Should You Book A Hostel Online, Or Just Show Up?
Ten years ago, the usual way to find accommodation as a backpacker was to simply arrive at your destination with a Lonely Planet in hand, and head to one of the recommended hostels that fit your price range. For the most part, pre-booking online either wasn’t an option, or wasn’t necessary, and spontaneously showing up pretty much always resulted in the cheapest deal on your stay. It was also more fun and plans were flexible.
At risk of sounding like an old lady – how times have changed!
These days, the battle between booking online and just turning up is much more complex, and for backpackers looking for a cheap deal but a super clean and comfortable place to stay (guilty!), the spontaneous approach is mostly the worst.
It’s not true in every case, but for the likes of travelling South East Asia and other popular tourist destinations, the reality is that the majority of hostels and budget hotels in tourist hotspots have an online booking function. It makes sense for a hostel owner to try and secure their revenue in advance, and for plenty of travellers to want the security of a pre-planned trip, of course.
The issue is though, as a result, less hostels having a spare bed means the ones that do, know that you need it. It’s simple supply and demand; the prices go up, not down. So, instead of spontaneously turning up saving you money, it can actually cost you more.
Spontaneously showing up works if:
- You’re more concerned with keeping your plans flexible than saving money
- You’re happy to stay in whatever quality of accommodation is available (I once paid US$2 per night for a hostel with no running water and a dorm like a brothel – they didn’t offer online booking, surprisingly)
- The risk of having no accommodation at all doesn’t bother you
- The destination you’re headed to is very ‘off the beaten path’
- Most of the hostels in your destination aren’t online – for example on the island of Koh Rong in Cambodia only the upper end of the accommodation market allow online booking
- You don’t mind lugging your backpack from hostel to hostel in the heat/rain/snow
- You’re arriving super early in the day and ahead of the crowds
Tips for showing up at a hostel with no booking:
- Arrive early to secure the best quality hostel for your budget
- Still do your research – know which hostels are most likely to fill up quickly, which are hidden gems etc.
- Have a selection of hostels picked out and plan a route between them
- Make your backpack as lightweight as possible
- Don’t underestimate the smaller/quieter towns, less options means they can still fill up quickly
Pre-booking your hostel online works if:
- You’re the type of traveller that doesn’t want to compromise on comfort
- You have time restrictions
- You only want to stay in the most popular hostels
- You’re arriving late at night
- The destination you’re headed to is well-visited by others
- You want to pre-book day trips or onward travel
- You’re travelling in a group
- You don’t want to pay more than the price quoted online for a chosen hostel
- You need to be in the heart of the action
- There’s a local event taking place
Tips for booking a hostel online:
- Use multiple websites to compare pricing, including a hostel’s own
- Always check the price of a private room against a dorm bed if there are two or more of you – it’s often cheaper
- Don’t use Hostelworld or Hostel Bookers to book a private room, you’ll still pay per person – head to booking.com or another that charges per room
- Do read the reviews and assess which hostel will give you the experience you want
- Don’t let one bad review put you off – you can’t please everyone
- If you’re unsure whether reviews should be taken seriously, double check against TripAdvisor, Google etc.
- Look for pay on arrival deals, particularly if you’re booking from abroad to avoid losing out through exchange rates
- If you can, find accommodation that allows free cancellation – last minute trip changes are always fun!
Personally, I have always favoured booking ahead, because for me, where I’m staying is part of the experience of a country. Plus, walking in the heat with a backpack brings out the worst in me, and I’m a bit of an OCD planner.
On the occasions that I’ve been feeling spontaneous, I’ve slept on a massage mat for the same price as a private room, and walked for thirty minutes in 100% humidity carrying a 15kg backpack, which made me an angry travel companion at the time, but are some of my most vivid memories now.
So truthfully, my recommendation is to mix it up with both options; book a hostel online at the times it’s needed, and live on the edge when it’s not – hopefully this blog can help you work out which is which!
Are you a pre-booker or a show-upper? Let me know in the comments below, and if you enjoyed this post sign up for more travel tips before you leave!