Winging it finding a hotel

This item appears on page 49 of the August 2009 issue.

We asked independent travelers to tell how they go about finding nonreserved rooms when they arrive someplace they’ve never been to overseas. We printed responses in the January ’09 issue. Here are a few more.

If you have something to add, 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 the United States.

I found the “Winging it Finding a Hotel” feature superb, mainly because its contributors duplicated my experiences and largely expressed my philosophy of travel.

I’m 80 and visited 85 countries between 1952 and 2004, mostly traveling alone, using public transportation (except in certain Third World areas) and with one convertible backpack/suitcase.

My biggest problem was finding my choice of a second- or third-class hotel, with bath, near the central railway station. Most of the standard travel guidebooks were incomplete. (The Michelin Red Guide was the best, having some hotels located on a map that also showed the railway station.)

Invariably, I would arrive in a city to find myriad hotels near the station that were perfectly decent but unlisted in any of my guides. The Internet seems to offer an improvement here but still seems to fall short in enabling one to locate rapidly a given hotel near the station.

I would love to revisit Europe’s major cities and catalog the hotels around each major rail station.

Arlington, VA

Generally, I pick a hotel out of the Lonely Planet guidebook while in flight to my destination. I pick one that is moderately priced and is given a good rating.

When I reach my country of destination, I find an information kiosk and ask what means of transportation are available and the prices, i.e., what a reasonable price for a taxi ride is versus taking a bus or train near the area of the hotel I’m en route to.

When I arrive at the hotel, I assess the location and look at the room before deciding. As a solo female traveler, it is essential that I feel safe in the hotel and the neighborhood. If for some reason the hotel doesn’t look or feel right, I pick another one out from the book and call first before taking a taxi there.

I usually travel solo and will negotiate somewhat on the price, due to the “single penalty,” or single supplement.

The Lonely Planet guidebooks have been an excellent source of information, from what types of hotels are available to suggested guides and their phone numbers. The Lonely Planet books are my travel bibles. They haven’t let me down yet!

San Pedro, CA

When we first began to travel overseas, in 1988, my husband, Dave, and I chose England as our destination. In fact, we considered this two weeks plus two days as our “trip of a lifetime,” probably never to be repeated. Never say “never.”

After a little travel research, especially with Rick Steves’ original “Europe through the Back Door,” we realized that, since we spoke the language and there would be agencies to help locate the fabled British bed-and-breakfasts, we did not need to decide, at home, six months prior to the trip, where we would go, what we would view and where we would stay.

On that first trip, we booked a narrowboat for a weeklong canal trip, we each bought a railpass and then we checked a Rick Steves guidebook and booked a relatively inexpensive hotel near Victoria Station for our first night in London. After flying nine hours from Seattle, we did not want to trudge door to door hunting a place to stay.

We extended our B&B stay for two nights, touring London. We then took the train to York, stopped at the tourist office in the train station and secured a room. Dropping our bags at the B&B, we went sightseeing. We did the same in Edinburgh and then went on to Inverness.

From Inverness to Glasgow we abandoned the train and took a bus. Next was the Lake District, where the tourist information office in Bowness, at the railhead, registered us in an Ambleside B&B a steamboat ride away up the lake. We rode the train from Windermere to Reading and by commuter train continued to Slough, where we picked up our boat (and that’s another story).

At that time, no accommodation cost more than £40 for two and the dollar was strong against the pound. Booking fees ran about £3.

That “once in a lifetime trip” became an almost-annual pilgrimage.

The basic requirement for traveling without reservations is to travel light. Dave and I each have a small day-pack as well as a 21-inch-tall roll-around bag, which we try to keep to 25 pounds or less in case we have to carry it some distance.

The reason for traveling without reservations is to be free to investigate the local area without the constraint of having to be somewhere on schedule. We like railpasses, which allow us to stay several days or move on at will. We seldom know what a new city will have to offer until we have looked it over. Some places say ‘stay’ and others, ‘go.’

In the US and Canada we never book ahead. In South America and Asia, so far we have always done so. It is probably a matter of being confident we can communicate with the local residents.

