No Reservations

Placencia, Belize

Over the course of our three hour commute from Punta Gorda to Placencia in Belize we got to talking with a couple from the U.K. When the boat docked we said our goodbyes. They turned to their guidebook to look for accommodations and we consulted a map to chart the best course to the guest house we had booked a couple days earlier.

As we waited for our room to be ready we pulled up a seat at a “road”-side restaurant and watched the throngs of tourists from what looked like a cruise ship convention amble by. Apparently it was the last day of some kind of festival and the place was mobbed.

Before we finished our lunch we saw the U.K. friends we had traveled with earlier in the day, only this time they looked dejected. They couldn’t find a room and were leaving. From Placencia they’d have a four hour bus ride to Belize City, on top of a likely hour or more wait for the next bus. By the time they arrived in Belize City the last water taxi to their next destination, Caye Caulker, would have long since sailed. “All part of the experience,” they said.

For them, the cost of not booking ahead was a very long travel day, a wasted night in a place they never wanted to stay, and a missed chance to explore somewhere they did. Meanwhile, our initial booking allowed us to extend our stay to six nights at a wonderfully inexpensive room right on the beach and enjoy a place that was one of the highlights of our trip.

When we set out on this backpacking excursion we sought to test item number three on our list of 7 Lessons from a Year on the Road: Spontaneity is Overrated. Countless people had told us that the “right” way to travel these parts of the world is to just show up unannounced and make it up as you go along. With RV travel, we found not booking ahead just caused needless hardship without any real benefit.

Backpacking is a bit of a different story, but the results for us were largely the same. In any given city there are usually many lodging options so your chances of finding a place near where you want to be are good. Arriving without reservations also gives you the opportunity to negotiate rates. For some budget travelers the potential cost savings can be a considerable factor. And, of course, there is spontaneity: the ability to change directions on a whim and take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves.

We found none of these reasons to be truly compelling. Spending an entire afternoon walking around a new city looking for a room and haggling over price wasn’t worth the effort. We’d rather do something else with our time than walk, sometimes long distances, between hotel options. The savings to be had on a $20 per night room didn’t really motivate us either. We also found many popular destinations like Flores, Antigua, and of course Placencia, to be surprisingly well booked.

For us, the best compromise between maintaining flexibility and avoiding the hassles of arriving without a room was simply to book a night or two at our next destination a couple of days in advance. Sure, we sacrificed bargaining power for those first couple of nights and ended up staying an extra day in a place or two we’d probably have preferred to leave. In exchange for that, we got to spend a week sipping cocktails on the beach in a wonderful place we’d have otherwise missed.

After two years on the road we still think spontaneity is overrated.

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18 Comments on “No Reservations”

  1. karead7 April 18, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    In almost 5 years of full time traveling, we have never booked ahead. Well, unless we are using couchsurfing for accommodation, which you have to book ahead with. And we have never, ever, booked an RV campsite, mostly because we rarely stay in RV parks. We agree with your UK friends that it’s all part of the experience.

    • Brian April 18, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

      That is probably true. It’s also true that banging your thumb is part of the experience of hammering nails. I try to avoid it all the same.

  2. customtripplanning April 18, 2012 at 10:30 am #

    I tend to go with a considerable amount of planning but leaving some time free in each desired location for more flexibility. For example, I want to find lodging..I feel I want the security in knowing we have a place and it will be comfortable. I then come up with a list of things that sounds great for us to see but ONLY book if it is the ONLY way to grab it (for example, a personal guided tour or a cooking class). I also list several restaurants that look good but we ALWAYS ask for suggestions. I have never done an adhoc trip with these steps, possibly because I have always traveled with family and wanted everyone to have something special to experience. But I have met a woman thru my blogging who sounds like a fun trip companion and that is how she goes, so I told her we may one day travel together so I can experience that.

    • nadinefeldman April 18, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      I was going to write basically the same thing you did! I’d rather have the lodging lined up and spend my time exploring a place.

