Why have I started booking hostels and hotels online in advance?
Because it’s easier. Way easier.
For a long time I was an itinerant dinosaur. I would come into new towns and cities, hop off the bus or train, and then scour the streets looking for a good, cheap place to crash. Sometimes these searches would take hours. Sometimes days. I would walk into hotel after hotel, hostel after hostel, talk to the staff, check out the rooms, barter on the price, and then see if I could get a better deal somewhere else. This is the best way to find excellent, dirt cheap places to stay, but it is not easy.
I have a precise criteria for selecting accommodation, and I always know that my perfect room is out there, I just need to find it. I usually do.
But in Damascus in 2009 I realized that my room finding strategy was showing some cracks: I had a hard time finding a room. All the other travelers had booked their places online in advance, and there simply wasn’t any more room for me. I had to get a higher-than-backpacker class room, and I paid more money simply because I refused to adapt. The same thing happened in Mexico City the following year.
I realized that things had changed, and that I wasn’t changing with them. For over a decade I did things one way, but then, all of a sudden, this way wasn’t working very well anymore. But pride kept me from adapting when I should have. I would scoff each time I would walk into a hostel, request a bed, just to have the receptionist contort their face into a sideways shape, glance through their reservation books, and tell me that they were full. This scenario was often made even worse when a group of amateur, just off the boat looking backpackers would stride in after me, say “We have a reservation,” with perky pride, and claim their rightful shelter; while I, professional traveler, would be cast out into the streets. It was clear that I needed another strategy.
I first began traveling in 1999. There wasn’t any Hostel Bookers or Hostel Worlds then. You would find hotels by showing up and walking in. In popular destinations there would be an almost endless trail of backpackers marching up and down the streets, inquiring at all the hotels, in search of one that wasn’t full. There was a comradery in the challenge, and people helped each other out. Now there’s no need to help anyone, as we can all easily find out which hostels are full and which have availabilities in a matter of moments just by looking at a website.
The old ways were pretty dumb.
Now it’s just too easy.
This is good. Ultimately. Walking through the streets like a backpacking zombie with all your gear on your back, unable to find a good room that you can afford, sweltering under some hot tropical sun, absolutely sucks. Who wants to waste time they could otherwise be enjoying a place looking for somewhere to crash? Everybody books online now because it is a better way of landing a room for your first night or two in a destination.
So rather than perpetually fighting against the current I’ve decided to float along with it. When I’m just arriving in a place or if I only intend to stay for a couple of days, I book a bed online. I usually go through Hostel Bookers.
The process is easy, fast, secure, and doesn’t cost any additional money.
You pay like 10% upfront online, which I think the booking site keeps, and then pay the rest in cash when you arrive. Your card number is not shared with the hotel, so there are no worries about them handling it properly or not.
Online customers pay the same amount of money as walk-ins; if not, they pay less. There has been times recently when I realized that the price I was paying was actually less just because I booked online through a big hostel reservation site. This makes sense, as the online sphere is now where the competition is. Walk-ins are no longer of much concern for many established hostels and hotels around the world. So if you don’t adapt and play along with this era of online booking, you may actually pay more money in the end.
Now I mentioned that I will often only book in advance for my first couple nights in a destination or if I am only making a quick stop somewhere. For one or two nights I can endure just about any place. If I don’t like a hotel or hostel, I will crash there for a night, store my gear in my room, and then spend some time leisurely strolling around town looking for a better place to stay. The same goes for if I want to be in a location for over a few days.
If I plan on being in a place for over a week or two, I will peruse the streets looking for an apartment or a nice, family run hotel that will give me a good deal on a long term stay. I use the hotels listed on booking sites as a doorway into a destination, as a temporary camp from which I can find more long term, cheaper, and better lodging.
Just about everybody is booking online now — domestic and foreign tourists alike. Travel has changed: cold call walk-ins are becoming a thing of the past. The world is changing and travel strategies must change with it.