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Reservations About Reservations

Advanced Travel Lodging Planning is Not Always a Good Idea

As you read this, thousands of people are in transit with no idea where they are going to spend the night. They’re not broke and living on the streets, however. They are travelers. They will figure out where they’re going to stay when they get to where they’re going and will be better off than if they had arrived clutching reservations.

Since the dawn of the Internet the way we book travel has gone through a radical change. We consumers have become far more empowered and are able to weigh decisions based on a wide variety of information, not just on what a travel agent tells us. Despite all this power, booking on the Web still means being pushed toward the highest-priced options and missing out on the smaller, lesser-known gems.

Try a little experiment on your computer when you get some time. Pull up Expedia, Travelocity, or Orbitz and try to find info on little family-owned inns, places with fewer than 30 rooms. Then pull up a hostel reservation site and see if you can find all of the cheapo places listed in your guidebook. Chances are, you won’t come close to succeeding. Few budget hotels have the resources to be visible internationally. So if you are trying to set up your whole trip from the comfort of your computer chair, without cracking a book or asking other travelers, you’re in trouble. You’re going to have to invest a lot of time and do a lot of digging to avoid paying a lot more than necessary.

The Digital Lodging Divide

In short, when you book budget hotels or hostels online you will often pay more and get twice as much frustration for your effort. If you were born in the last 30 years, it’s probably hard for you to imagine life without the Internet, but in many ways this technological wonder is still a novelty outside the most developed countries, especially at hotels not geared to tourists with lots of money.

Booking hotels online requires these assumptions. 1) The hotel has reliable Internet access and a reliable electricity supply. 2) A staff member not only has the ability to speak English but knows English well enough to read it and write it effectively. 3) A staff member has the time to spend hours a day going back and forth with travelers who may or may not show up weeks or months later.

In many cases not even one of these assumptions is correct. In European hostels, yes, but in much of the developing world they’re still waiting for the phone guy to show up. The most popular places don’t need to take reservations anyway, so they don’t. Many of the other small guesthouses or cheap hotels don’t have the time, expertise, or staff to become tech-savvy. If a hotel is $100 a day, it makes sense to get into cyberspace. If a guesthouse room is $10 a night, however, it would take a lot of extra business to justify the expense and effort of accepting online reservations.

When you move up the scale to the mid-range level, you can book online more easily. That still doesn’t mean you should though. If your schedule is tight, if it’s high season, if you’re arriving late, or if you want to have one less thing to worry about when your plane touches down, book ahead. Otherwise, you’re probably better off finding a place to stay on the fly. You’re far more likely to end up in a place you love instead of one you’ll tolerate.

Finding Lodging on Location

When going for more than a quick vacation, three sources are more dependable than the Web: a good guidebook, the advice of other travelers, and what you see with your own two eyes.

On location, you will find reality. Upon arrival you may find that intimate little hotel that looked so lovely online is actually in an unsafe neighborhood with prostitutes working the corner. The hostel with the great reputation may have changed hands a while back and has taken a visible dive in quality. Perhaps the one and only good option you saw online has been bettered by a brand new place a block away. Or the tout who snagged you at the bus station and showed you pictures of sparkling clean rooms actually turned you on to a fantastic bargain.

So, when feasible, save the decision on where to stay until you arrive somewhere. Get yourself to your first choice and then fan out from there if it doesn’t work out. That way you can always see a room before deciding whether to take it and you never have to cancel a reservation. If plans change, there’s never a worry.

In a lot of international cities, there’s a defined budget travel zone for most of the cheap options. Going from one cheap hotel to the other can sometimes entail only a few steps down the street. This area will also have the backpacker eateries, moneychangers, travel agents that specialize in rock-bottom airfares, and shops selling used books. In cases like this, it doesn’t make much sense to venture too far away because it can be hard to get your errands taken care of quickly. Just show up, take a look around, and pick the place you like best for the price. If there is sufficient competition a budget hotel’s price will mainly be determined by market forces, including long-term popularity.

In other spots, you may need to walk for a while—another reason to travel with a backpack—or you may need to keep the meter running with a taxi. Some taxi drivers are simply touts trying to steer you to a place where they will get a commission. In other cases they may turn out to be a great expert on the area. After a while your instincts will tell you which is which.

A Hotel Game Plan in Advance

This doesn’t mean lodging choices are all based on a whim and a prayer, however. Guidebooks are the most obvious source for finding small hotels, guesthouses, and hostels—or at least the area of town with the most options. Travel with your favorite, leaf through others when you get the chance, or check several out from your local library before departure to get a broader view. A lot more thought and research goes into a guidebook than almost any website with lodging information.

Locally run websites at your destination are a great source as well. Andean Travel Web (AndeanTravelweb.com) is a great resource for Peru and Bolivia, for example. YucatanToday.com covers the bases well for the area around Mérida, Mexico. TravelFish.org is a great resource for three countries in Southeast Asia. The key is that these are primarily information services rather than booking services, so they are liable to give a more balanced view of the lodging options.

TripAdvisor.com is a great source of customer reviews for larger hotels. VirtualTourist.com has reviews on many smaller hotels, hostels, and guesthouses. IgoUgo.com falls somewhere in the middle. As several recent news articles have noted, however, you sometimes get what you pay for with sites that rely on user-generated content: it’s easy for people to game the system to make hotels sound better than they really are. Be wary of reviews that are overly gushing or inexplicably negative.

One of the most reliable ways to find wonderful hotels for where you are going is to just ask. People who have already been to a place will have some knowledge. People who live there will usually know even more. When you arrive in a new place for the first time, you probably feel clueless. You don’t know your way around, you don’t have a feel for prices, and you’re not sure how much to tip or bargain. After a week, you’ve got it all down. An amazing thing happens when you start asking other travelers questions, however. You can cut that week down to a couple of days. People who have been there done that are usually glad to share what they know. You don’t have to be constantly starting from scratch. Some of the most endearing little guesthouses you will probably stay in won’t be found in any guidebook. They will be a recommendation from a newfound friend.

Yes, you can duplicate some of this advice in a virtual way by frequenting online message boards run by Lonely Planet, BootsnAll , and others. And if you do want to book all of your hotel rooms in advance or get a sense of the best area of town to stay, this is time well spent. But advice gets dated, some posters have an agenda behind their opinions, and hotels change owners or management. If you get advice while on the move, close to the source, it’s always going to be fresher and the options will be greater.

TIM LEFFEL, is the author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations. He is also editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, featuring narratives from some of the best wandering authors on the planet.

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