      • Brian April 18, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

        That is one of the things we found. After spending five hours trying to get to a city, the last thing we wanted to do was hoof all over looking for a place to stay.

    • Brian April 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

      When you go, be sure to let us know how it turns out. Mostly I’m interested in hearing about all the wonderful things that I’m missing by not getting shut out of the places I originally planned to go. I can see the upside from the prospective of a 20 year old backpacker, who suddenly changes plans to travel with the hottie they just met, but what’s in it for me? I already travel with a hottie. :-O

  3. Betty Londergan April 18, 2012 at 12:31 pm #

    Couldn’t agree MORE … I am pretty adventurous, but I get really anxious if I don’t have a place to stay when I arrive in a new place. That far outweighs any cost savings that might come from negotiating a better rate … Everybody has his or her own tolerance level for this kind of stuff, but when you are traveling a LOT, having a nice place to stay is really important. At least to me! Good thoughtful post, guys!!

    • Brian April 18, 2012 at 3:30 pm #

      Yup, everyone has their own way of doing things and there really is no right way. You just have to figure out what works for you and go with it. But I feel like this is one of those well-worn tidbits of conventional wisdom that generally doesn’t seem worth the increased aggravation it requires.

  4. jmeyersforeman April 18, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    I am with you, travelling with reservation takes the stress out of travelling, knowing I have a bed at the end of a long travel day is essential. I have also found that when I didn’t have a room reservation the hotel charged me top dollar, they knew I had no where else to go!

  5. Susan Johnson April 19, 2012 at 1:29 am #

    Well I just want to say that I spent a couple weeks a couple different times in Placencia and I loved it !!! That was in the early 90’s . Is there still just a boardwalk going thru the village and no roads?? The only road being behind the village??? Did you go up to San Ignacio?? Another area in Belize that I loved.

    I usually go with sponteniaty alltho it does not allways work out flawlessly. In fact one such time was when I was in Belize. I went to Dangriga for a big festival in November. Got there by myself and another single traveler arrived by himself. We were both told that all rooms in the whole village are filled up for the festival. Well, one room may be available. Anyways, I ended up sharing a room with someone I only just met. It all worked out okay. I was younger then and maybe now am not so flexible. LOL . In fact I do tend to not go totally with sponteniaty these days like I did back then.

    I would like to invite you to check out my blog –
    sierrasusieq-mylifeinphotography.blogspot.com

    • Brian April 19, 2012 at 8:59 am #

      Plaencia sounds the same now as it did then, just a small path (wouldn’t even call it a boardwalk) through town and one larger road behind. We didn’t make it to Dangriga but did spend some time in San Ignacio. That is where we did one of our favorite things of the entire trip: The ATM Cave http://everywhereonce.com/2012/02/27/atm-cave/

  6. In Search of Perfect April 23, 2012 at 12:20 am #

    Hi Brian!

    Thank you for visiting my blog. Wow, I am just amazed that you actually did it! It is one of those things that many people dream about but few actually do. For me, it is scary to follow this dream (for I, too, have this dream of living a life of travel). I will start getting closer to it by following you… :) Good luck!

    Yulia

  7. Linda May 4, 2012 at 12:33 am #

    I’m going to Europe next month and have gone back and forth on pre-booking or not. Today I decided not to book and then I read your post. Thank you. I’m booking. I’ll take this as a sign.

    • Brian May 4, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      Hi Linda,
      Let us know how it turns out. This is a bit of a balancing act between making sure you can get into the the things you really want to do and leaving yourself open to the unexpected things you could have never planned.

      Good luck,
      Brian

  8. adventurousandrea September 17, 2012 at 11:47 am #

    This was very helpful! I definitely look forward to getting a chance to explore your blog further.

  9. Samara November 4, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    Before I read the article and just looked at the photo, I thought, “That looks like Placencia”. Ha! I ended up needing to leave PG on short notice and went to Placencia with no reservations (something I rarely do — I’m definitely a planner). I was lucky and ended up staying at Julia’s (lovely cabina right on the sand). Where did you two stay?

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