Winging it finding a hotel

This item appears on page 40 of the January 2009 issue.

Many travelers book hotel rooms in advance for the first and last nights of their trips but wing it for all the nights in between. Some just start out cold, blowing with the wind. We asked you independent travelers to tell us how you go about finding nonreserved rooms in places you’ve never been to overseas and to answer the following questions.

What do you look for in a hotel, itself? What do you avoid? When is the best time to check in? What is the best way to ask for a room in order to get a better rate? What is the price range you aim for in particular countries? In what way do you pay? Is language a problem? Please include where you traveled and when plus an idea of the prices you paid for rooms.

Below are responses we received. If you would like to share your experience, write to Winging It Finding a Hotel, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address at which you receive ITN). ITN prints no items on destinations in North America or the Caribbean.

My husband and I have crisscrossed Western Europe by train for more than 30 years. The following tips on finding hotels may be of use to some.

1. Do your homework before traveling. Since we go by rail, we always prefer a hotel near a railway station. Using travel guides (Frommer’s, Fodor’s or Lonely Planet) and/or the Internet, we research which hotels are located near a station plus their ratings and prices.

2. Pack light so that you are not hampered with heavy luggage if you have to walk some distance.

3. Try to arrive at the hotel as early in the day as possible to be sure of the availability of a room.

4. If a tourist office is near the rail station, we generally utilize its services to secure a hotel. Otherwise, we may just walk into a hotel located near the station or pursue finding one from the list made during our research at home.

First, we ask if rooms are available and, if so, what the best price is. Once the price has been mentioned, we always ask if breakfast is included. Sometimes we ask to see the room first.

5. The minimum features we require are a good, clean bed or beds, preferably duvet covered, and an in-room toilet, shower and/or bath.

6. Language should not be a problem in Western Europe. Most hotels have English-speaking personnel. If there are none, get the agreed price in writing and make sure breakfast is included. Present your credit card or be prepared to prepay in cash.

7. Based on our experience, do not try to wing it in Holland in tulip time (May).

8. Be flexible; you may not get the hotel you aimed for. A good budget-type option is a bed-and-breakfast. Also, a good value for a shorter stay is the Ibis hotel chain (800/221-4542,, located in many major places in Western Europe.

Gunvor Valentijn

Rancho Cucamonga, CA

Ahh, a subject I can really relate to! My husband, Michael, and I, in our late 60s, have traveled for years without advance arrangements, except for the first two or three nights if we’re arriving someplace new.

For our first night off the plane, we do advance-book a more expensive hotel to assure quality for the initial jet lag phase, but we spend the next day looking around for something less expensive but equally good. The rest of the trip is done mostly without hotel reservations. Also, we use only public transportation — trains and buses.

I’ll give you the reasons why we do this and then the strategies we use to find places.

First, we almost always choose to travel independently, both for economy and flexibility. Our experience is that we can have a much less expensive trip if we don’t arrange too much beforehand. Plus who knows beforehand exactly how many days they will want to spend in a particular place? With us, the hotel we find often determines how long we choose to stay. If it’s a pleasant room at a good price in an interesting town, we may stay longer.

Second, I want to be able to see the place I choose and not just a website photo. On a recent trip in Italy, we knew places were tight because it was a holiday weekend, so we booked via the Web for the next town. The hotel turned out to be one of the least pleasant and most expensive of the trip.

Also, we want the adventure of not always knowing where we will go to or stay. If you have booked all ahead, you have none of that excitement. True, you have less anxiety, but some “on the edge” is enhancing.

How do we do it and what do we look for? I carry pages from a few guidebooks of the areas where we intend to be. (I would never take a whole book; it’s too much weight.) When we know our next destination, I start looking at the pages. If I see the same hotel name cropping up in different books’ listings, we might head for that hotel. We operate similarly with recommended neighborhoods. However, very often we never get to the intended area or hotel because we spot something else interesting along the way.

Another tactic is to stand somewhere with a map, looking thoughtful and confused. Very often someone will stop to assist and can recommend a hotel nearby. This worked very well recently in Varenna on Lake Como. We ended up with an apartment at the same cost as a hotel room.

