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Why You Shouldn’t Book Accommodation in Asia – Most of the Time

A recent question on Facebook asking what was people’s favourite travel gadget, saw the iPhone coming out on top. Top reasons for needing an expensive phone on holiday came down to booking accommodation and checking out online review sites.

As an old person I travelled for many years without a phone, before they were even invented. To this day I rarely book accommodation in advance, I usually just turn up and check out what’s available. And I don’t usually carry a phone.

The last time I arrived at Phuket’s airport they were handing out free SIM cards. I found that a little sad. Why sad? Well because I travel independently, as a backpacker, to find adventure, not to have a nice neat packaged holiday – I could book that online before leaving home.

The best adventures are unplanned, something that many so-called independent travellers have forgotten. Some of my best accommodation was just some random place I ended up staying because I needed a bed. There was an idyllic hotel on the edge of Lake Toba, that I booked in for a night and stayed for 10 days because the place was so sublime.

No website - no worries! (c) Akuppa via flickr.com

No website – no worries! (c) Akuppa via flickr.com

Accommodation without Reservations

Arriving in a big city is a  challenge, until you discover that every city in Asia has a well-known budget tourist centre, most of which haven’t changed since the 1970s. In Bangkok it’s Khao San Road and the surrounding area, in Kuala Lumpur, Chinatown. When you arrive at the location, basically sit down and have a drink and snack, sit outside, in a fairly visible location. The touts will find you. Or just start walking into hotels. If prices are too high, ask a hotelier for a cheaper option, they will often tell you. If you want more comfort ask, again there is often a cousin with a place in a different price range.

As you approach a popular place by bus or train you will still sometimes have touts get on your transport. This can be handy, particularly if you know you’re arrive a little way away from the accommodation centre. Yes they will make a commission, but you’re save the taxi fare and time, it’s generally a fair exchange.

Arriving by boat is somewhat easier. Often the touts won’t get on the boats, but will meet you on arrival. If you are having to do the usual, climb across multiple boats to get to dry-land scenario, I usually ignore the young and fit touts who approach me as I’m still struggling onto land. On land you’re have more options. Many will give you home-made brochures. In my experience the photos and descriptions are generally true-to-life than the airbrushed variations you’ll find on the hotel booking websites.

Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur, plenty of hotels here! (c) Achill Family Journeys via flickr.com

Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur, plenty of hotels here! (c) Achill Family Journeys via flickr.com

How To Check Accommodation Without TripAdvisor

It appears that some people think that the only way to know if a place is any good, is to check it out online. In fact the online review sites are easily, and often gamed, by competitors putting down their rivals, or my owners getting falsly-favourable reviews in exchange for discounts. Some reviewers just fixate on things many of us don’t care about: wow the decor is dated in a cheap hotel – who cares? And things change, a review is always out of date.

The alternative is to just turn up and see a room. You often won’t have to ask, but if they don’t offer ask. When checking a room I look and try the following:

  • bed, too hard, too soft, check it out
  • too noisy, ask to see a higher, back room, often you’re be shown the “best” room first which is generally in the front of the property, there will be a quieter room out the back somewhere
  • water, if I want hot water I want to feel hot, or at least lukewarm, coming from the tap
  • air conditioning – try it – some sound like you are sleeping under a departing jet aircraft, others will drip water on you. Even modern units will do this is if it’s very humid – so I avoid rooms with beds under the air/con
  • if there is no air/con then, in warmer climates ceiling fans can make a huge difference, again check that they don’t come with a decibel-level warning.
  • remember that what in daytime looks like a quiet  coffee shop during the day could easily be a nosy nightclub come nightfall, which may be exactly what you want, or if you want quiet, ask for a more remote room. It’s common for cheap Asian hotels to spread over several distinct buildings, and the one around the corner may be both quieter and cheaper, and you can still return to the bar for a party!
  • listen to your gut, if it feels creepy or dodgy then leave. It’s happened to me twice over 30 years, when I had that feeling and stayed anyway, both times I regretted it.
Khao San Rd, Bangkok, traditional Backpacker Area (c) tonybpics via flickr.com

Khao San Rd, Bangkok, traditional Backpacker Area (c) tonybpics via flickr.com

When You Should Book

About 10% of the time it’s worth booking accommodation. I generally book the first couple of nights if I’ve just got off a long-haul flight. It’s nice to know where you are going when you are tired and jet-lagged, and don’t remember which side of the road to drive on.

I book if it’s a popular spot and it’s a big holiday: Tet in Vietnam and China, Christmas anywhere near a beach, with an airport and flights from Europe. Family friendly locations when it’s winter school holidays in Australia.

When you want to stay in a certain property particularly if it’s three-star or above. If you’ve fallen in love with it – well book it, research online and get the best deal.

Don’t Book Just Go!

Many, many cheap hotels and guesthouses in Asia, aren’t online. Or they have a website which is never updated, and emails that aren’t replied to because no one can write English. It’s easy to think that EVERYTHING is connected and web-enabled. But that’s just not true, even in Thailand, probably the Asian country with the most advanced tourism industry.

By just travelling you’ll find these places, and many more besides. And you won’t be tied into an itinerary and you will have freedom. Which is why you’re backpacking in the first place, isn’t it?

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