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Showing Up In A Foreign City With No Place To Stay

I’m often asked by readers how much planning I put into a place before I visit. The truth is, very little. Mostly I just show up and often I will show up with out a place to stay. As I write this I am sitting in Barcelona where I arrived two days ago. When I landed at the airport I had no room reserved.

The idea of showing up in foreign city with no place to stay terrifies some people. Some are just anal retentive and need to have everything they do planned out in advance. Others fret about the worst case scenario: what if I can’t find a place to say and I have to sleep on the street!

The fact is, you can show up to most cities in the world on most days and easily find an affordable place to stay. There are some exceptions but for the most part, it is something that you shouldn’t be afraid of doing.

After I Land

The first thing I do after I arrive somewhere I don’t have a room is to get internet access. Usually this is going to happen in the airport. Sometimes it will happen in a train station. Occasionally I’ll find the closest McDonald’s and head there (note: McDonald’s usually have free wifi).

There is nothing special about the act of searching for a room. I don’t have any secrets when it comes to booking. I usually use Hotels.com (because I get ever 10th night free), HostelWorld.com (they have properties that big booking sites don’t have) or HotelsTonight (which is actually an app). It is very rare that you will find a city that has a 100% hotel occupancy rate. In fact, it will often be well below that.

Where I get a room will usually depend on how familiar I am with the city. I’ve been to Barcelona several times, so I have an idea which neighborhoods I was looking for. I only needed 1 night (my next two nights were taken care of) so I just got a room near the Sants train station. That minimized the amount of walking I’d have to do and I knew the area.

If it is a city where I am not familiar with, I will usually try to pick a place near a transportation hub: airport, train station or bus station. That means I will minimize the odds of getting lost as well as reduce the need to take a taxi or other transportation.

If I am staying for an extended period of time I will often just book a room for 1 or 2 nights. That will give me some breathing room to get my bearings, explore the city and find a place where I can stay for a longer period of time.

I once arrived in Saigon without a place to say and met a woman with a guesthouse at the bus stop. She showed me photos of her place and I ended up staying there for a month!

Potential Pitfalls

The are times when you might see higher occupancy rates: weekends, holidays, festivals, or tourist high season. Also, I’ve learned the hard way that some cities are more at risk than others. Tokyo and New York I have found are the worst.

I was in Tokyo during Japanese Thanksgiving in 2007 and I literally couldn’t find a a bed anywhere. All the hostels were booked as were the hotels. I ended up spending two nights in a capsule hotel. It wasn’t my first choice, but I did have a place to say and I got a blog post out of it.

Likewise, I’ve been in Manhattan when there was a major conference at the Javits center. I had a very difficult finding a room and ended up having to stay in New Jersey. Not my first choice, but I didn’t have to sleep on the street.

I will sometimes book a room in advance when I am arriving in a place I’ve never been to before. It is one less thing that I have to worry about. I’ll get the 1 or 2 days I mentioned above so I can then figure something out on the ground.

Confidence is Key

The biggest factor which allows me to visit a city without any reservation is the confidence I have from traveling. Having done this dozens of times I know that I can drop into most any city in the world and not worry about finding a place to stay. Anyone can do this if you have that confidence. If you haven’t done it before, take a weekend trip to some nearby city and give it a try. Don’t plan anything, just show up.

Just remember: The ability to adapt is more important than the ability to plan!

  • 5 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Oh man NYC is a tough one, I got caught there not having a place to stay too. My plan was to just hang out in McDonald’s all night, but I got onto couchsurfing and was lucky someone hosted me. I always do the same, just arrive, usually with a name of a hostel with good reviews and at a reasonable price. If they are booked I can always bum there internet to find somewhere else close by.

  2. Karen says:

    Before the internet I showed up in Paris one night without reservations and having never been there before, by the time we finally found a room the trains were closed. We had to share a room with someone else we met on the street…lol…oh well, we had a warm dry place to sleep. I arrived in New Orleans one night with a hostel reservation but the hostel closed at midnight and my flight was delayed and I didn’t get in until 1 am, it was St. Patrick’s Day and all the reasonably priced hotels were booked…I stayed in the airport all night…the only woman and all alone…not ideal, but there were cleaning people around that made me feel safe. I didn’t sleep much, wished I had packed lighter…but survived just the same. Now that there is the internet and smart phones it should be easier to find whatever is available…but last minute reservations may be pricey!

  3. Jorge says:

    I’ve been very close to sleep in the street twice. First in Dubrovnik. It was summer time and of course the city was packed. On top of of that we were a small group. I think 5 or 6. We ended up sleeping in a camping, outside the city.
    The second one was in Bern. I happened to be there during some kind of festival I didn’t know about. But I got the last bed in a youth hostel, which was actually very nice.

  4. I totally agree with you, and being able to search for options online is really the best way. Although I have been in a few situations where I was unable to get internet access. In these cases, I’ve headed to the local tourist information center (if there is one), and they have usually been very helpful. It’s a bit pricier as they take a commission, but they will search through all the local options and make recommendations based on my desires (price range, location, safety, etc). So if internet is unavailable, or you’re just feeling a bit lazy, I’d recommend the local information tourist offices too.

  5. Craig says:

    How does that affect your expenses? Is it more a myth that you save more by planning ahead?

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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