Accommodations: Do You Book Ahead Or Just Show Up?

Should you or should you not book your accommodations in advance? This is a question I get asked a lot, and it’s a tricky one to answer because it depends on a lot of different factors: Where are you going? When are you going? What kind of traveller are you? What kind of place are you looking for? Are there any special festivals happening while you’re in town? So many questions, but you need to consider all of them.

When I first started travelling, I used to pre-book all of my accommodations well in advance. I was still quite inexperienced and I wanted to have the reassurance that I had a place to sleep every night.

However, during my most recent travels (particularly backpacking in Southeast Asia) I found that I could often get better deals if I showed up at a guesthouse and asked to see a room rather than making reservations in advance. This generally involved doing a bit more legwork (ie. visiting 3 or 4 guesthouses until we found a decent one with availability and fair prices), but it paid off in the end.

That being said, there were also times when I just clicked ‘book it now’ because I didn’t want to deal with the hassle of finding a place after having spent a full day in transit.

Accommodations around the world

Today, I thought I’d share some of my tips on when to book in advance and when you can just show up:

Book ahead if…

You’ve been to the hotel before. I’m a bit of a destination repeater; there are some cities that I find myself passing through again and again. If there’s a hotel I know a like, I’m not going to take my chances and show up without a reservation. I’ll book in advance.

It’s high season. If you’re travelling during high season it’s best to have accommodations booked prior to your arrival. You don’t want to arrive at a destination only to discover that everything is booked up.

You’re travelling to a popular destination. Some destinations are crowded no matter what time of year you visit, like say, Paris, New York or London. Of course, you’ll still be able to find a place, but it may involve a bit more leg work.

There are festivals or special events going on. You don’t want to arrive without a reservation in Buñol during La Tomatina, Munich during Oktoberfest, Edinburgh during Hogmanay, or any of these other festivals. These events draw big crowds and the pick of the crop gets booked up months in advance. What’s left over is usually run down and in the outskirts of town.

You are arriving late at night. There’s nothing worse than arriving at your destination at 2 in the morning and having to deal with the fact that you don’t have a place to sleep. Have a plan.

You are arriving after a long journey. Is it going to take 3 planes, 2 buses, and 1 train to reach your final destination? If you’re spending that many hours in transit, you’re going to be exhausted by the time you get there and you won’t want to start scouting places.

It’s just a short overnight stay. If I’m in transit and I only have 1 day in a city, I usually book in advance. Why waste the little time you have searching for a place when you can spend it doing a bit of sightseeing?

You’re looking to get a deal on luxury accommodations. Sometimes you can score some serious deals on luxury hotels by booking online. If you see a price you like, book the room.

You’re travelling in North America. So, the distances here in North America are kind of long and sometimes the train/bus terminals are located in the outskirts of town, which means you can’t exactly walk downtown and start looking for places. It’s just easier to book ahead and take a cab.

Phuket2

Some sites to consider :

AirBnB I am a HUUUGE fan of AirBnB and it’s my go-to site whenever I’m doing a longer stay that’s upwards of 1 week. First of all, I love being able to stay in a real apartment with my own bathroom, my own kitchen, and my own washing machine. Sam and I started using this site when we were travelling in Europe last spring and we stayed in some wonderful places in cities like Istanbul, Berlin, and Prague. We’ve also used it here in North America in cities like Montreal, New York City and Chicago, and we’ve only had positive experiences. I actually still keep in touch with some of the people who have hosted us! (If you’d like to try AirBnB, you can get a free $25 credit here.)

Hostelworld – I haven’t been staying in hostels as much lately (the cost of 2 people staying in a hostel is sometimes the equivalent of just booking 1 hotel room AND we get our own bathroom!), however, when I do stay at a hostel, I always go with Hostelbookers. They’ve been my go-to website since my very first European backpacking trip.

Agoda – I started using Agoda when I was in Southeast Asia and I haven’t stopped since. I like using this site whenever I’m booking stays in boutique hotels or private villas. The property reviews on Agoda are always pretty spot on, so I feel confident that what I see is what I’m going to get.

