One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from travelers about to embark on their first trip abroad is how much planning they should be looking to do before they leave. Deciding not to make any plans whatsoever and turning up in an unfamiliar city without even your accommodation booked can be a daunting prospect, and yet, it's one I recommend every new traveller try at least once.
There are pros and cons to not booking all of your accommodation in advance, which I'll run through in the article below, but suffice to say, I recommend trying both ways and seeing which works best for you.
If You're a First-Time Traveler, Book in Advance to Start
If this is going to be your first travel experience, I recommend booking your first week's worth of accommodation in advance and little else. Even if you're an experienced traveler, you probably know it's wise to do so to give you peace of mind while you fit back into your travel shoes.
For those of you who are new to travel, here's why I recommend this: on the first day of your trip, you'll be arriving in a foreign place with an unfamiliar language, feeling disoriented and tired. It's often overwhelming. You might also be suffering from jet lag. You could be dealing with culture shock. You'll have a thousand emotions surging through your veins as you attempt to get yourself acquainted with this new country.
At this point, the last thing you'll want to do is drag yourself from hostel to hostel in search of the perfect place to rest your backpack.
Instead, take a look at Hostelbookers and Hostelworld several weeks before your departure date, and read the reviews to gauge whether that hostel will be suitable for you. I always book the hostel that has the highest average rating (as long as it isn’t over-the-top expensive or a loud party hostel), as long as it has Wi-Fi.
Yes, I'm one of those travelers.
Pre-travel nerves are real and having one less thing to worry about is important in the run-up to your departure. You won't have to worry about what to do when you land, you'll be guaranteed a nice stay in a decent hostel, and you'll have one less decision to worry about making.
Why Only One Week?
If booking in advance can save you a lot of stress and anxiety, why not do it for your entire trip?
Because the longer you travel, the more you'll resent having fixed plans. What if you get sick, but only have two allocated days in the place you're visiting and have to leave without seeing any of it? What if you make friends with a group of travellers and want to change your plans to travel with them instead? What if you arrive in a new city, discover you don't like it, but have a full week booked there? It's because of these problems that I recommend going with the flow once you've got the hang of travel.
But let's go into even more depth on the advantages and disadvantages of booking your hostel in advance.
The Advantages of Booking Your Hostel in Advance
The most obvious advantage is gaining peace of mind. With all of your hostels booked in advance, there’s no need for you to worry about accommodation for the rest of your trip.
You'll have one less logistical factor to take into account while you travel. You'll know exactly where you'll be and when you're be there.
Additionally, if you book far enough in advance, you’ll be able to book the highest-rated hostels in town. Popular hostels are often booked out quickly, so if you're always waiting until the last moment to research your accommodation, you'll likely miss out on the best options. The last thing you want is to end up in a terrible hostel because of poor planning. On top of that, it can be incredibly frustrating to pay a taxi to take you to a hostel you want to stay at, only to find that it's booked and you need to scramble to find somewhere else for tonight.
The Disadvantages of Booking Your Hostel in Advance
By booking your hostel in advance, you’ll lose the freedom that makes the travel experience so rewarding.
With your entire trip now planned out, you’ll have very little opportunity to change your mind and do something completely different. When you’re on the road, plans always change — and you’ll really want to be able to take advantage of this.
You might think that it would be cheaper to book hostels in advance, but I’ve actually found the opposite to be true. I’ve often turned up at a hostel and if they’ve had availability I’ve been able to bargain with the owners to give me a lower price than is advertised online. On top of that, you’ll definitely be able to negotiate a cheaper price if you’re planning on staying a week or longer. Additionally, you can circle a block and ask at five or six different hostels to see what's the best rate they can offer you before you commit.
Finally, not every single hostel in the world is listed online or in your Lonely Planet guidebook. There are some fantastic hostels that don’t list themselves online, but are cheaper, quieter and much more enjoyable than the alternatives. I’ve stayed in some wonderful places I wouldn’t have discovered if I’d only been choosing places I could book in advance. Not only that, but getting to head to a hostel and ask to check it out before committing means that you can get a real idea of what a place is like rather than only having the online reviews to go by.
Not booking in advance teaches you not to sweat the small stuff. You'll learn that everything always works out in the end, and that you can rely on the kindness of strangers if you're ever in trouble. With everything booked solid, there's less opportunity for serendipity; if you're free to stay wherever you wish, you could take advantage of a kind stranger's offer to stay with them.
Other Factors to Consider
Before you decide to go ahead and leave some of your bookings up to chance, there are a couple of other factors to take into consideration. Namely, the time of year and the destination. Fancy staying in London in the middle of summer? Good luck finding a reasonably priced hostel without booking in advance!
Western Europe, the U.S. and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are all at their busiest and most expensive at the height of summer. While you'll be able to turn up in any of these places and find a hostel that still has availability, chances are it won’t be a particularly great one and you’ll be paying a lot for it. Even worse: the only option could be a hotel that's five times the price of a hostel.
In cheaper places around the world — Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, East Asia, North Africa, Central America, I don't recommend booking accommodation in advance, no matter what time of the year it is. These places are all used to having backpackers traveling through and have hundreds of accommodation options in even the smallest of towns. I’ve travelled through all of these places in high season, not booked hostels in advance, and have never once struggled to find a cheap, decent place. In fact, I often find ourselves struggling to narrow down where to stay!