By Rick Steves
I used to travel with absolutely no reservations. A daily chore was checking out several hotels or pensions and choosing one. Europe was ramshackle, things were cheap, and hotel listings were unreliable and unnecessary. Now, like hobos in a Jetsons world, budget travelers need to think one step ahead.
If you decide to reserve rooms in advance, here are the basics. Remember to book direct with the hotel or B&B (avoid room-booking services).
Requesting a Reservation: These days, virtually every European hotel and B&B has a website, many with reservation-request forms built right in. Just type in your preferred dates, and the website will automatically display a list of available rooms and prices (simpler websites will send an email to the hotelier with your request).
If there's no reservation form, or for complicated requests, sending an email in simple English. The hotelier wants to know these key pieces of information (we've even made a form to help you out):
- Number and type of rooms (e.g., "1 double room")
- Number of nights
- Date and estimated time of arrival
- Date of departure
- Any special needs (e.g., bathroom in the room or down the hall, twin beds vs. one big bed, air-conditioning, quiet, view, ground floor/no stairs, etc.)
To avoid confusion, use the European style for writing dates: day/month/year. For example, a couple reserving a two-night stay would write the following: "Please reserve 1 double room for 2 nights, arriving 16 July 2014, departing 18 July 2014." Consider in advance how long you'll stay; don't just assume you can tack on extra days once you arrive, especially if you're traveling in peak season. Mention any discounts offered — for Rick Steves readers or otherwise — when you make the reservation.
If you don't get a response to your email, it usually means the hotel is already fully booked — but try sending the message again or call to follow up. Use the phone if you want an immediate response.
Confirming a Reservation: Most places will request your credit-card number for a one-night deposit to hold the room. To confirm a room using a hotel website reservation form, enter your contact information and credit-card number; the hotel will send you a confirmation via email. Before entering your credit-card number, make sure the site is secure (check for https: in your browser's address bar). And be sure you use the hotel's official site and not a booking agency's site — otherwise you may pay higher rates than you should.
If you sent an email to request a reservation, the hotel will reply with its room availability and rates for your dates. This is not a confirmation. You must email back to say that you want the room at the given rate. While you can email your credit-card information (I do), it's safer to share that personal info via phone call, fax, two successive emails, or the hotel's secure online reservation form.
Small B&Bs, which often don't accept credit cards, may not require a deposit; however, in places where no-shows are epidemic, some B&B owners request that you put money down to hold a room (it's becoming easier to do this, thanks to PayPal). Especially during slow times, some establishments will hold a room without a deposit if you promise to arrive early in the day. The earlier you arrive, the better your chances of a room being held for you. If you end up running a little late, call again to assure the owners that you're coming.
Canceling a Reservation: If you must cancel a reservation, it's courteous to do so with as much notice as possible. Simply make a quick phone call or send an email. Family-run places and small B&Bs lose money if they turn away customers while holding a room for someone who doesn't show up. Your prompt cancellation gives them time to fill that room. (Don't let these people down — I tell my recommended places that you'll call if you can't make it.)
Understandably, many hotels bill no-shows for one night. Cancellation policies can be strict: For example, you might lose a deposit if you cancel within two weeks of your reserved stay, or you might be billed for the entire visit if you leave early. Internet deals may require prepayment, with no refunds for cancellations. Especially if your plans are in flux, carefully confirm the hotel's cancellation policy when you book.
A hotel might lose track of your cancellation, then charge you when you don't show up. Make sure to get a written record (via email) of your cancellation. (You might have to request this more than once, but it's worth it.)
Reconfirming a Reservation: Hotels make mistakes. Always call to reconfirm your room reservation a day or two in advance. (This gives you time to improvise in the unlikely event that something goes wrong.) I even call again on the day of arrival to tell my host what time I expect to get there (especially for a small hotel or B&B that may not have a 24-hour reception desk). If you'll be arriving late (after 17:00), let them know. It's smart to carry a printed copy of your confirmation — both to keep track of where you're staying and as recourse on the small chance that the hotel loses your reservation.
Updated for 2013. For lots more tips, check out our best-selling Europe Through the Back Door travel skills guidebook.