Do I need reservations for my holiday?

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Updated on 24th October, 2013. First published 24th September, 2007

You've been burning the midnight oil over the last month or so, and the boss is well-impressed. Hunched in your cubicle, your computer screen deftly angled to deny prying eyes, you've plotted and planned almost every step of your upcoming six week sojourn through Southeast Asia. While next year's marketing budget is gathering dust in the bottom of your in-tray, you've cut and polished your trip so comprehensively, you feel like you've already on holiday. But now you're stumped -- you've heard horror stories of places being chock-full and you didn't do all this planning to end up on the restaurant floor. Do you really need to reserve your accommodation in advance?

While it's true that getting a room in peak season can be more difficult than in the past, with one or two exceptions (notably Ko Phi Phi, where peak season reservations are close to essential, and Ko Pha Ngan over the Full Moon party's and New Year's when accommodation on some parts of the island is near impossible to get -- see related story), you will always be able to find a bed somewhere, even in the peakest of peak season. Admittedly the bed may be in the twentieth guesthouse you've tried, housed in a fibro shack between the water treatment plant and a garbage tip and managed by a hardened misanthrope, but hey it's only a 45 minute shadeless walk to the beach, so it's not all bad.

But I exaggerate. There's a few pros and cons of reserving in advance and here's some pointers worth considering.

1) The vast majority of places cannot be reserved online
We can't emphasise this enough. The vast majority of cheap guesthouses, hostels and hotels in Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam cannot be booked online. Here at Travelfish we've got the biggest collection available online (over 5,000) of original guesthouse and hotel reviews for SE Asia and not even a third of those places can be booked online. If you're set on a beach bungalow over Christmas or New Year's, get there early -- like a week beforehand.

2) The places that can be booked online are not always the best
It's true the best places fill up first, but it's also true that the best places are not always available online. Furthermore, some places that can be booked online are truly awful dives we wouldn't put a dog in.

3) Walk-in price Vs online price
Online rates are often cheaper than walk-in rates but not always. In general for mid range and up hotels, the cheapest rates will be online, but budget guesthouses are often cheaper in person -- and don't forget, when you're booking online there is zero scope for charming your way into a discount.

4) How flexible are you?
If you don't mind trying a handful of places and are not fussed about the standard of accommodation, then there is little need to book ahead -- as mentioned above, you'll almost always find something ... eventually. On the other hand, if the idea of trying more than one place is about as appealing as cutting your own legs off with a blunt saw, then book ahead as much as possible. In peak season you WILL have to try numerous places before finding a habitable room.

5) Book the first night and take it from there
Arriving after midnight in a new country, jet-lagged and exhausted? That reservation for the first night will seem like the best thing since sliced bread. You'll be showered and in bed in no time and you'll have all the following morning to take a lay of the land and find other accommodation that suits your needs.

6) Travel in Burma (Myanmar)
Availability of hotel rooms in Burma is apparently more limited than elsewhere in Southeast Asia and making advance reservations, especially in high season, can be prudent.

So if you've decided you want to make some reservations, here's some advice of things to watch out for.

1) Skip the ABF
If you're booking online, unless you have a particular love of rubber eggs, plastic cocktail frankfurts bursting with meat substitute and bacon charred beyond recognition, then skip the ABF and opt for the lower rate without breakfast. Hotels will often sting guests 250-500B for breakfast, so skip that, save yourself some money and eat out.

2) Always ask about construction
It never ceases to amaze how many hotels decide to embark on massive reconstruction across peak season -- what were they thinking?! If you're making a reservation, always, always, always ask if there is construction nearby (i.e., in adjoining blocks) -- this is especially the case on the Thai islands. The hotels will invariably say no, and that way, when you show up to find you have terrific views of a shopping mall construction site, you've got grounds for a refund -- or at least a discount.

