (and cheapest) accommodation (think tiny, family run operations) may not even offer online booking of any sort, particularly in areas where internet is still a bit of a luxury.

Sometimes arriving at a train station and following one of the many people holding up signs for “rooms” will get you the best deal ever. Sometimes it won’t.

In any case, many booking sites allow you to make reservations up until the time you arrive. So, it’s possible to go have a look around once you arrive, then (if you don’t find anything) find an internet connection and book something online right before you walk in.

One more thought about booking ahead: be cautious and use common sense.

I rarely booked ahead on a trip to Morocco because: 1) I didn’t feel comfortable faxing my credit card info to who-knows-who, as most of the hotels required me to do and 2) I had heard from many travelers that their hotels were “not what they expected” upon arrival.

Glossy photos on the hotel website are rarely what you will find when you go there. (Read Christina’s post on dirty lodging and her tips for making it through the night.)

I usually avoid booking more than one night at a time in a place if I’m not 100% sure will be great. And even if you don’t book ahead, you can (and should) ask to see a room before agreeing to stay or pay.

Have you ever been let down by a place you booked online? Maybe the photos didn’t match the merchandise… or the dorm ended up looking more like a prison cell?

Do you prefer booking ahead of time or just stumbling upon something? What booking sites do you trust most?

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About Author

Originally from Seattle, Camille is currently enjoying her second year of student life in Berlin. Camille grew up an airline kid, flying standby and learning things like how to change a Japan trip into a New Zealand trip at the last minute. Before Germany, she spent two years in France and Australia working, studying and taking every opportunity to get out and travel.

6 Comments

  1. I used to always just show up, but after spending one night in a grungy hotel on Khao-San Road in Bangkok that actually had bed bugs, I now always book in advance, even if it’s just a few days of when I’m arriving.

  2. Good tips- We do a little of both when traveling. If we really, really, really want to do something then we book ahead.I don’t want to travel all that way and then a tour or excursion be sold out.

  3. Great tips Camille! I usually just rock up to a place and hope for the best! It usually doesn’t let me down… well, except for that one time at midnight in Khorat when we were walking the streets trying to find something because everything was full.

  4. i also do both.
    1. no booking when i feel like i want to be impulsive and don’t want to plan ahead of my travel, i have flexibility and longer travel trip.
    2. must book when i travel on a tight schedule and want to do everything in advance. or in very popular city like london. (you have to book in advance in london)
    3. call – sometime i find place i want to stay but not sure when i’ll show up, so i look them up online for contact and just email or call them to reserve me a place. most will do that.

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