Ask Kate: Should I Book My Accommodation Ahead of Time?

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Is it necessary to book your accommodation in advance? If so, how far in advance? The latest Ask Kate question delves into the pros and cons of showing up to book.

Hey Kate!

Let’s say you book a plane and go with it, you just pretty much research the area best as possible for places to stay and transit?

I know sometimes you just have to wing it but do you have somewhat of a plan as well because what happens if you wait til the last minute to find a place and it’s all booked up?

There’s a lot of romance in rocking up to a hostel with a backpack on, checking out the atmosphere and then giving a nod to the owner before plunking down your passport and enough cash for a few nights’ stay.

I used to do that myself, mostly on my first long-term trip to Asia. In Chiang Mai and Vang Vieng and Saigon, I’d just check out a guesthouse, check out the bathroom, test the hardness of the bed, try out the wifi, and agree to stay there or move on to another property. I felt so free.

For the most part, it would work just fine, but sometimes it went horribly. When I arrived in Bali in 2011, I had nothing booked because I couldn’t find anything cheap enough for my $12 a night budget. It was awful — it was late at night, I was hitching a ride on the back of an ojek (motorbike) with my giant backpack, it was pouring, and although my guidebook suggested there was a lot of action on Poppies Gang, there were ZERO guesthouses there and everything else was shuttered for the night.

I ended up going from door to door in Kuta until I found an expensive but disgusting room and moved out first thing in the morning, heading to a still-pricey but Lonely Planet-recommended guesthouse instead.

Today? I always book ahead. I book ahead for two reasons: because there is so much information online today that it’s easy to book almost any kind of property, and because today I have a much lower tolerance for dragging my luggage from guesthouse to guesthouse.

How and When to Book Accommodation

If I’m on a shorter trip where I know where I’ll be on each day, I usually book out a few weeks in advance. If I’m on a longer trip where my timeline is ambiguous, I book out a few days in advance. Sometimes I’ll book just a few hours before I show up.

I start by researching the destination and choosing the neighborhood where I want to be based. Next, I take a look at my preferred site (Agoda for Asia, HotelsCombined for other hotels, HostelWorld for hostels, or Airbnb for rentals), I narrow down properties to within my budget and sort them by rating, then take a look at a few reviews of the higher-rated places before booking one.

Generally speaking, if there are lots of ratings and it averages out to be one of the highest rated guesthouses, you’ve got a good deal.

Take today: I’m currently on Sri Lanka’s south coast as I’m writing this (and it is FABULOUS here!), and I just booked a few rooms in Unawatuna for me and my friends for tomorrow night.

If you’re booking for a festival or very popular time to visit — think New Orleans during Mardi Gras or the Caribbean over Christmas — book as early as humanly possible. The best accommodation will book up fast and you receive no benefits for waiting.

If you’re booking in the high season for a destination, like Koh Phi Phi in January or Paris in July, and accommodation is a priority for you, book it early. If accommodation is less of a priority, you could gamble and wait until sooner, but you might end up with a sub-par place.

If it’s in the off-season, you should have no trouble waiting until the last minute, but there’s no problem in booking early.

If you’re booking on Airbnb, couchsurfing, or an otherwise individually owned rental, give yourself at least a few days in advance. Accommodation like this is managed by individuals and they often need a few days to coordinate schedules and put things together.

Do you book accommodation ahead of time? What do you recommend for travelers?

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31 thoughts on “Ask Kate: Should I Book My Accommodation Ahead of Time?”

  1. I’m more proactive about booking ahead these days, but if I’m traveling in low season then I’ll just have the name of the place I want to go in mind and rock up. High season or holidays are the times I always have something set up in advance of my arrival, or if I’m showing up someplace new on a weekend!

  2. We were just in Chiang Mai last week and witnessed about a half a dozen dejected-looking backpack-bedazzled travelers bouncing from hostel to guest house to hotel seeking a place to stay for the night. It seemed like no fun at all.

    Another person we met here in Luang Prabang was on her third guest house in as many nights. I don’t know about you, but I don’t travel to spend all my time looking for a place to sleep. I’d rather spend my time at the destination seeing cool things. Especially when it’s so easy to book a room during some down time with my laptop at a cafe with a coffee or smoothie.

