To book, or not to book: A bed before you arrive

Many people absolutely swear by finding a hostel or guesthouse only AFTER they arrive somewhere, but is this a sensible philosophy?

I do buy into the romanticism of this approach. It leaves you completely untied from any routine and it allows you to float on the breeze of chance – if you don’t like the feel or look of a particular lodging then you simply move on. It feels like you are throwing yourself into a particular kind of nomadic lifestyle, even if it is just a veneer. So many backpackers will only travel this way and they wear it as a badge of pride.

There’s nothing wrong with this as such, so long as people don’t start getting snooty ‘Oh you booked this through STA did you? Well we just explored until we found the right vibe.’ – or words to that effect. No, it is exciting arriving late and having nowhere booked. There is a dangerous thrill to the lurking threat of a night kipping on a park bench in an unfamiliar city with unfamiliar and sometimes threatening figures wafting past in the dark. But there is a very good reason why we build houses and hotels – to keep those phantoms at bay!

Philosophy aside it can be a very interesting and safe thing to do. The police might move you on at 3am. Or, as some friends experienced in Singapore, you might awake at the crack of dawn to find hundreds of people around you, performing their daily Tai Chi rituals in the morning cool. A surreal wake up if ever I imagined one.

But when should you definitely not travel in this way?

Firstly I would say that you need to all buy into this method. If you are traveling in a group then each person must want to do it this way. Otherwise the prospect of no bed might make them simply too anxious to enjoy that thrill I mentioned. If someone isn’t happy with the idea then don’t pressurise them. We all travel differently, and we all have different expectations. If you decide to travel in a group them these are the things that you need to be aware of because in choosing to travel in a group you’ve bought into their expectations as well as your own. Understanding is needed. We arrived in Cairns by bus, much later than expected, and without a bed. This made Kristina really quite pissed off with us – and rightly so because we had tried to override her opinion needlessly! Secondary to this point is that each person should feel ok with sleep in a conventionally frowned upon location, like a bus shelter, because fear will banish all their sleep, but not their tiredness. A tired traveler is rarely a happy one for long.

Secondly, be aware of the timing of your arrival. I once arrived in Lisbon on the Portuguese Independence Day, in a torrential downpour, and the city was dead. We called establishments listed in my Rough Guide (this was 2003, before most of the hostel booking websites were even dreamed of) but found that they either didn’t speak English, were full, or didn’t answer… We eventually found a pricey guesthouse with a dead cockroach in the tub and unsmiling hosts to shepherd our soggy selves inside. Perhaps we cruelly ruined their evening by using their premises and making them provide the service they advertised, or maybe they just didn’t like us, but either way we didn’t feel thrilled by this experience. What’s worse is that we had flown into Malaga two weeks previously, right in the middle of Semana Santa – probably the single worst time to find accommodation in the whole Spanish year. Whilst the hostel we finally found was far nicer it was also quite a bit more expensive than we had planned. We didn’t learn our lesson then.

A close-up of our cockroach in the bath, Lisbon, Portugal.

Is the thrill of arriving without a bed worth more than the risk to your budget? Wouldn’t you rather travel that little bit longer than have to splurge on accommodation you didn’t really want? Would that extra outlay make you a bit sad?

Personally I quite like the process of examining and booking accommodation on-line because it frees up time when you arrive, leaves you less stressed, and means that you will probably find somewhere nice and friendly. Internet resources these days are so good that this is possible to a greater degree than in 2003. I wouldn’t really advocate arranging your whole multi-week trip in advance, just perhaps a week’s accommodation. That way you retain the freedom to move on or stay, if your first impressions grab you. My itinerary in Serbia, such as it was, changed utterly as soon as we arrived but I always booked accommodation for at least the next three or four days because local festivals were reducing free space everywhere.

In other words, does arriving without a bed truly make you more free or does it actually make you a slave to market conditions. A slave that’s forced to accept whatever they are offered or risk being completely saturated by rainwater within half an hour.

I know I’d rather sculpt my fate in advance, but not too far in advance because it’s always great to be able to change your ‘plans’ at short notice!

Soggy me, from a log flume, not rain



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