Before I was a traveler, I imagined that vacations only endured for one or two weeks at a time and that you booked everything ahead. Hotels were often full, weren’t they?
At least if you’re a budget traveler in Asia.
And there’s a difference between traveling and going on vacation. More on that in another post.
When I first started to travel, I booked ahead whenever possible, usually through Booking, Agoda. I have had good experiences with these services.
After several years of traveling, however, we barely book ahead anymore.
In Southeast Asia at least, we found it to be much better to bookmark a few places to check out on Google maps, look at a few upon arriving, and decide right then. After one night, we decide if we want to extend or not based on the experience.
I usually use WikiTravel and TravelFish to get an idea of some guesthouses to check out. I also seek recommendations from friends and other travelers – word of mouth is king. The budget guesthouses tend to be clustered together in a neighborhood, so once we find that neighborhood, we can look at a handful before deciding. It could be cumbersome to walk up and down stairs with your bag, but that is even more motive for you to lighten your load!
We have been spending about $5-8 USD a night for a private fan room with a private bathroom. In fact, as I type this right now, I’m sitting in a desk with huge corner windows overlooking the beautiful town of Kampot, Cambodia. Our room is clean, spacious, safe, and conveniently located. All for $8 (price is higher online, so yet another reason it’s better to just show up). I could travel full-time here for the less than the cost of renting an apartment in America.
Here are my reasons why I choose to show up instead of book ahead.
- Many guesthouses in Southeast Asia do not have an online presence, so booking ahead in some of the great places isn’t possible. Don Det, Laos, for example, had dozens of cheap bungalows. We had a private bungalow right on the river for $6. The owners probably didn’t even have a computer.
- The room may not look like the pictures. Speaking from experience, the photos online are not an indication of what the room looks like currently. There could be awful smells, bed bugs, mold, etc.
- The reviews are biased. TripAdvisor reviews are certainly useful tools, but do not rely on them 100%. The people who take the time to go online and write a review likely 1) had a terrific experience or 2) had a horrible experience and wants to rant about it. Also, different people have different standards. A 19-year old might write a raving review about a social hostel with late night parties, but an older couple (like us) might not be keen on that. Further, there are services that write positive reviews for businesses. They have hundreds of accounts and make fake reviews to help your business. While TripAdvisor is a useful tool, take the reviews with a grain of salt.
- Plans change. Self-explanatory. Don’t lock yourself in because you might end up loving the previous city so much, you’ll have to cancel your bookings.
This is how we usually scout at a guesthouse:
- Arrive in the city and get to the budget accommodation area or one of the many marks I have on my Google map. Be cautious of tuk tuk drivers claiming that your guesthouse is too far to walk when in reality, it’s a few steps away. Use the GPS on your phone and a downloaded map application.
- Find the first guesthouse!
- Enter, smile, and greet the person at reception (or it might be a grandmother laying on the couch watching a drama)
- Ask if there are rooms available.
- Inquire about the types of rooms (e.g., fan, A/C, double bed) and prices.
- Look at the room. Check if the bed is comfortable, the door locks securely, the room is generally clean, the fan works (and is not full of dust), if the WiFi works, if there’s a stench in the air, etc.
- If it suits your fancy, put down your bag and stay there. But even if we like the first guesthouse, we usually walk around and check out the others just in case. Don’t forget to inquire about long-term stay discounts.
Green Garden Bungalow in Tadlow, Laos. $7 USD per night for comfortable bungalow with basic kitchen, bathroom, and lounging porch! Here’s a silly video of me narrating while putting on my English teacher voice.
There are some instances, however, that you would want to book ahead:
- Weekends: This mostly applies if you’re competing for rooms with domestic tourists. For backpackers, it doesn’t matter if it’s Wednesday or Saturday, frankly.
- Holidays: Thai people generally don’t celebrate Christmas, but Europeans escaping cold winters during their breaks are coming down to the Thai islands. It would be a good idea to book ahead during big holidays in big tourist destinations. Similarly, pay attention to when the local holidays are. We traveled in Taiwan during Chinese New Year, so a whole lot of Taiwanese people were traveling as well as people from the mainland. We’re lucky that we CouchSurfed for most of the trip though.
- After long periods of travel. After an international flight with a few naps during layovers, and a train or taxi into town, you might not be up for gallivanting around with your pack. Make it easier for yourself and just book ahead for one night after a long travel period. If you have a good experience in that place, you can decide to extend or move on to another place.
Don’t forget that there are more options for accommodation besides staying a hotel or guesthouse. Our first go-to is CouchSurfing. Not only is it free, it is the best way to immerse yourself into a community and live like a local. We’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences through CouchSurfing. I plan to write some more stories about our experiences.
We also have used AirBnb, which is nice to support individuals or families. You still get the local feel, but not as much as CouchSurfing since you tend to spend more time with your host when CouchSurfing.
You can also volunteer in exchange for work. Find opportunities on HelpX or Workaway.
My home for a few days in Mongolia. Shared it with a family of six and learned a whole lot! All for free thanks to CouchSurfing.
Here are some of the names of guesthouses that we stayed and recommend. All guesthouses are $4-8 USD per night for a private room for two people. I unfortunately did not take photos of our guesthouses often, but they were all pretty basic and clean.
*Indicates that you probably cannot book ahead online, but perhaps you can by calling.
Dream Nest, Alleppey, India
Dokboua Guesthouse, Vang Vieng, Laos*
Giant II Guesthouse, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Duang Guesthouse, Pai, Thailand (Only if you can get an upstairs bungalow with a porch! Where we spent most of our time)*
Sunset Bungalows, Don Det, Laos*
Phonethip Guesthouse, Huay Xai, Laos*
Viet Toan, Ha Tien, Vietnam*
Guesthouse 171, Da Lat, Vietnam*
The Shaman, Chiang Rai, Thailand*
Haloc, Hue, Vietnam
Hop Yen Hostel, Hoi An, Vietnam
Nyny Guesthouse, Kampot, Cambodia (Highly recommend this place for the good value and clean room. Ask for a corner room!)
Chhaya Hotel, Battambang, Cambodia
Green Garden, Tadlow, Laos
Ausan Cottages, Port Barton, Philippines
Cliffside Cottages, El Nido, Philippines
Darma Yoga, Amed, Bali
We all have to have a place to lay like a log and close our eyes for several hours a day, right? Can’t believe I slept 1/3 of my time traveling the world!
5 thoughts on “Book Ahead or Not? Guide to Budget Accommodation in Southeast Asia”
Great article. Makes me jealous and ready to travel! 2 more months of waiting….
It’ll come before you know it! Enjoy the last few months of Korea and your motorcycle while it lasts though!
Great insights. Thanks!!
Hope it helped you!
Depends on situation:) But yeah in Asia better not to book in ahead, it’s cheaper, better to see real situation of the place as well you are more flexible with your trips 🙂