Yonderbound – This one is fairly new and I still haven’t had the chance to use it myself, but it’s a visual approach to booking (think Pinterest for hotels). It allows you to earn credits for future bookings, it’s connected to TripAdvisor, and the prices are often lower than what you might find on other booking sites. (You can get a Yonderbound $10 credit here.)

A little bungalow in Pai, Thailand

Just show up if…

You’re willing to do a bit of leg work. Showing up often means you get to save money, but you also have to be prepared to walk a lot with your luggage in tow. Consider what time of day you’re arriving and what the weather may be like (42C with humidity or -21 in the snow isn’t ideal!)

You’re travelling with an open end date. If your trip is open-ended and you don’t have much of a plan, then it makes sense to show up and start looking, after all, you have all the time in the world.

You’re travelling during the off-season. Travelling during low season means hostels / guesthouses / hotels have a lot of availability, so again, you can have a look around and take your pick of the bunch.

You’re visiting an underrated destination. Ever heard of Viborg, Kaunas or Sundsvall? (Neither had I, I just opened my handy little atlas that I keep on the coffee table.) But my point is, if it’s not a major destination, then you can probably take your chances.

Some things to keep in mind…

  • Depending on where you’re travelling to, immigration will likely want to see an address of where you are staying. This doesn’t mean you need to have your whole trip pre-booked, but it’d be nice to have an address to write down.
  • If you’re going to be staying someplace for a while, you might be able to strike up a deal for a discounted rate.
  • Lastly, there are hostels out there that offer free room and board in exchange for a few hours of work every day. I’ve seen this everywhere from New York City to Yangshuo – something to consider if you can’t bear to say farewell just yet!

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38 Comments

  • Kristen says:

    Great post. I’m with you on the hostels. They’re just not an option anymore unless you’re looking for a dorm. I miss the social aspect, but not enough to pay the extra..

  • Ryan Biddulph says:

    Hi Audrey,

    Good points!

    I for one book ahead almost exclusively because we like having lodging in order before we show up. Yep, we’re picky 😉 But being spontaneous adds an air of thrillingness and fun too so you can go either way if you’d like. Just be sure to embrace whatever happens in you don’t book ahead 🙂

    Keep on inspiring,

    Ryan
    Ryan Biddulph recently posted..How I Attracted the Best House Sitting Job on Earth (and How You Can Too)My Profile

  • I usually book in advance… not always the whole trip before I leave home, but a chunk of it to get me started. Then I have some flexibility in advance when I’m on the road. I LOVE Airbnb and used it when I was in Iceland. I’m excited to use it again soon.
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..Treacherous Winter GetawayMy Profile

  • Sian Bray says:

    I usually book the first night somewhere beforehand, because it is nice not to have to worry about it after a long flight, or bus trip, or train, or whatever. It also means that if it doesn’t live up to your standards, or it’s just plain terrible, you’re only there for one night, and haven’t lost any money.

  • Nikki says:

    Another useful post. I also love airbnb, especially for Europe, we have found some great places through them. In Asia, I always book at least the first night somewhere new, as it gives me a chance to get a feel for the place and it really takes the pressure off if you know you can drop your bags and have a shower!

  • Great tips, we prefer to show up but sometime Peak season can be the death of you! Lot of people talking about Yonderbout might have to check them out.
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  • Adam @StreetFoodWorldTour says:

    We love Airbnb, such a great alternative to the usual hotels.
    Adam @StreetFoodWorldTour recently posted..Do you know what’s in Thai Papaya Salad?? Come learn how to make your ownMy Profile

  • Eva says:

    I always book ahead but I’m going to SE Asia in March for two months and based on what everyone was saying we decided to look for accommodation once we’re there. I hope it will work out! Great post and tips! 🙂
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  • Kiara Gallop says:

    Like you when I travelled through South-East Asia, it was so easy just to show up and find a decent room. Many of the loveliest guesthouses we found weren’t even on the accommodation-booking sites, they simply got bookings through word of mouth and for that reason were able to offer the rooms a lot cheaper. We did make the mistake once however of rocking up in Chiang Mai without a reservation and then discovering that we’d actually arrived at the start of the Loi Krathong festival. It was a beautiful festival and one we were so glad we’d been able to experience, but we did get turned away from about 15 guesthouses before we found one! Not good in 35 degree temperatures with a 60L backpack on!
    Kiara Gallop recently posted..Yonderboxes: Make Money by Sharing your Travel InsightsMy Profile

  • Amanda says:

    Great tips! I personally am too Type A (or maybe just too much of a whimp) to show up somewhere without having a place to stay. Granted, I travel a lot in North America and Europe, so I realize it’s slightly different. But it’s just never appealed to me – I stress out too much!

