Even before we left for this trip people looked at us like we were crazy when we told them we weren’t making any reservations. “We’ll just head to a place and figure out where we’re staying when we get there,” I’d say. For this remark I would be rewarded with a particular kind of stare – one of those eyebrow lifting ones that says, “And you’re ok with that!?”
It’s not as hard or as stressful as you might think. In fact, I have found it to be equally as stressful as traveling with a reservation. You’ll find out why in a bit.
R and I have done a considerable amount of international and domestic travel together. In addition to our current adventure, we’ve spent three weeks each in Guatemala, Turkey, and Italy. If we made a reservation anywhere it was only one or two days ahead of time, and only because we were booking an AirBnB (people’s apartments don’t usually come with staffed reception desks).
HOW IT GENERALLY WORKS
Step One: Know thyself (and thy travel partner) – R will stay almost anywhere provided the doors and windows lock. I need a little more in the way of creature comforts. So we compromise and usually end up in mid-cost lodging. This process is obviously much easier if you’re traveling solo, but either way you need to decide how much money a night you are willing to spend. If we’re looking at hotels or vacation rentals, R and I aim for $60-$80 USD per night. Yes, this is possible, and it doesn’t suck.
If you’re camping: Things just got a lot cheaper for you. Campsites for tents are generally $15 a night, for mobile homes the fees can go as high as $30 per night. Make sure you know what kinds of amenities you want (a flush toilet, e.g.).
Step Two: Do your research – Read through a reliable travel guide for the place(s) you’re traveling to. We like Lonely Planet guides, which will often give you hotel recommendations for a range of budgets. Whichever guide you choose, make sure it has maps with clearly marked points of interest alongside some nearby hotel recommendations. This is important because you will be much happier if you are staying someplace close to the stuff you want to see and do. Looking online for nearby hotels is also a good use of your time since your travel guide is unlikely to have every option included.
If you’re camping: Your travel guide should also have information on local campgrounds. Most state and national forests also have websites with information and maps for the first-come, first-served campsites.
Remember, in this research phase you are looking match the stuff you want to see with your options for nearby places to stay. It’s almost never worth it to stay far out of town on the cheap, because it is going to cost you added time and/or money to travel back into the city or park.
Step Three: Travel timely, travel light – We try to schedule our arrival into a new town during the daylight hours, preferably before noon. This gives us time to walk around a bit and see multiple hotels before settling down. Often we are taking public transit. You can ask someone at an information desk at the airport or do research online for the options, but almost all major tourist destinations will have some form of public transit available. We also make it a point to travel light. When traveling overseas, we fit everything into packs that are 40-50 liters. Nomadic Matt has a good post about choosing the right pack for you. We have more space at present because we are traveling via RV, but we still limited ourselves to about ten days’ worth of clothes each.
If you’re camping: You definitely want to get into the first-come, first-served sites before 10 am. If it is a very popular park, or you’re looking to jump into a site on a holiday weekend, we recommend getting there no later than 8:30 am. We have found that every campsite is a little different in the way they handle things. Some have staff who help shepherd the process, others are self-registration – which means you drive around and if you find an open spot you grab it, then head back to the kiosk at the entrance and fill out all your paperwork.
Step Four: Shop Around – By now you’ll have highlighted a few of the hotels that are in the area where you want to spend a few days. Once you step off the bus or the train, you take to the streets. As you walk to the hotels, check out the neighborhood. If a hotel has availability, ask what the price ranges are, and then ask to see the room that falls within your budget. Check out the bed, the bathroom, the windows, and the doors. You want to feel safe and clean. R and I have gone to as many as four hotels before settling on one.
If you’re camping: There’s less shopping around to do since you’re mostly driving around to find an open site. Hopefully in the research phase you’ve learned enough about the campsite to know what you’re getting into (e.g., are there flush toilets or vault, are there showers available, etc.).
Ok, that’s the general outline for the process, now let’s talk a little about the pros and cons:
Flexibility – You can stay as long as you like. Let’s say you were planning to stay in a place for three days, but once you got into town you decide you love it so much you want to stay for a week! If you’re booking your lodging on the fly you won’t have to call the hotels further on in your itinerary to reschedule. Likewise, if a place isn’t working, you can leave. No cancelation fees!
Self Reliance – You do not have to rely on the pictures from a hotel website or suspect online reviews. Since you are getting a first-hand look at the room before any money changes hands you will know exactly what you are getting. In this way, you avoid unmet expectations.
Cost – It can often be less expensive to walk into a place and negotiate a fee on the spot. Hotels can be flexible with pricing for a walk-in since even a low-paying customer is better than an empty room. Even if you can’t negotiate, there are no online convenience or booking fees to pay.
Anxiety – for some people, not having a place lined up can be anxiety producing. And if your flight gets delayed or you miss your bus, you might end up sleeping in a bus station or a very cold monastery (both of these things happened to R during his independent travel in Asia). These are risks you need to be willing to take.
National holidays – You will have to watch out for these, especially internationally since you won’t necessarily know when they are. We found ourselves in Siena, Italy during the European Labor Day a few years back. The only hotel in town not completely booked was the one that cost €400 per night. Even the hostels were full. Ouch.
Time – You can easily burn a half-day looking for the right place, especially if you end up looking at multiple hotels/hostels before making up your mind. It can work against you if you get in late – you might end up in a place that you wouldn’t have chosen otherwise because it’s too late and you’re too tired to do more due diligence. If you know you will be getting in late, this is often the best time to make an exception to the no reservations rule.
BALANCING IT ALL
In the end you will need to weigh the benefits of flexibility against your capacity for handling anxiety. As is true in all of life, there are ways to manage this. If we had to distill all this down, we’d have three pieces of advice:
- Get in early
- Do your research
- Travel light
Ultimately, do what makes you the most comfortable and what will help you get the most our of your travel experience. But do travel. The benefits are extraordinary.