My family is vacationing on the coast of Mexico this fall. I am absolutely positive that we will have a nice room with a view, in a hotel that we love.
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Where are we staying? I don't know yet. I am sure we'll get a great hotel room, though — and at a good price — because we will arrive with no reservations. We'll decide where to unpack when we get there.
To readers accustomed to planning out their vacations like a hectic work schedule, this concept probably seems downright bizarre. To any veteran traveler used to seeing a room before saying yes, however, this strategy is as natural as picking a restaurant after arrival. Why commit yourself before you know what you are getting?
The digital lodging divide
If you were born in the last 30 years, it's probably hard for you to imagine traveling without the Internet to guide you. But in many ways Internet communication is still an unreliable novelty outside the most developed countries, especially at hotels that are not geared to tourists with loads of money.
You can't just boot up your laptop and see all the hotels in a foreign destination, anyway. To have an online presence, a hotel must meet at least three basic criteria. 1) The hotel must have reliable Internet access and a reliable electricity supply. 2) At least one staff member must be able to speak, read and write English effectively. 3) A staff member must be available to spend hours every day going back and forth with travelers who ask lots of questions and yet may never book a room.
In many hotels I've seen firsthand, not even one of these assumptions is correct. Sure, most hotels in Europe can handle Internet reservations, but much of the developing world is still waiting for the phone guy to show up. There are cost considerations, too. If a hotel room at the "Coconut Hideaway" is only $30 a night (not an uncommon price in many locations), it would take a lot of extra business to justify the effort and expense of accepting online reservations.
Consequently, what you see on the typical hotel booking site is only a fraction of what's available in any location outside the United States. In fact, most lodging options are the familiar international chain-hotel brands; there are very few family-owned inns, independent boutique hotels or small, local chains online unless they have an international partner. So if you are trying to set up your whole trip from the comfort of your computer chair, you're at a big disadvantage.
The advantages of just showing up
You have a wider range of choices when you choose your hotel in person, but that's just the start. Unless it's high season where you're going or there's some kind of local festival going on, you can be choosy about your accommodations. Are you offered a nice room that looks out on a parking lot? Ask for a better view. Has the same carpet been on the floor since before the fall of the Berlin Wall? Feel free to move on. Would you like a suite for the price of a standard room? Just say so. Amazing things can happen when a hotel is half-full and a potential customer walks through the door.
On location, your own two eyes will find true reality. Yes, Internet technology now allows you to plot locations on a virtual map; you can even use Google Earth to see where a resort sits in relation to the sea. But you won't see the new condo construction going on next door or the vagrants hanging out on the street corner, whistling at every passer-by. If you haven't already given your credit card number to secure a reservation, you can move on to a better spot.
Consider also the very real possibility that flight delays will mess up your carefully made plans. No reservations, no worries: There's nothing to cancel and no deposits to lose. And how about the ability to remain spontaneous? Some towns turn out to be less than they are cracked up to be, while a nearby town might turn out to be paradise. If you don't have any commitments in place, you are free to alter your plans.
Finding lodging on location
Finding a hotel in a strange land is not as difficult as you might think. Guidebooks are the most obvious source of information. Travel with your favorite, leaf through others when you get the chance, or check out several guidebooks from your local library before departure to get a broader view. A lot more thought and research goes into a guidebook than into almost any Web site out there.
Through guidebooks and supplementary Web research, you can usually narrow down your choices to a few possibilities or at least figure out the area in which you want to look. In many locations, hotels with similar rates tend to cluster together, so you can check out the contenders fairly easily. Once on location, the best advice will come from people you meet. Ask other travelers where they stayed and how they liked the accommodations. Ask locals where they put up their friends and relatives. These recommendations often lead to the best values anywhere.
Upon arrival in your destination, get yourself to your first-choice hotel and ask to see a room. If you don't like the place, fan out from there. Walk or keep the taxi meter running until you're happy. With this strategy, you can end up with a price you like in a place you love.
Life is full of disappointments. No sense reserving one in advance.