Often one of us will stay with the luggage while the other goes off to explore and find. In Rüdesheim, Germany, I watched the luggage while Michael went looking. He came back empty-handed, but then it was my turn and I found a perfect place, one that he had passed but not noticed.

Another method is to ask at your current hotel for a recommendation at the next place. Frequently, the hotel staff has nothing to suggest, but sometimes they come up with a winner.

Arriving midday to early afternoon is good, although we have arrived much later with lucky success.

Thinking about it, I guess we do have some criteria regarding which hotels we decide to stay in. For example, in Europe from April to June ’08 we looked for 3-star places but often looked into (and took) 2- or 4-star. We aimed for prices less than €100 (about $129) and averaged about €80 ($104). One of our favorite places cost only €50! Often, we find that places we call are below our budget; we choose those only if nothing else is available.

We are attracted by a neat reception area. It doesn’t have to be large, but untidy and dilapidated does not bode well for what is upstairs. We look for minimalist decor rather than fancy decor that maybe isn’t to our taste.

We always ask to see a few rooms and don’t hesitate to say ‘No, that isn’t what we had in mind.’ Often, they will show us yet another room. If not, we leave and search on.

My husband wants a largish room; I have windows and light as a main goal.

If a rate quoted is more than what we want to pay, we say it is too high for us (adding, “although the room is very beautiful and we wish we could stay”). Often, the receptionist will counter-offer.

We ask for a senior discount, a discount for staying more than two days and a discount for paying cash — which doesn’t work always but works often enough to try.

Very rarely have we had trouble traveling this way, although those times do stand out. Several years ago we were doing an independent inn-to-inn walk in France. I had carefully booked five nights of sequenced hotels. On the third night, when we arrived they had no reservation for us and no room available. There were no other hotel options in town, it was raining and it was a holiday weekend.

We ended up taking trains and taxis back to Auxerre, where we had started. We were winging it despite the fact that I had made a reservation! After many a ‘Sorry, we are full,’ we came to Hotel Le Post, which had one room left. It was on three levels — huge, interesting and reasonably priced.

Always, there is (some) room at the inn.

Tedi Siminowsky

Berkeley, CA

My wife, Jain, and I have made wandering a major part of our lives, and “winging it” is just what we do. Aside from booking a destination hotel for the arrival date in a new country and sometimes the night before departure, we find accommodations on foot. We have never had to resort to sleeping on the ground or a park bench, but we’ve come close a few times when we didn’t follow our methods.

We have traveled in over 40 countries in as many years and rarely have rented a car, relying on trains for longer distances and, most of the time, our feet. Our preferred trip is walking something like the Ring of Kerry in Ireland, a 130-mile loop on the Iveragh Peninsula; walking from Trier to Koblenz along the Mosel in Germany, or walking from town to town among the Cinque Terre in Italy.

Key points to finding a nice hotel, B&B or pensione include arriving and making arrangements early or midday. This provides us the opportunity to explore the local area sans luggage and with less anxiety about where we will be sleeping and having breakfast the following day.

B&Bs and pensiones are not always blatant in advertising their presence, except in the most congested parts of larger towns and cities where there is competition for the tourists. The nicer, more family-like places are known by the locals and best found by engaging a local person in conversation, giving them the chance to look us over. Referral by a local citizen is a good way to be introduced to the prospective proprietor.

The ubiquitous blue “i” (tourist information office) is helpful but not always open early in the day, so a shopkeeper or person on the street is a good resource. We sometimes have researched the area before our trip and have noted the names and locations of a few places mentioned in travel publications, such as ITN. Mentioning one of these places to a local citizen and asking for directions often will result in the citizen recommending an even better place.

We prefer a B&B to a hotel, but a good number of hotels also offer the benefit of breakfast included, getting us off to an early departure for the next destination.

If the locale offers attractions to explore, we will book in for several days; otherwise, we enjoy the experience of wandering between towns.

We describe our concept of travel as “seeing more of less.” We typically don’t want to see more than one country on a given trip. In fact, we prefer to see only a small area of a single country, absorbing the local culture and enjoying the people we encounter along the way.