    The other point worth mentioning is that good mid-range places tend to book up in advance. If you just want a bed in a dorm anywhere within 20 KM of the city you can probably always find a last minute bunk. But if you want a cheap, clean, private room at a great hotel in a great location, those don’t tend to wait around for last-minute travelers. We know most everywhere we stay is booked full for the nights we stay and all those rooms are booked ahead of time.

  3. We lean towards having something lined up when we roll into new places, or at least have some earmarked after researching them online. On longer trips we tend to be more relaxed, while on shorter ones we nearly have everything planned out in advance.

    We found that a requirement to get our China visas two years ago was that the Chinese government needed us to have all of our accommodation booked when we applied. That was probably the farthest in advance that we had to book accommodation!

  4. I also always book ahead. Normally, by the time I get off a plane, bus, or train, I’m just ready to get to my place, drop my backpack, and get cleaned up. Trying to figure out where to go is just not something I’m up for. I’m still able to get good deals, and lately have been loving Airbnb. I tend to book a few days in advance when on the road long term, and much longer in advance when just travelling for a shorter length of time. I meet so many travellers that have that carefree figure-it-out-when-I-get-there attitude, it’s nice to feel a bit more validated in my preparedness by reading this 🙂

  5. I agree that if I’m traveling somewhere for a long period of time, I’ll be more flexible and leave booking accommodations until the last minute. If I’m on a short trip, I will definitely book fairly far in advance. It’s been a while since I’ve left booking accommodations until the last minute, mostly because I also cannot be bothered dragging my bag around and searching for a place- especially after a long flight or train ride.

  6. Booking in advance definitely takes the edge off of the stress of travelling from place-to-place, but it’s good to remember that many times you can land a pretty sweet deal on accommodation by just heading to a hostel, hotel or guesthouse directly and negotiating the price down. The later at night it is, the better! It’s also beneficial to learn how to deal with the uncertainty and negotiations, so you’ll be more mentally prepared when you travel to places with very few online options (like parts of Central Asia and western China).

    The only thing we absolutely book in advanced is Airbnb!

  7. I’m going to southeast asia in february for 2 months and I haven’t booked anything past my first 2 night in Hanoi, I’m planning on just winging it and since it’s not quite the high season I hope it turns out fine!

    21 year old budget backpacker currently an expat in New Zealand

  8. We always book ahead, though usually not very far ahead. Eg on our RTW trip, we would book the day of, the night before or maybe a couple of nights before.

    Obviously if you’re doing couchsurfing or similar you need to nail it down weeks in advance usually.

    I can only think of one time we didn’t book ahead – in Hue, Vietnam – and wound up going with some guys who approached us at the train station. Actually worked out really well – a sweet room for $US12.

  9. I went to London early this year for an event and I was so glad I booked early, as the same rooms went up in prices the more popular the event became. I plan now to always book ahead whenever I travel

  10. If you have credit card points to spend, you may have to book ahead, depending on whether your destination has good Internet or not. Cross-checking credit-card-point hotels with TripAdvisor works OK.

    We’ve booked most of our accommodation ahead of time in Asia. Only once did we wish we had waited and that is when we arrived in Koh Samui this week. We wish we waited to see just how much construction our hotel was going to have.

    You could always just book a night or two or three online, check out the surroundings, and make a move from there. Personally, I find it assuring to know where I’m sleeping once I’m off the plane, train or bus.

  11. We always book ahead – like you said, walking around from guesthouse to guesthouse with you luggage is no fun, and what’s the point when all the information is now to be found on your fingertips?

    Once we know our dates for a particular destination, we start looking at accommodation in the hope that we’ll get a flash sale deal on Agoda. I really think there’s no reason to wing it anymore, unless you’re really not that bothered about the type of room that you end up in as long as it’s cheap…

  12. Great advice! I try to book ahead for a couple of nights at least, and then switch to word of mouth recommendations. Though of course in many some places it’s still totally impossible to book ahead. During four months in Central Asia I only managed to find hostels online in Uzbekistan and Bishkek, everywhere else I just had to show up and wander through town until a local pointed me in the direction of a home stay.

  13. I book well ahead especially if I’m in Europe. I’ve even been known to book a year ahead mainly ‘cos I like and have to travel during peak seasons such as the Easter and summer holidays.

    I like being able to choose small lovely boutique places or private room hostels, and in order to do that, I book early. This is how I managed to book a private room across the Dome in Florence for €13.00 a person in August and an 1800 and something, 4 star hotel on the main riverside in Pisa, for an ensuite family room for €52.00 per room! In August! In Italy!