    I HAVE gotten better, though. These days, if I’m traveling for an extended period of time, I often don’t book accommodation until a few days ahead of time as opposed to weeks or months in advance.
    Amanda recently posted..What J.R.R. Tolkien Can Teach Us About Travel and LifeMy Profile

  • ATWHK says:

    I travel a lot in Asia, and I think it’s a good idea to book at least the first night advance. That way, you can drop your stuff off and then go out in search of a better deal without having to lug your stuff all over town. When I traveled from Central Vietnam to Saigon, I did this. I found an inexpensive (but comfy) hotel for the first two nights on line (I was planning to stay two weeks). One of the key advantages is that the hotel sent a greeter to the airport to pick me up. We chatted all the way from the airport to the hotel. He also handled my getting a local sim card on the way from the airport to hotel. So that de-stressed my arrival. And I also became friends with the greeter, whom I met several times when he got off duty (the people in Vietnam are VERY friendly). But there is absolutely NO question that it was easier to find a better deal roaming the streets than surfing the net. In fact, there were so many choices on offer it was difficult to make up my mind. There really is an advantage to getting a feel for the neighborhood, seeing if there are any convenience stores nearby, checking out the room for yourself, etc. Despite the many VERY lovely little hotels in renovated old buildings, I wanted a hotel with a swimming pool, and I found one catering to domestic rather than foreign travelers. Not only did it have a rooftop swimming pool, a yummy breakfast buffet, and a room that was larger than the one I spent the first two nights at, it was cheaper, as well! If I had arrived without a hotel for the first night, I would have had to find my own way into town, and I would have been under pressure to take the first hotel I saw and probably wouldn’t have found this place.
    ATWHK recently posted..Australia: American Travellers Targeted During OscarsMy Profile

  • Justine says:

    I usually book one night in advance, just to make sure I have a place to stay. But I find that doing a little bit of work and checking out other options in person can REALLY pay off. One of the biggest pet peeves of mine is construction and roosters! Lately I’ve mainly been traveling in Southeast Asia where these two things are ubiquitous. So I love being able to see places in person to make sure they’re clean and quiet. Doing the leg work might be a bit annoying but it can be so worth it 🙂
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  • Corinne says:

    Audrey, Great tips. We usually only book the first night, because yes, we like cheap flights and that means getting in late! But from there we wing it, mainly because we don’t really have set plans and love to be spontaneous!
    Corinne recently posted..Weekend Travel Inspiration – Carew PapritzMy Profile

  • Very helpful and clear article, thanks Audrey. I’m personally a big fan of leaving accomodation choices up to the big winds of chance and sorting it out when I arrive somewhere, but there are a few exceptions as you say. Mine is after a long flight when it’s your first night in a country. Good to know you’ll have somewhere to go especially if you’re arriving at night, you don’t speak the local language and its a potentially dangerous city you’re arriving into i.e. Guatemala City!

  • Heather says:

    The obsessive-compulsive planner in me ALWAYS books in advance. I do tons of research into neighborhoods and try to find cute little boutique hotels with lots of character. And since I always book through the same website, I can get big discounts and rewards. Generally, this has worked out pretty well!
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  • John Hunter says:

    I like to book a couple days and then look for a place, when I am staying for a longer time. Unless, as you say, I have been there before and know where I want to stay. If I am staying for a short time (under a week) I might book everything rather than take time looking when I am there.

