When to Book Your Hotel Ahead vs When to Just Show Up and Find a Room
During my 14 years of world travels I’ve noticed over and over again that western travelers, particularly Americans and Europeans, seem obsessed with booking all their accommodation before they travel. As if that’s the only possible way to travel. As if it’s not feasible to just head out on the road and find a place to sleep when they arrive. As if booking accommodation ahead of time is a mandatory step to travel.
This has always struck me as very odd. My style of travel has always been to just show up at my destination then find a place to stay. That has worked exceptionally well for me for over 14 years.
In all my years of travels, I’ve only been ‘stranded’ once and that was due to a calculated risk I consciously undertook. The final outcome was that I ended up staying at the home of the chief of police of Terenganu State, Malaysia, and befriending his wife. I’m actually glad I got stranded for that unique experience.
Personally, I much prefer just showing up and finding a room upon arrival. Why? My travel schedule is not tied to any date, to any specific time that I have to arrive at a destination because of a pre-booked room. It also saves me a lot of time and energy pre-planning, research, online booking and payments.
Another important reason is that I want to see and experience a hotel in person before I book a room. How else will I know if it’s quiet, safe and clean? Finally, I can usually negotiate the room rate down for various reasons, so I get a better price than if I had booked online.
In short, showing up without a reservation saves me time, allows me more travel freedom, assures that I find a place I actually like, and usually gets me the best rate.
This works so well for me that I’ve always wondered why most western travelers always insist on booking their accommodation ahead. Are they terrified of getting stranded? Do they need the security of having a room awaiting them?
Is it cultural conditioning? Media and travel industry conditioning? An undefined, subconscious habit?
Is there any merit to it? Is it necessary in some situations? Or preferable?
I recently sat down to reflect on this phenomenon.
Upon closer scrutiny, I’ve concluded that both styles of finding rooms are perfectly legitimate. I have to admit that there are many reasons and situations in which it’s actually a great idea to compare prices and book your hotel room online ahead of time.
But, as I’ve already hinted at, there are equally many reasons and situations in which it’s better or at least reasonable to skip the pre-booking and instead simply show up and find a room.
So, I would like to enlighten travelers who are ‘obsessed with pre-booking accommodation’ to the possibility in certain situations of traveling without booking beforehand.
As I’ve found out during 14 years of continuous travel, in many situations it’s quite reasonable to show up in places and find a room easily. I’d hate to see people miss great travel oppotunities because they didn’t imagine it possible to simply hit the road and find rooms as they go.
3 Main Factors:
In the end, the decision whether to book ahead or else just show up and find a room boils down to 3 main factors, which reflect the many different types of travelers, travel styles and destinations:
• Type of accommodation: luxury, mid-range or budget
• Trip specifics: where, when, how long, with whom and purpose of travel
• Peoples’ basic character: primarily security-driven or primarily freedom-driven
Taking all these factors into consideration, here are my lists of when it’s better to book accommodation ahead of time and when it’s better or at least acceptable to show up and find a room upon arrival:
Great reasons and situations to book accommodation ahead:
• luxury hotels and resorts – better rates online than when showing up in person
• high season travel to most popular destinations – rooms could be booked out
• package holiday vacations – get better rates than arranging all separately
• fixed travel schedule – to be assured you have rooms on the dates you need them
• short travel /holiday – time is pressed, you don’t want to waste time searching for rooms
• arriving at night – more difficult to find rooms at night, could be danger, tired
• arriving after a very long flight or overland travel – tired
• travel with children – difficult to search for a room with kids in tow
• travel with the elderly, ill or disabled – difficult to search for a room with these travelers.
• special necessary room requirements such as wifi in room, vegetarian food
• staying at a particular or favorite hotel – to be assured you get a room at that place
• security-driven people – peace of mind, stress-free
Situations when it’s fine or better to just show up and find a room upon arrival:
• budget accommodation – better rates in person, many budget places not on internet
• some mid-range accommodation – better rates in person, many mid places not on internet
• off-season travel – little chance rooms will be booked out, potential to bargain room rates in person
• less popular and off-track destinations – little chance rooms will be full
• flexible about your accommodation – no special needs, not fussy about conditions
• familiar destinations – if you’ve been there before, you know what’s avaiable
• long-term travel – not possible to book all rooms ahead of time
• travel without kids, elderly, disabled – easy to search for rooms on arrival
• flexible travel schedule – not sure when you’re going to arrive and how long you’ll stay
• freedom-driven and risk-tolerant people – prefer freedom to travel at will, not set to booking dates
• freedom-driven and risk-tolerant people – save time, stress and hassle pre-planning
Let’s delve a little deeper into the 3 main factors that determine whether to book ahead or not:
Type of accommodation – luxury vs mid-range vs budget:
When it comes to pre-booking vs. just showing up and looking for a room, there’s a huge difference between luxury and star-rated hotels vs. lower mid-range to budget accommodation.
For high-end hotels and resorts, the cheapest rates are offered online. The highest prices are quoted to walk-in guests. In terms of room prices, it’s much better to book ahead than to simply show up. High end establishments encourage pre-booking.
