Sep 12, 2013

Accommodation In Asia: To Pre-Book Or Not?

One of the most asked questions we get is whether or not one should pre-book their accommodation when traveling on a budget in Asia.

As many of our readers should know, when we travel we rarely book in advance.  For many people, this is utterly unconceivable—scary even!   Here, we’d like to share with you our thoughts and tips on how we make this work.

Pro:  Piece of Mind.  You know where you will be staying and that they will have a room with your name on it (hopefully).  This is especially helpful (and advisable) if traveling during peak times, including weekends and local public holidays.  I’d also advise this if you are arriving late at night and/or you are only planning on staying 1-2 days.

Also booking in advance, especially via the online booking sites, can sometimes gain you a discounted rate over just turning up (this particularly applies to hotels on the ‘upper end’ ie 3+ stars).

We pre-booked this room recently via Agoda after Googling its location as we were only on a 1 night layover.

Cons:  You don’t really know what you are committing yourself to, especially if you are only relying on images you’ve seen on the internet.

Pre-Booking can also limit your flexibility, which isn't an issue if you are on a short vacation type of trip, but if you are on a longer trip, I would advise against pre-booking too far in advance unless you know for sure that you will be there on that date.

Also, if you are in the 'budget accommodation' category (ie less than 3 stars), many of these establishments operate on such a small scale that they don't often have an internet/online booking presence.  That is, you're not going to find out that they exist unless you are there or have heard of it via word-of-mouth or guide book.  And in our experience, the smaller places will often have limited experience in dealing in English, which makes pre-booking even via telephone a challenge.  

We pre-booked 2 nights at this hotel in Legian, Bali.  The place was ok, but we didn't like the area so luckily we didn't commit ourselves to stay there any longer.

Advice:  Definitely pre-book if you will be traveling during peak times or if your stay is short (less than 2 days) as you don’t want to be spending your limited time looking for accommodation.  If you will be staying for longer, perhaps consider pre-booking only for the first 2 days.

We like to stay here when we are in Bali, but we always book well in advance as it fills up quickly.

If traveling during low/shoulder season, pre-booking for your first 1-2 days of your stay is a good ‘safe’ strategy—you get the best of both worlds.  Then once you are there, you can determine if you want to stay longer there or find something else.  In most places, in low season, there will be plenty of rooms available.  Really.  And often you can get a better price in person (although this is not always the case).  

If you pre-book, be sure to Google Map the location to see if it’s where you’d like to be. Popular and trusted online booking sites include Agoda, Expedia and all make it much easier to pre-book accommodation.

Just Wingin’ It (ie Not Pre-Booking):

Pro:  You get to see the location, facilities and the room for yourself.  You can often negotiate for a better price based on their current occupancy level as well as on your length of stay (even if it’s only for a week).  This is often the case in Asia in particular, and in more budget/smaller type establishments (ie not big chains) and especially so if you are traveling in low/shoulder season. 

On our recent trip to Thailand, we 'wing'ed' this place as we knew it was shoulder/low season.  Got a much better rate than they were advertising online too.

Con:  Often you may have to spend a bit of time doing this, and it can be physically tiring doing so.  Also, if the destination you are arriving in tends to be a favourite weekend spot for locals or if there is a local holiday that you weren’t aware of, you might find yourself a bit limited on choice, both in terms of location as well as price.  Read here about the time we thought we might have to sleep in the tuk tuk!

Advice:  If there is more than one of you traveling together, have one person stay with your belongings while the other goes hunting for the room.  This strategy is especially advisable for families. Have an agreed upon maximum time frame (say 1hr) before the ‘hunter’ returns, and if possible, have the hunter commit to a room only subject to the other person’s approval. The waiting party should wait in a shady spot, not in the way.  A restaurant or even lobby of a hotel works well.

Also, especially in SEA, ask your taxi driver for recommendations on places to stay.  Often they will know of places that you won’t.  We’ve found many great rooms this way (including this story).  In our experience, the drivers (and touts for that matter) don’t work on a commission structure that would affect the rate you receive at the hotel.

We found this great hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on the advice of our taxi driver.

Lastly, we like to find a ‘starting point’ to our hunt through a travel guide book’s recommendation list.  For example, we’ll consult the Lonely Planet’s suggestion of places to stay, then check it out, but also walk around the immediate area as usually they are more places to stay in the same area that are better value or have a less touristy vibe.

I guess the rule of thumb here is ‘Supply and Demand’.  If you think supply will be plentiful, and you are not committed to staying at a particular establishment, I’d advise that you pre-book your first day or 2, then go hunting. Worst case, you will end up extending your stay at that place if you really love it.  On the other hand, if you hate the place, then you also won’t want to be committed to it for the duration of your stay particularly if there are better ones around with availability.  But if it’s high season or a place that you really want to stay or it is in high demand, then go ahead and pre-book—we do!!

Hope this helps!  Would love to hear any of your tips and advice on booking accommodation in the Comments section below!


  1. Oh, we hate prebooking, it's so much more expensive and we've had a couple of disasters with places that were SOOO not like the pretty pictures on Agoda. ( I wrote a post called Freaking out in Malaysia about one really bad one). We wing it 99% of the time and it works out for the best. Although right now, on Ko Phangan with a full moon party approaching, there are a lot of people wishing they'd prebooked!

  2. Hi Alyson
    When it comes to big festivals (ie Full Moon Party) and public holidays, I'd highly recommend pre-booking too! Thanks for stopping by :)

  3. We like to wing it with a day or two prebooked for arrival. The kids are getting used to that idea now. It was funny over the summer in France, Anya (8) asked if we were "homeless", because we didn't know where we were going to be staying the next night. Of course it all works out and you can get some good deals or pay a higher price. Going with the flow is kind of fun and liberating. If you don't like it, you leave. If you do, you stay longer. Thanks for putting this together.

    1. Hi Heidi
      Totally agree-we like to wing it too mostly cus most places in the extreme budget category don't tend to have an online presence, including email! Thanks for your comment :)

  4. Thrilled to see you having some holidays after your big year of travel! Both holidays sound great and I am keen to know what you've booked for next year in the most recent airasia sale ;) we are heading to europe for 6 weeks in June so completely different mindset than wingin it.! Bron

  5. Hi,

    We are a family of 4 traveling to Thailand Dec-Jan, and are unsure about this whole pre-booking thing. We have a 5 yr old and a 1 year old, but HATE the idea of pre-booking. Is this a bad move in your view? We've traveled India, Nepal, Sri Lanka etc and never had a problem, but Thailand is a bit more 'touristy' and also we are travelling at a busy time...thoughts??

    1. Hi Simon
      While I hate to pre-book too, I would definitely recommend that you pre-book if traveling during December/January (or during any local holiday period) if traveling to a touristy area such as Thailand. India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka are not as 'mainstream' as Thailand either, although if going to the likes of Goa etc, I'd also recommend pre-booking. Good luck and thanks for visiting us :)

  6. Beautiful hotel, great view of swimming pool and beach. Very nice information of hotel and Thanks for pro and con. And really Thankful for your advice. Keep sharing.

    Accommodation in Thailand

  7. Thanks for your post! Was on that beach today in Kho Phangan - unfortunately we booked a week (silly) away from there