I’ve recently been playing around with Hotel Tonight. It’s a whizzy little app that allows you to book rooms…as the name suggests…that night. Forget Laterooms and the like, this is real last minute deal stuff and although it’s currently only available for the big cities, it certainly has the potential to expand.
This app appeals to me not just because of the deal possibilities but also the impulsiveness it promotes and I wonder if it will get people to change their booking behavior and allow more randomness into their lives.
But all of that said, it doesn’t always pay to leave your hotel or hostel arrangements to the very last minute. I’ve met many travelers who swear they never have or never will book a room before they arrive in a new town, and that can have it’s advantages too. I’ve tried both the forward planning and walk-in with no advance research options and here’s my view on the pros and cons of each way.
Why it’s good to book rooms in advance
What’s the likelihood of there being a Harley Davidson Chapter in the small surf town of San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua on the exact weekend you decide to visit? So unlikely as to be impossible, you might think, but the reality was somewhat different when I turned up in a new town and country at 10 p.m. at night after 16 hours of travel and in desperate need of a shower, food and sleep.
I’m starting to lose count of the times I’ve lucked out on finding a room (or the room I want) with my turn up and hope for the best method – the Honolulu marathon recently found me hopping from one hostel to another for over a week, I had to bunk down in a Chinese laundry (literally) when I first arrived in Singapore and I ended up having to spring for a hotel at several times the price of a guesthouse when I didn’t plan my stay in Varanassi. I could go on. Events, an unexpected influx of visitors, a local holiday or peak season can see you bedless if you don’t plan in advance.
If you are absolutely against booking rooms in advance, then at least check there are no main events on at the time of your visit.
Save time, sweat and money searching by foot…then taxi
Leading straight off the back of the above problem, if the place you have mentally selected to stay has no room at the inn (popularity alone can keep you out in the cold as I found when I arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico), you’ll find yourself on a potentially endless search as you bounce from one hotel, hostel or guesthouse to another looking for a bed of choice. Unless they are located close together, you can fast find yourself traipsing around a new town with all of your baggage. Before took long you’ll be in a sticky mess that will prompt your hand out to hail a cab – watch the $s start to roll.
Secure the lowest prices
And while we’re on the subject of money, book rooms ahead and you can almost always save money. Walk-in or rack rates in hotels are usually the most expensive option so advance planning can really pay off. As well as being able to easily compare room prices, you can check if there are any discounts available (e.g. if you have a Hostelling International membership, Starwood Guests, reduced rates for having stayed at a sister property in another town) and take advantage of online room booking discounts, which many properties now offer.
As a minimum, try to do some research online so you know the rough prices before turning up and therefore the order of the best priced options. If you do turn up to find you could have saved online, go find some Wi-Fi (be cheeky and ask if you can use the property’s network) and book your room on the internet first. Most online bookings are confirmed immediately and mean you don’t have to miss out.
Get picked up – for cheap or free
Many hotels and hostels offer a free or discounted pick-up from the airport/train or bus station when you book rooms. Do check the small print of such offers. Sometimes you’re required to commit to book rooms longer than you might want. Equally, if you do walk into a place that has a free pick-up that you didn’t take advantage of, it’s always worth asking if you can get a refund on your transfer charge. Mostly you’ll be unsuccessful, especially if you didn’t travel with the hostel or hotels contracted transport provider, but if you don’t ask…
Reduce safety risks
As a solo female traveler I made myself two promises before I set off around the world – i) always book rooms in advance (even if just by 24 hrs) to ensure I wasn’t homeless and ii) never turn up in a new town late at night. While I came to break these rules on many occasions as my travel confidence grew and my travel planning waned, I put those rules together for one reason – personal safety.
If you’re traveling any distance or not a fan of the early morning start (that would be me), the chances are you’re going to arrive in your new town late at night. Not knowing the lay of the land, the transport, the safe and risky areas and having all of your worldly possessions on you can makes nighttime arrivals more risky. Conversely, if you book a room in advance you can head straight to your base for the night, taking a registered taxi if necessary or, better still, arranging a pick up.
Best idea for a group booking
You know how it is. You meet John in one hostel and you become travel buddies. In the next town he bumps into Charlotte and Emily he met two countries ago and suddenly there are four in your small group. You somehow collect two other travelers at a bar the night before you move on to your next stop and a couple more at the late night food stand. Before you know it there are eight of you looking for bargain beds in the same place. If you all want to be in the same hostel, the best way to ensure that is to book rooms ahead. Caveat: don’t take financial responsibility for other people’s bookings unless you are 100% confident they are going with you (you’re housing their left kidney in your bag) or you can afford to lose the amount you hand over.
Why it’s bad to book rooms in advance
Unless you’re on a two-week vacation and know exactly which resort you want to park your posterior for the duration, you can expect that plans are going to change. As often as I’ve been bitten by not booking rooms, I’ve lost money when I’ve planned and not followed through with my intended itinerary. Staying put longer, wanting to leave earlier, heading in an entirely different direction or getting vital intel on bed-bug prevalence or the shiftiness of a location can all see you change your booking. Unless you have booked a room with a decent cancellation policy or, better still (but rare) no payment until you show up, changing your plans if you have made a booking spells one thing – extra $$$.
The best solution if you want to secure a bed is to book rooms only one or two nights in advance. Some sites like Hostelworld and Hostelbookers offer cancellation protection for a small fee. Weigh up if it is worth it – your deposit is converted to credit against your next booking and you still have to comply with the property cancellation policy, which usually means giving a minimum of 24hrs notice of cancellation.
If you hate it, you could be stuck
Whether the hotel or hostel has not got the vibe you’re after (I recall a hotel in Tunisia that was 95% Russian tourists who had no desire to mingle with an English girl), is in a bad spot, has road works going on outside your window (Mexico City on my last trip), there are many reasons why an accommodation may have looked perfect on paper, but turns out to be less than idea. By booking rooms for only a night or two, you minimize the risk of having to endure a longer stay in a spot you don’t like. However, do ask the staff if there is a possibility of fixing the problem (a room away from the road works), which will save you the hassle of finding alternative accommodation.
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