It's possible to book large portions of your holiday online before you even get on your flight to Southeast Asia—but should you?
Flights, hotels and guesthouses, some sights, attractions and activities and a lot of ground transport can all be booked online—often (though not always) for less than what you’d pay in person.
Before you sit down and book your entire trip though, keep in mind the following.
Most importantly, booking everything locks you into a set plan and itinerary. If you suddenly decide you really like Siem Reap, for example, you won’t be able to stay on without disrupting all your subsequent bookings—which you may not be able to change easily (or at all). Even if you can change them, doing so may incur substantial costs.
Online bookings, especially for accommodation, often have very hard cancellation rules. If you decide you want to change a booking just a day or so out, you may find you are not able to without losing most of the money.
Also, bear in mind that not all accommodation can be booked online. Almost half of the properties listed on Travelfish are not listed on online booking sites. That isn’t to say they can’t be booked in advance (though some places are walk-in only) rather you need to book with the property direct, sometimes by phone.
Booking online, especially with regard to ground transport like trains and buses, will often involve a surcharge. You are though getting a confirmed seat on the service you want, at the time you want and you don't need to go queue up at the station, so it isn’t totally unreasonable.
There are some situations when booking in advance is definitely prudent. Popular islands, such as Ko Phi Phi in Thailand and Koh Rong Samloem in Cambodia, can be completely jammed over the Christmas and New Year holidays, but these are the exception to the rule. Popular cities over festivals can likewise be a bit of a nightmare—Sukhothai at Loy Krathong, Luang Prabang at Pimai Lao or Chiang Mai over Songkran can all be tricky to book at short notice.
Generally we say if your plans are set and you know where you are going to be and where you are going to stay, then why not book in advance?
So if you’ve decided you want to make some reservations, here’s some advice of things to watch out for.
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.
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.
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.
The gala-rip-off compulsory dinner 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.
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.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.