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Posted by Tim on Apr 28, 2009
Travel Without Booking Ahead

We never book ahead when we travel. Note that I'm not really talking about plane tickets here – that's a interesting topic for discussion, but it will be the subject of another post. I'm talking about hotel rooms, bus tickets, boat tickets, train tickets, event admission... all that sort of stuff.

We never booked any of it ahead. (Well, almost never. More on that in a bit.)

This is the part where I really want to say "and neither should you." Hedgehogs are a cautious lot, though, and I know full-well that our approach won't necessarily be the right fit for everyone.

So instead I'll just say what we always say here in Travel Tip Tuesday posts...

Your mileage may vary.


The advantages of traveling without reservations are numerous, but the biggest one is that it gives you flexibility.

The first thing we do when arriving in a new town is score ourselves some lodging. (We always try to make sure to arrive early in the day, which makes this easier.) We make our way from hotel to hotel, asking to have a look at their rooms and checking what their prices are. In the process, we're also able to get a feel for how we're treated by the people working there. We're usually not all that picky, but we do like staying in rooms that are clean and bright and feel safe and secure, in places where the staff is warm and friendly. And generally, the only way to find those places is by going there and looking for them. You can't really do it effectively online.

Sometimes we wind up staying at the first place we look. Once in a while we actually like that first place so much that we stop looking then and there, and never even check out another option.

Now, the first place we look is generally the place that sounded like a home run in the guide book, or from the online reviews we read, or from that recommendation a friend gave us. And you know what? I'd guess that 80% of the time we wind up staying someplace different. Sometimes it's just that we found something else even better. But sometimes it's that there's something really, really wrong with that first place. Maybe the manager was rude and unhelpful, or maybe the rooms weren't nearly as nice as they looked in the pictures. Maybe there's cockroaches or thin walls or an unpleasant moldy smell. Or maybe it just doesn't "feel" right – perhaps our instincts are all screaming at us that something's out of place here, something isn't safe.

When that happens, and we wind up staying a few doors down at an infinitely nicer (and yet cheaper!) place that we've never heard of before, we invariably find ourselves thinking one thing...

Thank goodness we hadn't booked ahead. Thank goodness we hadn't locked ourselves into that awful place.

This doesn't just hold for hotel rooms. We changed bus companies in Buenos Aires and discovered our beloved Andesmar as a result. We'd been interested in doing something with elephants on Ko Chang, but after checking it out in person, we didn't like the feel of it. (And thank goodness for that!)

Ihlara Valley: A Change in Plans

For a long time before we ever set out on our trip, we'd been planning to walk the length of Ihlara Valley in Turkey. We'd stay overnight at the tiny village of Selime at the northern end of the valley, wake up early in the morning and walk the whole 14km of it, and spend the next night in the equally tiny village of Ihlara at the southern end.

(If this sounds a little familiar, that's because Jessica wrote about it a few years ago in a post called 26 Hours.)

Once we got to Selime, we started to question our plan. There were two main reasons for this.

The first is something we couldn't really have predicted: we were sort of "fairy chimney-ed out." See, one of the main reasons to go for a walk in Ihlara Valley is the ancient churches carved into the walls, and into the natural rock formations known as fairy chimneys. Sounds really cool, right? Well, it is.

But we'd just come from our beloved Göreme, where we'd spent 17 days exploring ancient churches carved into fairy chimneys. And in much the same way as we would later get "templed out" for a while after spending a week exploring Angkor Wat, we were pretty much done with the fairy chimneys. We were ready for something new.

The second reason we started reconsidering things in Selime was that there only seemed to be two available places to stay, and we really weren't happy with either of them. One felt downright creepy and unsafe, and we were both itching to get away the entire time we were being shown around. The other was a big posh-looking hotel. But here again, something felt amiss. The hotel seemed mostly deserted, and yet the room we were shown to had someone else's shoes and toiletries in it, and looked for all the world like someone else had just stepped out a moment earlier. Again, we listened to our instincts, and decided not to stay there.