Sometimes after an energetic day of walking, we find ourselves in a town later in the day, with the available accommodations booked full. An important thing to keep in mind about small, family-style B&Bs is that the breakfast meal has been planned and the food purchased for a given number of guests already booked. If we begin to get anxious about being shut out of a particularly nice place to sleep, we offer to go sans breakfast — often, a nice sleeping room becomes available.

Keep in mind that families in many countries do not live like we do in the States with our large refrigerators and freezers. They shop specifically to meet their immediate needs. We can take lessons from this apparent frugality and the less wasteful cultures in other countries.

We always approach a proprietor with our backpacks in hand (they convert to regular luggage when the straps are tucked in), never wearing them into a lobby. We usually ask to see a room before committing. This gives us not only the opportunity to inspect it but the added benefit of allowing the proprietor to size us up as prospects. We suspect the room price often is influenced by the relationship we build in this brief encounter.

As we get older, we are more likely to seek accommodations with facilities en suite. They are becoming more standard, albeit retrofitted in some rather unique configurations.

We have found that a distinction between hotels and B&Bs is the B&B proprietors do not expect their guests to “hang out” during the day. A hotel is a better choice if the weather turns bad for walking and we want to catch up on some rest or reading.

If we are staying in a B&B and about to launch on our next day trek, having a chat with the owner or other patrons at breakfast often will provide excellent firsthand knowledge about our next destination.

Also, we have found our hosts often willing to recommend or even call ahead to secure accommodations for us in the next town. Generally, we can anticipate the quality of the destination accommodation by our experience in the present one.

We have enjoyed so many different experiences, and our fondest recollections have more to do with the people we met than the host of antiquities and natural wonders visited. We have witnessed ’the ugly tourist’ firsthand and been reminded that we are the guests in other people’s lives, and our respect for their culture and beliefs pays us back in large dividends.

Jay Gunsauls

Minden, NV

I am 68 years old and have been traveling independently and inexpensively two to three months a year for about 12 years, most often in January and February. I usually travel alone, and I try to cover a country in depth.

I use standard public transport and stay at local businessmen’s hotels or guest houses, depending on how “social” I feel at the time. The “maximum” I try to pay for a room is $15 per night, but I have gone places that require more.

I will be in Southeast Asia in January-February ’09 and hope to spend about $10 per night in Laos, maybe less. In smaller towns in Thailand I might pay $12 a night, but in Bangkok it will cost more, maybe $25.

I have been to a few less than 100 countries, covering almost all of Asia and Eastern Europe, a good part of Western Africa and some other parts of Africa plus a few countries in South and Central America. My maximum in Eastern Europe a few years ago was about $20 and in Western Africa four years ago, $15.

Most importantly, I look for lodgings that are centrally located, are clean and (if needed) have mosquito netting. Also preferred are an attached bathroom, hot water (bucket baths are fine) and some staff who speak English. If it is very hot, a fan is required and air-conditioning is preferred.

Every day, I try to start travel very early and arrive at my destination about 3 p.m. or so. I usually use Lonely Planet and/or Rough Guide to choose my lodging. I will go to the hotel I prefer, and seldom have I been disappointed.

If I need to take a taxi to my hotel, I will ask the driver to drop me off at a bank or restaurant or theater nearby (shown on maps in the guidebooks) and shortly after will walk to the hotel. This is to avoid extra taxi commissions charged to me by the hotel. (The taxi driver would have walked into the hotel with me to collect his commission, which would have been passed on to me in a higher room rate.)

I usually have a backup hotel already picked near the preferred hotel in case my preferred hotel is full or not acceptable.

My procedure is to ask the proprietor if they have a room and if I can see it. If I like the room, I will say that it is acceptable and ask what the charge will be. I then ask if there are any better rates available. I don’t try to negotiate much; I just give them an opportunity to cut the price. I might ask, “If I stay three nights, will that earn me a better rate?”

I usually check for cleanliness and for bugs on the wall near the bed. I check to see if the room can be secured. I check to see if there are screens or windows that will keep the mosquitoes out. I check the netting for holes.

Lately I am starting to make room reservations by phone a day or two before my arrival. I have an unlocked cell phone and buy a SIM card and some local time. This works extremely well; however, not being there in person, I am sure the room rate ends up being higher.

