Sometimes when traveling you stumble upon a hidden gem by accident – or by luck, depending on how you prefer to call it. When I am on a longer backpacking trip, I prefer not to book all my accommodation ahead but to arrange them on the go because it allows for more flexibility. On one such trip, traveling around Indonesia with my sister, we sat in a small boat that was stuffed with local people and their market wares: sacks full of fruit and vegetables and coconuts. We were on our way from Lombok to Gili Air, one of three small islands not far off Bali, where we were planning to relax for a bit after spending an intense couple of weeks exploring Java. An old man on the boat carefully looked us and our backpacks over. “Have you got a place to stay?” he inquired. “We don’t know yet, we’ll have to look around when we arrive on the island,” we replied. “You can come with me if you like. I just finished building a couple of bungalows. You can check them out and if you like them you can stay there.” We ended up having a few glorious days in a beautiful bungalow with wooden floor, a four poster bed and a secluded outdoor shower that completed the sense of tropical paradise. It was situated just a few steps from a quiet beach in a grassy garden surrounded by coconut trees. We were surprised that this heavenly place to stay was so dirt cheap and considered ourselves very lucky to have met the man on the boat by chance.
On that same trip, on a different night, we weren’t so lucky. We had arrived on the island of Lombok quite late after sunset, and the bus had dropped us on a remote and dark spot with no residential area in sight, let alone a decent place to stay. There were two shady dudes though, offering us a motorbike ride to a hotel that they knew of and that they would surely receive commission from if they’d deliver us there. We had little choice so we hopped on the back of their bikes to be dropped at a small scale hotel where the owner tried to rip us off by saying we had paid with a 10.000 rupiah bill instead of a 100.000, before showing us our room. Well, there wasn’t much to show, as there was a power blackout and this place had no generator to provide electricity to light up the room. We meekly accepted this as we were too worn out from our long trip to go back onto the streets to look for an alternative, and our plan was just to fall asleep here as soon as possible anyway. But that proved to be no easy feat, as the blackout also prevented the ventilators in the room from keeping us cool. As we lay sweating profusely on our thin mattresses, one of us (I won’t disclose who, to be fair to my sister :p) developed a severe case of traveller’s diarrhoea and went on the first of many nocturnal trips to the bathroom… only to find out that there was not only no light, but also no toilet paper, no running water, and one giant flying cockroach that was angrily bouncing around in the small bathroom. When we awoke the next morning after a very long, very hot and very cockroachy night, we could see with the aid of daylight that the room we had been sleeping in was really grubby and we were grateful that it had been that dark the night before.
These anecdotes go to show that traveling without making prior accommodation arrangements is a hit-and-miss adventure. There are situations when it is probably better to book your sleeping spot in advance, and I’ll share some tips with you on how to find that hidden gem instead of that grubby grotto.
I always try to book a room when I know I will be arriving late at night. Few things are more disheartening than wandering around a dark and deserted town looking for a room (or looking for any place where the lights are still on and not everybody is sound asleep). My rule of thumb is any arrival time after around 6 PM. This way, even when you face a delay, you can be sure to sleep in a bed that night rather than a park bench. I once arrived in Tokyo far past midnight due to a flight delay and was grateful to be able to make my way to my pre-booked hostel bed rather than having to add more trouble to the trip by having to search for an affordable place to sleep in the middle of the night in a huge and crazy city.
This leads me to my next piece of advice: when you will be staying in a city or area that is known to be pricey, it is also better to book ahead. Hence the other reason why I booked my bed in Tokyo in advance: I paid only € 13 per night (admittedly, for a bunk bed in a dorm room, but this is still a bargain for Tokyo). Cheaper places fill up quickly and if you are late or you don’t book in advance at all, you may be facing expensive four-star hotels as your only remaining option. Either that, or that park bench.
It is wise to check if the city you are visiting is not the scene of a festival or holiday on the particular days of your visit, or if there is not a huge conference taking place during your stay which can lead to all beds in mid-range and higher-end accommodations being fully booked. If it is: book in advance. Also check if room occupation in your destination is not affected by the local or international holiday season. My sister and I spent the better part of our morning after arriving in Sanur, Bali, looking for any place that still had a room available, rather than relaxing on the beach as we had envisioned, because all rooms were taken by holidaying Europeans.
Short trips or trips with a special purpose
When I go on a short city trip I tend to always book in advance. It is not worth spending your precious time looking for a decent place to stay if you have only got so little time to enjoy your destination at all. It also helps me ensure that the place I will be staying is actually nice. This is of pivotal importance when you are on a romantic city trip (bed bugs can really ruin your experience) or on a getaway with any other special purpose.
How to find a nice and reasonably priced place to sleep when booking in advance?
Of course your selection criteria when booking a bed depend on your priorities – be it price, location, style or type of accommodation. After 12 years of traveling independently and having slept in countless different places, from hostel dorm beds to 5-star hotels and from an airbed in a tent to charming B&Bs, I feel that I have become somewhat of an expert in securing lovely places to stay and have become known among my family and friends for being the expert in selecting the nicest places. Here are some of the methods I use to ensure that my accommodation will add value to my trip, rather than ruin it (in the worst case scenario).