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  • The BEST TIP I can give (which you sort of already covered) is to book the first night and then hop around the following day to look for a cheaper place. This way you aren’t searching after those long plane/train rides and you can still ultimately save some coin at the same time.
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  • Great points and still tips I have to remind myself of even after nearly 4 years traveling…
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  • Shelley says:

    Great post with lots of useful tips! Also love AirBnb. Last time we were in Italy, we got a 4 bedroom villa in Tuscany for about $20/person. Pretty amazing! 😀 Also, we just got back from Gili Air, and were able to score a really nice place for a fraction of the posted price on online booking engines. One strategy we use to decide about booking in advance, is to check booking.com and check the percentage booked stats on their page. For Gili, it was telling us only 30% booked, so I knew we’d be able to show up and negotiate a seriously good deal. 🙂
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  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica says:

    I think the biggest thing is knowing if you have the time and the patience to deal with the stress of finding a place when you arrive. It was great when I was backpacking, but for shorter trips, I tend to value my time more.
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  • Great tips Audrey. I love not booking in advance, but after a long ass day of travel it can be relief to know you don’t have to lug your backpack around while you look for a place! I can only ever commit to one night in advance though! If you like the place, you can extend, it not, just move on the next morning!
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  • Mat says:

    I agree with one of the top comment, just book for the first night then choose where you want to go next. No need to stress (unless you’re travelling to Japan, then you HAVE to book ahead !)

  • Ryan says:

    Nice article Audrey, and completely makes sense. I am usually the “show up and hope” type, but there have been times where I have been somewhere without any accommodation available. It happened on a busy weekend in Budapest, or in Christchurch where all hotels and hostels were taken by displaced families, and so many other places.

    Great tips to share for sure.
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  • Heather says:

    I would have never thought about all of these things. I’ve always booked in advance… but I’ve never taken a long enough trip that that was too much of a hassle to plan.
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  • sharm says:

    I am of the book ahead camp. Way too worried about not having a place to sleep in once I get there… a bit too much of a control freak that way. 🙂

  • Kevin says:

    Much better deals when you just show up! But of course that only works during low(ish) season. We like to book ahead if we’ll be traveling in high season or if we arrive late at night.

  • Hey Audrey,
    let me throw a curve ball here! This got quite long-winded, so apologies…
    I own an eco-resort (and run the bookings for it) in Goa, India. I also run a bookings site for boutique hotels in India, so from a strictly small/boutique hotel perspective I’m a little qualified to answer, I guess 🙂
    As far as the hotels I know (including my own) – booking ahead for high season is good and you WILL get a room if you book early enough, BUT you will of course pay the full rate. HOWEVER, if you just turn up during a busy period, or email at short notice, and the hotel has a few nights that are annoyingly unsold, or have had a last minute cancellation, then you will almost certainly get a discount (and you may not even have to ask for it). In fact, that latter scenario is the only time that many small hotels give discounts and that’s a policy we follow and encourage in our conversations with hotels, reason being that discounting in the hotel business, especially FOR SMALL HOTELS, even in low season, devalues the property and ultimately doesn’t benefit the business. Discounting tends to make people cynical, and it also leads to guests having the ‘how much did you pay ?!!’ conversation with other guests, which in turn leads to some approaching the front desk and demanding a refund of the difference if they paid more than others.
    Now maybe this is mostly true of India, which is where my experience is, as it’s a place where tourists and locals alike think that every business has a market stall mentality, but as a hotelier I’ve seen a refusal to discount pay off long term. Ultimately, it shows that you believe in your property and the rates you are charging, this in turn leads to what I would (reluctantly) term ‘better quality’ guests, people who just want to have a great time and not try and haggle or complain about trivial amounts. Sites like Agoda, Booking.com and so on do have a lot of ‘last minute’ discounts but they also have wildly fluctuating prices, and we’ve found that more often than not these are all marketing and no substance, they are often nowhere near the ‘best available rates’ they claim to be.
    So to cut a long story short, if you want to stay at a hotel that is somehow ’boutique’, small, privately run, the best way to ensure you get the best deal possible is twofold:
    1) Chance it – turn up without pre-booking, smile (!), don’t commit till you have seen the room, ask the rate for one night, then request the rate for your preferred length of stay.
    2) Book ahead – email, ask questions, always be friendly – most times you will be dealing with the owner (someone like me!) and if they think ‘this is a nice person that I would like as a guest’ then you have the best chance of getting the lowest possible rate.