I believe the service at inexpensive local hotels is BETTER than that at the famous international hotels. If I want a beer, it will be at the local price and not the New York City price. If I want advice, I get it without having to leave a large tip.

A few years ago when I arrived in Dubrovnik after having booked my hotel by phone the previous day, the hotel owner was at the bus stop to meet me with his car — without my having asked for this service. On our way to his hotel, he gave me a quick tour of the city and pointed out some special places he liked. When I left, he insisted on giving me a ride to the bus.

Can you picture that happening with an international tourist hotel?

John Schilling

La Crosse, WI

When we travel to the British Isles or Ireland, we book only the first night’s stay ahead of time. After that, as we enter the town or city that we wish to stay in (this is by car; we drive), we always go to the tourist information office. There usually are signs (a lower case “i” with an arrow) showing where to find it.

The people at the tourist office are always nice and very helpful, not to mention interesting. There can be one person or 15 to 20 working there. We just let them know what we desire.

We prefer a “B&B en suite” (meaning the bathroom is part of the room, like in a hotel), and we like one near the town center so we can walk instead of drive. They do all the work, calling to be sure a room is available. You pay a small percentage of the room cost to the tourist office.

You usually get a map showing the town and where the B&B is. They have literature listing B&Bs, inns and hotels big and small. Some offices have shops, selling travel booklets and maps but even jewelry. In Ireland, all of them also sold Celtic crafts.

The only drawback is that on weekends many offices are closed — part of Saturday and all day Sunday — so plan ahead. The tourist office will willingly book ahead for you. You get receipts, so there is no confusion about how much is left to pay.

Also, they and the landlords always know about good restaurants and pubs.

Stephanie Richardson

Malibu, CA

My nerves are no longer strong enough for me to wing it, so now I book hotels ahead. But when I did it, I saw that there were two forces at work: the hotel keeper’s desire to not leave a room empty all night and the traveler’s desire to not spend the night on a park bench. The art is to harness those forces to everyone’s advantage.

One experience took place some years ago. It was 8 p.m. on a rainy Sunday in winter, and I was at the railroad station in Pavia, a charming university town not far from Milan. I had a Michelin guide in one hand and a fistful of telephone tokens in the other.

After a couple of hotels said they were full, I hit one that was not. The hotelier quoted me a price for the room that was a little steep but which our budget could stretch to, if necessary.

I said, “Ah, I see. Do you, by chance, have anything less expensive?”

The hotelier quoted a price about 30% less than the previous one.

I said, “We’ll take it.”

The hotel was fine and we had a nice stay. I think it was a business hotel, which is why things were slack on Sunday evening.

I drew from this two lessons: 1) Even when you are negotiating, politely pretend that you are not negotiating. It helps everyone save face. 2) When you get a deal you can live with, take it. Don’t try to squeeze every last penny out of the negotiation. I mean, come on! It’s 8 o’clock and it’s raining, for heaven’s sake.

Michael Mahoney

San Francisco, CA

My husband, Ned, and I have been winging it for the last 30 years, mostly in South America and Europe though soon we will be doing the same in Asia.

We make a hotel reservation only for the first night after a plane trip. We love the flexibility of deciding how long we want to stay at each place. Yes, it does take extra time to do it this way, but the flexibility wins out.

We mostly travel by train once we get to the area we want to see. At most train stations, we go to the tourist office located there and look for a hotel, always before 4 p.m. We stick with 3- or 4-star hotels that are near the city center, paying whatever the going rate is after asking for a senior discount.

If, after staying one night at a room, we simply don’t like it, we spend some additional time looking at the hotels in the area. If this is the case, then we might ask for a cheaper rate.

For us, language has never been a problem, since I speak French and Spanish and can get by in Italian, but all of the tourist offices have English speakers, so, really, that should never be a problem.

We have been in almost all countries in South America and Eastern and Western Europe as well as much of Asia and a few in Africa (where we went on a tour).

We love this method of travel because we can see what we want when we want to see it, leaving if anything is not to our liking. For us, this is truly a relaxing, adventuresome vacation. We have never been even close to not having a place to sleep!

Lori Miller

Northridge, CA

Also see this month’s “Discerning Traveler” column, page 71.