There are things I plan for on a trip and things I don’t. It’s probably a good idea to know where you’re headed and how many days you want to be in each place or you’ll wind up a character in “If it’s Tuesday, It must be Belgium.” Meanwhile, I really don’t need to know what my hotel room is going to look like before I arrive. I find booking hotels in advance is especially problematic. It’s easy to show only the best room on the online guide and it’s impossible for me to get a feeling for whether the hotel in question is located next to a noisy disco, or well outside of town. That’s not to say I’ll do much better upon my arrival, but at least I’ll know exactly what I am getting.
When we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, well before six in the morning, hotels weren’t even open! Wandering around the small walled-city downtown, looking at the outside of many hotels wasn’t the most fun I had on the trip, but we still had a chance to get a lay of the land and guess where we might like to stay if we found a good enough bargain. Booking hotels in advance rules this plan out altogether, and budget hotels don’t usually cater to booking from 3000 miles away. Heck, when we tried to reserve a room in Chiang Mai, the woman at the desk simply said ‘OK,’ without even asking our names. “Was that a reservation?” we thought. She said she’d remember us. We asked her to take our name down just the same. How, exactly, was she planning on giving us a room when we returned a few days later if they were all full?
Same goes for travel plans. For very short trips, it makes sense to make some travel arrangements ahead of time, because it’s definitely a nuisance to find train and bus stations, decipher schedules, negotiate tickets and classes and generally be sure you get where you’d like to go. We had a plan to take the ‘most scenic train ride in Indonesia’ when we left Jakarta on our way to Yogjakarta. Things started to get fishy, and here, I mean, actually smelled like rotting fish, as we chugged along on our scenic train through endless shanty towns and slums outside Jakarta. It took puzzling out the names at a few passing stations to figure out we didn’t make the right train. We did arrive safely in Yogjakarta, just the same.
The hassles are worth it to me, especially when compared to pinning down your whole trip ahead of time. While reading the web and your guidebook you might be sure you only need three days in this particular city and you’ll be on your way to the next destination exactly 72 hours later. Eighteen hours into your visit, though, and you’ve met some fellow travelers who have invited you to a luxury condo for free; a local guide tells you about an unheard of temple that’s only a few hours away, but well worth a day; you discover that the ruins didn’t really interest you at all and you’d like to bail out right now…but none of it matters, book ahead and you’re stuck.
But all this flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants travel turns out to have another plus. It funnels money more directly into the economy. Booking directly, in the country, doesn’t just make things cheaper for me, it means no middle man taking a cut from the the local tourist economy. (sure, there will be plenty of local middle men in most transactions, but at least they’re local….) Buyer and seller shake hands and sometimes even get to make a personal connection. It’s harder to cheat a tourist to his face and it’s embarassing to be rude to someone you’ve just agreed to pay. And if things aren’t going to work out, as they sometimes may, at least I’ll have met someone who actually lives in the country I’ve made so much effort to visit, and not just a travel agent from back home.