These two reasons combined to form a new and distinct desire to not do the Ihlara Valley walk after all, but instead move on to the Turkish coastline instead. And that's exactly what we decided to do. (More on that in a bit.)

If we'd booked ahead our rooms at both ends of the valley and our bus out from Ihlara, we'd have been walking away from a bit of money there, and it would have made that decision more difficult. By not booking ahead, we were able to listen to our instincts and adapt on the fly to changing circumstances.

Addiction and the Domino Effect

Traveling without booking ahead can be addicting. When you don't have reservations, you're not setting yourself to be disappointed that what you're getting isn't what you'd imagined. Instead, you can check out all of your options, and choose the one that's best for you. You have the freedom to size up a situation before committing to anything, and the option of paying cash for everything if you prefer. (Over the course of our entire trip, we only ever put one thing – again, other than plane tickets – on our credit card.)

More than anything, though, you feel free and unconstrained. You can rewrite your trip as you go along, if you wish.

When we set out on what was intended to be a 12-month trip around the world, we had all sorts of ideas as to what our itinerary would entail. But all we actually purchased was a pair of one-way tickets to Buenos Aires, and after that we figured it all out as we went along. Our itinerary changed more times than I can count. We added and dropped destinations, we extended our trip from 12 to 18 months, we returned to the same place more than once. (In the case of Bangkok, almost a half-dozen times!)

And now we're helplessly addicted to that freedom. When we went down to Mexico for a week, for instance, we didn't book anything in advance. We're just not capable of it anymore. We're going down to Colombia for a weekend in June, and we're not booking anything ahead there either.

It works the other way, too: booking ahead can have a sort of domino effect. If you've booked your room for these dates in that place, you have more pressure on you to make sure you get there on exactly that date. And then you might find yourself thinking, well now I guess I should really book my bus ride ahead too, to make sure I have a seat, and so on.

Because what if they're sold out?

The Risks of Traveling Without Reservations

Ok, first things first: we've never ever ever been unable to find lodging. Ever. Some times it takes a little longer than others, but we've never booked ahead, and yet have not once found ourselves without a place to sleep at night. (Not even in Chiang Mai, during high season, at midnight, in the middle of one of the biggest festivals of the year... with our dog.)

I know you're worried about this, but it's really really unlikely to ever happen. Frankly, the odds of getting to a place where you have made a reservation and them telling you they don't actually have a room for you? Far higher.

But it is absolutely true that this sort of travel requires a great deal of flexibility on your part. Maybe the buses will all be sold out, and you'll have to wait another day. But what if you really, really, want to get somewhere, and the buses are sold out? What would you ever do? Wouldn't that be a catastrophe?

Well, not really.

Ilhara Valley: Crisis at the Bus Station

When we got from Selime to the bus station, ready to head down to the coastal town of Patara, we found that the bus we wanted to take wasn't available. We weren't really on a schedule, but we were eager to see the sea, so that was pretty disappointing. For about a second.

You see, what happens next is the very best part of traveling, as far as I'm concerned. You don't give up. You pull out a map and figure out another way to do it. We wound up getting on another bus, taking quite the scenic route and going very much the long way around, but still getting to our final destination. (Actually, we somehow wound up getting there even earlier.)

You see, there's almost always another way. When you don't have a reservation, and something's booked up, it doesn't mean you're screwed. It just means you need to do some thinking.

Setting Yourself Up For Success

Now, I'd mentioned above that there were two times during our trip that we did book ahead. They're worth noting here.

The first was for our trip to the Galapagos Islands. We'd been toying with the idea of just flying out to them and trying to haggle our way onto a boat from the port there, but for a variety of reasons wound up booking a few weeks ahead of time with a marvelous travel agent in Quito. The other time we booked ahead was for our balloon ride in Cappadocia. Here, the reason was because we wanted to take that ride on a specific day, one with a special significance to us. (This would also be that one time we used a credit card I alluded to earlier.)

So, as with any other rule, follow your instincts. Just don't be ruled by your fear. (Heck, we have friends who did indeed just go out to the Galapagos and haggle their way onto a boat there, and a lot of people just show up in person to book their balloon ride, so we may have been fine even in those cases.)