    I do sometimes forget the fact that I booked a €10 flight months ago, so watch for that LOL!

  14. I’m with you – nowadays, I always book my accommodation ahead of time, because I have no tolerance for dragging my backpack or suitcase around while trying to find a place to stay.

  15. Great advice here Kate. I am a big fan of not booking in advance, but sometimes it’s better to plan ahead.
    On my last trip, I actually pre-booked a good few places, like in China and India, as I was travelling with the boy, who was less into rocking up with nowhere to stay! It’s pretty handy when you can search for somewhere to stay on your phone!

  16. My trips always start off booked, researched and very organised… Give it a few weeks and I’m turning up on the door of hostels, begging for a bed!

    I think as long as you’re flexible, you should be able to work out any issues. I’ve been unable to get a bed before… So I rented a car instead! There’s always another option 🙂

    I like booking as I go… Plans can change so easily, so I usually book accommodation in the place before the next one I leave for.

    p.s. love your blog, so honest!

  17. I find it helpful to check not only the booking sites like Agoda and, but also the hotel/guesthouse/hostel website as well. Sometimes prices are cheaper when you book directly and sometimes they’re cheaper when using a booking site. If only the booking site is available, I’ll usually reserve for 2-3 nights then check the rates when i get there. If I like the place and it’s cheaper to extend paying on-site, I do that. But I always have something booked ahead of time! It stresses me out to arrive somewhere homeless.

  18. This is awesome. I do sometimes like booking early but going last minute is always fun too. Sometimes you don’t have a choice as well, if your couch surfing host bails last minute, or hotels overbooked.

  19. I always book accommodation for the first day I arrive in the country, busy periods (like public holidays) and if I’m arriving in the night time when backpacking. When I’m back home, I’ll usually book in advance too for weekend trips away but otherwise, I prefer to sort out accommodation when I get there, especially when I’m backpacking.

  20. Just started to read your blog, would love to do what you are doing. Anyway back to the subject, I always book accommodation ahead when travelling in countries like India, but when visiting family in Oz I usually book there for trips around the country. Like everyone else if using Airbnb book ahead.
    I try not to use the OTA if booking with small accommodation providers as they charge them such high percentages 15-20%, better in their pockets than the likes of LateRooms, Expedia, Trivago etc.
    I know because I use these OTA for my Guest House.

  21. I rarely book ahead as a rule (I have been in South America for five months), but I’ve been stung a few times recently, e.g. I’ve gone to hostels that are out of town (and therefore required a taxi) and been told they are fully booked. Of course there is no other hostel nearby so I have to get a taxi back into town to look for one, losing me money! I am now in Chile and getting ready to go down to Patagonia in December and you’d better believe I’ll be booking everything in advance!!

  22. I usually book way to late which inevitably leads to very stressful travel. But I must say it’s fun and exciting going somewhere without having anything sorted before arrival.

  23. It depends on the situation. Like you, I didn’t book ahead during my trip in SE Asia but that seemed to be a norm there. Now I just ask other travelers and bloggers for their advice about a certain destination. If they say I’m fine winging it, I don’t book. If they have an awesome recommendation I book to make sure I can stay there.

  24. I agree, booking ahead = essential. While sitting on a computer booking a hostel while amazing things are happening in the world outside you can be tedious, it is much better than getting to a city, finding out it’s a public holiday and staying in the dingiest turd-hole you’ve ever seen. For me, it’s not a big deal how far in advance you book, just as long as you’ve booked before you get there.

  25. I’ve always booked in advance. It cuts down the stress and hassle a lot! I do want to try to wing it next time I travel though. It feels very spontaneous and adventurous.

  26. I actually have had great luck booking on a whim/at the last minute. You just have to be a bit strategic about when to do it. For instance, I don’t wait to find something after my arrival if I know I will be getting there later at night (unless it’s someplace where it’s super easy–like Bangkok, Thailand). If I have the day to find something, I fly by the seat of my pants. Any hiccups along the way are all a part of the adventure anyway! 🙂

  27. I know this is a really old thread but I just found it and it’s great!
    Do you think that Italy is an exception in late May? I am wondering if budget Air Bob’s and hostels book up weeks ok n advance.
    Thank you!!!

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