I used to travel with absolutely no hotel reservations. Europe 30 years ago was relatively ramshackle, things were cheaper and because fewer people could afford to travel for fun, I faced much less competition for budget rooms. I could make decisions on the go, show up in a new town and improvise my accommodations. But the tourism boom and rise of the internet have changed everything. Today, booking hotels in advance is a critical part of trip planning — and a fun way to tap into the local scene before you even leave home.
If flexibility isn't a concern, book your rooms as soon as your itinerary is set. To get my pick of characteristic, family-run hotels in the heart of a town, I reserve several weeks — or even months — in advance. It's especially important to reserve as early as possible for stays that fall on holidays, during big festivals and in peak season. In popular cities — such as London, Paris, Madrid and Venice — it's smart to book far in advance year-round.
While a trusted guidebook remains the best place to start your search for a great place to stay, online tools such as booking sites and user reviews have improved some aspects of hotel hunting. Take advantage of their pluses — and be wise to their downsides.
Hotel booking websites, such as Booking.com and Hotels.com, offer one-stop shopping for hotels. While convenient for travelers, they can present a problem for small, independent, family-run hotels. Without a presence on these sites, these hotels become almost invisible. But to be listed, a hotel must pay a sizeable commission … and promise that its own website won't undercut the price on the booking-service site.
One option: Use the big sites to research what's out there, then book direct with the hotel by email or phone, in which case owners are free to give you whatever price they like. I usually ask for a room without the commission mark-up (or for a free breakfast or a free upgrade). Hoteliers are more likely to accommodate any special needs or requests if you're in touch with them directly.
User-generated review sites and apps such as Yelp and TripAdvisor can give you a range of opinions about everything from hotels and restaurants to sights and nightlife. If you scan reviews of a hotel and see several complaints about noise or a rotten location, you've gained insight that can help in your decision-making.
With any crowdsourcing platform, take the reviews with a grain of salt — and watch out for fake reviews. Keep in mind that a user-generated review is based on the limited experience of one person who stayed at just one hotel in a given city and ate at a few restaurants there. Though these evaluations aren't always the most well-informed or objective, they can still be helpful to gauge the amenities, service and quirks of a place. If something is well reviewed in a reliable guidebook — and it also gets good online reviews — it's likely a winner.
Short-term rental sites
Rental juggernaut Airbnb (along with other short-term rental sites) allows travelers to rent rooms and apartments directly from locals, often providing more value than a cookie-cutter hotel. Airbnb fans appreciate feeling part of a real neighborhood and getting into a daily routine as "temporary Europeans." Depending on the host, staying in an Airbnb can provide an opportunity to get to know a local person, while keeping the money spent on your accommodations in the community.
But critics view Airbnb as a threat to "traditional Europe," saying it creates unfair, unqualified competition for established guesthouse owners. In some places, the lucrative Airbnb market has forced traditional guesthouses out of business and is driving property values out of range for locals. Some cities have cracked down on the trend — many now require owners to occupy rental properties part of the year, and often stage disruptive "inspections" that inconvenience guests.
As a lover of Europe, I share the worry of those who see residents nudged aside by tourists. But as an advocate for travelers, I appreciate the value and cultural intimacy Airbnb provides.
With the right online resources, booking ahead is an easy and reliable way to ensure your trip is organized and takes full advantage of Europe's warm hospitality. You'll enjoy the peace of mind of a well-curated itinerary, and when you touch down in Europe, you'll have more time to experience its spontaneous charms.
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