When it comes to budget accommodation and lower-end mid-range accommodation, things are pretty much reversed. Online, prices for budget and mid-range rooms can actually be higher than they are when showing up in person. Booking fees are often added to room prices online, so you’ll pay more for the same room by booking ahead!
On the other hand, when you arrive in person you can often negotiate a lower rate for a variety of reasons: You’re staying a week or a month, it’s low season, you’re a single traveler and so on. You can do especially well if you’re good at bargaining.
Quality and expectations:
Luxury and mid-range hotels and resorts generally have top-notch websites with excellent photos of their rooms, grounds, lobbies, restaurants and other facilitates. In addition, all star-rated hotels must adhere to specific international standards to maintain their rating. Therefore, guests can usually be assured of cleanliness, polite staff, quiet rooms and other standards without having to see the place in person.
In other words, luxury hotels’ websites allow guests to see exactly what they’re going to get before arriving. Almost all luxury and star-rated hotels have an online presence nowadays, so you can discover every place that’s available in a destination via an internet search.
Websites for budget and some mid-range accommodation, on the other hand, generally have simplistic websites that offer basic photos of rooms and premises. You can’t get a clear sense of what they’re really like.
Budget and non-starred properties don’t adhere to any international standards. They’re often privately owned, so standards are up to the owner and vary tremendously from place to place, even within the same country, city and region. It’s very difficult to tell from a website how quiet, clean, friendly or safe such places are. Are the walls thin or solid? Do staff talk loud and blare tvs? Is there zooming traffic nearby? What’s the neighborhood like?
In addition, many budget and mid-range places don’t’ have their own website or any other online presence. If you’re trying to book online for budget to mid-range accommodation, you’re leaving out a lot of options. There are places you can only discover by showing up and looking around.
In my opinion, it’s riskier (in terms of what you’re going to get) to book budget places beforehand than to show up and see what they’re like.
But with luxury hotels and resorts, it could be riskier to not book ahead. There’s always a chance the hotel will be fully booked, especially in high season.
Travelers’ character: need for security – risk tolerance – sense of adventure
One of my favorite books about success divides people into two general categories: those who are mainly driven by security, safety and assurance vs. those who are primarily driven by freedom.
When it comes to travel, some people much prefer planning extensively, having everything set, decided and booked ahead. That makes them feel stress-free and secure.
Other people find massive planning, organizing and preparations stressful, not comforting. They’d rather skip all the preparation work and just take off at the last minute, with little packing or pre-planning.
This is actually a big factor in whether you should book ahead or not.
What type of traveler are you?
If it gives you peace of mind to book all your accommodation ahead, then go for it. (But keep in mind that you have the choice to stretch your comfort zone and try travel without booking ahead at some point in time, in some situations. You might find that it works, too.)
On the other hand, if you don’t like the hassle of searching online and booking ahead, then just travel.
I can testify that in most places, most of the time you can find a great place to stay when you show up. And as long as you’re not looking for a luxury hotel, you can get a great rate when you arrive.
Travel particulars: when, where, how long, with whom and purpose of trip
High season for the most popular and famous travel destinations:
Clearly, if you’re going to one of the most popular travel destinations in the world during their peak season, it’s a good idea to book ahead.
Other situations that can cause fully-booked rooms are local holidays or conventions (as I once learned the hard way). You can easily check the national and school holidays of your destination country online or in a guidebook to help determine if you ought to book ahead or can just show up.
Low season, less popular and off-track destinations:
If you’re traveling off season or to less popular, less famous destinations, in most cases it’s not really necessary to book ahead. Then it’s up to you to decide what you prefer.
You can often get great package deals with hotels and flights and/or tours to popular destinations by booking ahead online or with a travel agent. Price would be much lower than trying to book it all separately.
Special needs you can’t do without:
If you have special needs such as wifi connection in your room, vegetarian meals, a work-out gym or anything else like that, you might be better off at least checking the area ahead of time. You can call a few places, check online, read guidebooks or travel blogs specific to that destination. Ask others who’ve been there.
Travel with children, elderly, disabled:
I don’t have children, by choice, but I can imagine that it would not be enjoyable to show up anywhere without a room and have to search for a place with kids in tow. I suppose anyone traveling with children will much prefer booking accommodation ahead of time, and for good reason. Same goes for traveling with elderly, ill or disabled travel companions.
Arrive at night or after a long trip or to generally avoid hassles, time and energy upon arrival:
I have to admit that it can be really nice to arrive in a destination with your room already booked and waiting for you. All you have to do is show up and be escorted to your room. That can beat having to wander around a neighborhood looking for a room. It’s especially great if you’re going to be really tired on arrival, such as arriving at night or after a long flight.
If you tend to be tired when you arrive in a new destination, for whatever reason, it might be worth booking ahead to save yourself time and energy when you arrive.
Popular hotels that tend to get booked out. To ensure you get a particular hotel:
I do have two favorite guest houses in SE Asia that I do actually book ahead for. Both are popular budget places that tend to be full. If I just show up, there’s a good chance I’ll be out of luck. I know from experience that other accommodation in those areas are pretty measly.
If you specifically want to stay at a particular hotel, it’s a good plan to book ahead
How do you like to handle accommodation when you travel? Why the preference?
Do you know any other good reasons to book ahead or not book ahead? Share your ideas!