There's one case where we "missed out" on something because we hadn't booked it ahead: the Inca Trail. They'd changed the rules the very year we were in Peru, limiting the number of people who could hike the trail. Suddenly there was a 6-month-plus wait, and we had no way of making it. For a few minutes, we were really depressed. Then we clicked over to figuring out what we could do instead, and decided to take the lovely train up to Machu Picchu. Frankly, I don't regret in the slightest missing out on the Inca Trail. We spent that money going to Yachana Lodge instead, which I wouldn't have missed for the world.

So, do your homework. Try and figure out what things you absolutely feel you cannot miss, and which of those are things that really really really need to be booked ahead.

And don't sweat any of the other stuff. You'll be fine. Really.

(Just remember, your mileage may vary.)

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April 29, 2009 at 2:12pm
Excellent advice! I hate booking ahead too, it's so restrictive. And I have never been unable to find lodging either, although sometimes it has been more difficult than others.

However, if I must arrive in the evening or late at night due to flight times, I will book one night somewhere that I've researched in advance. That way I have the security of knowing where I'm going when I arrive, and then the next day I'll either decide to stay or find somewhere else. If you're a female traveling alone, it is safer to do that rather than wander around in a strange city at night by yourself.

Tim the hedgehog
April 29, 2009 at 4:39pm

However, if I must arrive in the evening or late at night due to flight times, I will book one night somewhere that I've researched in advance. That way I have the security of knowing where I'm going when I arrive, and then the next day I'll either decide to stay or find somewhere else. If you're a female traveling alone, it is safer to do that rather than wander around in a strange city at night by yourself.

That's an excellent point, Deb. Thanks! :)

May 4, 2009 at 5:16pm
If you must arrive late at night… head for the dangerous part of town, rooms guaranteed :)
Jessica the hedgehog
May 5, 2009 at 1:31pm

If you must arrive late at night… head for the dangerous part of town, rooms guaranteed

LOL! :) Preferably, of course, with a large money belt on the outside of your clothes while wearing flashy jewelry. It's also important to stop with a confused look on your face while you study the Lonely Planet map on a dark street corner. ;)

Shall we practice this approach when we're all in Colombia this June? :)

May 11, 2009 at 5:05pm
LOL…Klaus cracks me up! Bogota was actually one of the places that I had to arrive at the airport late at night alone, so I took a taxi and stayed at this place: www.platypusbogota.com, which was a nice place and in a good location. They provide excellent instructions on traveling from the airport to downtown, so check out the "maps" section of their site (complete with photos).

Make sure you take the teleferico to the top of the mountain for wonderful views of the city and surrounding hills.

Bogota is a lovely city, the people are very friendly, the buses and tram (TransMilenio) are easy to negotiate; I'm sure you'll have a great time. Oh, go out salsa dancing too – Colombia is famous for it :)

I was only there for a day and a half before heading to Manizales, so unfortunately I can't be of much more help. If you have time, try to get out into the countryside, it is very lush and beautiful.

Have a wonderful journey! I'm looking forward to the stories :)

May 11, 2009 at 5:13pm
I just remembered about the time I arrived in Caracas, Venezuela in the late afternoon…the only place we could find a place to stay was in a slightly dangerous area of town, so Klaus is right! It was after dark by the time we got a room…luckily I wasn't alone that time…
Jessica the hedgehog
May 12, 2009 at 10:34am
Deb – You are awesome! Thanks so much for the tips. And you want to know something really odd? About 30 minutes before you left your comment, guess what hostel we happened to be checking out online? Obviously it was meant to be! We'll definitely head to Platypus first when we arrive.

We had totally missed the maps section on their website – thanks for pointing us to it! I love the details they include, it's really perfect. :)

We purchased our plane tickets last night (probably right around the same time you were commenting!), so we're all set now! :)

May 12, 2009 at 8:09pm
Happy to help! that is very odd…totally meant to be :)

That's great you got your tickets booked… buen viaje!

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