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!
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!