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.