How to arrive in a destination and find a room without pre-booking
As a nomadic traveler, I prefer to show up in a destination and find a room after I arrive. I rarely pre-book accommodation. This has worked successfully for me for 14 years of nomadic travels. In fact, I’ve only been ‘stranded’ once, and in that case I ended up staying at the home of the chief of police of Terenganu State, Malaysia. That was interesting!
But I do have to admit that searching for rooms upon arrival can sap a lot of time and energy, be frustrating or exhausting. It can be a real drag if you have heavy bags, you just finished a long trip, you’re tired, hungry, sick or stressed out.
If hotels are spread out over a big area, you might have to walk long distances. You can also have problems if you arrive late at night. Finally, there’s the slight but potential risk of not finding a good room, or in the worst case, no room at all. It is a risk.
The process can also be very simple.
In this post I explain the tactics I’ve used to minimize potential hard work, long searches, long walks and difficulty finding a room upon arrival. This is how I’ve done it successfully for 14 years.
Step 1: Decide if it’s a good idea or not for your particular destination and trip
As I explained in my travel tips When to Pre-Book vs When to Just Show Up and Find a Room, there are many cases in which it’s better or necessary to pre-book accommodation.
Check that post for details, but to summarize briefly: It might be best to pre-book luxury hotels, during high season at famous destinations or if you have any conditions that would make searching on arrival difficult, such as traveling with children.
Truth be told, I even have a few situations for which I book ahead. I pre-book a few favorite guest houses around SE Asia which tend to fill up quickly. To make sure I get a room, I’ve learned to call 1-2 weeks ahead.
Step 2: Slight pre-planning
1. Check for hotels in the destination
Before I go, I always check a guidebook to ensure at least one hotel or guest house in my budget exists in the destination. (Nowadays, I sometimes also check travel blogs, LP forums or other websites.)
2. Identify one target search area
If I’m heading to a big city or region that has many hotels spread out in different areas, I identify one main area that I’d like to stay in.
3. Choose 1-3 target hotels to check first
In my destination and/or target area, I then choose 1-3 target guest houses/hotels to check first when I arrive.
I note down their names, addresses and phone numbers or else I mark them in my guidebook if I’ll have one with me
I make sure I have map of the area with the target guest houses marked down. Sometimes I draw a simple map for myself.
As an extra precaution, you could check online for availability during your travel dates or call 1-2 places beforehand just to ask about availability. If many rooms are available, ok. If most places are nearly full, it might be wise to pre-book.
I nearly got stranded in Singapore recently by not heeding this advice! I had noticed online that all the boutique hotels and hostels seemed to be fully booked. I wondered why, but didn’t do anything about it. When I arrived, I discovered that two big conventions were in town. Oh! At the last second I got a dorm bed because someeone cancelled.
Step 3: Arrival and search
Tip 1: Arrive early
I always try to arrive early in day: morning to mid afternoon. About 11 am-12 noon (ie check-out time) is a great time to arrive. Late in the afternoon, in evenings and at night it’s harder to find a room.
Tip 2: Get transport close to your target area
I try to get dropped off as close to my target area / hotel as possible. Alternately, I pick a target area that’s closest to the drop off point i.e. bus or train station.
Tip 3: Visit your target hotels first
Not surprisingly, I go to my target hotels first. Usually I find a room at one of those places.
Tip 4: Ask for help
If no rooms are available at my first few hotels, I ask them for suggestions and help finding a room. Usually they are happy to help out. Often they’ll even call around to nearby hotels for me (usually their friends’ places, which helps everyone. :)))
Tip 5: Stash your bags while you search
If I have to go search for a room, I try to leave my bags at the first hotel (or tourist info center, restaurant, etc) Alternatively, I might call around (Remember I’ve got a few hotel names & phone numbers).
Tip 6: Have your own transport if possible
It’s much less tiring searching for rooms if you have your own transport: bicycle, motorbike or car. If you don’t, it might be worth hiring cheap local transport for your search- motorbike taxi, etc.
Those guys usually can make suggestions, though they might just take you to their friends’ places, which may or may not be in your best interest. A few times I’ve found good rooms that I didn’t know about by having local drivers show me around.
Tip 7: What to do if you have arrive with no hotels in mind
It could happen sometime that you arrive in a destination with no clue about accommodation. Perhaps you didn’t do any research beforehand. Perhaps no information was available or you couldnt’ access guidebooks, internet, etc. In that case, try to get help before just wandering aimlessly around. You could:
* Ask a tourist desk at the airport, train station or bus station when you arrive. They may help with suggestions and/or calling hotels for you.
* From the airport or station call around to some hotels if you can get your hands on some phone numbers.
* Other people who could help include police, travel agents, taxi drivers and other travelers you bump into.
Worst practices to avoid:
Worst practice 1: No pre-planning
You didn’t do any research beforehand, so you have no clue where to begin searching when you arrive? Or perhaps you did but you forgot to write down any target hotels names, addresses and phone numbers? And maybe you dont’ have a map? Big work ahead :( In this case, refer to Tip 7 above.
Knowing at least 1 or 2 hotels and and target area to search makes finding a room infinitely easier. Don’t forget those hotel details. :)
Worst practice 2: Arriving late in the day or at night
There’s a much higher chance rooms will be full later in the day. You’re also more likely to be tired or stressed out. Finally, in some places wandering around at night could be risky.
Worst practice 3: Arriving when exhausted, hungry, stressed out or sick
Any of those conditions will make your search much harder and un-enjoyable for obvious reasons. Try to arrive refreshed, well-fed and relaxed.
Worst practice 4: Arriving at a famous vacation destination during the middle of high season.
Yeah, you just might not find a room. :)
That’s it for my tactics and techniques on finding a room upon arrival without using up too much effort, energy or time. I hope this helps you find rooms during your travels so you don’t feel you absolutely have to pre-book all your accommodation.
Do you ever just show up and find a room after arrival?
If so, has that been easy or difficult, fun or a drag?
Do you have any other tips or techniques to add?