- Read reviews. A hotel’s website can be deceiving: the place may look beautiful in the pictures but in reality the bathroom may be covered in mould, the bed could be infested with bed bugs and that lovely looking swimming pool could have been drained three years ago. Nowadays you can read extensively what other traveler’s have to say about the place you have in mind for your booking. On booking websites like booking.com and hostelworld.com, travelers have left short reviews of their accommodation and an indication about the place’s cleanliness and location. My favourite place for reading reviews is TripAdvisor, probably the largest review site where you can find reviews of almost any accommodation. When checking reviews, look at the review date (the more recent reviews, the better – sometimes the quality of a hotel can change completely after a change of management or a refurbishment for example, and this is not captured in older reviews) and read more than 10 reviews to get a decent idea of what people have to say. There will always be that one person who has to complain about everything and anything; in my experience, a ratio of 8 favorable reviews to 2 unfavorable reviews is a pretty good indication that the place is good. On TripAdvisor you can sort and filter the ranking of accommodation in any location: by looking at the top-10 accommodations in your destination you can get a good idea of which hotels or hostels people are raving about. Try not only sorting the hotels, but also take a look a the category called ‘specialty lodging’ and ‘B&Bs and inns’ as these often list the more charming, smaller-scale places as opposed to hotels.
- And this is immediately my next tip: for a more unique experience, try to book at a small scale accommodation like a bed and breakfast, a guest house or a small scale hostel. Large hotels are often comfortable and provide good service, but they can also be a little bit boring in the sense that most large hotels, and especially those of hotel chains, look alike and do not provide you with a unique local sense or experience. Many large and more expensive hotels also charge for services that are free in many guesthouses and hostels, like the use of wifi or breakfast (and home-cooked breakfast is almost always better than the typical hotel buffet fare, anyway!). Small scale accommodation allows you for a much better chance at getting in touch with the locals, especially if you book at a family-run place, and by staying there you support the local community rather than the CEO of a large business. Some of my most precious travel experiences originate from staying at small scale guesthouses that provide excellent, personalized service and where I have made friends for life with the amazing people who run these places. Like the time when I fell sick in Ho Chi Minh City while staying in a room that an elderly couple was renting out, and where the lady brought me a platter of fresh fruit and cooked me a special soup that quickly calmed down my stomach; or the many times when I was given a ride to the bus station by guest house owners; or the time when we were invited for a free breakfast by the owners of a guest house in Sarajevo, who wanted to celebrate their Eid-al-Adha holiday with us. Such memories and interpersonal connections are irreplaceable and you will be hard-pressed to find them when staying at a large scale hotel. If the thought of sleeping in a hostel scares you off: it is good to note that not all hostels are party-places with bunk beds in dorms. Many hostels offer private accommodations like ensuite double rooms, that are often just as nice (or nicer) as a hotel room but often a lot cheaper and with a much more personal touch. It is definitely worth to give this a try – on sites like hostelworld you can filter by room type to see which hostels offer such private accommodation. How to distinguish such charming places from the loud and bustling (and sometimes dirty) party hostels (because admittedly, these also exist)? Again, read the reviews!
- Price isn’t everything. Your experience will also largely depend on your accommodation’s location. Take into account for example the time and expenses it may take to get to the city center from a cheaper hotel compared to a slightly higher priced accommodation that may be situated more centrally. Also good to check is whether or not your accommodation of choice is close to public transport links, if it is in a safe neighbourhood where you’ll still feel comfortable to walk around at night, and if it is not situated close to a construction site that will wake you up at 6 AM.
- Write reviews, spread the word. I get the best tips from online reviews and from the recommendations of other travelers I meet when on the road. Do others a favour and report back: write positive reviews to support the local owners of small scale accommodations that have gone out of their way to make your stay a memorable one. And warn fellow travelers in case you happen to have stumbled upon a particularly dirty or unfriendly place. Let others benefit from your experience, and let the locals benefit from your positive reviews. A nice anecdote of how your review can change people’s lives: the elderly couple of the small guesthouse in Ho Chi Minh City that I mentioned earlier lived in a tiny house in the Pham Ngu Lao backpacking district. This area is a maze of small alleys and their humble home was hidden in a back street, with no signposting and no one without a purpose passing by. They rented out two rooms, one of which I stayed in for some weeks while conducting my Master research in Vietnam. They made me feel so much at home, it was almost as if I was staying with my granny and grandpa. Their warm smiles and hospitality stole my heart and after my stay I wanted to contribute to their business by writing a positive review on TripAdvisor. To my surprise, I found that their property was not listed on the site at all, making it impossible for anyone to write them a review. I contacted TripAdvisor with the request to list their business, which they did after some time and I was able to leave my raving review. My review helped other travelers find the small place and within no time, it became one of the highest listed accommodations on the site’s ‘specialty lodging’ section and before long they were awarded with a Certificate of Excellence by the TripAdvisor website, and fully booked on most days of the year. Reviews really do go a long way.
Hopefully these tips and tricks help you to select lodging that will add that little extra to your trip. Do you have tips of your own? Leave them in the comment section below!