Years ago when I traveled, one of the first things I did was book my hotels. It just seemed natural; without a reservation, after all, where would I stay? I think a lot of of people, maybe most people, travel this way.
But then in my case I went to Europe for a few months and, because the trip was so long and I wanted to be flexible, I set out with almost no reservations.
That was a paradigm changing trip, and ever since I’ve usually traveled sans reservations. That means I typically show up in a town, find a cluster of good, independently owned hotels, and pop into a few to ask about rates. I love this method, and if you’ve never given it a shot, I highly recommend trying. Here’s why:
1. It gives you more flexibility.
The most obvious reason you don’t want reservations is because traveling without them makes trips spontaneous. When Laura and I drove through Michigan last fall, we never really decided where we were going until we got there. Finally, we ended up in Mackinaw, thought it seemed cool (and beautiful), and booked a room at a charming mom and pop hotel.
I’ve had similar experiences in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia: I decide last minute where to go, then pick out a place that seems charming and fun.
2. You end up making more personal connections.
When you don’t have a reservation, you’re forced to talk to more people as you look around for lodging — often with rewarding results.
We arrived in Selçuk earlier this year without a reservation and followed DIY signs in the street to find lodging. Ultimately we settled on Homeros Pension because of the extremely warm welcome we received from the proprietor that involved warming up at the wood-burning stove, chatting about the town, and being offered tea.
Had we booked in advance, we A) might have missed out on that experience entirely, and B) would have had little reason to strike up a conservation to gauge our interest in the guesthouse.
Similarly, in Germany last fall, we arrived in Oberammergau without a reservation and popped into a few hotels to inquire about rates. Ultimately, we based our choice on the fact that we had a humorous conversation with a guesthouse owner about driving on the autobahn.
3. You get better deals.
When you show up last minute to a hotel or guesthouse, you have the upper hand; if there are rooms left, they’re going to really want to sell them and so you can score great deals.
Showing up last minute also means you have access to a multitude of hotels that don’t show up on Expedia or Hotwire or whatever.
I can’t even count the number of times I’ve checked these travel websites, found a bunch of boring chains at not-so-great prices, then showed up without a reservation and found better, cheaper places to stay.
4. You usually don’t end up in a place that isn’t great.
Deciding where you’re going to stay after arriving in a town means you can base your decision on how long it takes to get around, how friendly the neighborhood feels, and how cool the hotel itself is.
For example, the first time I went to Paris, I booked a six night stay in advance. But when I arrived, what had seemed like a good location turned out to be relatively boring and a very long metro ride from any sites.
The second time I went to Paris, however, I showed up without a reservation and walked to a neighborhood a friend had recommended. I popped into a few hotels until I found one I liked, and ended up with a fantastic stay.
The point is that you never really know what a place is going to be like until you arrive, so waiting until the last minute to make a decision means you’re acting with all the available information. If you book a hotel in advance, you’re kind of flying blind.
— Jim Dalrymple II