    Hope that helps! I certainly think this is the way to go in India and with small hotels in general.

  • Karla says:

    These are all excellent tips Audrey!

    I prefer to book in advance, that way I can leave with peace of mind and knowing I will have a nice room and bed to sleep in after traveling many hours.

    However in the past, when I was going from one country to the next in Europe, I’d just show up and was fortunate to find a place to stay.

    It’s great to plan ahead and take advantage of the off season and discounts offered.

    I will look into AirBnB and Yoderbound!

    TYVM for sharing 🙂

  • Mikołaj says:

    Sweet redhair cat!!

  • Aaron says:

    Wow I did not think about all these things, I am such a newbie traveler! Thanks for the insight, this post has given me a massive leg up when it comes to planning accommodation.

  • Michele says:

    I personally hate booking in advance, especially for hostels.. I’m European (lived in 7 countries) I like to come in the city and feel the social vibes before deciding what to do. Anyhow, I personally disagree in South East Asia: based on experience, it is actually fairly handy to book in advance, in particular if you are arriving late in remote locations. That can sound common sense, but it can really avoid bad experiences 😉

  • Rachel says:

    Great post Audrey!

    I agree with you on always having accommodation booked if you arrive somewhere late at night.
    Keep up the interesting posts, we really enjoy reading your blog. 🙂

  • Minerva Jimenez says:

    Hi Audrey,
    I noticed you didn’t list couchsurfing as one of the options. Have you or Sam tried it? If so, what have been your experiences?

  • Since I’m a vacation day traveller, I’m always travelling with a closed timeframe so I book in advance. I also like knowing where I’m going to stay each night. That being said, if I was travelling somewhere like Southeast Asia where I know there are guestrooms aplenty I may just book the first night and then explore afterwards to see what’s out there for the rest of my stay.

  • JB & Renee says:

    Before I got married, I frequently traveled alone so I would always look for hotels soon as I arrived at my destination. That was in the early days of the internet though so booking a hotel wasn’t nearly as easy it is today. Now that I’m married, I book everything in advance. I’m responsible for my wife so I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself should anything bad happen. 🙂

  • Art Klep says:

    Great tips Audrey!
    I support your nod to AirBnB for sure. They provide a great platform for a personal experiences by staying with a local host. I got started with them when I opened Poppy Hostel on Curacao.
    As an accommodation provider (like Joe from Tripzuki above) I encourage guests to get in touch with me directly, either on my own website or if they’re really adventurous by just walking in.
    I’ve linked up with Hostelworld and various other channels (thanks for putting me on to Yonderbound). I welcome the bookings they bring but their focus on “best price guarantees, etc.” is just marketing. I ALWAYS provide the best prices to guests who book directly. Like Joe I don’t like discounting too much, for the same reasons he explains. I certainly don’t allow the channels to undercut me on price. When guests book directly I share the (up to 20%) commision I pay to a channel with my guest in the form of a discount they can only get directly.

    In short, my advice is:
    Do research first to determine that the place you want to stay is reputable and reliable (reviews from actual bookings are good for this) by checking booking.com and their ilk.
    Then….
    Get in touch with accommodations directly, by walking in if you’re adventurous or online if you want to plan ahead.

    You won’t have a middleman to deal with. (Hostelworld has stuffed up quite a few of my bookings, btw) You will get better service, often at a lower price and best of all you will be supporting your host directly. If you stay with a reputable host that you have come to trust it’s a win-win!
    A savvy traveler will understand that a booking channel or mega online travel agency is primarily concerned with reselling rooms, not your experience as a guest. They are a good place to prospect potential places to stay but that’s about it.
    Likewise a reputable, and enterprising, accommodation should have an efficient way for guests to book directly. As a guest you are then assured you are building a relationship with them directly, not through a middleman.
    I’m glad I stumbled onto this post. I’m gonna have a look at what else thebackpacker.com has going on!

    Cheers,
    Art

  • nikki yadav says:

    Hiiii,

    Another useful post. I also love airbnb, especially for Europe, we have found some great places through them.

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