Go­ing to Eu­rope? Here’s how to book smart when you’re look­ing for lodg­ing

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Travel - BY RICK STEVES www.rick­steves.com

I used to travel with ab­so­lutely no ho­tel reser­va­tions. Eu­rope 30 years ago was rel­a­tively ram­shackle, things were cheaper, and be­cause fewer peo­ple could af­ford to travel for fun, I faced much less com­pe­ti­tion for bud­get rooms. I could make de­ci­sions on the go, show up in a new town, and im­pro­vise my ac­com­mo­da­tions.

But the tourism boom and rise of the In­ter­net have changed ev­ery­thing. To­day, book­ing ho­tels in ad­vance is a crit­i­cal part of trip plan­ning — and a fun way to tap into the lo­cal scene be­fore you even leave home.

If flex­i­bil­ity isn’t a con­cern, book your rooms as soon as your itin­er­ary is set. To get my pick of char­ac­ter­is­tic, fam­ily-run ho­tels in the heart of a town, I re­serve sev­eral weeks — or even months — in ad­vance. It’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant to re­serve as early as pos­si­ble for stays that fall on hol­i­days, dur­ing big fes­ti­vals, and in peak sea­son. In pop­u­lar cities — such as Lon­don, Paris, Madrid, and Venice — it’s smart to book far in ad­vance year-round.

While a trusted guide­book re­mains the best place to start your search for a great place to stay, on­line tools such as book­ing sites and user re­views have im­proved some as­pects of ho­tel hunt­ing. Take ad­van­tage of their pluses — and be wise to their down­sides.


Ho­tel book­ing web­sites, such as Book­ing.com and Ho­tels.com, of­fer one-stop shop­ping for ho­tels. While con­ve­nient for trav­el­ers, they present a real prob­lem for small, in­de­pen­dent, fam­ily-run ho­tels. With­out a pres­ence on these sites, these ho­tels be­come al­most in­vis­i­ble. But to be listed, a ho­tel must pay a size­able com­mis­sion … and prom­ise that its own web­site won’t un­der­cut the price on the book­ing-ser­vice site.

Here’s the work-around: Use the big sites to re­search what’s out there, then book di­rect with the ho­tel by email or phone, in which case own­ers are free to

give you what­ever price they like. I usu­ally ask for a room with­out the com­mis­sion markup (or for a free break­fast or a free up­grade). Hote­liers are more likely to ac­com­mo­date any spe­cial needs or re­quests if you’re in touch with them di­rectly. If you do book on­line, be sure to use the ho­tel’s web­site. The price will likely be the same as via a book­ing site, but your money goes to the ho­tel, not to agency com­mis­sions.

As a savvy con­sumer, re­mem­ber: When you book with an on­line book­ing ser­vice, you’re adding a mid­dle­man who takes roughly 20 per­cent. To sup­port small, fam­ily-run ho­tels whose world is more dif­fi­cult than ever, book di­rect. I pre­fer that my hard­work­ing hosts pocket the full value of my stay.


User-gen­er­ated re­view sites and apps such as Yelp and TripAd­vi­sor can give you a range of opin­ions about ev­ery­thing from ho­tels and restau­rants to sights and nightlife. If you scan re­views of a ho­tel and see sev­eral com­plaints about noise or a rot­ten lo­ca­tion, you’ve gained in­sight that can help in your de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

With any crowd­sourc­ing plat­form, take the re­views with a grain of salt — and watch out for fake re­views. Keep in mind that a user-gen­er­ated re­view is based on the lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence of one per­son, who stayed at just one ho­tel in a given city and ate at a few restau­rants there. Though these eval­u­a­tions aren’t al­ways the most wellinformed or ob­jec­tive, they can still be help­ful to gauge the ameni­ties, ser­vice, and quirks of a place. If some­thing is well re­viewed in a re­li­able guide­book — and it also gets good on­line re­views — it’s likely a win­ner.


Rental jug­ger­naut Airbnb (along with other short-term rental sites) al­lows trav­el­ers to rent rooms and apart­ments di­rectly from lo­cals, of­ten pro­vid­ing more value than a cookie-cut­ter ho­tel. Airbnb fans ap­pre­ci­ate feel­ing part of a real neigh­bor­hood and get­ting into a daily rou­tine as “tem­po­rary Euro­peans.” De­pend­ing on the host, stay­ing in an Airbnb can pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to get to know a lo­cal per­son, while keep­ing the money spent on your ac­com­mo­da­tions in the com­mu­nity.

But crit­ics view Airbnb as a threat to “tra­di­tional Eu­rope,” say­ing it cre­ates un­fair, un­qual­i­fied com­pe­ti­tion for es­tab­lished guest­house own­ers. In some places, the lu­cra­tive Airbnb mar­ket has forced tra­di­tional guest­houses out of busi­ness and is driv­ing prop­erty val­ues out of range for lo­cals. Some cities have cracked down on the trend — many now re­quire own­ers to oc­cupy rental prop­er­ties part of the year, and of­ten stage dis­rup­tive “in­spec­tions” that in­con­ve­nience guests.

As a lover of Eu­rope, I share the worry of those who see res­i­dents nudged aside by tourists. But as an ad­vo­cate for trav­el­ers, I ap­pre­ci­ate the value and cul­tural in­ti­macy Airbnb pro­vides.

With the right on­line re­sources, book­ing ahead is an easy and re­li­able way to en­sure your trip is or­ga­nized and takes full ad­van­tage of Eu­rope’s warm hos­pi­tal­ity. You’ll en­joy the peace of mind of a well­cu­rated itin­er­ary, and when you touch down in Eu­rope, you’ll have more time to ex­pe­ri­ence its spon­ta­neous charms.

Rick Steves (www.rick­steves.com) writes Euro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at rick@rick­steves.com and fol­low his blog on Face­book.

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