To Book or Not To Book

Biblical lessons drawn from the most famous hotel room in history.

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fontainebleau

It was a reliable hunch that there would be a classical French hotel right opposite the Fontainebleau Chateau just south of Paris but we didn’t imagine a room could be for much less than €200 a night. After an, at times, frustrating drive on the single lane Route Nationals 6 & 7 from Chambery in south west France, we ended the day amid blue and white pastoral toile wallpaper and Louis Quinze antique furniture at the Hotel de Londres and paid €150, the same as costs right now.

If there’s one thing that sets road trips apart from every other it’s the ability to go where you want, when you want to, even – or especially – on a whim.

Unfortunately there are a few things that conspire against that. One of them, for many people, is finding accommodation.

The fear of pulling up in some strange town in the middle of the night without anywhere to stay is deep rooted in our culture. Who can forget early lessons about Mary and Joseph trailing around Bethlehem looking for a bed for the night?

Happily things have moved on a bit since then. These days, flexible bookings, the internet, mobile phones – and centuries of accumulated experience – means there’s a much broader line between rigid planning and leaving too much to chance.

skansen bastad

A gentle stroll after a random lunchtime stop in Bastad, on Lakholmsbukten bay in south west Sweden, saw us happen upon one of the most extraordinary hotels we’ve ever seen. Grafted onto the side of a Centre Court-style tennis stadium, within a few feet of the sea, was Hotel Skansen. We paid 2060SEK (£185) – book now and pay the same price.

New technology clearly has a role to play with finding hotel rooms on the hop but booking over the internet is something you could have done at home.

Part of the point about being on the ground is knowing exactly what you are getting.

Wandering around looking for somewhere nice is a great way to get your bearings. Presumably it’s only what you’d be doing anyway.

The easiest way to narrow the search is via tourist information because they will know every hotel and guesthouse (and, increasingly, be able to book rooms and even take payment). In popular places there will be a signed hotel route around town to follow in the car or on foot.

The hotel finder apps are useful for finding places to stay, and giving a guide price, but – aside from not being able to get a signal, or connection – they aren’t always bang up to date with bookings (as we found out to our cost in Lithuania recently) and they rarely include every single establishment.

Similarly, the point-of-interest sub menu in your car’s satnav system will include hotels but most often, we find, of the business-type variety.

The good old neon sign is still up there with the best. We navigated our way across Vienna in the pitch black by the sign on top of the Intercontinental, assured of two things: it was so big they were likely to have rooms, and that every one of them would have a great view.

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Driving along Unter Den Linden through of the classical finery of central Berlin we weren’t particularly looking for somewhere to stay. Then there, across from Berliner Dom, on the opposite bank of the Spree, was the SAS Radisson. Gosh! We paid €220, the same room booked over the internet now costs €215.

You might think the power is all on their side when negotiating with reception, especially late at night.

That’s obviously true to a certain extent but we’d venture to suggest the hotel trade is generally less cynical than other sectors of the travel industry (these days they want to keep you sweet so you’ll sign up to their loyalty card scheme).

Certainly we’ve never come across a hotel that employs Ryanair-style demand management where the rooms get more expensive as the hotel fills up, or the later it gets.

The worst thing you are likely to hear – apart from ‘sorry, we’re full’ – is, ‘sorry, we only have junior suites available’.

There’s not much you can do about that apart from not looking too rich, or parking your fancy car in front of the window (conversely, if you are in the market, always ask if they have any ‘nice rooms’ even if they tell you they are full).

Overall, while turning up out of the blue is not the surest way to bag a bargain room – for those lacking hard-nosed negotiating skills – neither is it the quickest way to get fleeced.

In over 100 nights on the road, begging for rooms at almost every stop, we cannot identify a single instance of having been ripped off. The prices we’ve paid have been much of a muchness with advertised, standard rates.

If there is a cost to maximising the freedom of life out on the open road then it seems to be a very small one.

hotel perils

With potential reward comes risk. The worst happened in Lucern, a night in the car albeit next to the lake. Incidentally, the junior suite we were offered at the Schweizerhof for 560CHF would now set you back 680CHF.

The ultimate fate you dally with by not booking ahead is having to spend a night in the car. It’s happened to us once. During the 2012 World Rowing Championships in Lucerne the only room left was a 560CHF “junior suite” at the Schweizerhof. It shows how desperate we were that we actually thought about it for a minute.

Even that worked out okay after we found a space in a deserted car park ten feet from the edge of the lake. Aware that something like this might happen we’d brought sleeping bags. We might even have got a good night’s sleep too if only we’d packed camping mats and something pillow-like.

The upside – apart from getting a (very) early free run at Oberalppass – was that our budget for the next night was doubled. Roll on the Savoia Excelsior Palace in Trieste.

view maastricht

Booking ahead works for us on the first night. Crossing the Channel, driving on the wrong side of the road and generally acclimatising is plenty to deal with on day one so even we crave the comfort and certainty of having somewhere to stay. The advance deal at the Crowne Plaza Maastricht, three hours from Calais, includes a free three course dinner.

The ideal road trip surely includes all the places you want to go to plus the flexibility to stop for longer in the great places you discover for yourself.

Booking it all in advance means denying yourself that freedom. Sleeping in the car is pretty rough but so is passing on an idyllic corner for somewhere that turns out to be a dump (if you must nail everything down beforehand then at least check how far ahead to you can cancel without penalty; some places are up to six o’clock on the day of arrival).

You might think driving trips already offer up enough opportunities to get stressed out without adding another element of uncertainty. But the underlying lesson we should all draw from Mary and Joseph’s story is that is that things tend to work out in the end. Not only did they eventually manage to find somewhere to stay but it was warm, cozy, spacious – cheap – and it gave them a legendary tale to tell.

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