In most cities in Britain, Europe and Australia, accommodations can be found through tourist information offices located in airports and rail and bus (coach) stations or, occasionally, city centers. Usually there are signs (“Tourist Office” or “Hotel Bookings”) indicating their locations; we ask transportation company employees (uniformed or at a ticket desk).

We use these information services whenever we arrive during their opening hours, which usually match local business hours. Normally, they can provide instant bookings in hotels or B&Bs plus a selection of local tours.

These travel information centers generally charge a fee (the equivalent of about $5) for their services and also collect a percentage of the room price from the hotel or B&B they book for us, but it is worth that small added cost to have their service available. In all countries we have visited, B&Bs have been firmly regulated by the government and generally must provide services as a hotel might.

If the tourist-assistance office is closed when we arrive, we ask a taxi driver to take us to an area of B&Bs or a popular hotel venue or to a hotel of a specific chain. If the city is crowded due to some event, we ask the taxi to wait until we have secured a room. If the train station is in a city center, we simply walk out the door and look around.

Year-round, through Northern Europe we have consulted with the local tourist offices for hotels and B&Bs. In Groningen, in the north of Holland, for example, the city can be full in midsummer. Several years ago we rented bikes at the train station there and thus could easily travel 10 to 15 miles away; the tourist office found us a room in a nearby village when none were to be had in Groningen.

In Plymouth, England, in summer ’08 we asked a taxi to take us to a street with B&Bs near the city center (far from the train station). In Falmouth we walked from the station down to the waterfront and found abundant B&Bs. In Penzance we visited the tourist office.

In London and other cities, the small hotels and B&Bs offer basic accommodation and may not be acceptable to the average American tourist. Most lack elevators, air-conditioning, room service and washcloths. Frequently, the bath is shared. The breakfasts can vary from basic to lavish.

The advantage of staying in a B&B, aside from the lower price, is the chance to converse with the other guests: people from nearby towns, salesmen, businesspeople and regular visitors. They will helpfully direct you to their favorite restaurants or the local “sight” of which they are most proud or to activities or events going on during your visit — information you would expect from your host if you were visiting a friend.

B&Bs are supposed to be run like small hotels, with hosts being helpful but unobtrusive, as hotel employees are. Only occasionally have we found a B&B where the owner would sit down and chat, but even the most circumscript will provide lots of information if asked.

If you plan to go the B&B route, it’s a good idea to visit an ATM to get local currency. Few B&Bs are set up to use credit cards, and none take “foreign” personal checks.

In 2008, Dave and I traveled with our daughter, Terry, in Europe and the UK, and rates at small hotels and B&Bs averaged $60 per person per night (for three beds or a double bed plus a single bed or pullout couch). The rate always included a full breakfast — actually “full,” not “Continental,” even in France.

The exchange rate was high at the time, about $1.50 per euro and just over $2 per pound Sterling. We paid €120 for a small walk-up for three in Paris, €110 for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath suite in St. Malo and £85-£95 in Cornwall; all these actually had baths en suite.

After exploring Cornwall from bright, airy rooms in pleasant houses, we returned to London to pay £100 for a sparsely furnished basement room. However, the breakfast was tasty and abundant and the location was convenient.

In Australia in September ’07, Dave and I paid US$50-$70 per night for mid-range hotels, mostly without breakfast.

In Adelaide our travel agent booked us into a hotel for the first night. When we decided to stay longer, we just walked along the street and found another. We booked our next hotel, in Melbourne, online from an Internet café. For a place in Hobart, Tasmania, we booked from the tourist office in Melbourne, where we also booked our flights to and from Tasmania.

For Ayers Rock and Alice Springs we prebooked rooms from home through a travel agent. For Ayers Rock this was necessary, but for Alice Springs in off-season it probably was not.

Most of our accommodations have been fine; some were excellent and memorable, and a few were marginally acceptable. However, most were places where people of the country we were visiting would stay. Their breakfast-time tales of travel and adventure plus the sights in each area provided us with dinner conversation for months.

Shoreline, WA