3) Garden view, pool view, sea view, ocean view, beach front
Everyone wants to be able to see the ocean -- here's some of the terms decoded:
Garden view: Absolutely no water views, often has car park views though. Be sure to ask about traffic noise.
Pool view: Sounds good, but where is the pool? Do you really want all the poolside guests eyeing you while you update your Facebook page in your underwear?
Sea View: You'll be able to glimpse a sliver of the ocean -- glimpse and sliver are the important words here.
Ocean View: Same as sea view but the glimpse is a little longer-lasting and the sliver slightly broader.
Beach front: Sounds great doesn't it -- just be sure to clarify that there is nothing between you and the beach. There's a high-class resort on Ko Samui with "beachfront cabanas" -- four rows deep.

4) The gala-rip-off compulsory dinner
This is a gouge becoming ever more prevalent at mid-range and upper-range places. They note certain dates, eg Christmas Day, New Year's Eve, Easter, Full Moon Parties, Aunt Siripen's 60th birthday and so on, and slap a surcharge on your room for a compulsory "gala dinner" -- often costing thousands of baht per head (both for adults and children). You pay regardless of if you eat there or not. It's nothing more than a greedy money-grab and you should do your upmost to try and wangle your way out of it -- easily done by choosing a different establishment.

5) Check the refund policy
Some online brokers will never, ever refund your deposit, regardless of circumstances. Read the small print and watch out for extra charges that slip into the booking process. Online brokers aren't the only ones to be watched in this regard -- hotels can be equally mischievous -- we heard of one hotel on Phuket which slapped a 32.5% "Service Charge" on all reservations.

In summary, if you're on a long trip, are flexible with accommodation and don't mind wandering about the town trying to find a bed, then there's rarely a need to book ahead. If you're on a short trip, with specific needs and perhaps you're a little inflexible, then by all means book ahead whenever possible.

If you do decide to book online, we encourage you to check rates with our online booking and affiliate partner, Agoda. It is who we use when we book online. A commission may be payable to Travelfish if you book through the preceding link.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.

Read 5 comment(s)

  • I especially enjoyed this article because I was able to connect with it, as I am preparing for a 30-40 day trip to Thailand in the high season (Feb) and I am worried about advanced reservations limiting my spontaneous, and adventurous goals for the trip. However, I do not want to arrive in a country I have never been to only to find myself forced to sleep on a beach on top of my pack! Since I am totally flexible with my accomodations, I think I should be okay (after reading this) entering a new town or island without a room res? My goal for the trip is to visit a number of different places and deciding, once Im there, how long i want to stay, so a reservation will limit that.

    Posted by Andrew on 17th November, 2009

  • dear sir,madam, we (couple) would like to visit koh samui or other island in february. would like to find a bungalow right on the beach right on the water.with restaurants (seafood) in reach, but no nightlife . anybody with helpfull ideeas please

    Posted by thomas on 6th January, 2013

  • Hi there, loved you info on reserving online vs. winging it?
    we are travelling with kids to Thailand in November for 3 weeks, so i'm assuming you would recommend booking online? i'm curious, should we also book an airport pickup thru our hotel when we first arrive in Bangkok or is it way cheaper to just pick up a ride at the airport?



    Posted by autumn on 28th May, 2013

  • Hello and thank you for the article, it is very helpful! I do have one question; since this was written several years ago I'm wondering if #2 still holds true. Are there still plenty of places that are not available online? I'm just curious if over the years this has changed? I will be traveling to Krabi, Ao Nang, Phi Phi, and Phuket in late February early March and I'd like to keep my itinerary flexible and just book as I go. I'm hoping that this won't be too much of a difficulty. Any advice is much appreciated!

    Posted by Mikaila on 5th February, 2014

  • Hi There!

    I'm afraid I'm included in all of the above buzz. We two are flying first off into Koh Samui & Lamai Beach, for a week then on to Krabi & the Phi Phi Is. & finally flying out of Phuket end of August. I have been researching - now I am confused - too much choice aye! We are flexible no real time limit with dates etc., Wondering if we should just wing it & leave it open to whats happening on the day. Surely we should be able to find accommodation along the way without having to book to early!. Need help please advise :)

    Posted by Harry & Ingrid on 29th March, 2014

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