A while back I wrote a column called "Reservations about Making Reservations," suggesting that sometimes you can get a better hotel room at a better price by not trying to work out everything in advance. From some of the reader reactions to that column, you would think I had suggested running through the streets naked. Apparently, the idea of being footloose abroad puts some travelers in panic mode.
In fairness, I probably should have stressed more forcefully that this is not a regular habit of mine. When it's high season, when there's a festival going on, or when I'm traveling in the U.S. by plane, I book online in advance. There are times when it makes sense to book ahead and times when it doesn't.
I recently tried the no-reservations approach on a family trip to Mexico. I'd thought about it carefully. It was low season on the Pacific coast and most of the high-rise hotels on Acapulco Bay would have only a few lights on at night. I knew that there and in Zihuatanejo, down the coast, we would have plenty of choices in our price range. My wife and I were both very busy with work before vacation and didn't relish the thought of spending hours researching options before we left. So we did a quick Internet search before leaving, packed a good guidebook, and set out with a sense of adventure. You can see pictures from the hotels where we stayed here: No reservations in Mexico.
Playing a hotel glut
If you know how to play the laws of hotel supply and demand, you can make out well by biding your time. In October, Acapulco is hurting for tourists, but when I checked a variety of hotel Web sites two weeks before our trip, the lowest price for a beachfront hotel rated three stars or higher was $119. Hoping for a lower rate, I decided to find a hotel when I got there.
I was in town on a writing assignment a few days before my wife and daughter arrived, so I had time to figure out where we wanted to stay in Acapulco before we left for Zihuatanejo the next day. The place that had looked the best on the Internet was now in the midst of a renovation project; there was construction under way both at the hotel and in the formerly empty lot next door. So the night before my family arrived, I took a room for three at the Crowne Plaza Acapulco. Cost: $79, plus tax. The room was on the 27th floor, and it had an amazing view of Acapulco Bay. With a great pool complex and a beachfront location near lots of kid-friendly restaurants, it was just what we needed.
Side-by-side options in Zihuatanejo
We caught a first-class bus to Zihuatanejo the next morning with no idea where we would spend the night. We took a taxi to our first choice, based on our guidebook's recommendation, but found it had been sold out for months due to a big family gathering that was ending that day. No problem, as there were a dozen other options within 200 yards. We ended up right next door for one night, at Hotel Palacios. Our $81 room (including tax) had a huge private terrace with a panoramic view of the sea; the hotel had a swimming pool, as well as easy access both to the beach and to a beachfront restaurant.
The next day we moved over to a now-vacant room at Brisas del Mar, our first choice, where our walk-in rate of $102 (plus tax) got us upgraded to a "junior suite." This suite included a huge tiled whirlpool tub on the large deck, which also featured two cushioned lounge chairs, a hammock, and two other chairs with a table. Had we booked online based on the Web photos, we would have gone for the more expensive "family suite," but after looking at the layouts in person we found that the family suite had more room inside at the expense of a smaller terrace outside. That's another reason not to book ahead: You learn a lot from a firsthand inspection, and some Internet offerings are downright misleading.
The hotel was a great value. It had incredible views, a friendly bilingual staff, a nice beach restaurant, free use of boogie boards, and a pool with a slide that my daughter absolutely loved. We could walk into town from there along the beach whenever we wanted. It was a perfect place for our family.
In the end, I probably spent 20 minutes total sorting out our three hotels. By my calculations, we saved enough money to pay for a week of breakfasts — or 40 Mexican beers — and ended up with great rooms each time. No reservations worked out swimmingly on this particular trip.
Tim Leffel is author of the books and “He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine .