As a self-confessed super organised freak, I’m usually I’m a stickler for booking ahead.
I plan my next trip months in advance, spending countless hours comparing the cheapest flights and train tickets, figuring out the best areas to stay in, looking at activities and tours to do in each destination, and creating a comprehensive itinerary with all of our booking numbers and departure times listed in an orderly fashion.
So you can imagine that when Robert and I decided our 3-month backpacking trip through Europe was going to be mostly booked as we went, I was somewhat terrified by the idea. My mind was wrought with questions of what if so-and-so happens and we can’t get a place to stay and we have to sleep on the streets of Bratislava in the middle of winter, etc. It was extremely difficult for me to try and relax about the fact that we had no plan about where we’d be staying in the next few days or how we’d get there.
There are a number of benefits with both booking ahead and booking as you go, and I think we discovered just about all of them on our trip through Europe. If you’re wondering which is the best way to go about planning your trip – here are my arguments for both options.
Waiting in the ‘burbs of Munich for a train to take us to the city.
Benefits of booking ahead:
The security of having bookings can sometimes be a godsend. We discovered how much better booking ahead would have been a few days before we left Zurich for Munich. We began looking for accommodation only to find EVERYTHING was booked out. There must have been a special event on the days we were hoping to visit, and any remaining rooms in the city were upwards of $300. We ended up settling on a hotel out of town and getting a 45 minute train in to the city. This was one situation that could have been a lot more pleasant if we had have booked ahead.
When you’re looking at flights, trains, and other forms of transport, booking ahead should definitely be considered. Train fares in Europe are much more expensive if you book them within 3 days of the departure date, and flight prices go up significantly the week beforehand (check out this awesome infographic on when to buy airline tickets).
I also found that when I book ahead, I spend time researching options beforehand instead of while I’m travelling. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world to spend a few hours every couple of days looking up train fares and accommodation, but maybe that research time is better spent at home rather than on your trip.
Beautifully characteristic but expensive Zurich.
Benefits of booking as you go:
Having flexible plans can sometimes make things a whole lot easier. For example – we arrived in Zurich to find it was an absolutely wonderful city – but quickly realised that the prices in Switzerland were much higher than what we’d budgeted for. On our first night we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner to find that a smallish pizza would cost us over $30. As we’d only booked a few nights accommodation we decided to head back into Germany earlier than planned to spend more time in much cheaper Bavaria. Changing our plans last minute ensured we were able to keep our budget in check.
There’s also the possibility that you’ll meet people on your travels who suggest a visit to somewhere you hadn’t planned to go, and the flexibility of having no plans means you can take their advice. You might also discover that the place you’re currently at isn’t really worth the 5 days you’d planned to spend there and decide to move on earlier than planned.
Booking as you go means you may get better prices on last minute deals. The last available seats on buses and any unbooked rooms in hotels will often go up on last-minute booking websites for cheap a few days beforehand.
So what should you do?
If you’re travelling long term (lets say 2 months or more) it’s unreasonable to assume that your plans will stay the same for the entire duration of your trip. It might be better to book as you go so that you have the flexibility of changing plans.
If you’re travelling short term (under 2 months) you may not have that much flexibility with your plans anyway, so booking ahead might be the better option. If you book far enough ahead, you should be able to access early bird deals on flights and tours, and this way you’ll know for sure that you can fit in every place that you want to visit on your trip.
If you’re travelling in peak season you’ll find that booking last minute may get expensive as accommodation and tickets will be snapped up early. Book ahead if you can. This is especially important if you’re travelling over a holiday or event such as Christmas and New Year, or during a local festival. If you choose to book as you go, make sure you’re comfortable with the fact that you may end up paying more than you would have liked.
If you’re travelling off-peak season there may be last minute specials that become available and places will be less busy, so booking as you go may get you a better deal.
Of course it’s possible to do both as well. We booked ahead for some places when we knew we’d be there over particular dates, such as Berlin over Christmas and Prague over New Year, and left the rest open to book a few days ahead as we went. When we got towards the end of our trip, we booked the last few weeks to be certain we’d get to see the remaining places on our list. There is no right answer as to whether to book ahead or book as you go, just make an informed decision and do what you feel comfortable doing.